Tips for Australians travelling by air during Covid19

Between late October-mid January I squeezed in 15 flights across 3 Australian states – mostly to run drone workshops.  My business relies on being able to travel so I’ve had to figure out a bit about flying during a pandemic! I’m sharing tips as many people find the prospect of flying during a pandemic daunting. Care needs to be taken but it need not be worrying in a country such as Australia where the incidence of CV19 is thankfully low.

The following travel tips do not supplant government health department and airline advice – official sources must of course be monitored for the latest rules and health advice. (EG the websites for your state government health department and the airline you are flying with.)

Mask wearing on planes and in terminals was optional, finally it’s now compulsory in some states and on some airlines. Wear a mask in confined places surrounded by other people, when travelling – why would anyone not do this, at present?  That’s a mystery to me.

You’re heading off on a plane, either within your state or across a state border – what do you need to consider? What do you need to do?

First of all: know your personal style and typical outlook. Do you:

  1. Really struggle when plans are disrupted?
  2. Or – view interruptions as just inconveniences, and changes as potential improvements?

If you fall into the first category you may find travelling at present very stressful particularly if you’re doing anything other than a simple one-leg journey on a high traffic capital city route. Because even if plans don’t change, there’s the constant knowledge that they may.  If you fall into the second category, then you’ll view travel as a great adventure. This is me – I view flying as fantastic, I take photographs non-stop, and I feel very fortunate to be able to travel – even just down the road in my own region. But to mitigate angst, I do plan for a potential disruption.

If you’re not into details – here’s the summary of what to do when flying while there is a risk of CV19 infection:

There’s 3 main aspects to consider:

  1. Coronavirus travel rules: government rules and airline rules. Check the online info provided by all the govt health departments in the states you’ll be in. Check rules implemented by the airline you’re flying with (easily found – on the booking pages). If state governments require border passes, apply in good time and keep an eye on changes. (Note that this post is not re international travel, which is controlled by the Federal Government.)
  2. Keeping yourself and others CV19 infection-free: travel with a small bottle of hand sanitiser in your pocket or handbag. In addition to packing some face masks, wear one and take at least one spare in your pocket.  Dispose of (or wash) worn masks, carefully.
  3. Time & flexibility: allow plenty of time – EG don’t book flights too close to important events, and remember there is the potential for a delay – so pack more than one pair of undies. (Under the heading ‘Advance Precautions’ there’s my tips on what to think about, in case your return home is delayed.)

Above all: hope for the best, plan for the worst – expect unexpected changes and find positives if it happens.

Menindee Lakes, Western NSW; out the window on the Broken Hill to Sydney flight. This photo was taken a couple of years ago in the midst of the most recent drought.  2021 is a great year to fly over a lot of inland Australia that has been enjoying rain – some parts of Central Australia are looking the best they have for many years.

If you’re like me and prefer details and understanding why, plus handy tips, read on….

Everyone who books flights while Coronavirus is around must bear in mind:

  • Flight schedule changes: In order to remain financially viable airlines need to constantly readjust their flight schedules. It’s inconvenient for us – but it’s their livelihood; they’re under huge pressure.
  • There are fewer flights running, so if you’re flying 2-3 legs it’s more likely that you might have to stay overnight, in-between flights.
  • Because of financial constraints call centres are short staffed, compared to the load.  And if a border closes suddenly it may take a few hours to get through to the airline call centre as they’re swamped. (If you’d like to hear the Qantas theme music, just ask me and I can hum it for you.) Sometimes the automated voice recording offers the call-back option and take it if offered because it works well. Twitter is also an excellent way to contact Qantas if all other means aren’t working and your enquiry has reached the urgent stage. But – first try everything you can via the website, then try the phone next (early Sunday morning is best, when sluggards are still asleep), then Twitter as a last resort. This helps avoid clogging the system for those who really have to speak to an assistant urgently.
  • Flight change fees waived: the upside is that Qantas and presumably other airlines are now waiving the fee if you change your domestic flights. This means you can book and then change your flight without penalty – just paying the fare difference, if there is any. Or you can request a flight credit which will be valid for 1 year.  It’s brilliant as these changes can usually be made quickly and easily, online. Airlines of course introduced this to give prospective passengers the confidence to book without risking a stack of cash on fees for changes beyond their control. But note – who knows how long this fee-free change arrangement will continue – so best to check before booking, rather than presuming. It worked in January when I had to change my flight twice due to a hotspot lockdown and it has been theoretically extended until January 2022. But it may not be the case today!
  • Note that when airlines change flight schedules, there is of course no change fees either. And – Qantas still has the free ‘same day mistake’ fix-up option that lasts until midnight on the day of booking. You used to have to ring an operator to arrange a fee-free change but you may be able to DIY online now.

Australian Federal Government’s Covid Safe app – easy to download, and it keeps working as long as you keep bluetooth on. Like wearing a mask, this is a no-brainer. Nobody will be stalking you that couldn’t find you more easily via your mobile phone, credit card receipts and social media use, so no need for a tin hat.

Crossing Australian state borders during a pandemic:

  • Travel restrictions – before doing anything else, assess what the rules are today. Find the state government page that lists the latest information in the state you live in, where you’re going to, and also where you’re transiting through. Transiting through an airport is usually ok but again this is something that must be checked. Be aware that you’ll have to check back regularly before departing, it’s not the airline’s job to check for you. 
  • To make it easier for customers to find accurate information some airlines have added a page of information to their websites, listing direct links to the relevant government information pages. EG the Qantas page listing state government Covid19 rules which also lists links to Australian Government pages explaining international travel restrictions and requirements.
  • Border passes may be needed to leave the state plus one to re-enter. Or you may be lucky and need none at all.
  • It’s best to apply for border passes 2-3 weeks before travelling; but be guided by the specific advice on the state government’s websites; there’s variations between states.
  • When border restrictions are in place, people who arrive off interstate flights are queued outside the arrival gate and checked by the ADF or police before being allowed to leave. Passengers must produce identification plus their border pass. People who arrive without a border pass may be given a form to fill in on the spot – but in theory they can be denied entry and told to fly back to where they came from. Or be fined or both. And of course border checks would slow to a snail’s pace if everyone didn’t apply in advance. It might sound daunting but it’s all done in a friendly and very efficient manner.
  • When you receive border crossing approval, I recommend printing out a copy of your border pass/es and carrying it/them with you, as well as keeping a screenshot on your mobile phone, and the original email.

Apply for your border passes, if required, in plenty of time. It’s a good idea to carry a printed copy with you, as well as details on your phone

  • Pay for all your expenses with a credit card and keep your receipts in rough date order. Receipts and/or your credit card transaction list are excellent proof of exactly where you’ve been and when, should officials query whether you’ve visited a ‘hot spot’.  Receipts are also useful for contact tracing. (Having the credit card banking app on your phone may be handy.)
  • Boarding passes – keep them as proof of the airports you’ve visited and details of the flights you’ve been on (better than just showing flight bookings, as boarding passes are proof you checked in). I met a medical specialist who was constantly travelling from Victoria to Queensland, and he used his boarding passes for this, as he was often queried.

Wearing a mask when in close proximity with other travellers is a no-brainer. But it must be done with a bit of thought, to be effective.

Face masks:

As we’ve been told again and again; physical distancing and masks are the best protection.  Re physical distancing – if your time is flexible, only travel on public transport during off-peak hours and stay out of supermarkets and other shops at peak times, such as after work. Smart but simple decisions to avoid crowded places help reduce your risk and make for more relaxing travel.

Face masks protect you from catching coronavirus but also – if you’re unknowingly infected (asymptomatic) a mask will help prevent you passing it on to others.  Face masks are easy to wear in cool or dry climates – but not pleasant in very hot and humid climates (Darwin during the wet season? Tested that and it’s not fun!) But nothing compared to getting crook so what must be done, must be done.

How to wear masks when travelling within Australia:

  • Put your mask on when you leave home, before you get in a taxi to the airport, and don’t take the mask off at least until outside the destination airport or taxi/train/bus. Or until you’re in your destination hire car or hotel room (depending on rules at the time, ability to physically distance from others, and your general health risk).
  • If you are more vulnerable to infection due to age or pre-existing health conditions then you’re best advised to put a mask on before you set foot outside your own house and keep wearing masks unless in your hotel room or in a hire car. You might also want to consider wearing two masks (‘double masking’) for extra protection. (There’s many articles online re wearing two masks at once.)
  • Don’t fiddle. Put your mask on and only readjust it if really needed. Our hands are always touching squillions of surfaces, without us even thinking about it.
  • Normally I refer to planes as Flying Feedlots however I don’t eat much if at all on planes at present – it’s better to just leave the mask in place. Unless flying non-stop from one coast to another, there’s no flights in Australia that are so long that not eating will be an issue.
  • In humid air, glasses fog up in nanoseconds. Sit your glasses on top of your mask so that your breath isn’t sneaking out the top and causing condensation on your glasses.
  • Used masks – once I’ve taken a mask off I don’t re-use it (it’s either binned or stowed away for washing). Used masks must of course be taken off and stored carefully, as potentially there’s virus on the outside surface. And if you unknowingly have coronavirus, virus fragments would be on the inside and could infect other people – so just turning it inside out & rolling it up isn’t a solution.
  • Disposable masks – make sure you pull the elastic off before you bin it, so wildlife don’t become tangled in it at rubbish tips.
  • Re-usable masks – wash according to health department directions (from memory, a good hot soapy water. I suspect the sun in northern Australia would kill most viruses stone dead very quickly, but that’s just a guess.)

What kind of face mask is best?

  • There’s many online articles discussing style options and of course the degree of secure protection required varies according to individual circumstances.
  • In Australia, off-the-shelf disposable masks from chemist shops and supermarkets are the currently accepted standard for most people. So are well made cloth masks. But ultimately this is personal choice. Where risks are higher, people choose more complicated and expensive masks with inbuilt filters and much more securely fitted. Or they wear 2 masks at once (as mentioned above).
  • Free masks are typically given out by Australian airlines from a bin beside the boarding queue, but by this time you should already have a mask on. I usually take one and keep it to wear on the next flight.
  • Wearing your face mask – it must cover your nose and mouth, down to the bottom of your chin; with gaps as small as possible, or better still – no gaps on the sides at all. Some heads are easier to fit gap-free masks to than others!
  • Some face masks have fine wire in the centre of one side which can be bent to fit neatly over noses, so check you’ve got your mask the right way up before putting it on.
  • Elastic or ties? My preference is elastic, but to be firm enough it may eventually irritate the back of your ears.  If you have to wear a mask for days, you’ll probably end up opting for ties.
  • If your mask keeps creeping up to your eyes – then crossing the ear elastic straps over means the top of the mask is pulled down towards the bottom of your ear, rather than the top. However this can create mask gaps on either side, so it won’t suit every face shape.
  • Earrings are best kept small and simple when wearing facemasks – definitely not dangly, as you risk them getting caught and either hurting your ear or falling out and getting lost.

Disposable masks are great for trips away when washing isn’t feasible, but they must be disposed of carefully. Always travel with a spare in your packet.

Sanitising your hands and other festy things:

Once outside your home, touch surfaces with your hands as little as possible. Easier said than done, so here’s some tips for minimising the risk:

  • Human viruses like living in warm & humid people – not dry air-conditioned rooms, direct sunlight, or dark cars left sitting out on a typical Australian summer’s day. Covid19 apparently dies within hours or days on most surfaces. So there’s a balance between being consistently careful and obsessed to the point of sleeping with one eye open. (Bearing in mind – this blog post is discussing the situation in Australia, not countries where the current risk is much greater.)
  • Elbows are for touching things your fingers used to manage, such as lift buttons and road ‘walk’ buttons – although in many cities, ‘walk’ buttons have now been automated.
  • Credit & debit cards – use these for payment instead of cash, and turn on/enable ‘contactless’ payments, so you don’t have to enter a PIN for small transactions. (If you have the issuing bank’s app on your phone, you may be able to turn ‘contactless payments’ on and off within seconds. Leaving it off, when not required, is a good anti-theft measure.)
  • Buy a small, angular bottle of hand sanitiser to fit neatly into your pocket & handbags – and small enough to be accepted by airline baggage security.
  • Hand sanitise when: leaving a taxi, plane or public transport; after checking in to a flight; before and after visiting supermarkets and other shops especially petrol stations; and always after paying for anything (touching cards & EFTPOS terminals). And after touching trolleys and handrails!
  • The second benefit of using some brands of hand sanitiser is that if you touch your eyes they’ll probably sting – and that’s a good reminder to not touch your eyes!
  • Soap and water is still best! Hand sanitiser should kill the virus or most of it but best to pretend it doesn’t – soap and water your hands thoroughly as soon as you arrive in your hotel room and before eating. Hand sanitiser isn’t prevention against other hand-transmitted afflictions, such as gastroenteritis, whereas good soap and water handwashing is.
  • I don’t eat anything at all with my hands, unless in my hotel room and I’ve been able to have a thorough wash immediately beforehand. Straight out of a paperbag or cutlery is best! There’s also lots of nifty reusable travel cutlery sets available to buy, online.
  • If using the plane’s tray table for anything, use one of the sanitiser sachets that the airline are giving out with face masks, to wipe the latch and surface clean, first. Don’t put anything into the seat back pockets, unless protected by a plastic bag (that you later turn inside out to use as a rubbish bag, then throw out).  The seatbelt, window shade and airvents have been touched by many other people, not just seats, screens and armrests, and realistically all these things cannot be cleaned thoroughly in between passengers. So fundamentally – as much as possible, reduce the contact that your possessions have with any surfaces and clean your hands thoroughly before eating and immediately upon disembarking.
  • What are the germiest things you’re likely to be carrying? Your phone, glasses, pens, wallet & contents and your handbag. (We won’t even mention suitcase wheels…just never let them touch your bed linen, anywhere anytime. Especially if like me you drag them miles along footpaths instead of taking a taxi.) And don’t forget your car steering wheel – likely to be festy.
  • Reading glasses – soap and water works a treat. Your phone & pens – the sanitiser sachets that Qantas include with the masks are ideal. Your wallet, handbag & contents? Just sanitise/wash your hands after digging around!
  • Improvise – no hand sanitiser, soap & water or gloves handy? Plastic bags or paper napkins suffice if used carefully. EG when I had to do a round trip of more than 1,000km in March 2020 to a photography commission, no hand sanitiser, disinfectant of any kind or gloves could be bought for love nor money. So when filling up the car I used plastic bags on my hands. I also had bottles of water & liquid soap in my car plus a couple of old sheets to use as ‘tablecloths’ in the motel.
  • Spare towels are great for using as a ‘tablecloth’ on your bedside table or hotel desktop, then you don’t have to be so concerned about possessions that you unpack and spread around. Good hotels have upped their cleaning standards but we all know the virus has escaped strict hotel quarantine for international arrivals – so best not to presume cleaning is perfect! I always treat hotel carpet as if it is festy – and keep footwear on.

EFTPOS terminals, computer keyboards, airconditioning & TV remotes, light switches & door handles, lift buttons – all potential virus spreaders. So disinfect your hands before and after touching these potential germ harbourers.

Booking your hotel:

  • The more expensive hotels are likely to be more zealous with their cleaning standards, as they have more to lose if it goes pear-shaped – community transmission traced back to them would be very bad for business!
  • However hotels that are quieter and more out of the way may also help reduce the risk from other guests as the demographic is different. If you have a choice, think about who the other guests are likely to be. A stack of travellers just back from Aspen, or bushies from remote areas? I do still stay in busy airport hotels, full of travellers from all over Australia – but I do take extra care.
  • I’ve always loved hotels that have opening windows and/or a balcony – now we have an excellent reason for choosing them over fully sealed rooms.

Double Tree Hotel at Alice Springs – sunrise view from the balcony. Hotels with opening windows and/or balconies are a great choice for health reasons – fresh air rather than recirculated through aircons. Opening windows plus ceiling fans is what I’ve always looked for in hotels in Australian hotels. Unless it’s roasting or freezing, fresh air is better for us and better for the environment.

Eating – room service? Restaurants?

  • QR codes – contact tracing means that any business that you hang around for a while must collect and keep your contact details. EG restaurants, hotels and airlines. The latter are now collecting extra info when tickets are booked. Restaurants and hotels/motels often want customers to scan a QR code on their phone – it involves a lower risk of virus transmission but also it saves them a lot of admin as it’s all computerised. Figure out how to get your phone to scan QR codes before you leave home (EG test it in a supermarket). If you have trouble, google your phone model and someone will have written about how to do it. My Samsung phone has a drop down menu with a ‘scan QR code’ option that I have to turn on each time I want to scan.
  • Download & activate the Covid Safe app. I’m not sure how much governments are using it – but it can’t hurt. Google, social media, credit card & phone companies – they all know where you are already. The app just helps contact trace people you’ve spent time near.
  • Virus transmission has occurred in restaurants, cafes and bottle shops. Given the choice, my personal preference is eating outdoors in a park or in my hotel room.  If eating indoors at a restaurant, go early to avoid peak hour and avoid sitting beside thoroughfares.

Fantastic fish curry at Darwin’s Mercure Airport Hotel. If you have the option to eat outside in the fresh air, without passing foot traffic, then choose al fresco rather than eating indoors. If you’re twitchy about the pristineness of cutlery then BYO – well designed travel cutlery sets are available and they fit easily into handbags and pockets.

Flight scheduling:

  • Minimise transit stops – choose routes as direct as possible, even if the time, day, or price isn’t what is preferred. Australia-wide, airports are logically the most likely place that you’ll encounter a traveller who has been in contact with someone with Covid19.
  • The more complicated the journey and the quieter the route, the more problematic flight changes may be.
  • Stick to #KISS – keep your route simple, and precautionary – avoid the two most populous Australian states. When flying to Adelaide from North Queensland I was asked numerous times if I wanted to fly via Sydney or Melbourne – no thanks – only from Brisbane straight to Adelaide, thus limiting travel to just 2 states. Same when flying to Alice Springs;  I flew Townsville – Darwin – Alice Springs – Brisbane – Townsville; keeping it to the 2 state minimum, just Qld & NT, although flying through Sydney or Adelaide would have given me many more flight options, taken less time (waiting between flights), and perhaps been cheaper.
  • Many of my flights have been changed by the airline more than once, and the automatic rescheduling has sometimes resulted in connections that don’t actually work. So – all flight changes must be checked very carefully.
  • And: Do not book domestic or international legs with different airlines unless it’s unavoidable (eg you’re flying on a national carrier and also need to do a leg on a small regional airline, where the national carrier doesn’t fly). Because if the whole journey is booked with one company and one flight is changed or you miss a connection because an earlier flight was delayed, the onus is on the airline to fix it for you.  If you must take a journey with more than one carrier, at least allow plenty of time between the arrival of one flight and the departure of the next. The most startling change I’ve had was receiving a text notification on a Saturday afternoon that my Tuesday flight was actually moving forward to Monday. That caused a flurry of activity!
  • Time – allow plenty of it. Over the last few months I usually fly in a day early and pay for another nights accommodation away, because if I’m running a workshop it would be disastrous to be late due to a flight change beyond my control.
  • And don’t book to return just a day before something that you really need to be home for, that’s just asking for a flight change headache!  Allow time buffers, as much as possible.
  • Right now I often book forward & return journeys separately, rather than a full return flight. It doesn’t cost more to do this (unlike years ago when return flights were cheaper than booking one way at a time). It’s simpler if you need to make changes to just one leg. If you need to make changes because a schedule change that the airline made won’t work for you, and the flights that will work cost more than you originally paid, it may be worth ringing the call centre to discuss whether the extra cost can be waived.
  • Be aware that if you’re very unlucky and there’s a sudden virus outbreak you may have to quarantine for 2 weeks when you get home, especially if you’re from either NSW or Victoria, or visiting these two most populous states. 2 weeks quarantine isn’t going to be a problem for anyone with flexibility, eg those who work from home or are retired. But for anyone with 9 to 5 employment requiring them to front up in person to do their job, it could turn out to be expensive and hard to love.  The risk of this happening is low but if you’ve thought about it in advance you’ll cope much better with it, should it happen.

Flight planning – minimise border crossings and allow plenty of time.

Advance precautions, to make an unexpected COVID19 induced travel delay less inconvenient:

I haven’t been held up by having to quarantine anywhere for 2 weeks but that’s just good luck. EG last November if I’d flown out of Adelaide two days later I’d have had to isolate at home for 14 days, and if it was a week later, I’d have not been allowed back into Queensland for a while. So I do a few things just in case I am held up when away:

  • Overnight trip? We all love packing light and most border closures do give a bit of notice, but my advice is to take a clothing set of three (one on, one to wash and one drying).
  • If you have a job or business to run, take some work that you can do while away – load it onto your laptop or portable hard drive or upload to a cloud service. Think about transferring passwords, apps, programs etc that you only have on your desktop.
  • And/or take something personal to do, EG a stack of image folders that need sorting out or captioning. The kind of task that few of us gets around to doing and would feel productive to conquer.
  • If nobody will be in your home think about what would need doing if you’re away for 2 weeks longer than planned. What perishables are in your fridge? Pet care, garden, mail and bins. Access key left with someone living nearby. Possibly smoothly sorted if you have friends, family or good neighbours who’d help but there may be some simple things you could do to make it easier.  Preparation doesn’t have to be complicated but at the very least, make sure you don’t leave anything to go rotten in your fridge!

Covid19 testing:

  • I’ve had three tests; once after escaping compulsory quarantine by just two days, after returning from Adelaide. I didn’t have to get tested but as my next drone workshop was in a remote area and I didn’t want to be a plague spreader, thought it was a smart precaution.  The other two tests were just before and after Christmas, when I got a nasty cold or flu. (How, when I’m so conscientious, has me mystified. Two people were sneezing beside me on a flight just a few days before; we all had masks on, but it’s the most likely source.)
  • When there’s a sudden outbreak there can be queues at the most obvious testing facilities so research which are the quietest and the least busy times (you know that thing when you think you’ll get in first in the morning? Everyone thinks that! Especially if they have to head off to a paid job somewhere.) During normal times – it may only be a 10-30 minute wait for a test, then done & dusted.
  • Does a coronavirus test hurt? No – it’s super quick and painless.
  • How long does it take to get coronavirus test results? Obviously varies according to the pathology workload at the time – but I’ve always had results back (via a phone text), within 12 hours.
  • You must quarantine between having the test done and receiving negative results.

You have a cough and it’s definitely not Covid19 (you’ve been tested & thoroughly checked)?

  • I have a cough that livens up when I’m in aircon – eg I’ve just sat down in a plane. I’ve had this cough since a trip to the UK in August 2019 – but other passengers don’t know that, and are inclined to part like the dead sea upon the arrival of Moses, at the slightest hint of a cough.  Great for creating a space around yourself but I don’t want to get thrown off a plane. If you have hayfever or another cause for coughing or sneezing, figure out what calms it down, in advance. For me, it’s Minties. Fellow passengers will think I’m a Mintie fiend but I don’t care, it stops me coughing and scaring the life out of them.

There’s many benefits to going on flights now – EG there’s fewer travellers. When travel cranks up again popular places are likely to be extra crowded and we’ll all wish we travelled earlier. (North Queensland coast)

ALL THIS HASSLE. WHY TRAVEL NOW?

  • Some parts of Australia are enjoying glorious seasonal conditions, eg parts of Central Australia. Many parts are looking the best they have for years and it will be a long time until it rolls around again.
  • There’s a lot fewer visitors in many popular locations. Eventually the travel gates will be fully open again and when that happens pent up demand will mean many places are super busy and we’ll all say ‘I wish I came earlier’.
  • Prices are good and bookings for popular spots can often be made at short notice – including plane fares.
  • You’ll keep Australia’s economy keep ticking along, and people who really need employment.  Including all working in Australia’s aviation industry, who have had a horrendous time. We can all help small businesses, younger employees and Australia as a whole, by voting with our wallets. Every dollar carefully spent makes a positive difference to someone else.
  • Especially if you’ve had to endure a long lock-down, you’ll feel like a bird that has escaped a cage! We all most appreciate what we’ve had to do without for a while – it could be the most fabulous journey you’ve ever undertaken.

If CV19 should have taught us anything – it’s to appreciate what we’ve been taking for granted. While planning for ‘retirement’ is wise, it’s foolish to save everything up until ‘tomorrow’. 

Mercure Darwin Airport Hotel. If you have more than one flight on your journey you may have to stay overnight, as there’s fewer flights running so there’s delays between connections. Pick the right hotel and it can be a fantastic in-transit stay; part of the adventure! Prices are good and short notice bookings that would formerly have been impossible, are now do-able. Airport hotels are often booked out well in advance – but I booked this the day before. (Next time I’ll ensure I actually have time to have a swim, rather than having to do paperwork and a 3 hour zoom meeting in my room!)

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