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No exceptions for the sick, travel firms say on rebookings

TRANSPORTATION REPORTER

No-show passengers crying the H1N1 blues won't be getting a break from major travel companies.

Airlines, tour operators, BC Ferries and Greyhound Canada are standing pat on their rebooking policies for consumers, despite Ottawa's suggestion that cancellation rules be eased in cases of H1N1 influenza.

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Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq released travel guidelines yesterday, urging consumers sick with the flu to postpone their trips, while also recommending that the tourism industry smooth the way for journeys to be rescheduled.

The Public Health Agency of Canada confirmed in a statement that it's "encouraging conveyance operators to develop policies that make it easy for Canadians to rebook travel for reasons of illness," noting that many corporations already have cancellation rules in place.

Leading Canadian transport companies, however, are strongly recommending that consumers buy travel insurance to protect themselves from losing their money if they are forced by H1N1, or any other illness, to bow out of a vacation or business trip.

"The underlying implication from Ottawa is that it's difficult to rebook, and from our perspective, we don't think it is," said WestJet Airlines spokesman Richard Bartrem.

WestJet's vacations division, for instance, will still charge a $75 change fee if a tour package is cancelled 21 days or longer before the vacation begins. If the holiday is cancelled within 21 days of the start, WestJet is on the hook for hotels and other costs, so consumers will forfeit their money unless they obtain travel insurance, Mr. Bartrem cautioned.

Air Canada isn't budging, either. "At this point, we have not implemented rebooking policy changes," Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said. "However, we continue to monitor the situation closely and will respond appropriately to developments."

On the West Coast, customers who reserve in advance but don't show up for their sailing on BC Ferries will forfeit their fare, but for a standard $9 change fee, they can book different dates and preserve the ticket, said spokeswoman Deborah Marshall.

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"How can we prove that somebody didn't take a trip because it's H1N1 versus deciding not to travel because of the common cold?" she said.

Tour operator Transat and online travel site FlightNetwork.com both stressed that trip insurance remains the best route to go for financial protection against cancelled journeys due to sickness.

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About the Author

Brent Jang is a business reporter in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. He joined the Globe in 1995. His former positions include transportation reporter in Toronto, energy correspondent in Calgary and Western columnist for Report on Business. He holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Alberta, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of The Gateway student newspaper. Mr. More

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