Our Views

How to get to your winter destination during COVID-19

Travelling to a sun destination this winter is more complicated thanks to COVID-19.

But it is possible for snowbirds and vacationers alike to get away—even if it means navigating a few challenges to reach that warm-weather destination. From commercial airlines to private travel, there is a range of options available to those prepared to spend a bit more and, at times, be patient.

Driving to your southern U.S. destination

There are border restrictions on non-essential travel to the U.S. by car, so driving to Florida, South Carolina or Arizona isn’t an option for most people, right? Think again.

Some creative snowbirds are having their cars shipped to border airports in cities such as Buffalo, then flying in from Canada and driving the rest of the way. Firms such as Great Lakes Helicopter are even offering the short hop to Buffalo by chopper from Hamilton airport. Total cost: $1,900 for the flight, including separate vehicle transport across the border.

The company is reportedly planning to add a route from Windsor to Detroit due to high demand from enthusiastic snowbirds.

What to know when flying commercial

Others will choose to fly the friendly (commercial) skies to get to their preferred sunspot. Things have changed since your last pre-pandemic flight. Delays, unpredictable flight cancellations and schedule changes have added an uncertain edge to air travel—even if it is relatively safe.

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam told reporters this week that there have been few—if any—incidents of COVID-19 transmission between passengers while in flight.

A likely reason: newer planes have highly-advanced HEPA air filter systems that capture 99.99 percent of airborne particles, including many viruses.

Still, it’s wise to buy comprehensive trip cancellation/interruption and travel health insurance (see our previous blog) before departing Canada and ensure that you have coverage for potential disruptions.

If you are booking accommodations, ask about the cancellation policy. Flight delays or cancellations could impact your ability to reach a destination on time. If a booking is non-refundable, you could face a financial loss or be forced to negotiate a credit to return at a later date.

We know of one couple that had to change course last month when their airline cancelled all flights to St. Lucia, where they had booked and paid for a week’s vacation. The resort’s deadline to obtain a refund had passed, but fortunately, they successfully negotiated a credit for accommodation at a sister property in Barbados. They were also able to re-book alternate flights.

Again, flexibility and patience are a virtue when travelling this fall or winter.

If you’re flying to the U.S. and want to use your car while down south, a vehicle relocation service may be the solution. Some companies, such as Ingersoll, Ont.-based Oakwood Transport will drive or ship your car to various U.S. locations for as little as $2,000.

When flying private is an option

Flying private has historically been—and continues to be—prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthiest individuals. But some private aircraft companies are offering better pricing to keep planes in the air (a maintenance requirement) and pilots flying (to maintain their accreditation) as demand plummets, due to COVID-19.

“I know of a 90-year-old man who’s flying private for the first time to Florida because he doesn’t want to be stuck inside for the winter,” Newport Co-Founder and Chief Wealth Management Officer David Lloyd says. “They’ll spend the money reluctantly, but people are doing things that they never thought they’d do.”

Services such as Flightpath.ca, evoJets and FlyXO.com offer personal jet charters or options to book empty seats on private flights with other passengers. In some cases, it may also be possible to book an ‘empty-leg’ flight where a private plane would normally fly empty back to its departure point after dropping off passengers. These flights are typically offered at a substantial discount.

The drawback: if the person chartering the first leg decides to change their itinerary, the ‘empty-legger’ has to change their itinerary as well.

Again, flying private isn’t cheap, with flights typically starting at a minimum of about $20,000 to $25,000 for a one-way, three-hour trip from Toronto to Florida. But for those with the means and the determination to spend their winter golfing, at the beach or with friends at their second home, it may be a worthwhile expenditure.

What to consider before you travel

The decision to travel during the coronavirus pandemic is very personal and should be made based on a wide range of factors. The elderly or immuno-compromised, for example, are advised to consult their physician before journeying outside of Canada.

Everyone else should carefully monitor regular COVID-19 updates both at home and at their destination. The Government of Canada’s Global Travel Advisories webpage has a full listing of travel restrictions for countries around the world.

It’s important to note that rules can vary significantly between countries, states/provinces or cities. Restrictions may limit your ability to visit certain areas or enjoy attractions. For example, some countries, such as the Bahamas, require visitors to produce a negative COVID-19 test taken less than five days prior to arrival. Others (including Bahamas) require a mandatory quarantine upon arrival.

Many jurisdictions are less strict—including some that might come as a surprise. For example, in some places, mask wearing and social distancing may not be commonly practiced in restaurants or other public locations.

Travelers need to determine their own comfort level and assess the calculated risks they’re willing to take in making the decision to travel.

“Many Canadians are willing to take added risk to get to places such as the U.S., because healthcare is readily available and they can usually get home relatively quickly,” Lloyd says.

Talk to your travel agent, or friends or family on the ground at your destination, for updates to determine your comfort level—especially if you fall into a high-risk health category.

Before booking, remember that:

  • You could be subject to a mandatory quarantine upon arrival at your destination. Have you made plans to secure accommodation, food, medical supplies and other needs?
  • Your trip may become longer than planned due to travel or other disruptions.
  • Access to quality health care may be limited in the event of a COVID-19 flare-up.
  • Other countries may change their emergency COVID-19 restrictions without notice—which could impact your travel plans and ability to return home.
  • The government of Canada is recommending that Canadians travel on passports with at least an additional six months of validity (beyond their anticipated travel time) in case of delays or disruptions.

**Please note, this overview is intended for information purposes only and is subject to change. The details provided were based on our own research and does not constitute any specific endorsement of any of the travel service providers featured. Contact airlines or service providers directly for more information and review details such as refund policies before deciding on making a purchase.