Booking interstate holidays in Australia: How to avoid the risks and book with confidence

Annastacia Palaszczuk has just saved my bacon. The Queensland premier announced on January 28 that her state's border would now open to allow quarantine-free travel for all residents of NSW. "That was a lucky escape," said Liz, my partner, with an eyebrow cocked in my direction, never a good sign.

Back in late November, after we booked an Airbnb inland from Byron Bay for early February, I booked a flight to Gold Coast Airport and a hire car. The other alternative would be to fly into Ballina Airport but there are more flights between our home in Sydney and Gold Coast Airport, they're cheaper and a hire car from Sixt at Gold Coast Airport was about two-thirds the price of a hire car at Ballina Airport. What could go wrong?

Then on December 22 Queensland imposed travel restrictions for anyone coming from NSW. Later amended to just those coming from the Greater Sydney COVID-19 hotspot. Flying into Gold Coast Airport would mean us spending two weeks in quarantine in Queensland, at our own expense. Instead of flying, we could make the other alternative would be a nine-hour drive, split over two days each way, since all-day highway drives are not my thing. Hearing the Queensland Premier's announcement on the morning of January 28 was better than waking up to the smell of bacon and eggs.

It's an all too familiar story. With the states and territories ready to slam the door on interstate travellers at the whiff of coronavirus, many have had to adjust our travels. Rather than crossing state borders and running the risk of being denied re-entry,  or forced into quarantine, many travellers have spent their summer holidays in their own state, but there are hopeful signs with low numbers of community transmission and the imminent rollout of the coronavirus vaccine.

Also, Australia has come through the summer holidays without any major COVID-19 outbreak. That's vastly different to the soaring rates of infection in Europe and the USA.

With borders reopening,  it's time to start thinking about interstate travel once again. Here's a few ways to make sure it's smiles all the way.

Book flights with peace of mind

Australia's major domestic carriers are looking to rebuild confidence among flyers. Both Qantas and Virgin Australia have made it easier to cancel and amend flight bookings, provided you play by the rules.

For any domestic or trans-Tasman flight booked before April 30, 2021, for travel up to June 30, 2021, Qantas allows you to make one date change with no extra charge. However if the new flight is at a higher cost than the original booking you'll need to pay the difference. If Qantas cancels your flight you can either travel to your destination on the next available flight or request a flight credit or refund, with no fees.

For any booking on a domestic, trans-Tasman or international short-haul flight made before March 31, 2021, Virgin Australia allows unlimited fee-free date changes for travel up to June 31, 2021. In a major difference from the Qantas deal, a fare difference applies only if you change cabin class. Provided you stay within the same fare class, no extra fare is payable for a date change. For bookings made before March 31, 2021 for flights up to June 30, 2021, Virgin Australia flyers can also opt for a credit to use against future flights.


Book air travel with frequent flyer points

Booking with frequent flyer points is a smart strategy since it allows you to make flight changes or cancel and have your points refunded with no penalty - for the time being at least. That applies to Virgin Australia flights booked before March 31, 2021 with Velocity Points for travel up to June 30, 2021. Book a Qantas Classic Flight Reward using Qantas points and you can change your plans until April 30, 2021 with no fee for a date change, and no loss of points if you cancel.

Should you get domestic travel insurance?

Not if you're looking for coverage for any problems associated with the coronavirus. Most travel insurers will tell you flat out that any claim arising from the pandemic will not be considered.

Any extra expenses you might incur if you're forced into quarantine, any cancellations that might happen, if a state suddenly hangs up the "No Entry" sign and if a border closure forces a change of plans, that's down to you. That was confirmed by a Cover-More consultant. "If a border is closed due to a coronavirus outbreak after you book a holiday you're not covered by travel insurance," she said.

Look for fully refundable deals

Look for accommodation that offers a full refund for last-minute cancellations. If border closures or quarantine restrictions force a change of plans, your cash is protected. Same goes for car hire, and anything else that requires a deposit. You're a stronger candidate for a refund if you've booked direct with the supplier rather than through a third-party agency such as one offering car-hire deals.

Use a travel agent

When times are difficult, travel agents prove their worth. They know about the sharpest deals, they can answer your questions and they'll update you if the coronavirus restrictions at your destination changes. If things go south, you're usually in a stronger position if you booked through a travel agent. They have priority connections to airlines, they speak the same language as tour operators and hotels and they can work out a strategy that delivers the best possible result. Trying to untangle your own travel plans at short notice could mean spending hours on the phone, and possibly a different outcome.

See also: Tourism struggling? Not for luxury hotels as wealthy Australians holiday at home

See also: The death of the travel agent: Will 2021 be the year it happens?