Thirteen long months after Australian's federal government imposed an international travel ban, overseas trips are – in a very modest and measured way – back on the itinerary.
It began on Monday April 19 with the establishment of the much-anticipated travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand – a notion first flagged in May 2020 as a quarantine-free, COVID-safe corridor between two countries which have been largely successful in dealing with the coronavirus.
More are expected to follow in the months ahead, embracing Pacific Island nations such as Fiji alongside nearby Asian neighbours like Singapore and Taiwan.
But for now, Australia's two-way bubble with New Zealand is not only among the first in the world but will serve as a vital 'proof of concept' for international travel in Year 2 of the pandemic.
So what's it like to fly between Sydney and Auckland in the era of the travel bubble? Executive Traveller jumped onto one of Qantas' daily Sydney-Auckland services to find out.
My last international flight from Sydney Airport was 405 days and a whole world ago: a time of crowds and queues, busy lounges and buzzing terminals.
Now there are moments when things range from somewhat odd to downright eerie, such as walking through a near-empty Sydney Airport with most of the shops shuttered.
Yet there are also moments of reassuringly familiarity completing the inbound arrivals card for another country or, on return, your own.
But on the whole, it's substantively unchanged from making that quick hop across the pond during pre-pandemic times (something we of course took for granted, and long to do so again).
Even allowances made for COVID-19, such as wearing a face mask during the flight, are largely the same as you'd have experienced on domestic trips.
Preparing for your flight to NZ
One exception is that you'll need to complete an online Travel Declaration for New Zealand's Ministry of Health before you arrive in NZ with your passport details, flight number and date of arrival, and contact details while in NZ.
However, there's no need to have been vaccinated or even to undergo a COVID-19 test – although if you have been recently tested, you should not be awaiting the results of that test, or you should have returned a negative result.
You'll also want to download the NZ COVID Tracer app for your smartphone so that you can 'check in' to any location by scanning QR codes, which in turn builds a 'digital diary' of your movements to assist with contact tracing if necessary.
(f you don't have or don't want to use a smartphone, you can pick up a free hardcopy diary booklet on arrival at your point of entry into New Zealand, but scanning a QR code is obviously going to be much easier than completing each diary entry by hand.)
Travel declaration completed and COVID Tracer app downloaded, you're literally good to go.
Qantas flights to New Zealand
Qantas has restarted a score of flights between Australia and New Zealand (as has Air New Zealand, while Virgin Australia has decided to largely sit things out until the end of October), as well as launching new routes from the Gold Coast and Cairns to Auckland.
At the time of writing, Qantas has rostered an Airbus A330 onto all Sydney-Auckland (as well as Melbourne-Auckland) flights.
The big twin-aisle A330s not only offer far more seats than the Boeing 737s assigned to most other trans-Tasman routes, but they boast a truly international-grade Business Suite with vastly more space, comfort, features and privacy than the Boeing 737 business class.
We chose Qantas' QF149 evening service, which departs Sydney at 6.55pm to reach Auckland at 11.55pm (although if your body clock is still ticking to EST that's a more decent 9.55pm).
This flight is probably well-suited to business travellers, who can knock over plenty of work before heading to the airport in the early afternoon, and after a decent sleep at their Auckland hotel can be be rested and ready for the day ahead.
All Qantas business class passengers from Sydney and Melbourne now begin their journey at the airline's flagship First Lounges, as the Qantas Business Lounge in each city remains closed.
That same primo perk is also extended to Gold-grade frequent flyers (plus their Oneworld Sapphire siblings) and Qantas Club members, and it's surely the best way to begin your bubble trip.
If you're not in business class and don't hold loungeworthy Qantas Frequent Flyer status, see if you can lay your hands on a Complimentary Lounge Invitation. QFF Silver members receive one such lounge pass per year, while many Qantas-partnered credit cards include two passes per year.
These invitations typically apply to the domestic Qantas Club or international Business Lounge, but for the time being they'll open the frosted doors to the Qantas First Lounge, and they can be given to any traveller (as long as they're also a Qantas Frequent Flyer member) to use ahead of a Qantas flight – so ask around your family, friends and colleagues in case any of them have a complimentary lounge invitation to spare.
(You'll then need to digitally link that lounge invite to your booking at least 24 hours before the flight.)
Update: at the time of writing, the Sydney and Melburne First Lounges are not accepting Complimentary Lounge Invitations, although the plan was for that to happen very soon; Executive Traveller is checking with Qantas as to when these invitations will be accepted.
Visiting the Qantas First Lounge
Travellers on morning flights can choose from an à la carte selection of breakfast and brunch dishes, while a seperate and slightly more substantial menu kicks in for afternoon and evening flights.
Highlights of this later 'all day dining' menu include two first lounge favourites, in the starter of salt and pepper squid...
... and the signature pavlova with seasonal fruit, mascarpone and Persian fairy floss for dessert.
Between those, in 'late lunch' mode, we sampled the Asian-style red braised lamb shoulder with chilli paste and noodles, which definitely leaves a tingle on your tongue...
... and the delicious roast cauliflower with carrot and almond hummus (made in the lounge's kitchen), zucchini and hazelnuts.
(Regular visitors to the lounge tend to take their main meal there, owing to the greater choice and higher quality of what you can get freshly-made in a proper kitchen, and then have a lighter meal during the flight.)
If you'd like to toast the bubble with some bubbles, the wine list suggests local sparking The Drives from Seppelt, although a proper French Champagne is available on request (at the time of writing this was Pommery).
Fancy a cocktail?
The day we flew, the lounge was serving a refreshing Mimosa, but you'll soon see a special "Longreach Fizz" made with Four Pillars' special QF100 gin, which mark Qantas' 100 years of flying and contains Australian botanicals including native lemongrass, macadamia and lemon myrtle.
Then it's time to relax and enjoy the lounge's iconic style and its views across the airfield to the city before your flight is called.
There's not much else to do at Sydney Airport's international terminal right now - the day we fly out, almost all shops were closed, apart from Heinemann Tax & Duty Free, WH Smith, Hermes and a handful of food outlets.
The TRS rebate office – which is now tucked around near gates 8 and 9 – has also reopened, which could be handy if you're taking a gift (anything from jewellery or electronics to clothing and shoes) to friends or family in New Zealand and want to claim back the 10% GST.
Qantas lounge access at Auckland
Speaking of lounges, it's worth noting that Qantas' own lounges at New Zealand are still closed, so the airline has arranged access to Air New Zealand lounges at Auckland, Christchurch, Queenstown and Wellington three hours before each Qantas flight departs.
Compared to Qantas' old, unloved and long-overdue-for-an-upgrade Auckland lounge, AirNZ's Auckland digs are like being bumped from a middle middle seat in economy to a first class suit.
This is the Kiwi carrier's flagship lounge, after all. It sports a relaxing contemporary design, a tended bar and well-stocked buffet (under NZ regulations, self-serve buffets are once again permitted) and even a kid's room.
Flying Qantas business class to New Zealand
For now, almost all flights to New Zealand are departing from gates 30-37, which are ranked along the same pier and five-ten minutes' walk from the Qantas First Lounge.
As mentioned earlier, our Sydney-Auckland flight was on an Airbus A330, although Executive Traveller understands this route could feature the more modern Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner later this year as Qantas prepares to restart more of its international network.
(That'll be a change to watch for: the Dreamliner is quieter, has a 50% larger business class cabin and also adds 28 premium economy seats to your travel options.)
Qantas' A330 Business Suite debuted in late 2014, and while Qantas later finessed the design for the Boeing 787 and its ongoing Airbus A380 retrofit, the original still stands up well.
The 1-2-1 seating arrangement means every passenger has direct access to the aisle without stepping past a seatmate, along with plenty of legroom and space to stretch out.
The seat can be partially reclined for taxi, take-off and landing – as shown below – and later put into a fully flatbed mode if you need some shut-eye.
There's even a Do Not Disturb indicator so the crew know to let you snooze without interruption.
A handy shelf and storage nook next to each seat provide somewhere to keep your laptop or tablet, a book or magazine within reach, with AC/USB power sockets to keep your tech juiced up.
Choosing the best Qantas A330 business class seat
All that said, savvy frequent flyers know there are a few tricks to choosing the best seat in the A330's business class cabin, even for these relatively short 3-4 hour flights.
The unique alternating layout of the Qantas Business Suite means that only half of the seats in the business class cabin are located directly next to the window, with a shelf between the passenger and the aisle.
The other seats have the passenger directly next to the aisle, with a shelf between them and the window.
Quick rule of thumb: if you want to be sitting next to the window so you can enjoy the view, choose a seat in an even-numbered row (2, 4 or 6).
The exception to that rule: some Qantas Airbus A330s have a smaller secondary business class section of just two rows (6 and 7), and in that section the layout is flipped around, so if your seat selection screen shows this second cabin, you'll want to pick row 7 (not 6) for a window seat.
Beyond that, the first row – which is up against the bulkhead wall (row 1 in all A330s, and also row 6 in the A330s with a smaller secondary business class cabin) – boasts extra legroom plus a much larger recess for your feet when the seat converts to a lie-flat bed.
We'd suggest the more generous foot-nook will be welcomed by flyers with an above-average shoe size, such as 10+ for men and 12+ for women.
Qantas A330 business class meals
The dinner menu on QF149 provided a choice between three meals, promptly served one hour after takeoff and delivered on a single tray with sides and a boxed slice of chocolate cake for dessert.
Having already eaten well in the Qantas First Lounge, our pick was the light 'healthy bowl' of barley and charred corn, a boiled egg and radish, served with a red wine dressing.
Also on offer: 'Italian-style' chicken with polenta and green beans...
... and a barramundi curry with jasmine rice and green beans.
Qantas' business class wine list on flights to and from NZ generally feature one Australian white (on our flight, a Coldstream Hills 2018 chardonnay) and one from New Zealand (an Invivo x SJP 2019 sauvignon blanc from Marlborough). Also on hand: a 2016 Hunter Valley Leogate Estate shiraz and Jacquart Champagne.
Service throughout the flight was first rate, with the attentive crew in good spirits and clearly thrilled to be flying 'overseas' again, even if only to New Zealand instead of their previous A330 routes to Asia and Honolulu – and eager for more 'travel bubbles' to open to the likes of Singapore and Hong Kong.
As with domestic Qantas flights, face masks were mandatory throughout the flight except when eating or drinking. Qantas carries these on board as part of its free Fly Well pack, although a year into the pandemic most passengers appear to have purchased their own, often in quirky designs or colourful patterns.
Qantas A330 business class inflight entertainment
On the Qantas Airbus A330, each business class seat is fronted by a 16-inch touchscreen (with a remote control tucked away under the seat's shelf) loaded with a solid selection of movies and TV shows, including boxed seats of entire series, and you can use the system on a 'gate to gate' basis rather than just during the flight itself.
After dinner on the flight, we settled back for a few episodes of The Good Place – the sort of light, clever and easily digestible viewing which always sits well on a quick trip like this.
However, if you'd prefer to pull out your laptop or tablet to stream Netflix or tackle some last-minute work, you'll find there's no WiFi on Qantas flights to New Zealand.
While the airline offers fast and free inflight Internet on domestic flights, including some of the very same A330 jets which traverse the Tasman, international coverage – using satellites with more of a regional and global footprint – remains on the to-do list for the coming years.
Arrival into Auckland
The one aspect of this Sydney-Auckland 'travel bubble' flight about which I was most curious was what the arrivals process would be like once we reached Auckland – how different would things be, compared to those casual pre-COVID trips?
As it turned out, New Zealand and Auckland Airport appeared to have everything well under control, and what was most noticeable was that mask-wearing is optional throughout the airport, which added to the overall sense of ease.
Nobody asked about the special NZ travel declaration which I'd completed online prior to my trip, so presumably this had already been matched up in the system to my flight details and passport number.
After passing through immigration with zero hurdles or hassles, a line of health officers stood ready to take a quick temperature check on passengers, and then it was out the door, into the terminal and off to my hotel.
In short: under the travel bubble, things are almost back to normal, apart from the extra paperwork to enter New Zealand (and similar declarations on return to Australia) and the requirement to wear face masks – and that's the smallest possible inconvenience until we can all put the worst of COVID behind us.
The author travelled as a guest of Qantas.