Hotel quarantine secrets revealed: A travel agent’s tell-all

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.

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.

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 betw