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How To Choose A Cairns Reef Tour

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Gabby Boucher
Updated Wed 13 Mar 2024

Wondering how to choose a Cairns reef tour? If you decide what you're looking for in terms of cost, tour length, activities, and locations, you can choose the perfect boat! Cairns is known as the Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, so travelers pour into the city looking for reef tours! Because there is such high demand for trips to the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns has an abundance of tour operators and boats available. 

The only downside of this: it can be hard to choose which boat tour to book! With so many options, how do you decide? We're here to narrow down your choices based on some important factors. Let our travel experts guide you toward the perfect Cairns reef tour for you!

sea turtle swimming in coral reefs on Great Barrier Reef

How To Choose A Cairns Reef Tour

When thinking about how to choose a Cairns reef tour, there are a few things to consider: cost, length, activities, and locations. Let's briefly break down these factors so you can think about what you want in a reef tour:

  • Cost: How much money do you want to spend on your reef tour?
  • Length: How many days do you want to spend on the reef? 
  • Activities: Do you want fun add-ons like scenic flights or glass-bottom boat tours? Do you want to just snorkel, or do you want scuba diving as well? 
  • Locations: Do you have a preference for which reef sites you visit? Would you rather visit a unique island or spend time on a pontoon on the Outer Reef?

If you take some time to think about all of these things, you may have a better idea about the type of reef tour you're looking for. Now let's discuss these factors more in-depth and recommend some of the best Cairns reef tours to suit all types of travelers!

Here are some of the most popular Great Barrier Reef day tours from Cairns!

travellers snorkelling on the Ocean Freedom tour from Cairns

The Best Cairns Reef Tours Based On Affordability

Cost is a huge thing to consider when booking any Great Barrier Reef tour. You'll have to pick a tour that fits into your budget! If you have unlimited money to spend - amazing! You can pick any tour you want without taking cost into account. 

If you're traveling on a budget, you may be looking for the most affordable Cairns reef tours. Day trips are the cheapest way to see the Great Barrier Reef. Some of the most affordable Cairns reef tours include:

All of these day trips to the Great Barrier Reef are in the $200 - $240 price range, which is as cheap as it gets. Scuba diving is often extra cost. Keep in mind, the more money you pay, the better experience you'll get. And if there's any experience in Australia that's worth spending money on, it's visiting the World Heritage Site of the Great Barrier Reef!

person posing on the Passions of Paradise reef tour from cairns

The Best Cairns Reef Tours Based On Length

How long do you want to spend on the Great Barrier Reef? Though most travelers tend to book day trips, you can book overnight reef tours that allow you to spend anywhere from 2-7 days on the reef! Here is a summary of what different time frames on the Great Barrier Reef may look like:

  • Day Trips: One day on the Great Barrier Reef usually includes 1 or 2 snorkel or dive sites. You may get lunch and a couple of snacks. This is the quickest and cheapest way to experience the reef. See all of our best day trips here

  • 2-Day, 1-Night Liveaboards: Spending 1 night on the reef allows you to experience the Outer Reef at night! You'll usually have time for 6 reef sites, plus a night dive. You can stay in cozy onboard cabins and complete certified dives, intro dives, or just snorkel. See all of our best 2-day liveaboards here

  • 3-Day, 2-Night Liveaboards: 3 days is a great amount of time to spend on the reef! Visit around 11 or 12 different reef sites, participate in multiple night dives, and really immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the Great Barrier Reef. Snorkelers can join 3-day liveaboards, though they're more suited towards divers who want to improve their skills and spend quality time with the underwater world. See all our best 3-day liveaboards here

Scuba Diving group exploring the great barrier reef near cairns

The Best Cairns Reef Tours Based On Activities

Another thing to consider when choosing a Cairns reef tour is the activities offered. At the very least, all reef tours offer snorkeling. It's the easiest and most accessible activity to try on the Great Barrier Reef! Most tours also offer scuba diving for both beginners and certified divers. But here are some other activities you may be interested in. 

Glass Bottom Boat Tours: Some Cairns reef tours offer the option to go on a glass bottom boat tour. If you want to see the reef without getting wet, or if you just want a new perspective of the reef, this is a fun activity to try! Here are some of the best reef tours that offer this add-on:

Scenic Flights: Soar above the reef on a scenic helicopter or seaplane! We have a wide variety of Great Barrier Reef scenic flights, but if you want to combine a boat tour with a scenic flight, we recommend these options:

aerial view of Green Island surrounded by reef near cairns

The Best Cairns Reef Tours Based On Locations

If you're not picky about where you go on the Great Barrier Reef, you'll be fine with booking any tour. But if you have a specific reef site in mind, read each tour page in depth! Many tours include a list of which reef sites they visit, and popular ones include Hastings Reef, Saxon Reef, Mackay Reef, and more. 

Some reef tours visit unique sand islands known as cays. You'll get to stroll on the soft white sand and spot some migrating seabirds in addition to snorkeling in the coral reefs. Ocean Spirit visits Michaelmas Cay and Ocean Freedom visits Upolu Cay. 

Off the coast of Cairns, there are also some stunning islands on the reef. These tropical islands have hiking trails, marine sanctuaries, visitor centers, beaches, and plenty of epic places to snorkel. If you'd rather spend a day exploring an island instead of heading straight to a pontoon on the water, check out these island tours:

aerial view of nudey beach on Fitzroy Island

Chat with our local travel experts online or call us at (07) 4082 7470 if you have any questions about how to choose a Cairns reef tour!

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