How to survive 10 of Canada's busiest airports this holiday season
Published Thursday, December 22, 2016 6:06AM EST
Last Updated Thursday, December 22, 2016 9:57PM EST
For many of us, the thought of holiday travel brings back not-so-merry memories of screaming children, stressful weather delays and endless lineups.
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And while the holidays are inevitably one of the busiest times to fly, a little knowledge and preparation can go a long way in helping turn the experience into a bearable, if not enjoyable one.
Here is CTVNews.ca’s survival guide to 10 of Canada’s busiest airports:
1. Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ)
Getting around: This airport is made of up two active terminals—1 and 3—that house both domestic and international airlines. The “Terminal Link train” connects the two terminals to each other as well as a number of parking lots and the Sheraton Gateway Hotel.
When it comes to leaving the airport, there are a number of options, including public transit, taxis and limousines and car rentals.
Security: Both terminals feature five security checkpoints. Passengers are directed to the closest security station after they have checked in.
YYZ is one of eight Canadian airports where travellers to the U.S. must go through border pre-clearance before their flight. Those leaving from Terminal 3 can automatically proceed to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection hall after checking in. Passengers in Terminal 1 must wait in designated areas to be called into the CBP hall, depending on the time of their flight.
Amenities: Pearson is Canada’s busiest airport, and there’s no shortage of service to keep its 40 million-plus passengers a year occupied. There’s a wide variety of stores and restaurants to choose from, including sushi, delis and even a Mill St. Brewery. From Dec. 20 to Dec. 26 this year, children under the age of 12 dine for free with the purchase of an adult meal at The Hearth, Twist and Caplansky’s Deli.
Five luxury lounges offer coffee, assorted liquor and flat screen televisions for those who really want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the airport. Free Wi-Fi is also available throughout the building.
Expert tip: There is a little-known security gate one floor below the main security entrance for domestic travellers that is often less crowded, according to Loren Christie, a travel expert who has visited more than 65 countries around the world.
“It’s small. It’s only got a few stations. A lot of people don’t know about that one and sometimes that one is quicker than the upstairs one,” said Christie, who has been sharing his travel tips on Canadian media for the past 15 years.
2. Vancouver International Airport (YVR)
Getting around: Located on Sea Island in Richmond, B.C., YVR’s Main Terminal is divided into two sections—domestic and international. The terminal is further divided into five concourses. Concourses A through C service domestic departures and arrivals while D and E are used for international travel.
The airport offers online service that creates a personalized travel guide for each passenger based on their destination and which airline they’re using.
Security: YVR features four security checkpoints—two in concourses B and C in the domestic terminal and two near concourses D and E on the international side. Travellers to the U.S. must go through border pre-clearance in sectioned-off area near Concourse E.
Amenities: In addition to its free Wi-Fi, YVR offer a variety of shopping options from technology at Tech on the Go to fashion at McArthurGlen Designer Outlet, accessible by public transit on Canada Line’s Templeton Station.
The airport also features restaurants ranging from fast food to casual dining at the Palomino Bar & Grill and, in true Vancouver fashion, five Starbucks locations.
Expert tip: Christie said one advantage of travelling through the Vancouver airport is that those with extended layovers can take public transit to Richmond or downtown Vancouver while waiting.
3. Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport (YUL)
Getting around: The Montreal airport consists of one terminal divided into two levels, one for arrivals and the other for departures. The departures level is further divided into two sections, one of which serves domestic and international travellers. The other is for flights specifically to the U.S., where passengers go through border pre-clearance.
Much like the Vancouver airport, YUL’s website also allows passengers to access a personalized travel guide by entering their flight information.
Security: YUL has two main security checkpoints, A and C. Those flying domestically and internationally can go through Checkpoint A, which straddles the two departure sections. Passengers travelling to the U.S. must use security Checkpoint C, before moving onto the U.S. Customs and Border Protection station located to the left of the checkpoint.
With 15.5 million passengers travelling through YUL in 2015, this is Canada’s third busiest airport and wait times can be unpredictable. Estimated wait times for each checkpoint are available on the airport’s website.
Amenities: Travellers can enjoy several Quebec-specific dining options at YUL, including a St. Hubert restaurant in the main lobby and upscale Queue de Cheval steakhouse, located near gate 52 of the international departures section. The airport also features The Loop, one of the largest duty-free stores in Canada, located near Gate 51. There is Wi-Fi throughout the airport.
Expert tip: Most travellers on Gate Guru, a public airport review app Christie highly recommended, found that they needed more time than expected to clear security and customs when flying to the U.S.
4. Calgary International Airport (YYC)
Getting around: YYC is divided into two terminals—a domestic terminal that houses concourses A, B and C. The newly re-opened international terminal is made up of concourses D and E.
The airport’s website features an interactive map ideal for those looking for specific locations.
Security: Concourses A, B and C each have security stations dedicated to domestic travellers. The security checkpoint in Concourse D handles most international travellers, but can be shared with the domestic terminal in some cases. Travellers to the U.S. must go through security in Concourse E.
Amenities: The airport features local and international cuisines such as Kelsey’s, Jugo Juice and Bubbles Tapas Bar located in Concourse C. YYC also offers massage chairs in several locations as well as free W-Fi throughout the building.
Expert tip: Christie said YYC features the country’s largest kids’ zones and can be ideal for those travelling with children. There are children’s play areas located pre-security in Concourse B and post-security in concourse E for U.S. travellers. Those flying internationally can find similar services near Gate B70.
5. Edmonton International Airport (YEG)
Getting around: Despite serving nearly 8 million travellers last year, YEG’s layout is simpler than most other major airports in the country. The airport is made of a single terminal divided into two zones. One zone handles domestic and international flights while the other is dedicated to U.S.-bound flights.
As with most airports, all departure and arrival times are available on the YEG website.
Security: The airport has two security checkpoints—one for domestic and international travellers and one for those heading to the U.S. Wait times can be found online.
Amenities: YEG features several common dining options such as Boston Pizza, Chili’s and Booster Juice as well as a Gretzky’s Wine & Whisky in the domestic and international departures area. The airport also features kids’ play areas near gates 66 and 80 and a welcoming fireplace located in the Central Hall.
Expert tip: Passengers travelling to the U.S. who must go through customs before boarding their flight can now do so using automated passport control kiosks to save time.
6. Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport (YOW)
Getting around: The Ottawa airport consists of one main terminal that handles domestic, international, and U.S.-bound flights. Check-in desks are all located in one main corridor on the third floor of the terminal. Arrivals are located on Level 1.
Security: Security screening wait times are available on the YOW website.
Amenities: As a relatively small international airport, YOW doesn’t feature as many dining and shopping services as some of its Canadian counterparts. It does, however, offer up some solid options such as The Local and classic Ottawa pub D’Arcy McGee’s. Best Buy and The Hudson’s Bay Company Trading Post are some of the airport’s top shopping destinations. Free Wi-Fi is available throughout the airport.
Expert tip: For those who want to take public transit when leaving YOW, OC Transpo bus route 97 goes from the airport to downtown Ottawa in about 45 minutes.
7. Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport (YWG)
Getting around: This airport consists of a single terminal. When entering the terminal, check-in desks for domestic flights are found on the far left, while desks for U.S. flights are on the far right. International departure desks are located in between the two.
Security: A small international airport serving fewer than 4 million people in 2015, YWG only has two security screening checkpoints that passengers will be directed to after checking in.
Amenities: Wi-Fi and charging stations are available throughout the airport. YWG has a short, but varied list of food offerings including Freshii, Harvey’s and the Prairie Bistro, a self-described “nod to the breadbasket of Canada.”
Rebuilt in 2011, YWG is also one of Canada’s newest airports, giving it a fresh, up-to-date feel.
Expert tip: For those looking to park their car for an extended period of time, the Winnipeg airport’s website features a handy payment calculator.
8. Halifax Stanfield International Airport (YHZ)
Getting around: The Halifax airport has a three-level terminal that is divided into a domestic and international section and a U.S. section. All arrival and departure times are available online.
Security: Screening stations for international and domestic flights are located in the middle of the main level of the terminal, adjacent to the main lobby. Travellers heading to the U.S. must go through security screening at the checkpoint across from the U.S. check-in desk.
Amenities: YHZ features several food destinations such as the Maritime Ale House, Subway and The Chickenburger. It also includes a massage studio located on the departures level. Wi-Fi is available throughout the airport.
One of the airport’s main attractions is a mural by renowned Mi’kmaq artist Alan Syliboy called “3D Butterfly” located in the main lobby.
Expert tip: Christie said YHZ is well-known for its children’s area, located on the departures level near Gate 18.
9. Victoria International Airport (YYJ)
Getting around: The Victoria airport’s terminal has a total of nine gates. Gates 1 through 5 are used for international flights, while the rest handle domestic flights. The airport has three luggage carousels—one for arriving international passengers and two for domestic travellers.
Security: YYJ has a single security screening station located between the departures and arrivals sections on the first floor of the terminal. The customs desk is located next to the security checkpoint on the arrivals side.
Amenities: Wi-Fi is available throughout the airport. The airport’s short list of restaurants and cafes includes a White Spot, Tim Hortons and Starbucks, all of which are found pre-security. Another restaurant, Spinnakers On The Fly, is found post-security. YYJ also has a post-security duty free shop called Harbour Walk Shops.
Expert tip: Travellers facing a long layover in Victoria may want to visit the B.C. Aviation Museum, located at the southeastern tip of the airport.
10. Saskatoon John G. Diefenbaker International Airport (YXE)
Getting around: With only 1.4 million travellers last year, this small airport is one of the easiest to navigate. YXE has one, two-storey terminal that handles international and domestic flights. Wait times can be found on the airport’s website.
Security: The Saskatoon airport has one security screening area located on the main level. Departures are located on the upper level of the terminal.
Amenities: YXE has a duty free shop as well as a Prairie North (post-security) that sells Saskatchewan-made goods. Food options are limited to a Starbucks, Tim Hortons and Refuel, all of which are located post-security. Wi-Fi is available throughout the airport.
Expert tip: For those feeling adventurous during their layover, there is an escape room located just east of the airport called Deadlock Escape that offers some excitement in an otherwise quiet part of Saskatoon.
General tips and tricks:
- Check in online
Christie recommends checking in online to shorten your wait times at the airport and to get the seat you want.
“It’s been kind of a disaster lately, if you leave it to the airport,” he said. “Most people are checked in around you and if you’re anxious to be…sitting as a family, you should be checking in online ahead of time.”
- Book a morning flight
He also recommends booking a morning flight because weather delays tend to be less likely.
“If your flight’s already on the ground from the night before, you have a better chance of getting out on time,” Christie said. “If it’s a mid-day flight, you have a better chance of getting (caught up) in the weather delays across the country.”
- Follow your airport on Twitter
All passengers are advised to check their flight status on the airline and/or airport’s website before arriving. In recent years, however, following an airport on Twitter has become a useful way of getting updates about unexpected delays as well as new services and amenities offered by the airport.
- Be ready for security screening
“It’s amazing to me how many people still don’t get the rules for security screenings,” Christie said. “My rule of thumb is watch, belt, shoes and laptop out no matter what.”
Liquids don’t have to be taken out of your bag, but travellers should make sure they’re not exceeding the 100-millilitre limit in their carry-on.
- Wait to wrap presents
“Don’t put wrapped presents into your bag if you’re carrying them on because if there are questions about them, guess what has to get unwrapped,” Christie said.
- Avoid checked baggage, if possible
Christie said that while travellers tend to have a lot of luggage during the holidays, those who avoid checked bags will save valuable minutes, if not hours, waiting in line.
- Get your Nexus card
Those who travel frequently between Canada and the U.S. avoid customs lines if they are approved for a Nexus card.