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A worker checks the temperature of a traveler departing from Toronto Pearson International Airport on Dec. 16, 2021.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

Canadians longing for holiday getaways face a tough choice: take trips and risk catching COVID-19 or being locked down far from home, or cancel and be stuck with vouchers for future travel instead of cash refunds.

The federal government said on Thursday that Canadians should not go abroad over the holidays. The official advisory discourages travel but doesn’t ban it. It’s a move intended to slow the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, which is causing case counts to soar and threatening to overwhelm the health care system.

Airlines say customers who cancel their flights will not receive cash back, but rather credits toward future trips. The only customers who are guaranteed to be able to recover their money are those who paid extra for cancellation privileges on their tickets, or whose flights are cancelled by the airlines.

Even people who bought cancellation insurance, which pays for some of the non-refundable costs of abandoning a trip, may find that their policies won’t cover them if they call off travel because of the advisory.

Colin MacEachern, 53, a teacher in Halifax, has a WestJet Airlines ticket to Orlando, Fla., for Dec. 23. He had planned to spend a week exploring the Gulf Coast with an eye to living there when he retires in two years.

He said he is confused by the federal government’s message, and isn’t sure if he should cancel his plans.

“If they had said, ‘Don’t go,’ I would have appreciated that more than this vague directive where they’re almost being … threatening. You know, ‘We can’t guarantee we’re not going to lock you down in Florida,’” he said. “I have spoken to a lot of people who just say, ‘Go.’”

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Customers who cancelled flights because of the pandemic between February, 2020, and April, 2021, were eligible to get their money back from Air Canada and Air Transat, because both companies agreed to provide refunds as a condition of financial aid from taxpayers. But those policies are no longer in place. WestJet did not take a government bailout and did not provide refunds unless the airline cancelled the flight.

Morgan Bell, a spokesperson for WestJet, said it’s too soon to say if customers will heed the government’s advice and stay home in large numbers. But she noted that Canadians flew through the summer and fall, when an earlier travel advisory was in place.

The airline is getting a high number of calls from customers and is expecting some cancellations, Ms. Bell said. But, she added, “We’re optimistic bookings will hold strong.”

Brad Cicero, a spokesperson for Porter Airlines, said new bookings are still coming in and the “vast majority” of passengers are sticking with their travel plans.

“There are no significant flight schedule changes planned beyond typical seasonal adjustments and ongoing refinements that are part of regular business,” Mr. Cicero said.

Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick said customers who want to cancel or change their flights should do so where they booked, whether it was online or with a travel agency.

Travel insurance providers are taking different stances on what the government advisory means for both out-of-country medical insurance and trip-cancellation policies. This is creating an “information nightmare,” Martin Firestone, president of the travel insurance brokerage Travel Secure, said in an interview on Thursday.

“Once again the travel advisory has left the industry scrambling and changes are happening minute by minute among insurance companies,” he said.

“There is a lot of confusion among both Canadians who are already abroad not knowing if they still have medical coverage, and others who have plans to leave the country for the holidays.”

Canada’s largest insurer, Manulife Financial Corp., told its travel insurance agents on Thursday that because of the new travel advisory the majority of its individual travel policies for emergency medical care will no longer cover COVID-19-related medical claims made on trips with departures after Dec. 17. The company is allowing customers affected by the change to request refunds prior to their travel dates.

For an additional cost, travellers can buy a pandemic travel plan from Manulife, which provides coverage for COVID-19-related medical emergencies even while an advisory is in effect.

Allianz Global Assistance Canada policy holders who contract COVID-19 at their destinations will also not be eligible for emergency medical treatment or trip interruption coverage while the travel advisory is in place. Travellers can buy extra COVID-19 coverage for an additional cost.

Any Allianz-Assistance trip-cancellation policies purchased after March 11, 2020, will not pay out claims to people who cancel only because of the travel advisory, because the pandemic “remains a known event,” spokesperson Julia Koene said in an e-mail.

TuGo travel insurance offers coverage if a traveller must cancel or interrupt their trip because of a medical condition related to COVID-19, or because of a mandatory quarantine.

But TuGo’s chief customer officer, Brad Dance, said this type of policy “does not provide coverage if an individual has to cancel due to travel advisories, border closures, or for someone not wanting to travel due to COVID-19 case levels.”

Travellers can buy a “Cancel for Any Reason” add-on to their cancellation policy, Mr. Dance said, which covers 50 per cent of prepaid, unused non-refundable travel costs if a trip is cancelled more than five days before departure.

TD Insurance said its Travel Trip Cancellation policy will cover any cancellations because of COVID-19 – including cancellations related to border closings and travel advisories – for trips that were booked between Oct. 21 and Dec. 15, prior to the latest advisory.

For trips that were booked on or after Dec. 16, however, travellers are not eligible for cancellation coverage.

“Any trips booked after the Level 3 advisory was reinstated and while this advisory is in effect will not be eligible for trip cancellation coverage,” TD spokesperson Paolo Pasquini said in an e-mail.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify WestJet’s policies on refunds.

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