What it’s like to travel to Australia right now

Australia’s rigid pandemic border policies led some to wonder if international travelers would still want to visit.

It appears they do.

Four weeks after the country opened to vaccinated visitors, international flight bookings are nearly half (49%) of pre-pandemic levels, according to the travel technology company Travelport.

CNBC Travel went to the land “Down Under” to answer common questions about traveling to Australia.

Is it hard to fly into Australia right now?

On average, fewer than 500 weekly international flights landed in Australia in March — down from 2,000 in March 2019 — according to Tourism Australia.

However, international flights are expected to double in the next three months, mainly from Singapore, New Zealand, Indonesia and Hong Kong, according to Tourism Australia.

A rise in supply normally leads to cheaper flights, but Qantas this month indicated airfare is likely to rise as a result of increased oil prices stemming from the Ukraine-Russia war, Reuters reported.

What do I need to enter?

Australia is currently welcoming vacationers who can show:

  • An overseas vaccination certificate — unvaccinated travelers need an exemption or must quarantine in a facility for one week
  • A Digital Passenger Declaration completed no earlier than one week, but no later than 72 hours, before departing
  • A negative Covid-19 test result — PCR and self-administered rapid antigen tests (called “Rat” tests in Australia) supervised by online advisers are accepted
  • A valid passport and tourist visa

Travelers should also check the entrance rules for the state or territory where they are landing for additional requirements.

What happens once I reach Australia?

Since most documents are checked during the departure process, landing is Australia is surprisingly easy.

During a trip to Melbourne last week, I only needed to show my passport and arrival card, the latter of which I filled out on the plane.

The hardest part about going to Australia is the preparation, not the travel itself, several travelers told CNBC.

James O’Neil | The Image Bank | Getty Images

New Zealander Debbie Wong said this echoed her experience traveling to the state of Queensland in February.

“The process was faster than pre-Covid times as there were less people at the airport,” she said. “What used to take us over an hour pre-Covid was completed within 20 minutes.”

Wong, who has flown from Singapore to Australia twice since last summer, described the process as “incredibly smooth.”

Wong’s husband, Wes Johnston, took a business trip to Sydney two weeks ago.

“I didn’t have to show anything Covid-related,” he said.

Do I have to self-isolate or quarantine?

Yes — but most likely only for a few hours. 

States such as New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland require travelers take a Covid test within 24 hours of arriving in Australia. Visitors must isolate at home or in a hotel until they test negative.

These states accept rapid antigen tests, too. I packed one in my luggage and self-administered it at my hotel. If the test was positive, I’d have had to report the result and isolate for seven days. Since it was negative, I was free to start my trip.

Do I have to wear a mask?

The answer depends on the state you visit and what you plan to do.

In Melbourne and Sydney, masks are no longer required in most settings. However, Victoria (home to Melbourne), asks that people carry one when they leave their homes.

In both places, masks are required on public transportation, including flights, taxis and rideshare services. An Uber driver in Melbourne told me that, because he takes care of his 83-year-old mother, he kicks out non-compliant riders and cancels their bookings.

Other Melburnians were more relaxed about masks. Restaurants and cafe workers are required to wear them, which most did — under their chins.

It was like Covid didn’t exist.

Wes Johnston

on traveling to Sydney in March

Wong said she saw the same thing in Noosa, a resort town on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

“Staff were often without masks or they were pulled down under the chins,” she said of her trip in February. Yet “outside of hospitality, most people abided by the rules.”

Policies in Queensland have since changed, and masks are no longer required in social and retail settings. But travelers to Western Australia — home to Perth and the Margaret River wine region — should note that even after relaxed rules take effect on March 31, masks are required in all indoor settings, other than at home.

Do I have to show I’m vaccinated to eat in a restaurant?

Again, it depends — and in some cases, on the particular establishment that is visited.

In Sydney, most places are open to everyone, vaccinated or not.

Johnston said he never wore a mask in Sydney, not in restaurants or in his workplace, nor was he ever asked to show his vaccination status.

“It was like Covid didn’t exist,” he said.

A masked spectator has her proof of vaccination verified before entering the A-League Men’s match between Perth Glory and Central Coast Mariners at HBF Park on March 15, 2022, in Perth, Australia.

Paul Kane | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images

Compare this with Western Australia, which requires proof of vaccination to enter restaurants, indoor entertainment venues, attractions, stadiums, gyms and amusement parks.

In Melbourne, I was often asked to show my vaccination status, which I did via a government app from Singapore, where I live. Wong said she carries a physical copy of her vaccination certificate in Queensland, though she said the rule wasn’t strictly enforced in some places.

“Some cafes and restaurants had signs up to say that they did not differentiate between people and they accepted everyone — in clear violation of the rules,” she said.

Will Covid affect my trip even if I don’t get sick?

It might. From using QR codes to check into businesses to discovering your favorite cafe has permanently closed, there are constant reminders of how the pandemic has changed the Australian travel experience.

A shopkeeper in the trendy Melbourne neighborhood of Carlton told me things were quieter than before the pandemic, before saying “though I really don’t remember what ‘normal’ feels like anymore.”

“Help wanted” signs were ubiquitous in the state of Victoria. One restaurant manager in the small town of Olinda said she couldn’t open the entire restaurant — not because of social distancing — but for lack of staff.

Before opening to vaccinated leisure travelers last month, Australia welcomed vaccinated backpackers in the hopes they would help alleviate labor shortages in agriculture and other sectors caused by the country’s closed border Covid policies.

David Gray | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Nearby, the Blue Hills Berries & Cherries farm, located near the Yarra Valley wine region, shuttered its entire picking season this year because of the “uncertainty surrounding visitation and predicted labour shortage(s),” according to its website.

Australia, like the United States and Europe, is suffering a severe shortage of workers in the tourism and hospitality industries. Earlier this year, it launched an ad campaign and visa refund program to attract long-stay visitors to alleviate worker shortfalls in agriculture and other sectors.