Nova Scotia

Planning a trip to a Zika-infected area? Know the rules before you pay

An Ontario family that is out $3,500 and a trip to Jamaica say they regret not doing enough homework on the Zika virus before booking their trip knowing they were expecting a baby.

No refund for pregnant woman who booked Jamaica trip after Zika travel advisory

Syed Assad, his wife and two children booked a vacation with Sunwing and planned to travel to Jamaica for a week-long trip. They cancelled due to concerns about the Zika virus but can't get a refund. (Syed Assad)

An Ontario family that is out $3,500 and a trip to Jamaica say they regret not doing enough homework on the Zika virus before booking their trip knowing they were expecting a baby.

Syed Assad, his wife and two children booked a vacation with Sunwing on Aug. 20. They planned to travel to Jamaica for a week-long trip starting this Saturday.

"It was to coincide with [my wife's] birthday," Assad said from his home in Mississauga, Ont.

Assad's wife is 15 weeks pregnant and when she subsequently discussed the trip with her doctor, he advised against it because of the risk to the baby.

Public health officials around the world have raised concerns about the mosquito-borne virus, which can cause a serious neurological defect in fetuses.

"We didn't completely comprehend the extent of damage Zika can cause during pregnancy when we booked the vacation," he said, adding he had purchased travel insurance but was told it does not cover cancellations.

Assad said he didn't know about the travel advisory for Jamaica, but Canadian airlines say it's up to travellers to be informed.

No refund because advisory was in place

Sunwing says, in this case, two things were in place when the customer booked — the wife knew she was pregnant and Jamaica was already under a travel advisory — so she's out of luck.

"We regret that, while we remain sympathetic to her circumstances, we have not been able to accede to her request for a free cancellation," said Rachel Goldrick, a spokesperson for Sunwing.

Public health officials around the world have raised concerns about the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which causes a serious neurological defect in fetuses. (James Gathany/CDC)

The company is updating its FAQ page as new Zika warnings are issued. Goldrick said Sunwing has also changed its booking policy "to offer amendments and refunds" for pregnant customers who book a vacation to a destination that is subsequently affected by a government travel advisory.

Letter from doctor often needed

Sunwing's policy is similar to other airlines, including Air Transat.

"We are authorizing requests to change the travel date or destination, upon presentation of a medical certificate attesting to the pregnancy," Air Transat's website says.

"Cancellation requests will also be accepted by offering a credit for a future reservation or a full refund."

Latest advisory for Florida

Air Canada also requires a note from a health-care professional before it decides whether its "goodwill policy" applies to a pregnant customer. When in doubt, contact the airline, they say.

"Our agents can look at every customer's plans on a case-by-case and offer and explain the variety of options that best suits their needs including booking to another destination, credits for future travel, refunds, etc.," Isabelle Arthur, a spokesperson for Air Canada, said in an email.

WestJet does not require a doctor's note for pregnant women and their travel companions to change or cancel their trip to Zika-infected areas, but it's only offering to accommodate those who booked a trip to Florida before Aug. 3.

No wave of cancellations

Bob Sime, a Nova Scotia-based consultant for the tourism industry, says a buyer beware policy has always existed in travel.

"Whether it's terrorism or it's health or going into a place during hurricane season, all these things are advice that should be given by a travel agency," he said.

"If you're on the web, you should be researching if you're being your own travel agent."

'Canadian travellers are more savvy'

Sime said he hasn't heard of a wave of people looking to change their travel plans because of Zika's spread to areas of the Caribbean and parts of Florida.

Gary Howard, with CAA Atlantic, said his travel agents provide advice to people booking trips — especially young couples who are considering having children. He's seen no impact on travel and thinks that's because people are doing their homework.

"Canadian travellers are more savvy than other nations," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Yvonne Colbert

Consumer Watchdog

Yvonne Colbert has been a journalist for nearly 35 years, covering everything from human interest stories to the provincial legislature. These days she helps consumers navigate an increasingly complex marketplace and avoid getting ripped off. She invites story ideas at yvonne.colbert@cbc.ca

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