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  • Gemma Fottles

Are the Whitsundays compatible with a backpacker budget?

Updated: Jul 24, 2020

Travelling around Australia on an extremely shoestring budget as a first-year university student was expensive. Along the way, I told myself that booking must-do trips is worth the large amounts of money they cost. How many times am I going to be backpacking Australia, after all? Two years later and with the gift of hindsight, the most expensive trip turned out to be the one I regretted the most.

There are no two ways about it: Australia is an expensive country to travel to and in. This becomes almost painfully obvious in comparison to nearby destinations such as Southeast Asia, China, and Indonesia, wherein many backpacker hotspots, a week’s comfortable accommodation, a handful of tours and beautiful three-course meal can cost less than one night in a dingy hostel room in the centre of Sydney. As I discovered myself on my journey from Cairns to Sydney, many travellers arriving in Australia from these considerably cheaper places are surprised and – not to be melodramatic – almost financially crippled by the unavoidable expense of travelling in this part of the world.

Although I had expected this expense on my tour of Australia, the wondrous gift of hindsight has provided me with enough knowledge to significantly regret certain costs that could have been avoided or at least reduced. A couple of these regrets definitely involve some of Australia’s most recommended places or activities. Sailing the Whitsunday Islands is consistently recommended as one of these unmissable things and is, unfortunately, one of the activities I regret spending that much money on the most.

The Whitsundays: a weekend lowdown

Most Whitsundays sailing trips catered to the backpacking crowd last between one to two nights on a catamaran or bigger boat, usually in a group of around ten to fifteen people. My Whitsundays trip lasted two nights and three days. Two long nights spent sharing a very small and awkward bed in a crowded cabin full of crazy people. Now, this would usually be all part of the experience. All in good fun, right? Well, not so much here. I did not enjoy the company on our trip, thus the whole experience was kind of ruined. There are only so many times you can listen to a constantly intoxicated Dutch man’s version of ‘We No Speak Americano’ – an abrasive song at the best of times.

We did speak to two really nice Israeli girls who had just graduated from the army and were enjoying a year of travelling before starting their careers. But honestly. The worst thing about group trips is the group. Everyone on these trips in Australia is the same: everyone's looking to be the most fun, the coolest, the most well-travelled, the biggest partier... sigh. I generalise of course. But three days with hardcore partying backpackers wasn't my idea of fun at that point in time... or I think, will it ever be.

So why did we book a group trip if we hated group trips so much?

Long story short: IT IS A MILLION TIMES CHEAPER! The islands themselves are absolutely incredible; impossibly bright white beaches with beautiful crystal blue waters – it was the embodiment of paradise. I spotted turtles in the sea next to the boat whilst sailing along and got to do some pretty awesome snorkelling. I also saw one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever experienced. And I had been lead to believe that these islands were absolutely worth spending three days in. Not just worth it, but it was an absolutely Australia must do.

I realised too late that the parts of the trip I loved could have been condensed into one big day trip, and for about a third of the cost. This definitely would have been the better option. But you live and learn, right?

Day trip or weekend in the Whitsundays?

A lot of people love the trip, in fact, they rave about it. Why else would an extended sailing trip on the Whitsundays make so many lists of Australian highlights? My advice is don’t miss out sailing the Whitsundays, but if you're on a budget and hate organised fun, just do the day trip. You get all the beauty of the islands, the gorgeous sun and world-class snorkelling, but you don’t have to spend probably two or three weeks of a tight backpacker budget on sleeping in very substandard accommodation with some of the most annoying people you may ever encounter.

On the other hand, you may have the time of your life on a three-day trip. It’s always good to keep your options open, and if you find yourself in Australia with only enough money to do the day trip, just know that despite the ravings of a multitude of guides and fellow travellers, you’re not going to be missing out on the trip of a lifetime.

This article was featured on the online travel magazine Exploration Online. It seems I’ve been pretty focused on writing about Australia lately… I guess I’m just finding it hard to believe it was nearly two years ago now! And who doesn't love a travel throwback?

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