Is it safe to go on vacation this summer? Experts break down travel options

WATCH: Have you had a trip put on pause, or maybe even cancelled, because of the coronavirus pandemic? Many Canadians who were once planning a trip abroad are now looking at vacation destinations closer to home.

While many airlines are expanding their summer roster of flights and Canadians aim to fly or drive between provinces, summer vacation will look decidedly different due to the novel coronavirus.

As Global News has previously reported, the federal government still has strict travel advisories in place emphasizing that all non-essential travel outside the country must be avoided, as travellers may be caught in a situation where they can’t return.

Travel was also initially the main way COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, was brought into Canada, with most early travel-related cases stemming from Canadians who had travelled. This will be a difficult time to acquire travel insurance if you decide to fly despite government advisories, Global News previously reported. 

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With Canada slowly easing restrictions as COVID-19 cases have dropped, airlines hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic are preparing flights within the country and abroad.

Global News asked airlines and experts what Canadians’ travel options are this summer and whether there will be an expected bump in popularity for the road trip. While flights are operating, travelling close to home will likely be what most are comfortable with, experts said. 

What Canadian airlines are planning for the summer 

Steps are being taken by Canadian airlines to re-enter the market and make flights available this summer after most or all of their fleets were grounded due to strict COVID-19 protocols.

Some demand may be returning to the travel and tourism industry, but the glamour of flying is gone, and new protocols make the in-flight experience “a certainly different way of flying,” said Jim Scott, CEO of Flair Airlines.

Flair is a budget airline that will start to increase the number of flights it operates next month, including expanding multiple routes within Canada, with a focus on the West Coast.

Expansion to Atlantic Canada has not been a clear option for many airlines, as the region is strict about only allowing essential travellers, requiring a 14-day quarantine period and screening travellers to ensure they are essential.

“There have been a lot of changes in the last 90 days, but they’re starting to be like normal,” said Scott. 

Flair has had to make changes quickly, as with many other airlines, including requiring mandatory masks on flights, temperature checks, sanitizing the aircraft and leaving the middle seat free to allow for some distance between passengers, Scott said.

Other airlines, like Air Transat, are also planning to resume flights and tour operations as of July 23, the airline states in a press release published on June 11.

The new flight schedule will include 22 destinations in Europe, “the South” — which includes Costa Rica, Mexico and the Dominican Republic — and the U.S. and Canada. A new health and safety program has been implemented, which includes regularly disinfecting the plane, wearing government-required masks during the flight and asking passengers to watch for symptoms prior to their flights. 

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Global News also asked Air Canada and WestJet about how their schedules may be expanding this summer. 

WestJet announced June 15 that it will allow operations to 45 destinations, including 39 in Canada and five in the U.S. This is a 102 per cent increase in flights from June to July — however, it’s still down 76 per cent from July 2019.

The schedule reflects where WestJet is seeing demand, including passengers who need to travel for essential reasons and those who are hoping to vacation within Canada, said Arved von zur Muehlen, chief commercial officer of WestJet, in a press release sent to Global News.

Von zur Muehlen notes that WestJet’s schedule reflects travel restrictions implemented months ago that haven’t been updated to reflect “new learnings” about the virus, he said. 

His comments reflect an open letter sent to the prime minister and provincial premiers to urge the government to allow Canadians to “travel freely.” Published last week, it was signed by more than 100 representatives of the travel industry, including those from airlines like WestJet and Porter. 

In an email to Global News, Air Canada outlined that it will be flying to 97 destinations this summer. This time last year, the airline was flying to 220 destinations, according to a press release published on May 22. 

Air Canada has also implemented its CleanCare+ program, announced in May, which includes a temperature check and health screening before the flight, surfaces cleaned with a “hospital grade” disinfectant and the requirement that all customers must wear masks, the airline states on its website.

Flying not recommended: epidemiologist

While flights are returning, boarding a plane this summer isn’t recommended, said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, in a Global News report published on June 14.

“I can’t imagine getting on a plane any time soon,” he said. “And I would never advise anyone to get on a plane any time soon.”

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Furness says we know chances of becoming infected with COVID-19 increase based on how close you are to an infected person and how long you are near them — and both these factors are present on an airplane.

If a person ends up having COVID-19, the World Health Organization defines contact as being seated within two rows of that person. 

What a return to travel will really look like this summer

It’s clear that most people are concerned about how to travel safely this summer during the pandemic and whether cleaning procedures will be enough, said Marion Joppe, a professor at the University of Guelph’s School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management. 

“It’s kind of a catch-22 for the airlines as well because if there aren’t any flights, people aren’t going to go. But at the same time, putting on flights is very costly,” she said. Flights that are half to three-quarters empty cost these airlines “a fortune,” said Joppe.

The travel and tourism industry believes that Canadians will start to travel but will stay relatively close to home, she said. 

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“It’s what’s referred to as ultra-local, or hyper-local, meaning a couple of hours from home is the first outing,” she said. “People want to get out into green spaces… and that is really what the travel is going to be at least for the first part of the summer.”

Overnight trips with a rental cottage may become popular as well, but there may be backlash from smaller communities who may not feel like they are ready to accept tourists and have more elderly people in their population, said Joppe.

“There’s all these concerns that play into it as well,” she said. “People aren’t necessarily welcome, or made to feel welcome, in some of the communities because people are anxious.”

Looking at flying, it can be difficult to discern what is “non-essential” travel, as visiting family members could be considered “essential” by the public, said Joppe. 

“There isn’t huge clarity in all of this. People are confused, and at the same time, you want to get out, you want to explore, you want to do things and do them safely,” she said.

The popularity of road trips

With hesitation around the flying process, road trips may be the better option for Canadians, as you can travel within a smaller group and visit provinces that do not have certain restrictions, said Joppe.

Currently, provinces in the Atlantic Canada region are barring non-essential travellers from entering, and all who enter must quarantine for 14 days. Manitoba also has a 14-day quarantine implemented.

Yukon and the Northwest Territories are only allowing essential travellers to visit. Canadians can only visit Nunavut if they are already in the Northwest Territories and have been isolated there for two weeks, and those travellers require an approval letter from Nunavut public health officials.

Other provinces advise against non-essential travel, but borders are not closed and quarantine orders have not been implemented for domestic travellers.

With some provinces lacking restrictions, road trips are possible this summer for Canadians, said Joppe. 

“Road trips are going to be the go-to way for many, many Canadians,” she said. “If they travel this summer, that’s what they will do.”

Same-day travel where people leave for a few hours by car and return home will also be popular, she said. 

Sue Horton, a professor at the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo, said this summer may be reminiscent of a time when air travel was not popular or accessible. 

“It’s the kinds of vacations people took in the 1950s when air travel was expensive but gas was cheap… and you would pack food,” she said. 

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Keeping your household to a car and not visiting restaurants on a drive up is one way to keep travel as safe as possible, said Horton. 

“I find it stressful being at home and working at home for three months. Just a change of scene, not going too far away,” she said. 

Horton says she doesn’t plan on getting on a plane until there’s a vaccine — because COVID-19 is an unpredictable illness and there’s still much we don’t know about how to create safe environments against it without a vaccine.

“That’s the thing with this disease. Things may change quite quickly, and we can’t predict,” she said. 

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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