Great Barrier Reef on a Budget
Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef must be on every traveler’s bucket list when visiting Australia. Although it will never be cheap, we figured out how to visit the Great Barrier Reef on a budget. The secret to visiting the Great Barrier Reef on a budget is to avoid the crowds and go to its southern tip near Gladstone rather than going north near Cairns. We tell you everything you need to know to not only snorkel the Great Barrier Reef as much as you want, but how to see all the fishes, sharks, and turtles of the Great Barrier Reef without spending too much money.
A Map of the Great Barrier Reef
It’s important to understand how big the Great Barrier Reef is, and then once you understand the geography, you can book your trip. This map of the Great Barrier Reef convinced us that we could go to its southern tip, rather than trek all the way up to Cairns. Why go all the way north and spend all that extra travel time and money when we could snorkel the Great Barrier Reef closer to Brisbane?
Where To Go To Visit the Great Barrier Reef on a Budget
The Great Barrier Reef is long. Really long! If you look at a map of the GBR, it goes almost the entire length of the state of Queensland in Australia and even goes as far north as Papua New Guinea. Most people go to Cairns to launch their trip to the GBR. But after taking a look at a map, and realizing that we’d be trying to reach the reef from Brisbane, we found a cheaper and easier way to reach the Great Barrier Reef. (We also teach you how to hack the Galapagos in this post.)
Below we’ll list all the expenses for how much it cost to visit the GBR. But when we started planning, I said to Steve that I wanted to be sure that we stayed on the reef for at least two days. I didn’t want to spend a ton of money and time to get there and be hampered by bad weather, jellyfish, or rough seas. I also did not want to snorkel with a ton of other people on some sort of touristy “snorkel trail
Budget tip: I figured if we stayed at least two nights, we’d have a better chance of getting in as much snorkeling as we wanted.
How to Get to Heron Island on a Budget
We left Brisbane on a train to Gladstone. The train ride took about 6 hours and was very comfy. The seats had foot rests, and they even gave us headphones to watch movies and tv shows. My catalogue of shows was different than Steve’s! In no time, we arrived in Gladstone where we stayed our first night in a local hotel (the Park View Inn.) It was an easy walk from the train station to the hotel, where we crashed for the night.
The next morning, we walked to the dock to get on the ferry out Heron Island. Heron Island is a nature preserve on the Great Barrier Reef with a comfortable hotel. It’s all inclusive and self-contained, but affordable! When the 2-hour ferry ride completed at the wharf at Heron Island, we knew immediately we had picked the right place. Sharks and shovel-nosed rays swam along side of us as we pulled in next to the ship wreck. A small sand island awaited us, loaded with hundreds of thousands of birds enjoying their own bird sanctuary. There is only one hotel on Heron Island, which you can book right here.
Budget tip: Snorkel gear and breakfast is included. You also must book your ferry to the island through them.
The Heron Island Resort on the Great Barrier Reef
Our check-in started with an orientation where basically we were told two very important things. We could snorkel as much as we wanted as long as we were within two hours of both sides of high tide. So if high tide were at noon, we could snorkel from 10-2. They didn’t want us snorkeling at low tide so we wouldn’t damage the reef. The second important thing to remember was to not touch anything! A protected area, we weren’t allowed to touch, eat, kill, or pet anything. No problem!
Soon, we got to enter our rooms. Our luggage had arrived, and we unpacked quickly. The amble room had a queen and a single bed, a balcony, an ensuite bathroom with walk-in shower, a coffee/tea set up, a refrigerator, plenty of towels, lotion (and all the reef-safe sunscreen you could ever want!), shampoo, and soap. The room even had a broom so we could sweep out all the sand we tracked in every day.
We had arrived at 1 and high tide wasn’t until 4 on our first day. So we went to the onsite restaurant, enjoying a veggie burger salad and some fish and chips. Budget tip: We learned that dinner was a buffet, and since we weren’t interested in an expensive buffet filled with lots of meat we wouldn’t eat, we ordered a veggie pizza and another salad. We kept those in the fridge until dinner time when we grabbed them, went to the bar, got a couple of beers, and watched sunset while enjoying our make-shift dinner.
How to Snorkel the Great Barrier Reef without the Crowds
Next up was the best snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef. I mean it was awesome! We’d snorkeled the Galapagos, Borneo, Hawaii, Moorea, and many other places, but nothing topped our incredible snorkeling on the GBR. Every bright colored fish you could even imagine escorted us along the reef. The healthy coral also attracted the big fish too! Sharks! Black tipped sharks, lemon sharks, and even hammerheads. We swam in a giant school of eagle-nosed rays while manta rays jumped in the distance. Bull-nosed rays swam underneath us. My squeals of delight bordered on thrills and chills for two hours!
We couldn’t even use up all of our time to snorkel. The water was the perfect temperature and we didn’t have to wear stinger suits on the Great Barrier Reef. No one else was around. It was so amazing to NOT have to follow a guide along a snorkel trail with a gazillion other people like up at Cairns. We could go wherever we wanted around the island except for the channel where the ferry floated. After 5:30 and before 8:00 am every day, we could snorkel in the channel where the deep water thrilled us with even more large schools of shiny fish encircling us.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
For three days and two nights, our days consumed with snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef. When not snorkeling, we walked the island, learning about all the nesting birds. In the early morning, we got up at sunrise to watch the green turtles clamor up the beach to lay eggs, and in the afternoon, we learned how to walk the low-tide reef to eye reef critters up close. Scientists guided our walk on the reef, teaching us where to step and how to identify the hundreds of species at our finger tips. I wish we would have stayed one more night!
Diving the Outer Great Barrier Reef
Figuring he couldn’t visit the Great Barrier Reef and not dive with his new SCUBA certificate, Steve also went on a deep water dive on the edge of the reef. Just as thrilling and amazing as the snorkeling, he counted additional corals, sea stars, and shiny fish out on the outer reef, stating it was the best dive of his life, too.
Sadly, after there days, it was time to go. We enjoyed one last filling breakfast which was included in our room price, and boarded the ferry back to Gladstone. Once again, we stayed the night at the Park View Inn, then took the train back to Brisbane. I’d do this trip all over again in a heartbeat. Below is a breakdown of our expenses.
How Much Does It Cost to Snorkel the Great Barrier Reef?
So how much does it cost to visit the Great Barrier Reef from Brisbane for five days/4 nights all total? All in, which includes roundtrip train tickets, roundtrip ferry, four hotel nights, all food, all snorkeling, one SCUBA and even one massage, the total price to visit the Great Barrier Reef was $1350 for two people.
Budget tip: Bring your own water and snacks!
Video on Visiting the Great Barrier Reef
We did a video about visiting the Great Barrier Reef on a budget. You can watch it below. It has even more pictures and details!