Zika fears confine pregnant woman to hotel room after Sunwing won't change trip

The Zika virus has prompted a Montreal woman to warn Canadians planning to go south this winter to make sure they understand their travel company’s refund policies and purchase cancellation insurance.

Genevive Danso says she only learned she was pregnant after booking Jamaica holiday

Genevive Danso spent much of her time in Jamaica enjoying this view from her hotel room, afraid that she might contract Zika if she spent time outside. (Contributed)

The Zika virus has prompted a Montreal woman to warn Canadians planning to go south this winter to make sure they understand their travel company's refund policies and purchase cancellation insurance.

Genevive Danso, her fiancé, her sister and her sister's boyfriend booked and paid Sunwing in August for a $7,000 all-inclusive trip to Jamaica. The departure date was Dec. 5, designed to coincide with her sister's birthday.

But it was hardly the trip Danso had looked forward to, and for that she blames Sunwing, which refused her requests to change plans after she became pregnant.

"I ended up staying in the room as a precaution. I ordered room service because I didn't want to go out and put myself in harm's way," she said.

Pregnancy and Zika

Danso discovered she was pregnant in November. Her doctor advised her against travelling to Caribbean countries because of concerns about Zika and the potential impact on her unborn child.

Danso had no plans to become pregnant, so the news came as a surprise. So did the response she received from Sunwing when she asked for either a credit or to change destination.

"The person that I initially spoke to told me, 'With everything that's going on you should have taken it upon yourself to do your research before booking your ticket,'" Danso said. "I advised her at the time no one was planning on getting pregnant or nobody was thinking about such a thing."

'Too bad, too sad'

The Canadian government advises pregnant women, or those who plan a pregnancy, to avoid Zika-affected countries, including those in the Caribbean. The disease, which can cause birth defects, is primarily transmitted by infected mosquitoes.

But Danso says she was told by Sunwing that because she did not purchase cancellation insurance, there was nothing the airline could do. Danso even emailed Sunwing her doctor's letter and her ultrasound, but the airline didn't budge.

"So it was kind of like … too bad, too sad," Danso said. "It's either you go or you cancel and you lose your money."

Sunwing 'sympathetic,' but stands firm

CBC News contacted Sunwing Nov. 8 and continued to exchange emails about its policies until Nov. 30.

"Ensuring our customers' health and safety while on vacation is our primary concern," Sunwing spokeswoman Rachel Goldrick said in an email. She said the airline always recommends customers buy its Worry Free insurance, which allows cancellation up until three hours before departure.

"We understand in this case that the customer booked their trip to an area where a risk of Zika had already been confirmed, before becoming pregnant," Goldrick said. "Unfortunately in this case, while we are sympathetic to her individual circumstances, we regret that we are unable to offer a refund as the risk of Zika was already known."

Danso said even though Sunwing had almost a month to help her, it did not contact her until just 24 hours before her departure. The airline offered to change her destination from Jamaica to either Cuba, Florida or Mexico, all areas that have had Zika.

Different companies, different policies

At this point, the general public is expected to be aware of which countries pose a Zika threat before booking, according to Dartmouth, N.S., travel agent Faith Sproule with Niche Travel Group. But she points out unexpected pregnancies are just that — unexpected.

Sproule says different travel companies have different policies.

For instance, Air Canada told CBC News it continues to monitor and adjust policies, including how to take care of customers "on a case-by-case basis as the need arises."

A WestJet spokesman said every circumstance is different "and we'll always do what we can to find a solution." The airline allows customers to either get refunds, change their destination or get WestJet dollars toward a future trip.

Sproule said in her experience, Sunwing can be difficult.

"I don't find they are helpful or see the benefit of having clients who have a good experience and will tell 100 people about how great Sunwing was to them," she said. "They're just trying to keep the money."

As for Danso, she is still bitter about the way she was treated by Sunwing.

"I will never, ever travel with them," she said. "It's always the customer's fault. They say, 'You should have known better. You should have looked into it. There isn't much we could do.'"

And she says she will definitely purchase cancellation insurance when travelling in the future.

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's focused on helping consumers get the most bang for their bucks and avoid being ripped off. She invites story ideas at yvonne.colbert@cbc.ca.