‘Travel bubble’ flight review: Qantas business class, Sydney-Auckland

What’s it like to fly from Australia to New Zealand in the era of the travel bubble?

By David Flynn, April 28 2021
‘Travel bubble’ flight review: Qantas business class, Sydney-Auckland

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 wriing, 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.

Read more: The new Qantas Sydney, Melbourne first class lounge experience

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.

Read more: Sampling the new Qantas first class lounge menu

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.

Also read: Qantas frequent flyers can now use some Air New Zealand lounges

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.

This Fly Well pack is now distributed on all domestic Qantas and Jetstar flights.
This Fly Well pack is now distributed on all domestic Qantas and Jetstar flights.

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.

David

David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

QFF

19 Sep 2013

Total posts 179

Thanks for the comprehensive review David. Hope either the 330 or 787 will still be flying these routes early next year.

24 Oct 2010

Total posts 2541

I very doubt the 787s would be flying AU-NZ longer than is necessary to reach readiness for resuming international flights, and even if we don't see the bulk of Qantas' overseas network spring back on Oct 31, there'd likely be enough routes coming online over the following months to demand all 787s be pressed back into service.

25 Jul 2011

Total posts 16

Very jealous of your being back up in the air...

Great choice of power adapter too David!

06 Sep 2019

Total posts 15

I'm looking forward to taking the same flight next week.

Any word on whether the Sydney lounge is closing its doors after the morning flights? Our flight into Sydney lands at around midday so we might need to camp outside the door.

05 Mar 2015

Total posts 335

That was covered in an earlier article, the lounge closes by noon once all the morning QF flights have left, and then opens again at 4pm, although I heard someone say they opened at 3pm. Maybe call the lounge to confirm this on the day? But nNo sense heading to T1 until the lounge is ready to open as it seems there isn't much else to do at T1 apart from lounging!

05 Mar 2015

Total posts 335

Great review and very pleasing to see this is all pretty normal, now let's keep this bubble open and keep it expanding to Singapore, Hong Kong and other cities as long as they're also getting COVID under control.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

17 May 2013

Total posts 12

Thanks for the comprehensive review.  Hope to do this trip soon

Singapore Airlines - KrisFlyer

12 Apr 2017

Total posts 179

I was at Sydney International on Monday 26th April at midday and unfortunately the Qantas first lounge was closed. Air NZ was open but even as a Qantas gold member, would not allow me in. Apparently only Platinum can get into air NZ lounge? Very little else was open to get food, even Macdonalds was closed! 

24 Oct 2010

Total posts 2541

There's no Qantas Frequent Flyer access to Air New Zealand's Australian lounges, only to a handful in NZ itself.

06 Sep 2019

Total posts 15

I'm Platinum with Qatar Airlines. Do you have any idea if this will allow me to gain access to the Air NZ lounge or any others for a Qantas flight if the First Class Lounge is closed?

05 Mar 2015

Total posts 335

If you're on a Qantas flight then the Qantas first class lounge will be open three hours before that flight and your QR Platinum status will provide access. The lounge is only closed when there are no Qantas flights. If you're not on a Qantas flight there is NO access for Qantas passengers or OneWorld frequent flyers, to the Air New Zealand lounges in Australia when the Qantas lounge is closed. As far as other lounges I don't believe either the AMEX or Plaza Premium lounges at Sydney have opened up again, as they would usually be your 'Plan B' when you don't have access to an airline lounge.

28 Apr 2021

Total posts 3

A very comprehensive segment indeed on what Qantas Business Class travel is all about and congratulations on using the word "Passenger" as Qantas still has difficulty in discarding the inappropriate terminology - 'customer'. 

Yes one is indeed can be called a 'customer' when purchasing an airline ticket or other travel document, however any person whether travelling in a bus, train, car or an aircraft, is in fact correctly known as a "Passenger".

05 Mar 2015

Total posts 335

RichardW, the Qantas access to Air New Zealand lounges is only for a handful of lounges in New Zealand at ports where QF flies to and from, eg Auckland, Christchurch. It doesn't apply to any other Air New Zealand lounges, and certainly not in Australia.

Singapore Airlines - KrisFlyer

12 Apr 2017

Total posts 179

Thanks for letting me/us know.

17 Jun 2020

Total posts 247

Whilst I know you weren’t hungry after the lounge it would be good to show the full meal for your next review. What was served for entree? What were the cheese and ice cream options?

24 Oct 2010

Total posts 2541

That was the full meal, KW72 – as mentioned in the article, this all came on a single tray including the dessert. There was no entree, not a follow-up cheese platter.

17 Jun 2020

Total posts 247

Sorry, I skim read it and thought you skipped it to be healthy.

I thought Tasman used to have entrees etc but it’s been a while so I could be mistaken.

24 Oct 2010

Total posts 2541

Me, skip dessert? Not a chance LOL

Worth noting that this was Day 1 of the bubble and a lot was still being finessed, and on reflection I expect the meal service is part of that: this 'single tray drop' approach is part of the COVID protocol for international flights which until now have been repatriation services, so I'd not be surprised to see the business class meal service on AU-NZ flights loosen up and get back to something closer to a pre-COVID experience. I think it's all about first steps...

12 Dec 2012

Total posts 1021

Good to know that Qantas is still giving people masks. Would be helpful if the airports did since people are being required to use them on the ground in the airport as well. My parents had a trip to Darwin over the long weekend and CBR airport wouldn't reply to the question if they supplied masks.

Most people in Canberra don't have masks because the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in the ACT has never required their use by the general public (292 days since last locally acquired case in Canberra, 383 days since last "mystery" case). My own masks are sitting in a warehouse near Osaka waiting for Japan Post to start shipping to Australia again.

With this NZ travel declaration, does it require you to enter details for all 4 of the noted fields? What if you don't have contract details while traveling an emergency contact?

At least it appears NZ is providing an alternative to this app nonsense. It is infuriating that governments keep assuming that everyone has smart phones that are compatible with their apps and that you have the needed mobile data to even be able to use said app.

24 Oct 2010

Total posts 2541

The page regarding an emergency contact noted this person didn't have to be in NZ, so your usual 'emergency contact' in Australia would suffice.

05 Mar 2015

Total posts 335

Not sure why some people are down-voting your comment but I agree, airports should supply masks, most passengers BYO but there are times you simply forget, surely it can't be a big deal for them to have some to hand out if a person comes up and asks for one. It's not like they are hot fashion statements or collector's items, if you ask for a mask it's because you honestly want to wear one in line with airport requirements! Maybe though the airline check-in desk should have or even would have supplied a mask though?

j13
j13

13 Jan 2021

Total posts 7

I'm flying Brisbane-Auckland-Los Angeles (business) next month, can I get access to the Auckland Air NZ lounge while awaiting my flight to Los Angeles?

05 Mar 2015

Total posts 335

Assuming you are flying Air New Zealand business class from Auckland to LAX, absolutely you would have access to Air New Zealand's Auckland lounge.

30 Nov 2016

Total posts 18

David, I might suggest that the reference to utilisation of the complimentary lounge invitations for access to the first class lounge be changed for the time being as I do not believe they are currently being accepted. This was also communicated to me by the VIP Service Team when I queried the use of invitations earlier in the week as I wanted to give to family members for an upcoming trip. 

24 Oct 2010

Total posts 2541

Thanks Fergo747, I've given that part of the article a wee update to reflect the "not at the moment" status, and Qantas is looking into when those invites will be accepted.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

22 Nov 2019

Total posts 74

Great review, sign off Taiwan SCOMO!!


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