Last Updated on July 14, 2023 by Stacey Levesque
Make sure you check in online 24 hours before departure. This allows you to select your seats (if you have not done so in advance), enter the number of bags for checked luggage and pay for them if applicable, reconfirm luggage and carry-on size & weight restrictions, and print boarding passes. Having your name on your tickets exactly matching your passport is critical to avoid having to see a check-in agent. If your passport scan matches your ticket, there is no hassle.
Travel Light – No Checked Luggage – Carry On Only
If you are checked in online, with boarding passes printed or on the airline app, and have no luggage, you can proceed straight to security when you arrive at the airport. No need to get in the line up at the airline counter – one big advantage for packing strategically and light – one less lineup outbound and no wait for baggage on arrival.
It is possible to take a cruise with only checked luggage if you are strategic in what you wear when flying, choose very light clothing, roll up clothing and pack in cubes, keep toiletries to the bare minimum, or buy on arrival at your destination. If you have access to laundry facilities where you are going, taking enough clothing for a week is doable with carry-on only. Your bag needs to be light & flexible to fit into the overhead bin or under the seat in front of you. Travelling with carry-on only for a sun vacation is even easier.
Priority Check In
Frequent fliers and business class travellers will have access to a shorter, dedicated airline check-in line. It is typically marked Priority and easily visible. When you upgrade your ticket to Premium Economy, Business or First Class, or some upgraded versions (i.e., Option Plus/Club Class with Air Transat, Elite Plus with Sunwing, Premium Economy on WestJet) you can access the shorter line.
If you check in online and have bags, make your way to a kiosk at the airport – enter your airline record locator, scan your passport, and print your luggage tags. Staff are on hand to help you apply your luggage stickers. You will save time by removing any old luggage stickers before arriving at the airport. Take your luggage to the baggage drop area, scan your boarding pass, and put your bag on the belt. Proceed to security.
There are two express lines through security: Nexus or “Trusted Travellers”, and a Priority line. Business and First Class are given priority for most (not all) airlines. Some high-fee credit card holders are included in some airports. Toronto/Pearson allows Visa Infinite Privilege and Platinum American Express cardholders into the priority security line.
Nexus / Trusted Traveller Program
Enrolling in the Nexus program, well ahead of travel, can save you a ton of time at certain security or customs screenings. However, there is a lot of time needed to complete the process. It requires enrollment with the US Department of Homeland Security, a $50 USD fee for a 5-year membership, a very intense online questionnaire, significant waiting time for an in-person interview with both Canadian and US Customs officers, and serious background checks. When you sign up for Nexus, you are trusted to make customs declarations accurately or will face even more severe fines for misrepresentation and errors. The current application processing time is 12-14 months, but the sooner you start, the sooner you will get it. Don’t delay just because the wait is long.
The benefits are worth the time and financial commitment to enroll. If you are travelling to the US, Nexus not only gives you a priority security screening line in Canada and the US (TSA Pre-Check if, and only if, you check in online with your Nexus Card Number and it prints on your boarding pass), it also helps you through US Customs. US Customs lies just past security screening at major Canadian airports like Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, etc. Nexus cardholders use a different lane to go through security. The new high-tech machines scan your Nexus card and your face and will do admission to the US with a match, or an expedited lane to a US Customs officer. The same if you enter the US without having pre-cleared in a big Canadian airport (into the US from another country). Land border crossings also have Nexus lanes and even dedicated bridges such as the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge (for Nexus cardholders only).
Nexus has benefits even if you do not travel to the US. When you return to Canada, your customs line will be far shorter by going to the Nexus kiosks in Canada no matter what country you have returned from.
In summary, $50 USD, and a lot of patience in the application process will buy you shorter security lines in Canada and the US no matter where you are flying, and faster lines through US and Canadian Customs, no matter where you are travelling from.
Since each membership is unique, every member of your travelling party will require a Nexus card to get the benefits.
First Steps to speedy customs clearance with Nexus: You need to create a Login.gov account with the Department of Homeland Security to apply online.
There is a whole FAQ at the bottom of the page that needs to be gone through.
TIP: Although renewals of Nexus cards are far simpler than original applications, Nexus renewals come by email and are easy to miss: email@example.com subject: Program Expiry – could come in junk mail.
These lounges can be a bit of an oasis compared to waiting for your flight in the row seating at the gate. Chairs are plusher, electrical outlets more plentiful, an open bar and coffee/espresso machines, and snacks – sometimes amounting to a buffet with enough food to have a light meal. International lounges often have shower facilities and upgraded washrooms. Many lounges offer an attractive view and ambiance, and some can be downright busy – especially at peak travel hours for business travellers (morning and late afternoon). But they are 100% better than waiting at the gate.
If you are travelling on an airline with a big presence at the departure airport in business class, you will be admitted to a free airport lounge usually located somewhere past security and nearer to the gates. In Toronto, Air Canada has three lounges – Domestic, US, and International. Other airlines do not have a dedicated lounge but share other privately run lounges such as Plaza Premium. Private lounge operators have a presence in many large airports globally. Smaller airlines pay a fee for their Business and Premium passengers to access these shared lounges.
Premium travel credit cards may have an annual admission to one of these programs allowing a number of admissions per year in any lounge operated by their partner globally. When travelling business class on an airline that is part of a global alliance, partner airlines in foreign airports will allow partner airline passengers access to their lounge. For example, Air Canada is part of the Star Alliance, and an Air Canada business class ticket holder may use the United or Lufthansa lounge. There are many more partners in the Star Alliance and there are two other major alliances: SkyTeam (Delta, KLM, Air France, etc) and One World (American, British Airways, Cathay, Qantas, etc).
Boarding your flight
An upgraded fare will allow you Priority 1 or 2 boarding. This allows for a “first crack at the overhead bins”. If overhead bin space is important to you, this is the only way to ensure that you have reasonable access. If you are late to board, often you will find the bin above you and near you already full – looking elsewhere for a little place to jam your bag in. Or you are stuck with under the seat in front of you, limiting your legroom. If you have little or no carry-on, this is not a worry – conversely, to avoid the hassle of the line-up, in this case, you could board almost last.
Baggage Claim upon arrival
Business class and upgraded fares often have a priority luggage benefit. Of all the lineup busters, this one is the least reliable. Your bags should have been tagged with a special (often colourful) priority tag. These days, with the shortage of labour, priority luggage has not been as reliable, but it is still better than not having it at all.
Priority luggage is typically loaded in a separate area of the cargo hold that is unloaded first at your arrival airport.
Customs Lines at Arrival Countries
Many countries require a form to be completed on board the aircraft, or just before departure, online. Completing this form accurately is critical to moving through the line on arrival, and also having the required documents ready (passport bookmarked with the picture page).
Bring a pen in your carry-on for the completion of these forms. If they can be completed at home before you depart, do so. Print them out even if it is not required.
Some countries, such as Jamaica, have express services for a fee that has a VIP greeting immediately at deplaning, and a personal assistant to walk you through express lines on arrival. These services are typically “not cheap” as they are labour-intensive – someone assists you all the way through. They are very beneficial if you have priority luggage and private transfer waiting. Think celebrities. This is why it is quite expensive for what it is – but it is nice.
Wheelchairs / Mobility Limitations
If one member of your travelling party has difficulty walking distances or longer periods, even though they are not “wheelchair bound”, it is advantageous to get a wheelchair.
People are often reticent to do this when they do not require a wheelchair in daily life. They need to be “talked into it”. You need to keep in mind that there may be long lineups and long distances to your gate and aircraft.
It will be available from the airline check-in, right to the entry of the plane. It will come with a wheelchair assistant that will shepherd your party through the entire airport experience, often cutting lines along the way.
It is important that this service is ORDERED IN ADVANCE and that you arrive at the airport with PLENTY OF TIME, as sometimes there is a wait for the chair and assistant to arrive at the airline check-in.
While wheelchairs will be first to board, they are, unfortunately, last off the flight. The rest of the passengers will deplane first. Once again, the attendant will take you through customs lines to the baggage area and beyond. The wait time you endure deplaning is often made up by the luggage being mostly off by the time you arrive at the baggage claim.
TIP: Tipping for this service in the US is expected.