Flying for the 1st time since the pandemic started? It doesn’t have to be stressful

The holidays are always a busy time for travel, maybe more so this year with almost no travel restrictions and many people flying for the first time since the pandemic started.

Travel numbers aren’t quite back to pre-pandemic levels, but they’re getting pretty close. In November, Canadian airports (excluding Toronto Pearson’s Terminal 1) were experiencing about 90.6 per cent of their 2019 volume when it comes to Canadians returning from abroad

Vancouver International Airport says Dec. 22 is looking to be its busiest day this year, with some 63,664 passengers expected. 

Montreal’s Trudeau airport is already warning that high traffic combined with a “labour shortage that has not been completely resolved” could make for long wait times. 

Smaller airports also get a spike in travellers. Edmonton’s, for example, expects an increase over the holidays from about 6,000 to 7,000 passengers a day to 10,000. Here’s how to make it all a bit less stressful. 

Passengers are seen in silouette travelling on a moving walkway at Vancouver airport.
Travellers are pictured at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C. Airports are bracing for higher numbers of passengers this holiday season, as people travel with far fewer COVID restrictions. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The basics 

Long gone are the days of arriving at the airport just in time to make your boarding time. The standard recommendations these days is to arrive at least two hours ahead for domestic flights, and at least three ahead for U.S. or international travel.

“You have to consider the airlines, the check-in process, the pre-board screen, parking, traffic to get here,” said Sandra Alvarez, team lead of client satisfaction for Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA). 

“So allow yourself sufficient time to go through that process and get to the secured area, and then you can kind of have your coffee, sit down and wait at the gate area for your flight.”

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Proof of vaccination

You no longer need to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination if you are travelling within Canada or returning from abroad. 

The U.S., however, still requires all non-citizens and non-U.S. immigrants arriving by air to show proof of being fully vaccinated against COVID-19, which it defines as a primary series of an approved vaccine or approved mix-and-match.

If you are travelling internationally, you are advised to check your specific destination country’s requirements. 

Pre-boarding app

Most Canadians probably still associate the ArriveCAN app with COVID-19 vaccine documentation. But while proof of vaccination is no longer required to fly into Canada, the app is still being used, and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) says it can get you through the myriad lineups much faster.

The app’s “advance declaration” feature lets travellers enter their mandatory customs and immigration information up to 72 hours before they get to the border screening. 

Entering all of the information ahead of time will allow you to use express lanes in airports where they exist, as opposed to the regular lines to the self-serve kiosks. 

Advance declaration is currently being used at six major airports across Canada — Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Quebec, Montreal and Halifax. Three of those — Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal — also offer express lanes. 

Sign that resembles a phone add, with green screen and a check mark, reading 'please proceed' in English and French.
Officials recommend travellers use the ArriveCan app to do an advanced declaration and use express lanes, where available, to speed up their travel through the airport. (Simon Dingley/CBC)

CBSA says it takes an average traveller who has not used advance declaration about a minute and a half to get through the kiosk. If you’ve done the advance declaration and are in an express lane, the time is cut in half. 

“I’ve seen people go through as fast as 14 seconds,” said CBSA superintendent Neil VandenBroek, “but the average right now is about 40 seconds.”

If that doesn’t sound like much, VandenBroek says consider it multiplied by 20,000 passengers and you get hours saved. 

Faster access to kiosks during peak periods means people are going to free up those machines much faster, he added; so shorter wait times for everyone. 

Right now, VandenBroek says only about 14 per cent of travellers are taking advantage of advance declaration on the app. 

Wide shot of several new electronic airport gates with scanner machines.
Canada Border Services Agency has introduced electronic gates (eGates) as an alternate device for self-service primary processing at some airports. (Carlos Osorioo)

Check your wait-times online

If you’re travelling through Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, you can use its peak travel times dashboard to see when the busiest times are, and what the current wait times are in the various terminals and specific sections — such as domestic and international security, or border screening. 

A blue electronic screen with yellow writing.
You can check wait times at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on its website before you even get to the airport. (Submitted by Carlos Osorioo)

Pre-book a place in line for security 

Several airports let passengers book a time to go through security. You can find it on the airport’s website. For example, Vancouver’s is called YVR Express, Toronto’s is YYZ Express, Edmonton’s is YEG Express, etc. 

“You can go in and you can book a time before your flight,” said Steve Maybee, vice-president of operations, infrastructure and communications at Edmonton International Airport.

All you need to do is enter your name and your flight number and you’ll get a 15-minute window to arrive and bypass the regular lines. 

“You will get a QR code sent to you. And then when you go through YEG Express at the assigned time, you just show that QR code and go through,” Maybee said. 

Gifts

If you’re flying across a border and bringing a bunch of gifts for loved ones, Border Services Officer Tamara Lopez says make sure you declare them. 

“Anything over $60 in terms of a gift would have to be declared to us under the Customs Act,” she said.

And don’t wrap them.

“We will be looking at those items,” said Lopez, “so it’s a lot easier again for us to not have to rip open any wrapping paper.”

Even if travelling within Canada, it’s also a good idea to leave gifts unwrapped, for going through security.

Close-up of gifts in Christmas wrapping and bows.
Don’t make this mistake. Leave your gifts unwrapped to make going through airport security smoother. (Shutterstock/margostock)

You can find all personal exemption limits and duty requirements on the CBSA website

And speaking of security…

Yes, you still need to separate liquids

In case you weren’t sure whether things have changed about putting liquids in your carry-on, the answer is no. 

“Anything that is spreadable or spillable, the container itself has to be 100 millilitres or less,” said Alvarez. 

That’s for all liquids, gels and aerosols. All of those containers need to fit in a clear, one-litre plastic bag, and it’s one bag per passenger. Anything bigger needs to go in your checked baggage. 

Oh, and save time by taking the bag of small bottles out of your carry-on before you go through security — because they’ll just make you stop and take it out if you don’t. 

WATCH | What you can you bring in carry-on bags: 

The rules around carrying liquids on planes

12 hours ago

Duration 0:43

If you haven’t flown recently, CATSA’s Sandra Alvarez gives a quick reminder about bringing liquids on planes, including how many containers you’re allowed and what size they must be.

And finally, snow globes

Yes, snow globes. Popular as gifts this time of year, says Alvarez, and in people’s luggage. But when it comes to flying, they count as a liquid. And size matters.

“If the snow globe itself is larger than your tennis ball,” said Alvarez, “it won’t be allowed in your carry-on. It’s over the 100 millilitre limit.”

So best bet is to pack it in your checked baggage. 

Three snow globes, each wth a winter scene inside, such as snowmen, Christmas trees and gingerbread houses.
If you are bringing a snow globe with you that is bigger than a tennis ball, it counts as a liquid, and needs to go in your checked baggage. (Dieter Nagl/AFP/Getty Images)

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