Trans-Tasman bubble: when is it happening or has the idea burst?

Australia and New Zealand have always had a unique relationship – from ‘friendly’ matches of cricket or rugby through to never really settling who created the sweet meringue-goodness we call pavlova. Residents from each country have also enjoyed relatively straightforward travel back and forth without needing to apply for a visa. That is until the coronavirus pandemic hit our shores.

When COVID-19 became an international threat, many countries closed their borders to non-essential international travel to prevent further spread of the virus. This included Australia and New Zealand. However, as each country seeks to minimise new cases of community-spread coronavirus, there has been discussion around establishing a trans-Tasman bubble that enables travel between the two countries without the need to quarantine at either end. But how exactly would this bubble work in practice, and would any outbreaks threaten to burst it?

In this article, we look at:

What is a travel bubble?

A travel bubble is an arrangement between the governments of countries that enables travel between them. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries have closed their borders to international travellers to contain the spread of the virus or required a strict quarantine program to be adhered to by any new arrivals. A travel bubble may be arranged between countries that are deemed relatively safe, meaning community transmission of the virus is low or non-existent, and can allow travellers to enter without mandatory quarantine on arrival.

When will the trans-Tasman bubble open?

In December 2020, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern flagged there could be a travel bubble with Australia early this year, however, no specific dates have been stated. She said the introduction of the bubble would depend on a number of factors, including zero community transmission cases in Australia for 28 consecutive days and putting in place contingencies in case there were future outbreaks.

This means that the recent outbreaks in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne could impact or push back the date of the establishment of the bubble.

“It is our intention to name a date for the commencement of trans-Tasman quarantine-free travel in the new year, once remaining details are locked down,” Ms Ardern said.

Australian health minister Greg Hunt supported the notion of a trans-Tasman bubble, saying Australia was ready to press go and that this bubble would be the first step toward normalising international travel.

A Qantas spokesperson told Canstar the airline was running a limited schedule to New Zealand with the number of flights available increasing from the end of March to align with the most recent announcement by the New Zealand government about opening borders in early 2021.

Another spokesperson from the airline said Qantas was reviewing and updating its international schedule in response to the COVID-19 situation and that the restart of international flying would be subject to vaccine rollouts and the government opening the international border.

“Recently we have aligned the selling of our international services to reflect our expectation that international travel will begin to restart from July 2021,” they said.

Air New Zealand said in a statement that it was already preparing for recommencing quarantine-free travel.

“Safety is obviously a big priority for our airline, and we’ve been working closely with governments, relevant agencies and airports on what is required to keep our customers and staff safe once travel opens up,” said chief executive Greg Foran.

“We appreciate people are enthusiastic about travel, and we can assure customers that as soon as it is viable, Air New Zealand will be ready.”

New Zealand travel
A campervan drives near Mt Cook, New Zealand. Source: Onsuda (Shutterstock)

How will the trans-Tasman travel bubble work?

Once the trans-Tasman bubble has opened, it will enable passengers from Australia and New Zealand to travel freely between the countries without needing to quarantine. It is possible that there will be some caveats included, such as the requirement to quarantine if you recently visited a hotspot, as determined by state or federal government.

Can I travel between Australia and New Zealand now?

Currently, anyone flying from Australia to New Zealand is required to carry documents to show they have secured one of the limited spots at an approved facility to undergo the managed isolation program.

New Zealand residents or people with visas can fly to eligible Safe Travel Zones in Australia, which at the time of writing includes all states and territories except WA, without needing to quarantine on arrival provided they meet the Australian Government’s criteria. Currently Air New Zealand is offering quarantine-free flights from Auckland to Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney.

To avoid quarantine, passengers must fly to Australia on a designated quarantine-free flight and present an Australian Travel Declaration at check-in confirming they have only been in New Zealand over the last 14 days and have not been in a designated COVID-19 outbreak location, with the same conditions applying for every traveller on the same flight. Speak with your airline to determine whether your planned flight is quarantine free as not all are, and you may be required to quarantine for two weeks at your expense. Red and green zones have been created at Australian airports to facilitate the quarantine process, with passengers separated based on whether they’ve arrived on a ‘quarantine free’ flight or need to enter quarantine.

It is a good idea to keep an eye on the news, New Zealand Government’s SafeTravel and Australian Government’s Department of Home Affairs and Smartraveller websites for updates prior to your flight to check whether there are any hotspots where you currently are or plan on travelling to.

What if I book a flight and the bubble isn’t approved or my circumstances change?

It is important to familiarise yourself with the refund policy of your airline before you purchase your ticket. Most airlines are offering more flexibility in light of the coronavirus pandemic. For example, Qantas is offering to waive the change fee one time if passengers choose to change the date of their travel before 31 March 2021. If a flight is cancelled, Qantas will rebook passengers on the next available flight or offer a flight credit or refund.

Air New Zealand is offering free changes or credit if passengers need to cancel trips for all travel up until 31 March 2021.

Travel insurance is not likely to cover your costs for cancellations. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission says cancellations made because of restrictions enforced by a government may not result in an automatic refund.

Canstar finance expert Steve Mickenbecker said anyone planning on travelling and buying travel insurance should get to know the cancellation coverage of the policy as changing plans due to coronavirus-related events were unlikely to be covered.

“Most policies have a ‘known events’ clause, which means that if the event is already a known risk when the policy is taken out, you will not be covered,” he said.

At the time of writing there are six travel insurance companies on Canstar’s database that offer some form cover for COVID-19 claims for travel to New Zealand.

Should I take out travel insurance when travelling to New Zealand?

While most policies are unlikely to cover coronavirus-related claims, having travel insurance may cover claims for expenses such as:

  • Cancellation of flights, accommodation and tours
  • Cover for theft or lost luggage and personal items
  • Overseas emergency medical expenses (for expenses outside the reciprocal health care agreement)
  • Rental car insurance excess

Each policy will vary in the extent of coverage it offers including what is and isn’t covered as well as any limits to amounts you can claim. It is a good idea to read the product disclosure statement (PDS) of a policy before you decide which is right for you.

“One big thing that has come out of this crisis is that people are much more aware of the risks when it comes to travelling, and are more aware that not all insurance policies are equal,” Mr Mickenbecker said.

“It has shown that people should not only look at the premium costs when they buy insurance, but also what the policy includes and excludes. Anyone buying insurance should read the Product Disclosure Statement (PDS) very carefully, to see if there are pandemic or epidemic exclusions, and what cancellation costs are covered and under what circumstances those cancellations would be covered.

“If the COVID-19 crisis has taught us anything about travel insurance, it’s that the earlier you buy your insurance, the better. Once you part with money for flights and accommodation, that’s the time to buy insurance or you could be at risk of not being able to buy cover for certain things later on.”

Cover image source: Galina Gorkavay (Shutterstock). Fun fact, Kiwifruit actually originated from China, not New Zealand. 

This article was reviewed by our Sub Editor Jacqueline Belesky and Deputy Editor Sean Callery before it was published, as part of our fact-checking process.

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