Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef: Planning Your Trip SEE FULL GUIDE prev next Top Things to Do Best Beaches Museums to Visit Food to Try Top Restaurants Nightlife Guide Best Time to Visit Cairns When to Visit the Great Barrier Reef Weather & Climate Best Hotels in Cairns Day Trips From Cairns Great Barrier Reef Tours Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef: Planning Your Trip close Overview Australia & New Zealand Australia The 8 Best Great Barrier Reef Tours of 2021 Written by Jessica Macdonald Facebook Linkedin Jessica Macdonald lives in South Africa's Eastern Cape province and has been TripSavvy's Africa Expert since 2016. She also covers travel products and has written about everything from camping knives to climbing chalk. Tripsavvy's Editorial Guidelines Jessica Macdonald Updated 07/26/19 Share Pin Email Our editors independently research, test, and recommend the best products; you can learn more about our review process here. We may receive commissions on purchases made from our chosen links. The Rundown Best Overall: Buy Great Barrier Reef Luxury Snorkel & Dive Cruise from Cairns tickets with Viator "This tour receives hundreds of positive reviews on Viator." Best Budget: Buy Green Island Day Trip from Cairns tickets with Viator "This full-day trip from Cairns to Green Island is fully customizable." Best Learn to Scuba: Buy 4 Day Open Water Dive Course tickets with Viator "If you’re not yet scuba certified, the Great Barrier Reef is a great place to learn." Best Sailing: Buy Green Island Sailing Cruise from Cairns tickets with Viator "Enjoy spectacular snorkeling or scuba diving." Best Overnight: Buy 2-Day Great Barrier Reef Reefsleep Experience tickets with Viator "Spend the night on the pontoon’s upper deck, sleeping beneath the stars in a traditional Australian swag tent." Best Multi-Activity: Buy Sunlover Great Barrier Reef Cruise from Cairns tickets with Viator "See fish without getting wet on the included glass-bottom boat." Best Beaches: Buy Whitehaven Beach and Hamilton Island Cruise tickets with Viator "This full-day tour on a high-speed, air-conditioned catamaran is a must for all beach lovers." Best Combo: Buy Great Barrier Reef Cruise plus Kuranda Scenic Railway and Cape Tribulation Day Trip tickets with Viator "This three-day combo tour showcases the region’s best-loved highlights." Best Overall: Great Barrier Reef Luxury Snorkel & Dive Cruise from Cairns Courtesy of Viator Buy on Viator.com This tour receives hundreds of positive reviews on Viator and comprises a luxury cruise on a 65-foot catamaran. The boat departs from Cairns and visits two different sites for a total of six full hours on the Great Barrier Reef. On your way to the reef, you’ll have time to sunbathe on the deck or relax in the air-conditioned lounge before arriving at Upolu Cay. A glass-bottom boat takes you from the mooring to the cay itself, giving you the chance to spot tropical fish and corals en route. Once you get there, you’ll be able to explore on snorkel or scuba. When you return to the catamaran, a buffet lunch is served before you depart for Upolu Reef. Here, you’ll be able to go for a second dive or accompany the boat’s qualified marine naturalist on a guided snorkeling tour. The catamaran carries a maximum of 75 passengers. The glass-bottom boat tour and snorkeling tour are included, as is all of your gear, in-water instruction (if needed), your lunch, snacks and beverages and the Environment Management Charge. If you want to dive, extra charges apply. Best Budget: Green Island Day Trip from Cairns Courtesy of Viator Buy on Viator.com This full-day trip from Cairns to Green Island is fully customizable, allowing you to pay for as much or as little as you like. The $70.13 per person base rate is one of the most affordable on offer. It includes transfers to and from Green Island on a modern, air-conditioned catamaran, the Environmental Management Charge and morning tea or coffee. Once you arrive at the island, you can choose between a complimentary glass-bottom boat tour or use of the boat’s snorkeling equipment for the day. Spend the rest of your time swimming, lounging on the beach or wandering along the island’s jungle trails. You’ll have access to the showers, restrooms and changing rooms at Green Island Resort, which also hires out watersports equipment. If you find yourself with a little extra room in the budget, you can choose from a range of add-on activities, including Seawalker Helmet dives and introductory scuba dives. Similarly, you can save money by bringing your own lunch with you, or opt to add a buffet lunch. There are two daily departures: one at 9 a.m. and the other at 11 a.m. Best Learn to Scuba: Learn to Scuba Dive on the Great Barrier Reef Courtesy of Viator Buy on Viator.com If you’re not yet scuba-certified, the Great Barrier Reef is a great place to learn, with favorable conditions and amazing marine life. This tour is as a four-day PADI Open Water Diver course led by professional, friendly instructors. The group size is limited to eight people, giving you the attention you need to stay safe in the water at all times. The first two days are spent in the classroom and swimming pool at the dive center in Cairns. You’ll learn basic skills including how to breathe and move underwater and what to do in case of an emergency. On the second two days, you’ll travel by boat to the Great Barrier Reef to complete your training with a series of open water dives. If you’re lucky, your sessions will be accompanied by fish, turtles, rays, and sharks. The tour price includes expert instruction, all course materials, a certification card, all diving gear (including wetsuits), two outer reef tours with four training dives, two onboard barbecue lunches, and daily hotel transfers. Participants must be at least 12 years old and have to pass medical and swimming tests. Best Sailing: Green Island Sailing Cruise from Cairns Courtesy of Viator Buy on Viator.com This full-day tour takes place aboard a 54-foot, two-masted schooner and is the only engines-off sailing cruise leaving from Cairns (winds permitting). It lasts around nine hours and takes you to Green Island, a protected Marine National Park on the Great Barrier Reef. Once you get there, the captain moors at Pinnacle Reef, where you can enjoy spectacular snorkeling or scuba diving. In the afternoon, you’ll transfer by dinghy to Green Island. Here, you can relax on the beach, hike through the rainforest or watch the crocodiles being fed at Marineland Melanesia. Other exciting activities include a fish feed and reef talk by the boat’s marine interpreter. Snorkeling tuition, snorkeling equipment and an impressive variety of complimentary refreshments are also included. On your way to Green Island, enjoy tea, coffee, and fresh muffins. Lunch is a lavish buffet served on board the schooner, while a glass of wine on the cruise back to Cairns provides the final touch to a perfect day. Diving (either as a certified diver or on an introduction session) costs extra. This is an intimate tour with a maximum of 25 guests. Best Overnight: Two-Day Great Barrier Reef Reefsleep Experience Courtesy of Viator Buy on Viator.com If you already know that you’ll want more than a single day on the Great Barrier Reef, consider this overnight tour to the Reefworld pontoon. The pontoon is located 40 nautical miles from shore, and you’ll travel there in style on a high-speed catamaran from Port of Airlie or the Whitsundays’ Hamilton Island. Once you get there, there’s plenty to do. Sunbathe on deck, or dive into the crystal clear water for a swim. The tour includes snorkeling equipment and the assistance of Reefworld’s experienced guides; while a semi-submersible coral viewing experience comes complete with a reef appreciation talk. The pontoon also has its own underwater observatory, from which you can admire the Great Barrier Reef’s marine life as it swims serenely by. Additional activities that you can choose and pay for on arrival include scuba diving, massages, and even a helicopter flight. When the day visitors leave, you’ll have the reef to yourself. Spend the night on the pontoon’s upper deck, sleeping beneath the stars in a traditional Australian swag tent. The tour price includes one breakfast, two lunches, one dinner and afternoon tea. Drinks are extra. Best Multi-Activity: Sunlover Reef Cruises Outer Great Barrier Reef Cruise Courtesy of Viator Buy on Viator.com Adrenalin-junkies that want to fit as many activities as possible into their time on the Great Barrier Reef should choose this cruise from Cairns. A full-day tour lasting approximately eight hours, it starts with a catamaran ride to a pontoon moored on the outer reef. On the way, a marine naturalist will give a presentation about the animals you may see throughout the day. Upon arrival, you can see many of these creatures in person at the pontoon’s unique touch tank, or during the included fish-feeding presentation. There are many ways to spend your time on the reef. Go on a snorkeling tour to look for resident turtles and Maori wrasse. See fish without getting wet on the included glass-bottom boat or semi-submersible rides; or pay extra for a Seawalker Helmet dive. Scuba diving also carries an additional charge, whether you’re a certified diver planning a fun dive or a beginner hoping to sign up for an introductory experience. A buffet lunch, morning and afternoon tea, snorkeling equipment and the Environmental Management Charge are all included. The pontoon has showers, changing rooms and Wi-Fi. Best Beaches: Whitehaven Beach and Hamilton Island Cruise Courtesy of Viator Buy on Viator.com This full-day tour on a high-speed, air-conditioned catamaran is a must for all beach lovers. It departs from Port of Airlie and visits two islands in the breathtaking Whitsundays region of the Great Barrier Reef. On Whitsunday Island, the catamaran moors off Whitehaven Beach, one of the most beautiful beaches in Australia. It’s famous for its five-mile stretch of pure white sand and boasts clear waters for swimming and snorkeling. You’ll also stop at Hamilton Island, a cosmopolitan resort destination with great beaches, walking trails, boutiques, and restaurants. You can spend your time on Hamilton however you like, although a visit to Wild Life Hamilton Island is recommended for anyone who wants to get close to a koala bear. In addition to the catamaran cruise, the tour includes use of the Hamilton Island shuttle bus and resort pools, activities on Whitehaven Beach, and morning or afternoon tea. You’ll also be treated to lunch at Marina Tavern on Hamilton Island. Additional activities, beverages, gratuities, and hotel pick-ups are all excluded. The tour can be operated in reverse if you prefer and lasts approximately nine hours. Best Combo: Great Barrier Reef Cruise & Kuranda Scenic Railway Courtesy of Viator Buy on Viator.com If you’ve got time to explore more of northern Queensland, this three-day combo tour showcases the region’s best-loved highlights. On the first day, you’ll travel via high-speed boat to the Great Barrier Reef, where you can join a guided snorkeling tour or try scuba diving for the first time. A tasty barbecue lunch and afternoon snacks are included. On the second day, you’ll ride the Kuranda Scenic Railway from Cairns to Kuranda, admiring mesmerizing jungle, mountain and waterfall views en route. When you get to Kuranda, you’ll have plenty of time to explore at your own pace and expense before returning to Cairns aboard the beautiful Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. The third day takes you to Port Douglas to meet koalas and kangaroos at Wildlife Habitat. Next, ride the cable ferry to the Cape Tribulation section of Daintree National Park. Here, you can explore the beach, join a complimentary guided walk through Mossman Gorge and enjoy a free wildlife cruise on the Daintree River. The price includes most meals and hotel pick-up and drop-off on the second and third days. You must arrange your own accommodation. 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