Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The grass is greener on the other side of the fence. But is the airfare lower?

USA Today has an interesting report today by Charisse Jones, Some Canadians cross border to fly in U.S.

The article is correct, as far as it goes: If you are travelling from somewhere in Canada near the US border to somewhere else in the US, it is often cheaper to drive (or take a bus, train, or ferry) to an airpport across the border in the US, and take a domestic flight from there to your final US destination, rather than to take trans-border flights from a Canadian airport.

But the article fails to note some impoortant corollaries and lessons for travellers in the USA and other countries:

  • Exactly the same thing is often true in reverse. If you are travelling from somewhere in the USA to, say, Montréal, and you are going to be renting a car when you get there, it may be cheaper to fly to Burlington, Vermont, on JetBlue (or another airline that’s matching their fares), rent a car in Burlington, and drive from there to Montréal. Montréal is often an especially expensive destination, with relatively few direct flights from the USA, but it can also sometimes (although less often) be cheaper to get to Toronto by flying to Buffalo (Southwest and JetBlue fly to Buffalo, and other airlines often match their fares; Megabus has inexpensive direct buses form Buffalo Airport to downtown Toronto), or to Vancouver by flying to Seattle (with the advantage that there is better bus and train service between Seattle and Vancouver, including services designed for US passengers on cruises that start or end in Vancouver, than between many USA-Canada city pairs).

  • The differences between prices originating on either side of the USA-Canada border are often even greater for overseas flights to Europe or Asia. There’s no consistent long-term pattern, and it’s not exclusively or even primarily determined by fluctuations in relative value of the Canadian Dollar and US Dollar. It has more to do with airline pricing policies that consider the USA and Canada as distinct markets, separately priced. Unless it’s a business trip and price isn’t a factor, nobody living within driving distance of the USA-Canada border on either side should buy a ticket to Asia or Europe without checking prices to fly from airports on both sides of the border. Check for each trip, or at least every year, as the advantage fluctuates unpredictably. It’s not unusual to see difference of 20-25% in favor of flights from one or the other country — a big deal on a $1000 ticket, and an even bigger deal for a family or group of friends travelling together who can share the drive.

  • There are plenty of cheap flights from the USA to tourist destinations in Mexico, such as Cancun or airports in Baja California. But if you are travelling from California (USA) to some other provincial city in Mexico, it may be cheaper to make your way by car, bus, or train (Amtrak has exceptionally cheap fares within California) to the border, and fly from Tijuana. To see if this will save you money, check fares from Tijuana on Mexican domestic low-cost airlines Volaris and Interjet . Some notes: Tijuana airport (TIJ) abuts the border fence, only about 3 miles by taxi from the parking lots and the terminus of the Tijuana Trolley from San Diego at the San Ysidro border crossing, or about the same distance from the Otay Mesa crossing. Both Volaris and Interjet primarily serve Toluca airport (TLC) rather than Mexico City (MEX). It doesn’t matter if you are just changing planes, and it’s in the same greater metropolitan area, but Toluca is an hour by car or bus further from the Zocalo in Mexico City than is MEX. The same general system may work, although it’s likely to be less convenient. if you live near the border in Arizona or Texas. The dollar sign is routinely used within Mexico, and on the Interjet Spanish-language site for tickets originating in Mexico, as the symbol for Mexican Pesos. Look closely for any indicator to the contrary, such as “US$” rather than “$”, to be sure of the currency before you click “Buy” or “Compre”. Taxes are a much larger portion of the total price of most tickets to, from, or within Mexico than they are for flights within the USA, so don’t rely on the initial displays of the “base” fare when you are comparing prices.

  • All this is equally true, of course, in other parts of the world. It usually seems obvious where is likely to be cheapest to fly to within a particular country, but less obvious which country will be cheapest, or what alternatives might exist across a border. Among options to consider are Johore Bahru (or, further away, Kuala Lumpur), Malaysia, as an alternative to Singapore. JHB is just across the causeway from Singapore, and domestic flights from JHB or KUL to Malaysian Borneo are sometimes only half the price of international flights from SIN. In Europe, flights to and from London are often cheaper than flights to the continent, although the difference isn’t always enough to cover the cost of the Eurostar (and a Eurailpass won’t get you across the Channel). A better strategy may be to fly into a cheaper European gateway. For reasons too complicated to go into here, Brussels is often the airfare sinkhole of continental Europe, both for regional and trans-Atlantic flights. The difference isn’t usually huge, but tickets between the USA and Brussels are often cheaper than those to or from Paris or Amsterdam by enough to cover the cost of the train to either of those cities. (Not that there’s any reason not to stick around and enjoy Brussels once you are there. It’s accessible, surprisingly affordable for Northwestern Europe, and one of my favorite European cities, with a large expatriate community but relatively few tourists.)
Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 2 March 2010, 08:51 ( 8:51 AM)

Thanks for the info, very useful.

Posted by: Ray, 3 March 2010, 11:55 (11:55 AM)

Thank you. Very helpful post especially as I am currently reseaching quite a long trip states-side starting out from Tenerife. I already have many choices regarding which international airport I use to begin my journey but didn't realise there would be quite as much difference in costs depending on which side of the border I choose to visit first. Food for thought!

Posted by: Laura J., 3 August 2010, 21:35 ( 9:35 PM)
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