backpacking whitsunday islands

Most visitors to Australia will be planning an epic journey along the East Coast of Australia – stopping at each of the sights along the way... Sydney, Byron Bay, Brisbane, Australia Zoo, Noosa, Magnetic Island and Cairns - the adventure capital of Australia. The long stretches of roads and overnight buses will lead you through the big cities, to the surf coast and through to the tropics and the Great Barrier Reef.

However... there are 2 MUST DOS that most visitors to the east coast have on the top of their bucket lists– Sail the Whitsunday Islands and drive a 4WD along Fraser Island. Backpacking the Whitsundays and Fraser Island is one of the most popular to do's for all east coast travellers. So here’s what you need to know.


What are they?

The Whitsundays are made up of 74 stunning islands – Whitsunday Island being the most popular and home to the famous Whitehaven Beach – where the sand is so pure it squeaks and the water is so clean you can wash your teeth with it!

backpacking whitsundays australia

How do I get there?

Whitsunday Sailing Tours depart from Airlie Beach – a tiny, tropical party town located about 9 hours drive north of Fraser Island. You will need at least a day to drive there – or if you are travelling north from Rainbow Beach or Hervey Bay – an overnight Greyhound or Premier Bus. Alternatively you can fly to Whitsunday Coast Airport, Hamilton Island Airport or Mackay Airport, located around 1 hour from the town of Airlie Beach.

Sailing Trips

We suggest a 3 Day / 2 Night Sailing Trip. It takes a few hours to sail to the islands from Airlie Beach so an overnight trip is best – plus a great way to meet other people. And who wouldn’t want to sleep out on the ocean and under the stars? 3 Day / 2 Night Sailing Trips usually depart in the afternoon. You usually have to check in with the boat company in Airlie Beach by 11:00am the day of departure so give yourself enough time to get there!

If you have slightly less time to spend in paradise, there are also 2 day / 1 night tours. If you are tight on time, you can also choose a 1 day tour with Ocean Rafting or Southern Cross

If you are staying at Base Airlie Beach you can store your luggage there while you are sailing away! Trips include food, BYO alcohol & snorkelling gear. You also have the option to pay extra for a scuba dive. You will spend the 2 nights sailing around the islands, exploring Whitehaven Beach and snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef.

What do the tours include?

Most tours to the Whitsundays will include a stop by Whitehaven Beach. One of the best views of the beach can be captured from Hill Inlet Lookout which requires a short 20 minute tropical rainforest walk to reach the viewing platform (look out for wildlife)! As the Whitsundays are located within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, mostly all sailing tours will offer the opportunity to snorkel or scuba dive in the Great Barrier Reef. The Whitsundays are a popular place to spot Turtles, tropical fish and more! Many of the overnight sailing tours will also lead you through to a number of other islands within the Whitsunday Islands Group.

  • Read our Full and Comprehensive Guide to The Whitsundays here.


Why is it so popular?

It is the biggest sand island in the world and it can justifiably be described as paradise! Rich with aboriginal history, eucalyptus forests, natural swimming holes, white sand, dingos and of course – highways allowing you to drive across the island by 4WD!

How do I get there?

Fraser Island can be accessed by ferry from either Rainbow Beach or Hervey Bay. Rainbow Beach is located about 240km north of Brisbane whilst Hervey Bay is 290 km north of Brisbane. If you are travelling south along the East Coast, Hervey Bay is about 870km south of the Whitsundays – about 10 hours drive!

TIP: Begin your 4WD Tag Along tour from Noosa (1.5 hours south of Rainbow Beach) to experience the mighty sand dunes of Cooloola National Park on the way!

If you are travelling on a Greyhound or Premier Bus the journey takes a little longer as the buses stop for breaks. Travelling south you will need to get an overnight bus from Airlie Beach (the Whitsundays). We suggest stopping for 2 nights at 1770 – where the surf coast meets the Great Barrier Reef and the second place in Australia that Captain Cook visited – very chilled out, cool little town!

backpacking fraser island australia

Rainbow Beach, Hervey Bay or Noosa?

Nomads offer some pretty great tag along tours that begin in Noosa. Nomads offer dorm style accommodation on the actual island, whereas the tag along tours from Rainbow Beach and Hervey Bay usually offer camping (which is also loads of fun)! The highlight of booking a self guided tour from Noosa is the opportunity to see the sand dunes of Cooloola National Park on the way! Check out their tours here.

Hervey Bay has an airport close by so it tends to be popular with the Aussie locals. The town is bigger than Rainbow Beach with a lot more shops, bars and restaurants. The Esplanade is beautiful and the beach is calm with little waves – so it's great for those not too comfortable in the surf! When staying there we recommend our Base Mates Palace Hostels. They also organise 4WD Tag Along camping safaris to the island.

Rainbow Beach has grown its popularity on the backpacker trail over recent years and there are 3 hostels available that organise accommodation & 4WD Tag Along Safari Packages. Our Base Mates Frasers On Rainbow have a great set up! Rainbow Beach has great surf and gives the feeling that you are literally in the middle of nowhere! This quiet town shuts down early (forcing most of the town to Frasers On Rainbow most nights for some live music) and has just one little street of shops and cafes. If visiting Rainbow Beach – be sure to check out Carlo Sand Blow – it is stunning!

Fraser Island Tours

You’ve got 2 choices! Guided Tours are a great option for those wanting dorm or private accommodation on the island and for those on a really short time frame for travelling the East Coast. Meals are generally prepared and you will be accompanied with a Tour Driver who will guide you around the island in a 4WD bus. As the island is so big we suggest at least a 2 or 3 day tour. Guided Tours depart from Surfers Paradise, Brisbane, Noosa, Rainbow Beach and Hervey Bay – a great option for those short on time!

Tag Along Safaris tend to be more popular! They tend be cheaper and you have the option to drive the 4WD vehicle! This is how they roll... you will meet the day before departure at your hostel in Noosa, Rainbow Beach or Hervey Bay for a briefing. You will meet everyone else on the safari (sometimes there can be up to 60 people)! You will be put into a group of 6 – 8 people and your group will be given a 4WD vehicle, tents, cooking & camping facilities, food and maps! The lead vehicle will have a professional guide / driver who will lead the convoy out to the island. You will spend 3 days and 2 nights exploring and camping, Nomads Noosa however offer accommodation on the island – an experience like no other!

nomads fraser island tours
  • Book your 4X4 Fraser Island tour here!


We recommend purchasing a Greyhound or Premier Bus Pass for your travels. You can buy a 3 month or a 6 month pass between Cairns and Melbourne, Sydney, Byron Bay and Brisbane. The buses allow you to hop on and hop off along the way! We also suggest pre-purchasing a Fraser Island & Whitsunday Sailing package as you will usually save about $100 when buying the 2 tours together. Travelling along the East Coast you will find that you will continue to bump into fellow travellers that you have met along the way!

  • Check out our Complete Guide to Travelling The East Coast here.
  • Or maybe you're looking for some budget travel tips for the East Coast, read this
  • Or do you want to make sure you see all the unmissable places on The East Coast? click here!

East Coast Accommodation

An easy way to save $ when travelling the East Coast is to buy a 10 Night Base Jumping Pass! The Pass is just $279 and you can book each hostel as you go! We have numerous hostels where the Base Jumping Pass is accepted all up the East Coast of Australia.

For more information on Whitsunday and Fraser Island packages email [email protected]