New Zealand travel bubble: Seven key tips for avoiding lockdowns and border closures

Not that the Trans-Tasman travel bubble isn't a very good thing. This is amazing news for families and those who have been separated from loved ones across the ditch for more than a year now.

The bubble is even great news for those looking for a loophole – as revealed in Traveller last week – to escape Australia for other parts of the world.

However, taking a holiday in New Zealand? I was sceptical of that. The risks just seemed too great. Even interstate travel in Australia at the moment is problematic. But finding yourself stranded in another country? Having to rejig international flights, having to pay for extra accommodation, possibly having to quarantine for two weeks at home on your return, or worse still, having to pay $3000 for hotel quarantine once you're back in Australia?

That's a disaster. It's not worth going on an overseas holiday if those are the risks.

However, the more I've thought about this bubble, the more I've begun to believe that maybe, just maybe, a holiday in New Zealand is not so crazy after all. Maybe there are ways to reduce risk to manageable and acceptable levels, even in times of such uncertainty.

Want to have a holiday in the Land of the Long White Cloud this year? Here, in my opinion, is what you need to do to keep risks to a minimum.

(And do bear in mind, as I'm sure the Nine Entertainment lawyers would have me remind you, that this is general advice and that absolutely anything can change at the drop of a hat right now. Sweet as? Sweet as.)

Avoid Auckland

The vast majority of international arrivals going into quarantine are doing so in Auckland. Consequently, the source of New Zealand's most recent COVID-19 outbreaks – and the site of the country's most recent snap lockdowns – has been Auckland. It's reasonable to believe that if there's going to be another COVID-19 outbreak in New Zealand, it will be in Auckland. So if you want to reduce your chances of being caught in a snap lockdown and being unable to get back to Australia, I would, sadly, avoid this fine city.

Avoid the North Island altogether

In fact, if you really want to be on the safe side, you could avoid the North Island entirely. Given the Kiwis' success with containing any small COVID-19 outbreaks with swift lockdowns, the chance of the virus spreading from Auckland hotel quarantine to the South Island is pretty slim. Once the bubble opens, flights from all major Australian ports will be going direct to both Christchurch and Queenstown, so it's easy to skip the North Island entirely if you want to.

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Fly in and out of Sydney

There's a measure of predictability in Australia now in terms of state premiers and their reactions to COVID-19 cases. WA will shut up shop immediately. Queensland and Victoria will close things down fairly quickly (and Queensland will be very cautious in opening back up). And NSW will – probably – remain open.

For that reason, if I was taking a holiday to New Zealand and wanted to have the best chance of being able to get back to Australia when I wanted, I would fly in and out of Sydney. NSW is the state least likely to close its borders during an outbreak (NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has already said she won't be closing borders due to a couple of cases). That might mean you as a Victorian or Queenslander still can't get back to your home state immediately, but at least you've made it back to Australia.

The catch, of course, is that the federal government controls international borders and has previously shown a willingness to suspend the travel bubble with only one or two cases in Auckland. However, the government's willingness to do this when it traps their own citizens in New Zealand, rather than just preventing Kiwis from coming here, might not be so strong. 

Make flight bookings as close to your departure date as possible

This goes against all conventional travel wisdom, but work with me here. Things change quickly in the COVID-19 age. Borders open and close. Outbreaks come and go. Rules and regulations are altered. One of the few things that remains constant is that you're not going to get a refund if you have to cancel an international flight; you'll just get a credit.

To avoid that hassle and to book flights with the most confidence, it might be worth holding back until as close to your departure date as you feel comfortable. We don't know, yet, what is going to happen with airfares, so this could be an expensive way of doing things, but it could also save you a lot of hassle.

Upgrade to flexible fares

You would be crazy not to spend the extra whatever it is to have flexible fares – where dates can be changed at no extra cost – for your flights to and from Australia. Pay up now instead of being hit with a major problem in the future. Most airlines are now offering a fair bit of flexibility on even basic economy bookings - but check the terms and conditions carefully to make sure you can make changes or cancel without facing big fees.

Get travel insurance

There are a few travel insurers now providing coverage for COVID-19 and related delays and cancellations. These policies are not comprehensive and there are loopholes; however, they will cover you in the case, for example, that you're deemed a close contact of a COVID-19 case and are forced into managed quarantine. These policies are definitely worth it for added peace of mind – just, check the policy wording carefully.

​See also: Travel insurers start offering COVID-19 cover, but there's a (major) catch

Look for accommodation/tours/experiences with good cancellation policies

As you would in Australia now, do so in New Zealand as well. This is an era for reading the fine print, for knowing what you've paid for and what you're entitled to. If I was travelling to New Zealand for a holiday this year, I would be checking to see who is offering full refunds in the case you can't travel because of a COVID-19 outbreak. Is your accommodation refundable, or are the dates at least flexible? How about your rental car? Or your tours or any other experiences? Book with the right people and you could avoid a world of pain in the case of any delays or cancellations.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Auckland was the only city where international arrivals were being quarantined. This was incorrect. Some arrivals can transit to Hamilton, Rotorua and Christchurch and enter quarantine there.

Do you plan to holiday in New Zealand this year? Are you concerned about the risks? How do you plan to manage those risks, or minimise them?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

See also: Bubble loophole means Australians can travel to other countries via NZ

See also: How to find the perfect New Zealand holiday to suit your tastes

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