The Government of Canada has advised against all non-essential travel outside the country, while the Foreign Affairs Minister has called on Canadians abroad to return home via commercial means while they’re still available.
With border restrictions, flight cancellations, and airline suspensions ramping up day by day, in this post I wanted to provide some practical advice for anyone who’s still outside of Canada but looking to book flights home as a matter of urgency.
Call Centres Are Overwhelmed
It’s plainly obvious that every airline and loyalty program’s call centres are overwhelmed and overworked at this time, and the hold times could well be in the range of four to six hours.
Purely considering the time-sensitive nature of the matter at hand, it’s best to book your flights home without having to call the airline, if at all possible.
Hi Tanya, at this time most of our calls are for cancellations due to the COVID-19 and the wait time is currently 4 hours. Please note you can now refund any unused tickets online at no fee until 31st of March https://t.co/1TqB4y7BiI. We hope this helps!
— Aeroplan (@Aeroplan) March 15, 2020
This means that if you’ve booked a return flight or a round-the-world flight, and are currently in the middle of the trip, it may be more advisable to book an entirely separate flight (on points or on cash) to get home, and then deal with the cancellation and refund of your existing ticket at a later date, rather than trying to call the airline and change your return flight.
Before we talk about that in more detail, the other side of the coin here is that you should avoid calling airlines, hotels, loyalty programs, and travel providers if your travel is not urgent (i.e., generally understood as taking place within the next three days).
If you’re simply looking to get a refund on that flight you booked for the end of the month, but are sitting tight at home otherwise, don’t add to the burden of call volume – just wait.
Aeroplan Has Been Proactive in Helping Travellers
If you’re travelling on an Aeroplan itinerary, most accounts indicate that the program has been very proactive in helping travellers change their plans to get home to Canada.
In particular, Aeroplan has very flexible in allowing:
Full refunds of miles and fees with no charge on upcoming trips; these can be processed online via the “Manage My Bookings” page
Partial refunds of miles and fees on trips that are currently taking place, given that many travellers are scrambling to get home instead of proceeding on their trips; these bookings often have the “Cancel” button greyed out online because the trip has already commenced, so will need to be processed through the contact centre
Due to the coronavirus, Aeroplan allows free refunds (complete mileage/taxes for unused tickets, partial mileage/taxes for the unused portion of partly used tickets). You can also rebook free of charge, but other reward requirements apply. Details at https://t.co/PJS2g8fzT2.
— Aeroplan (@Aeroplan) March 16, 2020
Nick from Distant Points carries one such data point of a partial mileage refund. Other anecdotes I’ve come across recently involve:
A traveller who was on their first stopover in Lisbon, en route to Australia, being allowed to cancel the remainder of their trip for a refund of half their miles and book a separate flight home from Lisbon directly
A traveller who was midway through their round-trip to Europe being allowed to cancel the return portion of their trip for a refund of half their miles and book a separate flight home on Swiss’s Zurich–Montreal flight (which was not showing up for the call centre agent, despite showing up on the Aeroplan search engine)
A traveller who was on their final stopover in Tokyo who booked a separate flight to return home earlier than scheduled; Aeroplan was able to arrange a callback via Twitter and refund a portion of their miles
On that last point, it seems that Aeroplan’s social media team has the capacity to schedule callbacks for those who aren’t able to reach the contact centre.
However, I’m certain that you’d need to provide a booking reference and that a callback would only be scheduled if you are travelling urgently. Otherwise, don’t be surprised to be told that callbacks are not available.
(Again, if you are not travelling urgently, please do not add to the overwhelming burden of either the contact centre or the social media team at this time.)
With the above in mind, then, if you’re currently travelling on an Aeroplan award and have excess Aeroplan miles to spare, use those to book yourself or your loved ones a flight home on whatever routing you can find. You can then speak with Aeroplan to be made whole after the fact.
(Note that there have been a few instances of new Aeroplan bookings being left “unticketed” – especially on partner airlines rather than Air Canada ones – due to what I’m sure is a massive backlog on the ticketing system. These itineraries will likely require a manual intervention to get them ticketed, and it seems like a situation in which the social media team might be able to assist with arranging a callback.)
If you don’t have excess miles to spare, instead of trying to speak to a human to get your trip rearranged, it might make more sense to…
Book a Cash Ticket to Get Home
Look, none of us here are enthusiastic about paying cash for flights, but these are no ordinary times, and it may well be the most advisable option to get yourself back to Canada as soon as possible and leave the trivialities of dealing with mileage refunds for later.
Last week’s US presidential decree to ban travel from Europe to the US sparked a huge increase in demand for last-minute transatlantic travel, as well as many stories of one-way airfare rising into the range of many thousands of dollars.
Right now, though, I’m seeing one-way flights still available from most corners of the world to Canada at no more than the $1,000–$1,200 range, which, if it’s within your means, can easily be worthwhile compared to the alternative of being stuck abroad for the foreseeable future.
When booking these last-minute flights home, make sure to pay attention to the connections along the way (and there are likely to be a few connections, given how many flights have been suspended in recent days) and make sure that they won’t pose a problem for you.
For example, if a flight home from Europe involves a layover in the United States, then as a Canadian citizen you will not be allowed to board that flight, given that US airports do not have sterile transit.
Unfortunately, even in these dire straits, not all loyalty programs and travel providers have been as amenable to providing full and partial refunds as Aeroplan has, so it may be the case that these out-of-pocket costs will need to be absorbed for the time being, and compensation sought with your travel provider after the fact.
What If All Flights Have Been Suspended?
One unpleasant scenario that may have affected some Canadian travellers is if a country has suspended all international flights while you were still within its borders.
Morocco, for example, has suspended all international air travel as of yesterday, and other governments are likely to implement similar measures as coronavirus continues to sweep the globe.
If you aren’t able to leave the country, it’s time to “hunker down” and wait things out in self-isolation while continually searching for alternative ways to return home.
Consult with your accommodation provider or tour operator as to whether they might be able to make any arrangements for you, and keep abreast of local developments for your own health and safety. If you’re in need of accommodations on short notice, take a look at whether there might be any Category 1 or 2 Marriott Bonvoy hotels in your area that you can check-in to in a pinch.
Meanwhile, some governments (like Argentina) might announce the suspension of all but a few regional flights; in this case, there may be a way to get home by booking separate sets of flights via a third country (taking into account travel restrictions of that country as well, of course).
Update (March 17): The prime minister has revealed that Global Affairs will offer up to a $5,000 loan to Canadians stuck abroad for getting home. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and/or seek consular assistance for more information.
Let Us Help You
In this situation, a bit of familiarity and experience with the inner workings of flights, airfare, and commercial travel in general will go a long way.
If you’re an infrequent traveller who might benefit from the help of more experienced travellers as you seek safe passage back to Canada on short notice, feel free to post about your situation in the Prince of Travel Elites Facebook group or in the comment section below, so that we as a community can help get you home safe.