Travellers crave getaways but now weigh risks of lost baggage, weather, illness

By Cassandra Szklarski
THE CANADIAN PRESS

A winter getaway to Mexico ended in frustration and exhaustion for Shannon Dryer after weather-related disruptions delayed her family’s return to British Columbia, sent their luggage astray and highlighted the many ways a vacation can go awry.

The ordeal propelled her to swear off future bookings with WestJet and kiboshed any more Christmas-time trips.

“I don’t think it was worth it,” she said from Port Coquitlam, B.C. “It was just a lot of stress.” 

The delay in coming home forced extra costs in pet boarding, airport parking and respite care for her father on top of the added food and accommodation costs in Mexico, she said.

Despite the wanderlust that has gripped many Canadians who postponed travel during the COVID-19 pandemic, observers point to a variety of hurdles that are complicating efforts to reclaim a carefree holiday escape. 

Tourism professor Wayne Smith said recent headlines of weather-related delays as well as the rising cost of flights and hotels, hospitality labour woes and ongoing COVID-19 infection fears are forcing many people to rethink how and where they venture and what they can do to mitigate problems if they arise.

“Travel time is so valuable to people, but it’s also expensive. So you put those two things together, travel is a very risky thing to do,” said Smith, a professor at Toronto Metropolitan University.

“All these after-effects are building up and making travel seem less and less appealing to people.”

Smith said his industry sources report more people road-tripping or taking short, four-day trips. Some tack a couple of days of leisure travel onto the end of a business trip to avoid the complications of a separate vacation, he adds from Charleston, S.C., where he was reached on a “bleisure” trip.

Dryer said she reconsidered plans to visit Arizona this summer because of her family’s odyssey home from Puerto Vallarta — a six-day saga including one night sleeping on the floor of the Calgary airport.

She’ll head south anyway because it had been planned long ago with a group of friends, and they’ve all paid extra for flight insurance, Dryer noted.

“Definitely I was a little nervous about booking,” the school youth worker said about flying again.

“I don’t envy anybody that’s travelling right now. I definitely don’t watch commercials with sunny beaches and wish I was there.”

WestJet issued an emailed statement apologizing to guests affected by cancellations and delays it pinned on severe winter weather across Canada. The airline said that included 1,640 flights cancelled between Dec. 18 and Jan. 1, adding that “options for reaccommodation were extremely limited over the holidays,” both within WestJet and among other carriers.

The debacle coincided with similar woes for the carrier Sunwing, which apologized Thursday to passengers similarly left in limbo when winter storms upended operations. It acknowledged “clear failures in execution” including their “ability to reposition aircraft and crew to other airports to help alleviate the backlog in flights.”

Smith said airlines hit hard by past pandemic restrictions are operating on such shoestring budgets they have little leeway if something goes wrong. In addition, he said staff laid off during the pandemic were largely replaced with inexperienced workers when business returned.

“So they don’t have the experience, they don’t have the background, they don’t necessarily have all those skills and abilities to be able to pull off something when it becomes this serious,” he said.

Dryer’s cousin Nicole Brown, who met Dryer’s family in Mexico after flying from Kelowna, B.C., with her two teenage sons, said she was most frustrated by the lack of communication from WestJet. Whenever she tried to get information about compensation for out-of-pocket expenses, she said she was directed to the website but had trouble finding the information she was looking for and couldn’t reach a live staffer by phone.

“It was really disappointing,” said Brown, noting the ordeal continues as she seeks compensation and awaits the return of her family’s checked bags.

“We’ve not been able to travel for three years. It took a lot of time, it took a lot of money to be able to have this one last family trip before my kids are adults.”

Vancouver-based clinical psychologist Dr. Melanie Badali expects that ongoing pandemic weariness has likely exacerbated the blow of travel snafus for many. Two of her own pandemic-era trips were waylaid by unexpected surprises, she said, including a bout of COVID-19 that hit one family member after they arrived in Toronto for a wedding last June, forcing them to miss the festivities.

“We thought we would be done with this. People did not think this could still be happening,” Badali said of the pandemic’s ongoing impacts.

“Depression sets in for some people in terms of looking around at the state of the world and even if you don’t have an overly negative view of things right now, certainly, if you read the news a lot … it weighs on you.”

Badali, who specializes in stress and anxiety, said the challenge lies in managing expectations, figuring out what risks are worth it, mitigating those risks and settling on coping strategies if things go wrong.

Smith suggests buying travel insurance and reading the fine print to be clear on what’s covered, and using a good travel agent who can help if needed. He also encourages booking extra time between connecting flights, bringing copies of prescriptions and extra medication, putting overnight supplies and clothes in a carry-on bag, and having cash on hand in case credit cards can’t be used.

When overwhelmed, Badali said it helps to look at how your thinking affects your feelings and actions, and managing expectations or interpretations of current events.

“The reality is that we are going to have to be flexible for a while longer,” she said of uncertainties that go well beyond leisure travel.

“Because life is not 100 per cent predictable, 100 per cent safe, 100 per cent easy. You can say the ‘new normal’ but if that is shifting or quite varied, normal isn’t actually a good description. … It’s not predictable. It’s still fluctuating.”