trip report: Australia – getting in to Cairns, December 2019

Flying to the other side of the world always take a few days especially since I was losing a day to the time zone change. At least I was able to do it in style this time around.


While the topic of documenting our experienced getting somewhere was something I’ve always included in my past reports, I’m always hesitant to make this an entry for by itself or get too in depth. Unlike many travel websites out there, I am not an AvGeek. Personally, I see getting places as a means for us to see amazing things and not the point of travel. However, we travel a fair amount, and the lack of doing so during COVID shutdown, really made me appreciate the experience and the feeling that comes with the act of traveling somewhere. Whether that is the excitement of boarding a plane, the giddiness being in business class for the first time after we found out we were upgraded, or even the exhaustion of flying halfway around the world with a billion stops because of a cheap airfare. Call me a miles and points arsonist, I am very ready to burn through my points after this pandemic. Anyways, let me know if these posts are something you’d enjoy to read about. Also if there are anything regarding the actual process of travel you’d like to see in the future, I can put more effort in capturing those aspects of our trips.

This is the second entry of our Australia and New Zealand trip series covering my travels into Cairns, Australia from Washington D.C. (2). You can navigate to the other parts in the index below as they are posted.


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1 planning & research
2 trip report: getting in to Cairns, Australia
      2.1 day 1: Washington D.C. to Los Angeles
      2.2 day 2: Los Angeles to Brisbane, Australia
      2.3 day 3: Brisbane to Cairns, Australia
      2.4 Cairns
3 trip report: diving the Great Barrier Reef
4 trip report: Sydney & travel to New Zealand
5 trip report: diving Milford Sound
trip report: Rees-Dart Track in Mt. Aspiring National Park
trip report: Mueller Hut in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
trip report: Tasman Glacier viewpoint, Christchurch, & getting out
final impressions, New Zealand top 5, & budget

day 1: Washington D.C. to Los Angeles

My trip began on Christmas Day, the only day I found award availability for my business class flights from Washington D.C. (IAD) to Cairns (CNS) using Alaska Airline miles. I was on my own for once since Meg was only able to get a week off and it was decided she would join me at the end of the trip so she could still visit her family during Christmas. Mark, who was joining me for the first part of the trip, was already in Sydney, Australia at this point.

Mark in Sydney

While the Alaska Airlines business class redemption was only 55k miles (Frequent Miler RRV: USD$0.013 per mile, USD$715 total value) and USD$57.1 in fees, the route was anything but direct. On Christmas Day, I had two flights to reach the west coast. The security line was surprisingly long at IAD for TSA-Precheck, which you can get for free with many credit cards now days. I was offered a month long trial for CLEAR for even a faster pass through security so I took it with my upcoming layovers in mind (more on that below). After breezing through, my first flight was from IAD to San Francisco (SFO) on a Boeing 737 with a 2-2 business class seat configuration. The flight was uneventful as I did some work and took a nap, though the breakfast was surprisingly nice.


I landed in SFO on time and still early in the morning thanks to the time zone change.


My layover was 3.5 hours long at SFO and my connection was in terminal 2. I didn’t want to spend my time sitting at the gate, so I went for some free drinks and lunch. This was where my CLEAR trial became useful. I exited security and headed over to terminal 3, where the Priority Pass (via credit card, see details at Dr of Credit) gave me USD$28 to use at San Francisco Giants Clubhouse (tripadvisor) and Yankee Pier (tripadvisor) each. Effectively it cost me USD$9 tip total to use those credits as tip isn’t included in that amount (remember to tip your waiters and bartenders based on the actual cost of the food you got). I first went to the San Francisco Giants Clubhouse and mostly got a couple beers since I wasn’t hungry yet and then headed over to Yankee Pier for a Poke bowl lunch with about an hour and half before my flight.


By the time I was done, it was time to head back to terminal 2 for my connecting flight. With the CLEAR trial, I just walked through security. Unfortunately there is no way to get CLEAR covered completely with ease (see Upgrade Points). 

My next flight was a short connection flight from SFO to Los Angeles (LAX). This one was an old Virgin America Airbus 320 with the mismatched interiors and 2-2 business class configuration.


It was a short and uneventful flight as I landed in LAX around 3:30pm. I had to pick up my check bag since they couldn’t check my bag all the way to my final destination since I was on Qantas metal from here on. My next flight wasn’t scheduled to leave until 11am the next day. The younger me would have opted to sleep in the airport, but I decided to opt for a hotel on this Christmas day. I ended up at the Sheraton Gateway Los Angeles Hotel for USD$112.25 that had a complimentary shuttle service from the airport. Having had plenty of free food through the day, I skipped dinner and turned in early since I was still on eastern time.

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day 2: Los Angeles to Brisbane, Australia

Again still on eastern time, I was up early. After working out and taking a shower, I headed to the airport for breakfast. That came in the form of the Qantas Business Class Lounge (pointhacks) with my business class ticket.


It was a nice lounge to work from and wait for my flight, which ended up being delayed for about 1.5 hours. The flight was from LAX to Brisbane, Australia (BNE) on a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner with a 1-2-1 business class configuration and layflat seats. I was given sparkling wine, pajamas, and an amenities kit when I boarded. The amenities kit has a toothbrush, toothpaste, eye mask, socks, and lotion.

My goal was to stay up for the entire 14 hour flight to help myself adjust to the time zone difference. We would be landing in the evenings.


So I spent my time between meals doing some work and watching movies, more of the latter. There were 2 meal services on the plane, a light breakfast and lunch.

Other than being delayed, the flight was uneventful. I failed in my attempt to stay up the entire time, falling asleep during one of the movies. Despite getting through customs and immigration quickly at BNE, the delay did cause me to miss my connection. Unlike other travelers, missing the last flight of the day turned out better for me. Rather than getting into Cairns (CNS) late and staying in a hostel, I was given a hotel room at the Novotel Brisbane Airport (tripadvisor) and AUS$50 credit to use at the hotel restaurant. I definitely preferred the hotel room, the rooftop pool, and wagu steak dinner to close out the day.

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day 3: Brisbane to Cairns

Another day, another airport. A benefit of that is the free food that comes with travel, lounges, and the Priority Pass (via credit card, see details at Dr of Credit). After the shuttle back to the airport, I stopped by the Qantas Domestic Business Class Lounge (pointhacks) for breakfast as part of the business class tickets. Not only that, I was able to get a few sandwiches for lunch at the Graze Grill & Bar (tripadvisor) with AUD$36 from my Priority Pass.

Unexpectedly, second breakfast came on the flight and was better than the lounge.


It was accompanied by views from the Great Barrier Reefs from above.


It was still early in the morning when I land at CNS. I ordered my shuttle ride ahead of picking up my luggage for AUD$15, This was slightly less than an Uber. However if you can find another person to share the ride, Uber is the better and more prompt option. The shuttle dropped me off at the Freedom Cairns Hostel (, where we had another night stay before heading out on the liveaboard. The hostel also has the capabilities to help you book tours in the area, however I was too late in the day to join any. After dropping off my luggage in my room, it was time to explore the town.

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My overview of Cairns is limited based on the two full days I had in the City and being someone who doesn’t travel for the purpose of staying in cities, it was enough time for me. My impressions are mainly from just walking around as much as I can and looking for good eats. I don’t think I can really get to know the actual in and outs of a place as a tourist without living there for a while anyways, or knowing someone locally to actually show me around.


My first day was on my day of arrival after all my flights and before we boarded our liveaboard ship the next day. I had gotten in late enough to miss all the tours leaving from the town but early enough to have a full day. Mark would join me later that afternoon after flying in from Sydney. We also had another 20ish hours after our liveaboard as well before we flew out.

During our nights in Cairns, we first stayed at the Freedom Cairns Hostel ( before our liveaboard and opted for the nicer Doubletree Hotel (tripadvisor) afterwards. The Freedom Cairns Hostel was clean, had a full kitchen for everyone to use, laundry, open common areas, and weekly activities to help people socialize. I used giftcards I bought at a discount you can find at times on AMEX offers, Amazon, or Newegg. Meanwhile we choose Hilton Doubletree for the benefits that comes with my Diamond Status through my credit card and the more pampered feel of a hotel after sleeping in a cramped room on a dive boat. The main benefit that we looked to was the included free breakfast buffet, which was very good and we ate our value. They also had the standard cookies at check in and additionally gave us free drinks and appetizers from the bar, which, I think, were status related. I’m not going to get into the details of the AMEX Hilton Honors Aspire Card card that gave me the status and perks, but I personally get a lot of value out of the card that outweighs the USD$450 annual fee (my referral link, see Frequent Miler review). Anyways, there are plenty of housing options in Cairns for all levels.

Mark’s family friend had informed us before our travels that Cairns isn’t all that nice and we should head up to Port Douglas if we were staying a few days. However, I think that impression comes from chilling on a beach or resort travel mentality. It is very accurate that there are no beaches in the city, but I found the public pool (Cairns Esplanade Lagoon, Cairns Regional Council) and surrounding park a nice feature that even the locals enjoy. There are even public grills (Cairns Regional Council) you can use should you want to make your own food and are staying at a place without a kitchen.


The Esplanade park is the center point of the waterfront, which as a nice wide sidewalk and boardwalk that you can spend a good amount of time exploring. From the boardwalk to the north, we saw a flock of Magpie Geese snoozing on the mudflat during low tide. 


To the south, the boardwalk took us to the pier. We would board one of these boats to go diving.


There are several restaurants, bars, and breweries here. Directly around the docks, we had drinks and dinner at the Salt House (tripadvisor) with new friends we met on the liveaboard. As traditional for me after diving, I enjoyed some seafood in the form of fish and chips.


On our first day in town, we continued along the boardwalk further past the hotels and the large Fig Tree Playground (tripadvisor) for a beer at Hemingway’s Brewery (tripadvisor), a good place to hangout though I don’t remember much about the beer. 


Away from the coast, I thought Cairns was a pretty perfect town for backpackers (the travel definition, not the trekking definition here). There were plenty of hostels, nightlife, and restaurants from many backgrounds. Such diversity takes places from the european origins and the large number of tourists from asia more recently. A Japanese divers told me this was a favored area for them to travel to. Also with China’s increasing middle class and economic trade relationships with Australia, Chinese tourism has also increased. It helps that Australia is so much closer to asia geographically. A big evidence of this was the night market that I typically associate with Southeast Asia and Taiwan.


This was prefect for a late night snack or a ramen.


I would have loved to report on more of the local food scene here, but you’ll have to find a local for that. 

For the budget backpacker, Rusty’s Markets (tripadvisor) seemed like a good place to pick up fruits through we didn’t venture out that way. We had already done our shopping at the large grocery store next to our hostel, Woodworth (google maps).

Of course for those traveling, the main draw is the Great Barrier Reefs and our reason from coming to Cairns. There are plenty of dive shops that run boats and dive training around town. Other than that, Cairns is a jump off point for whitewater rafting and rainforest tours, which you will find plenty of vendors from around town and even at the hostels. I was surprised to find the many hills outside of Cairns, something I was not aware of ahead of time. With your own mode of transportation out of town, the trails maybe worth exploring (alltrails). Something I’ll have to plan for the next time I’m back

If you are confined to town, an aquarium, a casino, and a small Casino Zoo (Cairns Wildlife Dome) are located in town. On our walk, we went through the casino and entrance of the zoo on the way back and were not prepared to pay the high price for the seemingly tourist trap. I would say there are better things you can do with your time than these, like walk around and eat things.

Anyways, this was my very basic first impression of Cairns. I think Mark’s family friend maybe right in that it’s not a destination to spend a lot of time at, but I think it’s the perfect city to be the jumping off point for your adventures.

Up next is our trip report of our liveaboard on Ocean Quest and dives in the Great Barrier Reef.


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