Coronavirus: Canadians out thousands trying to get refunds for weddings, vacations

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Will Canadians be able to get refunds on their cancelled plans due to COVID-19?
WATCH: Will Canadians be able to get refunds on their cancelled plans due to COVID-19? – Mar 18, 2020

Thousands of dollars have been invested into weddings, vacations and other events that have completely unravelled this month as cases of the novel coronavirus continue to climb in Canada.

Phone lines to customer service departments of airlines, travel sites and event venues have been jammed or simply unavailable as many try for a refund or date change. Some are finding they are out of luck and may have to take a hit to their finances. 

The rush to cancel comes as multiple provinces have declared a state of emergency and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he’s considering invoking the Emergencies Act.

Canadians have also been told to avoid all non-essential travel, and only four airports will remain open in the country.

Global News has received dozens of messages from Canadians unable to contact their airline for an upcoming trip or being denied a refund for a venue rental.

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Wedding plans for Tania and her fiancé are up in the air after officials recommended limiting gatherings to fewer than 50 people. Global News has agreed to withhold her last name for privacy reasons.

Although her ceremony isn’t until June, Tania, who lives in Toronto, wants to cancel her March 21 wedding shower, but the venue is refusing to do so. 

“It doesn’t make sense to have a wedding shower happening in such an uncertain time,” she said. “I’d already reached out to some of my guests to see how they’re feeling. Some of them are nurses, and they say it’s wise to postpone it.”

Based on government recommendations, Tania called the venue on March 16 to ask for a date change or cancellation. 

“They just said it’s moving forward, it’s business as usual for them. I said, ‘I don’t feel comfortable holding an event during a time when the government is telling you to work from home,’” she said.

Click to play video: 'A look at how restrictions prompted by COVID-19 affect funerals and weddings in Alberta'
A look at how restrictions prompted by COVID-19 affect funerals and weddings in Alberta

Tania was told by the venue that she can’t postpone the event or cancel it without an extra charge and that her deposit will not be returned. Tania would incur a $300 fee if she cancelled on top of losing her money, or she would have to pay $500 to move the date.

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The dates to which the venue offered to change the shower are after her wedding date, which wouldn’t work either. 

“I just wish that I could get my money back rather than continuing to work with them,” she said. “My hope is they smarten up and go with what everyone else is doing and offering people their deposit back … it’s almost like they are being very tone-deaf to what’s happening.”

As of March 18, the day after Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency in the province, the venue has told Tania it may consider moving the event to May. The venue has told her the contract she signed doesn’t cover this scenario.

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Coronavirus outbreak: Justin Trudeau unveils funding for families, small businesses

The honeymoon she and her fiancé had planned — a cruise, with stops in Italy and Spain — is scheduled for July. Even if Princess Cruises allows a date change, Tania says she and her fiancé can’t take time off work again so easily.

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“I don’t know if we can afford to now take this once-in-a-lifetime trip on top of trying to buy a house and pay off our wedding,” she said. “It’s thrown everything out of whack. But, again, it’s no one’s fault. We just have to take it day by day.”

Even though multiple airlines are offering date changes or travel vouchers, several Canadians emailed Global News to say they may have to pay more out of pocket if they pick new flight dates for later in the year.

Michelle, who is from the Hamilton, Ont. region, booked flights to Cuba with Sunwing and was disappointed that the airline is charging a $100 administration fee for her to change the dates.

Since Global News interviewed Michelle, who asked not to use her name as she is still waiting for a refund, Sunwing waived the $100 fee for her and offered her a travel credit.

Sunwing is also offering a choice between a travel credit or a cash refund for those who are travelling during the period of March 17 to April 9. 

Sunwing will halt southbound flights until April 9 and is instead focusing on bringing home around 100,000 Canadians from various destinations, the company told Global News.

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According to Unifor, the union for Sunwing pilots, 470 pilots will be laid off on April 8 due to the cancelled flights. 

WestJet and Air Canada are other airlines that have announced similar reductions in staff numbers.

“Everybody is scrambling and everyone is thinking of their bottom line; we’re all in the same boat,” Michelle said. “

Other airlines should follow suit, she said, adding that she will remain a Sunwing customer if her travel credit comes through.

 “People have no choice in this matter. Do the right thing … be a good sport and give people their full credit without gouging them,” Michelle said.

Compromises will have to be made: lawyer

It can be tough to find an insurance policy that covers how this global pandemic would be described, said Vincent Genova, a founding partner at Rochon Genova law firm in Toronto. 

“The solution lies, really, in every party’s ability to compromise and be flexible in these very trying times,” he said. “There are companies that are allowing … [customers] to cancel and reschedule in the future without penalties.”

Especially for smaller companies and venues, they have their own bills to pay, and the hope is that promises made by Trudeau for financial relief will help ease that process, Genova explained. Hopefully, Canadians will be able to negotiate with smaller companies if they’ve booked an event with them.

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As for dealing with large airlines or popular hotel chains, their flexibility when dealing with mass cancellations may be an entirely different scenario, he said.

“It’s hard to feel sorry for businesses that have historically made a lot of money,” he said. “However, if you want to find a solution, you have to be flexible in your thinking. If an airline offers free cancellation but allows you to keep the credit for a period of time for that flight, I think that’s a compromise.”

Whether airlines allow customers to use their credit beyond a 12-month period as the new coronavirus crisis continues is something customers should consider, he said. 

Rebooking isn’t ideal or affordable for some

Even though rebooking is possible, that doesn’t mean it’s an affordable option for everyone. 

For Kyle Richards and his fiancée Shanice Peters, a destination wedding in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico quickly turned from dream to nightmare.

The couple was set to wed at the Hyatt Ziva resort in May, a trip they booked through WestJet Vacations. In early March, however, they decided to call off the ceremony over concerns about older guests travelling amid the novel coronavirus outbreak.

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Richards’ father is a lung cancer survivor and Peters’ father recently fell ill with pneumonia, he told Global News over the phone.

Postponing the trip, however, has proved a challenge, with various components of the trip package coming apart.

So far, the Hyatt has offered the possibility to rebook at any time until Dec. 19 free of charge, according to emails viewed by Global News.

 But the couple would have to cover any cost differences between the old and new bookings, which Richards said are much more expensive.

WestJet Vacations, meanwhile, is offering a partial refund of flight costs already incurred, with $150 in individual, non-refundable deposits converted into WestJet dollars that cannot be used for group bookings.  

“What we want is our money back,” Richards said.

— With files from Global News’ Erica Alini

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

Health officials say the risk is low for Canadians but warn this could change quickly. They caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are asked to self-isolate for 14 days in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others.

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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. And if you get sick, stay at home.

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

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