If you’re flying to Canada from the United States, chances are, you’ll probably be visiting (or at least starting your journey in) one of its larger cities: Toronto, Montréal, or Vancouver. Then, you might rent a car for your trip. Only problem is, it’s much more expensive to fly to Canada and rent a car in Canada. Additionally, it’s a lot more annoying to take an international flight where you have to go through customs and immigration. This is no fun and you could literally be saving hundreds of dollars if you take a slightly different approach: fly to the closest U.S. city on the border and drive to Canada.
Why does it save money to do this?
This has to do with Canada’s higher cost of living. In general, Canadian stuff costs more than if you get it in the United States. This is true for things like gasoline, airfares, and rental cars, which are going to be among the primary costs of your trip. Considering Toronto and Vancouver are both close to other large American airports, it’s perfectly feasible to fly to a U.S. city to take advantage of American pricing for airfares, rental cars, and gasoline.
Why are Canadian plane tickets more expensive? Without getting into the details, Canada shifts more of the financial responsibility of aviation to the passengers themselves, whereas the U.S. ends up being able to shift some of these costs away from a passenger’s ticket itself.
Do I really save money on plane tickets?
On average, yes, but this is not guaranteed.
On average, plane tickets between the U.S. and Canada are more expensive than between most U.S. cities and the U.S. border cities. In practice, it depends on when you’re going.
If we were to fly between Dallas–Fort Worth and Toronto Pearson nonstop, the cheapest plane ticket would be $744.
The same itinerary to Buffalo instead is slightly less. While this is pretty high (and I’ve gotten a lower price than this in the summer), it’s still less than the comparable nonstop flight to Toronto on the same dates.
If we relax the requirement to fly nonstop, we get much more economical tickets on Frontier, starting at only $241 round trip. If we opt for a legacy carrier, the cheapest is Delta at $410.
The same itinerary doesn’t look as good price-wise when you fly to Toronto instead. On the legacy carriers, the price is about the same as flying to Buffalo. But it simply can’t beat Frontier’s $241 price.
While the savings are not that big, you can tell that on average, it’s still cheaper to fly domestically than it is to fly to Canada. This being said, the difference can at times be negligible, so the savings do not really mean much for flights at all times.
If you are not renting a car, then the only reasonable option is to fly to the city directly, unless the price difference is over the price of a rental. That would have to mean that a flight to Canada costs several hundreds more than a flight to the nearby U.S. border city.
Do I really save money on rental cars?
Yes. To give you a concrete example, I’ll show you the cost of renting the two cheapest car types from Avis between October 5 and October 12, 2022 (one week) from two locations: Buffalo Niagara International Airport (BUF) and Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ).
To rent the cheapest car from Buffalo Airport, it’s US$224.39 if you prepay.
Meanwhile, you have to pay a whopping CA$629.10 for the cheapest car at Toronto Pearson. Although one Canadian dollar is usually worth less than one U.S. dollar, the exchange rate is still not enough to make US$200 be equivalent to CA$600.
At the exchange rate of 1 USD = 1.28322 CAD, CA$629.10 is equivalent to US$490.25, which is more than double US$224.39. If the exchange rate were to shoot back up to 1 USD = 1.15 CAD, then it would be US$547, which is even more expensive. (One U.S. dollar would have to be equivalent to CA$2.80 for these two prices to be equivalent, and that’s never happened in history before.)
Even if you insist on a fair comparison between two intermediate-sized cars, Buffalo still comes out wildly on top, at just US$233.74.
As you can see, just by renting your car in the U.S. instead of Canada, you can save $400 right off the bat.
While the savings you get from flying to Buffalo might not be too significant, they are very noticeable for rental cars.
Any other benefits of flying domestically, renting domestically, and driving to Canada?
The other big change is how your border crossing experience will be. Rather than clearing immigration and customs at the airport, you clear it at a land crossing. It’s important to note that it’s not necessarily time-saving to cross at a land crossing; it can take more time than airport immigration if it gets busy. However, you won’t have to wait for immigration right after your flight, and you won’t need to get to the Canadian airport early for U.S. CBP preclearance when you return to the U.S. Plus, if you cross by car, you can always time your border crossing to be done at a less busy time, and in the meantime, you can hang out on the other side of the border. At the airport, you must wait in line to cross immigration before you can leave the airport. For some people, breaking apart the immigration and customs clearance part of their trip from the rest of the air travel part makes a world of a difference.
How to do this for Toronto?
To take advantage of cheaper flights and rental cars, you’ll want to fly to Buffalo Niagara International Airport (BUF) instead of Toronto Pearson or Toronto Bishop. It’s a few miles out of Buffalo and just 15 minutes away from the Canadian border. It is 30 minutes away from Niagara Falls and 2 hours from downtown Toronto (excluding border crossing times).
The rental car agencies know that lots of people will be taking their cars across the border, so you won’t need to ask for anything special to be added to your car in order to drive across the border.
For a Toyota Camry, you’ll be able to drive between Buffalo and Toronto round-trip on less than one tank of gas. This lets you save money on gas, since you can take advantage of the lower prices in New York State than the much higher prices in Ontario. If at all possible, try your best to fuel up in Buffalo or the American side of Niagara Falls instead of during your drive in Ontario to Toronto. Worst case, if you still need some gas to make it back from Toronto to Buffalo, pump a third of a tank, and then fill it all the way back up in Buffalo before you return your rental car.
Crossing the border
Assuming you don’t have NEXUS, you can cross the border at three bridges, listed from south to north:
- Peace Bridge (Buffalo, NY–Fort Erie, ON)
- Rainbow Bridge (Niagara Falls, NY–Niagara Falls, ON)
- Lewiston–Queenston Bridge (Lewiston, NY–Queenston, ON)
The recommended crossing point to minimize tolls is to use the Peace Bridge. If you travel via the Lewiston–Queenston Bridge or the Rainbow Bridge, you’ll have to pay tolls when driving on I-190, and it’s all electronic tolling, meaning if your car doesn’t have an E-ZPass on it, you’ll have to pay by mail. (In the case of rental cars, it doesn’t matter if you have an E-ZPass or not: it’s going to be much more expensive than if you could just pay by cash at a toll booth.)
When crossing the bridge to enter Canada, the toll is US$4 as of 2022. There is no toll to cross the bridge to enter the United States.
How to do this for Vancouver?
The closest major U.S. airport to Vancouver is Seattle–Tacoma International Airport (SEA), which, according to Google Maps, is exactly 2 hours 30 minutes away by car from Vancouver International Airport (YVR), excluding the time it takes to cross the border.
However, the closest U.S. airport to Vancouver is Bellingham International Airport, which is most popular with Canadians who want to avoid the long drive to Seattle and wish to fly to other destinations in the U.S. for cheap. Very few cities have direct flights to Bellingham, but it’s worth noting Alaska Airlines has flights between Seattle and Bellingham in case you are inclined to fly to Bellingham by connecting via Seattle. It’s less than 30 minutes from the U.S.–Canada border.
At the rental car pickup area, it’s worth asking your rental car company if you need to get a special Canadian car insurance document to place in your car. Not doing this, however, won’t be a major issue, as I’ve driven a rental car from Seattle to Vancouver without trouble.
Compared to the trip between Buffalo and Toronto, it will be harder to make a round trip between Seattle and Vancouver without refueling, but you can do this in a city in Washington near the border such as Blaine or Bellingham (or any city in Whatcom County, really). My recommendation is to fuel up once in Bellingham (right off of I-5) before you enter Canada.
Crossing the border
The primary place to cross the border is at the Peace Arch. It’s very simple to get here: just keep driving north on I-5 until it ends. Another border crossing nearby is the Pacific Highway one, but it’s mainly for commercial trucks shipping goods across the border. Passengers can still use it, but it’s not as pretty and you have to exit the highway and get back on, which is a pain. However, if you do not have NEXUS, it can be faster to use the Pacific Highway crossing. Check the road signs on either side of the border which specify the border crossing waits.
There are other points, like Abbotsford and Sumas, but they are out of the way, and honestly, are not really worth the detour even if Peace Arch has a slightly longer delay than the rest.
There is no toll to get to any of these border crossings.