Omicron and travel: What new restrictions mean for refunds and insurance

Omicron and travel: What new restrictions mean for refunds and insurance
© Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press file photo An Air Canada flight departing for Kelowna takes off at Vancouver International Airport, in Richmond, B.C., on Friday, March 20, 2020.

If you were planning to travel to another country or province this holiday season, news about the Omicron COVID-19 variant is probably driving your anxiety levels higher. Will the virus spoil your trip once again? And are you going to get your money back if you have to cancel flights and hotels?

The World Health Organization (WHO) said Tuesday that there could soon be a steep rise in infections in parts of southern Africa, where the new variant was first identified. But the WHO has urged against travel bans, noting their limited effect.

Still, wary nations are rushing to impose travel curbs. In Canada, Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said on Tuesday that foreign nationals from Nigeria, Malawi and Egypt who have been to those countries over the past two weeks will not be able to enter Canada. This adds to the seven other African countries barred by Canada on Friday: South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini.

Canadians and permanent residents, as well as all those who have the right to return to Canada, who have transited through these countries over the past two weeks, will have to quarantine, be tested at the airport, and await their test results before exiting quarantine, Duclos said.

So far, a handful of Omicron COVID-19 variant cases have been confirmed in Canada.

If you have travel booked over the next few weeks and months, here’s what to know.

Video: COVID-19: Omicron cases detected in Netherlands before South Africa identified variant

Under Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR), passengers aren’t entitled to much if an airline issues a flight cancellation prompted by a government travel ban. The bare minimum airlines must do in such a scenario is provide a rebooking, according to the APPR.

But Gabor Lukacs, president of consumer advocacy group, Air Passenger Rights, says if you didn’t get the service you paid for — be it a flight or vacation package — then you’re entitled to a full refund under a common law doctrine known as “frustration” of contracts. In other words: if you didn’t get what you paid for, you should get your money back. Specifically, the airline should provide a full refund in the original payment method, Lukacs says.

“If you paid $217 for airfare and $53 in taxes, then you have to get back everything together,” he says.

There should be no cancellation fees either, he adds.

If the airline denies you the refund and you paid with a credit card, you can ask your credit card issuer for a chargeback. If that fails, Lukacs suggests frustrated passengers resort to what’s known as a statutory chargeback, which is governed by provincial law. Lukacs has laid out detailed guidelines on his website showing how Canadians can pursue a statutory chargeback.

Luckily, you won’t have to put up quite such a fight if your booking is for a flight to or from the U.S., from the European Union (EU) or with a U.S. or European carrier, Lukacs says.

Under U.S. law, passengers are entitled to a refund for flights cancelled by the airline for any reason.

In June, the U.S. Department of Transportation said it was seeking a $25.5 million fine from Air Canada over the carrier’s failure to provide timely refunds. Earlier this month it said the airline had agreed to a $4.5 million settlement to resolve the investigation.

The EU also established passengers’ right to a refund for cancelled flights. The law applies to all flights within the EU, those operated by an EU airline and those departing from the EU, whether on not operated by an EU airline.

Keep in mind, though, that if you decide to pre-emptively cancel your flight, there is no obligation under the law to provide a refund, Lukacs says. You may still be entitled to at least part of your money back, depending on the stipulations of the airline’s own tariff or the provisions of your travel insurance policy, he says.

Since the onset of the pandemic some carriers have adopted flexible booking options that entitle you to at least a partial refund if you decide to cancel your trip.

Video: CDC director says ‘no evidence’ Omicron COVID-19 variant in U.S.

So-called trip cancellation and interruption insurance is designed to cover you for any non-refundable costs such as airfare and hotel bookings, says John Shmuel, managing editor at financial products comparison site RATESDOTCA.

However, if you decide to travel to a destination to which a “do not travel” government advisory applies, your policy may be void, Shmuel cautions.

And travel insurance will rarely refund you for the cost of a trip you decided to cancel, Shmuel adds.

Cancel for any reason (CFAR) coverage comes is the only kind of policy that will let you backtrack on your travel plans simply because you’re worried.

CFAR policies are coming back onto the market in Canada after virtually disappearing earlier in the pandemic, Will McAleer, executive director of the Travel Health Insurance Association of Canada (THIA) previously told Global News.

However, CFAR policies typically come at a price premium.

Also, travel insurance for medical expenses won’t cover things like cancelled flights and hotel bookings, Shmuel notes.

With files from Global News reporter Saba Aziz and Reuters

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