If Amy Zheng could turn back time, she said, she would do things differently.
Newly double-vaccinated against COVID-19, the 28-year-old Toronto resident and boyfriend Calvin Chan, 29, booked an all-inclusive resort vacation in Holguín, Cuba for May 2021. Their departure date was 10 December. less than a week before the Canadian government instituted an advisory against non-essential foreign travel.
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“If I could go back and give myself a glimpse of what I was getting myself into, I would have been 100% canceled. It wasn’t worth the stress,” Zheng told Global News in an interview.
She, like many other Canadians who flew to sun destinations during the Omicron wave, tested positive overseas and paid for it financially and emotionally. The risk calculation for flying south has changed due to the contagiousness of the Omicron variant and the fact that different jurisdictions have their own rules, according to travel industry experts.
The day before their scheduled flight home, Zheng says a member of hotel staff came to their room and informed them that she had tested positive for COVID-19. Chan, who she shared a bed with and spent the entire trip with, was negative.
He returned to Canada on the original return date so that his job was not affected and to take care of their dogs.
Despite his request for a retest, Zheng did not receive a second PCR test, which is considered more accurate than a rapid antigen test, for an additional five days. She spent this time in a “quarantine hotel,” which was decidedly less luxurious than the resort where they had spent most of the week. Zheng said that drinking water was limited, there was no hot running water, and the food was “indigestible.”
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“I felt like I was wasting away and had an anxiety attack every hour or so that I broke down,” she says.
Zheng came out of her self-isolation with a bill for $ 588 for her quarantined accommodation, medical services, and her second PCR test, which was negative.
The trip was booked through Sunwing, who Zheng said gave them “the bypass” and it is not clear whether their travel insurance, purchased from a Canadian supplier, will cover these additional costs.
Sunwing did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Global News.
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Zheng’s experience is similar to what happened to Toronto resident Cindy Norton, who flew to Holguín on December 2 for an all-inclusive vacation at another resort, also booked through Sunwing. Norton organized a group of 15 close friends and family to honor his late mother, who passed away in May.
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“His favorite place was Cuba,” Norton told Global News. “We have decided to scatter ashes on the beach and have seven days to collect and give it the best shipment possible.”
The memorial trip worsened when Norton’s partner, who requested to keep his identity private for fear of reprisal at work, was told he had tested positive for COVID-19 during his pre-flight PCR exam.
Norton says he had no symptoms and was the only member of their group of 15 to test positive.
“It’s scary how many people come back with the same story,” she says.
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Travel discussion forums and Facebook groups reveal a recent increase in the number of people reporting hassles, headaches and similar personal expenses resulting from a positive COVID-19 PCR test overseas.
The Omicron factor
A number of airlines recently announced plans to cut some of their scheduled flights amid the Omicron wave, further complicating travel plans for Canadians.
Air Canada, for example, said on Wednesday it would cut flights to sun destinations from January 24 to April 30 “in light of the current pandemic context”.
Richard Vanderlubbe, chairman of tripadvisor.ca and chairman of the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies, told Global News that although it has not noticed “a sharp increase” in the number of Canadian travelers testing positive for the abroad, the airline’s decision does not surprise him.
“This is to be expected given the transmissibility of Omicron,” said Vanderlubbe.
Her main advice for travelers is to purchase COVID-19 insurance once you arrive at your destination, which should cover additional expenses, as insurance purchased in Canada may be affected by the federal notice against non-essential travel.
“It’s important to deal with a travel agent because things change,” says Vanderlubbe. “It’s not just about searching online, finding the lowest rate and booking it. There are a lot of things to consider now.
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Understand the rules and risks
Calgary-based Lesley Keyter, who runs The Travel Lady Agency, which she founded 26 years ago, says each individual should do their own personalized risk assessment to determine whether or not to travel right now.
Factors to consider include the age, health, and vaccination status of all members of the traveling party (children four years of age and younger are not eligible for vaccination). And even then, travelers should have a clear idea of what could happen if they tested positive right before or during their vacation.
“It happens, even if you’re boosted,” Keyter says. “This is something that will potentially ruin your vacation.”
For return to Canada, travelers aged five and over must provide proof of vaccination and either a negative COVID-19 molecular test result or a previous positive test result taken between 14 and 180 days before arrival.
While most resorts offer PCR testing, either internally or through a third party, it is the travelers’ responsibility to ensure they understand the procedure and additional costs associated with this requirement prior to the flight.
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Keyter says contingency planning involves understanding exactly what the rules are at your destination, as they can differ depending on your region, resort, or cruise.
Since returning to Canada, Zheng has taken to social media, including TikTok, Facebook and Instagram, to share his experience with people. This exposed her to the judgment of strangers online telling her that her choices had led to her predicament. Still, she hopes her ordeal can serve as a warning.
“I put this on because I want to give people a warning. I know so many people have travel plans, ”Zheng says. “If I help someone avoid going through the same situation, then I’m glad I shared my story.”
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