Flying Around Australia/New Zealand is Great to Fly Except the Big Transit Pitfall, Please Be Ready

Those of us with US dollars are finding it a great time to travel to Australia and New Zealand with the exchange rate heavily in our favor. I took the opportunity to go to Sydney, Lord Howe Island and Norfolk Island which involved a number of transits. The experience overall was good, though a few things nearly bit me in the rear because I was unprepared.

Auckland Airport Transfer Bus

Some great things:

  • US citizens with biometric passports and select other nationalities can use SmartGate in both countries upon arrival. It is a breeze. If you want a stamp in your passport for a keepsake, you should go to the regular line.
  • Airline staff of Qantas, Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand I found all courteous and often going extra for passengers.
  • Airlines really try to get late passengers on flights, with frequent announcements by name to catch people.

The big pitfall to beware:

  • There seems to be a prohibition against having international and domestic terminals conveniently in the same location. Most of the major airports require lengthy bus and/or rail transit between terminals. At Sydney you have to pay, though if connecting to Qantas or Virgin Australia they have their own, free, expedited transit facilities. Build in lots of transit time!

Minor things:

  • Another reason to build in transit time is when things are quiet, such as the long Sunday I spent connecting in Brisbane, flights get pushed out early, closing as much as 30 minutes before scheduled departure.
  • Qantas has the same jumble of regional carriers under the QantasLink umbrella as US carriers do. In my small sample size they seem prone to delays, confirmed by a veteran agent who was juggling the flights. In one hour I heard three that had mechanical delays.
  • Virgin Australia has no international online check-in, no app except for entertainment, and no effective social media customer service. This got me in a pickle because I had to book separate tickets of Air New Zealand connecting to Virgin Australia in Sydney and when Air New Zealand fell severely late, it was only the tremendous efforts of the Norfolk Island Airport station manager to get Virgin Australia to pre-check me in so that my ticket was not canceled and I was still able to connect. If I had paid attention on their website about no international online check-in, I wouldn’t have booked what I did.
  • Air New Zealand has a number of airports with no online or app check-in, too, here’s the list.
  • There are few 3rd-party lounges. I thought I heard there was some regulatory reason, though one is about to open in Brisbane, and Auckland has a Priority Pass lounge that has food to equal Air New Zealand’s and is quieter though not as stylish. The good news is most airports are excellent for layovers regardless.

Australia and New Zealand are delights to visit, just buffer your transit time and enjoy.

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  • Kate Sullivan

    As an Australian who doesn’t go there often, the terminal interchange arrangements can be quite jarring.

    I usually go directly to Sydney (where my family is) but last year was flying Qatar through Perth, where I felt the transfer bus was driving to Adelaide rather than another terminal.

    I worked for a few years in the Pacific, and the interchange from domestic to international in Brisbane was maddening, with a train being required, for which you had to buy a ticket if transferring to Virgin but not Qantas, and the train didn’t like to run on Sunday mornings. Last year I was forced to go BKK-BNE-SYD and was pleased to see a much better transfer bus service available right outside the terminal; no more trying to convince taxi drivers to take you only as far as the next terminal when they have been sitting in a queue for an hour or more….

    As to why they are in separate buildings, it is probably a combination of trying to fit terminals on a small space, as in Sydney, and for all ports the need to strictly segregate international and domestic passengers. As is well known, immigration controls and monitoring are strictly enforced in Australia going in and out for all travellers, as is quarantine. This is much harder to do if you have a mixed terminal.

    ON third party lounges, there is little need domestically, given the lack of competition to the two biggest airlines.

  • Johnny

    VA does have an app. They only just launched it without making too much noise. But it works really well. Only for iOS at the moment: https://itunes.apple.com/au/app/id1060472593.

    Also, I have used their Facebook customer service team. https://www.facebook.com/virginaustralia
    In my experience they are awesome, quick and more helpful than calling in.

    As for transiting at AKL I find walking is quicker than waiting for the free bus.

  • Charlotte

    So agree on transit time. Took an hour and a half between SYD domestic and international terminals last time I went through.

  • I hate that you have to pay to transit between the international terminal and domestic terminals in Sydney!

  • Paul B.

    You should also remind Australia-bound travelers from the U.S. that they will need to obtain an Australian visa in advance of traveling. Fortunately it’s easily secured online, but your airline will not board you if you do not have one.

  • Genise

    Only international connections seem to go relatively smooth at SYD – except for lounge access during your layover. When flying Delta or VA in biz or as an elite+ with ongoing VA flight to NZ (AKL & ZQN) the Skyteam lounge will not let you in unfortunately.
    Only pax bound for SYD-LAX on DeltaOne will be allowed in, I was told on every occasion. (Delta only pays us for the outbound flight, I was repeatedly told !)
    I will be transiting again in a few weeks, the 7th time this year so far from/to the US and the only lounge we can use is the Amex lounge next to the Skyteam lounge. Oh well … it’s a nice little, comfortable lounge.
    What is also important is the fact that one will definitely need the Australian e-visa, regardless of stay or transit time. Airlines will check and make sure you have one, otherwise denied boarding. The last time I checked in for SYD with Delta a few weeks ago, the agent insisted to double check our valid e-visas for validity in the back-office and took at least an extra 30 minutes while profusely apologizing and explaining how expensive the fines would be if the airline failed to do so.

  • @Genise – thanks for the all the details. Saturday I test VA AKL-RAR, which they use NZ’s lounge and I think my DL status or even VA status would not have access.

    I had a long DL wait to verify my e-Visa, agent said kiosk check-in might avoid it over home check-in, and it is that new all-in-one DL system that seems really slow for agents to accomplish anything.

  • Genise

    Envy you – have not been (yet). Safe travels and hope for a TR !