'Frustrating and challenging': Canadians abroad struggle to find a flight home

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had a message for Canadians travelling outside of the country: If you're abroad, it's time for you to come home. But as the coronavirus outbreak has prompted border restrictions and flight cancellations around the world, many travellers are struggling to return.

Government announces emergency loan program to help travellers return

The coronavirus outbreak has prompted border restrictions and flight cancellations around the world and many travellers are struggling to return home to Canada sooner than originally planned. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minster Justin Trudeau had a blunt but simple message on Monday for Canadians travelling outside the country: If you're abroad, it's time to come home.

But as the coronavirus outbreak has prompted border restrictions and flight cancellations around the world, many travellers are struggling to return sooner than planned.

"You can't get ahold of anybody, you can't actually get a flight home," Ottawa resident Saralyn Hodgkin, who is with her husband and two boys in Costa Rica, told CBC News Network.

"I'm stressed out. I'm well and I'm healthy and I'm stressed out."

WATCH | An Ottawa resident in Costa Rica talks about being 'stressed out' over travel arrangements:

Despite concerns about the coronavirus, an Ottawa family in Costa Rica is trying to make the best of their vacation. 6:25

Hodgkin said her family has a return flight booked for Thursday, but wanted to come home earlier, and they have been trying to contact Air Canada.

"It just didn't work out. People are not available, phone lines are not available," she said. "It's frustrating and challenging."

Anthony Eric Williams-Jones, a professor in McGill University's department of earth and planetary sciences, along with five students, had travelled to Morocco for an annual two-week geological field trip. However, they are now stuck in Casablanca, having discovered on Sunday morning that their flights back to Canada had been cancelled.

WATCH | Justin Trudeau urges Canadians abroad to return home:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Monday that Canada will ban entry to most non-residents, except U.S. citizens. He's urging Canadians abroad to travel back to Canada as quickly as possible. 24:51

"We're trying to do things very methodically, so literally we have spent all of our time contacting — online — airline companies, travel agencies ... to try and get us out of this country to anywhere that might then allow us to get back to Montreal," he said.

They spent "hours and hours" looking for other options and were able to secure a flight to Qatar that leaves on Wednesday and then a flight from Qatar to Montreal on March 22. 

"That's the best we could come up with. As you can imagine it's bedlam," he said. "I was in the Royal Air Morocco service centre yesterday and it was a free-for-all. People were literally fighting with each other, everyone scrambling to get out of this country."

Anthony Eric Williams, second from left, a professor in McGill University's department of earth and planetary sciences, travelled with five students to Morocco for an annual two-week geological field trip. (Submitted by Anthony Eric Williams)

He said because of that fighting, he was unable to book a flight that was leaving on Sunday,

"We literally could not get contact with a service agent because of the fights that were breaking out in the room around me."

Kingston, Ont., resident Abhishek Sharma, 34, left for India in Feb. 11 with his wife and two daughters. At the time, he had no real concerns about the coronavirus and was more focussed on introducing his new 10-month-old daughter to the family in Kapurthaia, Punjab. 

"Last Wednesday, I started panicking because there were so many cases in different parts of the world," said Sharma, a project manager at Queen's University.

Return flight too costly

He decided he wanted to return to Canada as soon as possible and not wait for his scheduled April 1 flight. He tried to contact Air Canada, spending hours, calling repeatedly, but had no success, he said. Then, someone on Twitter gave him another Air Canada number, he said, and after a 2½-hour wait on hold, he spoke with an airline representative.

He was told the only flight available from New Delhi to Toronto was March 23, but that it would cost $9,000 for his entire family. That would have been on top of the $7,200 he said he already paid for the return tickets.

He said he couldn't afford it, so he will have to wait until April 1.

"I hope the flights aren't cancelled by that time," he said. "All I care about is the safety of my family. I just want to come back as soon as possible to be in my home."

WATCH | An Ontario family in the Dominican Republic describes the challenges of finding a flight back to Canada:

Kathryn and Clair Doan, along with their four children, have been trying to return to Canada from the Dominican Republic almost since they arrived there last week. 6:44

On Twitter, Air Canada has said that given the high volume of calls related to COVID-19, it is asking customers to contact their original booking source for inquiries, or if they booked with the airline, that they look forward to serving them "as soon as we are able."

As well, for those considering making changes or cancelling travel plans, the airline said it has "enhanced [its] flexibility in order to help" and that passengers should visit their website.

Meanwhile on Monday, Trudeau announced that the federal government will set up a support program for Canadians who need to get on a plane. The program will provide an emergency loan to Canadians "in need of immediate financial assistance to help return home or to temporarily cover their life-sustaining needs while they work toward their return," the government said in a statement.

The repayable loan program, which offers up to $5,000 per traveller, is styled after one already in place for Canadians in trouble abroad. It's meant to "bridge the gap" for Canadians who may have unexpected longer stays or see a spike in ticket prices.

WATCH | A Quebec woman in Spain expresses concerns over border closures:

With Spain now in lockdown, a Canadian couple with no place to stay after March 29 is trying to get out. 4:25

Kim Sheehan, from Rawdon, Que., who is vacationing with her husband in southern Spain's Costa del Sol, said they have changed flights and airlines three times as they tried to get home as fast as they could.

But she said the flights are mostly booked or being cancelled, and for what is available, the prices are more than $2,000 per person one way,

However, they do have a flight booked with British Airways to London, England, on Friday, and a WestJet flight back to Canada in the middle of next week. 

After March 29, she will have no place to stay in Spain, and she's concerned about border closures and the potential cancellation of flights in Spain and London.

"We want to get out before borders are closed," she said. "So we're just hoping we'll be able to fly out."

With files from Kate McKenna, Kathleen Harris

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