I believe getting home from France during the Coronavirus pandemic was easier for me than most due to a few factors: free cancellations, airline points, and imposed flight changes. I just want to share some solutions if you are stuck in France and need to get out….fast.
Advice On Getting Home From France
When I left for France on February 26, the Coronavirus had not yet been deemed a pandemic. There were cases in China and many other countries, but not to the extent it is now. In late February, France only had 17 cases. I was concerned but not worried. By the time I had settled into my trip, I began to worry because part of my trip was to take me to Italy—-Sicily for a conference on March 9 and Italy soon became the epicentre of Coronavirus in Europe.
I have realized that I was extremely fortunate to have gotten out of France with basically no problems and no extra major costs due to these 6 factors.
Hotel Bookings: Free Cancellation
My fear wasn’t about getting the virus in Italy. My fear was about being quarantined and not able to get out of Italy. So, once I learned that the conference was cancelled, I moved into action. The hotel that my friend and I had booked had free cancellation up until 4 days before the conference. We were able to cancel the hotel and not incur any costs.
Phone Calls: Skype Calls
My French SIM card would not let me make 1-800 calls and I knew this, so I used Skype calling, which worked out very well. The cost per call was very cheap. I loaded up $5.00 of credit and it allowed me to make calls. Ordinary phone calls can get expensive, especially when an airline puts you on hold for hours. Using Skype, it hardly cost me anything and I didn’t need a subscription. (Note: some 1-800 calls are free)
Flights To/From Canada: Frequent Flyer Reward Tickets
I live in Canada and had purchased two, separate reward tickets through Aeroplan (Canadian Frequent Flyer program). One way from Toronto to Nice and one way from Rome to Toronto. In hindsight, this is what saved me….time and money. As the trip to Sicily was now cancelled, I decided to only add on one extra night at the Nice airport and get home ASAP. That way I could check out of my Airbnb, drop off my stuff at a luggage storage facility in town, spend the day in Nice and then at the end of the day, head to the airport.
Rebook Using Aeroplan (Frequent Flyer Reward)
Here’s where I really lucked out. I was able to cancel my Aeroplan flight for $75, all online with no phone call required. My points would also be refunded. Because I still had 90,000 points, I was able to book another flight from Nice. I decided to go business class: $394 and 55,000 points. I figured if my trip is going to be messed up I might as well enjoy the flight home.
One thing I realized: it was easier and cheaper to cancel the flight. “Changing” the booking would have cost more ($100) and require that I telephone Aeroplan. It was close to impossible to reach anyone on the phone. If you don’t have enough points to just book another flight this might be your only choice.
Ordinarily, people book return flights. If your government doesn’t raise the warning to level 4 (forcing the airline to change your flight) or if the airline doesn’t offer free cancellation, you’re on the hook for hundreds of dollars and the time to change the flight.
One Thing I’d Do Differently
In hindsight I should have held off on cancelling the flight and just booked my new flight. The reason? On March 12 Air Canada informed me that my flight from Rome to Toronto had been cancelled. If I had called them to say just refund me my money, I could have saved the $75 cancellation fee; however, that’s peanuts in view of the problems other people have encountered.
Warning About Your Points
Thank goodness I had those extra points because I learned that your points are not reinstated automatically. It took 12 days for me to get the points back and I am still waiting for the refund of fees/taxes ($229). If I do not receive my refund, I have proof that I did cancel and did try to reach Aeroplan (through phone calls, Twitter and FB messaging). If need be I will take them to small claims court.
Getting A Full Refund On Your Flight
On February 28, 5 days before I decided to cancel my trip to Sicily Alitalia informed me that my flight had been changed. This actually proved to work out in my favour because based on Regulation (EC) No. 261/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council I was able to cancel the flight and get a full refund. I would have arrived at my final destination 3 hours and 35 minutes later than scheduled. While it was very difficult to get through to Alitalia by phone, I finally did and got my refund. I did have to pursue this (bug them) through Twitter private messaging and emails; however, it worked and I got my refund after a week.
As for my flight from Catania Sicily to Rome, I was hoping Alitalia would cancel it so i could get a full refund; however, they didn’t. So, the day before the flight, I put through a request to cancel my booking.
Know Your Rights And Be Persistent
If you live in Canada, check out Air Passenger Rights website or the Facebook Group, “Air Passenger Rights”. Gabor Lukacs is an assistant professor at Dalhousie University and a fabulous advocate for our rights and what we are entitled to (if there are flight delays, cancellations, baggage delays, damages, etc).
Also, make use of all social media platforms. Use Twitter and Facebook (public and private messaging), fill out the website forms, and email the respective companies. I became a PAIN because I wanted my money back. I also sought advice from other travellers and the Air Passenger Rights FB group. Together I had enough knowledge to figure out what to do.
Cancel Rather Than Not Show Up
It is better to cancel your booking rather than not show up. If I cancel, I can at least get my taxes back. If I just don’t show up, I get nothing. I filled out a form to cancel online, tried to cancel through Facebook and Twitter Messaging. I also tried calling (no answer) and I recorded the calls. The reason for this? I took all those steps to prove (if necessary) that I did try to reach Alitalia to cancel my booking.
I am grateful things worked out as well as they did and encourage those who are away to get home sooner than later because I believe it will only become more difficult trying to figure out how to get home from France especially when more places have to close in France (ie. Non-essential businesses must close—cafés, restaurants, bars, cinemas. Only banks, supermarkets, and tabacs can stay open).
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