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Friday,  July 19, 2024 5:14 AM 

When war breaks out: How this travel advisor stopped a trip to Israel at the last minute

When war breaks out: How this travel advisor stopped a trip to Israel at the last minute
Leah Holt of Travel With Leah. (Supplied)
Michael Pihach

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 Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

Leah Holt got the call shortly after midnight.

The Edson, AB-based travel advisor had just hunkered down in a hotel near Edmonton Airport on Friday night (Oct. 6), when two of her clients – ladies in a group of 32 that Holt was escorting to Israel and Jordan on a 14-day adventure with Globus – alerted her that a war had broken out in the Middle East.  

A handful of Holt’s clients had departed Canada early, landing seven hours ahead in Frankfurt on Saturday for a Lufthansa flight to Tel Aviv – a connection that never took off as word got out that Israel had declared war against the Palestinian militant group Hamas after the terrorist group fired rockets and infiltrated towns along the Gaza Strip.

Back in Edmonton, the world was still asleep – except for Holt, whose phone began buzzing at 1:30 a.m. as her clients, now stranded in Europe, updated her on the situation.

READ MORE: Tour ops, cruise lines respond to Israel-Hamas war, suspend itineraries

“That was the end of sleep that night,” Holt, owner of Go Travel With Leah, told PAX on Monday (Oct. 9), recounting her whirlwind weekend during which she had to manage (and ultimately cancel) a complex trip to the Holy Land due to a sudden war.

“I messaged the whole group on WhatsApp. It was quite shocking. I wasn’t sure what we were going to do,” said Holt, who, with little sleep under her belt, began exploring contingency plans late into the night.  

She first notified Globus, which resulted in reaching a third-party answering service due to the fact that it was after hours, and the weekend.

Holt’s group was spread out across Canada – in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario – and the plan was for everyone to meet in Tel Aviv, a bustling city on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, where they would start their tour and then fly over to Jordan.

Some of Holt’s clients were with her in Edmonton, where the group was set to first depart for Toronto at 7:30 a.m. MT on Saturday with Air Canada, and then fly on to Tel Aviv from there.

But wouldn’t that Air Canada flight to Tel Aviv be cancelled by now? The invasion of Israel was escalating, and already, European (and U.S.) carriers were grounding flights to the destination.

Should we stay, should we go?

The truth is, Holt had no idea.

Air Canada, in the early hours of Saturday morning, had yet to make an official call about cancelling flights to Israel, putting Holt in a precarious position of should we stay, or should we go?

“We all had insurance, but war is not covered with cancellation insurance,” Holt explained. “We were depending on suppliers to make the call and cancel on us, otherwise we’d be out of a lot of money.”

Holt decided to gather everyone who was with her at Edmonton airport, early Saturday, two hours before that first flight to Toronto, to try and get some answers from the Air Canada check-in desk.

READ MORE: Air Canada temporarily cancels Tel Aviv flights after attack on Israel; Ottawa updates travel advisory

“Nothing was being said,” Holt said. “They were talking about [cancelling flights to Tel Aviv], but no decision had been made. None of us wanted to get on a flight and be stuck in Toronto.”

The group waited “right up until the last chance to board,” when suddenly an Air Canada rep spoke up, notifying Holt that a “hard alert” had appeared in the system.

This is when Air Canada customers are given an option to cancel a flight, if they want to, for a credit, with no penalty.

Holt was told that this option was in the system, even though it hadn’t come through the line just yet, but if she called the call centre, she’d be able to activate it for her clients.

That was all Holt needed to make the call and cancel the trip completely – even if that Air Canada flight from Toronto to Tel Aviv on Saturday, despite global warnings, departed anyways.

Picking up the pieces

But it wasn’t as simple as it sounds.

One of Holt’s clients was an 80-year-old woman who doesn't use a cell phone, who had already boarded a flight from Calgary to Toronto “before I could get ahold of anyone to flag her,” Holt said.

Fortunately, this particular client clued in that something was wrong as she sat on her next flight from Toronto to Tel Aviv, watching passengers, voluntarily, exit the aircraft (presumably after hearing about the attack). 

“She borrowed a cell phone from a guy sitting next to her on the plane to call me,” Holt said. “That’s when I could tell her that a war had broken out, and that the tour was cancelled." 

Secondly, securing refunds wasn’t a straightforward process. Initially, only a flight credit was offered by Air Canada, Holt said.

It wouldn’t be until the next day that Air Canada’s goodwill policy on cancelled flights to Israel would kick in, enabling refunds (which Holt managed to get for everyone in her group).

What’s more is that it took the Government of Canada almost two days to update its travel page for Israel and issue a non-essential travel advisory.

Throughout Saturday, when the war was first declared, and into Sunday, Ottawa was still advising travellers to practice a high-degree of caution in Israel, Holt pointed out.

(The page was ultimately updated on Monday, Oct. 9).

Calling the shots

For Holt, it was an intense weekend of resourcefulness and thinking on the spot.

“I had to call the shots before I even heard from Globus on whether our tour would be cancelled or not,” Holt said.

Globus, in the end, was “amazing,” Holt shared, noting that the tour operator offered options of obtaining a full refund, booking another tour or rescheduling the Israel tour for a later date, at the same price.

Holt thinks everyone in her group will request a refund on their tour “except for two.”

“Who knows how long the war will go on for?” she said.

Silver lining

The Israel-Hamas conflict is a terrible event, and of course, disappointment is expected when an exciting trip to the Middle East is cancelled at the last minute.

But Holt takes comfort in one silver lining. She said it was a “blessing in disguise” that she was able to cancel the trip, just as the war began, as opposed to arriving in Israel, and then dealing with the situation abroad.

“I can’t imagine being at a hotel, spending time in a bomb shelter, and then trying to find 32 tickets home for my group,” she said.

One of Holt’s clients did, in fact, land in Tel Aviv one day ahead of the group – unfortunately, hours before the first attack unfolded.

“The fitness room [in his hotel] was a bomb shelter. He had to go there whenever sirens went off,” Holt said, noting that her client is now on his way back to Canada, flying to Amman, Jordan first, and then going from there.

Holt managed to get refunds for clients, with exception to some transfers that were purchased.

There was also a $400 non-refundable fare with Royal Jordanian Airlines that she likely won’t be able to recoup. 

“In the long run, I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome,” Holt said.

Déjà vu

But she’d be lying if she said it didn’t feel like COVID-19 all over again.

“It felt like March 2020 in that I spent the whole day Saturday cancelling everything, being on the phone, trying to also get people home,” she said.

Fortunately – and perhaps after witnessing the complications that ensued during the early days of the pandemic – Holt’s clients were understanding.

“They’ve given me a lot of praise,” she said. “They feel bad. Most of them know that it has cost me time, for no pay.”

One client was kind enough to e-transfer money to Holt to cover her for the extra time it took to cancel everything.

“They appreciate all the work I’ve put into this. They are mindful it,” Holt said.  

“I think since COVID, many of us have learned to be flexible. You really have no idea what the world is going to throw at you.”

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