While places like Phuket, Fiji and Bali are popular tropical travel destinations for cost-conscious Australians, better beaches and world-class snorkelling are on our own doorstep in the Whitsundays.
Despite the association with high-end, palm-treed, white-sand luxury, our World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef and islands can be enjoyed inexpensively.
It all comes down to some shrewd planning. Here’s how.
Save on the mainland
By staying on the mainland at Airlie Beach, you can save by cashing in on the greater range of accommodation and food options. A direct flight from Sydney to Proserpine airport starts from about $69 (for travel in April with Jetstar).
According to Haydn Long, Flight Centre’ global media and investor relations manager, you can find a cheaper flight by travelling mid-week or booking months ahead.
“Cheap fares tend to sell out first, leaving the more expensive fares available the closer you get to departure,” he says.
Once there, the region’s top sights can be accessed from the jetty at Airlie Beach, meaning you can skip on car rental. With places to stay, eat and shop, all within easy walking distance of the waterside resort town, it’s possible to walk everywhere.
Getting to and from the airport is also a cinch. Transit buses will take you direct to your hotel for $35 per adult return.
See the top sights for less
The biggest pearl in the Whitsundays’ blue coffers is the Great Barrier Reef, the biggest reef and largest natural feature on Earth.
While climate change and industry continue to damage our beloved reef (it’s actually made up of over 3000 individual reef systems and coral cays across 35 million hectares), it still hosts some of the best snorkelling in the world. The underwater treasures include 400 species of hard corals in eye-popping colours, clownfish, potato cod, rays, turtles and endangered species, like the dugong.
The other big drawcard is Whitehaven Beach. It was voted “best beach in the South Pacific” (blitzing anything in French Polynesia) in the 2017 TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Awards. It’s on Whitsunday Island, the largest of the 74 Whitsunday islands scattered off the Queensland coast.
Thanks to a competitive local tour industry, getting to paradise doesn’t have to cost a fortune – or even a massive investment in time. For $159 (per adult), Ocean Rafting offers a three-in-one day trip that incorporates the big two: snorkelling over coral, giant clams and tropical fish around Hook Island and other locations, and a chance to roam across the white 98 percent silica sand of Whitehaven Beach.
For something more leisurely, cruise over the coral in a glass bottom boat ($175 per adult with Reefstar Cruises). Similar packages can be found with other local tourism providers, and most tours include lunch and a quick, guided walk to a lookout.
Which leads to another potential must-do, if the budget’s a bit more relaxed: getting a bird’s eye glimpse of the reef (one of the seven natural wonders of the world) from the sky. You can get a one-hour scenic flight over the reef, including Heart Reef, the heart-shaped icon seen on postcards and advertising, for about $219 a person.
Tourism Whitsundays publicity manager Liza Muller says those on a budget can find value for money at Mantra Club Croc. Rates start from around $125 a night per couple.
She also recommends families explore the accommodation options – from camping or cabins to luxury apartments – at the Big4 Adventure Park. The in-house activities at this multi-award-winning park include water slides, an artificial lagoon and a kids’ club.
If you prefer chillaxing in luxury by the water ahead of cramming into a high-speed boat with others, blow your budget on a Coral Sea Spa Suite at Coral Sea Resort. From $320 a night, you can gaze out on the endless blue from your own outdoor balcony spa, the pontoon over the ocean or waterside by the pool.
In similar vein, enjoy the infinity pool effect from the elevated heights of Peppers. Rates for a single-bedroom spa apartment start from $179 a night, including breakfast.
Alternatively, you can camp on some of the islands. Be aware, however, that a permit and some lugging of tents and other supplies is required.
Cash in on free activities
If your accom doesn’t feature a view or pool, laze by the palm trees on the banana lounge at Airlie Beach’s artificial lagoon, where you can swim for free (minus the stingers).
Take advantage of other free activities, such as coastal views along the boardwalk, bay or hinterland. Twenty minutes from Airlie, the new Proserpine Water Park offers free water fun for kids, Ms Muller says.
More ways to find value
A short stroll from the lagoon is Lea’s Book Exchange, where you can choose from more than 9000 secondhand books to enjoy in your banana lounge. After you’ve read it, you can even return the book for a partial refund.
Save on eating out, another big money suck, by stocking up with food from the local Woolworths. BYO alcohol at the local bottle shop and enjoy your drink of choice on your own private balcony.
Take advantage of the warmer weather up north to travel ultra-light and rack up more savings with the carry-on luggage option.
Cut the budget and the kilos
There’s plenty of variety among eateries in Airlie – from fast food chains and takeaways to health-conscious cafes, international food and gourmet fine dining.
Cafes, including Garuma, Bohemian Raw, Wisdom Cafe and Cafe One 3, offer healthy, tasty salads, wraps, smoothie bowls and breakfasts for $8-$20. While you’re trimming the budget, why not cut a few kilos too?