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The Australia exit checklist: everything you need to prepare before travelling internationally

The Guardian logo The Guardian 3/12/2021 Susan Gough Henly
Photograph: James D Morgan/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: James D Morgan/Getty Images

Since the Australian government lifted the ban on fully vaccinated Australian citizens and permanent residents leaving the country without an exemption, on 1 November, interest in overseas travel has skyrocketed.

Research commissioned by Skyscanner in mid-November found that 44% of Australians were interested in travelling internationally in the next 12 months, and in November the flight service experienced a 128% month-on-month increase in searches for flights from December to February 2022.

However, after almost two years of border closures, enthusiasm is mixed with uncertainty. A fourth wave of Covid is sweeping across much of the northern hemisphere; while the new Omicron variant – recently identified in South Africa – is making many governments (including Australia) jittery, and has already caused border closures and changes to procedures.

A Qantas 787 takes off at Sydney airport for London via Darwin. The only constant in travel now is its Covid rules and regulations are constantly changing. © Photograph: James D Morgan/Getty Images A Qantas 787 takes off at Sydney airport for London via Darwin. The only constant in travel now is its Covid rules and regulations are constantly changing.

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The only constant now is that travel rules and regulations are constantly changing.

There is profound uncertainty regarding how Covid variants will impact international travel moving forward. Your first point of call should always be the Australian government’s Smartraveller website, which you can subscribe to for updates.

Given this state of affairs, you should undertake the following before making travel plans:

  • Complete a detailed risk/benefit analysis before you book.

  • Develop a realistic travel budget that includes payment for multiple PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests – usually a minimum of three, and often more in some destinations – for all trip members. Test costs can vary widely but are likely to be between $80 and $200 a person per test.

  • You will also need adequate contingency funding should Covid-19 conditions require you to extend your trip, possibly indefinitely.

  • Fully research and keep up to date with all the latest requirements for leaving and re-entering Australia (and each state) and entering the countries you wish to visit.

  • Read the fine print on your travel insurance closely, and be aware of which Covid conditions are covered and not covered.

  • Consider using the services of an experienced travel agent who is across the ever-changing travel regulations and can communicate them to you, both before you leave and while you’re on the road; make changes or cancellations to travel bookings; and assist with reimbursements.

Vaccination status and PCR tests: the paperwork

To travel internationally without an exemption you must show your International Covid-19 Vaccination Certificate (ICVC) at airline check-in when departing Australia, when arriving at your destination and before you board your return flight to Australia.

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You can create your ICVC on your myGov account. It will be provided in PDF format for printing, or electronic storage on your phone. Children 12 and over must be vaccinated while those under 12 travelling with vaccinated family members will be treated as vaccinated.

Currently, most flights out of Australia require proof of a negative Covid-19 PCR molecular test provided by a laboratory, which is not the same as a test from a free testing clinic in Australia.

In general, the PCR test must be done no more than 72 hours before the scheduled departure of the first leg of your flight (or no later than 48 hours before your departure for Singapore).

A nurse prepares a PCR test on a passenger at a pre-departure Covid clinic at Sydney airport. Photograph: James D Morgan/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian A nurse prepares a PCR test on a passenger at a pre-departure Covid clinic at Sydney airport. Photograph: James D Morgan/Getty Images

Prices are generally around A$150, but you can do a $79 PCR test, with a result within 90 minutes before departure, at Histopath Diagnostic Specialists testing centres at Sydney and Melbourne international airports.

A negative PCR test-result certificate will still be valid if your flight is delayed longer than the 72-hour window, but if the flight is rescheduled or cancelled you’ll need to take a new test.

If you’ve recovered from Covid, your PCR test may still detect fragments of the virus, so if you’ve had Covid recently, you will also need to get a fit-to-fly certificate from a medical practitioner. This will also be true upon re-entry.

Related: Trapped in travel limbo, visa holders consider giving up Australia to see family

There’s talk of encouraging travellers to get vaccine booster shots to strengthen their immunity, but this has not become mandatory.

Children’s Covid vaccination requirements are also evolving and vary between countries. “It’s always a red flag for me to double check vaccination age requirements for families travelling with children,” says Karen Majsay, business leader at Low and James Travel Associates in Neutral Bay.

Carry several printed copies (they do not need to be notarised) of both your ICVC and negative PCR test results, since you can’t always rely on digital technology while on the road.

Consider the worst-case scenario

As difficult as it may be, travellers should be realistic about all the uncertainties and potential additional expenses of international travel, especially if they get stranded overseas because of lockdowns.

Holly Seale, an associate professor in the School of Population Health at the University of New South Wales, has spent four months documenting the experiences of Australians stranded abroad.

“There needs to be an improvement in the quality of government information for those considering international travel or currently stranded abroad because of Covid-19,” she says. “We identified a gap in knowledge about the financial and mental impacts of border closures on a wide range of Australians.

“So many people have been wanting to reconnect with family and friends overseas for two years now.

“We all need to be mindful of the potential problems, such as border closures and flight availability, which may arise in a post-Covid world where new variants are always appearing. Arming yourself with as much information as possible helps with weighing up the risks and benefits ... It’s not about being alarmist, but we’re not sure what’s ahead of us right now.

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“It’s also really good to have a discussion with your GP before travelling,” she suggests. “People need to expand their travel health pack.”

Seale suggests people consider “bringing along higher-quality masks and possibly even respirators” and likens Covid booster shots to “other traditional travel regimens, including flu and other vaccines appropriate to where they are travelling”.

“Down the track, getting Covid shots may be considered no different than packing anti-diarrhoea tablets.”

There’s also the worst-case scenarios of Australians trapped overseas. Seale says “many have had to tap into super … while others have set up Go Fund Me accounts to survive. The impact on their lives goes far beyond financial strain, affecting work and schooling and mental health.”

Using a travel agent

Even for seasoned travellers used to making their own bookings, the services of a travel agent can be hugely helpful in reducing your research burden around shifting rules – and paperwork if things go wrong.

Flight Centre Travel Group has a dedicated research team providing its travel agents with up-to-date information about Covid travel requirements and restrictions.

“We are constantly cross-checking all the travel requirements and we summarise everything our clients need to do before they start their trip,” says Majsay. “We also support our clients when things change ... We email them with advice all along the way, including anything they need to do differently when they return home to Australia.

“The rules are constantly changing. You can’t check things enough these days.”

Travel insurance

According to consumer advocate Choice, it has never been more important to secure travel insurance. The Australian government Smartraveller site is even more emphatic, stating: “If you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel.”

Some countries, such as Fiji and Singapore, even mandate Covid travel insurance for visitors.

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Cover-More (​​owned and underwritten by the Zurich Insurance Group) is the market leader in Australia for its Covid-19 cover, and introduced Covid travel insurance benefits (previously unavailable in Australia) in December 2020.

According to Group CEO Cara Morton, Cover-More has kept premium increases to under 10% of pre-Covid rates. Flight Centre and Travel Associates are long-standing distribution partners for Cover-More. Liam Hawkes, a senior agent from Flight Centre Camberwell, says agents can streamline claims by providing all the cancellation and rebooking details and the attendant costs.

NIB (underwritten by Pacific International Insurance Pty Ltd) introduced Covi travel benefits last month. A number of independent travel agents have started selling NIB travel insurance.

Travel insurance will likely only cover medical, quarantine and some cancellation costs if you or someone you’re travelling with tests positive to Covid, or if the accommodation you’ve booked must shut down because of the virus. This coverage is in addition to the other basic travel insurance features like injury, delays and lost luggage.

In countries including Singapore (Changi airport pictured) and Fiji, travel insurance is a requirement of entry. Photograph: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian In countries including Singapore (Changi airport pictured) and Fiji, travel insurance is a requirement of entry. Photograph: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images

Travel insurance will not cover cancellations if you’re unable to travel due to lockdowns, government travel bans or border closures at home or at your planned destination.

Cover-More and NIB both offer unlimited Covid medical coverage overseas, in addition to a 24-hour medical assistance team to monitor care and organise repatriation, if required. They will also cover quarantine, cancellation and rebooking costs.

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Cover-More also covers additional accommodation expenses if you get Covid before your booked return flight, or on the first leg of your return journey, delaying your return to Australia, and will automatically extend your travel insurance at no cost until you can return.

Each company’s policies approach Covid coverage in slightly different ways, so it is essential you read the fine print. Cover-More, for instance, is currently not offering Covid insurance for multi-night cruises.

If Smartraveller has a “Do not travel” warning when you enter a particular country, your Covid insurance will not be valid. If the “Do not travel” status is applied when you are already in the country, your Covid-cover will be available.

Cancellation cover is also available if you contract Covid (or are deemed a close contact of someone with Covid) after you’ve purchased travel insurance but before you are scheduled to leave on your trip.

While Medicare has reciprocal agreements in countries such as the UK, this is more of a safety net for basic public health-care coverage. If you or your travelling companions get Covid, you still need comprehensive international travel insurance for private hospitalisation as well as all the benefits listed above.

The fewer countries in your itinerary, the better

Liam Hawkes, Flight Centre

Some tour operators and airlines are offering complimentary Covid insurance when you book through them, however their Covid insurance tends to be limited, may not cover other travel components, and might be issued by an overseas insurance company that is subject to the regulations of that country. Some credit card companies also offer complimentary insurance, but this generally does not cover Covid.

Majsay advises business travellers who normally just use their company’s policy to read it carefully, as some business policies may not have added Covid cover.

Multi-leg journeys

Majsay says that for long-haul journeys, “it’s easiest if you use one airline from your departure point through to your final destination, check your baggage all the way through and get all your boarding passes up front”.

If you’re travelling to the UK or Europe and transiting without stopping over, there are no added complexities to your flights. No extra tests will be required during transit, save for possibly a few random temperature checks. There is currently no difference in connecting through the Middle East or Asia.

“The Qantas QF1 flight between Sydney and London, which is currently operating through Darwin, is slightly easier as passengers don’t have to deal with transiting through an extra country,” Majsay says. “But it will revert to routing through Singapore in late March/early April.”

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Liam Hawkes from Flight Centre says: “If clients are unsure, I’m recommending the fewer countries in your itinerary, the better, to make travel as easy as possible.

“Most people are not asking about stopovers, because they want to get to their destination and then get home. They’re not looking for a three-day, lay-in-the-sun break.”

Spending time in the country you transit through is “of course, possible” Hawkes says. “But they add extra testing requirements and isolation while you wait for results.”

“If you want to enter Dubai, for instance, you must do a PCR test at the airport and stay in your hotel until you get a negative result, which is generally the same day. Then you must test again at your hotel and wait for the result prior to going to the airport for your onward journey.”

On arrival

Given the appearance of the new Omicron variant, arrival regulations around the world are changing daily and you must be vigilant about checking for updates.

Also pay close attention to testing requirements for children. The US, for instance, updated its testing policies on 2 December (US time), shortening the time-frame for pre-departure PCR tests to one day. The UK now requires travellers to self-isolate on arrival, pre-book a PCR test within two days of arrival and continue to isolate until getting a negative result. Singapore has added a requirement of rapid antigen Covid tests on days three and seven.

Traditional dancers in grass skirts welcome holidaymakers in Nadi this week as Fiji opened its borders to international travellers. Photograph: Leon Lord/AFP/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Traditional dancers in grass skirts welcome holidaymakers in Nadi this week as Fiji opened its borders to international travellers. Photograph: Leon Lord/AFP/Getty Images

Fiji opened its doors to Australians on 1 December with Covid-safe protocols in place, including pre-departure PCR tests; confirmed three-night bookings at Care Fiji Commitment accommodation; access to CFC-approved tours and restaurants; and rapid antigen testing 48 hours after arrival.

If you intend to visit multiple countries, you will need to grapple with multiple sets of rules that can change unpredictably, adding extra risk.

“Keeping to one part of the world or one country for the time being is going to be the safest way to travel,” says Hawkes.

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Majsay’s advice is: “If you want to spend time in Europe, stay longer in each country rather than adding more destinations, as you don’t want to be doing a PCR test every other day. Europe is currently not requiring quarantine but you will have to provide health passes proving your vaccination status to go to restaurants and museums etc.”

Re-entering Australia

When returning to Australia, you must complete an Australia travel declaration at least 72 hours before departure. The declaration collects your contact details in Australia, flight details, travel history, vaccination information, quarantine requirements and health status.

At check-in when returning to Australia, in addition to ICVCs for 12-and-overs, everyone who is aged over five must give proof of a negative PCR test provided by a laboratory, done no more than 72 hours before the scheduled departure of the first leg of your return flight.

International travellers wearing personal protective equipment arrive at Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport this week. Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian International travellers wearing personal protective equipment arrive at Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport this week. Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images

If you or a member of your travelling group tests positive for Covid-19, you won’t be allowed to travel to Australia and will have to self-isolate until all members of your party test negative.

The federal government manages Australia’s international borders. However, state and territory governments regulate quarantine (and other inbound health-related requirements).

You must keep up to date with your state’s rules, which are all different and always changing – for instance, NSW and Victoria updated re-entry rules with new isolation and testing requirements for anyone who arrived on or after 28 November, in response to the Omicron variant.

No other state is accepting international arrivals except those that have applied for travel exemptions (capped nationally at 200 people a week), where 14-day hotel quarantine is required.

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