A friend who lives here in Ottawa recently reported that she saved big on a recent vacation to Miami by flying out of Syracuse. The plane ticket on jetBlue from Syracuse to Miami for my friend and two of her family members cost her $650. The best prices she could find for flying out of Ottawa during the same period was $650 per person. Now, Syracuse is a three-hour drive from Ottawa and even accounting for parking at Syracuse ($70), gas and other incidentals, my friend figures she saved a total of more than $1,000 on her trip.

Of course, there are some risks involved. If the weather is bad, driving from Ottawa to Syracuse could turn out to be tricky. You may have to put up with unpredictable border-crossing times. Also, it is easier to deal with flight delays and cancellations when flying out of or back to Ottawa directly. And if you have a young family, you’d likely do anything to avoid driving three hours with the young ones in tow.

And it’s not just my friend. A number of Canadians have wised up to how much they can save by driving across the border. Vancouver residents are flying to U.S. destinations out of Bellingham, Winnipeggers out of Grand Forks, Torontonians out of Buffalo and Montrealers out of Burlington, Vermont or Plattsburgh, N.Y. A recent CBC news report said that an estimated 2.5 million Canadians cross the border and fly out of an U.S. airport. Canadian airports are blaming high rents charged by the Federal Government for the problem.

This article has 40 comments

  1. I can testify to this. I bought a round-trip ticket from Detroit to Atlanta for $250 about two weeks ago. (I live in London, two hours drive from Detroit.) Air Canada gives a quote of $500.

  2. I have also heard this, however, when I wanted to try it for myself I found that it is MUCH more difficult to find flights from the US!

    Specifically, I hoped to get a cheap deal on a package vacation leaving from Grand Forks (instead of Winnipeg). What I found is that there are several online discount agents that will list all packages leaving from the Canadian city of your choice, but I could not find any comparable service operating for US departure cities! (The big online agents like Expedia and Travelocity normally have packages starting at about 3x the price you would get at a discount agent).

    So how do people find these cheap flights leaving from the US?

  3. Living in Lethbridge (not a major airport), our options are to fly out of Calgary or else drive down to Great Falls MT. Allegiant Air flies out of Great Falls to Las Vegas and Phoenix for less than half the cost of Air Canada out of Calgary. And the drive down there is only about 30 minutes longer than the trip up to Calgary would be.

    I have to fly to Orlando for a conference in June. Air Canada will take me from Lethbridge-Calgary-Toronto-Orlando for $1400 round trip. Glad it’s a company trip 🙂

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  5. Charles in Vancouver

    I used AirfareWatchdog to look up flight prices on all sorts of airlines. For a trip to San Francisco:

    Vancouver -> SFO or OAK: $430 round-trip, taxes included.
    Seattle -> OAK: On Southwest, $150 round-trip, taxes included.
    Vancouver-Seattle bus: $60 round-trip, taxes included.

    In my case, I’m underemployed so my time is worth far more than my money. So I’m going via Seattle =)

  6. @Chris: If you fly out of Grand Forks, you pretty much have to book through Allegiant directly. I don’t think they are picked up by expedia or travelocity. From Bellingham, it’s Allegiant or Alaska/Horizon.

  7. I just returned from Orlando.

    We flew JetBlue from Syracuse. For 3 (with a lap baby) our total round trip cost with all fees was $718 USD. The best deal from Ottawa was $1609 CAD on WestJet.

    We flew out on Feb 2 (snowmeggedan day) and had only a 30min delay. It would have been hours at YOW. Thumbs up for Syracuse.

    I also live about 30km from Ottawa airport. If you figure in Ottawa rush hour traffic, additional time in airport for international travel, and the unpredictable security queues at YOW, the 3 hour drive (even with young ones) really isn’t that much longer. Plus, parking is $4 a day cheaper in Syracuse.

  8. While cost is a huge benefit, it’s not the ONLY factor for those of us who live in secondary markets.

    For me, I live in a border community and the closest airport to me is one on the US side of the border, so I’d actually have to drive FURTHER to get to a Canadian airport. Another factor is international travel, where crossing the US border in my automobile is much less onerous than having to pick up my luggage in Pearson or Dorval and getting in line at US customs and then to make my connecting flight to the USA.

    If people in primary travel markets are taking flights out of US airports, think about how those of us in secondary markets feel…!

  9. Yeah, lucky for you border folk. For me to get to Great Falls… 5-6 hours later, plus 30min-1hr at the border and all of a sudden I might as well drive to my final destination. 😉

  10. @flyingsquirrel, @Charles in Vancouver: If it’s a family of four $250 works out to a cool $1,000. No wonder so many Canadians are flying out of US airports.

    @Chris: I haven’t heard from anyone buying package deals from the US. The reports on significant savings are for flights with start and end points in the US.

    @Echo, @Phil: Yep, it seems even more of a no-brainer if the Canadian airport is just as far as an US airport. Also good point on faster check in times at US airports.

    @James: The same friend also flew earlier to Orlando out of Syracuse and reported similar savings. It’s not really accurate to include parking at Syracuse because most people have to either park at the Ottawa airport or take a taxi.

    @Sampson: Yep, Calgary and Edmonton residents aren’t so lucky as those in border towns and cities. And a total driving time of 11 to 14 hours may wipe out any savings to be had.

  11. Isn’t that the truth… when I lived in Vancouver, I would almost always go across the border, except when the dollar was at .65 to the US dollar. Now, with an on par dollar, it only makes sense! An added bonus is they have more direct flights!

  12. As for the reasons for the high fees, one only needs to take a stroll through the new Terminal 1 at Pearson Airport, which looks like the Taj Mahal of the airport world. It looks nice, but did we really NEED 30’+ high moulded glass ceilings? We hardly notice the architectural accoutrements because we’re all so ticked off by our fees, taxes and surcharges, the incredibly long line-ups and service without a smile…

  13. It’s Norbert’s Gambit for air travel!

  14. Good post CC. Allegiant Air has built a business by operating out of ‘border airports’ that serve Canadians. I live in Vancouver and find that it’s usually much cheaper to fly out of Bellingham than YVR (although it’s a bit of a hassle). Alaska Airlines is getting in on the game and has also started flying out of Bellingham. Hopefully the increased competition will lead to cheaper fares out of YVR. Although I’m not holding my breath…

  15. My family has flown out of Fargo to points south rather than fly out of Winnipeg. Even accounting for the gas, the hotel the night before the flight, and incidentals, we still saved hundreds. We put together our own “package” by surfing best deals on flights, car rental, and hotels. We make the planning part of the fun of the trip!

  16. Buffalo airport’s long term parking lot looks like a Canadian used car dealership..

  17. I flew from Seattle to NY direct. The cost was half the price. I parked at a long term lot, where a shuttle bus took me immediately to the airport. It was so fast that I forgot to turn off my interior light. When I arrived back, the parking attendant happily handed me a portable battery booster for my dead car.
    I would defintely do it again to save those big bucks!

  18. That’s actaully a great idea. I don’t know why I never thought of comparing prices between flights from Buffalo and Toronto. Saving $200 on a flight is probably worth the drive down south.

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  20. LoL – is this the same crowd that wouldn’t drive down south on black Friday to save a few hundred bucks?
    Not sure how this is different.

  21. @Chum. Yes, but the exact same argument holds. I said that I shop for convenience. Not only is a US airport much closer to me than a Canadian one, it is much easier to cross the border in a car than at an airport. The lower fees, taxes and ticket prices are just “gravy”.

  22. Don’t know if it’s still true, but at one point it was cheaper to drive to Buffalo, fly to Seattle, and rent a car to drive to Vancouver than it was to fly directly there from Toronto.

    On an individual basis, I don’t find it’s worth the drive to Buffalo to travel. If I was paying for a family, the savings add up. Gas would run around $80-$100, a 1.5 hour drive, boarder crossing, $50 parking (assuming a week trip)… not worth a $200 savings. Definitely more worth a $1000 savings.

    Plus, there’s the big downside of coming home. After a trip, I like to get home as soon as possible and chill out. Flying into Buffalo means that after you land, you still have that drive home to deal with.

  23. @Astin: My partner goes away at for an annual man’s trip away and they find it cheaper if flying to many places in the U.S. to drive from T.O. to Buffalo first then fly out from there. They have also found Porter Airlines in T.O. a good option at times. We will check into the Vancouver/ Seattle route via Buffalo if we go again. Thx.

  24. @CC: I was saying that parking at SYR was $4 less expensive per day than YOW, which is accurate. The $64 savings for my trip more than compensated me for the additional gasoline.

  25. @James: When I said not accurate, I was referring to my post in which I has included the $70 parking at Syracuse as a cost of flying out of there. Your numbers are more accurate, of course. Sorry for the confusion.

    @Chum: As Phil points out, the savings add up for a large family flying to an US destination. $250 per person might work out to as much as $1,000 per family. That might be worth a 6 hour drive for a lot of people. It is worth shopping in the US to save the same $1,000. Absolutely!

  26. Careful how you value your time! My wife and I thought of doing this once when flying to Charleston SC. Would have saved $500 on air fare flying out of Syracuse. But it would have been 12+ hours of our time (3 hrs x 2 trips x 2 ppl + extra time buffer for security). Given the limited free time we have, I’m not sure exactly how much we value it, but’s it more than $40/hr. And flying out of Ottawa we could take a 6-7am flight and be there by noon, and leave from there in late pm and arrive in Ottawa in the evening. Flying out of Syracuse would either have meant a hotel room in Syracuse for the 2 nights, or taking later/earlier flts and losing 1/2 day of vacation on each end. Bottom line is I think the airlines know exactly how much more they can charge and get away with it.

    Of course, part of our calculus is that we’re both frequent flyers and infrequent drivers. In particular, I flew over 150k actual flight miles last year for work and have access to all the lounges, special agents if you’re running late, etc. And I find the whole security and immigration process at airports dull and annoying but it doesn’t raise my blood pressure. But our one car barely runs 10,000km a year so driving and queueing in traffic on the roads would be stressful. For others, it might be the opposite.

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  29. When we went to NYC as few years ago we did the same thing – flew out of Syracuse. We really should look at doing the same if we head to Costa Rica this year.

  30. Well, if you save $1,000 per trip, it’s worth it. You’d think Canadian airports, or at least the airlines that fly out of them, would do something to change this.

  31. Hi,

    I live in Ottawa. Is it possible to fly to India (any major metropolitan with international airport) from US? I have family of two adults and two kids. Any issues for crossing border OR security checks for travel from US city to India? (and from India to US city too – and back to Ottawa).


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  33. Those of us in Southwestern Ontario have been using Detroit airport forever! Check out Spirit Air, flights to Florida are the cheapest you will find and current return flights to Colombia, South America $450. Quote that from Toronto! Airbus service is very convenient and efficient- no parking.

  34. I just did my mid-winter break to Phoenix out of Great Falls on Allegiant. Not enough thumbs up for the experience! Border was very slow – 15 to 20 minutes, but even with that it was 5:05 from my home in Calgary. Total savings was $750 for 3, which paid for all my meals, activities and shopping for the week.

    Another bonus is the flight is about an hour shorter since you are driving part way…bang on 2 hours for Allegiant. And frankly the smaller airports of Great Falls and Mesa are just easier to get around and less stressful than Calgary or Sky Harbour are.

    Add in the ability to stock up on cheap items before crossing the border, and I would definitely do it again. Only downside is the drive is damn boring (I thought Cgy-Edm was boring, but not compared to this …)

    I figure that the savings has to be at least $250 total (i.e. $25/hr for a 10 hour return trip), but that’s my personal calculation.

  35. Have to agree with many of the comments. Halfway between Toronto and Buffalo. Interestingly, we haven’t found a huge difference in cost of flights on many occasions but we do find it more pleasant dealing with Customs and Immigration at the border as opposed to the airport in Toronto. No idea why that is. Also, as mentioned, it is sometimes nice to pick up a few things on the US side before coming back across the border. Smaller airports are also a bonus. Even in Canada, would much rather fly out of Hamilton than Toronto.


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  37. Wow 1,000 bucks an extreme ratio of saving! You will love to save that money won’t you? But in broader sense we should start thinking a solution for this problem.

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  39. I can attest that this is actually very economical to take US flights than the ripping-off Air Canada’s.

    Our family lives in Toronto. Usually when my mom decided to fly back to Shanghai, China to see her relatives from Toronto, Air Canada would rip her off something like $1100 CAD, even Korea airline is no better, around $1050 CAD.

    So later, we decided to see if it’s wiser to take any available US flights available at Buffalo International Airport. After looking up expedia.ca, it seemed that most U.S flights are way way way CHEAPER than anything offered here in Canada, eventually her trip to Shanghai, China from BUF (buffalo international airport) can be as low as $775 CAD, a whooping $325 saving!!!! Not to mention that Delta airline takes 2 luggages for free while Air Canada only takes one!

    Some people might think it’s not convenient to border crossing, you must be wrong. The border crossing is hassle free as long as you have all valid documents (passport, flight tickets) My mom who is not even a Canadian (a Chinese with Chinese passport) receives little hassle at the border of Niagara fall US side. The U.S customs lady only saw her passport (with U.S. visa) and the flight ticket (printed out) and waved us through without even checking either of our huge luggage bags. Total time spent at customs== 2 mins.

  40. I want to do opposite; US citizen fly to Vancouver take China Eastern airlines business class to Shanghai. Half the cost of US cities LAX and JFK. But is there a restriction in passport and China entry visas from US to prevent me to flying to Canada for this traip, and back?