More pain for travellers is expected on Friday as a major storm bears down on Eastern Canada and the United States after severe winter weather delayed flights and caused havoc across Western Canada this week. On Thursday alone, close to 5,000 flights had been cancelled in the U.S. by midday, according to FlightAware, a real-time tracking app.
Even those who prepare for the worst can find themselves stranded for days or struggling to retrieve money through airlines or insurance. Generally speaking, airlines aren’t required to compensate you for delays related to weather, and only have to rebook you on another flight or offer a refund.
Events such as the West Coast snowstorm lead to situations where thousands of travellers are all scrambling for hotels and flights at the same time. We spoke to people involved in the travel industry for tips on how to best prepare for and respond to major cancellation events.
Get travel insurance, and know your coverage
Travel insurance is your best protection any time you fly, travel to another country or book an expensive travel package where you’re depositing a large amount of money.
Martin Firestone, president of Toronto-based insurance brokerage Travel Secure, said that some forms of travel insurance, such as overseas medical coverage, can be fairly straightforward. But that is not the case when it comes to trip interruption and trip cancellation coverage, which are complicated policies involving all sorts of variables.
“It’s not black-and-white by any means,” Mr. Firestone said.
He said there are different thresholds when it comes to the amount you’re covered for and the actual requirements for you to be eligible. For trip interruption and cancellation policies, Mr. Firestone says most insurers have a clause that will allow you to get compensation if more than 30 per cent of your itinerary has been affected. Delays of a couple hours won’t generally be grounds for compensation.
He said one of the biggest mistakes that consumers make (especially snowbirds) is trusting that their credit card’s travel insurance will give them all the coverage they need. Often, there are all sorts of fine-print rules that could leave you paying out of pocket.
He said it’s best to call your credit card company to understand their policy, or to get insured through a broker or company that can field your questions and ensure you’re covered.
The quicker you take action, the better
This one sounds obvious, but when you’re at the gate and a delay strikes, it’s important to talk to airline representatives as soon as possible.
Lesley Keyter, founder and chief executive office of Calgary-based travel agency, The Travel Lady, says that airline workers at the terminal will have the most power when it comes to rebooking you on another flight if you’ve already checked in and are past security. Get in line to talk to a representative right away, and Ms. Keyter says to be kind and understanding when speaking to workers – they ultimately have all the power to get you to your destination.
“You are far more likely to get where you need when you’re being kind and patient,” said Ms. Keyter.
If your flights are affected even before you get to the airport and you booked with a travel agent, Ms. Keyter said your agent can help immediately book hotel rooms or find alternate flights.
Keep your receipts
Mr. Firestone says there simply isn’t time to speak to your insurance company before making expensive decisions like booking a last-minute hotel when stranded somewhere. You won’t be able to speak to the company on the phone, and hotel rooms and rebooked flights will be rapidly filled up by hordes of other travellers also facing delays.
This is why it’s imperative you keep your receipts for any costs related to your delay, such as hotel rooms, transportation, replacing lost baggage items and food. Insurance companies require proof of your expenses, Mr. Firestone said.
With all the chaos related to travel over the past two years of the pandemic, Mr. Firestone says that if the airline does not resolve your complaint to your satisfaction, you should expect a lengthy adjudication process with insurance companies that are dealing with a hefty backlog.
A cancellation might actually be a blessing
Ms. Keyter says there’s nothing worse than waiting on an airline that continuously delays a flight or rebooks you, only to have the flight ultimately cancelled later.
If you immediately had your flight cancelled, she says to consider getting your money back and looking at alternative ways to get to your destination. Are other airlines or nearby airports an option? Can you rent a car and drive? Are other methods of transit such as busses or trains available?
Note that refunds for airfare will generally be made in the original method of payment. That includes being refunded in travel points if that’s how you booked.
Lodge an official complaint
Gabor Lukacs, an air travel rights advocate, urges Canadians to make a formal complaint f they believe they’ve been treated unfairly.
While airlines generally don’t have to compensate you for weather-related issues, there are circumstances where you could be compensated. He said airlines will sometimes blame delays on weather even though the departure and arrival locations aren’t affected by a given storm.
Then there’s the case of passengers in Vancouver who were stranded on a plane for a dozen hours after it left the gate, but stayed on the tarmac without being able to return to a gate to unload. Passengers waited onboard and were only given water, cookies and one snack as they waited.
Mr. Lukacs said there are regulations to prevent egregious situations like this, and travellers should get in contact with their airlines to seek compensation.
If you’re having trouble hearing back from your carrier, Mr. Lukacs said you can try to contact the airline’s legal team directly.
Travellers can also launch a dispute on portals that are available on the airline’s website or through the Canadian Transportation Agency. However, Mr. Lukacs warned the CTA is dealing with a massive backlog of tens of thousands of complaints and didn’t recommend dealing with that agency.
Your last option is to take an airline to small-claims court. While it may seem like a dire drastic option, he said people have won their cases against airlines in the past.
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