Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: Flying Air Canada to Montreal

Air Canada, Trip Reports

What was supposed to be a week-long family trip to Canada turned into an epic three-week trip stretching from Charlevoix to Chicago. I took two flights, five trains, three rental cars, a couple subways, a very slow FAST public bus, and one unmarked airport shuttle driven by someone with a criminal record. How did this happen? Well, it’s a long story. And fortunately, I have a blog where I can tell it.

Today, I’ll start with the the beginning of the trip which was our flight on Air Canada from LA to Montreal. The process of flying to Canada is rough, and the Air Canada experience itself? Well, it was fine and nothing more than that. Considering Air Canada’s record this summer, I should be thankful.

Traveling with kids internationally can be a stressful experience, but I can’t remember anything that was more stressful than this. It wasn’t just the confusing Canadian rules, but it was Air Canada’s poor summer performance as well that pushed me over the edge.

This was planned as a big family vacation with my parents and my brother’s family to Quebec. We had planned to start at the Club Med Charlevoix, make a brief stop in Quebec, and then were set to finish in Montreal. That meant on the way out we had a choice between a nonstop to Montreal and then driving 4 hours or a connection to Quebec City and then driving 1.5 hours. We used Aeroplan points and chose the nonstop to Montreal, because the connection required a long layover that made no sense. The rest of the family was coming from Phoenix, and they opted for the better-timed connection to Quebec City.

As travel drew closer, Air Canada’s performance tanked. Stories of lost bags, cancellations, and delays made the rounds, and a schedule change put the connection for the Phoenix contingent at 59 minutes. That was not only no longer a valid connection, but it seemed like a terrible plan, especially since they were checking bags. I called Air Canada and had them put everyone on the nonstop to Montreal only.

As the trip approached, my stress level only rose. Canada reinstituted the random test-on-arrival scheme that would result in a confusingly-strict mandatory 10-day isolation for any positive tests. We all agreed we would each take a home test the day before — even though we knew at-home tests aren’t all that reliable with Omicron — and we would just hope for the best.

But before we got there, we had to deal with ArriveCan, which is the website/app you need in order to enter Canada. You have to go through a very lengthy process within 72 hours of your arrival in Canada. This involved scanning or manually entering passport information, adding details of our stay, uploading our proof of COVID vaccination after also entering details manually, and eventually signing a customs declaration. I sat down with passports and vaccine cards in hand, and it took me about half an hour or more to get through it.

The day before travel, we all tested negative for COVID, so we figured we’d take our chances and hope that a) we wouldn’t get chosen for random testing and b) if we did, we would test negative.

I went to check-in online for Air Canada, and that required repeating nearly everything that was already done on the ArriveCan app, including uploading proof of vaccination. For one of the kids, the system did not like the image and it kept rejecting it, so I had to take another one and pray to the tech gods that it would stop erroring. Thankfully, it did. Once done, we were able to complete check in and actually get boarding passes. I was exhausted just getting to that point.

Our airplane for this trip — an A330-300 — was coming in the evening before from Montreal on a flight that left at 8pm. Somehow, they broke the airplane while loading bags, so the flight took a delay. Eventually, they found another airplane, and it was scheduled to leave 3 hours late. It didn’t actually get out until 4 hours late. I was worried that this would be our same crew, and that the return would require a delay so they could get adequate rest. Air Canada showed no delay, so I went to bed hoping that meant we had a different crew. That was thankfully correct.

Since those of us flying from LA were all carrying on bags, we hit the road at 5am for our 7am departure. We arrived at LAX at 5:30am, and there was nobody at security in Terminal 6. Terminal 6 is still a work in progress with construction ongoing.

We had a lot of time to kill, but we just went up to the rotunda at the far end. The gate areas were packed, so we sat on the side where they had construction work going on. It was only luck that I heard the announcement that they needed to verify identification for anyone who checked in at home. I don’t know why I thought all the uploads would be good enough. It took the agent about 5 minutes to print out new paper boarding passes and tell us that our docs were now officially checked.

It came time to board, and it was the usual chaos. The gate lice was thick in the gate area, and the four of us were split between zones 3 and 5, so we didn’t even know which way to go. When they called zone 3, we got in a line that didn’t move much.

An agent then came over and said that they were actually going to board zone 3 from gate 69B next door which connected to the same jet bridge thanks to the sterile corridor. We went over there, and had a close-up view of the Star Alliance-liveried A330.

Then we got onboard.

Air Canada 774
August 6, 2022

Depart Los Angeles
➤ Scheduled: 7a, Actual: 703a
➤ From: Gate 69A on Runway 25R

Arrive Montreal
➤ Scheduled: 313p, Actual: 302p
➤ At: Gate 50 on Runway 24R

➤ Type: Airbus A330-343
➤ Delivered: May 29, 2009 to Singapore Airlines
➤ Registered: C-GEGP, msn 1015
➤ Livery: Star Alliance colors

➤ Cabin: Coach in Seat 20C
➤ Load: ~95% Full
➤ Flight Time: 4h41m

We had pre-purchased seat assignments so we were in 20AC and 21AC, window and aisle on the side toward the front of the coach cabin.

We took our seats, and the first thing that came to mind was that this was a vastly improved experience compared to my last Air Canada A330 flight. That was a 2007 trip from Toronto to Paris for a wedding that had room for a small personal screen in the seatback, but instead of an actual screen, it had a pillow.

Oh my, how times have changed. This airplane, like all Air Canada A330s, had a nice big screen with a more functional, albeit somewhat laggy, entertainment system.

Considering how poor Air Canada’s operational performance had been early this summer — around 10 percent of flights canceled with only a third of remaining flights on time — I did not have high hopes. But somehow, we only pushed back 3 minutes late. After a short taxi, we were in the air and on target to arrive early. Go figure.

Once we got above 10,000 feet, I pulled out my laptop, because I had to log on and finish up Cranky Network Weekly before my vacation could officially begin. I was somewhat afraid that this would work since Air Canada still has Gogo onboard, but the system was plenty fast. I paid the C$18 to get the “streaming” package for the whole flight and that helped get some good speed going.

The flight attendants came through trying to sell their wares while also offering a free soda but no snack. I had a ginger ale and settled in while the rest of the family took naps, watched videos, and played games.

Incredibly, that was the last we saw of the flight attendants other than a trash pick up at the end of the flight. I can’t say there was a good reason for that. I also found it strange that we were somewhere over Michigan or Canada by the time the captain first spoke to us. He was telling us about turbulence, but he said something like “welcome onboard.” I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it struck me as odd.

The first 2+ hours was as smooth as can be. Once we got over Iowa, we passed by some storms which put the seatbelt sign on, but the flight attendants were still able to get up. It was only once we got to northern Michigan that we were sitting in a high cloud at 39,000 feet and the flight attendants were told to sit down.

With less than an hour left to go, the pilots finally descended below the cloud layer to 31,000 feet where it was perfectly smooth and the seatbelt sign went off.

We came into Montreal from the north and did a sweeping turn to go back to the southwest for landing. I’ve never been to Montreal before and really enjoyed the view of the stadium, the downtown area, and the river as we came in.

We parked at the gate and had a long walk upstairs (the escalator wasn’t working), then on top of the gate areas, and finally toward immigration. They made everyone show their ArriveCan QR codes to prove they filled it out even though at no point in the immigration process did anyone actually scan it. That caused extra delays as people fumbled to open their phones.

We went to an immigration kiosk that required us to all scan our passports, and then adults had to take photos. It printed out a receipt which we had to take to an immigration officer who asked questions about where we were staying, how long we’d be there, whether we knew anyone in Canada, how much an ounce of pure maple syrup costs, etc.

Once that was done, we were able to go to customs — we had no checked bags — give them our form, and we were finally free… to do a 4 hour drive. We rented a sporty little Kia Forte from National, and they were very short on cars. The friendly agent there said we were lucky and that most people had to wait 15 to 30 minutes for a car to be ready.

It was then that I realized… I didn’t know if we had to do a random COVID test. They said they would email the address on file with ArriveCan within 15 minutes of entering the country. Nervously, I checked the phone and there were no messages. It turns out the rest of the family escaped the random test as well, so I could finally relax and enjoy the vacation after all the stress leading up to the trip.

We are just getting warmed up on this adventure, but don’t worry, I won’t take away from regular airline content with these off-topic posts. I’ll try to do it on Wednesdays or holidays, or something like that. Future posts will include…

  • Living the French life at Club Med
  • A quick stop in Quebec and Via Rail to Montreal
  • First impressions of Montreal and Le Mount Stephen
  • Flying Air Transat to Toronto
  • The delights of Elora and Fergus followed by the worst of Guelph
  • A baseball diversion in Toronto and a train to Windsor
  • An impressively difficult border crossing to get to Detroit
  • Relaxing in nowhere, Michigan and cathing a Tigers game
  • A diversion to somewhere round on the end and hi in the middle
  • Family time in Indianapolis and Chicago
  • Riding the rails from Chicago back home

Yep, it was a busy three weeks.

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32 comments on “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: Flying Air Canada to Montreal

  1. I don’t at all mean to make light of your pain here, but my wife and I did a trip to Montreal from Chicago on Air Canada in May, and I was laughing as you described every PITA aspect of our trip, from the ArriveCAN thing that no one ever scanned to having to re-check in at the airport (and being lucky to hear the announcement regarding it) to the escalator at Montreal being broken to the customs experience. The only extra fun we had on leaving was having to do a mandatory C19 test before being able to board our flight home.

    1. Because arriveCAN is tied to your passport/nexus, it automatically pulls up when they do your travel documents. That’s why they didn’t ask for it.

    2. Late here, but to be clear: the ArriveCAN information is most definitely used by Canada Border Services Agency on your arrival even if no one scanned your QR code. It’s just tied to the passport/NEXUS card, so CBSA doesn’t need the QR code itself. If you arrive at the border without having completed it (easy at a land border; possible if someone messes up at an air border), they will know and they will make you go to the side and complete it. This has happened multiple times to family members driving to visit us, and CBSA agents fairly often explicitly note that we completed ArriveCAN and thank us. (They likely won’t actually fine you if you arrive at the border without having completed ArriveCAN, but they can.)

  2. Looking forward to your future posts on two cities I love and used to live in (Montreal and Toronto). Love the approach from the East. Stade Olympique may be an awful pit, but as an Expos fan it was my awful pit!!
    I someone escaped AC’s meltdowns on my summer trip to Yukon – delay into Montreal, but my gate for Vancouver was right next to my arriving gate, and all other flights were actually early arriving on AC!!

  3. We went to Montreal on the 4th of July holiday. Stupidly realized while we were there that we needed a COVID test to get back into the States.

    Shit. Positive for COVID, now what.
    Grayhound to Burlington VT, Delta from BVT-DTW-SFO.

    No test required for the bus crossing.

      1. Ah, but there’s many regular contributors here for whom COVID finished ages ago, so knowingly exposing others to infection isn’t an issue to them.

  4. Has Air Canada always used widebodies for YUL-LAX, or is this just a way to utilize those airframes during a time of low trans-Atlantic/trans-Pacific travel? Seems like it would be a narrowbody route.

    1. Alex – I think it’s fairly regular to do that, BUT the other flights are on A220s, so it is a route of extremes for sure.

    2. There have been peak season wide-bodies between YUL / YYZ and LAX/ SFO for a while now, just as there are between YUL / YYZ and FLL in winter. Makes for a perfect turn ahead of any overseas flying the plane is otherwise used for.

  5. You realize the US imposes an awful lot of the same for foreigners to enter the US , right, ESTA, vaccination requirements, covid tests etc


    1. Scott – Doesn’t impact me, but there are no testing rules for anyone coming into the US anymore. There is also no ESTA requirement for any Canadian coming to the US either. They do need to be vaccinated, but what’s the process like? Do they have to duplicate everything like we did between ArriveCan and Air Canada? I have no idea.

      Either way, I don’t like any of these crazy hoops.

      1. I flew to the US on BA last week and they sent me a text to a site to fill out my vaccination status prior to being able to check in online for the flight. But it was smart enough to ask my citizenship, and since I was a US citizen, it didn’t actually ask my status or for proof. I haven’t heard of any US system like ArriveCAN, so I think they rely on the airlines to handle it.

        Upon arrival in the US, nobody asked either, but with a US passport there was no requirement for me to be vaccinated anyway.

        As an aside, Heathrow was fine. I did carry ons only both ways, thus avoiding any potential baggage handling snafus. Flying in, there were lots of people using the e-gates but each one had its own short line so wasn’t bad. Going out there was no wait for a kiosk which just told me to go see an agent which had only a short line, and virtually no line for security. Only delay was waiting for the pushback tug (or maybe just the driver) to arrive, so we were maybe a half hour late.

      2. Yeah; actually it is all duplicated entering the USA.
        You have to file an attestation with the airline (some on paper, some online), plus have your info if the border agents ask for it.

      1. And that’s why I strongly prefer to fly Canadian airlines to the US, connecting in Canada rather than the US to avoid domestic US connecting flights without a mask requirement. :)

        On a recent flight, we had a symptomatic sick person sitting next to us. Was *really* glad we had the law behind us to insist that she actually wear her mask, and the (WestJet) flight attendants were great about insisting.

  6. I was about to correct Cranky on his map, but now I see that he meant the Charlevoix in, Quebec, not the Charlevoix that Michiganders are more familiar with. Carry on.

  7. Air Canada’s ability to operate to the United States highlights the irony of the DOT’s focus on US airline performance.

  8. Frankly, I’m looking forward to the train and automobile adventures. Airlines are pretty much the same.

    1. Ghost – You say that, but… I did get to fly Air Transat from Montreal to Toronto, so that’s a fun one. First time in 9 abreast coach on an A330.

  9. Sorry you had to go through all that to go to CANADA of all places. How is it that Air Canada even manages to ‘function’? It’s ironic they are even allowed to fly into the US with the dog & pony clown show going on between the DOT and US airlines right now…

    Either actually DO do something about poor performance in this industry (EC261 anyone?) or just disband the entire theatrical transportation department already.

  10. This doesn’t matter much for one-time travellers to Canada, but ArriveCAN is only a pain the first time. The second time, and every subsequent time, it takes about 30 seconds to do the entire family, since it stores your proof of vaccination. (I drive across the Canadian border multiple times a month.) It’s a very smooth way of providing proof of vaccination in a reliable and consistent way; it makes a lot more sense than just waving a proof of vaccination card in front of an agent. I actually quite appreciate it; I’d *much* rather use ArriveCAN than have to pull up my vaccination card every time I travel.

    (And the QR code is only to allow airlines and the airport authority to verify, since they don’t have access to the passport database. Canadian Border Services has your ArriveCAN information tied to your passport; it comes up on their screen when you scan your passport. Every time at the land border, the agent thanks us for completing ArriveCAN even though they never ask for the QR code. When guests have forgotten on their way to visit us, they get asked to go to the side and complete it before driving in.)

  11. Hopefully you didn’t have to shout “those aren’t pillows!” at any point in the trip…

  12. Our son and granddaughter live in Montreal. We fly in and out from the States, quite often. We have not had any issues with ArriveCAN. My only gripe with the Canadian government is that they still require masking up if you are flying in and out of Canada – especially on Canadian airlines (AC, Air Transat). I am not a vaccine denier, in fact I am the opposite, particularly for travelers. Least we forget, Canada was one of the last developed nations to lift its draconian Covid controls. The country was virtually inaccessible for two years. Even after they “reopened” in August of last year, there were a lot of lingering bureaucratic hoops to jump through. For example, in the province of Quebec, you had to show you had been vaccinated to access and public venue, restaurant, or bar. For Canadians/Quebecers, they used an app and were given a simple bar code, proving vaccination. Meanwhile, we Americans are walking with odd sized hard copy CDC cards! Seriously? It is now the U.S. which is often technologically backward. Sad.

    1. Canada were hardly the last to lift Covid measures at the border, are you forgetting that the US opened it’s land border 3 months after Canada did (Canada Aug 2021, USA Nov 2021) ?

      And perhaps those measures were a good idea… Canada’s Covid 19 death rate is 1,160/million vs the USA and UK at 3,100 and 3,050.

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