Australia was, at one time, considered a budget destination…but those days are long gone. However, I believe that every place can be visited on a budget and Cairns is no exception. Even if it is a jumping off point to numerous expensive activities, there are many things to do in Cairns, Australia on a budget while still experiencing the city’s main attractions. Our budget route enabled us to experience Cairns attractions…and not go broke.
6 Things to do in Cairns, Australia on a budget
There are some Cairns attractions and activities – like the Great Barrier Reef – that should be on every Cairns itinerary, even if it requires stretching the budget. While there are not many things to do in Cairns for free, we’ve created a Cairns to do list that highlights some of the best Cairns activity deals to help stay on budget. We’ve included a Cairns map at the end of the post to help guide you on your holiday in Tropical North Queensland.
#1 Snorkel the Great Barrier Reef
We considered snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef a Cairns must do – it is one of the top things to do in Cairns, after all. However, Great Barrier Reef day trips are not cheap activities in Cairns. Our first mission when we got to the city was to walk the docks and check prices for Great Barrier Reef cruises in person, hoping to score a better deal than we had found online.
Cheap Great Barrier Reef Trips from Cairns
On the docks, we found Cairns reef tours provided by Compass Cruises for just $115 AUS (which was a little more expensive than the cheapest snorkeling option we found online). It wasn’t the fastest boat (what’s the hurry?), but it had a fun crew, relaxed atmosphere, good snorkeling gear, two outer reef snorkeling stops, a delicious lunch, plus wine and cheese on the cruise back to shore. For cheap Great Barrier Reef tours, Compass Cruises surpassed our expectations. Read about our entire experience here.
Finding the Best Reef Cruises in Cairns
That said, there are other tours that cost only slightly more…and, perhaps, offer a better experience. Other more expensive Great Barrier Reef snorkeling tours will likely have faster boats, maybe a shrimp and steak lunch, the added benefit of included wet suits and wine that doesn’t come from a box.
Top Tip: More interested in scuba diving? You can scuba dive from many of the affordable snorkel boat cruises for an additional upgrade fee.
Everyone’s budget – and experience expectations – are different. We think it is best to look at a range of options, read reviews and make a decision based on price and amenities.
Start your research by looking at the highly-rated snorkel cruises (offered in a range of prices) on Viator.
#2 Explore Kuranda
Kuranda, a village in the rain forest, is rich with history and one of the best day trips from Cairns. Originally home to the native Djabugay people, the land developed into a town in the 1880s with the introduction of logging, mining and railroads. As early as the 1930s, tourists were escaping the heat and humidity of Cairns for the cool mountain air. Tourism expanded in the 1970s when it became a retreat for free-spirited hippies to sell their homemade wares.
Getting To Kuranda…While Staying On Budget
There are two main – and entertaining – options for getting to Kuranda without a car: the Skyrail Cairns gondola and the Kuranda Railway. However, neither Skyrail nor the Railway are cheap things to do in Cairns.
A combo deal Skyrail up, Railway down – is touted as a Cairns discount tour, but the price is still pretty steep. We thought, without a car, that we were priced out of the round-trip Cairns excursions to Kuranda. However, our persistent research yielded one of the little-known Cairns deals: a Kuranda Coach/Train combo that allowed us to ride up on a bus and take the classic Kuranda train down… and it was priced at a fraction of the Skyrail/Train Combo cost.
Things To Do in Kuranda
Once in the rain forest, there is a long list of things to do in Kuranda, which includes everything from shopping at the Kuranda Markets to riverboat cruises to getting up close and personal with koalas. However, most of these activities didn’t jive with our Cairns budget. We browsed the shops, but skipped on paying pricey entrance fees into any of the exhibits.
Free Things To Do: Kuranda Walking Trails
During our budget trip to Kuranda, we were more interested in tapping into the natural side of the town. A connection of easy walking trails circuit around town taking visitors through lush rainforest and along the banks of the Barron River.
We set out on the Jumrum Walk, which was shrouded in silence and solitude and then continued on the Jungle Walk, a section of rainforest that featured vines hanging down like Tarzan ropes. The last section of the circuit, the River Walk, led us along the wide, lazy river that tumbles downstream to the Barron Falls Gorge.
Top Tip: We saved even more money by bringing a picnic lunch with us from the city. We found a lovely riverside spot where we dined on inexpensive sandwiches and fruit.
Kuranda Scenic Railway
We were skeptical about whether we made the right decision to extend our budget to include the Kuranda train. As it turned out, the railway proved to be an excellent value for the experience. The train meanders through the world heritage-listed rain forest, clinging to the side of the mountain for the two hour journey. Passengers sit in original, creaky wooden cars for the 37km ride.
Shortly after departing Kuranda Station, there is a 15-minute stop at Barron Falls, where they allow passengers to disembark to take in the views from various platforms. The train then continues down the mountain through 15 tunnels, across 55 bridges and around 98 curves, passing more waterfalls and scenic outlooks along the way.
Book the Kuranda Coach/Railway Combo Now!
#3 Seek Out Cairns Happy Hours
Like the rest of Australia, drinking a pint or two at a pub is not a budget Cairns activity. Thank goodness for happy hours! Unfortunately, most of the the bars in Cairns like to keep their happy hours secret, so we had to ask at each bar to get the details on Cairns specials for beer and cocktails.
Two of our favorite watering holes offered happy hour from 5-7pm every day. Rattle N Hum has the best deal with $9 jugs and 20% off pizzas and main meals; The Woolshed had pints (actual pints!) discounted to $6 and changing afternoon food specials, like a jug and pizza for $20. Top Tip: Happy Hour specials constantly change, always ask for current specials during your visit.
#4 Walking and Hiking in Cairns
Looking for free things to do in Cairns? Hit the hiking trails without spending a dime! There are numerous places in the city to stretch your legs and take in the views. In our opinion, the three best spots are Mount Whitfield, the Cairns Botanical Gardens and the Esplanade…and they are all free!
Mount Whitfield Blue and Red Arrow Trails
Just a 5km bus ride from town (more about Cairns public transport below), Mount Whitfield and has two excellent and challenging hiking trails: Red Arrow and Blue Arrow. The interlinking circuits make the round trip hike about 7km, gaining an altitude of about 325m. Both trails work their way through rainforest to scenic lookouts, making it one of our favorite free things in Cairns.
Hiking the Red and Blue Arrow Tracks
The Red Arrow Trail ascends quickly, with the use of stairs, taking hikers through bamboo and to an overgrown lookout point. Just beyond the lookout point, the Blue Arrow Track splits off to the right and leads to a second lookout point with a clear view of the airport runway and Coral Sea (a favored lookout point for aviation geeks!).
After the lookout, the trail is enveloped in shaded rainforest. The path winds around a deep gorge, over streams and through gnarled tree roots. A secondary trail breaks off and leads to the Lumley Hill scenic viewpoint (which is a perfect spot for a picnic lunch). The return trip continues along the looping trail – and is completed much more quickly, as it is mostly downhill.
During our mid-day, mid-week hike in Cairns, we encountered few other hikers. We did, however, see a bit of wildlife, including brush turkeys, cockatoos and wallabies. Trail map.
Cairns Botanical Garden
For a less challenging walk, and one of the top things to do in Cairns on a budget, stroll the Cairns Botanic Gardens. There are several easy walking paths through beautiful floral landscapes that are completely free to enter.
There are multiple spaces to explore at the park; each section featuring different kinds of plants. The main garden, Flecker Garden, has intertwining paths that weave through an astounding array of flora and fauna from around the world. Unique and exotic blossoms are a splash of bright color in this part of the park.
The Centenary Lakes – of which one is saltwater and the other is freshwater – are a wonderful spot for a stroll. Covered in lily pads, the ponds attract ducks, pelicans and even crocodiles. Also on-site is the Tanks Art Center. Old naval oil tanks from World War II have been repurposed into art galleries, which are an interesting addition to the gardens.
Our favorite part of the Cairns Botanic Gardens, however, is the shaded Rainforest Walk. A raised boardwalk meanders through trees, vines and swampland with a thick, high canopy overhead. On the forest floor, we encountered brush turkeys, a variety of lizards and river turtles.
Although there aren’t sand beaches in Cairns, the shoreline can still be enjoyed! The Esplanade – a shared walking/biking path – stretches for miles along the coastline. Walking along the Esplanade is one of the fabulous Cairns free things to do – all while taking in the sea view.
#5 Cairns Beaches
As we already mentioned, there are no true Cairns beaches within the city limits. However, just north of the city are multiple beach communities – often called Cairns Northern Beaches – that are absolutely stunning. Best of all these beaches can be reached by bus for less than $10 round trip. Once in the beach towns, accessing the beaches costs nothing at all!
While there are several beaches to choose from, we opted for the locals’ favorite: Trinity Beach. Other nearby – and easily accessible beaches – include Palm Cove, Yorkeys Knob, Holloways Beach and Machans Beach.
Nestled between two rocky heads, Trinity Beach is a long, crescent-moon shaped stretch of sand. A shaded walkway lined with tropical plants, BBQs, picnic tables and benches extends the length of the beach and beyond. To the south is a rocky lookout point and on the north are stairs leading to a wooded path and elevated panoramic view of the beach below.
During our visit to Trinity Beach, the wind was howling, churning up the otherwise crystal clear blue waters, but we found refuge on the southern edge of the beach near the rocks. We stretched out on the sand, relishing the sun’s rays and cool wind at they combined for lovely seaside temps. I buried my toes in the sand and settled in with a good book while Kris swam in the salty waves. Beach fix complete…all for the cost of a bus ticket!
#6 Cairns Lagoon
The Cairns Lagoon is one of the top free activities in Cairns. The free, public pool with its sandy edge sits right in the center of the city on the Esplanade shoreline. Surrounding the pool is a spacious park that features multiple free-to-use BBQ grills. Ideal for gatherings and family outings (seriously, the Cairns Lagoon is one of the best things to do in Cairns with kids!), both visitors and locals use the outdoor space.
On weekends, live bands provide free Cairns entertainment in the park from 2pm-5pm. And, as a bonus, the City of Cairns provides free, speedy wifi in the area around the lagoon (which you can use to look up other free stuff to do in Cairns!). Of course, it is Australia, so there are heaps of rules – like no drinking alcohol or playing catch in the pool, so make sure to follow the guidelines so you can enjoy it!
Top Tip: Cheap eats in Cairns are hard to come by, but you can create a filling (and healthy!) budget meal by getting groceries at the store (we recommend Woolworths). Even without a kitchen in your accommodations, you can utilize the BBQ grills at the park to make a feast!
Cairns, Australia Map
Our map highlights the top free things to do to add to your Cairns itinerary.
Cairns Travel Tips
Although we have detailed our favorite things to do around Cairns on a budget, we have a few more money-saving tips for when you visit Cairns.
Saving Money on Cairns Tours
Cairns day trips are expensive – but for many visitors they are essential Cairns experiences. Travelers who want to partake in all the top Cairns tourist attractions – the Great Barrier Reef, Kuranda Skyrail and the historic Railway – can save money by bundling the Cairns attractions into a single, lower-priced combo ticket.
As already mentioned, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the top things to see in Cairns. Budget travelers have two great options when it comes to snorkeling: a boat trip to Green Island and a day trip to Fitzroy Island. Eliminating the on-board lunch and other amenities, both of these Cairns sightseeing tours are a great fit for travelers with a small budget.
There are other popular Cairns tours that you might want to squeeze into your budget. Highly-rated tours from Cairns can be booked at ‘Lowest Price Guarantee’ on Viator.
- Millaa Millaa Falls at Atherton Tablelands – find out more!
- Cape Tribulation and Daintree Rainforest National Park Day Tour – find out more!
Cairns Sightseeing Tips
The Cairns tourist information office and hostels are other great resources for finding other tips on free and cheap things to do in Cairns. For a list of community events and other Cairns activities, check out what’s on in Cairns at Cairns Events or take a look a the Cairns Region Council calendar.
Where To Stay in Cairns
During our visit to Cairns, we stayed in an Airbnb Apartment on the outskirts of town that fit into our budget. (Not already a member of Airbnb? Use this link to create an account and save money on your first stay!) We have found that staying in apartments is often less expensive than hotel rooms – with the added benefit of a kitchen and, usually, more space.
We enjoyed our apartment, but thought it was too far from most places to visit in Cairns. In hindsight, we should have paid more to stay somewhere closer. We think the best place to stay in Cairns is near the city center – and there are many affordable options.
Cairns Budget Accommodations
For budget travelers, the best places to stay in Cairns, Australia are Hostels– like Dreamtime Travellers Rest Hostel. We recommend looking for hostels that also provide meal deals and other perks. For a true bargain – and a unique experience – search for hosts on Couchsurfing, where travelers stay with locals for free.
If it fits in your budget, there are many Cairns hotels to choose from in – or close to – the city center. Check out these top-rated hotels (based on guest reviews!) priced around $100 USD/night (at time of posting) for your upcoming trip: The Abbott Boutique Hotel, Rydges Plaza and Pacific Hotel.
Getting To Carins…and around
Our preferred method of getting anywhere is by flying (we are JetSetting Fools, after all!). When we need to purchase plane tickets, we start our search for the best deals on airline tickets on Skyscanner.
Cairns buses may not be all that frequent, but Cairns Public Transport is efficient both in cost and in routes. Priced on the number of zone crossings, an all-day ticket from our suburban dwelling 5km to the city costs about $5.50 (single rides $2.25). We’ve found the key to making it work is to check the schedule in advance. Most buses only run every half hour and on the weekend only every hour and a half. Note: We checked into weekly bike rentals and were disappointed to find the cost averaged out to more per day than the all-day bus ticket.
Visiting other Australian cities – like Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney or the Gold Coast? Check out all of our tips, itineraries and walking tours on our Australia Travel Guides Page!
Before You Go To Cairns
- In addition to flip flops, don’t forget to pack a pair of lightweight and comfortable walking shoes for your trip (especially if you are heading to Kuranda). I (Sarah) have traveled with these shoes by Columbia and Skechers (and my favorite flip flops by Reef). Kris prefers wearing these shoes by Merrell and Sanuk.
- We’re certain you’ll be snapping tons of photos during your trip. Rather than relying on your mobile phone to capture the sights, upgrade to an actual camera for higher quality photos. We travel with a Canon Rebel (which takes amazing photos, but can be a bit clunky) and a Canon PowerShot ELPH (which takes beautiful pictures, is slim and lightweight – and the new models are wifi enabled so you can share your trip pics to social media in real time!).
- It’s easy to get turned around in any foreign city. Make sure to have a good city map and/or guidebook before arriving.
- We think travel insurance is essential! If you haven’t already obtained travel insurance for your trip, travel protected with World Nomads.
We want to know: Do you have more tips of what to do in Cairns? What would you add to our list of things to do in Cairns, Australia on a budget? Let us know in the comments!
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