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Pilot Jeremy Rood walks passenger Beverley Barnett to her helicopter in Hamilton on Nov. 23, 2020.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Canadian seniors are jumping the border to head south despite government warnings to stay put – and they are doing so in helicopters.

As the U.S.-Canadian border remains closed for land crossings deemed non-essential, Ontario-based Great Lakes Helicopter is providing snowbirds with an alternative for those who want to escape the winter months by car. Travellers can pay to have their vehicles shipped over the border by a commercial cargo truck while hopping on a 40-minute flight from Hamilton to the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

After clearing customs in the Buffalo executive lounge, snowbirds then pick up their vehicles – including their suitcases – and continue on south.

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“A lot of people still want to head to their winter destinations but are limited with expensive airline flights, having to rent a car or spend money to ship a car down there,” said Dwayne Henderson, general manager of Great Lakes Helicopter, who has been running five flights a day over the past three weeks.

(Canadians can cross into the United States by air only, and all travellers returning to Canada, whether by land or air, must quarantine for 14 days.)

It’s a loophole that is legal on both sides of the border, and an idea that one of Mr. Henderson’s pilots – Jeremy Rood – stumbled upon when his parents still wanted to drive south with their family dog. Mr. Henderson said pets have been a big issue for clients looking for alternative routes, who do not want to crate their cats and dogs during commercial flights. Instead, animals can board the helicopter along with their owners.

The helicopter flight is $1,200 (for up to three people) and an additional $700 to transport a standard vehicle. Recreation vehicles or those with trailers can cost up to $1,600 to get across the border.

Despite the rising number of COVID-19 cases across the country and certain areas heading into a second lockdown, the number of seniors heading south hasn’t stalled. Mr. Henderson said demand has been steadily increasing, especially with Ontario getting its first blast of winter snow. The company has about 250 bookings from now until late January, and added a second helicopter this week to fly on Fridays and weekends.

Similar border-crossing services have been popping up in Quebec and British Columbia, with local companies offering chartered private flights paired with cargo shipments that can ferry RVs and other vehicles to the closest U.S. airport. The recent boost in the number of seniors heading south comes on the heels of several travel insurance providers launching out-of-country emergency medical insurance that offers limited coverage for COVID-19.

Beverley Barnett, from St. Catharines, with her three puppies in tow, is avoiding flight restrictions to spend her winter in sunny South Carolina.

Glenn LOWSOM/The Globe and Mail

Last month, travel expert Martin Firestone said that less than 10 per cent of his clients were planning to leave Ontario for the winter. Now, that number is up to almost 30 per cent – even after he warns clients that medical insurance may not be adequate for COVID-related illnesses.

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“The risk also includes the [quality of] average emergency room care that you may need while travelling – it isn’t just about COVID,” said Mr. Firestone, president of Travel Secure Inc., and an insurance broker in travel medical coverage. “If you end up having a heart attack or get in an accident, you may not be at the top of the priority list during a pandemic in a region with surging cases.”

As well, clients should check all fine print in their policies, Mr. Firestone said, including any add-on coverages offered by airlines and credit cards.

Most recently, American Express announced that as of Jan. 1, trip cancellation, trip interruption and emergency medical coverage on certain cards will now be “impacted” if the claim is meant to cover a loss that was caused by COVID-19. The company did not provide further details on which cards or policies that would include.

In early November, the government of Canada released an online warning to “older travellers” to avoid all non-essential travel outside Canada until further notice to limit the spread of COVID-19. Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau echoed the warning that the country remains under an official travel advisory and to avoid all international travel.

“The pandemic continues to cause significant challenges around the world, including in the southern United States. And people are safest when they stay at home in Canada,“ said Mr. Trudeau, during a daily press conference.

“Obviously, if people do choose to go, that is their choice, but they need to make sure they have good health insurance, good travel insurance, also, that they make sure that wherever they’re going there is sufficient health care capacity, that it is not beginning to get overwhelmed if something goes wrong.”

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The Canadian Snowbird Association estimates that around 30 per cent of its more than 110,000 members will be heading to the southern U.S. this winter.

CSA spokesperson Evan Rachkovsky said the organization is advising its members to purchase adequate travel health insurance prior to their departure, and read through policies carefully before making a purchase.

”Some providers do not have coverage for COVID-19 or are placing caps on the amount of coverage they provide for COVID-19. For example, they may have an overall benefit of $2-million or $5-million but they are only paying out up to $200,000 for COVID-19 emergency claims,” Mr. Rachkovsky said. “This level of coverage is insufficient.”

Mr. Henderson said his company has received some blowback for helping seniors bypass the border closing.

“The border is legally open for air travel – and people can choose Air Canada, WestJet or any private charter plane to get themselves across,” he said.

“If people choose to ignore the Prime Minister’s warnings then I have faith in them that they will do the right thing when they return to Canada and remain in quarantine. Or hopefully – by the time spring rolls around – we will be closer to a vaccine or have a quick test at the border.”

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