What you need to know before you book (or put off) your summer trip
TORONTO -- Rising vaccination rates and a gradual easing of international travel restrictions may be causing some Canadians to dream of that exotic summer vacation they had long since written off as a lost cause.
But with many restrictions still in place, challenges with accessing certain insurance, and the question of travelling with unvaccinated children, there are several things to consider before spending money on plane tickets in 2021.
WHERE YOU CAN GO
Canada continues to maintain a level-3 travel health notice to “avoid all non-essential travel outside of Canada.”
However, the federal government signalled on June 9 the removal of a major travel hurdle, when it announced that fully vaccinated Canadians and permanent residents will be able to travel outside the country without having to quarantine on their return, possibly by early July.
The move came as Germany said it is taking Canada off of its travel risk list, meaning Canadians will be able to travel there with only a negative test result, and Air Canada announced that next month it will begin flights to Rome allowing travellers with negative tests to avoid quarantine on arrival.
While these are all positive signs for would-be travellers, the pandemic is still very much in progress, and any rules could change or revert, says Richard Vanderlubbe, president of Tripcentral.ca.
“What exists today may not exist a week from now or when you travel or when you’re in the middle of your trip,” he told CTVNews.ca on Friday. “There's some relaxed conditions about hotel quarantines and home quarantines, but there is still PCR testing, there’s still all kinds of different restrictions provincially and where you're travelling to that can change.”
Vanderlubbe said, thus far, he has seen little demand for summer travel bookings, with most of the focus on travel next winter and beyond.
“International travel is basically written off. The only thing that's happening now is questions with respect to Christmas travel,” he said. “This summer we will be lucky if we can go interprovincially yet alone to the U.S.”
While Germany and Italy are starting to reopen, Europe currently has a hodgepodge of different rules. Technically, there is an EU travel ban on Canadian tourists, as Canada is not yet on the EU “green list” of safe countries. However, the EU ban is essentially advice for member states implementing their own policies. Spain, for instance, recently opened its border to vaccinated travellers, while the U.K. allows in Canadians, but requires them to quarantine in place on arrival.
Of course, the biggest international restriction for Canadians has been the closed land border with the U.S. The current restrictions expire on June 21, and some U.S. politicians have called for the border to be opened by July 4. Canadians have been able to fly to the U.S., but the main dissuasion to doing so has been the threat of two weeks of quarantine upon returning to Canada.
“The hotel quarantine, what it’s succeeded in doing is absolutely killing the demand for travel for anybody that's not got a lot of money,” said Vanderlubbe.
Within Canada, there are varying restrictions to interprovincial travel, but there are also signs of easing, as Ontario and Quebec announced on Monday they will end restrictions on non-essential travel between the two provinces on Wednesday. Restrictions between Ontario and Manitoba will also be lifted.
This will move central Canada more in line with the western provinces, which have few restrictions on travel. Eastern Canada maintains stricter barriers, as the Maritime provinces require travellers to isolate.
Flights to sun destinations in the Caribbean and Mexico were mostly halted earlier January, but have begun resuming on a limited basis. Air Canada currently runs four flights per week to Mexico City and will resume weekly flights to Montego Bay and Nassau in early July, for example. Many sun destinations don’t require quarantine, but some require proof of a negative test or proof of medical insurance
Air Canada offers limited flights to a few destinations in Asia, but most countries have major restrictions for travellers.
For those hoping to take a cruise this summer, Canada continues to advise avoiding all travel on cruise ships until further notice, and warns that if an outbreak occurs on a ship, Canadians could be subject to quarantine aboard ship, followed by a 14-day quarantine upon returning to Canada. If a government-organized repatriation flight is needed, the traveller could be responsible for covering the cost.
With about two-thirds of Canadians having received at least one vaccine dose and the focus now on second doses, many Canadians will be fully vaccinated before the end of the summer. However, it is still unclear what sort of proof of vaccination Canadians will be required to present both for international and domestic travel.
“If I have my little symbol slip with the Ontario Trillium on it from my vaccination, what is an EU passport person going to think about that? What is the consistent proof that we need to provide?” said Vanderlubbe.
Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc said last Wednesday that Ottawa is working with provincial leaders on a proof-of-vaccination document, but that it may not be ready by the time the federal government allows Canadians to re-enter without full quarantines.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has so far been cool to the idea of vaccine passports for domestic use. However, there are signs provinces may put their own rules in place, as Manitoba premier Brian Pallister said on June 8 the province will issue vaccination cards to Manitobans two weeks after their second dose.
The issue of travel is more complicated for families with children under 12, as vaccines are not expected to be approved for that age group until much later this year at the earliest.
While that wouldn’t stand in the way of a trip to a country that allows unvaccinated travellers, the issue would be the return to Canada, where the quarantine exemption as currently envisioned, would apply only to vaccinated travellers.
However, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said last week that families with children would not be separated upon arrival, and a spokesman for Hajdu, Thierry Belair, told CTVnews.ca that one option being considered is that families returning with unvaccinated children would be permitted to quarantine at home, rather than required to do so at a hotel.
With considerable uncertainty not only about border restrictions, but over the path of the pandemic itself, Canadians willing to make summer travel plans are likely going to want to have an exit strategy.
Air Canada, WestJet and Air Transat have all relaxed fees for flight changes and cancellations, but those who typically buy cancellation insurance will likely be out of luck if their plans are derailed by COVID-19, says Martin Firestone, president of Travel Secure.
“Until the Level-3 travel advisory is lifted in Canada, which is what is in force right now…. all trip cancellation policies will not cover you if pandemic is the reason for cancellation,” he told CTVNews.ca.
Travel medical insurance covering COVID-19 was suspended by many companies in March 2020, but the industry has since begin offering insurance with limited pandemic coverage.
However, Firestone noted that Manulife Financial recently said it will now cover COVID-related claims of up to $5 million for fully vaccinated people, compared to $1 million for those not vaccinated. The insurer also plans to offer COVID-19 coverage for fully vaccinated customers on cruises once the government lifts its advisory to avoid cruise travel.
“(The industry) are finally recognizing that fully vaccinated people should be given some better recognition going forward from an insurance perspective,” he said.
However, like Vanderlubbe, Firestone sees a quiet summer for international travel.
“I would say summer 2021 travel is limited, at best, [to] locally within Canada,” he said.