10 helpful planning tips for your Cairns car hire adventure

blog cairns car road sign
Sarah Glover
6 Oct, 2022
10 minutes to read

Maximise your Cairns car rental experience

Cairns, in the warm and wonderful far north of Queensland, is a beguiling and welcoming place. From the laidback urban centre to the surrounding rainforest and the offshore Great Barrier Reef, there’s something to delight all visitors.

And this is a popular spot for visitors. The city itself is not the primary drawcard—rather, it’s the wider region that makes this popular with people from all over the globe. Northern Queensland is an otherworldly place, with unique and impressive natural attractions in addition to interesting cultural heritage. Mountains to beaches, 4WD tracks to luxury hotels, it’s the perfect playground. And that’s particularly true with a car hire from Cairns Airport

Do I need to hire a car in Cairns? 

In short, yes—it’s the best way to get around and make the most of this spectacular part of Australia. Flying in and picking up a car hire Cairns Airport is always the start of something memorable.

Having your own set of wheels makes it possible and easy to visit the many hotspots that lie within a day’s drive of Cairns—or get even more intrepid and make it a multi-day road trip taking in more of Northern Queensland. Public transport can be infrequent and inconvenient, but with your own rental car, you can be in Port Douglas on a whim in less than an hour and a half. 

If you’ve got a Cairns Airport car hire trip in your sights, keep reading for some pointers.

A car driving in the Daintree rainforest.
A person handing car keys to another person.

Ten tips for your Cairns car hire

  1. Pick the right car to hire 

There is a vast array of different types of vehicles to rent at Cairns International Airport, and finding the right one for you and your plans will get you off to the best start. For a couple zipping around Cairns itself, an economy rental is perfect. However, if you’re heading out on the open roads with your luggage for a more extensive road trip, a larger sedan or SUV will be more comfortable, particularly with a family.  

The range of rentals at Cairns Airport includes people-movers for large groups, hybrid and electric vehicles to help you save on gas, and luxury vehicles for something a little special. Consider where you want to go and that will inform your decision-making. For example, an EV will not be of much use in remote areas, and if you’re planning to head into a lot of National Parks or the more wild parts of Queensland you may require a vehicle with 4WD capabilities. Always check with the car hire companies (usually located at Airport Avenue), where you are permitted to drive it, as many do not allow their vehicles to be taken off-road.

  1. Budget and how to book the best car hire deal 

Looking for cheap car hire deals? Aside from accommodation and air travel, your car hire from Cairns will be a major factor in your holiday budget. The cost of a rental will vary widely according to the type of vehicle you choose, how old it is, which car hire company you use, and the time of year. Rental cars in Cairns can be expensive, particularly during the winter months which are the widely preferred time to visit Cairns. You can expect to pay less than AUD$100 per day for a smaller compact car or more than AUD$400 per day for something larger, luxurious, or 4WD. You may check out car rental deals from brands like Budget, Avis, Hertz, East coast car rentals, Bargain car rentals.

Using a platform like GoSee will allow you to compare car hire prices and contrast the options to find one that fits both your plans and your budget. The handy filters make it easy to narrow down the possibilities and pinpoint the right one.  

We recommend booking your rental vehicle as far in advance as possible, once your dates are locked in. This increases your chances of getting the car hire at Cairns Airport you want at a good price. 

A pair on hands typing on a laptop computer.
However, if there are destinations that you really want to visit, we suggest booking accommodation there early on to claim your spot.
A person taking a photo of the beach from on top of a hill.
  1. Decide on your priority destinations 

The beauty of a hire car is that it allows for spontaneity in your holiday plans. You can take the roads less travelled, detour to see a spectacular waterfall, and change up your itinerary as you wish. Your schedule is your own.  

However, if there are destinations that you really want to visit, we suggest booking accommodation there early on to claim your spot. This doesn’t mean you’re not leaving room to explore on a whim, but it does give your trip some anchor points and ensures you fit in the things that are most important to you.

  1. Check the events schedule 

Before you get your itinerary set in stone, it’s worth checking out any Cairns events that are taking place—like the annual Cairns Festival that happens in late August/early September. With a huge variety of music, entertainment, food, and more, this week-long event is a fantastic time to visit.   

Northern Queensland has a busy events calendar, with markets, arts festivals, concerts, cultural celebrations, food and wine festivals, and more. Do a bit of homework to discover whether anything exciting is happening near you during your car rental adventure from Cairns. 

Cairns Esplanade has been a focal point for locals and visitors in the city because of its lagoon attractions.
Aerial view of a car driving on a road surrounded by palm trees.
  1. Learn a few road rules 

Knowing how to navigate the Queensland roads will help you to have a safe journey—one that’s memorable for the right reasons and not the wrong ones! Before you fly in to pick up your car, take some time to learn the basics of the road rules. Here are a few very important things to remember:  

  • In Australia, all vehicles must drive to the LEFT of the road. If you are not used to this configuration, we recommend taking an hour or so to become accustomed on quiet roads. 
  • The suburban default speed limit is 50 kilometres per hour. The default rural/open road limit is 100 kph, and the highest speed limit in the state is 110 kph. Speed limits are indicated by signs consisting of a red circle around black numerals.
  • Intersections can be controlled by stop or give way signs, or uncontrolled. The general rule of thumb for uncontrolled intersections is that you give way to your right. At T intersections, turning vehicles give way to those continuing straight. 
  • It is illegal to hold a mobile phone in your hand or have it resting on any part of your body while driving. 
  • All occupants of a moving vehicle must be wearing a seatbelt or appropriate child restraint. It is the driver’s responsibility to ensure that all occupants are correctly restrained. 
  1. Consider your route 

When you know what you want to see with your Cairns rental car, it’s a good idea to start dreaming up a route that will get you there. This doesn’t have to be planned exactly, but a bit of forethought can ensure you get the most out of your time. 

Here are a few great routes to suit various tastes—you might want to use one of these as the basis of your own unique road trip from Cairns. 

Port Douglas and Daintree 

If you only have a few days and want to see both beach and rainforest, head north from Cairns on the Captain Cook Highway to Port Douglas—a luxe beach resort with great access to the Great Barrier Reef. From there, it’s not far to the spectacular Daintree National Park. You can take the long way home via the Mulligan Highway and National Highway 1 through Mareeba and Kuranda. 


Head south down the coast from Cairns to visit the Whitsundays, a spectacular archipelago of white-sand islands prime for sailing, swimming, diving, and just about any water-based activity. There are plenty of fantastic places to stop at along the way, including Hinchinbrook Island and laid-back Townsville.

Outback adventures 

If you have your intrepid sights set on the arid but awe-inspiring interior of Australia, head west towards Cloncurry and make sure to stop at all of the friendly small Outback towns along the way. The town is the heart of Queensland’s outback and the birthplace of the famous Flying Doctor Service. You can make this a round trip and return to Cairns via Townsville and the coast. 

Come have a dip and take in the bright crystal-like white sand at Whitehaven Beach during your Proserpine holiday.
Chinamans Creek waterfront in the afternoon.
  1. Pack appropriately 

Northern Queensland really is hot year-round, so don’t waste space on multiple pairs of track pants and jumpers. You will want lightweight shorts and t-shirts, with light long-sleeve layers in case it does get a bit chillier—or you just want to keep the bugs at bay. 

A raincoat is a must-have, particularly in the wet season between November and May. And if you’re planning to get out and about in nature at all (and even if you aren’t, it’s a good idea to be prepared), you’ll definitely need some sturdy closed shoes. 

  1. Be sun safe 

In addition to the clothing items we mentioned above, a top packing priority is all the paraphernalia you’ll need to keep those UV rays off your skin. Australian sun is harsh and will burn you without mercy. Don’t forget: 

  • Sunblock/sunscreen 
  • Sunglasses 
  • Multiple sunhats, in case you lose one. 
  • Lightweight long-sleeved shirts as a cover-up. 
  • Aloe vera gel as a remedy when all of the above fails. 
Allow a whole day to explore the Great Barrier Reef.
A person filling their car with petrol.
  1. Keep your gas tank full 

Nothing puts a damper on a rental car journey faster than running out of gas. Parts of Northern Queensland can be remote, lacking in towns and the petrol stations that come with them. This is particularly true if you’re heading inland and into the Outback! 

Fill up with gas when you have the chance and don’t let it get close to empty. If you’re driving long distances in a day, do some research to find out where the petrol stations are located and plan around that.

Ready to book?

  1. Get the local intel 

No one knows the best things to see and do in Cairns—or anywhere—better than those who live there. Our final tip for your Cairns car hire adventure is this: talk to the locals and find out the best places to eat, drink, be entertained, and explore.  

How can you meet said locals? There’s no one specific method, but spending time outside of tourist-centric places like your hotel bar will certainly help. Head your Cairns Airport car hire to the beach, go to pubs, and visit restaurants that are off the beaten track. Strike up a conversation in the supermarket!

Your car rental adventure from Cairns will be a unique experience, a trip to remember no matter where the road takes you. But to maximise enjoyment and minimise any issues along the way, take the above tips on board. 

There’s so much to see and do when you visit Australia, whether Northern Queensland or any other part of this beautiful and diverse nation. We wish you safe travels! 

A person diving near a coral reef.