This a quick but useful travel guide for anyone struggling to pick between the many Cairns helicopter tours over the Great Barrier Reef.
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest living organism, and a UNESCO World Heritage listed Natural Wonder of the World. Due to the Tropical North Queensland cities of Cairns and Port Douglas providing the closest access to the outer Great Barrier Reef (Coral Sea), it’s understandably one of the biggest draws for visitors to the region.
While I encourage everybody to witness the GBR’s beauty beneath the surface, seeing the sheer size of the reef on a scenic helicopter ride is an experience that you’ll remember forever!
After living in Cairns for quite a while, I’ve been fortunate enough to see the reef from above several times, on scenic plane flights and on a helicopter ride. Since this experience is one of the most popular tours in Cairns, I’ve compiled this useful resource for my readers, breaking down everything you need to know about Cairns helicopter tours to the Outer Reef.
- 8 Things to Know Before Booking Cairns Helicopter Tours
- 1. It’s Cheaper to Combine a Great Barrier Reef Helicopter Ride With a Reef Cruise
- 2. There are Several Helicopter Tour Companies in Cairns & Port Douglas
- 3. Tours Sell Out Quickly – Book in Advance
- 4. Seeing The GBR from above is a Must-Do Activity in Cairns
- 5. morning Helicopter Scenic Flights are Better
- 6. Great Barrier Reef Scenic Flights Are Cheaper THan Helicopter Tours
- 7. Try to Snag the Front SEat (Lower Glass Windows)
- 8. It’s Best to Time Your Flight on a CLoudless Day
- Tips for Taking Great Reef Photos On The Helicopter Ride
- Cairns & Far North Queensland Travel Guides
I'm Olly, a full-time traveler for the past 5 years. I visit every destination I write about & handpick all recommendations.
8 Things to Know Before Booking Cairns Helicopter Tours
So here's the guide.
I've included tips on choosing the best helicopter ride, how to make the most of this bucket-list experience, and what to expect from the sky. I've also included a bunch of photos from my trips that I hope will inspire you to pull the trigger on this once-in-a-lifetime bucket list experience.
1. It's Cheaper to Combine a Great Barrier Reef Helicopter Ride With a Reef Cruise
The first thing you should know about Great Barrer Reef helicopter tours in Cairns is that there are DOZENS of package options to consider first.
For travelers on a short time frame or those trying to squeeze as much bang for their buck as possible, the best way to book a reef helicopter experience is to combine it with a Great Barrier Reef tour.
Let me show you how this actually works out cheaper. The cruise packages include:
- Full-day snorkeling or diving on a Great Barrier Reef Cruise
- Lunch and morning tea/coffee
- 10-minute scenic helicopter flight from the reef pontoon
- Introductory dive (optional)
- All snorkeling equipment
- Complimentary wine
For example, the 30-minute scenic flight from Cairns City with Nautilus Aviation costs around $400 per person. Conversely, the Get High Package– a full-day GBR cruise including snorkeling or scuba diving (with introductory dive) and a 10-minute helicopter ride (also with Nautilus) from the reef pontoon platform will set you back less than $350.
This means you'll save around $50, AND get a full day out of the experience!
To me at least, that's a no-brainer, especially if you've been planning to get out to snorkel or dive on the reef anyway!
2. There are Several Helicopter Tour Companies in Cairns & Port Douglas
Yes, Cairns is a small city, but one thing you should note is that there isn't just one helicopter company in the area.
In fact, there are several operating Great Barrer Reef scenic helicopter flights from both Cairns and Port Douglas! In my experience, the best and cheapest option is to book a flight with Nautilus Aviation.
While other companies like GBR Helicopters and Zoom are also well-regarded, their flights are simply more expensive. I also like Nautilus' choppers (the iconic red ones) since they have a glass floor for a better reef viewing experience.
Did you Know?
Cairns is one of the few places in Australia where you can book a Hot Air Balloon experience! This is easily one of the top activities in FNQ, and one I highly recommend.
3. Tours Sell Out Quickly - Book in Advance
With a population of just 150,000, Cairns sees over 3 million visitors every single year. Since the GBR is the main attraction, I'm sure you can understand that Cairns helicopter tours sell out very quickly.
I recommend booking at least 4-5 days before your helicopter ride. This is usually a good window so that you can get a rough gauge of weather conditions. However, keep in mind that during peak season it's best to book weeks in advance to secure a spot.
Furthermore, in the case of poor weather, it's always possible to reschedule, especially if booking through Viator.
4. Seeing The GBR from above is a Must-Do Activity in Cairns
Okay, you already know this much.
But, let me convince you with some quick facts and details on what you might expect out of your reef helicopter experience.
In total, the Great Barrier Reef spans 348,700 km², that's bigger than the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, combined! Its sheer size can only be appreciated from the sky, where you'll still only be able to witness a smidgen of its grandiose scale.
Some of the top highlights you'll likely spot from the helicopter flying from Cairns or Port Douglas are:
- Vlasoff Cay - an isolated sandy cay surrounded by healthy reef
- Arlington Reef - a beautiful coral reef spanning kilometers across the Coral Sea
- Moore Reef - another amazing coral reef and home to the Sunlover Reef pontoon
- Fitzroy Island - one of the closest islands off Cairns and one of the most beautiful from above
- Green Island - another of the most iconic islands in Cairns
- Upolu Cay - another amazing secluded sandy cay in the middle of the sea
- Low Isles - closest islands to Port Douglas
- Agincourt Reef - a series of smaller reefs off Port Douglas
- Norman Reef - one of the best scuba diving reefs off Cairns
- Sightings of manta rays, sea turtles, and even whales
Below are some more photos from my scenic heli flight over the GBR.
5. morning Helicopter Scenic Flights are Better
Visitors can fly over the reef and have a great time at any time of the day. However, I recommend booking a morning flight over an afternoon flight if you have the option.
That's because generally, the weather and wind is calmer in the mornings in Cairns. Of course, helicopters can handle the wind regardless. However, for a clearer reef view, you'll want calm seas without any white caps.
50+ More Cairns Bucketlist Items
- Visit the Cairns Islands
- Kuranda Railway & Skyrail
- Rusty's Markets
- Day trip to Cape Tribulation
- ... +51 more things to do in Cairns!
6. Great Barrier Reef Scenic Flights Are Cheaper THan Helicopter Tours
After doing both tours, I prefer the helicopter experience over the scenic plane flight. That's because the helicopter can fly at a lower altitude than a plane, with the additional capability of hovering over interesting locations and marine life sightings.
However, if your goal is to see the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef from above and want to save some money, then you'll find that the scenic plane flights with GSL aviation are almost half the price of a chopper ride.
For more details and tips for booking, read my guide to a GBR scenic plane flight.
7. Try to Snag the Front SEat (Lower Glass Windows)
Another thing to know about booking Cairns helicopter tours, or heli rides anywhere for that matter, is that the pilot will dictate your seat based on weight variances.
Helicopters need to balance their loads, and this is done by equally positioning people based on their individual passenger weights. However, if you're booking in a group with similar weights, ask the pilot for the front seat. Let the pilot know also if the booking is for a special event, like a honeymoon or a birthday gift, and they'll usually do their best to allocate seats accordingly.
The front seat provides the best vantage point directly over the reef. And, if you book the helicopter tour I've linked in his article, you'll get a chopper with a glass floor on the front!
Did you know? - You can also book a 45-minute helicopter flight, which includes a short pass-over of the Daintree Rainforest– the oldest rainforest on earth. This usually passes the Barron Gorge National Park (Barron Falls) for 10-15 minutes then heads straight to the Outer Barrier Reef.
For more information about Cairns' rainforest, read my guide on the region's best waterfalls and hikes.
8. It's Best to Time Your Flight on a CLoudless Day
Picking perfect weather conditions in Cairns is difficult. It goes without saying that it's even more difficult to predict conditions in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef!
However, using apps like Windy can help you get a better idea of what the wind and waves will be doing on the day of your Cairns helicopter tour. The BOM weather app is also Australia's best resource for weather predictions. If you can, try to pick a morning flight on a clear, sunny day.
Due to the shallow depths of the reef, the sun easily penetrates, lighting up the coral beneath. This is a spectacular sight from the sky and is clearer on sunny days.
Tips for Taking Great Reef Photos On The Helicopter Ride
In all honesty, videos and pictures really don't do this experience justice. There's absolutely nothing like seeing the GBR from above in person. BUT, there are some useful tips you'll want to consider when taking photos, based on whether you are planning to shoot with a camera or your phone.
Whether you're shooting on a large, professional DSLR or small, point-and-shoot digital camera, here are some tips that will result in better images.
- Camera settings: use Manual mode or Shutter Priority mode. You'll want to shoot at a fast shutter speed of at least 1/500 to avoid motion blur caused by the helicopter movement. I also recommend keeping a wide aperture to avoid the ISO creeping up too much. Remember, the key is a fast shutter speed. Most of the shots in this post were taken at 1/1600 at f/2.8 on a Canon R5 with 15-35mm F2.8L lens.
- Use a polarizer filter: a polarizer filter, or CPL works much in the same way as polarized sunglasses. Putting one of these at the front of your lens will cut out the glare from the helicopter window and reflections on the sea, resulting in clearer images with vibrant reef colors. You can find CPL filters for iPhones on Amazon and CPLs for GoPros.
- Shoot close to the window: bring a small towel with you and press the lens against the window, with the towel wrapped around the camera. This will cut out the reflections caused by light bouncing off the inside of the window.
- Shoot wide: I recommend bringing the widest FOV lens you have, or shooting on iPhone's 0.5x mode. While close-ups look great too, the GBR is all about scale and the best shots are those that fit in as much as possible.
Tip: bookmark this post in your browser and revisit it before your flight!
Cairns Accommodation Guide – Where to Stay
Visiting Cairns? The best places to stay are near the Cairns Esplanade or on the sunny Northern Beaches. Below are the top 4 options for varying budgets.
Alternatively, check out my Port Douglas accommodation guide for more ideas on where to stay in Far North Queensland.
1. Crystalbrook Riley Luxury
If luxury and location are what you're after, you can't beat this 5-star resort right in the heart of Cairns Esplanade.
2. Fitzroy Island Resort Mid-Range
Sleep out on one of the picturesque Great Barrier Reef Islands! Staying at Fitzroy often works out cheaper than staying in town & means you get more time to explore the reef, beaches, and rainforest walking trails.
3. Gilligan's Backpackers Budget
The best backpacker option for a great vibe in Cairns. Great place to meet like-minded travelers & features a pool, air-con rooms, a huge shared kitchen, & a great common area.
4. Pepper's Beach Club Palm Cove
Stay at the best beach resort in the heart of Palm Cove on Cairns's Northern Beaches!
Cairns & Far North Queensland Travel Guides
I hope you've found this quick travel guide to helicopter tours over the magnificent Great Barrier Reef useful! This truly is one of the best experiences you can have in Tropical North Queensland, and perhaps anywhere in Australia!
While you're here on my blog, make sure to check out some of my other guides, especially this comprehensive guide to the 50+ best things to do in Cairns.
Otherwise, below are some more great adventures for more travel inspiration in FNQ.