Canadians are flocking to US border airports in record numbers to save on air travel costs; the savings can be substantial. According to the Conference Board of Canada, about 5 million Canadians enter the United States at land crossings and then fly out of American airports.
The cheap flights are the result of differences in wages, fuel prices, taxes, and airport and navigation fees. The board says that this adds up to a 30 per cent advantage for American airlines.
How much can you save? Here’s an example:
Using Google Flights, I looked at different options for the following itinerary: travelling to Honolulu, Hawaii on January 9, returning on the 15th. I checked flights departing from Vancouver (BC), Bellingham (Washington) (about 80 km south of Vancouver) and Seattle (Washington) (about 250 km south).
The cheapest? Bellingham with a direct Alaska Airlines flight for $336 return. Seattle was just a bit more with a non-stop flight on Hawaiian for $351. The best deal out of Vancouver was a WestJet non-stop for $630.51.
But that’s not all. On their website, discount airline Allegiant had a Bellingham-to-Honolulu flight for $288 with slightly different dates (but Jan 10-16). That’s a savings of $342 per person.
Even though the fares are cheaper, there are other factors to consider. Parking at Bellingham’s airport is $9 per day. A shuttle bus from downtown Vancouver is $49 return. The same extras need to be considered at other US border airports as well.
So, while you can save, the savings may disappear in added costs. If you’re thinking about flying out of a US airport, here are a few tips:
- Find the best fare: If you’re looking for cheap fares on US carriers, sign up for their web specials, email alerts and follow them on Twitter and Facebook. Check their websites regularly. If you’re unsure of what carriers fly out of the nearby US airport, you can find them listed on the airport’s website. You can also set up fare alerts via sites like Travelocity and Airfare Watchdog.
- Do your research: Be aware that you will face extra costs to take advantage of the lower US fares. Investigate the cost of parking, shuttles, forced overnights in hotels and fuel and food costs. Some US hotels will give you free parking if you stay with them for a night, so this could help save a few bucks if you’re leaving your car in the US.
- What’s your time worth? Sometimes it’s better to spend more money to have a less grueling schedule. Weigh the savings against the arduousness of your itinerary. Is saving $50 worth a three-hour drive home and a long line-up at the border?
- Leave early: Allow yourself plenty of time for unexpected delays like rush-hour traffic, scarce parking, border line-ups, road construction, etc. Depending on your route, you may have the option of using a different border crossing. Make sure you know how to get there.
- Keep informed: Keep an eye on the conditions at your local border crossing via the US Customs and Border Protection website and the Canada Border Services Agency website. Some provincial and state governments have online webcams that let you see line-ups in real-time.
- Pack smart: Don’t put restricted items in your luggage. If you do, you’ll have nowhere to leave the item and may have to just toss it in the trash. You’ll find a comprehensive list of restricted items on the US TSA website.
- Know the rules: Check your airline’s baggage rules before leaving home. You might face heavy penalties if you have bags that are too big, too heavy or too numerous. And you likely won’t have a way to leave anything behind.
- Watch the food: Don’t bring restricted food items to the border – it could cause delays crossing into the US and you’ll have to throw out any prohibited items. If you’re unsure, you can check out the TSA’s list of restricted foods on their website.
- Know your exemptions: US and Canadian personal exemptions are different. If you’re bringing stuff back into the US from a third country, check that it falls within the allowable limit for US citizens entering America in addition to what you, as a Canadian citizen, can bring into Canada. Click the links below for:
- Mind the mobile: Be careful when using your Canadian phone once you cross the border. You could find a surprise in the form of big voice and data roaming charges when you get home. You can find roaming tips in this post.
- Get insurance: Even if you’re going to be in the US for a short period (say, to catch a flight to Mexico), you should still have health insurance. Many travel health insurance plans that cover you for all countries but the US, still cover you in America while in transit. Check with your insurer.
- Got kids? Bring paperwork: Make sure you have the correct documentation for children travelling with you. If you’ve got shared custody, make sure you have your papers in order. You’ll find more information for entering the US with children here. You’ll need the same documentation when you re-enter Canada.
- Get a doctor’s note: If you’re carrying prescription drugs, carry proof of your prescription from your doctor, use the original, labelled containers and pack all drugs in your carry-on.
- Papers please: Make sure you save your receipts to show at customs when returning to Canada.
While crossing the border to take advantage of low-cost airfares is good for the consumer, the big losers are Canadian carriers and those not able to take advantage of a quick trip south. With so many travel dollars heading stateside, prices in Canada could increase, making US border flights even more attractive. The Conference Board of Canada speculates that airline losses could result in reduced services in Canada.