From Sydney to the Great Barrier Reef: What it's like traveling around Australia right now
I was thrilled to be among the first Americans to visit Australia after it reopened its borders to international travelers last week. As long as I was granted an Electronic Travel Authority visa, submitted a digital passenger declaration with my vaccination and health details and got a negative predeparture COVID-19 test, I knew I could get into the country.
But I wasn’t sure I would be able to easily travel around to Australia's various states and territories. That’s because each one has its own entry rules as well as health requirements and mandates for both visitors and residents.
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The trip I was planning would take me to New South Wales since I would be landing in Sydney, and then on to Tasmania, Queensland and Victoria. Not knowing whether all of that would actually happen, I set about researching the current rules and found that most of Australia’s states and territories have synced up to welcome international visitors, partly in thanks to the fact that nearly 95% of the population age 16 and over are fully vaccinated according to the latest numbers from the Australian Department of Health. The notable exception, for now, is Western Australia, though it plans to ease some of its rules later this week.
Here’s what it was like figuring out how to get around Australia and what it has been like on the ground so far.
Australia entry rules
Earlier in February, Australia announced that starting Feb. 21, all visa holders who have completed an approved vaccine course can travel to Australia without an exemption or required quarantine period.
To qualify, you’ve got to be able to provide proof of vaccination, get a negative result with a pre-travel COVID-19 test (within 72 hours of travel for a PCR test and 24 hours for a rapid antigen test), submit a digital passenger declaration and get a valid visa, if required. After landing, you must travel to your home or accommodation and isolate until you can take a self-administered rapid antigen test and report it to the government if you get a positive result. If it's negative, you are free to go about your business.
All this information is available on the Australian government’s Department of Home Affairs site.
The site, however, also refers visitors to another page where they can find the entry requirements of the individual states and territories, as things can change quickly. Following that link, I visited the specific sites for the four states I would be traveling through during my trip.
The provisions for international visitors were all the same as those outlined by the federal government’s site. What I was interested in, though, was how easy it would be to travel between them. For that, I needed to find the pages dedicated to interstate travel.
New South Wales’ interstate travel page states that there are no longer any restrictions on interstate travel. Easy enough.
According to Queensland’s site, there have not been domestic border restrictions on people entering from other states since Jan. 15, though there are requirements for travelers while in the state (more on that later).
By the time I headed to Tasmania, there were no longer any entry restrictions or requirements for folks arriving by air or sea (other than cruise ships), though you still did have to meet Australia’s federal requirements.
Victoria will be my last stop since I’m flying back to the U.S. from Melbourne. The state did not require any permits for interstate travelers unless they had been overseas in the past 14 days, in which case they’d need an international passenger travel permit. Luckily for me, this requirement lapsed on Feb. 18.
It looked like I was in the clear for my entire itinerary, and I started to put the trip together piece by piece.
The main hurdle was having all my documents checked and approved for my initial entry into Australia. That fell to the Singapore Airlines check-in agents who processed me in San Francisco, where I was departing. It took several minutes, but once that was done, my trip to Sydney via Singapore felt remarkably like a pre-pandemic trip, and the Australian border agents at immigration and customs in Sydney waved me through with a friendly, “G’day!”
That was it. I had made it to Australia. For travelers who are also considering a trip to Australia, here’s how it feels on the ground right now, and what you need to know about navigating the different masking and tracking requirements.
New South Wales
I arrived in Sydney on Feb. 21, the first day Australia reopened to foreign visitors without quarantine. I stayed in the city for three days and, at that time, everyone over the age of 12 was required to wear a face mask in any indoor area other than a place of residence, as well as on public transport. There were certain medical exemptions as well as practical exemptions, like when you were eating or drinking in restaurants.
As of Feb. 25, however, masks are only required in particularly high-risk settings including:
- Public hospitals or private health care facilities.
- Residential care facilities or hostels.
- Indoor music festivals with more than 1,000 people.
- On public transport and in public transport waiting areas (this includes taxis and ride-hailing services).
- On domestic commercial aircraft.
- In airports.
During my brief visit, nearly everyone seemed to be complying with the rules. Folks entering businesses, including hotels and restaurants, would don their masks and all the hotel staff and restaurant servers I encountered remained fully masked at all times. I noticed most people were also very careful to leave their masks on when arriving at a restaurant until they were seated at their table, even when eating outdoors, and that they also donned them to go to the restroom.
Most people walking around outdoors didn’t have masks on, and at the restaurants where people were dining outside, it felt like the pre-pandemic days, with tables of large parties enjoying the experience and carrying on mask-free.
Due to an ongoing transit strike, I didn’t end up taking public transport in Sydney, but each and every one of my Uber drivers was careful to wear a mask and most opened at least two of the windows to provide airflow during my rides.
New South Wales previously required an app to sign in to various venues, including hotels, restaurants and offices, but it was no longer active by the time I arrived. In fact, the only times I was ever asked to provide proof of vaccination were when checking in to the two hotels where I stayed. (That's more lenient than what you'd experience on a trip to New York City right now.)
Other than having to mask up indoors, like I have had to do in California, my time in Sydney felt remarkably normal. I actually appreciated that the rule was still in place during my time since it minimized the risk that I would contract COVID-19 and have issues returning to the U.S.
Although it appears Tasmania allows anyone in these days with no restrictions (except those imposed by the Australian government), the state is still fairly strict when it comes to masking.
Anyone 12 and older who is not exempt must wear a mask in all public indoor spaces. That includes workplaces, businesses, shops, accommodations, restaurants, gyms and public transport, among others.
In a nutshell: If you’re not outside, you should be wearing a mask, unless you’re alone, traveling in a personal vehicle or actually sitting at a table eating or drinking, among other commonsense exclusions. That might sound onerous but, in practice, it was very easy to follow, and the people I met in Tasmania seemed to universally adhere to these strictures.
At my hotel, the staff wore masks at all times, and there was even a stash of medical masks waiting for me in my room when I checked in. Servers at bars and restaurants were all masked, as were bus and Uber drivers.
As for restaurant and bar patrons, almost everyone carefully complied with the mandate, keeping their masks on until seated, and replacing them when getting up to go to the restroom or leave. There didn’t seem to be any discontent or anxiety about it and the bars and restaurants were packed, which was good to see.
A friend and I had drinks at an understatedly hip cocktail bar called Rude Boy on Elizabeth Street in Hobart, which offered outdoor tables but had also carefully placed tables and stools at the various countertops around the indoor space for social distancing.
Down the street at La Sardina Loca, some patrons took advantage of the alfresco tables in the front courtyard. The indoor dining room was very busy but it didn’t feel as though we were packed in like, well, sardines, and our fellow diners only had their masks off at the table, as did we.
The bars around Salamanca Market along the harbor, meanwhile, felt as busy as ever outside, especially since the weather was sunny. The indoor bars were very sparsely populated, so it was easy for happy hour-hoppers to socially distance while still enjoying themselves.
While there, I had to remember to bring a mask with me everywhere and keep it on around others. But again, that felt like life in California, so it was comfortable rather than oppressive.
I flew from Hobart to Brisbane in Queensland, the state with the strictest masking and tracking mandates so far for me.
If you’re over 12 years old, you must wear a mask indoors everywhere in the state, including in airports and on planes. You can, of course, eat or drink without your mask on. Even outside, the state suggests you wear a mask unless you can remain 1.5 meters (about 5 feet) away from people who are not members of your household.
This will change as of March 4, though. At that point, masks will no longer be required indoors except on public transport, in airports, on planes and in places like health care settings and residential care facilities for the elderly and disabled. There will not be any capacity or density limits in your home or venues like music halls and stadiums. Masks won’t be required in schools for staff or students. However, the state will still recommend you wear one when you can’t socially distance.
Queensland is still requiring folks to use the Check In Qld app on their phones in order to enter hospitality venues like bars, restaurants and hotels. The same app is also required for entertainment venues including concert halls, movie and live theaters, theme parks, nightclubs (interestingly, brothels are considered entertainment venues, too), stadiums, festivals and government-owned museums and libraries, plus wedding ceremonies with more than 20 guests and vulnerable settings like hospitals.
For me, that meant I had to download the app and scan a QR code to open it and check in multiple times during my single-day visit, including when I arrived at my hotel, when I went to dinner and when I stopped by the Queensland Art Gallery. I was not able to load my U.S. vaccination card into the app, so I also had to show a photo of it at all those places.
While it added another layer of complication to my travels, it was easy enough to use the Check In Qld app, and it actually made me feel safer knowing that everyone else in the places I visited had also been required to do so. I don’t love the idea of having my every move tracked, but then again, the government can pretty much do the same thing by targeting your mobile phone or credit card activity, so I didn’t feel like I was giving up much. That said, it appears Queensland is no longer performing routine contact tracing (only notifying people who attended major superspreader events), so it is curious as to why check-ins are still required so frequently.
As in the other two states I visited, nearly everyone I came across was complying with the mask rules, and the staffs at the hotel, the restaurants and the museum I visited were very diligent about making sure everyone used the app to enter.
Most folks weren't wearing masks outside, but that’s to be expected. There was also a huge storm when I visited, so I don’t blame them for not wanting soggy (and thus ineffective) masks. The one exception was groups of other hotel guests who had been drinking at the bar and crowded into the elevator with me — maskless. One of them joked about it being a superspreader event, at which point I politely excused myself and stepped out to catch the next elevator.
After Brisbane, I flew up to Hamilton Island (HTI) to visit the Great Barrier Reef and stay at the InterContinental Hayman Island. The resort has a check-in desk and private lounge at the airport and I was required to use the Check In QLD app and verify my vaccination status there and again on the boat transfer to the resort, and that was it.
At the hotel, the staff have all been very conscientious to wear masks in indoor settings like some of the restaurants and the activities center, as have most guests, though since much of the resort is outdoors, it's been a nice break to walk around freely without a mask on and just laze (I mean, work!) by the pool or on the beach.
I have yet to visit Victoria, but as of now, you are no longer required to wear a face mask in most indoor settings, though it remains recommended and you are asked to always carry a mask when leaving home, just in case.
You do, however, have to wear a mask on public transport including taxis and while using ride-hailing services, on commercial flights, at airports, in hospitals and health care facilities, or if you have recently had COVID-19 or have been in contact with someone who has.
There are some other exceptions, including workers, visitors and students in schools with grades three to six, since these kids aren’t vaccinated yet. Workers in some government buildings and mall food courts as well as large event spaces (30,000 attendees or more) must also wear a mask.
For my part, I plan to mask up anytime I’m inside, more out of caution not to contract COVID-19 or test positive before my return to the U.S., but I’ll be interested to see how many others in Melbourne do the same.
TPG senior writer Ben Smithson has just left Melbourne and advised that hospitality venues in the city require the use of the Service Victoria app before you will be served or seated. Vaccination certificates can be uploaded into the app, though he found that to be a frustratingly convoluted process and instead chose to show a photo of his vaccination certificate immediately after checking in, which seemed to work as an alternative. As with Queensland, Victoria has now ceased most contact tracing so the strict check-in requirements seemed onerous to him.
Ben also said that while the mask mandates have very recently been relaxed to exclude restaurants, bars, supermarkets and shopping centers, you can still expect a good percentage of locals to continue wearing masks indoors, through force of habit and an abundance of caution. He says whether you choose to wear a mask in places you are no longer required to or not, it's unlikely to raise any eyebrows.
Flying domestically in Australia
Airports and planes are two of the settings where masks continue to be required, and that seems likely to be the case for some time.
As you can probably tell, I hopped on quite a few flights within Australia and was curious to see how the experience would unfold, and how it would compare to flying domestically in the U.S. during the pandemic.
In the end, it was unsurprisingly similar … only without the air rage or the packed planes.
When checking in for various flights online, I did have to fill out a brief preflight health acknowledgment swearing that I did not currently have COVID-19 symptoms, nor had any in the past 72 hours, and that if I had them in the past 14 days, I’d obtained a negative COVID-19 test. I also had to declare that I wasn’t required to isolate for any reason and that I would comply with government travel requirements. The good news is that this acknowledgment is much shorter and simpler than the complex digital passenger declaration required to enter Australia initially.
No one double-checked my confirmation in any meaningful way, so it’s more of an honor system, though I suppose it might make you think twice about flying if you’d been exposed recently. Luckily, I hadn’t.
My first internal flight from Sydney to Hobart took place on a Thursday afternoon, so the Sydney airport felt fairly deserted. Like I would have before the pandemic, I rolled up about an hour before takeoff and used an automated kiosk to print my boarding pass and bag check label, no identification required, and thus I didn’t have to lower my mask at any point. The domestic departures hall was totally uncrowded and I had a quick chat with two masked airline reps about how slow it was that day.
I went through security as normal, only needing to remove my laptop from my bag, and not taking off my shoes, belt or mask. Then I took a walk through the terminal just for something to do. Most other people walking around were wearing masks. A few with water bottles or cups of coffee had theirs pulled below their chin, and the people sitting in the restaurants and cafes were unmasked at tables. There were frequent announcements over the public speakers reminding passengers to wear their masks at all times and to treat airport staff and flight crew with respect.
Maybe I was too hasty to dismiss the air rage!
When I arrived at my gate, I found a Qantas poster saying, “We’ve made some changes to boarding.”
The airline is now boarding strictly by rows and asks folks to remain clear of the gate area until their row is called, as well as to leave at least 1.5 meters of distance between yourself and others both at the gate and on the jet bridge.
The poster suggested sanitizing your hands before boarding, scanning your own boarding pass, wearing a mask or asking for a “Fly Well” pack from the gate agent (which includes a face mask and hand sanitizer) as you pass through the gate.
My flight was fairly full, but boarding was indeed orderly, with folks lining up as their rows were called and not standing too close together. Everyone except for small children was fully masked. Most people appeared to turn down food and drinks on the flight, so those masks stayed on through to collecting luggage in Hobart.
During meal service, the flight attendants asked that passengers wait until they had moved beyond their row to lower their masks and begin eating or drinking, which was interesting. Too bad for the passengers seated around you if you happened to have COVID-19, but at least the flight crew might remain safe.
In the Hobart airport’s departures hall, there were even cute social distancing floor markers with the footprints of animals Tasmania is famous for, including those eponymous devils.
It was much the same with my flight from Hobart to Brisbane on Jetstar, though half the plane boarded at the front and half from the back, which helped with social distancing even more. Everyone on board seemed to happily keep their masks on the whole time, and there were reminders to do so at the beginning of the flight, along with a warning to treat the airline’s staff members with the respect they deserved (now I was curious as to what’s been going on down here!).
Masks stayed on through landing, a walk through the airport and at the baggage claim while we all waited for our luggage. That feeling of dread I've had on U.S. flights about whether someone might actively try to disobey the masking mandates never manifested.
Much like on the ground in Queensland, I had to use the Check In Qld app and show my actual, physical vaccination card to check in with Qantas and go to the airline’s business-class lounge with a friend. The app check-in would have been required but a photo of my card should have sufficed if I were just going through normal security.
Empty hotels and flights
As you might expect, the travel landscape in Australia right now is … unusual. Like airlines across the world, Qantas, Virgin Australia and Jetstar, among others, are rebuilding their route networks and seeking to increase capacity, so you’re not likely to find as many options between destinations as before the pandemic.
In my limited experience, flights were also either completely full or almost entirely empty. Part of that might have been the disastrous weather affecting New South Wales and Queensland, as well as the fact that school holidays were over by the time I visited.
However, I would suggest planning for some contingencies (such as flight cancellations) and padding your itinerary with extra time for layovers or stopovers if you do intend to travel soon.
Likewise, most hotels are starting to recruit staff again, and new hotels — including two I stayed in while in Sydney and Hobart — are opening in phases, keeping some rooms or suites offline for the time being and limiting the hours or services at various food and beverage outlets until they can staff appropriately.
As in the U.S., the leisure travel market seems to be going strong in Australia, especially on the luxury end of the spectrum. On Hamilton Island, a popular destination for travelers looking to visit the Great Barrier Reef, the small luxury resort of Qualia appears to be mostly booked out (with room rates that run well over $1,000 a night) through September. I stayed at the nearby InterContinental Hayman Island and was able to use points for my stay, but during an informal chat with someone on the resort's management team, I learned the hotel has been running at around 75% capacity for the last several months and is only going to get busier.
That made it hard to predict room occupancy (and thus when to book a stay). But it also meant some hotels opened up last-minute award availability, which ended up saving me substantial money in the end. For example, I only needed 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy points for a stay at the W Brisbane, rather than paying nearly $450 for one night.
In short, the more flexible you can be with your plans, and the more points options you have, the better off you'll be until hotels and airlines are back up to speed.
Traveling throughout most of Australia (except Western Australia) right now is, as Australians would say, too easy.
If you can meet the requirements for entering the country, then you should be able to move freely around its states and territories.
That said, these conditions can change at any time, as can masking rules for individual states and territories. So, if you're thinking about planning your own trip, be sure to bookmark the health department pages of any destinations you want to visit and make sure you qualify to enter and will be comfortable with any health requirements in place.
Personally, it’s been no problem at all, even with the extra onus of downloading and using the Qld tracking app. And even if I hadn’t brought a bag of masks with me, many venues offer them for free, so it wouldn’t have been an issue finding them when I needed them.
Additional reporting by Ben Smithson.