Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
You’ve read the scathing headlines, you’ve scoffed at the prices, you’ve Facebook’d about constitutional rights.
But how well do you really know Canada’s mandatory hotel quarantine program for international travellers?
Better yet, have you scrutinized the nuts and bolts of hotel quarantining through the lens of a trusted Canadian travel advisor?
Step into the office of Guelph, ON-based Jakki Prince, “Chief Epic Officer” at Prince Adventures Travel, an affiliate of Travel Professionals International (TPI), who quarantined at a government-approved hotel in Toronto from March 12-15 after returning from a six-month workcation in Barbados with her husband, Jamie.
“As a travel advisor, I thought this process would be simple. I make arrangements for travellers worldwide. How hard could it be?” Prince writes on her blog, where she has documented her many pandemic-era travel adventures.
But even for a travel pro like Prince, who agreed to share her first-hand experience with PAX, Ottawa’s hotel quarantine system, which took effect Feb. 22, was still full of twists, turns and surprises.
“A cost of doing business”
You may be wondering why Prince was travelling abroad in the first place and why she simply didn’t fly home after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the hotel quarantine protocol on Jan. 29 – some four weeks before the new rule activated.
Prince and her husband, in early October, decided to work remotely in Barbados and stay with Prince’s mother, who, pre-pandemic, had booked a two-bedroom condo for herself on the idyllic Caribbean island for the Canadian winter season.
The plan was to work in paradise until the end of January, but a flight cancellation and change in work schedules led to the decision of staying until Feb. 22 – travel to the United States for three weeks, first, so Prince’s husband could attend work meetings, and then fly home to Canada on March 12.
Due to their commitments in the U.S., “We didn’t feel the need to rush home,” Prince told PAX.
But the TPI advisor knew well enough that, by March, she and her husband would, upon arrival in Canada, be required to stay (and pay) for at least three nights at a federally-blessed hotel while awaiting PCR test results.
And that was something she and her husband were OK with.
“We considered it a cost of doing business,” she said.
Book online if you can, says Prince
Ottawa’s hotel quarantine program, which is run by the Public Health Agency of Canada, got off to a rocky start in February as Canada-bound travellers, facing atrociously-long wait times on the phone, scrambled to secure accommodations.
Luckily, the initial rush had passed by the time it was Prince’s turn to book, and by then, more hotels had been added to the government’s online list.
READ MORE: Ottawa's hotel quarantine program off to rocky start
Some hotels were even now accepting online reservations, which, at first, wasn’t available.
Prince admits she didn’t experience too much stress in securing a room for her and her husband (as a travelling duo, they were allowed to share a space).
But she did encounter one immediate flaw in the system, which inspired her first pro tip: book online, if you can.
“I was quoted a more expensive price on the phone than what I viewed online,” Prince told PAX.
The hotel she ended up booking – the Sheraton Gateway at Toronto Pearson airport – would have cost $80 more per night had she booked it by phone versus the Internet, she said.
Prince also recommends checking hotel availability, in advance, based on one’s arrival date in Canada (her first choice, the Alt Hotel, was sold out).
All in, Prince and her husband paid $1,635.88 CAD, in advance, for their three-night stay at the Sheraton – a non-refundable expense.
“And no matter how long you stay, you pay the full amount,” Prince said.
But first, a “double nostril”
Prior to boarding her flight to Canada, Prince inputted her quarantine plan and hotel booking into the ArriveCAN app and showed a digital receipt of this, in addition to proof of the negative COVID-19 test she received in the U.S., to officers on arrival at YYZ.
There are extra steps at airports now – after clearing customs and baggage, and talking to a doctor, Prince was ushered into a special area at Pearson where she was required to undergo a PCR test.
READ MORE: Feds outline new land/air restrictions; day 10 PCR test now required
This process is operated by Switch Health and Prince’s advice, for this stage, is to register with the service in advance to prevent delays.
The PCR test was a deep “double nostril” sampling, Prince said, which she had never experienced before but is putting it out there for “parents who want to prepare their kids.”
After, she was handed a blue box containing an at-home COVID-19 test kit, which passengers must apply themselves on day 10 of their 14-day quarantine period.
(Public Health agents literally come to your door to collect the results).
10 pages of dos & donts
Once these steps were complete, it was off to the hotel quarantina.
The Sheraton Gateway is attached to Pearson and Prince and her husband were allowed to take the airport train link to get there.
Prince observed that ground transportation was being provided to other hotels – “and you are permitted to drive your own car,” she said.
The Sheraton, that afternoon, was busy– three wickets, all occupied, each separated by plexiglass – “like any other COVID check-in,” Prince said.
Third-party security, wearing neon yellow, were spotted on the scene.
Once they were registered, they were handed a 10-page booklet outlining “what you can and cannot do,” said Prince, as well as a menu for that day.
During your stay, “You get the menu for the next day, each evening,” said Prince.
Thin walls & room parties
Prince chose the Sheraton because it offered the same price per night for either one or two travellers, making it an affordable option for a couple.
Her first observation was a lunch bag sitting out front of their room door when they arrived, which Prince assumed meant the previous guest checked out at some point between breakfast and lunch and the bag arrived anyway.
“I did not like knowing, in a quarantine hotel experience, that a previous guest had been there just mere hours before in the same room,” she later reflected.
Otherwise, the stay unfolded like any other hotel experience.
READ MORE: About 26,000 travellers entering Canada were exempt from hotel quarantine, says PHAC
The pair secured a standard king bedroom on the third floor. Their large window overlooked a parking lot and the Viscount parkade.
Prince described the room as “outdated and incredibly dusty,” noting that the Sheraton is renovating and that they clearly wound up in quarters that hadn’t been upgraded yet.
The sanitation wipes that came with the room were useful for cleaning the surfaces.
Still, the Wi-Fi was reliable and the television channels were sufficient – Prince and her husband watched the Grammys one Sunday night.
The pair were told they could have two chaperoned 15-minute breaks outdoors each day, but they decided not to use this option.
Prince suspected the hotel (or at least the section they were staying in) was at capacity because they could hear ongoing activity through the “thin walls.”
They saw quarantine guests from all walks of life – children were seen playing in the hallways (which may or may not have been allowed).
At one point, the people next door decided to throw a party in the middle of the night, which led Prince to call security. Moments later, she could hear doors in the hallway quickly slamming shut.
“I believe people were visiting other rooms,” said Prince, speculating on what might have gone down.
“Banquet food at a crappy wedding”
“Remember your second cousin’s wedding where it was a cash bar at that run-down hotel on the highway? Our food experience at this hotel was like that,” Prince said, describing the meals she received.
Prince had read stories about horrific food being served in quarantine hotels, but that doesn't exactly sum up her experience.
The food wasn’t horrific, she said, but it wasn’t extraordinary either.
“It was like banquet food at a crappy wedding,” she said.
Prince’s least favourite meal? A liquid-y butter chicken dish that was served at room temperature. Her favourite? The “flavourful and meaty” chicken wings she ate for lunch on Day One.
This hotel, in particular, served huge portions for breakfast (“Pounds of food in a container,” Prince said). And dessert – which at one high point resulted in a tasty gluten-free brownie – came with every meal.
Overall: “It wasn’t a dire situation, food wise,” said Prince.
And alcohol, notably, was available for purchase – although at a marked-up price.
Beers by the can or bottle ran $9-$12 and included brands like Corona, Heineken and domestic craft options like Gateway Traveller’s Belgium Wit and Dead Elephant IPA.
The cheapest glass of wine on the menu, she said, was $17. (“Buy your alcohol at Duty Free prior to arriving in Canada,” Prince recommended).
Her advice to travel advisors, on the topic of food, is to know your client’s dietary needs ahead of time.
The Canadian government says dietary requirements will be catered to, so figuring this part out with the hotel, in advance, is recommended.
The Sheraton, during Prince’s stay, didn’t have a children’s menu available, so try and obtain menus in advance, especially if there’s picky eaters involved, Prince said, Because food delivery from the outside world, apps included, isn't allowed.
Menus were presented with “A or B” options and guests could specify which non-alcoholic drink they wanted with their meals.
Prince and her husband opted for bottles of water each day and they received more water when they wanted it.
“We had read stories about people not accessing enough water. This was not at all our experience,” she said.
Down to the wire
Travellers are allowed to exit hotel quarantine and continue their two-week self-isolation period, at home, the moment they receive their negative PCR test result, which can take anywhere from 24 to 72 hours to process.
People with positive results must finish quarantine at a nearby government facility, the government says.
What surprised Prince most about his process was how last minute her PCR test results were delivered.
She’d heard of travellers receiving results within 15 hours, but in her case, she didn’t hear back from Switch Health until Day Three – ten minutes before it was time to check out.
“The hotel was saying I had to leave at Noon and I still didn’t have my test results,” said Prince.
What if it took longer? Would Prince be required to book another night?
“There was a lot of confusion,” she said, noting that the hotel didn’t have any details on what to do.
Prince emailed Switch Health and was told to be patient as there was a “backlog.”
In the end, she was able to check out on time, but receiving results in those final minutes might have tested others, such as parents with children, given the high costs involved, she said.
“Some might have been pulling at their hair by then,” Prince said.
The lesson for travel advisors, here, is to “set your clients up for success” by telling them that it could, indeed, take three full days to receive those results.
“I’d heard of people leaving hotel quarantine within 24 hours. I am first-hand proof that that is not always that case,” she said.
Was it worth it?
Was it all worth it in the end?
Even if the hotel had fixed costs, such as enhanced security, food service and health and safety measures, the $1,635.88 price tag did not match the overall experience, Prince said.
There’s also the question of why Ottawa invested in this complex program in the first place, given that just 1.8 per cent of all COVID-19 cases in Canada are linked to international travel.
“If the government’s goal was to discourage people from travelling, then they succeeded,” Prince said. “People have overwhelmingly cancelled their travel plans due to hotel quarantine.”
This being said, is Prince, as a travel advisor, still recommending and selling travel to clients after her experience?
“I have and I would,” she said. “If someone reaches out and says they must travel, for whatever purpose, I would help them understand the requirements and then it’s their decision.”
It’s a travel advisor’s job to be that go-to resource, she suggested.
“It’s good business to be a phone call away and be helpful,” she said.
Why she didn’t walk
Of course, Prince is well aware that she could have skipped the quarantine hotel and walked out of Pearson, as some have already done, by accepting a fine instead.
In fact, Prince received several armchair suggestions from people on Facebook, urging her to defy the orders based on the argument that forcing Canadians into a hotel infringes on fundamental rights.
This is something special-interest groups have already tried (but have so far failed) to fight in court.
READ MORE: Ontario court dismisses hotel quarantine injunction request
“I’d rather follow the rules and not jeopardize my life,” said Prince, referencing the fact that even if fines are later tossed in court, the long-term ramifications of being “flagged” for ignoring Public Health’s orders are still unknown.
“If someone wants to walk out of an airport and roll the dice, go for it. We decided to follow the rules and we believe we made the right decision,” Prince said.
“I’m not going to break the rules just to be defiant. There’s no winning there.”
“Sure, you save some money, but there’s a cost for travelling anyways. Travel is a luxury and the cost for returning is manifested this way.”
People are free to “go to battle” if they feel their rights have been violated, Prince added.
However: “It’s not in my interest to enter a legal battle with the Government of Canada. It’s not a good use of my time,” Prince said.
“This was a safe choice for me and for the greater good.”
To read Jakki Prince’s complete blog entry about hotel quarantining, click here. You can also read about her COVID-19 testing experience at Pearson here and her first-hand account of using the at-home testing kit here.
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