An Epic Cross-Canada Journey

It was all supposed to be pretty easy. Our kid Lindsey (they/them), a first-year engineering student at UVic, would catch AC1902 from Victoria International Airport (YYJ) to Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ) on the Tuesday before Christmas to come home for a couple of weeks.

A few days before that flight, we started seeing some interesting weather forecasts that called for things like 20cm of snow or worse for Victoria, BC. That seemed unlikely given Victoria’s history with snow and so we didn’t think a whole lot of it. Until Monday.

That morning it was pretty clear that Tuesday might be a bit on the messy side and that getting to the airport would be challenging. We weren’t even sure the flight would go if the weather turned out the way the forecasters were predicting.

The First Hurdle

On Tuesday morning, Lindsey woke up to 30cm of snow on the ground and a real problem. The entire transit system in Victoria was shut down along with basically every thing else in the city. Somehow AC1902 still showed as “on time”. It seemed inevitable that it would be cancelled.

A view of a snowy UVic campus.

Beautiful, but unwanted. Victoria is not prepared for this much snow.

Taxis were impossible to find as most drivers weren’t out on the roads. Nobody picked up the phone and ordering online just resulted in an endless wait or an immediate cancellation. I tried finding a ride on Reddit and by calling in a favour with a friend in Victoria, but neither were successful as the streets were basically impassable.

By late morning it was clear that getting to YYJ wasn’t possible. The flight now showed “diverted” to Calgary (YYC) first before Toronto and delayed for hours, but it wasn’t possible to get to the Victoria airport to catch it. We got on the phone with Air Canada and I started searching for alternatives. Believe it or not, that plane eventually did make it to Toronto.

A Friday Backup

I managed to book the same flight (AC1902) for Friday at great expense, but it seemed like our only option at this point. After nearly three hours on hold, we spoke with a very helpful Air Canada agent who cancelled our Tuesday flight and graciously swapped in our Friday flight at the same price rather than then $1,280 I had paid to book it.

We thought maybe that was how it would play out. Lindsey would stick around Victoria until Friday and then fly home. But then the storm watches started popping up for Toronto starting on Thursday and through Friday and Saturday.

Despair to Hope!

On Wednesday I talked to Lindsey on FaceTime and we talked about how tough it was there. Most of their friends had left for Christmas break on flights or ferries to the mainland and the campus was still closed and the city mostly shutdown by the snow. It was going to be a boring, depressing few days. Tears were shed.

I did a bit more clicking around and working the Air Canada website, learning how flights pop in and out as people book and cancel their flights. Eventually I was able to snag a flight on Thursday morning from YYJ to Vancouver International Airport (YVR) and then a three hour layover before a flight to YYZ at 3:00 P.M.

I was excited to tell Lindsey the new plan and, as expected, it was just the bit of news needed to get through the rest of that day.

Looking Promising!

We thought we were home free now. Lindsey was excited to have an end date for the time on campus and it looked like the Thursday flight would be out of Vancouver well before the coming storm in Toronto that was supposed to start late Thursday and really develop on Friday morning.

We had the Friday flight in our back pocket and I booked yet another ticket on Saturday’s AC1902. Worst case, we thought, we would have Lindsey home for Christmas although the thought of being in Victoria until the weekend was not appealing and the dorms were closing on Friday afternoon meaning there was no place to live and no dining hall to get food at.

Another Snowy Surprise

On Thursday there was more snow in Victoria. We tried the cab option again at 6:00 A.M. but it was clear that wasn’t working. BC Transit was running again finally and so Lindsey trudged through the snow with a big suitcase and caught a bus from the UVic bus loop towards downtown where another bus would meet up to go up near the airport.

That went decently well and Lindsey was within 1.7km of the terminal a little under two hours before the departure. Flights were leaving on time and the plane that would become the flight to Vancouver was at YVR and on-time to come over to YYJ.

The bus never showed but they were able to order a cab from the airport just five minutes away that got them there in time to check in. Things were looking very hopeful! Flights were on time and the weather in Toronto was good.

It’s All Gone Wrong AGAIN

Then the YYJ to YVR flight was abruptly cancelled. No flight crew was the reason. We were screwed. The only option provided for rebooking was on Christmas Day. We took it because “why not” and added that to the list of flights we had booked. We also learned that we were eligible for significant compensation for the cancellation of this flight because the reason was deemed to be within the control of the airline.

A New Hope!

I fired up the Air Canada website again and got to work. I fairly quickly snagged a red-eye from YVR to YYZ departing at 11:55 P.M. It wasn’t cheap, but it was an option. We huddled up over FaceTime and decided to leave the island on the next ferry and get to YVR and hope this red-eye went.

Lindsey took a cab to the ferry terminal and got a walk-on ticket for the 11:00 A.M. ferry to Tsawwassen south of Vancouver. I got on the phone with my running buddy Miguel who happened to be in Vancouver. He’s one of the nicest people I know, a great friend, and someone who is always willing to give of himself to help others.

I called in a big favour - could he drive an hour down from North Vancouver, pick up Lindsey at the Tsawwassen terminal and then take them to YVR? And if the flight was cancelled, could he give Lindsey a place to sleep for the night?

Yes. Of course. No question.

Lindsey was on the ferry now and we were committed to the Vancouver option for getting home. That move cut off our AC1902 flight options for Friday at least, and probably Saturday as well since catching those would then involve heading back to the island on the ferry.

But we were willing to risk that given the greater options for flights to Toronto from YVR and the fact that we had a friend on the mainland to provide a place to stay if needed.

Even Better!

Just as the ferry left the dock in Swartz Bay, I was able to snag yet another flight. This one was YVR to YYZ departing that evening at 5:45 P.M. Lindsey could get to YVR with the help of a pickup from Miguel and the inbound flight to YVR was already in the air and on-time. This looked very promising!

The ferry was delayed a bit, but Miguel was waiting to provide the ride to YVR. Lindsey got there in plenty of time to check in, drop their big suitcase (finally) and get through the security lines. Then it was a waiting game to see if the flight actually went.

We were really starting to feel hopeful at this point. The flight was on time, the weather in Toronto was holding and it wasn’t going to be snowy and windy until Friday morning. We had the red-eye in our back pocket. I had booked yet another flight for Friday afternoon from YVR to YYZ as the final backup plan.

At this point I was feeling good. We had six separate flights booked from two different airports to Toronto. Lindsey was checked into two flights on Thursday night and both were still showing as either on time or slightly delayed.

Heading Home

By 5:55 P.M. Vancouver time, Lindsey was on the plane. It was snowing a bit in Vancouver but it seemed like it was all going to work out. A stressful 55 minutes later, the flight finally took off heading to Toronto.

A view out the window of an airplane with a snowy apron and baggage cart in the foreground.

A great view.

I got to work cancelling flights now. First was the red-eye, then the Friday flight from YVR to Toronto. I imagined someone like me on the Air Canada website snagging that seat or someone on standby getting a spot and rejoicing that they maybe had a new hope to get home. Then I cancelled the Saturday YYJ to YYZ flight. Lastly the Christmas Day flights were cancelled.

These were all fully-refundable fares so the money was coming back to the credit card in big piles and the stress of the whole experience was finally melting away. There was one last flight in our bookings – the Friday YYJ to YYZ flight that was our original “backup” plan.

A Bit of Sleep

We went to bed for a few hours but set an alarm for 1:30 A.M. so my wife Ginny and older daughter Mackenzie and I could all drive out to YYZ to pick up Lindsey. The flight landed while we were driving out to the airport and we parked at Terminal 1 and went inside to the baggage area.

We waited for Lindsey to de-plane which took a while because there were no ground crews to bring the plane to the gate. Finally Lindsey came through the doors from the gates area and we were able to greet them with hugs and some tears. We did it!

The luggage hall was a bit of a disaster zone. There were suitcases everywhere and people standing around as well as sleeping on the few seats and on the floor. Every time a baggage carousel started up, there were cheers.

A wide angle of the baggage hall at Toronto Pearson Airport with suitcases stacked up by the dozens.

Unclaimed suitcases everywhere.

Meanwhile we got a notification from Air Canada that the Friday flight from YYJ to YYZ had been cancelled. That was the news we were hoping for as it turned our non-refundable ticket into a fully refundable one. We cancelled the last remaining flight and got the last of our money back (aside from money for the flight that Lindsey did take).

At about 4:00 A.M. an announcement was made that the bags weren’t coming and there were no baggage handlers until after 6:00 A.M.

People were…unimpressed. But we just decided that we would head home and get Lindsey home to bed after a long day. We’d go back after 6:30 A.M. and hopefully retrieve the suitcase. It’s about a 30 minute drive each way, so we got to the house just past 4:40 A.M. and into bed before 5:00 A.M.

We got about an hour more sleep before we got back up to head back to Pearson to get the suitcase with all the clothes and everything else Lindsey brought back. Ginny ran in while I looped around the terminal roads. The bag was there and we were all set.

We got home at about 7:30 A.M. and the mission was fully accomplished. Lindsey was asleep in their bedroom and the suitcase was in the hallway.

An Epic Christmas Travel Story

That’s the story of what was an epic adventure to get home for Christmas around three major storms and many challenges.

We were thankful that we had the financial resources to book all these flights along with the technical abilities to work the Air Canada website.

We were thankful for FaceTime calls so we could speak face to face and commiserate or plan next steps and support each other through a very stressful time.

I was thankful for the Apple FindMy app that let me see where Lindsey was and help navigate the BC Transit ride with live bus tracking from the Transit app.

We literally couldn’t have done it without the help of a good friend who dropped everything to lend a hand. Thank you Miguel.

And lastly, we were grateful to everyone at Air Canada, BC Ferries, BC Transit, all the baggage handlers, aircraft maintenance workers, and everyone else who was working extremely hard under tough circumstances to get as many people to where they wanted to go as possible.

Merry Christmas everyone.

James Koole @jameskoole