When the most recent state lockdowns hit during the winter school holidays, many parents were left in limbo over what they should plan for the spring break.

Travel industry experts are now advising parents to look for last-minute bookings and plan holidays closer to home. They also suggest that families should be considering road trips and self-contained accommodation, such as serviced apartments, holiday homes and tiny houses in remote areas.

Data from holiday homes booking website Stayz reveals people are looking for destinations within three hours’ drive of home, something Stayz’s Simone Scoppa attributes to state border closures.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and international borders closed, Sofia Oropeza and Rodney Joyce knew they wouldn’t be able to travel overseas to visit family for a while, so they bought a campervan instead. They have been favouring road trips to holiday parks within their home state of New South Wales with their children, Jack, 3, and Emma, 1.

“When COVID started we changed our mindset to driving within a two or three-hour radius,” said Ms Oropeza. “We’re not planning to cross the border because we don’t want to drive that far with young children, and we also consider closing borders, because it happens lots.”

Their plans to go snowboarding in the NSW Snowy Mountains in July were thwarted by the latest lockdown, but they were easily able to re-book for a future date, which gives them some confidence.

“Everyone in the tourism industry is like: ‘Book! Book! Book! and we’ll give you your money back’,” said Ms Oropeza. 

Ms Scoppa said Stayz has seen demand for private accommodation soar over the past 18 months. “In holiday homes, families are not fighting over chairs by the pool or sharing facilities with other families; they can cook their own meals,” she said.

Popular destinations for the spring school holidays are the New South Wales Snowy Mountains and North Coast, Victoria’s High Country and the Great Ocean Road, and Cairns, the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast in Queensland.

Cancellations arising from COVID-19 outbreaks and changes to travel restrictions often mean that amazing holiday homes that are usually booked out suddenly become available – but you have to be quick.

“As soon as a premier says at a press conference ‘you are free to travel from today’, there’s a massive spike in bookings,” said Ms Scoppa.

Futurist Carolyn Childs, from My Travel Research, said travel within Australia is currently complex and volatile, with people sitting on their hands to see what happens regarding restrictions before booking. While there is some hesitancy in southern states to book trips to Queensland due to the threat of border closures, there’s also pent-up demand from people who have been in lockdown over winter and are in need of a holiday in the sun.

Ms Childs said holidaymakers were favouring companies who offer flexible booking options and turning to unofficial trading platforms, including Facebook page “Covid restriction holiday swap Australia” in which people can swap or offer their cancelled holidays to those who are still able to travel.

Earlier this year, Tourism Australia’s Travel Sentiment Tracker found there was a high reluctance for people to get on planes, which Ms Childs said was likely to continue following recent reports of flight attendants testing positive for COVID-19.

Kari Hunter, senior director of strategy, sales and marketing at Choice Hotels, agreed people were more likely to travel within their own state – and to make it a road trip. The hotel group’s ‘Year of the Long Weekend’ research showed people were more likely to have multiple short breaks throughout the year, rather than using a week or two of leave on an overseas holiday.

“We’re certainly seeing that people are travelling to destinations within driving distance, whether that’s regional destinations for those in capital cities or city breaks for those who live regionally,” she said.

Aussie’s are craving family adventures but need flexibility.

Multi-generational family travel has also become more popular, according to Marriott International area vice-president Sean Hunt.

“With families wanting to reunite post the COVID-19 restrictions, the trend to reunite has been apparent across our city hotels in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, as well as our regional properties on the Gold Coast and in Port Douglas,” he said. “Families want to catch up on missed celebrations, such as birthdays and other significant events.”

Parents are also returning to the simple holidays of their own childhoods, building sandcastles on the beach and riding bikes, with holiday parks booming. BIG4 Holiday Parks has seen a growth of 130 per cent in families booking cabins over the past year and an 81 per cent growth in campsite bookings amongst the demographic. This can partly be attributed to the BIG4 COVID-19 Flexi Booking Policy, which allows guests to change the date of their stay or accept a credit if they are directly impacted by COVID-19, or a government directive is issued that means they can no longer travel.

Wotif managing director Daniel Finch said free cancellation and ‘reserve now, pay later’ travel options were favoured by families. While he expects more last-minute bookings from NSW residents for the spring school holidays, he’s seeing greater optimism in other states. Traditional favourites, including the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast and Cairns, are seeing the most interest.

“With many families preferencing drive holidays, pit stop destinations are also benefiting,” he said. “This is fantastic news for many regional and rural destinations.” Mr Finch said his advice for parents was to remember that in the eyes of a child, it’s the little things that count. “You don’t need to break the budget or travel far to create lasting memories with your kids,” he said.

Tips for booking

• Look for intrastate holiday options, particularly holiday regions two or three hours’ drive away from home. In case there is a sudden lockdown, you’ll be able to get home easily.

• Check the cancellation policies before you book your Airbnb, Stayz home or hotel. Some will offer refunds if you cancel 24 hours before you arrive, while others do not offer refund options. If that is the case, make sure you can postpone your stay with the accommodation provider.

• Consider hiring a caravan or going camping. It’s a cost-effective way to see different parts of your state. And with the weather warming up, it’s the perfect time to hit the great outdoors.

• Join Facebook groups like Covid Restriction Holiday Swap Australia if you’re caught up in a border closure so you can  switch your holiday with another family.

• Consider booking a local stay. Your city or town will have some fantastic local accommodation options. Book a staycation and support your local hospitality and tourism operators.

Where to go

The Great Ocean Road, Victoria

With road trips de rigueur, it’s a great time to jump in the car and explore Victoria’s 243 kilometre-long Great Ocean Road, which starts in Torquay and finishes near Warrnambool. There are plenty of holiday homes and holiday parks in which to stay along the route, as well as gorgeous beaches and great attractions, including the Australian Surf Museum, Cape Otway Light Station and the 12 Apostles rock formations.

NSW Snowy Mountains

While many families in lockdown areas were forced to cancel their winter snow trips this year, spring is still a great time to take kids to the snow as the weather is warmer and there’s less chance of blizzards (which can put kids off for life). The season usually runs until the October long weekend, with the possibility of it extending if the snow coverage is good. And if, worst case scenario, you need to postpone your trip again, it is a fantastic summer destination too, with activities including mountain-biking, horse riding, fishing and hiking up Mt Kosciuszko – a great family bonding experience.

The Snowy’s are the perfect summer destination for kids.

The Tweed, Northern NSW

The closest you can get to Queensland without crossing the border, the Tweed Shire has become an attractive alternative for families during the pandemic. It includes the seaside hamlets of Cabarita Beach (named best in the country by Tourism Australia’s beach ambassador Brad Farmer in 2020), Pottsville and Kingscliff. There are lots of family-friendly holiday parks and you can learn to surf, go kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding, book a cruise to catch crabs in the Tweed River and visit Tropical Fruit World.

Gold Coast, Queensland

For families keen on a holiday in the Sunshine State, the Gold Coast’s beaches and theme parks beckon. Family-friendly resorts, including BIG4 Gold Coast Holiday Park and Paradise Resort Gold Coast, offer flexible COVID-19 booking policies if government-issued health directives impact the timing of your trip, but it’s best to book direct.

The Gold Coast is a prime destination for kids and families.

Cradle Mountain, Tasmania

Families looking for a remote wilderness getaway should consider booking a self-contained cottage at Cradle Mountain Wilderness Village. Children will love spotting wallabies and wombats on one of the many scenic hikes in the area, which range from the Enchanted Walk for littlies to circumnavigating Dove Lake with older kids. While you’re there, you can also see Tasmanian Devils at Devils @ Cradle sanctuary and explore the mazes at Tasmazia and quirky Lower Crackpot model village. 

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