Navigating international air travel in the time of COVID
September 30, 2020 8:28 AM   Subscribe

Due to life circumstances and general loneliness, I'm somewhat considering going to stay with my parents, who I haven't seen in a year, for an extended period around the holidays. (Please assume I'll take all reasonable COVID precautions and quarantine as part of this process.) This would require an international flight. It occurred to me recently that even though the flight I need is available for sale, it may end up getting canceled, making this trip impossible. How can I best investigate my options?

The specific route I need to travel is Montreal (YUL) to San Francisco (SFO). In normal times there's a daily direct flight by United/Air Canada. That flight is listed for sale; however it's not available for any date earlier than Nov. 1, which makes me think all of those flights have been canceled and future flights will also be canceled as the date approaches. Flightstats also shows no flights from YUL arriving in SFO for the 7-day window surrounding today. In theory I'm open to taking a route with multiple stops, but that increases the COVID risk and also I desperately do not want to get stranded in a random airport.

Is there any site compiling statistics on canceled flights over the last few months that could help me get a clearer picture of my options? Or does anyone have recent experience traveling a similar route to the one I'm looking at? Thanks.
posted by mekily to Travel & Transportation around Montreal, QC (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Lots of airlines suspended international routes around March, but had to set a future date to resume service. As the pandemic went on, they’ve pushed those dates back (in my country, the typical pattern is that service would be scheduled to resume early June, but in mid-May airlines would push that date back a month to early July, rinse and repeat). The airlines sell tickets for flights after their announced resumption date because they are technically scheduled, but they are inevitably cancelled.

Not sure how to confirm whether that’s what’s happening on this route besides calling the airline to ask, but just pointing out a pattern that’s taking place in many parts of the world.
posted by exutima at 8:36 AM on September 30, 2020

Best answer: I believe that with only a few airports open to International travel, you'd likely have to fly through Vancouver to get to San Francisco right now. YVR to SFO is currently flying, and if you book a route that goes through Vancouver, you'll be more likely to not have to change it later.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:40 AM on September 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks jacquilynne -- that's exactly the kind of tip I'm looking for.
posted by mekily at 9:00 AM on September 30, 2020

The restrictions on international flights arriving into Canada don't apply to flights from the US (see this article, though things may have changed since March); and YUL is one of the "permitted" airports for international flights anyhow. That said, I would tend to agree that service between SFO and YVR or YYC is more likely than a non-stop YUL–SFO route.

It may be worth searching on different days of the week when you look for flights—many routes that used to operate daily now operate only a few times a week. As an example, Delta used to fly 3–4 round-trips between YWG and MSP each day; now they're flying 3 round-trips per week instead.
posted by Johnny Assay at 10:03 AM on September 30, 2020

I used your flightstats link to look at who was scheduling flights out of YUL today to US destinations - there appears to be an Air Canada/United flight to Newark & LaGuardia, UA service to Boston, and Westjet/Delta/KLM to detroit.

i dont think you'd be likely to be stranded at a middle aiport on account of covid, but all things being equal i would personally (as a USian) look for a domestic (in-canada) transfer bc nothing about how our government is handling the situation gives me an iota of confidence.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 10:06 AM on September 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

I can't find where at the moment, but i saw advice elsewhere today:

Check the departing/arriving gate info on the airport websites, if the flight you are trying to take is not listed as running today, its likely non existent, but they will sell you tickets for, charge you, later cancel, and hold onto your money for months.
posted by TheAdamist at 10:09 AM on September 30, 2020

I don't have any great news for you. E.g., Cozumel is a major international destination and even from inside the US there have been multiple stories of people getting really screwed by the airlines. Like, booking a nonstop return flight and then getting told at the return airport that the only flights were going to take two days. Yes, you can force them to give your money back, but if that was the only nonstop, you don't really have any options except paying even more money to another airline for a walkup fare. Lots of flights getting cancelled or changed on short notice, too. Maybe the worst I saw was someone who booked "more leg room" seats on Allegiant for a nonstop flight and, after the cabin door closed, was informed that the flight had been combined with another one, causing an unscheduled stop with a whole bunch of passengers. Allegiant is a worse than average airline in normal circumstances, but still...

There seems to be something of a pattern that if a flight is getting completely cancelled for a month, it tends to be done 30 days in advance. So check yourself on the airline's site. Normally using a third-party booking site is a small risk but under these circumstances I would try hard to book directly, and hopefully not even a code share.
posted by wnissen at 10:38 AM on September 30, 2020

Best answer: In case a personal anecdote is helpful, I was scheduled to fly with my partner from Montreal to San Francisco on August 30th via the nonstop Air Canada flight you mention, and it was indeed cancelled on us (totally without notification from the airline, but that particular frustration is neither here nor there). We were able to get rebooked on a United itinerary that had a single stop in Chicago. So about a month ago, the YUL -> ORD -> SFO United Airlines itinerary was real.
posted by Expecto Cilantro at 2:11 PM on September 30, 2020 [3 favorites]

My friend was trying to get from Moscow to Munich in August. Her flight was cancelled and rebooked on different carriers four times due to low demand. Eventually she made it via London - not a sane route under normal circumstances. I understand she bit the bullet and paid through her nose for a guaranteed departure to get back home last week. So flying is definitely unpredictable at the moment.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:42 PM on September 30, 2020

Might it be possible for you to cross the border on land and then take a domestic US flight to San Francisco? I'd think domestic flights would be subject to fewer cancellations, as there are far fewer restrictions on domestic travel. I'd also have to think flights between BOS, or EWR/JFK and SFO are running; they're all major hubs.

Of course this is just pure speculation on my part, so make of it what you will. And you'd obviously need to figure out how to get from Montreal to the border, and from the border to a (major?) US airport.
posted by breakin' the law at 8:31 PM on September 30, 2020

Best answer: You can look at the website for current status of incoming flights to SFO. In this case, it shows no directly flights from YUL anytime soon. There are three incoming flights from YVR, code-shared among several more airlines. jacquilynne's advice is correct; take a flight to Vancouver and then on to SFO.
posted by blob at 9:36 PM on September 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My fiance flew from Vancouver to SFO yesterday. His flight was delayed by 2 hours (unrelated to covid), but they rebooked his connection in Seattle successfully so he just arrived here at 1:25 pm instead of 11:15 am.

So I think you'll probably be fine.
posted by ananci at 7:54 AM on October 3, 2020

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers, everyone. Sounds like my best bet is to check arrivals/departures at YUL and SFO, see which flights are coming to/from those airports, and book a flight with one connection based on that (and be prepared for possible rescheduling). Thanks also to those who confirmed that YUL -> YVR -> SFO and YUL -> ORD -> SFO are routes that have actually been flown recently.
posted by mekily at 2:40 PM on October 3, 2020

Here's a piece of information I came across while looking for other information and thought might help you. It's Air Canada's prediction -- but certainly not a guarantee -- of how many flights they actually will be operating on what routes in the near future. It may give you a better sense of the stability of some routes, including which ones are already established and which they are hoping to bring back.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:09 PM on October 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

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