It used to be so easy. Travel that is. Then pfft. The first true pandemic in a century emerged from nowhere (well, China, actually) and with it was gone the notion of a holiday with the speed, and as much pain, as a drive-through coronavirus nasal swab.
Now, thanks in part to all of those happily negative tests, travel, as we knew it, is making its first tentative steps out of enforced hibernation. It seems then, like a perfect moment to address 20 of the most burning travel-related questions of the pandemic.
First overseas option: New Zealand. Photo: Getty Images
1. What will be the first place I can travel overseas to again? Where have you been all this time? Living in a bubble? The first trip overseas we'll be able to make, once politicians on both sides of the ditch deem the time right, will, of course, be New Zealand as part of the much-vaunted travel bubble. South Pacific nations such as Fiji, whose economy is hugely dependent on tourism and which has enjoyed a low incidence of COVID-19, will almost certainly follow. Some notable omissions from any expanded trans-Tasman bubble to the Pacific will be French Polynesia, otherwise known as Tahiti, which announced it will allow tourists to visit from the still COVID-struck Europe and the US, instantly disqualifying it from inclusion. See smartraveller.gov.au; newzealand.com; fiji.travel
2. No, when can I really travel overseas again? Fair enough. Even airlines tend to consider New Zealand a quasi-domestic market but for a time the Land of the Long Line of Negative Tests will be as overseas as it gets. It will be a boon for the Kiwi economy that depends on tourism for 20 per cent of its foreign exchange receipts and a chance for Australians to reconnect with one of the world's best destinations or perhaps to finally discover it. With so few countries with a COVID-19 containment record as impressive as Australia and New Zealand expect Asian nations such as Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan to be among the first destinations we'll be permitted to visit for leisure travel. But, all indications are that inflating any travel bubble is never going to be easy with myriad issues to overcome so don't expect to travel overseas, beyond Australasia or the Pacific, for six months or longer.
3. When can I travel interstate for some sun? It's an agonising waiting game as much-derided state premiers struggle over exactly when to safely open their borders, particularly to southerners like us. Overall, the federal government, as flagged this week by tourism minister Simon Birmingham, will want to keep Australians travelling within our own borders. When they're all finally open the tourism industry can breathe a collective (mouth-covered) sigh of relief as visitors stimulate the economy with the dollars that may have otherwise been spent on overseas holidays. No wonder that "Holiday here this year" is the latest catchcry of Tourism Australia, normally our overseas tourism marketing agency. See australia.com
4, What about the UK? The US? Brazil? (only kidding about the last one)? Forget it. With the still sky-high infection rates of two of our traditionally most popular destinations and allies you'd be more likely to secure a return trip to the moon in the foreseeable future.
5. Should I bother getting my passport renewed any time soon? It would be wise to keep your passport current and not let it gather dust in the bedside drawer. If you plan to travel to New Zealand and the Pacific when it's permitted you'll still need a passport, even with border controls somewhat relaxed as part of the trans-Tasman bubble. Importantly, don't fall for the classic forgetful traveller mistake and allow your passport to be left with less than six months validity since many countries, when they finally receive Australian visitors again, will not allow you to enter. See passports.gov.au
No social distancing: On board a Jetstar flight this week. Photo: Josh Dye
6. When can I start flying again? You can fly now if you fancy a flight between places like Sydney and Melbourne and Canberra and are prepared to pay a premium for your tickets. Further travel in Australia is dependent on state and territory borders reopening over the coming months. Qantas and its affiliate Jetstar is gearing up for that green light moment and is already offering bargain airfares to stimulate air travel once the borders are reopened. But they may, as in the past, prove difficult to secure. See qantas.com
7. Can I still get to the airport late like I used to do? Again, are you kidding? There is a pandemic and once flights start to build up the boarding process both inside the terminal and aboard the aircraft itself will be even slower and more tedious than in the past. And airlines will need more time between flights for the now mandatory additional cleaning of aircraft, possibly leading to delays. And while on the subject of airports, don't think it's all over once you disembark. Remember to keep your distance around those notoriously crowded luggage carousels. Perhaps grab a coffee and wait for the human parting of the seas to occur.
8. What do I need to know about the airport and boarding processes? You may well be confused as us by the new rules for flying. Get this: although passengers are required to socially distance in the departure lounge, on the plane in contrast, you won't need to do so and airlines such as Qantas and Virgin, unlike other carriers overseas, have been permitted to not leave spare seats between passengers, pointing to the surety of modern-day aircrafts' miracle bug-beating air filters. Expect Australian economy class cabins to be as crowded and knee-capping as they were pre-COVID-19 and, for your own sake, try and limit your cabin luggage. See sydneyairport.com.au; melbourneairport.com.au
9. Do I really need to don a face-mask? Yes and no, but probably yes. Although airlines in the US are considering refusing to accept passengers who decline to wear a facial mask, in Australia, the chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, has been ambivalent, at best, as to their efficacy. However there is increasing medical evidence that masks are effective for protection against COVID-19. Aboard Qantas flights, masks are optional but are available on demand. But woe betide the passenger who, Trump-like, elects not to don one. See health.gov.au
10. Do I really need to put my hand up to ask to go to the plane loo? Well, yes, it seems you will need to ask a flight attendant as they are responsible for limiting queues in the aisles nearest to the lavatories. We recommend that you go before you go and limit your liquid intake aboard and, please, do go easy on those flat whites.
A sanitiser sommelier at Pier One, Sydney.
11. Is it safe to stay in a hotel again? As safe as anything can be in a pandemic. Conscious that the world is now germ intolerant, major hotel brands such as Accor, Marriott and Hilton have already made strenuous efforts to convince prospective guests of their upgraded standards of cleanliness by announcing exhaustive new health and hygiene protocols. In some high-rise hotels you may find it quicker to take the stairs than the elevators which will have strict capacity limits. Think of the incidental exercise. See all.accor.com; marriott.com.au; hilton.com
12. What about my room? Forget the hotel general manager. The once overlooked housekeeper is now the queen or king of every hotel and motel charged with putting the extra spick into the extra span. Everything depends on their skill and toil to ensure that the hotel room is in order from the shower taps to the TV remote control (a notorious germ conveyance long before COVID-19). One Melbourne CBD hotel has already suffered the embarrassing and unfortunate consequences of allegedly failing to adhere to the new protocols.
13. Oh well. At least there's still the slap-up breakfast buffet, right? Wrong, sorry. Bain maries are now the bane of hotels. The days of the elaborate hotel buffet brekky (and lunch, too) are over, at least until the pandemic is declared finished. Hotels are now tending to offer a la carte breakfast menus or encourage guests to order room service. It can't be long before the classic motel breakfast hatch makes a comeback. When you think about it, it may not be such a bad development considering the food wastage from gluttonous buffets and the encouragement they represent to expand waistlines.
Cruise in isolation in Western Australia's Kimberley region. Photo: Coral Expeditions
14. Will l ever be able to cruise again? Hmm. We were wondering when you'd ask that one. Personally, we can't wait for cruising's return since, unlike its legion of critics, we've actually experienced it and enjoyed it on numerous occasions. However, the cruise industry confronts a massive challenge in re-establishing itself following the Ruby Princess tragedy. Some of the first cruises to resume will be by Australian-owned and operated lines, sans foreign crews, with traditional paddlewheeler vessels already plying the Murray River in South Australia and NSW and Victoria. Coral Expeditions, for instance, says it will stand ready to operate after July 31, subject to prevailing government regulations and health considerations. See murrayprincess.com; psemmyloucruises.com; coralexpeditions.com; scenic.com.au; vikingcruises.com.au
15. When will we know when we can take a cruise? Only the federal government would likely know. It recently extended a ban on cruise ships until mid-September. The cruise industry has been promising to release a new range of health and hygiene measures, along similar lines to the hotel industry, which it will require to convince both passengers and governments for approval to operate again in Australian waters. Cruise ships were in fact hygienic before the pandemic although outbreaks of the norovirus were not uncommon. And the cruise industry will be doing everything it can to make its ships safer than ever as its survival depends on getting it right. Some cruiselines are even allowing advanced bookings as far ahead as 2023 when surely the world will be savouring the glory of having purged the pandemic monster. See cruising.org.au
16. What will cruising be like when it does resume? Expect cruising to be a more languid pursuit - which suits us just fine - with pre-boarding health checks, including temperature checks and social distancing becoming major features of the experience. "Party ships", by necessity, will be a relic at least until the coronavirus is defeated globally. If you want to continue the isolation theme consider a cruise to Antarctica, the Arctic or Greenland or in the shorter term the Kimberley in Western Australia or New Zealand. See aptouring.com.au
17. What is the travel industry doing about refunds? We were hoping you wouldn't ask. This is one of the most contentious and most challenging issues faced by both consumers and the travel industry, and for that matter, government regulators. You'll find some detailed advice on the website of the Australian Competition and Consumer Competition (ACCC) and, if possible, do try and consider the unexpected and dire situation in which many sections of the local travel industry finds itself. In general, travel operators are now offering greater flexibility and certainty around bookings and cancellations. See accc.gov.au
18. Why does everyone seem to be taking off on roadtrips? Think about it. Motor cars and motorhomes, by their enclosed nature, are the perfect travel bubbles in the pandemic era and will be popular as some travellers remain circumspect of air travel. Motels, with their relative anonymity and affordability, along with camping and caravanning, are set to take off, too, as we all begin to travel like our parents and grandparents once did or still do. See nrmaparksandrresorts.com.au; racv.com.au
19. What's happening about travel insurance? That's another vexed question. Not unlike the cruise industry, the travel insurance business is yet to announce its revised plans for coverage in the pandemic era. Of course, overseas travel is banned by the federal government and many companies have suspended travel insurance with any plans to provide coverage for COVID-19 wholly uncertain. But if we're to head off to New Zealand and the Pacific in the near future we'll all need travel insurance. And the insurance industry will need travel insurance, too, since it's a lucrative segment of their market with comparatively fewer and smaller claims than other areas. Watch this space (and the fine print). See insurancecouncil.com.au
20. Will travel ever be the same again? Probably not (see all points above) and do we really want it to be? Think of all of that dreadful overtourism that has disappeared since COVID-19 and hopefully won't return and how the pause in mass travel has benefited the environment, something we hope we'll be more respectful of in future. Suffice to say, once we emerge from this historic pandemic tunnel we'll never, ever, take travel, and hopefully our world, for granted again.