COVID-19 and overseas travel: We answer your questions

Written by Rachel Smith for Real Insurance.

As the world starts to open up again, we’re all dreaming about packing our suitcases and hopping on a long-haul flight to somewhere exotic and new. However, chances are you’re feeling a little nervous too, given that we’re still living with COVID-19 and the rules or regulations can significantly differ depending on the country you’re going to.

We spoke with Nathan Varney from Flight Centre in South Bank, Brisbane, about what to expect when it comes to international travel, why travel insurance can be important and much more. We hope it helps for when you’re planning your next trip.

How has COVID-19 changed the domestic and international travel experience?

“Domestically, you no longer need to get tested to travel – so you may well have someone on your flight who has COVID-19,” says Nathan. “Staying safe is about those measures we’re all used to: using hand sanitiser, washing your hands regularly and masking up.” He suggests staying masked, despite some airlines removing that regulation recently.

Regarding international travel, he adds that travel agents still need to check your visa and immigration info, but now they must also do the same with country-specific COVID-19 requirements. “These can differ quite a lot between countries.”

What do we need to know about long-haul travel and vaccinations?

If you travelled when the borders first opened, you may have been bamboozled by requests for different vaccination certificates – especially in Europe.

That’s not so much the case now, says Nathan. “At this point, you should be OK with the international vaccination certificate you can get in Australia – either as a digital version on your smartphone, or as a printout,” he explains. “Although a handful of countries don’t require you to provide that certificate anymore, I would always advise you to print out a copy and keep it on you, in case you come up against an official who’s not fully across the rules.”

His advice is to keep it flat with other documents in a folder. “The QR code on the certificate is in the middle of the page and it may not be scannable if the paper is folded in half.”

And what about vaccinations? “Most countries require you to have two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and you must have had the second dose a minimum two weeks before you travel,” says Nathan. “We’ve had cases of travellers who’ve been denied boarding because they had their second vaccination less than two weeks before they were to fly.”

Can you still travel if you’re unvaccinated?

Yes, you can – but there are rules, says Nathan, which vary between destinations so you must keep across the regulations. For example, you no longer need to provide proof of vaccination to travel with Qantas, but some countries will require it.

Due to COVID-19, is it easier to book flights yourself right now, or should you use a travel agent?

Nathan says if you’re at all concerned about the rules and regulations surrounding COVID-19 and travelling or transiting in different countries, you’re better off letting an agent book for you.

“The rules can change quickly and agents have to be across all of that,” he explains. “They’ll make sure you have the most updated information.”

What can happen if you book yourself and make a mistake? “Lots”, says Nathan. “We hear a lot of horror stories – what we in the industry call ‘flightmares’,” he says. “In one case recently, I had someone come in who’d booked herself a flight online, transiting via Japan. And at that point, due to COVID-19, you weren’t allowed to transit in Japan unless you were a Japanese national. She was very upset that she’d been allowed to book the ticket, and we couldn’t help her because the ticket had been booked online, on a competitor system. She ended up having to cancel the whole ticket, which also wasn’t refundable.”

How important is travel insurance right now?

Very important, but you also need to have the right policy, says Nathan.

“If your policy doesn’t have the words COVID-19, coronavirus, epidemic or even pandemic in the PDS, that’s a bit of a red flag. Also, if a country is listed as a ‘do not travel’ country, many policies won’t cover you in a COVID-19 situation.”

He says it’s also important to check whether the country you’re visiting requires you to have a minimum health coverage. “It’s important to check that your policy covers you for that, just in case.”

What if you get COVID-19 on your trip?

Many countries still require you to isolate – some for seven days, some for two weeks, says Nathan. 

“Some countries will require you to test on day three and if it’s negative there are no restrictions on you getting out and about again,” he adds. “For other countries, that might be day seven; so if you’re negative on day seven, you’re OK to travel and move around again.”

And what about countries like the UK, where you can walk around and be positive for COVID-19? “Yes, it’s just the norm there. But other countries do require you to isolate, so it’s important to follow the laws of the country you’re in and test if you feel ill,” he advises.

What if I feel sick when I’m at the airport?

Some countries do temperature checks – and they may check everyone or do random checks like they do random bag checks, says Nathan.

“So, if you’re coming back to Australia and feeling symptomatic and you know the country you’re transiting in will do those temperature checks, it’s a good idea to be proactive and test yourself and if it’s positive, change your flights,” he warns. “Because otherwise, you may find yourself having to quarantine in that transit country”, and may even miss your connecting flight.

What happens if you get COVID-19 right before you fly home?

Because a lot of countries don’t require you to get tested before you travel, you technically could travel if you have COVID-19 – but of course it’s not recommended, Nathan explains.

“You might want to purchase a ticket that enables you to make changes to your flights more easily, but you will pay a premium for this,” he explains. “It could be worth it though, if you get COVID-19, because if you need to change your ticket close to the time you fly, you can end up paying quite a bit for the updated fare and taxes, especially if you paid for your fare a long time ago and need to change the flight to a more popular date.”

Travel insurance – if your policy covers COVID-19 – may cover you if you get COVID-19 while travelling and need to change your flights and quarantine.

“You might be able to claim those extra flight costs and taxes along with additional accommodation costs, but you’ll probably have to prove to the insurance company that you took reasonable care to avoid COVID-19,” says Nathan. “I can’t guarantee your claim would be successful but I have seen people successfully claim in those circumstances.”

Tips from a recent traveller

Phil Murphy recently travelled to Singapore and Italy but did not use a travel agent, and he says it’s not the time to fly by the seat of your pants and hope for the best.

“There’s more room for error when travelling overseas right now,” he says. “We had to renew our child’s passport and due to more people travelling the delays were enormous, so we ended up paying a premium to get it in time – that’s something to be aware of. We also had a stopover in Singapore and had to fill in long declaration documents for Singapore Airlines before we left in order to get an Electronic Visit Pass.

“And although there were links in the flight details about rules in the destination and transit countries, there was a LOT of fine print to trawl through and other things we had to do or supply. So my advice would be to double-check anything you’re not sure of with the airline, a site like Smart Traveller or your travel agent. And take printouts and copies of important documents, just in case.”