Travel’s new age is dawning. Many Kiwis are ready to spread their wings. Two long years of bottled-up wanderlust is finally being uncorked. An absolute frenzy of flight bookings is well underway, as travel-starved Kiwis embrace their new-found freedoms to roam beyond our shores. This pandemic is certainly not done with the world yet, so many prospective travellers will continue exercising a high degree of caution as to where they choose to go, when they go and for how long.
For some, it will take a while to confidently find their travel legs again, particularly for the more exotic faraway locales. And helping rebuild that sense of confidence and reassurance about resuming overseas travel, or laying plans to do so, is the primary motivation for this article. Daring to dream again about exploring the world is one thing – but now we can actually take flight. A friend of mine has just been visiting Ireland. She was genuinely struck by the mood on the ground, whereby the Irish were seemingly living their lives with new-found relish, filling the bars and streets, refusing to allow the long shadow of the pandemic to undermine their social and business fabric any longer.
So with our borders restrictions relaxed, what destinations are already resonating with Kiwi travellers? Where are we planning to jet off to? Travel agencies and online booking sites are reporting the same data trends.
Unsurprisingly, Australia is the biggest object of our affection. Much of that demand is being powered by what the tourism industry calls VFR Travel. (Visiting friends and relatives.) When our short-lived Tasman travel bubble was inflated last year, before being popped by Delta, VFR underpinned the bulk of movements across the Tasman. But in addition to reuniting with far-flung family, many new bookings are now being made for leisure travel, for pure holiday adventure.
The upswing in demand is so healthy, that some popular accommodation providers are already booked out in non-peak periods. I was hoping to stay a couple of nights at Binna Burra, in Queensland’s Springbrook National Park in late April. Alas, the no vacancy sign has already been put up. So, booking well in advance is advisable once again!
For the first time since 2019, the South Pacific is going to resemble a bumper winter holiday playground for tens of thousands of Kiwis, with the Cook Islands and Fiji leading the charge as tropical escape tractor-beams. In addition to Air New Zealand and Jetstar services, Fiji Airways will next week complement its Auckland flights to Nadi, with direct services from Wellington and Christchurch. Fiji is on fire. As more flight connections resume in the next few weeks across the Pacific, the likes of Hawaii, Tahiti and New Caledonia will soon follow suit. In contrast, Samoa’s international borders remain firmly closed to holidaymakers, without any clear opening date on the horizon. Expedia Travel Expert Lisa Perkovic tells me that based on trends from Expedia.co.nz, it’s clear that there is a keen appetite from Kiwis looking to get back to exploring the world. Since international border restrictions eased for New Zealanders, international accommodation interest on Expedia.co.nz has increased by close to 70%. International destinations such as Fiji, Sydney and Melbourne have been most popular. The return of international travel has come at a critical time, as Expedia’s latest Vacation Deprivation study reveals that 63% of working Kiwis feel vacation deprived, with nearly three quarters (74%) feeling more burnt out in 2021, due to the stress of the pandemic.
Beyond short-haul getaways, what other destinations are attracting big bookings?
House of Travel’s Chief Operating Officer, Brent Thomas says the stand-outs are the UK, USA and Canada. “After several years of missing out on travel we are seeing people travelling for longer
periods of time and looking to tick off bucket list experiences. Because of pent up demand across the globe and given that the New Zealand market has not begun travelling as quickly as other markets, we are starting to see capacity issues as popular experiences and destinations fill up. We recommend potential travellers talk with our consultants about their plans as soon as possible so that they do not miss out.”
Managing Director of Flight Centre Travel Group NZ, David Coombes, reports a similar picture. “The UK, Europe, the USA. We have had lots of customers booking long-haul trips over to the United Kingdom, and adding in other parts of Europe. The easy thing about travelling to the United Kingdom at the moment is there are basically no COVID 19 restrictions, which adds to its attractiveness. Other parts of Europe differ when it comes to COVID 19 regulations, so it’s good to double check these if you’re planning to extend your trip.”
The Covid age has been brutal on the travel industry, but I believe a legacy of this pandemic is a new-found appreciation for trusted travel experts. There are huge benefits in making your arrangements via a travel agent – particularly if you are long-hauling it to exotic destinations where the logistics of travel are more complex. Book those arrangements with a travel agent and you’ve got on-the-ground assistance and 24/7 expert customer care.
House of Travel’s Brent Thomas concurs. “Over the past two years, Kiwis have seen first-hand the lengths agents go to, in supporting their customers – whether that is advocating on their behalf for refunds, rerouting them when their flights home keep getting cancelled, or unravelling intricate plans for holidays that couldn’t be taken. As travel continues to be complex in the near future, travellers are seeing the value of booking with a travel agent and where they previously may have booked a trip themselves online, they know if something goes awry, they would have someone in their corner to help rather than being stuck on multiple different helplines on their own.”
Meanwhile, Flight Centre’s David Coombes says, “It’s interesting to see plenty of people who were previously confident in booking travel independently, instead turn to our travel experts for help – whether it’s to reconnect with family, book a holiday or travel for business. This does mean our team are much busier than usual, quickly coming close to pre-Covid levels, but with reduced staff numbers due to the impact of Covid. We have, however, retained 90 per cent of our people since that reduction, with an average tenure of almost 10 years, so customers can rest assured in a high-level of service. In the coming weeks, we will be welcoming back additional experienced travel consultants to help us manage the quick travel re-bound.”
Like a lot of Kiwis, I’ve long had the DIY travel gene too. I enjoy locking in my plans on online booking platforms, independently. But I’ve also experienced first-hand the enormous value of having that expert back-up of a travel agent who can pull strings and unravel travel knots, when things go pear-shaped. Going forward, I will certainly be using them and relying on trusted travel firms, for more complex and exotic globe-trotting adventures, while DIYing the more straight forward trips. The long-predicted demise of travel agents has been grossly exaggerated!
Even if you are eyeing up a quick and easy getaway across the Tasman or within the South Pacific, there’s no shortage of trip wire to navigate, as entry requirements, declaration forms and the reams of red tape constantly evolve. Your travel smarts need to be tightly attuned to the evolving dynamics. If you’re Australia-bound, the good news is that you will no longer need to undertake a pre-departure test from April 18. You will still need to show proof of being double vaccinated. A word of advice, if you are travelling to Western Australia. If you’re flying direct to Perth from New Zealand, the same entry conditions apply – you’ll just need to be double vaccinated. However, if you are heading to Perth on an inter-state flight from within Australia, triple vaccination is the entry
requirement. Across Fiji, the Cook Islands, Tahiti and New Caledonia, being double vaccinated and pre-departure tests are currently the standard entry requirements.
Travellers returning to New Zealand from the South Pacific, from the likes of Fiji and the Cook Islands, currently don’t require a negative pre-departure test. However, the South Pacific is the only exemption - the government currently requires you to get a pre-departure test from everywhere else in the world, including Australia, prior to flying home to New Zealand.
I hope that we’ll soon follow the likes of Australia, Canada and much of Europe – and drop this pre-departure testing requirement. The less crinkles in the travel process, the better. To keep up date with the ever-fluid entry regulations, country by country, most airline websites include a comprehensive page, specifying the entry requirements of your chosen destination. Here’s a link to the IATA-approved resource that Air New Zealand is using on their website. https://www.airnewzealand.co.nz/covid19-international-travel#timatic
A big bug-bear of mine is the yawning variability in the cost of pre-departure tests. (All the more reason for this pesky procedure to be given the flick!) The price range is wild and it absolutely pays to shop around. Now that supervised rapid antigen tests are being universally accepted as a legitimate pre-departure testing option, they are definitely the most cost-effective option, rather than forking out for a PCR nasal swab or saliva test.
You could pay anything from $40 to over $200 for a supervised RAT test for international travel purposes. Some providers are exploiting unsuspecting travellers with exorbitant charges, just for a RAT test. If you are heading off for a family holiday in the South Pacific, don’t get stung forking out $800 for the four of you, when you could only have to pay $160 from the likes of your local pharmacy.
Pharmacies certainly seem to be the most price-competitive. I contacted half a dozen of my local pharmacies, and the price for a supervised rapid antigen test ranged from $40 to $75. Similarly, in Australia, pharmacies seem to be the sharpest-priced, from $40. Histopath’s testing centres within the international terminals at the major airports charge AU$59 for a RAT test.
Don’t leave home without travel insurance and ensure it extends to Covid-related cover. All of the key players like Cover-More, Allianz and Southern Cross are offer comprehensive cover. But every insurer and every policy is different. The major feature is ensuring you are covered for medical expenses if you catch Covid-19 while away, along with cancelling/rescheduling costs if you or a relevant person are diagnosed with Covid before you leave. Similarly, check the extent of cover for costs incurred if your travels are disrupted by Covid, during the trip. If you're going on a cruise, make sure it's not excluded. Understandably, visiting a country subject to a “Do Not Travel” alert, government-imposed lockdowns or sudden border closures due to Covid-19 will not be covered by travel insurance.
Finally, make sure you have downloaded your International Vaccine Certificate from My Covid Record and check your passport has at least six months life left in it. It normally takes 10 working days for a new passport to be issued, but the standard processing time due to surging demand is currently 23 days. Add in postal delivery delays and you will want to allow at least a month for your newly-minted passport to reach you. And be sure to keep on top of the form-filling faff, with declaration requirements ahead of your next destination, including the NZ Traveller Declaration Form, before catching a flight home. https://www.travellerdeclaration.govt.nz/ Let’s fly!
Mike Yardley is our resident traveller on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.