Last Updated: 12/7/20 | December 7th, 2020
Located off of Airlie Beach on Australia’s east coast, the Whitsunday Islands are a popular destination for travelers. It’s one of those “must-see activities” in Australia.
The most popular way to see the islands is to take a sailing cruise. The tours typically last three days and two nights. However, since you leave midday the first day and return the morning of the third, it’s more like two days and two nights. Every backpacker who travels up the east coast seems to take a sailing cruise through the Whitsunday islands.
And, since I was a backpacker too, I couldn’t skip the sailing cruise! Where would my backpacker cred go if I skipped it!?
I went with a company called OzSail.
Heading out on a cloudy Sunday, we boarded our boat, Freight Train. Freight Train’s an old boat. Built in the 1980s as a German racing boat, the boat is quite small. It fits 18 people in the berth plus three crew. If it was up to me, I would have picked a bigger boat. There’s nothing really wrong with the boat—if you want a typical “sailboat,” Freight Train is a fine good option. I just hate being on small boats.
But you go where your friends are, and my friends were there. I took the boat because my friend Phil was on it. (Turned out, my friend Caitlin and two Swedish girls I met in Noosa a few weeks before were also on it. Small world, huh?)
Because the boats leave midday on the first day, you only have enough time for one snorkel trip before you set anchor at night. Because of the weather and rain, the snorkeling wasn’t great. The water was murky, and there wasn’t a lot of fish. But nothing could be done about that and we moved on, anchored up for the night, ate, and drank until…well, about 10 o’clock.
A funny thing about being out on the water—your perception of time changes. After the sun goes down and you spend hours out on the deck, you begin to think it’s really late. “It must be like 1am!” someone would say. Nope, it’s 10pm and time for bed.
The second day of sailing was a lot better. We headed to the famous Whitehaven Beach for a swim. Whitehaven is what you see on all the magazines and postcards of the Whitsundays. It’s a long, pure-white beach. It was beautiful until the rain came and we had to head back to the boat. We sailed around for a bit to find a bay to stop and snorkel in.
Because of the time of year, there were only a few places to go, and, according to our captain, the bay we stopped in might see only boats 10 days a year, making the fish and reef system a lot better. I opted to dive instead of snorkeling. The coral was beautiful, we saw a lot of fish, and I found a turtle. That was really the highlight. We followed the turtle around for a while and then, realizing we needed to surface, waved it goodbye to surface.
The Whitsunday Islands are beautiful, but I had the misfortune of visiting the islands during Queensland’s wet season. Except for a few hours of sun, the whole three days were filled with clouds and thunderstorms. Every time I was getting ready to get a tan, the rain came pouring down.
I can only imagine how the islands would have looked if it’d been beautiful and sunny every day. When the weather was nice, you could see the appeal of the place. Sailing on the water, stopping for a swim, exploring a few islands. Sailing around the Whitsundays is the perfect way to spend a few days.
Sailing the Whitsundays: Suggested Companies and Logistics
Sailing the Whitsundays is pretty straightforward. You can book directly with any of the big companies. However, the best way to save money is to book with a tourist office or a hostel. You’ll end up saving a lot more money as they get better rates and deals.
Everything on the boat is provided for you except snacks and alcohol. Make sure you stock up on them before you leave. Additionally, try to find a boat that leaves early on the first day or late on the third day so you get more time out on the islands.
Some suggested sailing companies are:
- Redcat Adventures (Tongarra)
- The Atlantic Clipper (but only if you want to party!)
Expect to pay between 375-499 AUD ($275-370 USD) per person for a 2-night sailing trip. Prices will vary depending on the size of the boat and how basic or luxurious the facilities are. Rates are often a little cheaper if you book as a couple or part of a group, so be sure to ask if they have any discounts available.
Airlie Beach, the main jumping-off point, is around a 7-hour drive from Cairns and a 12-hour drive from Brisbane. If you plan to fly, you can take a short flight from either Cairns or Brisbane to Hamilton Island or Whitsunday Coast.
However, there are more ways to visit the islands than just sailing. You can also stay on the islands, though accommodation is pretty expensive. Expect to pay at least 200 AUD per night (though 300 AUD is more likely). You can find hotels and resorts on some of the islands, including Daydream Island, Long Island, and Hamilton Island (which also has an airport). If you don’t want the party scene of the sailboats and are looking for a more relaxed, private stay then this might be the option for you.
If you want to visit the islands on a budget, camping is also an option. Camping permits will cost as little as 8 AUD ($6 USD) per night, so if you have a tent and want to save yourself some money then this is a viable option.
You’ll need to take a water taxi service to get to your island/campsite. Expect to pay at least 80 AUD ($60 USD) for round-trip service to the islands. Some of the hostels on Airlie Beach (like Nomads Airlie Beach) will also let you camp on their grounds for a discount as well.
The Whitsundays are one of the most picturesque regions in Australia. Their post-card perfect beaches and crystalline waters are meant to be seen up close. Whether you splurge on a multi-day sailing trip or just spend a few budget-friendly days camping around the islands, make sure you don’t miss the Whitsundays.
Book Your Trip to Australia: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Use Skyscanner or Momondo to find a cheap flight. They are my two favorite search engines because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned. Start with Skyscanner first though because they have the biggest reach!
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld as they have the biggest inventory and best deals. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels. My favorite places to stay are:
- Whitsunday on the Beach
- Base Backpackers Airlie Beach
- Airlie Beach Magnums
If you’re looking for more places to stay around Australia, here for my favorite hostels in Australia!
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- World Nomads (for everyone below 70)
- Insure My Trip (for those over 70)
- Medjet (for additional repatriation coverage)
Looking for the Best Companies to Save Money With?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use to save money when I’m on the road. They will save you money when you travel too.
Looking for more information on visiting Australia?
Be sure to visit our robust destination guide to Australia for even more planning tips!