Ottawa is loosening up federal COVID-19 travel restrictions, but the era when Canadians could pack their passports and hop on a plane without concern isn’t coming back just yet.
Travelling, especially abroad, remains more complicated than it was before the pandemic, said Lesley Keyter, chief executive officer and founder of Calgary-based the Travel Lady Agency.
The federal government is lifting its advisory against international travel and scrapping the requirement for a molecular COVID-19 pre-entry test for vaccinated travellers at the end of the month. But globetrotters must still contend with a web of rules and restrictions that may go well beyond shots and tests.
For example, Canadians were blocked from travelling to Portugal on Feb. 8, only for that decision to be quietly reversed on Friday. Meanwhile, Belize is mandating that all visitors purchase the country’s own Belize Travel Insurance plan for US$18.
Ms. Keyter’s agency is constantly receiving phone calls and e-mails from overwhelmed travellers who’ve booked their trips independently but then realized they need help navigating the COVID-19 bureaucracy. Travel agents typically get paid via a commission on the bookings they make for clients, but Ms. Keyter said there’s so much demand for COVID-specific assistance her agency is now offering the service for a flat fee.
If you’re planning your own trip, you should make sure to comb through the fine print, buy travel insurance and book your car rental early, if you’re going to need one, experts say.
For DIY travellers, Ms. Keyter recommended Air Canada’s Travel Ready hub, where Canadians can look up travel requirements based on their itinerary. Expedia and KAYAK also offer a similar service.
Common mishaps include forgetting to check the requirements of any countries you transit through and miscalculating the timing of COVID tests, Ms. Keyter warned. She recalled cases of travellers who became stranded at their connection airports because they had timed their pre-entry COVID-19 tests from the time of their departure rather than the expected time of arrival.
Another set of rules you’ll want to examine carefully: cancellation policies. Many airlines and hotels are in the process of transitioning from the extra-flexible policies they adopted during the pandemic back to their regular policies, said budget travel expert Barry Choi. Which policy applies usually depends on either your booking or your departure date, he added.
Beyond their overall cancellation policy, airlines and hotels typically offer extra flexibility for more expensive flight or room rates. Mr. Choi argues the price premium is worth it in the era of COVID travel.
Even with the most flexible of bookings, though, it’s a good idea to get travel insurance, Mr. Choi said. The good news is that COVID-19 coverage for both medical and trip interruption and cancellation insurance has become much more common than it was in the earlier phase of the pandemic.
Travellers should consider insurance even when their booking already includes a travel protection plan, Ms. Keyter said.
Some resorts and all-inclusive packages are offering complimentary or low-cost insurance that often includes compensation for medical, quarantine and trip interruption expenses. However, coverage limits can be low. For example, plans reviewed by The Globe had maximum caps of between US$25,000 and US$100,000 a person for medical costs. By comparison, stand-alone insurance policies available to fully vaccinated Canadians typically come with limits of between $1,000,000 and $5,000,000 for medical emergencies related to COVID-19.
Canadians should also keep in mind that travel plans offered by employers and credit cards often exclude COVID-19 coverage, Mr. Choi noted.
In addition to an increased risk of medical emergencies and flight disruptions, the pandemic has also resulted in a shortage of rental vehicles, which is why Ms. Keyter recommends reserving one as soon as you’ve finalized your other bookings.
Last spring and summer saw a record shortage of rentals, as rental car operators struggled to meet demand after hastily downsizing their fleets in response to a collapse in the demand for travel at the onset of the COVID-19 health emergency.
With supply chain backlogs still hobbling new car production, rental car companies in Canada haven’t been able to fully rebuild their fleets yet, said Craig Hirota at the Associated Canadian Car Rental Operators.
“The industry in Canada is still down from prepandemic numbers by a significant enough amount that there will still be some supply-demand issues if consumer demand comes back quickly in the spring and summer,” he said.
Ms. Keyter said rental vehicle availability continues to be an issue outside Canada as well.
Securing your rental early is also about locking in a reasonable price, Mr. Hirota noted.
With the industry largely using a dynamic pricing model, “as soon as demand starts picking up, that’s going to drive the prices as well,” he said.
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