This week Qantas announced the tentative return of international air travel to and from Australia in 2021, with ticket sales now open for flights from 1 July. But while a week on a tropical beach may be just what the doctor ordered, don’t dust your suitcase off yet.
Despite bookings opening, government decisions on international travel will not be swayed. “Operations and ticket sales on particular routes are commercial decisions for airlines,” deputy prime minister Michael McCormack said in a statement this week. “International borders will be opened when international arrivals do not pose a risk to Australians.”
The international travel ban, which was expected to expire at the end of 2020, has been extended until at least 17 March 2021, one year after it was first imposed. Qantas flights that were previously on sale from March 2021 have been pushed back, with the hope that some travel bubbles will be established by July. The Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has also said that vaccine rollouts and whether or not travellers have had the jab could be determining factors in future international travel.
So should you book now? Leaving the medical risks of international travel during a pandemic aside, we read the fine print to help you decide.
How do I actually get out of Australia right now?
Under the travel ban, Australian citizens and permanent residents cannot leave the country without an exemption from the Department of Home Affairs. Exemptions are granted for business travel, travel on compassionate grounds, or for those planning to leave the country for longer than three months. If you are a temporary visa holder in Australia or a resident abroad (that is, you’ve spent more time outside Australia than inside for the last 12 to 24 months), you can leave anytime if a flight is available, but you may not be allowed back in.
Who is flying out of Australia?
Currently, Qantas is running a limited number of international flights to a slender selection of locations, such as New Zealand and the UK ( which you need an exemption to board). Qatar Airways and Cathay Pacific are also offering flights to Hong Kong and Doha, with connections available to Europe; while United and Hawaiian Airlines have flights to the United States. Jetstar states that all international flights (except to New Zealand and some Pacific Islands) are suspended until February 2021. Virgin has also suspended all long-haul international flights until “sufficient demand returns”, and short-haul until restrictions lift.
Where are they flying and when?
For travellers without exemptions, bookings for Qantas and Jetstar flights from most Australian capital cities to destinations around the world, including Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, India and the US, can be made now for flights between 1 July and the end of the year. But buying a ticket is gambling on the travel ban lifting.
If these flights take off, travellers will need to comply with the destination country’s travel requirements, which may include mandatory quarantine or self-isolation, Covid-19 tests and masks.
Is it cheaper to book a ticket now?
Generally speaking, the later in 2021 you book, the lower the prices are; but if you’re hoping for a steeply discounted ticket to lure you aboard, you will be disappointed.
Even flights towards the end of 2021 are not cheaper than low-cost fares prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. If you want to get on a plane before 1 July, you will be facing much higher fares, but prices start to resemble pre-pandemic rates after that date. For example, a return Qantas trip from Sydney to London Heathrow in April 2021 (if the travel ban has indeed lifted then) will set you back at least $3,000, not including any quarantine costs.
But book for July and that cost, on Qantas, drops by about a third to under $2,000. On international airlines such as Qatar, British Airways and Cathay Pacific, flights to London can be as low as $1,400 for travel between August and December, but direct flights to and from the United States are still far more expensive than in previous years. Return flights from Sydney to Bangkok start at around $1,000 in July, but drop slightly from September onwards.
As a low-cost airline, Jetstar offers more competitive prices. While a return Qantas airfare from Sydney to Bali in July sits at around $800, Jetstar starts at around $600, around $500 from Melbourne, or around $350 from Brisbane.
Please note that prices were correct at the time of publication, but may fluctuate.
If borders don’t open in time for my flight, can I change or get a refund?
If Qantas cancels your flight, you will be rebooked on to the next available flight, if possible. You will also be entitled to a flight credit or refund, with no change or cancellation fees. For international flights on or before 31 March 2021, you may elect to cancel or change with no extra fees. After that date the standard fare rules apply, so if you choose to cancel or change your trip, you can request a flight credit, but this may incur a cancellation fee. Different classes of tickets have different rules for cancellation and change fees, so you should check these thoroughly before you book.
If I leave, and the situation with borders hasn’t changed, can I get back in?
Australia has never barred citizens or permanent residents from entering the country during the pandemic. At this stage, the number of Australian arrivals is capped at just over 6,000 per week, and all are subject to mandatory 14-day designated hotel quarantine. No date has been set for the easing of this rule, so if you can get on a flight overseas, something many Australians abroad have been unable to do, there is still no guarantee you won’t have to quarantine upon your return. The government is considering alternative quarantine arrangements for other types of arrivals down the track, including for migrants and international students.
Will I ever be allowed to take an international holiday?
In October, the prime minister Scott Morrison said that Australia is negotiating quarantine-free travel bubble arrangements with “low-risk” countries such as New Zealand and several Asian countries, including Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan. New Zealand will likely be first, but not until Australia has gone 28 consecutive days with zero cases of community transmission. No roadmaps to other travel bubbles have been confirmed so far.