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Brisbane to Cairns Road Trip (8 Day Itinerary + TIPS!)

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A Brisbane to Cairns Road trip is one of the best you can do in Australia. There is a lot in between the two cities, and it’s a commonly worn path for backpackers in Australia.

This part of Australia is full of interesting locations, such as Fraser Island Hervey Bay and the Whitsundays. Spectacular scenery, beautiful beaches and turquoise waters line the route, making it one of the most scenic in the country!

Driving from Brisbane to Cairns, you will come across many more beautiful spots like those mentioned!

This road trip may look like a short distance on a map, but it is a beast of a drive. Airlie Beach and Cairns don’t look too far apart on a map, but it can take upwards of 8 hours to drive between the two places!

A Brisbane to Cairns drive is a serious undertaking and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

I have compiled an itinerary for this trip to help you get the most out of your drive, in one of the most beautiful parts of Australia!

Without further ado, let’s dive in!

Brisbane to Cairns Road Trip

Quick Brisbane to Cairns Road Trip itinerary
Distance – 1,678.5 km (1,042.9 miles)
Time – 8 days
Day 1 – Brisbane to Noosa: 137 km (85.1 miles)
Day 2 – Noosa to Hervey Bay: 190 km (118 miles)
Day 3 – Hervey Bay to Bundaberg: 120 km (74.5 miles)
Day 4 – Bundaberg to Agnes Water: 122.2 km (75.9 miles)
Day 5 – Agnes Water to Airlie Beach: 706 km (438 miles)
Day 6 – Airlie Beach to Townsville: 273.6 km (170 miles)
Day 7 – Townsville to Mission Beach: 234.7 km (145.8 miles)
Day 8 – Mission Beach to Cairns: 138.9 km (86.3 miles)

General Info

The distance between the cities is quite big, at 1,678.5 km (1,042.9 miles), it’s a lengthy road trip. It may not be one of the longest road trips in Australia you can do, but it’s still a big drive!

The Brisbane to Cairns drive time would be around 18 hours if you decided to do the whole trip in one go!

It’s not a short trip by any means!

Before setting off

Before you do any Australian Road trip it is important to have everything in order. The first thing you need to get is a vehicle. Without one, there simply won’t be a road trip! Depending on your numbers and where you plan on sleeping, you have two options.

You can either rent a car or a campervan. If you’re planning on staying in hostels or camping, then a car is the best bet. Whereas, if you want to sleep in your vehicle then you should go with a campervan.

You can book these direct with companies such as Jucy and Wicked, but my advice would be to look online.

You can use a company such as Rentalcars.com to book your car or campervan. If you’re starting from Brisbane, click here to book your rental car. If you’re starting from Cairns, click here to book your rental car.

Important info

Airlie Beach Lagoon
Photo Credit: Niki Gango

Driving in Australia is a challenge because of the distances involved. This is exacerbated when the journeys involve covering large areas where there’s little in the way of civilisation. The main concern is running out of fuel in the middle of nowhere.

That’s why it’s important to stop at a petrol station when you see it even if your tank is quite full. You never know how long you could go without seeing the next one!

One tip that I picked up during the Australian road trips I did was to take note of signs. When you are in the outback and less populated areas, there are little green signs every 5 km to let you know how far you are from the next town.

These can be invaluable during your trip, as you can gauge when to stop for a rest and get fuel.

Another thing to remember is to stop regularly, especially when you’re feeling tired. Driving across Australia always involves long distances and it can be tempting to try and get to your destination as quickly as possible.

However, it’s best not to risk an accident by driving when tired, so try and stop every 4 hours for a short break! Doing a road trip in Australia you should be stopping a lot anyway to check out the great scenery!

Before doing any road trip in Australia, ensure that you have proper travel insurance! I use World Nomads to keep me safe on the road, it’s designed for backpackers and adventurous travellers.

You never know what can happen on the road. Keep yourself protected against all eventualities! Click here to get a quote!

Essential items you need to pack for a Brisbane to Cairns Road trip

Before setting off, it’s important to ensure you have everything you need for your trip. You may want to check out my road trip packing list before you head off.

There are certain items you absolutely can not do without while you’re on the road.

This is especially true when driving in Australia. The distances between places are so large, that you need to make sure you have all the tools and safety equipment you need in case of an emergency.

If you break down in the wrong place, you could be there for a while waiting for assistance!

Below are a few items I recommend you take on your Brisbane to Cairns self-drive, to make it that little bit easier!

Why you should do a Brisbane to Cairns Road trip

sea in the Whitsunday Islands
A Cairns to Brisbane drive is undoubtedly one of the best you can do in Australia.

It is one of the longer road trips, but that just means there are more places to visit. Places such as Hervey Bay, Noosa and Airlie Beach are beautiful and fascinating places that must be part of any Australia itinerary.

One of the best things about doing a Brisbane to Cairns road trip is that there are so many tours you can do along the way.

These will extend your trip, but visiting the Great Barrier Reef and the Whitsunday Islands are adventures you shouldn’t pass up!

You also have the option of extending your trip beyond Cairns should you wish. There are plenty of great places to see in Queensland, and some of them, such as Cape Tribulation and Port Douglas are in the Far North of the state.

This road trip follows a popular backpacker route in Australia. It’s a good route for a road trip with friends due to the popularity of the route, you will always find people willing to join you if you have a spare seat in your car!

There’s a reason it’s so popular, it has some of the best sights in the whole of the country! If you’ve already done a Sydney to Brisbane road trip, this one is a good one to pick up afterwards or dive straight into!

Places to visit between Brisbane and Cairns

The good thing about a Brisbane to Cairns drive is that there are plenty of places to go in Queensland. The state is gigantic and as you make your way up, or down, Queensland you will encounter numerous beautiful locations.

As Brisbane and Cairns will be the starting and ending points of the journey, I haven’t included them as you will be visiting both during this Australian road trip!

I’ve listed a few of my favourite stops below. This is not an exhaustive list. There are plenty more places you can explore as you drive along the East Coast of Australia!

Fraser Island

Fraser Island

If you’re travelling from Cairns to Brisbane or vice versa, one place you have to visit along the way is Fraser Island.

Fraser Island is the world’s largest sand island, stretching over 120 km. It’s a really beautiful place, that you have to visit during this drive.

One thing to note is that you will have to book a 4X4 to explore the island, as roads are at a premium. The scenery here is incredible, and there is a lot of wildlife to see too, including wild dingoes.

There is plenty of sand to relax on, a shipwreck on part of the island, and several swimming sites at Lake McKenzie and Lake Wabby too!

Hervey Bay

Hervey Bay

Hervey Bay is one of the most underrated destinations you can find while backpacking Australia, never mind Queensland!

It’s only a small town, but the scenery here is incredible. Hervey Bay boasts one of the best beaches in Australia. It’s long and not too busy, so you can relax in peace in most places along the shore!

It’s not an especially lively place, and there is a chilled vibe here. It makes a nice change from the party atmosphere you find in other locations on this drive.

A stop in Hervey Bay is a good idea to recharge your batteries and marvel at the beautiful scenery!

Mooloolaba

Mooloolaba
Photo Credit: Michael Coghlan

Mooloolaba is a lesser-known place to visit on the drive from Brisbane to Cairns, but it’s one you should stop at!

It is a beautiful little beach town located just after Noosa. I’ll cut to the chase and admit there isn’t an awful lot to do, but it is a nice place to stop for the night or relax for a few hours.

The beach is huge and stretches up and down the town, it’s an ideal place to relax for a while.

Mooloolaba is an ideal place between Brisbane and Cairns if you want to take some time out from driving and simply admire the beauty of Queensland!

Noosa

Noosa

If you’re travelling on the East Coast of Australia, Noosa is one place you definitely can’t leave off your itinerary.

It’s one of the most beautiful spots in Queensland and is well worth a visit. There are a lot of things to do in Noosa, but one of the best is to simply relax on the beach.

The Sunshine Coast, of which Noosa is a part, is beautiful, and there are plenty of hikes you can do in the area to explore this beauty! Going to Tea Tree Bay, where you can see wild koalas is a must!

Noosa is also a good spot for surfing. If you want to catch a few waves during your drive from Cairns to Brisbane, Noosa is as good a place as any to stop!

Whitsunday Islands

Whitsunday Islands

 

The Whitsunday Islands are somewhere you should visit during your road trip.

One thing to note is that you will have to park your car or van securely in Airlie Beach, the gateway to the islands, as you’ll need to book a tour to get to the islands.

You shouldn’t have an issue with safety, as Australia doesn’t have a lot of violent crime, but don’t leave to many valuables in your car while you’re exploring the islands!

The islands are incredibly beautiful and one of the most popular attractions in Australia. It may take a chunk out of your trip and budget, but it’s worth it to see some of the most beautiful sights in Australia.

Example Brisbane to Cairns Road trip route

The drive from Brisbane to Cairns is a long one. You will be travelling large distances, and sometimes, driving for hours on end.

This itinerary is not set in stone and should be used as a guide to base your trip off. By all means, use it if you wish. I feel it makes a great itinerary and takes you to some of the best places in Queensland while breaking up the trip.

My itinerary lasts for 8 days, but you can extend or shorten it depending on what you want to do.

Day 1: Brisbane to Noosa

Noosa National Park

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Distance

137 km (85.1 miles)

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Time without stops

1 hour 46 minutes

 

Brisbane is the starting point for this trip. If you haven’t had the chance to visit Brisbane before the start of your road trip, I recommend taking a day or two beforehand to explore the city.

There is a lot to see, and Brisbane is a really interesting city. It would be a shame to arrive in the city and leave immediately without taking the opportunity to explore it!

Another idea for you is to go back and check out the Gold Coast before heading on to Noosa. If you haven’t already travelled to the Gold Coast, it’s worth exploring. There are a lot of beautiful spots to explore such as Burleigh Heads and Surfer’s Paradise.

If you already decide to visit the Gold Coast, you can head onward towards Noosa. The drive isn’t too difficult and at 190 km is one of the shorter drives you will have on the road trip.

This drive will take you up the Sunshine Coast, which has some great beaches. These towns such as Mooloolaba are an ideal place to stop for a few hours and relax and soak in your surroundings before heading on to Noosa.

Once you get to Noosa, you will be rewarded with even more beautiful beaches and scenery. A good idea for the evening is to relax at Noosa Heads and take in your surroundings.

There are a lot of things to do in Noosa if you plan on staying there for a while. You can explore the beaches, check out the Great Sandy National Park, and if you’re feeling adventurous, trek to the Glass House Mountains!

Noosa is a great first stop on this Brisbane to Cairns Road trip and one you’ll thoroughly enjoy!

Day 2: Noosa to Hervey Bay

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Distance

190 km (118 miles)

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Time without stops

2 hours 1 minute

 

Noosa to Hervey Bay isn’t the longest drive. If you decide to drive to Hervey Bay without stopping it will take you just over two hours.

I wouldn’t advise doing this unless you are in a rush to get to Hervey Bay. There aren’t a lot of places to see on the way, but there are a few interesting ones nonetheless.

One of those places is Rainbow Beach, which is one of the best beaches in Australia. If you want to break your drive up, this is a good place to go to. It will extend your drive, as you will end up going back on yourself, but it’s worth it!

Once you’ve got past Rainbow Beach, there aren’t too many other places to stop. Although I would advise stopping at a town called Boonooroo. Simply because the name is funny, and it makes a good photo when you take a snap of you in front of a sign with the town’s name on it!

After here, I would recommend getting to Hervey Bay. The town is beautiful, and if you get there during the evening, you may be treated to a beautiful sunset, if it’s a nice day.

Once you’re in Hervey Bay, you can stay for a day or two if you like. This is probably a good idea, as it will enable you to visit Fraser Island.

This island is one of the main spots on the backpacker trail in Australia. It’s a large sandbar and is only accessible via a 4×4. It’s worth booking a tour if you can. It takes the hassle out of getting to the Island by yourself, and they will take you to all the interesting spots.

Day 3: Hervey Bay to Bundaberg

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Distance

120 km (74.5 miles)

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Time without stops

1 hour 16 minutes

 

The drive from Hervey to Bundaberg is another short journey, but there are a few interesting places to stop along the way!

As the drive is a short one and takes just over an hour, it may be worth heading to Fraser Island in the morning, and complete the drive later on.

Once you’ve done a tour of Fraser Island, or just fancy starting the journey straight away, the first stop should be Burum Heads.

This is a small township just up the coast from Hervey Bay. Visiting Burum Heads means you will have to go back on yourself to get to Bundaberg, but it’s worth it for the views you will have across the beach. It’s an ideal place to stop for lunch and relax for a bit.

After Burum Heads, there aren’t an awful lot of places to see. There are, however, a few places to explore once you get to Bundaberg.

Chief among them is Bargara, which is a beautiful little township on the oceanfront. You can also drive down to Elliot Heads, where there is a lovely beach at low tide. These two places are ideal places to relax after your drive.

In Bundaberg, one thing I recommend doing is checking out the rum factory. Bundaberg is famous for its rum, and you will learn a lot about how the drink is produced.

Day 4: Bundaberg to Agnes Water

Agnes Waters

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Distance

122.2 km (75.9 miles)

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Time without stops

1 hour 23 minutes

 

Again, the drive from Bundaberg to Agnes water is only a short one. As a result, there aren’t an awful lot of places to see in between.

It may be worth exploring a bit more of Bundaberg, before you head off, due to the short nature of the drive.

Once you start the drive, it should only take an hour and a half to complete if you don’t stop all. The route takes you inland away from the coast, and there aren’t too many interesting destinations to stop off at.

It may be worth heading straight to Agnes Water, as it is a beautiful place, and well worth exploring. The beach here is fantastic, and it’s also a great place to surf too!

There is also the town of 1770 just up the road. The funny name is due to it being the site of James Cook’s second landing in Australia in the year, you guessed it, 1770!

There is a lot of natural beauty in the town, and you can also go on day cruises and flights to the outer Great Barrier Reef, should you wish to!

Day 5: Agnes Water to Airlie Beach

Airlie Beach

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Distance

706 km (438 miles)

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Time without stops

7 hours 46 minutes

 

This is the biggest drive of the Brisbane to Cairns road trip and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Any drive across Australia is difficult, but when you are driving long distances, they become even harder!

If you completed this drive without a stop, which I don’t recommend you do, it would take 7 hours and 50 minutes. Take it from me, don’t drive for that long without stopping, it’s not only stupid but dangerous!

Thankfully, there are a lot of places to stop in between Agnes Water and Airlie Beach. A natural point to stop would be Rockhampton, but there isn’t an awful lot to see.

It may be worth heading out to the coast to Emu Park for a brief pit stop, you can enjoy the views and relax before resuming this marathon drive!

After this the road winds inland, and there is an awful lot to see before you reach Clearview, which is a nice coastal town, and another good place to stop.

You could stop at Mackay afterwards if you want a final break before heading on to Airlie Beach. It’s a reasonably sized city, there aren’t many sights, but it’s a good place to get a bite to eat!

From here on out, the drive isn’t too long, and it should only take an hour or two more to reach Airlie Beach. Depending on what time you reach Airlie beach, it’s well worth exploring the town for a while. You will find plenty of great hostels in Airlie Beach despite its size!

If you arrive during the day, the Lagoon is a great place to check and relax. It’s a small area with pools where you can swim and enjoy the views out into the ocean. If you arrive late, a simple walk around is a good idea!

Day 6: Airlie Beach to Townsville

Townsville

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Distance

273.6 km (170 miles)

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Time without stops

3 hours 7 minutes

 

Before you leave Airlie Beach, I would recommend booking a trip to the Whitsunday Islands. You can do day trips or longer ones should you fancy it. The islands are one of the best sights in Australia, and it would be a shame not to visit them.

If you do a multi-day trip, I would recommend keeping your car in a secure place and hide or take most of your valuables with you.

Once you’re back on dry land, you have an interesting trip ahead of you to Townsville. The drive takes just over 3 hours, if you have a bit of time on your hands, there are some interesting places to visit along the way.

Two of them are Hideaway Bay and Dingo Beach. Here you will get some beautiful views out into the Pacific Ocean, and they are a great place to stop for lunch. Although they are a detour from the route, they are well worth checking out! Even if you probably won’t see any dingoes!

The next place to stop is Bowen. The town is famous for growing mangoes, and in the town, they even have a giant mango as a tribute. It’s a great place to stop and get a picture with the gigantic mango!

Aside from Bowen, there aren’t an awful lot of places to stop before you reach Townsville. It may be worth going straight there, as there are a few things you can do while you’re in town!

The Strand is worth checking out. It’s a promenade with walking and biking tracks, as well as beach swimming areas. A definite must, to cool off on a hot day.

The Billabong Sanctuary is a bit out of town, but it’s a great place to explore and allows you to see of the native animals in a safe habitat!

Day 7: Townsville to Mission Beach

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Distance

234.7 km (145.8 miles)

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Time without stops

2 hours 44 minutes

 

From Townsville, you are heading out on the penultimate leg of our Brisbane to Cairns road trip to Mission Beach.

The drive takes around 3 hours. Before you leave Townsville, it may be worth checking out Magnetic Island. The ferry from Townsville takes just 20 minutes to reach the island.

Magnetic Island is full of beautiful scenery and indigenous wildlife. If you haven’t seen a koala yet, then this is the place to go, as there are plenty. Going to Magnetic Island for a few hours breaks up the day, and is it worth for the scenery alone!

The drive to Mission Beach isn’t too long, but it is short in the way of places to stop.

My recommendation would be to make a pit stop somewhere around Ingham and Macknade and head straight to Mission Beach afterwards.

Once you arrive in Mission Beach, the main place you want to head to is the beach!

It’s one of the best in Australia, and it’s an ideal place to relax for the evening before you head onto Cairns the following day. If you’re lucky, you may be treated to a beautiful sunset too!

Day 8: Mission Beach to Cairns

cairns esplanade
Image Credit: Balou46

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Distance

138.9 km (86.3 miles)

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Time without stops

1 hour 48 minutes

 

The last leg of the road trip from Brisbane to Cairns isn’t too long and should only take you around 2 hours or so.

There aren’t too many places to stop along the way, but if you fancy a detour you can check out some of the National Parks that lie inland.

You have the Gadgarra National Park and Little Mulgrave National Park to visit along the way if you fancy.

Going to either of these will add a bit of time and length to your trip, but if you want to get among some nature, it’s a detour worth taking!

If you don’t fancy the detour, it’s worth going straight to Cairns. It’s an interesting city, with a lot to do. Backpacking Cairns is a lot of fun!

I would recommend checking out the esplanade, which is a beautiful area, similar to the Lagoon at Airlie Beach. You also have the Botanical Gardens, which are also worth checking out.

One thing you should do while in Cairns is to check out the Great Barrier Reef. There are multiple tours to the reefs, and it’s certainly worth doing, as they are a spectacular sight.

It would be an awesome way to end your self-drive from Brisbane to Cairns!

Where to stay between Brisbane and Cairns

Due to the distance between the two cities, there are a lot of places to stay between Brisbane and Cairns.

Whether you want to stay in hostels or hotels, you will have a wide choice regardless. The route contains some of the best hostels in Australia, so you have a good range of places to choose from!

One thing to bear in mind is that you will have less choice in smaller towns along the way. You won’t find a host of hotels in Mackay for example.

As this site is backpacker focused, I have listed several great hostels to stay at between Brisbane and Cairns. If you’re doing the road trip in a campervan, then you obviously will be sorted for accommodation!

Brisbane City YHABrisbaneThe best hostel in Brisbane. Excellent facilities, including a big TV room and rooftop pool. Spacious kitchen and rooms!Book Now
Dreamtime Travellers RestCairnsA lovely hostel that is more like a home! Great facilities, outdoor pool and the staff are very friendly and helpful!Book Now
Flashpackers Hervey BayHervey BayA great little hostel with great facilities, such as a spacious kitchen and living area and friendly staff!Book Now
Mooloolaba Beach BackpackersMooloolabaThe only hostel in Mooloolaba, but it's great. A lovely outdoor area, big rooms and spacious kitchen.Book Now
Surfers Paradise YHAGold Coast A nice hostel a mile from Surfer's. A lot more chilled than in the centre of the Gold Coast.Book Now

How much does a Brisbane to Cairns Road trip cost?

Let’s get this out of the way straight away. Driving from Brisbane to Cairns isn’t cheap.

No matter whether you rent a car or a campervan, or if you travel with a few people or six, it’s going to cost you a bit of money.

Here’s a link to a fuel cost calculator from Travellers Autobarn, which will be useful for planning this trip. Using the fuel price data from a Google search for “petrol prices Australia”, input the figure into the calculator and you’re set.

Using an average price of $1.30 per litre, your fuel expenses for the trip would cost $305. The more people you have on the trip, the cheaper the cost will be between you all.

If we stipulate that food and drink will cost an average of $20 a day, over eight days that equates to $160. Again, between 3 or 5 people, the cost per person isn’t that much.

One area where costs may increase is if you decide to do various activities and tours. There are a lot of potential ones you can do, such as visit the Whitsundays or a boat tour of the Great Barrier Reef.

Although they will add to the cost of the trip, I recommend you budget for a few of them. You never know if you may get the opportunity to see these places again. This expenditure is more than justified in my eyes.

Adding this all together, where two tours cost an average of $150 in total, the trip would amount to about $200-$230 per person.

This may seem like a lot, but it’s a very reasonable price for one of the best road trips in Australia!

Cairns Lagoon
Photo credit: Photnart

Need a rental car?

I use Rentalcars.com whenever I need to rent a car. They offer the most comprehensive listings of rental cars on the web. Plus, their deals are often cheaper than if you went straight to the supplier!

Concluding Thoughts

A Brisbane to Cairns Road trip is one of the best you can do in Australia. The trip takes you up, or down, the state of Queensland, as you drive by some incredibly scenic spots.

It is a long drive, but it is most definitely one worth doing!

If you like beaches, beautiful scenery and the open road, then this is a drive you will thoroughly enjoy!

Have done a Brisbane to Cairns drive? Did you a similar itinerary to mine, or a different one? Leave me a comment below, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Brisbane to Cairns road trip