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5 Things to Know BEFORE Booking a Scenic Flight from Cairns

5 Things to Know BEFORE Booking a Scenic Flight from Cairns

A Great Barrier Reef scenic flight from Cairns is by far, one of the best ways to experience the beauty of the world’s largest coral reef system.

After spending over 12 months exploring Cairns and Tropical Far North Queensland, people often ask me what the best way to see the reef is. A simple answer is that the best way to witness its scale and beauty is from the sky— on a scenic Great Barrier Reef flight!

There are several plane options available, including short return experiences from Cairns Airport, which almost always works out cheaper than taking a Great Barrier Reef Helicopter tour.

Below I’ll reveal 5 things everyone should know before booking their tour, and detail my experience to give you even more useful tips on how to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime experience!

Upolu cay as seen from the window of a cairns scenic flight
Olly gaspar

By Olly Gaspar, full-time traveler & adventure photographer for 6 years with 700+ published travel guides. I visit every place I write about & share real tips from what I learn.

How to Book a Scenic Flight from Cairns

In Cairns, there are a handful of aviation companies operating scenic flights out to the reef.

For me, the decision to book with a GSL Aviation flight on GYG was super easy as they have by far the best reviews in Cairns. They also operate out of the Whitsundays and have a great reputation down there too.

Below are some reasons why I'd recommend this flight over others:

  • Every seat is a window seat
  • They have three smaller planes, which means they're never overcrowded
  • 40-minute flight instead of a 30-minute flight
  • One of the most cost-effective, even without the pandemic discount
  • They send out detailed directions and even provide a shuttle service from Cairns
  • GSL won't fly if the weather is bad or if you won't be able to see the reef well. They'll reschedule you for free.

Travel Tip: I booked my Cairns Great Barrier Reef flight through GetYourGuide, which worked out to be cheaper than going directly to the supplier.

Great barrier reef from the sky
Green island from the sky

5 Things to Know Before Booking Cairns Scenic Flight

1. The Reef Planes are Very Small

The small six-seater plane we took was easily the smallest plane I've ever flown in. Luckily, I got the front-row seat next to the pilot. It was truly an epic experience to fly 500 feet above the Great Barrier Reef in a little propeller plane.

However, if you're planning on booking a reef flight with a group, keep in mind that due to the small size, spots are allocated based on weight. It's pretty clear that this is to balance out the plane, but it basically means you can't swap seats as you choose.

Then again, if you get the six-seater as I did, everyone is within arm's reach anyway!

Gsr aviation plane cairns reef flight

2. Afternoon Or Early Morning Flights Offer The Best Conditions

There are a few time slots available to book but I'd highly recommend booking an afternoon trip. Our scenic flight departed Cairns at 2:00 pm, which produced excellent conditions for a Great Barrier Reef flight.

Since the highlight of the trip is the reef, you'll want some sun to bring out the colours. However, too much harsh light will produce too much glare. That's why I'd recommend an afternoon flight where the sun isn't directly above the reef.

Our pilot was well-experienced and made sure to fly around the reef and islands so that both sides of the plane got some epic photo opportunities with the sun behind them.

View from the window of a great barrier reef scenic flight tour

3. The Weather on the Outer Reef Can Change

This is the tropics! Remember that the weather in Cairns might be different from the weather out on the reef. In fact, it usually is. The tall rainforest peaks behind Cairns soak up clouds, which means while it might look cloudy in town, the reef might not have a cloud in sight!

Of course, tropical storms can also brew out at sea. The good part is that Great Barrier Reef flights from Cairns don't operate if conditions don't allow for a safe flight, or if conditions aren't good for viewing the reef.

The guys at GSL told me that if it was too rainy or windy, they'd reschedule my trip for free.

Great barrier reef plane from cairns,

4. Scenic Flights Are Much Cheaper than Helicopter Flights

If you compare the prices of Cairns helicopter tours with the scenic flight options, you'll find that the planes are roughly half the price!

There are many reasons for this:

  1. Helicopters cost more to operate and maintain
  2. More people can squeeze into a small scenic plane
  3. Airplanes fly with better fuel efficiency

I've now done both of these and can say that the scenic flights definitely offer better value for money. However, the helicopters do get lower, which means you can see more marine life like manta rays, dolphins, sharks, and even whales!

Phone taking photos from a great barrier reef scenic flight

5. Everyone Gets a Window Seat on the Plane

Remember, these are group bookings, so there'll be other people on the plane too. If you've booked the same trip I took, then it really won't matter since you'll get a window seat regardless!

Yes, these scenic flight planes are that small!

Small six seater reef hopper plane
Our reef hopper plane

Related: About the Hot Air Balloon Trips from Cairns

Essential Items to Bring on a Cairns Scenic Flight

If you're used to bringing huge carry-on luggage on jetliners, just know that these scenic reef flights are very limited in space. This means you can't bring a bag with loads of belongings.

However, a handful of essential items are highly recommended:

  • Camera - easily the most important if you want to snap some epic pics of the Great Barrier Reef
  • Polarizing filter for your camera (more on this below)
  • Sunglasses
  • Phone (for photos and your digital booking ticket if you booked with GetYourGuide)

What to Expect on the Great Barrier Reef Flight From Cairns

I flew over the Great Barrier Reef for the first time during the month of December. While it was undeniably hot, it scratched the tropical itch I'd been missing from spending a few months down south.

From take-off, the first highlight on the GBR scenic flight was Green Island.

This is one of Cairns' most idyllic islands and one that I've had the pleasure of exploring a few times on my sailing trips. However, seeing this jewel of an island from above was a whole new experience.

Surrounded by tropical coral reef, green Island is the only Great Barrier Reef island with its own rainforest ecosystem.

Green island from a great barrier reef plane flight from cairns

It's true that the reef is more pristine the further you travel from the coast. If you've never been out to the reef before, this truth is equally as evident when witnessed from the sky. After rounding Green Island to allow both sides of the plane a clear view, we headed out for the outer reef.

Great barrier reef from a plane

Luckily for us, it was high tide during our flight. This meant that most of the reef was submerged, revealing a vibrant, turquoise glow. While I've seen the reef plenty of times from my drone, you really can't compare it to a real-world view.

Gbr scenic flight from cairns

On our flight itinerary for the day were some epic GBR sandy cay icons including Michaelmas Cay, Vlasoff Cay, and Upolo Cay.

These small sand bars, surrounded by crystalline, glowing coral reefs are arguably some of the most beautiful spots on the Great Barrier Reef. Flying past them at low altitudes also proved to offer some of the best photo opportunities of the scenic flight.

Vlassoff cay, great barrier reef plane flight
Sandy cay off cairns on a plane flight

Other highlights included Hastings Reef, which is one of the best diving locations on the GBR, as well as some other beautiful bommie patches that took my breath away.

Great barrier reef scenic flight from cairns

Where to Stay In Cairns

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.

Girl sunbathing at crystalbrook riley resort in cairns

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.

Fitzroy island wharf

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.

Gilligans backpacker resort

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.

Peppers beach club four mile beach port douglas

4. Pepper's Beach Club Palm Cove

Stay at the best beach resort in the heart of Palm Cove on Cairns's Northern Beaches!

Tips for Taking Better Photos on Your Cairns Reef Flight

While phones are capable of capturing some pretty decent snaps, if you've got a bigger DSLR or mirrorless camera, make sure to bring it.

Flying over the Great Barrier Reef is one of the best photo opportunities I've had to date, and I had an absolute blast trying to snag some keepers.

To capture the scale of the reef, I recommend bringing a wide-angle lens on a Great Barrier Reef scenic flight. On this trip, I was shooting with a Canon 5D Mark IV, so I chose to bring my 17-40mm f4L lens, which gives me room to capture some tighter angles as well as some large, open shots.

While a closer range like a 24-70mm walk-around lens would also be great, I wouldn't recommend bringing a telephoto. The planes fly at 500 feet, which is the lowest they're allowed to fly in Australia. You just won't need a telephoto. You'll also want to keep a fast shutter speed, which is harder to do the more you zoom.

Read my guide: Camera Gear for Travel Photography

Great barrier reef flight

Try a Polarising Filter

Shooting the water over the Great Barrier Reef from a scenic flight is the kind of thing polariser filters were built for!

Since we're shooting at the water, limiting glare and reflections provides some beautifully clean shots. It also allows you to capture more of the reef as the polariser cuts through the reflections on the surface of the water.

However, I found that it was harder to reduce the reflections from the plane window with the polariser on. Therefore, I didn't use it the whole time. 40 minutes might seem like a long time, but it goes quickly! Make sure to try with and without the filter.

Great barrier reef from the sky

Try to Find Your Angle Through the Plane Window

This last tip is arguably one of the most useful. You might not notice when you're on high above the reef but shooting through the glass window of the scenic plane sometimes leaves some reflections, depending on the angle (check the top right corner on the image above).

Try to work out your angles early on, even before you depart if you can. It might seem confusing, but you'll quickly realise where the unsightly reflections are strongest.

I suggest bringing a spare t-shirt or a small towel to wrap around the front of your lens. Then, if you press your lens against the glass with the rag wrapped around it, you'll limit any light or reflection from inside the plane from appearing in your shots.

A friend told me this tip and it seemed to work a treat!

Great barrier reef flight from cairns

More Epic Cairns Experiences

Far North Queensland is one of Australia's wildest adventure destinations. If you enjoyed this guide and mini-review of the Great Barrier Reef flight from Cairns, make sure to check out some of my other guides below!

How to book a reef flight over the great barrier reef
Thanks for Reading

I'm Olly Gaspar, adventure travel journalist & photographer. Traveling non-stop since 2018, I've published over 700 travel guides on We Seek Travel. These draw on my personal experience to share unique itineraries, accommodation tips, & fun adventure guides covering hikes, viewpoints, beaches, waterfalls, & tours. Read my Publishing Ethics Statement.

Your feedback & updates are crucial to keep my guides factual & current. Got new info or updates? Drop a comment below or contact me directly.

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