My wife and I were recently affected by the travel chaos in Western Canada. We were slated to fly on a direct flight from Edmonton to Comox on Monday, December 19, but wound up getting home on the evening of December 21.
It wasn’t easy or smooth, but we managed to finagle our way on a series of flights that eventually got us home. I thought I’d share how I approached the situation by leveraging some travel tools, taking matters (mostly) into our own hands, and taking a few gambles.
I’d like to make it clear that our situation wasn’t nearly as awful as many others who were stuck on airplanes for hours on end, or who didn’t have tools and other resources at their disposal. Rather, I hope that sharing our approach to getting home during disrupted travel, and the lessons we learned from this experience, may prove useful to others who face similar circumstances.
December 19: Widespread Cancellations from a Winter Storm
After visiting with friends and family in Edmonton for a weekend, we were originally set to fly back to Comox on a direct flight with WestJet on Monday, December 19.
We decided to burn a companion voucher from a WestJet RBC World Elite Mastercard and some WestJet Dollars on direct flights rather than routing via Calgary or Vancouver, knowing that we’d be travelling during one of the busiest travel periods of the year.
As you know by now, an unprecedented winter storm that affected a wide swath of British Columbia halted those plans.
As we exited the Plaza Premium Lounge Edmonton and approached the gate to board, a staff member announced over the intercom that the flight was cancelled, and since it was due to bad weather, everyone had to fend for themselves for food and overnight accommodation.
The staff member also instructed passengers to keep an eye on their emails and WestJet apps, as they’d be automatically rebooked. Our luggage was to be dispensed in the carousels shortly thereafter, and we began to consider our options, as we clearly weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
I briefly passed by the WestJet customer service desk, only to find a massive queue and a surprisingly small number of staff members dealing with the barrage of affected travellers.
My first reaction was to get on hold with WestJet, as well as messaging the airline via Twitter and Facebook Messenger. Neither of us felt that standing in line for hours was the best use of our time.
Realizing that we weren’t going anywhere that night, and also as we weren’t eligible for free hotel accommodation under the Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR) due to the delay being outside of the airline’s control, we also booked an airport hotel while there were still available rooms.
At this point, I opened my Air Canada app to see if alternative flights were available on the next day, December 20. Much to my surprise, there were still a handful of flights available from Edmonton to Vancouver for just 8,400 Aeroplan points.
I booked us on a flight departing earlier in the day, which would theoretically allow us to move to another flight later in the day if that one was also cancelled and there were any available seats.
Even if we could get as far as Vancouver, we could have then make our way back home to Vancouver Island on a series of public transportation connections, a ferry, and a lift from friends. We could also cancel for free within 24 hours of booking, if we managed to get on a different flight with WestJet.
By the time we checked in and got settled at the hotel, my focus shifted to getting us from Vancouver to Comox. Unsurprisingly, there weren’t any available seats on any flights from Edmonton, Calgary, or Vancouver to Comox with WestJet, Air Canada, Harbour Air, or Pacific Coastal until a few days later.
At this point, I logged in to my ExpertFlyer account and set “Flight Alerts” for every possible flight that could get us back to Comox the next day. To do so, I set an alert for two available “Y” seats on every flight.
By doing so, I’d receive an email from ExpertFlyer as soon as two seats became available, since “Y” fare classes are typically the first to reappear when a flight is sold out and seats become available.
If I were to receive an alert, I could then rebook us with cash or Aeroplan points on Air Canada flights, cash with Pacific Coastal flights, or have WestJet reroute us in the event that I was able to get assistance at the right time.
By now, it was getting late, so I resigned to waiting for my Google Assistant to hold for me and notify me if a WestJet agent picked up on the other end.
A couple of hours later, and a total of five hours after beginning the hold, I was awakened by my phone and began the process of looking for available flights with the agent. We were able to find seats on a flight to Vancouver the next day, but he had some problems reissuing the ticket, and placed me on another hold.
The call eventually dropped, and I gave up for the night, hoping that I’d awake to find us confirmed on a WestJet flight to Vancouver so I could cancel our Aeroplan booking.
December 20: ExpertFlyer for the Win
As soon as my alarm went off the next day, I checked my phone and noticed that we didn’t have a confirmed booking on WestJet, which meant that the agent likely gave up, too. I immediately got back on hold, made a cup of awful hotel drip coffee, and scanned through my emails.
Much to my delight, I received an ExpertFlyer notification that seats had become available to Comox that afternoon on Air Canada. I quickly scooped them up so we at least had confirmed seats, and although the inflated cost in Aeroplan points made me shudder, I decided to worry about that later.
We had a quick breakfast at the hotel, and then made our way back to the airport early in the morning.
There was again a single WestJet agent assisting a massive line of guests with cancelled reservations, so we decided that my wife would hold our place in that line while I searched for alternative approaches. We were still waiting for some sort of response from WestJet about our original cancellation from the day before, as we had yet to notice any rebooking on the WestJet app or any communication by email, social media, or telephone.
I managed to find another line that was much shorter, and decided to try my luck there. I was eventually greeted by a sympathetic agent who agreed to look into my booking since we hadn’t been rebooked and the WestJet call centre was no longer accepting inbound calls, and she eventually managed to get us new boarding passes and a baggage tag.
We headed through security and back into the lounge, keeping a keen eye on our phones for any pending notifications about flight delays or cancellations.
Indeed, our Air Canada flight from Vancouver to Edmonton wound up being cancelled, and we were automatically rebooked the next day (December 21). We decided to keep that booking active as it provided us another option if the WestJet flight fell through.
Our recently booked flight from Vancouver to Comox was also cancelled, and we were automatically rebooked on a flight… five days later.
By now, we had confirmed seats as far as Vancouver on a WestJet flight for today, December 20, and an Air Canada flight on December 21. How we’d be getting home from Vancouver to Comox was still up in the air.
A few hours later, we found ourselves seated on a WestJet flight bound for Vancouver, getting ready for takeoff…
…only to deplane shortly thereafter, when the flight was ultimately cancelled.
It was approaching the late afternoon at this point, and the situation in Vancouver wasn’t looking good, so we booked into another hotel.
While we were still airside, we also tried speaking to WestJet agents at gates for flights that weren’t departing imminently. They tried to assist with rebooking, but there weren’t flights available for a couple of days at that moment in time, so we opted to leave things as is.
Prior to relaxing for the evening, I set up new ExpertFlyer alerts for open seats on flights to Comox the next day, hoping that we could get rebooked if two became available.
December 21: Homeward Bound
The number of flights actually arriving in Vancouver the next day was looking much better than the previous two days, so we were cautiously optimistic that it would actually work out this time.
We had confirmed tickets as far as Vancouver with Air Canada at this point, and nothing confirmed with WestJet. I was also watching flight availability to Comox very closely.
As we were about to depart to Vancouver on Air Canada, I received two more ExpertFlyer notifications that seats on the Pacific Coastal and Air Canada flights to Comox later that day had two seats available.
As we started to push back, I was running out of time before I had to set my phone to airplane mode, and I knew those seats wouldn’t last for long.
If our current flight to Vancouver were delayed, we’d be cutting it very close to request a refund for the Pacific Coastal flight, and we’d risk losing money even with a refundable fare.
And as we prepared for takeoff, it was too late to call Aeroplan and ask for our cancelled Vancouver–Comox booking to be changed to later that day instead, and we didn’t have any access to airline staff in the terminal either.
At this point, I could have simply rebooked it using Aeroplan points, but the cost had risen significantly from our previous booking. I decided to make a last-ditch effort to email Air Canada Concierge, whose assistance I enjoy through my Super Elite status, and requested being rebooked from Vancouver to Comox on that day.
Now, if we had received the Flight Alert notification while we were still in the airport, any Air Canada staff member would have been able to assist us with the time-sensitive request, even without having status. While my status allowed me to reach an Air Canada staff member in a timely manner, even simply having access to staff in a Maple Leaf Lounge would have yielded the same result without lining up with dozens of other stranded passengers.
After a smooth flight into Vancouver, I was relieved to see that the Concierge team had indeed rebooked us on the flight to Comox, and also that it had been delayed by a couple of hours. This gave us plenty of time to make the connection, so I didn’t mind having to spend a few more hours in an airport lounge.
Sure enough, around 48 hours after we were supposed to have arrived, we found ourselves back at home. We both felt quite exhausted after the rollercoaster of events, but we were very grateful to no longer be in limbo, albeit with a few less Aeroplan points in our account.
Lessons for Next Time
This was the first time I had been in such a chaotic travel environment during the holidays, and I certainly will approach it differently next time.
Pay with the right credit card
I realized that we had charged the taxes and fees from our original WestJet booking to an American Express card, since we don’t really care about WestJet Dollars. In hindsight, this meant that we weren’t eligible for flight delay insurance on our WestJet RBC World Elite Mastercard, since we didn’t charge the full amount of the booking to our card.
This was a good learning lesson for me, as this oversight required us to shell out some extra cash for a hotel on the first night of our delay which would have otherwise been covered.
On the other hand, I made sure to pay the taxes and fees for our Aeroplan bookings with an American Express Aeroplan Reserve Card, as we were then covered in the likely event of more delays, which turned out to be the case.
Find someone who can help through any channel possible
In situations like these, exhaust all options when you’re trying to get help.
If you find yourself stuck airside, be sure to look around for agents at quieter gates, as they may also be able to assist you. If you enjoy access to a particular airline’s lounge, the staff at the check-in should be able to assist you, and you’re much less likely to encounter long lines this way.
Should you not already be at the airport, get on hold with the airline as soon as possible, and also pursue contact through social media channels. I’ve had success in reaching through on social media in the past, and you also won’t be subjected to hours of hold music that way.
When you’re competing against a multitude of other passengers who are stuck in the same situation, having a priority phone number or dedicated contact through elite status is extremely valuable.
Take matters into your own hands
I think my most important lesson from this experience was that if we had just waited for WestJet to rebook us, we might still be in Edmonton. The airline clearly wasn’t ready to handle delays of this sort; however, we were travelling during one of the busiest periods of the year, which also happened to be during a terrible storm, and there were thousands of passengers needing help.
Even then, since seats on flights were popping up and quickly being snagged by other passengers, it would have taken a miracle for us to get rebooked quickly on an available flight. A savvy travel agent could have done this on our behalf if we had booked with one, but we opted to just book it ourselves and worry about the fallout later.
It was fascinating to see how much movement there is with seats becoming available and then quickly disappearing within the hours leading up to a flight. If you find yourself in a similar situation, don’t lose hope, as seats can open up at the last minute.
I’m very doubtful that WestJet will voluntarily reimburse me for the flights that I booked to get us home. I’m not entirely sure what the outcome will be, but since WestJet couldn’t rebook us within 48 (or even 96) hours despite it being possible, I’ll have to see what options we have, if any.
My first time being affected by travel chaos during one of the busiest travel periods of the year was unpleasant, but it was also a good learning experience. By using ExpertFlyer and thinking about all the different ways we could get back home, we managed to navigate a tricky situation and got home in time to welcome family for the holidays.
Nobody wants to be stuck in transit for a few days, but in some cases, it’s unavoidable. In our case, there was a bad combination of weather and full flights that didn’t have available seats for days.
Be sure to book your flights with the right credit card so you’re covered in the event of any delays, and then be ready to pounce on opportunities to get home as soon as they become available.