There’s a lot to consider when booking a holiday these days. Will state borders stay open? What restrictions are in place? Is it safe? Is it worth the risk?
The uncertainty has many Australians staying close to home; it’s been a huge summer for regional road trips. But others are seizing new opportunities, strapping themselves into planes and hurtling into the great unknown.
This is the idea behind Qantas’ “mystery flights”, a 1990s travel trend recently rebooted with a not-very-1990s pricetag. For $737 (or $1,579 business class) you get a seat on an early-morning flight, a curated adventure somewhere in regional Australia, and a return trip before the day is through. The first three flights were announced last week. They sold out in just 15 minutes.
“The cost is expensive, but I didn’t hesitate to decide to book,” says Brad Sinnatamby, one of the few to score tickets. “I was working overseas in March last year, and once Covid hit I returned back to Melbourne and was basically in lockdown for six months. I didn’t think I’d miss [travel], but I actually do.”
The mystery flight, he says, is a chance to get away and experience something new.
Most of all, mystery holidays convert the uncertainty around travelling in a pandemic from a bug to a feature.
The rise of the novelty flight
Of course, this is also a chance for the struggling travel sector to get people excited about flying again. Mystery flights are just one of a number of novelty initiatives launched over the course of the pandemic.
A lot of people don’t know where they can go. They find it’s a headache to deal with the planning.
Flight Centre's James Kavanagh
In September, Qantas made headlines with its “flight to nowhere”: a seven-hour sightseeing trip that departed and arrived in Sydney. Similar concepts took off in Asia, sometimes without taking off at all: in October, hundreds of people paid Singapore Airlines $640 to eat a meal on a stationary A380.
As domestic travel opens up, the mystery flight promises a similarly novel experience – with the added benefit of an actual destination. Air New Zealand and Flight Centre have been offering similar packages (which include overnight stays) for the past few months.
“[Our trips] were actually so popular over the Christmas period, there was a week that over 50% of all holiday packages booked through us were mystery holidays,” James Kavanagh, managing director of Flight Centre Australia, tells Guardian Australia. A third of all departures, he notes, came out of Melbourne.
“I have to admit even I was a little bit sceptical. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t people want a lot of certainty, with the way things are going?’”
But he’s since come to see the sense in it. “A lot of people don’t know where they can go,” he says. “They find it’s a headache to deal with the planning.”
A Qantas spokesperson also cites this as a reason for the flights’ success: “Passengers are keen on a ‘set and forget’ experience, with everything planned for them.”
There are, however, some downsides to having someone else plan your trip, as Maureen McLeod found out last month. Her Flight Centre mystery holiday took her from the Sunshine Coast to Sydney – the one place she didn’t really want to go.
The mystery with these flights is why, in a climate emergency, they’re taking off at all.
“My husband has just retired from work and he’s spent the past 18 months, up until Covid last year, going to Sydney every week. Because of Covid, we didn’t really want to go to a city. We just sort of thought... yuck. But we made the most of it.
“It’s called a mystery holiday, you can’t know where you’re going!”
Will the trend last?
With environmental groups hoping for a pivot to slower and more sustainable holidays, not everyone is so excited about the prospect of pandemic novelty flights.
“The mystery with these flights is why, in a climate emergency, they’re taking off at all,” says Mark Carter, a spokesperson for Flight Free Australia. “Flying is the most warming single thing you can do.”
For its part, Qantas has noted that “all three [mystery] flights will operate with net zero emissions, with 100% of emissions carbon offset”. But Carter labels this an attempt at “greenwashing”.
“Offsetting pretends that emissions drawdown can be an excuse for more emissions,” he says. “Yes, flying for holidays, to meet family, friends and business colleagues might seem unavoidable in a ‘normal’ world. But the world is normal no more.”
Kavanagh agrees that “the decline in air travel at the moment is probably a good thing for the environment overall”, but isn’t too worried about “gimmicky things … moving the needle too much”. He’s also open to trialing mystery holidays internationally, if the opportunity arises.
These things are ultimately driven by demand, he says. Kavanagh recalls seeing the stationary Singapore Airlines flight last year and thinking: “Who in their right mind would do that?” But, he adds, “The plane was full!”