My husband and I had the opportunity to travel to Vancouver back in July for a few days. We had such an amazing time, that we really wanted to take the kids back to experience it.
We were pretty bummed out that we had to cancel our family trip to Ireland this summer, and although we had considered taking local road trips, we kept coming back to our memories of the West Coast. In the end, we decided that now was the best time to travel within Canada, and so we did. And as our kids put it, we had “one our best trips ever.”
In this post, I’d like to go over our decision process, our experience from the airport to our Air Canada flight, and then finally, our time in Vancouver (here in Part 1), followed by Whistler and Tofino (in Part 2).
The Decision Process
Travelling during the pandemic is still a risk many people are unwilling to take, especially when it involves flying on a plane.
The Canadian border was and remains closed to most foreigners, so we didn’t worry too much about COVID-19 stats abroad, but instead kept a close eye on how cases were trending within our country.
The lower the numbers are, the lower the risk of exposure would be anywhere, including on a plane. At the time we travelled, Ontario’s daily COVID-19 case count was hovering just below 100, and British Columbia’s was about half of that.
The numbers and situation can obviously change quickly, but making our flight bookings through Aeroplan gave us the flexibility to cancel our tickets up to 24 hours prior to departure. Better yet, they have been waiving the normal $125 cancellation fee for any Aeroplan booking if you cancel by October 16, 2020, but this deadline has been extended several times already, and will probably continue to be until the pandemic situation improves.
Aeroplan also ran a 50% Miles Back sale earlier this summer, which reduced the cost for our Toronto–Vancouver round-trip flight from 125,000 Aeroplan miles for a family of five (25,000 miles each) to only 62,500 – a deal too hard to pass up. Earning Air Canada’s Prestige 25K Elite status earlier this year via the Travel at Home promotion also reduced the taxes I had to pay on the redemption and gave us two free checked bags.
Another concern was being in an enclosed plane with a bunch of strangers. Both times when we travelled, passenger loads were at about 50–70% capacity, so social distancing could be an issue. However, because airlines have been hit hard economically by the pandemic, they have taken extra measures to protect passengers in the hopes of easing fears and restoring confidence in a safe return to travel.
Air Canada has their CleanCare+ program. The program includes mandatory use of face masks during flights, the distribution of personal care kits to all passengers, encouraging frequent hand washing, and enhanced disinfecting protocols after flights. Their planes are also equipped with an excellent HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) system that purifies the cabin air up to two times per minute. This is extremely important, since COVID-19 is known to be primarily transmitted by inhaling respiratory droplets or aerosols.
We also looked at the risks to our kids should they catch the virus. According to the Canadian Paediatric Surveillance Program, as of August 26, 2020, out of the 10,467 reported cases of COVID-19 in children, there have been 149 hospitalizations (1.3% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations in Canada), 29 ICU admissions (1.2% of all COVID-19 ICU admissions in Canada) and 0 deaths. Compared to adults, Canadian children also tend to have a milder illness.
You also have to look at your own personal circumstances as well. Perhaps you live with or are in close contact with grandparents, or those with certain medical conditions who may be considered high risk for having complications from COVID-19, and so this may impact your decision as well.
After careful consideration of all these factors and given the low number of COVID-19 cases across the country at that time, we felt comfortable enough with our decision to go.
At the Airport
Having gone through the pandemic travel experience only a month earlier, we felt more at ease bringing the kids. We arrived at Toronto Pearson Airport with ample time before our 2pm departure. At the entrance to the departures terminal was a security guard, only allowing those flying to pass. Airports also have a mandatory mask policy, so once we passed the security guard, it was masks on for everyone.
The airport was so quiet, with only a few people scattered around. When we got to Air Canada’s check-in counters, there was an agent who directed us to sanitize our hands before proceeding.
We had checked-in online, so we went straight to a kiosk, printed out our bag tags and did a contactless luggage drop-off. Meanwhile, at security, they did temperature checks on all passengers. This all took about 15–20 minutes from arriving at airport to getting through security.
After security, we still had 30 minutes before boarding, so we went to the Maple Leaf Lounge, the only airport lounge open at the time.
Access is usually reserved for Air Canada’s elite members or those travelling in business or First Class. My Prestige 25K Elite status landed me two passes, and a couple of friendly acquaintances I met through the Prince of Travel Elites Facebook group helped me obtain another two. As a family of five, we were short one pass, but the ever-so-friendly check-in agent allowed my three-year-old in free of charge.
The lounge was about half full, with seats and tables all spaced out for social distancing. For a more in-depth review of the Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge experience during COVID-19, check out T.J.’s article.
I love having lounge access when travelling with kids. It gives them space to spread out, but also more importantly, a chance to load up on food!
Anyone who has travelled with kids knows that food and snacks are essential. We ordered some lunch for them (mac & cheese and pizza were on the menu, so it was perfect) and ordered a few drinks (alcoholic for the adults) and chocolate bars to go.
We boarded our A321 plane without any delays. Once everyone was onboard, we noticed that passengers were generally spread out.
Earlier in the pandemic, Air Canada had offered to block seats in economy class to encourage social distancing, and although this was only guaranteed up till June 30, 2020, I suspect they are still doing this as plane capacity allows.
For example, I noticed when checking-in online, the last seat at the end of our row (my family had taken up five of the six seats in the row already) showed “occupied”, but upon boarding, we realized no one was seated there. This happened both on the flight there and back.
For my family, I strategically chose the row of seats in front of the exit row, Row 15 on the Airbus A321, so that there would be at least several feet of distance between us and the passengers behind us. It was our way to ensure some social distancing was happening. The same logic would apply for rows 27 DEF and 28 ABC.
I did a quick wipe down of the some of the high touch surfaces, like the trays, screens, and armrests, but evidence suggests that transmission through touching a contaminated surface is not the main way the virus spreads. And it’s nearly impossible to keep kids from touching surfaces, so the key focus during the flight was frequent hand-washing, sanitizing, and discouraging face touching.
Mandatory masking helps to discourage face touching, so this was actually helpful, too. My three-year-old did struggle with keeping her mask on, but the older two were fine.
Before take-off, the flight attendants (fully gowned up with mask, goggles, gown, and gloves) handed out a CleanCare+ amenity kit. The kit contained a pair of gloves, a bottle of sanitizer, some disinfecting wipes, a mask, earphones, a bottle of water, and a bag of pretzels. Beverage service was offered, but was more limited than usual in their available selection.
The Car Rental
Upon our arrival in Vancouver, we picked up our car rental at Hertz. Some of you may be wondering, is it safe it to rent a car during the pandemic? How do you know it’s clean and what is the risk?
The overall risk is probably low. Much like airlines, car rental companies have also taken extra safety and cleaning measures during the pandemic.
Even if the car isn’t spotless, there’s no need to panic. We now know that main mode of COVID-19 transmission is not through inanimate objects, but if you want to mitigate the risk, just practice good hand hygiene and don’t touch your face.
Droplets and aerosols that carry the virus can linger for up to several hours, but assuming that it takes at least several hours for them to inspect and clean a car before it is picked up by the next customer, you should be safe in this respect as well. You can always ask the agent when the car was last rented out and ask for a different vehicle if it has been less than a few hours.
If you compare car rental prices, Hertz generally is not the cheapest option; however, if you hold an American Express Platinum Card, you can sometimes score substantial savings by playing around with the Amex contract codes CDP 633306 and CDP 211762. For us, we saved 50% off their base rate and 10% compared to its cheapest competitor.
You’ll also get their Hertz Gold Plus Rewards Five Star status, which comes with a free car upgrade, subject to availability. We ended up getting a mid-size SUV, which was able to fit our travel stroller, two regular pieces of luggage, and a couple of backpacks, with room to spare.
Also, a word about renting the car seat: adding it online would have added $98 plus all their fees, amounting to $130 on top of our rental fee. We initially were going to bring our own, but we ran into a little mishap and didn’t end up bringing it. When we got to the counter, we just asked if we could add a car seat and the agent just gave it to us, no charge (perhaps we lucked out here!) It came in a sealed bag and was spotless, but we did wipe it down nonetheless.
Staying at the Westin Bayshore in Vancouver
Our itinerary for the trip to British Columbia looked as follows:
- Vancouver (1 night)
- Whistler (1 night)
- Tofino (4 nights)
- Vancouver (2 nights)
We started and ended our trip to British Columbia in Vancouver, and stayed at The Westin Bayshore both times.
We have elite status with Marriott Bonvoy, so we often book with them. Marriott has implemented special measures for all their hotels under their Commitment to Clean policies. Some of these measures include mandatory face coverings in all indoor public spaces, enhanced sanitization processes, hand sanitization stations, and signage, rearranged spaces, and protocols to encourage social distancing.
Generally, most people were abiding by the measures. For those who weren’t, we did see staff approach them and advise them of the policies and even give out disposable masks if you didn’t have one.
We chose this mid-range hotel for its proximity to Stanley Park, its large outdoor pool (an essential amenity when travelling with the kids), its complimentary breakfast for Marriott Bonvoy Platinum, Titanium, and Ambassador elite members, and also because of the awesome rate we booked at.
We booked using the corporate rate code QWO, Marriott’s Caregiver & First Responder Rate which gave us a rate that averaged out to $132 a night before taxes (compared to the standard member flexible rate of $227), which was hard to pass up… especially after seeing the upgrades we got! I would never recommend using a code that you don’t qualify for, as they may ask for identification at check-in.
Had we not found this deal, we would have booked through stayvancouverhotels.com, which runs various promotions throughout the year, including a popular a Visa gift card promotion earlier this summer (up to $125 in Visa gift cards for the first two nights and $50 for per night up to three nights thereafter).
The room. On our first stay, they had given us an Executive Premium Corner Room with two double beds, upgraded from the Traditional Guest Room we had booked. It wasn’t a suite, but it did give us plenty of space and the view overlooking the harbour was nice.
When we returned for our second stay, I requested an upgrade to the Executive Suite using the chat function, and it was granted!
Now this suite, my kids were raving about. Not only was it huge, but it had a dining table, a bar area, and large sectional sofa. Both times we had booked the room for two adults, but no fuss was made when we had the kids with us at check-in.
The pool. The Westin Bayshore Vancouver has a large outdoor heated pool with plenty of seating around, including small tables and even a couple of cabanas. They have an indoor pool as well, but this was closed due to COVID-19.
If vacationing on the weekend, pool reservations are required to help limit the number of guests in the pool at one time. Reservations for two-hour time slots are available online beginning at 6pm the night prior. They do book up within minutes, so set an alarm. The gym is unfortunately closed, but complimentary bike rentals are also available on site for two hours at a time.
Breakfast. Breakfast is available on weekends at their restaurant, H2 Rotisserie & Bar (with socially distanced tables), and every day from their grab-and-go cafe, T&Co.
For Bonvoy Platinum Elite members and above, a complimentary breakfast voucher is offered. At check-in, we were told the voucher covered one entrée and one non-alcoholic beverage for two guests.
However, we found they were quite lenient with this policy. At the restaurant, both my husband and I ordered an entrée, beverage, and an additional side of pancakes. Our only charge was $9 for one kids meal. At T&Co, the cashier informed us we could actually order up to $60 in food and beverage with the voucher – which was enough to feed our whole family of five. That’s a pretty decent value!
If you don’t have status or want to keep costs low, the hotel is within a 10-minute walk to Robson St, where you will find a variety of food outlets, including McDonalds, Starbucks, and Cobb’s Bread.
Parking. Valet parking is unavailable due to COVID-19; however, you can self-park in their underground parking lot for $41 a night. There is also an underground parking lot across the street (588 Cardero Street – Lot #169), which is charging lower rates. The only caveat is that the lot closes at 7pm so you cannot access your vehicle until the next morning at 6am. If you’re lucky enough to find a spot, there is also street parking around the hotel for $1–3 per hour from 9am–10pm, and then free outside those hours.
What we did.
- Stanley Park – This is a huge park with lots to do: trails, beaches, pools, parks and even a mini-train ride. It’s a great place to take those complimentary bikes from the hotel for a spin! If you’re staying at a different property, there are many bike rental places along Denman St (close to Robson St) for less than $10 per hour which includes bike, helmet, and lock. They also rent kids’ bikes, trailers (for those too young to ride on their own), kid seats, and tandem bikes.
- Capilano Suspension Bridge Park – What kid doesn’t like running on a suspended bridge and through a rainforest? There is also a treetop walk, staff who will introduce you to some pretty cool woodland creatures, and the salmon run in the fall. If your child wishes to have an interactive experience, there is an app that provides an educational self-guided program through the park.
- Granville Island – The Public Market here is a must. There’s plenty to try and buy here for a quick snack (try Lee’s Donuts!) or a full meal. You can even enjoy some entertainment put on by local artists. There’s even a Kids Market full of toy and clothing vendors and an indoor amusement park on the second floor.
- Science World – Our kids really loved this place. We only had three hours, but they could easily have spent more. It is full of interactive exhibits, scheduled workshops, and educational presentations.
- Vancouver Aquarium – We had planned to visit here, but unfortunately, the week of our visit was the last week they were open, and so they were fully booked. Given the tough financial times, they have closed temporarily. Hopefully we will have a chance to visit the next time we’re back.
After Vancouver, we headed to Whistler and then Tofino, which was the highlight of our trip, so more on that in the next post.
In the meantime, I hope this article has given you some food for thought. There is still a lot of uncertainty when it comes to this pandemic, and we are still learning new things about the virus and the number of new cases continue to fluctuate.
What we do know is how the virus spreads now and what precautions we can take to prevent its transmission: mask wearing, good hand hygiene, and social distancing. Adhering to these simple precautions helps to mitigate the risk. Travelling with kids does add another layer of complexity, as you must evaluate to what degree they can follow these precautions. My kids are well trained now, but they’re not perfect. In the end, it depends on your own risk tolerance and comfort level, and keeping up to date on what’s happening around us when making your decision.