When you’re twenty, just settling into a career path and have absolutely nothing in the way of savings, travelling to the other side of the world seems impossible.
I don’t know where this idea came from – it was probably influenced by all the school peers who were going off on gap years – but one day we sat down and decided that we were going to book the trip of a lifetime.
It wasn’t quite a gap year, because with full time jobs and plans to buy an apartment in the spring, neither of us could afford to pack them in. But we did have a whole year’s worth of annual leave which our bosses agreed to kindly let us use all in one go.
We made an appointment at STA Travel in Oxford (which at the time was our closest store!) and started to look at options. A couple of weeks later, we’d booked a month abroad for November that year, with flights to Dubai, Bali and Australia.
All we had to do then was save £3000 each over the next 11 months, which at the time was (thankfully) quite easy as we lived at home with very few monthly outgoings!
Australia was going to be the longest stint of our trip at just under three weeks. This is obviously a very short amount of time to try and see so many places, but if you’re limited on time like we were, it can be done.
So, here’s my ultimate backpacking itinerary for spending three weeks travelling the east coast Australia…
Read more: How to Plan a Month of Travel
Days 1 to 4: Sydney, New South Wales
Day one will be entirely taken up with a very long flight, so you’ll technically arrive in Sydney on day two. We flew in from Dubai, so had two time zone changes to deal with!
Catch a train into the city and if your jet lag allows it, spend what’s left of day two getting some fresh air and exploring your hostel. We booked the Wake Up Hostel and it was perfect for our stay.
On day two, catch the local bus to Bondi Beach and spend the day surfing (either pre-booked lessons or board rental), soaking up the sun on the beach and going on a long coastal walk. It’s a great way to feel refreshed after that flight!
On your last full day in Sydney, spend it exploring every inch of the city! There’s so much to see that you can’t possibly see it all, but if you’re blessed with good weather, you can enjoy your own free walking tour. If you have time, catch the boat over to Manly too!
The only thing we really felt we missed here was a trip to the Blue Mountains, so if you have a spare day I’d recommend doing that.
Days 5 to 8: Cairns, Queensland
On day five, catch a flight to Cairns in northern Queensland. This place is an absolute dream if you love a tropical climate!
Cairns itself isn’t that big compared to Sydney, but it has an amazing beach, harbour and some wonderful places to eat that won’t blow the budget.
On day six, head out on a trip! We pre-booked the Uncle Brian’s Atherton Tableland & Waterfalls Tour with STA Travel. This day trip was full of activities and included all food and transport. It was such a great way to explore more of Cairns!
On day seven, it would be rude not to go and see the Great Barrier Reef as you’re so close! We pre-booked our Passions of Paradise diving trip with STA Travel. This included the boat trip, diving gear, snorkelling gear and lunch. It was a choppy day on the Coral Sea but wow, what an experience. You have to do this!
On day eight, you can explore more of Cairns before catching an overnight Greyhound Bus to Airlie Beach. These buses are so affordable, super comfortable and by travelling at night it saves you paying for another night of accommodation.
Read more on Cairns
Days 9 to 11: Airlie Beach, Queensland
Early on day nine, you’ll arrived into Airlie Beach. This was one of my favourite places in Australia! I could happily live a beach-front life here.
As you have the whole day ahead of you (and hopefully managed to get some sleep on the Greyhound bus!), you can explore at your leisure after checking into your hostel. We stayed at Base Backpackers Hostel which was great.
For the rest of day nine, we went and got picnic supplies from Woolworths, ate by the beach and spent the rest of our chilled day walking around the town and up to the harbour.
On day 10, get up nice and early and head out on a boat trip to the Whitsunday Islands. They might look nearby on a map, but the journey took us three hours each way! It’s completely worth it though.
We booked our trip Southern Cross Day Sail trip with STA Travel. This trip wasn’t too expensive and included lunch. There’s no other beach as incredible as Whitehaven Beach, so I’d highly recommend making the trip! It’s also a great way to meet fellow travellers.
On day eleven you can catch another overnight Greyhound Bus to Hervey Bay, giving you almost a full day to enjoy more of Airlie Beach. If you’re in need of a rest, this town is a great place to restore your energy!
Day 12: Hervey Bay, Queensland
Early on day 12, you’ll arrive in Hervey Bay. We only stopped here for one night as it was the gateway to our next destination.
Once we’d checked into our Aussie Woolshed Hostel, which was small but sweet, we spent the rest of day 12 exploring Hervey Bay and chilling out in our room. Unfortunately there was a huge storm so we were stuck inside for a lot of the day!
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Days 13 to 14: Fraser Island, Queensland
You’ll depart from Hervey Bay and arrive in Fraser Island early on day 13, so you can settle into your trip accommodation, meet your fellow tour mates and head straight out to the famous Maheno Shipwreck, The Pinnacles, Champagne Pools and Eli Creek.
On day 14, we explored Lake McKenzie, Lake Wabby and the rainforest with our tour group, before catching a late-afternoon boat back to Hervey Bay for another night at the same hostel.
As this was a two-day trip it was more expensive than other trips, but when you’re limited on time having a guided tour is the perfect solution. We also got accommodation, food and transportation out of it so we didn’t feel like we were throwing away any of our budget.
Read more on Fraser Island
Days 15 to 19: Brisbane, Queensland
Bright and early on day 15, we hopped on Greyhound Bus to Brisbane which took just over five hours. We checked into the lovely Bunk Brisbane Hostel and spent the rest of the day exploring the hostel and its surroundings.
On day 16, we set out to explore the city on foot. We spent the entire day wandering around and soaking up the sun, and even treated ourselves to a proper meal at Nandos as we were coming to the end of our trip!
On day 17, we caught a city bus to Australia Zoo. If like me you grew up watching Steve Irwin, you can’t miss this! It was amazing to see so many new types of wildlife. That said it is expensive there, so take a packed lunch.
On our final full day of the trip – day 18 – we hired a car and headed down south to the Gold Coast and Byron Bay. This was a real spur of the moment decision, but it ended up being one of our favourite days of the whole trip!
Hiring a car wasn’t hugely cheap at just over £100, but it was a great way to see more of Australia in a small amount of time. And now we can say we hit the open road down under! Driving there was so painless, so it was a really great experience for us.
On day 19, it was time to drive our hire car to the airport and catch our afternoon flight out of Australia – as we were heading to Bali!
Tips for your Australian Adventure:
Book a ‘Hop On Hop Off’ pass for your Greyhound Bus – it makes it so much easier to travel around as and when it suits you!
Book your accommodation in advance via Hostel World or similar. With so little time, you can’t afford to risk being hostel-less!
Book your trips in advance via STA Travel or similar. Again, these trips book up fast and you wouldn’t want to miss out.
Don’t blow all your money on food! It’s tempting to eat out when there are tons of amazing restaurants, but by spending most of our food money in supermarkets, we could spend more money on actually doing things and seeing places.
Log your trip itinerary in a spreadsheet and include every bit of information you could possibly need. This is not only helpful for you, but it’s handy for your family to see where in the world you are too! You can download my template here.
If you can, book all your flights, trips and transport with one company. We used STA Travel and it meant that all our documentation was in one PDF. You also then only have one contact for everything.
Lastly, take a backpack and fill it with dedicated packing pods. Lugging a suitcase around for three weeks would be a nightmare, especially when you’re moving from hostel to hostel!
I hope my ultimate Australia backpacking itinerary was helpful! Please let me know below if you have any questions.