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Ottawa advises Canadians not to travel abroad. What this means for your travel plans

Many Canadian travellers panicked on Friday after the federal government advised against all international travel to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. Here’s what you need to know about the government’s travel advisory and how it affects your vacation plans. 

You may be able to get a refund or change fee waived if you cancel your trip now

The federal government is warning against all international travel as part of a series of measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Many Canadian travellers went into panic mode Friday after the federal government advised against all international travel to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. 

Here's what you need to know about the government's new travel advisory and how it will affect your vacation plans. 

Is this a ban?

No. The government's advisory isn't a travel ban, but rather a recommendation to avoid international travel. 

"The borders aren't closed. It's a free country. If a plane's taking off, you can get on it," said travel advisor Christiane Cormier, owner of Passports to Postcards Travel in Port Credit, Ont. 

However, Canadians who opt to travel now may face consequences such as no coronavirus-related medical insurance coverage and difficulty securing a flight home, as Ottawa has pledged to reduce the number of airports accepting inbound international flights. 

The government has also advised all Canadian travellers abroad to return home and recommended that any returning travellers self-isolate for 14 days as a precaution.

Travel advisor Christiane Cormier said that many travel providers are being flexible with customers who now need to change their vacation plans. (Submitted by Christiane Cormier )

Cormier said just the prospect of self-isolation has motivated some clients to nix their travel plans. 

"For some people, their job requires them to be in an office, or they work in a capacity where they can't do that."

Will my cancellation insurance cover me?

Canadians who choose to cancel their trip should check with both their travel and insurance provider to explore their options.

Insurance broker Martin Firestone said customers with the right insurance should now be covered if they cancel an international trip. 

That's because trip cancellation insurance typically covers travellers who have booked a trip before the government issues an advisory against non-essential travel to their destination. 

Because Ottawa advised against all non-essential international travel on Friday, Firestone said customers who've already booked a trip should get a full refund — provided they qualify for the coverage and the travel advisory is still in place on their travel date. 

"This is huge," said Firestone about the travel advisory. "They basically turned the world into a hotspot that should not be travelled to."

Travel insurance broker Martin Firestone said customers that qualify for coverage should get a refund for their trip if they cancel it after the government issued an international travel advisory. (CBC)

So far, at least five Canadian insurance providers — including major players Manulife and Allianz — have issued company memos stating they will factor in the government's travel advisory when customers make claims. 

It should be noted that the advisory won't apply to customers who signed up with an insurance company after it stopped offering coronavirus-related cancellation coverage.

Four insurance providers — Manulife, Allianz, TuGo and Blue Cross — recently stopped selling the coverage to new customers, because they now consider the virus a "known" issue. 

What about medical coverage?

Firestone said another consequence of the new travel advisory is that Canadians who now choose to travel outside Canada likely won't have medical coverage if they get sick with the coronavirus. 

That's because they've chosen to visit a country to which the government has advised against travelling, due to the virus. 

"So if you end up in the emergency room and get admitted to a hospital and then the fever turns into bronchitis and pneumonia, this is hundreds of thousands of dollars that will not be covered," said Firestone with Travel Secure in Toronto. "That's scary."

According to Manulife's memo, travellers who depart for a trip after March 17 won't get coronavirus-related medical coverage. 

Insurance provider, RTO/ERO is taking a more extreme approach, announcing online that travellers' entire emergency medical coverage will expire by March 23, or however long it takes them to safely return home. 

Firestone said the government's travel advisory has currently made international travel a risky endeavour. 

"Anybody really who's travelling now for non-essential reasons is doing the wrong thing. It is not the time to leave Canada."

What about the travel providers?

For people who want to cancel or change their trip and have no travel insurance, they still may be accommodated by their travel provider.

"Most of the tour operators are offering some flexibility," said Cormier. "I've actually been impressed with the way the industry, especially the big players in Canada, have stepped up."

Many cruise companies are offering full refunds or travel credits when people cancel or rebook. 

At the beginning of March, Air Canada, WestJet, Air Transat and Sunwing began waiving change fees for bookings made that month, and now they have extended the offer to passengers who had booked before March, for travel up until April 30. 

And those policies may become even more flexible as the coronavirus continues to ravage travel plans. 

Laura Young and her husband, Sean, decided they must cancel their trip to Punta Cana after the federal government advised against international travel on Friday. (submitted by Laura Young)

When the government warned against all international travel on Friday, Laura Young of Pickering, Ont., decided that she and her husband must cancel their vacation package deal to the Dominican Republic, booked with Air Transat.

"We thought, 'Well this is non-essential travel. We can't put ourselves in harm's way.'"

However, Young's flight departed the next day, Air Transat's phone lines were jammed and, at the time, the airline required that customers give three days' notice to make trip changes without paying a fee. 

"I'm devastated," said Young, whose vacation package cost $5,000 in total. "I just like have this pit in my stomach."

CBC News contacted Air Transat, which replied that it had changed its policy, now requiring only one day's notice to change a booking without charges. 

"This makes me so happy," said a relieved Young who submitted a claim online before the deadline. 

About the Author

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris covers business and consumer news. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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