The backpacking Whitsundays scene is something that every east coast backpacker must experience.
The 74 Whitsunday Islands have a reputation for being one of the most expensive places to visit on the east coast of Australia.
However, backpacking the Whitsundays on a budget is absolutely doable. You just need to know where to stay, tips and tricks to save money, and the best Whitsundays backpacker sailing tours.
My first piece of advice for Whitsundays backpackers is to book everything as early as possible. Airlie Beach backpackers accommodation gets booked up weeks in advance. During the high season (September to February), Whitsundays backpackers sailing tours can be booked up months in advance too.
With the following backpacking Whitsundays guide, I’m confident that you will feel ready to tackle the 74 Whitsunday Islands (including the Outer Great Barrier Reef, surrounding rainforest, and the town of Airlie Beach) not just with ease but on a budget.
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Best place to stay: Airlie Beach
Best time to go: September – February
Best Campsites: South Molle Island
Best Backpacker Tours:
1. Avatar (2D/2N)
2. The Atlantic Clipper (2D/2N)
3. Apollo (3D/2N)
Best Day Tour: Whitsundays Ocean Rafting Tour
Backpacking Whitsundays: Is it Worth It?
I met several people who skipped backpacking the Whitsundays because they were frightened by sky-high tour and accommodation prices at first glance.
However, they failed to look at the backpacker tour options (which start at around $180-200 AUD for day tours such as the Ocean Rafting Tour).
Some had also failed to book their tours or Airlie Beach backpacker accommodation in advance, which meant the prices increased closer to the time. These issues have easy solutions: booking in advance.
The 74 Whitsundays Islands are world-famous, and as is often the case with destinations which have gained that sort of notoriety, they are pretty exquisite.
When many people think of the east coast of Australia, their first thought is the Whitsundays.
The Whitsunday Islands include sections of the Outer Great Barrier Reef. Whitehaven Beach, which has swirls of white silica sand and very blue ocean, is the most famous image from the Whitsundays.
The islands are popular for multi-day sailing tours, snorkelling or scuba diving, and camping, among other outdoor activities.
Sailing is the main activity for backpackers in the Whitsundays, although I also met many backpackers who had chosen to put aside a small pot of savings to take advantage of the exceptional tandem skydiving and scenic flights over the Whitsundays (once in a lifetime, right?)
A Short Introduction to Backpacking Whitsundays
Millions of years ago, the Whitsunday Islands were part of the mainland. During the ice age, the sea levels rose, gradually splitting the mountain range into 74 different islands.
The infamous blue ocean around the Whitsundays islands is caused by unusual sediments in the water which scatter the sunlight.
The silica sand at Whitehaven Beach is thought to have been carried in by the ocean currents around 10,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age.
There are over 400 species of sea animals living around the coral reefs in the Whitsundays, which includes parts of the Outer Great Barrier Reef. Most of the reef is formed of shallow fringe reefs close to the islands.
Where to Stay When Backpacking Whitsundays
1. Airlie Beach
Airlie Beach is the best place to stay for Whitsundays backpackers.
Firstly, it is the main departure point for backpackers Whitsundays sailing tours.
Secondly, it has the highest number of hostels near the Whitsundays.
Airlie Beach is a small town with one main street and a collection of popular backpacker bars, most notably Magnums (which is also part of the town’s most popular hostel).
There is one large supermarket which is easily accessible on foot and a stop for the Greyhound Bus near the marina.
Whitsunsdays backpackers can relax, sunbathe and swim at the public lagoon. There’s also access to hiking trails in the Great Conway National Parks.
By the way, if you don’t have a Greyhound bus pass, you can check the availability of the Greyhound bus using 12Go.
- Large numbers of budget-friendly accommodation and hostels.
- Convenient facilities for backpackers, including a supermarket, Greyhound bus stop, and bars.
- It’s the main departure point for Whitsundays backpackers sailing tours.
- Airlie Beach is a busy tourist town with lots of people.
- Many of the hostels are noisy ‘party hostels’ or feature people returning late from bars.
- The quality of the hostels in Airlie Beach is generally quite poor.
2. Long Island
Long Island is the second viable place to stay near the Whitsundays for backpackers.
The main attraction on Long Island for backpackers on a budget is its open camping ground on Sandy Bay beach, suitable for a maximum of six people at once. You will need your own camping gear.
The benefits of staying on Long Island is that it’s peaceful. Despite being just 9 kilometres long, it has 17 kilometres of hiking trails. There are corals and sandy beaches.
The island has fewer facilities than Airlie Beach. To shop for food, you need to take transport to another island.
- Experience camping near the Whitsundays.
- A peaceful island location with walking trails.
- Sandy beaches and coral reefs.
- Camping pitches are limited in numbers.
- Budget-friendly sailing tours are limited.
- There are no shops.
3. Hamilton Island
Hamilton Island is best-known as being the family-friendly Whitsundays island. However, it also has a reputation for being quite expensive.
Nevertheless, there are some backpacker-friendly apartments if you book early. To benefit, you need to be travelling in a large group so that you can split the cost per night.
To provide some background, Hamilton Island is the largest island in the Whitsundays. It has a touristic set-up, with many tours, scenic flights, scuba diving trips and other excursions available to book.
- Escape the backpacker crowds in Airlie Beach.
- Split the cost of a nice apartment.
- There are plenty of tours, scenic flights, scuba diving trips and other excursions available.
- The island features mostly families rather than other backpackers.
- The accommodation is expensive.
Backpacking Whitsundays: Camping in the Whitsundays
If you’re an adventurous backpacker with your own camping gear, there are a number of campgrounds in the Whitsundays which you can book online using the Queensland National Parks service.
South Molle has the largest, best-equipped campsites in the Whitsundays. Many are walk-in campsites.
They are accessible by boat; a camping transfer to South Molle Island can be arranged from Airlie Beach or Shute Harbour from $85 AUD.
- Sandy Bay, Long Island: A tiny beach campsite accessible by a shallow boat only.
- Cockatoo Beach, North Molle Island: Large campsites on a forest edge with good toilet and picnicking facilities.
- Paddle Bay, South Molle Island: A sandy campsite on the west of South Molle Island suitable for groups and walk-in campers.
- Sandy Bay, South Molle Island: Open campsite well-connected to the island by walking trails on the west side of the island.
- Tancred Island, Shute Harbour: Walk-in campsite with no facilities one kilometre from Shute Harbour.
- Denman Island: Bush camping on a small island accessible by a shallow boat.
- Planton Island: Walk-in tent camping in a remote dry rainforest island with a small sandy beach.
Tips for Backpacking the Whitsundays on a Budget
While many backpackers save a little extra money for the Whitsundays to make the most of the multi-day sailing tours opportunities, you can absolutely visit the Whitsundays on a budget.
Here are some of my best tips for backpacking the Whitsundays on a budget:
- Stay in a hostel dormitory. Dorms are generally more than half the price of a private room or a hotel in the immediate vicinity of the Whitsunday Islands.
- Try camping. Campgrounds are often cheaper than dormitory rooms if you already own the correct camping gear. Wild campsites are also affordable and available.
- Shop and cook for yourself rather than eating out. This is always the quickest and easiest way to save money. Get your groceries from the supermarket, and make sure you’re staying somewhere which has a kitchen.
- Book everything months in advance. The availability and discounts are better when you book in advance.
- Book a day tour instead of a multi-day sailing tour. The Whitsundays Ocean Rafting Tour costs only 191 AUD and it’s considered one of the best (I’ve done it myself and I can confirm that it’s a quality day out).
- Skip the night out. Drinks quickly drain the budget in Airlie Beach, so consider saving a few extra dollars by staying in or taking advantage of the free activities run by your hostel.
Backpacking Whitsundays: Best Airlie Beach Backpacker Accommodation
1. Magnums Airlie Beach
The best overall hostel in Airlie Beach.
Airlie Beach Magnums is by far the best hostel in Airlie Beach. All you need to do is check out the picture to realise that the hostel is maintained, tidy, and sociable – a winning combination.
It’s located on the main street in Airlie Beach above its very own (and very popular) Magnums Bar, although the rooms are surprisingly soundproof according to the reviews.
Airlie Beach Magnums is usually booked up weeks and months in advance, so if you want to stay in Airlie Beach’s best hostel, you will need to book as early as possible.
2. Backpackers By The Bay
The friendliest hostel without the ‘party hostel’ stamp.
Backpackers By The Bay is onto a winner: it’s friendly, surprisingly clean and tidy, and great for people who prefer to socialise over a movie night or game of chess rather than a night out on the town.
I stayed at Backpackers By The Bay at the very end of my week in Airlie Beach and wished I’d found it earlier. It’s located near the Greyhound bus stop and marina.
3. Bush Village Budget Cabins
The best budget private rooms in Airlie Beach.
Bush Village Budget Cabins are not a hostel, per se. However, the price is comparable. Their private dorm rooms start around the 150 AUD per night mark. They are a relaxing 30-minute walk from the centre of Airlie Beach, which is partly why they are so affordable.
If you want a peaceful private room which still provides the opportunity to meet other backpackers, this is the place.
Other Hostels in Airlie Beach
4. Nomads Airlie Beach
The best party hostel but beware of the cleanliness standards.
Nomads Airlie Beach is the biggest and most sociable hostel in Airlie Beach. However, you sacrifice one big thing by staying there: sleep. It’s a lively but noisy hostel.
Beware of the cleaning standards. The kitchen is poorly maintained and unclean most of the day. I also had my first bed bug experience in Australia here. If you stay at Nomads, inspect your room for bed bugs (including in the bed frames), as the infestation was several months old.
5. Base Airlie Beach
Basic dorms situated at Nomads Airlie Beach
Base Airlie Beach is part of Nomads Airlie Beach. Some bookings for Nomads get placed in the Base dorms, which are considered to be the most basic on the campus.
If you stay at Base Airlie Beach, you get the benefits of being a part of the sociable Nomads Airlie Beach hostel. However, the campus is noisy and pretty unclean, so it’s best to know what you’re getting yourself into.
House Sitting and Pet Sitting in the Whitsundays
I saved over £1000 on accommodation during my east coast Australia backpacking trip by pet sitting in Cairns, Airlie Beach, and Sydney using Trusted Housesitters. You don’t need any experience, although it helps.
Best Backpacking Whitsunday Tours
Sailing the Whitsundays is an absolute must when you’re on your backpacking Whitsundays trip.
Multi-Day Tours VS Day tours
The best experience when you’re backpacking the Whitsundays is a multi-day sailing tour. Mostly lasting two days and two nights, they let you experience the islands before the tourist crowds arrive, as well as stunning island sunrises and sunsets.
You will find that the most popular backpacking Whitsundays sailing tours are booked up months in advance, especially during the busiest seasons.
It’s also possible to take a day tour to the islands to see Whitehaven Beach, the Hill Inlet, and snorkel on the Outer Great Barrier Reef.
Day tours are the most affordable option for backpackers. There’s also greater availability at short notice, although it’s still best to book at least one to two weeks in advance.
The Ocean Rafting tour boat
As with almost anything on the backpacking scene, there are tours which are considered better than others.
The Best Backpacking Whitsundays Sailing Tours
1. Avatar (2D/2N)
Avatar is the best and most popular multi-day backpacker sailing tour. It provides a great balance between a ‘party boat’ and relaxed sailing vibes. The boat is a glossy trimaran sailing boat.
- Whitehaven Beach
- Hill Inlet Lookout
- Coral reefs for snorkelling
Costs: $549+ AUD
2. The Atlantic Clipper (2D/2N)
The Atlantic Clipper is the best party boat on the backpacking Whitsundays scene. It is a huge pirate-like boat with two clip-on slides, watersports equipment, and a 12-person hot tub. Scuba diving is available as an extra. This is known as the ‘fun’ boat.
- Whitehaven Beach
- Hill Inlet Lookout
- North Hook
- Hook Island and Hook Passage
- Molle Islands
Costs: $649+ AUD (plus an extra $99 for scuba diving)
3. Apollo (3D/2N):
Apollo is a former competitive sailing boat known for its epic sailing atmosphere and fun atmosphere. It’s usually a party boat but it depends upon the group’s vibes. As it’s a smaller sailing boat, the group is smaller. It’s cheaper than the other popular tours, mainly because it’s a smaller boat and slightly more cramped.
- Whitehaven Beach
- Hill Inlet Lookout
- Other select islands
Costs: $420+ AUD
Best Day Tours:
Whitsundays Ocean Rafting Tour: A fun, sociable speedboat day tour which visits Whitehaven Beach, the Hill Inlet and coral reefs with a smaller risk of seasickness. I did this tour and loved it. However, there was only one other backpacker. Costs: $191 AUD.
Tongarra: A day sail on a 40-foot catamaran which visits Whitehaven Beach and the Hill Inlet, popular with backpackers. Costs: $179 AUD.
Camira: A day sail on a commercial catamaran with a relaxed atmosphere, visiting Whitehaven Beach and the Hill Inlet. This is the most expensive day sail and quite popular with families too. Costs: $229 AUD
Backpacking Whitsundays: Best Backpackers Bars in Airlie Beach
Assuming you’re staying in Airlie Beach, there are a number of popular backpacker bars and clubs that you can visit.
Note that these are your typical backpacker bars and nightclubs with cheesy tunes, games nights, and other unusual activities. Don’t expect Berlin techno.
Magnums is the best backpackers bar in Airlie Beach, featuring pool tables, affordable drinks and live music. Head there on Thursday nights for the weekly cane toad race.
Mama Africa’s: Arguably the most popular backpackers club in Airlie Beach, Mama Africa’s plays pop and RnB and runs club nights between Thursday and Sunday. Sundays are the most popular night. However, ladies night is on Thursday, which means that ladies get freebies.
Boaty’s Airlie Beach: Boaty’s is located next to Nomads Airlie Beach and I can vouch for its incredible nachos. It runs regular quiz nights and other activities for backpackers.
Boom Night Club: Boom’s Thursday nights are renowned among backpackers in Airlie Beach for cheesy DJ tunes, as well as the occasional house and techno songs.
Paddy’s Shenanigans Irish Bar: Paddy’s is popular for a casual pint or two at a bar which has been operating since 1997.
Backpacking Whitsundays: Things to Do in Airlie Beach
1. Take a Whitsundays sailing tour
Taking a Whitsundays sailing tour is likely to be one of the main reasons why you added Airlie Beach to your backpacking Whitsundays itinerary.
If you have time for a multi-day tour, take advantage of being able to wake up to the almost-empty 76 Whitsunday Islands and beat the flocks of tourists to Whitehaven Beach.
2. Hike the Honeyeater Lookout Trail
Hiking the Honeyeater Lookout Trail is something that many backpackers miss out on simply because they don’t know about it.
Check out my full guide to the Honeyeater Lookout Trail for how to find the trailhead and what to expect.
3. Relax at Airlie Beach Lagoon
Due to the swarms of stingers (jellyfish) around Airlie Beach, ocean swimming isn’t recommended. Don’t fret, however, because Airlie Beach Lagoon is situated right on the seafront and it’s perfect for a post-hike swim, picnics, or a day of sunbathing.
4. Watch the cane toad races
Every Thursday evening, Magnums Bar hosts cane toad races. This classic Aussie activity involves placing bets on which cane toad will win a race from the centre of the pen to the outer wall of the pen.
To my surprise, backpackers were placing bets as high as 500 AUD. The highest bet on the winning toad gets all of the prize money.
5. Go skydiving
As far as tandem skydiving destinations go, the Whitsundays is one of the best. Most of the skydives start around 8,000 feet above the 74 islands, but it’s possible to dive from a height of 15,000 feet too.
What’s better, the free fall above some of Australia’s bluest oceans or the parachute descent onto the beach?
Check the availability for the tandem skydive in advance, and note that it starts in the early morning to take advantage of the best weather and wind conditions.
6. Take a scenic flight
If you’re not quite up for the thrill of a skydive, taking a scenic flight will let you soak up the scenery from a bird’s-eye view without taking the free fall. The heart-shaped reef is particularly popular.
Check the availability of the best scenic flights in the Whitsundays:
- One-hour scenic flight from Airlie Beach (294 AUD)
- Ocean Rafting snorkelling, Whitehaven Beach and scenic flight (472 AUD)
- Honeyeater Lookout Trail Guide in Airlie Beach
Aim to spend 3-7 days in the Whitsundays for your backpacking Whitsundays trip. You can stay a shorter amount of time if you only do a one-day sailing tour, but most multi-day tours last 2-3 days.
Airlie Beach is the best town for backpacking the Whitsundays because it has a large number of hostels, campgrounds, and affordable sailing trips. There are also backpacker-friendly bars. The town has a Greyhound stop for those who are travelling by the Greyhound bus.
I’m Katie, the owner of Escape Artist Katie. I have been travel writing since 2018, including writing for luxury travel magazines and publications such as Wanderlust.
As well as being a digital nomad who works and lives abroad permanently, I’m a big advocate for offbeat travel and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.