Learn how to make the most of an economy trip to Cairns, Australia, a tropical wonderland for frugal adventurers.
A primary gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns, Australia is the place to go for families wanting to have a swim and stroll on an impressive, tropical esplanade, backpackers looking for an affordable and thriving nightlife, and hardcore divers desiring full days spent exploring the intricacies of the largest reef in the world.
Cairns screams “vacation vibes” and is a must-see Aussie locale, even if you only have a few days to enjoy it. Adding to its appeal is the fact that you can sleep, eat + play here without shelling out buku bucks. These are the spots we found that offer the deepest wells of enjoyment for the least amount of funds.
As a tourist destination there’s everything from luxe, beachfront hotels to (usually) clean and cheap hostels in Cairns. As a family (usually) on a budget we land in the middle with our accommodation choices, wanting to be comfortable and have access to vacation-enhancing amenities, while also keeping an eye on how bloated our credit card balance is becoming. The following are our top choices for moderately-priced digs in Cairns.
Best Price: Palm Royale Cairns
Come to this not-luxury, yet definitely-not-a-hostel, hotel to score a super comfortable King-bed, pool-side room and mini-kitchenette (fridge, microwave, and electric kettle.) While the rooms are a bit dated, the bed and linens are soft and comfortable, and the newly-renovated bathrooms chic. And if the bathrooms are any indication of what the hotel will be like when renovations are complete, it will be a new (and possibly more expensive) place by the time we return. But as it’s a 5-minute drive to Cairns Esplanade, the prices will hopefully remain low to moderate.
And now to the pools. The balconies on most first-story rooms have gates opening onto one of the resorts two pools. Surrounded by tropical plants and loungers, and coated with blue tiles, the large pools are perfect for play and relaxation. One of the pools even features a large waterfall feature and resident massive-swan-floatie - a game changer for our kid. If you want to save some coin without sacrificing comfort, Palm Royale is for you.
Cost: $55 USD per night, and free parking
Best Amenities: Paradise Palms Cairns
A resort situated on the border of Kuranda State Forest and featuring a mini-golf course, Paradise Palm Cairns is the place to go for families wanting their accommodations to be a primary feature of their trip to Cairns. Beyond the mini-golf, guests can fill their time playing in the expansive swimming pool, napping on the sundeck, or exploring the impressive kids’ play area. An 18-hole golf course is another huge draw of this spot, however it was closed for renovations last time we checked – verify its status before you book here in hopes of playing real golf.
In regards to room options, they’re optimal for big families desiring at least a modicum of privacy, or couples wanting a mellow location to settle in. While there are basic hotel rooms, Paradise Palms also offers one to two bedroom apartments with kitchens, washer and dryer (huge score in Australia!), living rooms; free Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs and DVD players, balconies, minibars, and tea and coffee makers. It’s a one-stop-shop in almost every way.
If you came on vacation to not use a kitchen, the hotel offers a complimentary brekky and a nice restaurant (that even locals like), offering modern Australian and pan-Asian dishes.
The location is so-so, as it’s fairly close to many attractions (e.g., it’s 2.5 km from Clifton Beach and 4.1 km from Cairns Tropical Zoo) but not within walking distance to any hotspots.
Cost: $110 USD per night, and free parking
Best Location: Cairns Plaza Hotel
The supreme choice for those wanting to be close to the action but not right on top of it, Cairns Plaza Hotel sits on the lively Esplanade by the Coral Sea. Rooms aren’t extravagant, but as the hotel was recently upgraded it has a fresh ambiance, enhanced by the immaculate state of the quarters (at least before we travelers make a mess of it.) And then there are the sights from the ocean view rooms. While all rooms feature balconies that are lovely for some sunrise coffee drinking, the sea-facing verandas reveal dazzling views of the aquamarine waters.
Other pleasant amenities include the free Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs, tea and coffee makers, and a pool. If you’re hoping for additional space or amenities, the studios have kitchenettes, and the suites offer living areas off the bedrooms.
Cost: $110 USD per night, and free parking
Being a seaside city in close proximity to the Great Barrier Reef means most play in Cairns revolves around water and partying, as diving tends to attract lots of wanderlusting backpackers. So if you love the aquatic realm, laid back nightclubs, or both, Cairns will be your jam.
Down Under Dives
After hours of research we pinpointed Down Under Dives as the most affordable and quality outfit for snorkeling or diving the Great Barrier Reef. The massive catamaran, custom-built in 2015, has three comfortable levels for passengers, the top being an open air, shaded deck with padded, wrap-around seating perfect for snoozing in the sun, and ample traditional seats for those wanting to look straight at the horizon (condolences.)
The second level features an indoor dry area with plush seating and tables, in additional to sunbeds in front of the cockpit. On the first level, guests can find the largest indoor dry area with seating, tables, a bar and a serving area for the abundant and healthy buffet lunch they provide. Complimentary tea and coffee are also available the entirety of the 8.5-hour trip (8am to 4:30pm.) And if you ask nicely the super friendly crew might sneak you some biscuits.
Speaking of the crew, they’re hyper-vigilant at making sure guests are comfortable and cared for if sea sickness comes calling. Many chatted up Hudson, with one even sitting for 20-minutes as he spun a tale for her.
And then there’s what we’re all there for, exploring the reef. Right when you board, you’re given a safety number and outfitted with snorkel and dive gear, and a storage cubby labeled with your safety number. Then, when you arrive at the first reef destination hydraulic dive platforms and steps are submerged into the water, offering an extremely easy way to enter with all the awkward gear. Both stops offer a fascinating tapestry of coral and sea life, so don’t forget your underwater cameras.
Cost: About $165/person for snorkeling, and up to $215/person for scuba diving (if you book through Trip Advisor.) There's also a $20 reef-fee per person, paid upon check-in.
- Minimize seasickness by taking two to three ginger tablets before you board - and bring extra for the journey.
- The boat doesn’t provide complimentary towels or water bottles (only cups for tap water) so bring both.
- Bring loose comfortable duds, as putting tight, synthetic material on salt-soaked skin is a rare kind of horrible.
- If you chill easily, bring your own wetsuit, or rent one for $10 from Down Under Dives.
- While there aren’t showers on board, there are hoses by the dive gear - if you’re quick with it you can snag a rinse off.
The main strip for finding eateries ranging from white-tablecloth to food-court-chic, souvenir shops, primo people watching, a jogging path and skating ramps, the Esplanade is the place to go for immersing yourself in the Cairns culture. One of our favorite ways to enjoy this heart-of-Cairns is by having a swim at the lagoon, then posting up at an outdoor cafe with flat whites and gelato.
Adjacent to Reef Fleet Terminal, this public, 4,800-square-meter salt water swimming pool makes you feel as though you’ve won a spot in the oasis of a luxury hotel for the perfect price of free. And if you were wondering about the cleanliness of a public pool, all water is brought in from the Trinity Inlet and filtered through a state-of-the-art filtration system.
Located right on Cairns’ Esplanade, and overlooking the sea, this manmade bay is a choice spot to cool off after a trip to the reef, wash away a hangover, or enjoy a refreshing float as the sun rises. Because it’s usually crowded afternoons and weekends, it’s best to take a dip earlier in the day, unless of course you thrive on the energy of crowds. To keep said crowds safe, there’s a lifeguard on duty 24/7.
You can enjoy Cairns Lagoon Thursday to Tuesday 6.00am to 9.00pm, and Wednesday 12.00pm to 9.00pm.
Cairns Botanic Gardens (also known as Flecker Botanic Gardens)
A lush wonderland composed of 38 hectares of native Australian flora, the Flecker Botanical Gardens is a gateway to a thorough education and immersion into the eclectic, rare, and in some cases, mind-boggling plant life of Australia. Nature lovers can expect to revel in the sights, sounds and smells of striking species of palms, gingers, orchids, bamboos, vines, aroids, tropical fruit trees and more.
As the gardens were established in 1886, many of the plants have had over a century to mature, creating a dramatic effect, especially when mixed with the numerous waterways, brooks and ornate bridges throughout the grounds. In addition, grassy lawns shaded by soaring trees create an ideal setting to picnic, especially when the garden’s exotic birds and butterflies dance against the backdrop of a cobalt blue sky.
Rare, must-see tropical plants in the gardens:
- Amorphophallus Titanum
A tropical flower weighing up to 70 kg with a single leaf that’s 7 meters across. This is one of the only two still existing in Australia. Be ready to snap some super phallic photos.
A carnivorous rainforest plant that forms a type of pitcher with its leaves. This pitcher contains sweet nectar that attracts insects and bugs that get stuck inside the plant, before it happily digests them.
Cost: Free, but donations are encouraged.
Skyrail Rainforest Cableway
One of the best ways to take in the Daintree – the world’s oldest continually surviving tropical rainforest - Skyrail Rainforest Cableway whisks curious travelers over the tops of this natural wonder that boasts a prehistoric ancestry 60 million years older than the Amazon. The gondolas hold up to six people and offer a birds-eye-view of the ancient canvas of rainforest between Smithfield (15-minute drive from Cairns) and Kuranda.
While the ride is captivating, you can deepen your awareness of the history of this land by partaking in the activities at the two rainforest stations on the route. The Red Peak station offers complimentary ranger-guided tours, a rainforest boardwalk loop, the Rainforest Discovery Zone, interpretive signage and lookouts. At Barron Falls station you can explore the CSIRO Interpretation Centre and historical precinct, and take envy-inducing photos of Barron Falls and Barron Gorge National Park from The Edge Lookout. You’ll also have the opportunity to journey through Kuranda, aka “Village in the Rainforest.”
If you’re really thirsty for knowledge, utilize the complimentary Skyrail Interpretive App and Audio Guide.
Timing Tip: A round-trip ride takes about 2.5 hours, but we recommend giving yourself more time so you can enjoy the Red Peak and Barron Falls rainforest stations.
Cost: $82/adult, $41/child, and $205 for a family pass. If you’re hesitant to spend this much, know that your funds are going to a worthy cause, as this organization has won awards for its commitment to the highest standards of sustainable environmental performance.
We also recommend upgrading to a “Diamond View” gondola, as it has a glass bottom that’s exhilarating, with a splash of terrifying.
Being a destination that attracts travelers from every corner of the world, and is so appealing many of those travelers move there and start a business, Cairns offers a melting pot of restaurants. From Vietnamese to Italian, there’s something for everyone, regardless of your taste preferences and desire for culinary adventure.
Cairns Night Market and Food Court
If you’re looking for a cheap, easy and delicious meal, head to the food court on the Cairns Esplanade that has sushi, pho, a noodle bar, Chinese, a juice bar, a crepe shop, New Zealand ice cream, gelato, a waffle shop, and other random but delicious choices. In addition, the eateries just outside the food court offer kebabs, gelato, coffee and other yummy options that won’t set you back more than $30 for two people.
Grill'd Cairns is your spot if you’re craving a burger… even if you don’t eat beef. Every aspect of these burgers, from the bun to the produce, is top notch and the meat (or super yummy non-meat Beyond Burgers) are perfectly seasoned and just the right size. And do yourself a favor by ordering their sampler board of chips.
Ganbaranba Noodle Collosseum
Mega-affordable Japanese favorites like fresh, fully-loaded Ramen and gyoza, can be found here. If you’re in Cairns on a rainy day, Ganbaranba Noodle Collosseum is a cozy, inviting eatery to post up in. Making the experience all the lovelier is the friendly staff that will stop at nothing to ensure you have an amazing meal.
Tip: They only accept cash.
Snoogies Health Bar
A prime to-go joint for wellness seekers, Snoogies serves a wide array of healthy eats that accommodate every dietary preference, from gluten-free to vegan. Popular options include cold pressed juices and smoothies, nutrient-rich salads, a variety of wraps, ever-changing eats in their hot-food bar, and bliss balls. And oh, we almost forgot - they also accomplished the tricky feat of making their health food flavorful and non-chalkboard-esque.