How to Spend Money Wisely » Travel

Flying within the USA instead of from Canada

I just got back from Brother-In-Law’s wedding in Denver, Colorado and I have to say I am thankful for the little personal finance tip I learned while I was young and growing up in a border town. The basic idea is that domestic flights anywhere in the USA are much cheaper than international ones, especially ones out of Canada. In fact, they are so much cheaper than it is often worth driving down to visit our southern neighbors before flying anywhere. While Kayak and Travelocity are great little travel tools that I highly recommend, they will often only give you options flying out of cities/towns in your country, and ignore drive-and-fly combinations that could take a much smaller bite out of your vacation budget.

Savings has no patriotic allegiance

In my case, I live slightly closer to Minot, North Dakota than I do to Winnipeg, Manitoba, but the distances are close enough to almost be irrelevant. When I looked at flying to Denver flights out of my province’s capital were $250 to $300 more expensive than flying out of Minot. Plus, Minot was a direct flight whereas almost all of the best deals flying out of the ‘Peg included a layover (if not a couple of them). To someone that truly values simple vacation planning this is a huge benefit. When I talked to several people at the wedding from around Canada (he’s a Canuck and she’s a southern gal), I learned that I had paid substantially less than all of them and with much less hassle.

Vegas baby Vegas

A couple of years ago when I was booking flights and hotels for a group of guys to go to Vegas (yes, we were that clichéd Hangover-wannabe group that seems all too common on The Strip these days) I couldn’t believe the price difference between Canadian airports and the small airstrip just to the South of us in Grand Forks, North Dakota. The absolute cheapest Canadian flights we could find out of Winnipeg were roughly equivalent to what we could buy in a package from Allegiant Air that covered both our direct round-trip flights and a middle-of-the-road hotel on The Vegas Strip (Planet Hollywood). It’s tough for me to get overly patriotic about supporting the Canadian economy at those rates!

CAD vs USD = me winning

With the Canadian Dollar being at par with the USD over the past several years (and no immediate signs of collapse) it makes the lower USA prices all the more appealing (I’m told this is how free markets are supposed to work). Back in the good old’ days (at least good if you were a Canadian aviation company) the fact that you had to pay a 25-40% premium on USA prices due to our devalued dollar meant that most people didn’t even consider driving down to American airports. Since the new norm appears to be sticking around for a while, more and more people are starting to realize that with so much of the Canadian population living within 100km of the USA border, there are deals to be had. This is great if you’re like me and like frivolous holidays, but hate paying for them.

It isn’t just the money thing

Besides the substantially lower ticket prices that US airports have to offer, there are a few other fringe benefits that I really like. The first one is the simple convenience of flying out of a small airport. I intensely dislike dealing with large crowds of people who are either anxious to get to a destination or completely emotionally spent from a vacation and are dreading returning to the real world and/or are willing to do absolutely anything to simply get back to their own beds. Small airports are like a balm on my travel-weary soul. If you have never been to an airport like the ones in Grand Forks and Minot I highly recommend the experience. Parking is ridiculously cheap (or even free), you can’t possibly get lost or mixed up, and everyone is much more relaxed including company employees and security due to the relatively small volume of traffic. This is in addition to not having to fight with hordes of people who may or may not be cool at any given time. Anything that reduces the odds of dealing with crazy people is a win in my book.
Ultimately, the competition in the USA guarantees that their prices will be lower relative to their Canadian counterparts. As long as the dollar stays strong I can’t see this changing any time soon. Has anyone else out there had a similar experience when it came to planning a vacation? Am I a terrible Canadian for not supporting the maple leaf-covered airlines?


  1. Ramona

    Living in Burlington, Ontario, it’s much easier to drive to Buffalo than Toronto. The main reason to fly from the US? Money of course, but also customs. It’s been my experience that crossing the border by car is waaaaay easier than crossing by plane, if you’re flying within the states. No lines, no hassles, no forms to fill out.

  2. Mike in TO

    my buddy got me started in this procedure. A couple years ago I flew out of Buffalo on Southwest Air to New Orleans. Drove from Toronto to Buffalo. A direct flight going down and one stop on the way back. Super Cheap! Super-easy no frills flight. But we did spend a night in Buffalo to get a nice early flight. Back in March we booked a flight to Myrtle Beach on Direct Air out of Niagara Falls, about a week after booking this ridiculously cheap flight ($180 return!!), Direct Air cancelled all service. So we rebooked with US Air, which was a bit more expensive, but still cheaper then flying out of TO. Plus we then get the bonus of having a car to do some outlet and duty-free shopping before we drive home. The Canadian airlines just have too much of a premium on their fares. As long as it makes economical sense and is convienent, it works.

  3. Kyle Prevost

    I completely agree guys, beating the customs rush an airport is beautiful all by itself. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one that has figured out the system!

  4. Mary

    In all the years I’ve lived in Ontario (15), I’ve never flown from a Canadian airport. Even when my husband & I lived in Collingwood, I’ve flown either from Detroit or Buffalo. The money goes a LOT further and as Mike in TO said, you have the car to do some shopping before returning across the less hassle border by car. It’s definitely a win-win situation!

  5. Jeff

    I don’t think that it’s a matter of competition at all. I find that the base fares are similar on most flights ( I’m out of YYZ, smaller airports will be more expensive), it’s the taxes and fees that double on the fare when flying transborder. Add double security, and ATC fees plus the ridiculous $25 airport improvement fee we pay in Toronto, and flights become uncompetitive.

    Unfortunately, Infrastructure costs are never going to be the same in Canada as they are in the US and I don’t see the federal government subsidizing it anytime soon.

    • Kyle Prevost

      I sort of disagree Jeff. The base fares are definitely cheaper in the USA for almost every flight I’ve ever compared. Plus, I have flown out of 3 “small” 1-2 terminal airports in the States and the flights were very reasonably priced, and much much cheaper than Winnipeg which is the closest urban Canadian airport to me. I do agree that taxes and fees contribute a lot to the cost as well though.

  6. Glenn Cooke

    Been flying from Buffalo for many many years. It’s way cheaper than flying out of Toronto, and for me, it’s the same distance anyway. And I’m more comfortable clearing customs at the border instead of the airport.

    But there’s another option – the train. Last time I went to NYC I wasn’t real happy with the intrusive airport security so I looked at other options.

    Plan to NYC, 2 hour drive to airport. Arrive 2.5hours early (need extra time in case border is clogged up). 1 hour flight to NYC. 1/2 hour to get luggage and find cab. 1 hour cab ride and $50 to get into the city. Total travel time, 6hours.

    Compare by train, 2 hour drive to train station in Buffalo, wait a few minutes and walk right onto the train with your luggage. Work on laptop, walk around, have a microwaved hamburger, read, have a nap, watch the scenery. Arrive in NYC at penn station, walk off the train outside and 1 block from the hotel.

    In the end, the train vs. plane from buffalo to NYC was exactly the same price. The train cost me a total of 1 to 1.5 extra hours in terms of time. And I arrived feeling rested and relaxed – it was great. (basically it’s a day wasted either way. Might as well be sitting on a train as sitting in an airport lounge).

  7. Buzz

    You made a good point on parking as well – I flew out of the same airport you mentioned – Grand Forks (You must live close to me!) and we left Sunday and came back Friday morning and my long term parking cost was $28.

    Probably the daily rate in Winnipeg!

  8. Bryan Jaskolka

    Saw this on your blog a little while back, and it just popped up on the Ottawa news tonight. Just one reason why I follow Canadian Finance. I agree, it’s definitely much cheaper to fly from the US than it is Canada, if at all possible. CTV also highlighted how it had the government concerned that Canadians were spending that money outside of the country. I say to lower some of those taxes, and force the airlines to come up with ways to make flying more affordable, and maybe we will.

    Thanks for the post!

  9. Randy

    I too live in Winnipeg. I have found it less expensive to fly out of Fargo (just over an hour south of Grand Forks). The challenge we have is that most of our US trips take place during the winter when we go south for a break. During this time we opt for Winnipeg and the more expensive flights due to the risk of snow storms and highways being closed. We would find it very disappointing if our winter trip was delayed or cancelled because we could not get to Grand Forks or Fargo due to weather.

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