How to successfully return to Australia during COVID-19
Many Australians are still struggling to get home in June 2021. But it is possible to successfully book a flight home if you book the right ticket to the right city.

Since the Australian government closed the international border and limited the number of returning citizens and permanent residents allowed to fly into the country each week, many Australians have struggled to get home. But that’s not for a lack of trying!

Many of the tens of thousands of Australians still stranded overseas have already bought multiple tickets back to Australia. But their flights have been cancelled or they’ve been bumped off by the airline. That’s because, with airlines only allowed to sell a limited number of seats per flight bound for Australia, they are mostly prioritising passengers who’ve paid the most for their tickets.

If you’re currently overseas, e.g. in Europe, it is possible to book a flight back to Australia for as low as $1,000. But the chances of you actually getting back to Australia on that ticket are unfortunately very slim.

Knowing this to be the case, some Australians have paid many thousands of dollars for one-way Business or First class tickets back to Australia in order to minimise the chances they’ll be bumped from their flight. One Australian stuck in the Netherlands last year even resorted to setting up a “Go Fund Me” page to pay for a Business class ticket home as she had already been bumped off Economy flights multiple times and was desperate to get home.

Thankfully, things aren’t quite as bad now, in June 2021, as they were last year. But how much do you actually need to spend on your ticket to maximise the chances of successfully returning to Australia?

This guide explains how to maximise your chances of successfully flying to Australia (from somewhere other than New Zealand) during COVID-19, as of June 2021…

Your fare class matters – a lot

There are plenty of tickets available for travel from Europe to Australia over the coming months for as low as $1,000-1,500 one-way. Here’s an example of one airfare currently available from Paris to Melbourne, for travel next month:

TK fare CDG-MEL
An example of a Turkish Airlines/Malaysia Airlines fare that you can technically book, but is unlikely to actually get you back to Australia.

Unfortunately, the chances of actually getting back to Australia on such a cheap ticket are very slim indeed. Many of the tickets being sold at this price are for flights that are not currently operating, and are therefore likely to be cancelled.

Even if the flight isn’t cancelled, there is a very high chance you’ll just be bumped off it closer to the time of departure if you’ve booked a ticket in one of the “cheap” fare classes. In the example above, the flight for the final leg to Australia is booked in Malaysia Airlines “N” class, which is relatively low in the hierarchy of fare classes. The airline is unlikely to honour this ticket.

So, there is little point even trying to book such a cheap ticket to Australia at this point – especially if the ticket is non-refundable.

It’s a myth that you absolutely have to book a Business or First Class ticket. It is possible to get back to Australia in Economy class. But you would likely need to book a ticket in one of the more expensive fare classes to have any realistic chance of getting on the plane.

What is a fare class?

Fare classes (sometimes known as fare basis codes, fare buckets or Reservation Booking Designators) are single-letter codes that correspond to airfares sold at particular price points. There is a “hierarchy” of fare classes, with “Y” being the most expensive for Economy but also the fare class with the highest level of availability and most flexibility for the customer.

Read more: What is a Fare Class and Why Does it Matter?

With Qatar Airways, for example, the below amounts are approximately how much you could expect to pay for a one-way ticket from London to Adelaide (via Doha) in early August 2021, in various different fare classes that correspond to the Economy cabin. They are sorted in order from most to least likely to get you back to Australia:

  • Y class: AUD4,806
  • B class: AUD2,418
  • H class: AUD2,116
  • K class: AUD1,877
  • M class: AUD1,725
  • L class: AUD1,588
  • V class: AUD1,486
  • S class: AUD1,393
  • N class: AUD1,341

Please note that these prices are subject to change at any time; this is just indicative as of the time of writing this article.

When booking your flight online, most airline websites (with some notable and frustrating exceptions, such as the Qantas website) will display the fare class being booked. This includes on the Qatar Airways website and Singapore Airlines website.

If in doubt, a travel agent would certainly be able to help with this.

Getting on a Qatar Airways flight to Australia

In a recent interview on the AFF on Air podcast, travel agent Alan Lam (a.k.a. madrooster on the Australian Frequent Flyer forum) explained that Qatar Airways passengers booked either in Business class, or an Economy ticket in full-fare “Y” class, have a very good chance of returning successfully to Australia.

But booking a Business or full-fare Economy ticket is not cheap. A one-way Economy ticket from London to Australia in Y class costs approximately $4,800. Once you add on the cost of mandatory hotel quarantine upon arrival, that’s a very expensive trip home!

Depending on which Australian city you’re flying into, it may also be possible to get back with Qatar Airways in the B, H or K fare classes (the next three most expensive fare basis codes after Y class). Occasionally, passengers also make it into Australia in some of the cheaper fare classes, such as N – but this is rare.

As a general rule, the cheaper the fare, the more likely it is that you’ll be bumped off the flight. Just because an airline is willing to sell you a cheaper ticket today, doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily honour it when you’re due to fly in a few months’ time.

When booking with Qatar Airways to Perth, it’s unlikely you’ll make it onto the flight in anything less than Y class. But a B class fare may be sufficient if you’re flying to Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane or Adelaide.

QR LHR-ADL fare
Check your fare class when booking! A Qatar Airways “B” class Economy fare to Adelaide has a good chance of being honoured by the airline. Screenshot from Qatar Airways website.

If you’re booked on a Qatar Airways flight in H or K class, you may have a higher chance of getting on the flight if you’re booked to Brisbane or Adelaide. That’s because airlines are generally allowed to carry more passengers per flight into those cities, compared to Melbourne, Perth and Sydney. In addition, Qatar Airways doesn’t currently fly daily to Brisbane or Adelaide – so it gets a higher allocation of seats on the days it does.

If you’re looking at flights from Europe to Australia, you may also be offered a British Airways marketed flight from Doha to Australia operated by Qatar Airways. These codeshare flights are often cheaper than booking directly with Qatar Airways, but come with a far higher risk of getting bumped off the flight. Occasionally, individual travellers or couples have made it into Australia in Y or B class on British Airways codeshare bookings. Some families have also been successful flying from Doha to Australia on a “BA” flight number in H class. But most travel agents don’t recommend booking codeshare flights due to the very high risk of getting bumped.

Getting on a Singapore Airlines flight to Australia

Singapore Airlines is another of the most common airlines used to fly to Australia at the moment. In general, passengers booked in a premium cabin or a full-fare Y class Economy ticket on Singapore Airlines are successfully getting into the country. As a rough guide, a Singapore Airlines “Y” class fare from London to Adelaide normally costs around AUD2,500 one-way.

SQ LHR-ADL fare
Notwithstanding the possibility of future changes to South Australian arrival caps or Singapore transit rules, this kind of fare in full-fare Economy “Y” class is likely to get you back to Australia. Screenshot from Singapore Airlines website.

Some Singapore Airlines passengers booked in B or E class (the next two most expensive fare buckets, after Y) have also been successful in returning to Australia – particularly if booked to Adelaide. But if you’re flying to another Australian city with Singapore Airlines, there is a real risk you’ll be bumped with anything other than the most expensive Economy fare.

What about other airlines?

Alan Lam has put together a very helpful guide for anyone who needs to travel to Australia during COVID-19. It includes some guidance on which fare types passengers have generally had success with when returning to Australia on various different airlines over recent months, as well as indicative pricing.

You can read the guide here: Travelling to Australia During COVID-19 (Guide)

Where you fly to in Australia also matters

Your chances of getting accepted onto a commercial flight to Australia will also depend on which city you’ve booked to. That’s because the number of weekly international passengers accepted by each state is different. For cities with fewer international flights, the cap is also shared between fewer airlines meaning more passengers can be accepted onto each flight.

This is the maximum number of weekly passengers currently being accepted into each city as of June 2021:

International arrival caps by state as of June 2021
Australian international arrival caps as of June 2021. Image: Australian Frequent Flyer.

In practice, you’ll have a better chance of being accepted onto a flight to Adelaide or Brisbane than a flight to Melbourne, Perth or (to a lesser extent) Sydney. That’s because airlines are allowed to carry more passengers per flight into Adelaide and Brisbane.

Australian Frequent Flyer has sighted data showing the number of Qatar Airways passengers carried into Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide on various dates over the past month or so. To give you a very rough idea, this is the average number of passengers carried on a typical day into these cities:

Destination Business class Economy class Average total passengers
Melbourne 8 19 27
Sydney 23 30 53
Brisbane 27 49 76
Adelaide 11 68 79

However, the number of passengers on any given flight can vary wildly. We saw one Qatar Airways flight where 128 passengers disembarked in Brisbane, while other Qatar flights to Brisbane just a few days later carried only 69 and 52 Brisbane-bound passengers respectively.

The biggest variations in passenger numbers are seen on flights to Brisbane and Melbourne. That’s because both of these cities have additional hotel quarantine surge capacity that can be allocated to airlines (beyond their usual caps) at short notice.

It may be a good idea to book with a travel agent

If you just book the cheapest available ticket on Skyscanner or an online travel agency, there’s no guarantee that your ticket will actually be honoured. Some online travel agents and even airline websites are also selling tickets that are impossible to actually use. For example, some websites may try to sell you a ticket from Europe to Australia via the United States, even though non-US residents would not be allowed to transit via the USA.

Any travel agent who is worth the fees they charge will have a reasonable idea of which fare classes other people have been able to enter Australia with, or not. Travel agents are also aware of the various transit requirements which could catch you out and they often have airline contacts who may be able to help them to secure seats that you can’t otherwise book online.

Summary: How to maximise your chances of returning to Australia in June 2021

With all of this in mind, these are our top 5 tips for Australians trying to fly home at this stage of the pandemic:

  1. If you can, book a ticket to Adelaide or Brisbane (and avoid Melbourne & Perth)
  2. Be really careful about which fare class you book
  3. Register with DFAT in case a seat on a DFAT repatriation flight to Darwin becomes available
  4. Don’t book a ticket on an airline that is not currently operating to Australia as it’s highly likely to be cancelled
  5. It may be a good idea to book with a travel agent who has lots experience with COVID-19 repatriation flights
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Matt Graham
The editor of Australian Frequent Flyer, Matt's passion for travel has taken him to over 60 countries… with the help of frequent flyer points, of course!
Matt's favourite destinations (so far) are Germany, Brazil, New Zealand & Kazakhstan. His interests include economics, aviation & foreign languages, and he has a soft spot for good food and red wine.

You can contact Matt at [email protected]

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Shaun Buss

Out of interest, are people having better luck with booking return tickets from overseas to Australia, and its this a cheaper option? Maybe this is more an option with a clearer intent of a Singapore bubble.

Alan Lam

One way or return doesn’t really matter – it comes down to what ultimately makes sense for your circumstances (eg. whether you will leave Australia again within 12 months).

Ben B

What about the success rate using points to buy those tickets? Example: Using points to buy a Singapore Airlines Business class seat??

Vanessa

This is ridiculous. We should, as citizens, be able to return without having to jump hoops. We currently have several credits and cancelled flights (not including the refunded covid tickets). Last was LA to Sydney beg Jan 2021 while we were in the air from Paris to LA. We always book Business class. Our flights were cancelled while mid-air from Paris to LA. We are currently owed 30K+ in flights trying to get back. Not prepared to go to Darwin and be forced to go to the ‘converted immigration’ centre that has no air con and barely wifi-is barely habitable… Read more »

Barry Smith

I don”t think anything is going to change soon unfortunately.

Carol T

Howard Springs at Darwin is an OK place to be, better than a hotel, you are allowed to sit outside on your balcony, all the units are ground level, air con is per unit,( not universal as in hotels and has sometimes spread covid) and if you have mobile internet then that is what you use. Cost is $2500 not $3000 and is actually cheaper than some other cities. Also it is not a converted immigration centre, it is a purpose built village for the workers at impex gas plant. Please be clear about this with the facts, not the… Read more »

Boris

Vanessa are you stuck in LA since January?

roogirl

This is an incredibly helpful guide – but I have to take a step back and look at the madness in it having to be published at all. Those passenger numbers are mind blowing; how can airlines possibly be flying with those sorts of max passenger loads?

jane cornes

SUCH a useful article, thank you. However, my booked Qatar flights are shown as Economy (O). cant see O listed however?

Valentina C

yes, I agree with Matt completely. I made a trip back to Australia in January 2021 so I know it from my own experience that to find a way to return back now is the real science which demands from a traveller lots of everyday’s research of the current situation, careful surveillance and constant persistence and I don’t even mention the money which such a trip will cost.

LBrown

So if I book a flight into Darwin, which takes 1000 people from overseas, is it more likely my flight won’t be cancelled?

jill birrell

i have a business frequent flyer flight with emirates what are the chances of getting back on a ticket
already purchased with frequent flyers on emirates to perth