Stranded abroad? What you need to know about returning to Canada

After the federal government on Friday told Canadians abroad to come home to help curb the coronavirus’s spread, dozens of travellers contacted CBC News, looking for answers.

Government and airline policies are changing rapidly, so CBC News compiled the most current information to help you get home or resolve your vacation plans during these difficult times. 

What’s the government’s latest position?

Some travellers told CBC News they fear the border might be closed by the time they return to Canada. While the government has shut the border to most foreigners, Canadian citizens, permanent residents and Americans can still enter

However, the number of international flights back to Canada is shrinking.

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that as of Wednesday, international flights will be permitted to land only at the main airports in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver.

Meanwhile, airlines are already cutting back flights.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday urged Canadians abroad to return home. (CBC)

However, the federal government said stranded travellers shouldn’t fret because it’s offering emergency loans of up to $5,000 to help Canadians find a way home.

“Our government will set up a support program for Canadians who need to get on a plane,” said Trudeau.

But if you fall ill with the coronavirus while abroad, don’t expect to fly home anytime soon. The prime minister said anyone displaying symptoms won’t be permitted to board a flight to Canada, but they can get financial assistance. 

To stay abreast of the situation, Canadians abroad are encouraged to register with the government’s free information service for international travellers. They can also contact Global Affairs Canada for emergency assistance.

What if I can’t reach my airline?

While the government’s request to return home is clear, what’s less clear for travellers is how to proceed. That’s because airlines and travel agencies have been swamped with calls from customers, so many people aren’t able to reach them by phone. 

For travellers who have access to the internet, many airlines, including Air Canada, WestJet, Air Transat are waiving change fees and have set up systems where passengers abroad can rebook their trips online.

Sunwing told CBC News that it’s “working around the clock” to fly home passengers on dedicated flights. 

Most travellers who booked via a travel agency will have to contact their agency directly to rebook. Some online booking agencies, including Expedia, have also set up systems so passengers can rebook online. 

For people who need to call their airline or travel agency before rebooking and are unsuccessful, travel agency spokesperson Allison Wallace suggests they go ahead and book a one-way flight home. While there are no guarantees, she said that airlines are likely to forgive the cost of your original return ticket during these difficult times.

“I would suggest that airlines and suppliers are going to be extremely forgiving, and will understand the situation and will do everything they can,” said Wallace, spokesperson for Flight Centre. 

She said travellers who choose this option should save all their receipts and note all measures they took to reach their airline, to make their case at a later date. 

What about future flights?

Ottawa is also warning Canadians at home not to travel abroad. But many people set to travel within days are also having trouble contacting their airline.

Air Canada, WestJet, Air Transat and Sunwing are each allowing travellers to make flight changes online, with change fees waived for travel up until April 30.

Sunwing passengers should note that the airline has suspended all southbound flights between March 17 and April 9. Customers with cancelled flights will get a full refund.

Wallace encourages travellers who need to cancel upcoming trips to wait until 72 hours before they were set to travel to call their airline, to prevent clogging up the phone lines.

“I suspect that everybody’s going to be looked after when this is all over,” she said. 

Why is my rebooked flight so pricey?

Some travellers who contacted CBC News complained that when they rebooked their flight — even though their change fee was waived — they had to pay a much higher price for a new airline ticket. 

WestJet said that it’s currently lowering ticket prices on inbound international flights. 

Air Transat said that its price structure hasn’t changed and that its fares are generally cheaper compared to other airlines.

Sunwing said its passengers currently abroad will be flown home at no additional cost.

Air Canada didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

Wallace said that passengers with non-refundable tickets are fortunate that they’re even getting change fees waived, because airlines aren’t obligated to compensate passengers for a disruption beyond their control — such as the coronavirus.

“This is not something that is the airline’s fault. It is what they call an act of God.”

Wallace said that airlines are also feeling the financial pinch as the coronavirus takes its toll on their profits. “The travel industry is getting hammered right now and this will be devastating.”

What about my future plans?

For anyone with plans to travel beyond April, Wallace suggests sitting tight. That’s because airlines generally aren’t offering any compensation for flights beyond April at this time.

However, if the coronavirus pandemic worsens, airlines may extend their change fee waivers or start cancelling flights, which means passengers would get a full refund.

“It’s changing constantly,” said Wallace. 

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