Opinion: U.S. savings a flight of fancy

Many times I’ve heard people in Ottawa say they save a fistful of money on air travel by driving to the United States to catch a flight from one of the northern New York airports in Ogdensburg,  Watertown or Syracuse.

In actual fact, I’ve discovered it often costs more to reach your destination from one of those three U.S. airports than it does if you fly from Ottawa. It can cost a lot more if you factor in the time and expense of getting to these airports.

I think we’ve been brainwashed into thinking there are always better deals available in the United States than in Canada.

Not so.

Also, we tend to equate a Canadian dollar with a U.S. dollar. That’s all right when the loonie is close to par with the greenback. But lately the Canadian dollar has been worth only about 80 U.S. cents. I suspect that some people tend to overlook this when they compare U.S. and Canadian airfares.

I looked at the cost of round-trip airfares to five destinations: Boston, Los Angeles, Orlando, Philadelphia and London, England. For each destination, I compared the cost of air travel from Ottawa with the cost from one of the three upstate New York airports.

In any such comparison, you must first pick the dates you want to travel. I opted for flying on Feb. 19 with a return flight on Feb. 26. Then, in mid-January, I got a sample quote from an airline flying from Ottawa and an airline flying from one of the three U.S. departure points.

In three of the five cases, I found it would be cheaper to fly from Ottawa than from a U.S. airport (see sidebar). In one case, I found it would be much cheaper to fly from a U.S. airport (Watertown to Philadelphia). And in one case (Ogdensburg to Boston), I found the savings not worth the cost of getting to the U.S. departure point, especially since the flight from Ottawa on Air Canada was non-stop and the flight from Ogdensburg included one stop on the way.

Ogdensburg is just an hour’s drive from Ottawa (plus frequent delays at the border). But it only offers service by one tiny commuter airline – Cape Air – to Albany, N.Y., and onwards to Boston.

Watertown is a two-hour drive from Ottawa and has recently been using the Ottawa news media to promote its new American Airlines 50-seat regional jet service to Philadelphia.

Syracuse offers the greatest choice of flights, with connections to the entire world. But it is at least a three-hour drive from Ottawa, by which time you are almost halfway to New York City, a favourite destination for Ottawans. Having driven nearly halfway, why switch to a plane to get to the Big Apple? (I would give myself a 50-50 chance of winning a race in which I drove from Ottawa to New York’s Central Park, while my opponent drove from Ottawa to Syracuse – in plenty of time for the flight – and then took a plane and taxi to Manhattan.)

Why does Ottawa do so well in my price comparison?

On either side of the border, airlines charge as much as they can for the service they provide. Competition is what keeps prices in check. Ottawa, it seems, is a competitive marketplace. But clearly, some routes are more competitive than others.

 

HOW FARES COMPARE

Here, for five destinations, is how airfares compare (first giving examples where Ottawa departure was cheaper). All taxes and fees are included. For simplicity, all fares are in Canadian dollars.

•    Ottawa-Orlando non-stop on WestJet: $623. Syracuse-Orlando non-stop on JetBlue: $708.

•    Ottawa-Los Angeles on Air Canada with one connection: $677 Watertown-Los Angeles on American Airlines with one connection: $779.

•    Ottawa-London non-stop on Air Canada: $1,080. Syracuse-London on United Airlines with one connection: $1,205.

•    Watertown-Philadelphia non-stop on American Airlines: $460. Ottawa-Philadelphia non-stop on US Airways: $759.

•    Ogdensburg-Boston on Cape Air with stop: $310. Ottawa-Boston non-stop on Air Canada: $358.

 

Michael Prentice is OBJ’s columnist on retail and consumer issues. He can be contacted at news@obj.ca.