Did you book travel over the holidays or in the new year?
If so, you are not alone.
Numerous Vancouverites started eagerly booking travel after the federal government quietly lifted the non-essential travel advisory in October. In fact, many people had started travelling before the advisory was lifted, as many of them had received a full course of a Health Canada-approved vaccine. Daily cases of COVID-19 were also dropping across B.C. and around the world and many people felt optimistic that the worst of the pandemic was over.
And then a recently-identified coronavirus strain with 37 spike protein mutations started making international headlines.
First identified in South Africa, the Omicron variant raised alarm as it rapidly spread in communities and across continents. Canada responded by introducing a sweeping travel ban on several African countries that were seeing a steep rise in cases of the newly-identified strain. And while the ban was recently lifted, the federal government isn't mincing words about Canadians travelling internationally right now.
The Government of Canada now advises against all non-essential travel outside of the country until further notice, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos told reporters in a press briefing Wednesday (Dec. 15) in Ottawa.
"To those who were planning to travel, I say very clearly: now is not the time to travel," he said. "The rapid spread of the Omicron variant on a global scale makes us fear the worst for Canadians that may think of travelling.
"Travelling Canadians could contract the virus or get stranded abroad."
The federal government underscores that countries around the world are updating their entry and exit requirements and advisories can change quickly.
Local authorities abroad may impose control measures suddenly, including movement restrictions such as lockdowns. In some countries, you may have limited access to timely and appropriate health care should you become ill. (Find out more information about Canada's new travel rules.)
But what does this mean if I booked an international flight?
Travellers who booked flights outside of Canada need to consider all of their options before making a decision. Unfortunately, customers may be out of luck if they purchased nonrefundable tickets or skipped purchasing travel insurance.
But you might be surprised what kind of financial losses you can recoup in a seemingly dire travel situation.
Dr. Gábor Lukács is the founder and president of Air Passenger Rights—a group that gives airline customers information about their rights so they are capable of enforcing them against airlines. He told Vancouver Is Awesome in a phone interview that Canadians are frequently taken advantage of by airlines because they aren't aware of the rules.
While some people may not be able to get refunds on their flights, Lukács said you shouldn't rush to cancel your ticket.
"Wait as close as possible to the date of the travel," he advised.
The airlines are under no obligation to refund customers their tickets, despite Canada's new advisory. However, many of them may make substantial changes to their flight schedules in the wake of soaring cancellations and ramped-up testing protocol related to the spread of Omicron.
Depending on the length of the schedule change, or even if the airline changes a flight number, you may be entitled to a refund.
But don't hold your breath waiting for the airline to provide you with refund options. Be proactive, advised Lukács.
"Many passengers, if [they] go back to the original booking and compare to what [their] itinerary shows now, I bet 33 per cent of passengers will see something that may be suitable for demanding a refund," he explained.
If their option is foregoing the money they paid for a ticket or getting vouchers, passengers should wait until the day before the flight to make a decision.
"No reason to rush...for several reasons," he noted. "First, Omicron may be sweeping through Canada very quickly. It is something that seems to be rather rapid. And if that's the case, then a ticket for February or March...it's unclear to what extent it will be affected by it."
The further in the future their date of travel is, the more that the travel situation can change, added Lukács. The airline may decide to cancel the flight down the line or present passengers with more options to cancel.
Do airlines point out to their passengers when they may be entitled to a refund?
"In theory, airlines are required to provide passengers with their rights. But in practice, it is not happening," Lukács said.
Instead, the airline passenger advocate emphasized that travellers need to look for changes on the ticket and keep a log of communication they have with airline employees. He recommends recording phone calls.
"Remember, anything can change to your tickets...like a cancellation of a segment...if even the flight number changes...or a delay of over three hours. That's a sufficient reason to say, 'You know what, I want back my money."
Canadian airlines on cancellations, changes, and refunds in the wake of the new advisory
Air Canada states that it will refund customers if it does not re-book them on another flight that "departs or arrives within three hours of their original departure or arrival time, or if we add a connection to your itinerary, you can request a refund."
Air Canada customers with non-refundable tickets have options to:
- Make a change to another date without a change fee,
- Cancel their travel and retain the value of their ticket in an Air Canada Travel Voucher that is fully transferable and does not expire,
- Cancel their travel and convert the value of their ticket into Aeroplan points plus obtain a 65% bonus.
WestJet spokesperson Madison Kruger told V.I.A. that the airline continues to offer its "flexible change/cancel policy ‘book with confidence’ policy."
In the event that COVID-19 impacts travel plans, "all flights booked between March 3, 2020 and January 31, 2022 will be allowed a $0 one-time fee waiver for changes or cancellations." More details on this policy are available on WestJet's changes and cancellations page online.
"Travel insurance remains available for purchase in our booking flow, with options that provide COVID-19 coverage and offer benefits for emergency medical and quarantine expenses if you test positive for COVID-19 while on a trip," added Kruger.
In an emailed statement, Swoop told V.I.A. that it is working in "real-time" to support travellers who wish to make changes in response to the advisory.
"As an ultra-low cost carrier (ULCC), our a la carte model allows our travellers to control their costs and customize their experience by purchasing only the extras they desire, including the option to purchase additional flexibility for their travel plans by adding ModiFly to their booking. ModiFly allows travellers to make a one-time change of date and/or time to their travel bookings."
Travellers looking for additional support for their travel plans are encouraged to visit Swoop online.
V.I.A. reached out to Flair Air and did not receive a response by the time of publication.
- Find out everything you need to know about international travel with our comprehensive travel guide for Canadians.
- Discover a tutorial on how to use the ArriveCAN app.
- See the testing and quarantine instructions you'll receive at Vancouver International Airport.
Disclaimer: Vancouver Is Awesome does not support travel during the non-essential travel advisory. Many foreign governments are implementing strict travel restrictions due to the spread of the Omicron variant and international transportation options may be limited. As a result, you may have difficulty returning to Canada.