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TRAVEL

Oh Canada, so good to be back: Tips on traveling north of the border and back again

Whether you’re going to reunite with family, ski in Whistler, or shop for holiday gifts in Montreal, here are a few tips for the journey

The US reopened its land borders to nonessential travel after almost 20 months of COVID-19 restrictions.
The US reopened its land borders to nonessential travel after almost 20 months of COVID-19 restrictions.Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

The US-Canada border fully reopened Nov. 8, and the United States began welcoming vaccinated international travelers, but what does it take for US citizens to visit Canada by car, train, boat, or plane? Due to the ongoing pandemic, Americans must navigate strict guidelines to cross the border, yet with proper planning and a healthy dose of patience you can enjoy smooth travels to Canada — and back home again.

Whether you’re traveling to reunite with family, ski in Whistler, or shop for holiday gifts in Montreal, here are a few tips for the journey.

To be exempt from a 14-day quarantine upon arrival, all US citizens 12 and older must be fully vaccinated and show proof of vaccination at land borders or at the airport before boarding their flight. Unvaccinated or partially vaccinated travelers 5 and older need to show results of a negative COVID molecular test taken within 72 hours before arriving in Canada.

It’s relatively easy to schedule a drive-thru test at a pharmacy such as Walgreens, Rite-Aid, or CVS, unless demand is high due to holiday travel or close proximity to the US-Canada border. However, check the fine print: Not all testing sites can deliver results within 72 hours, especially in rural border areas, and some sites are closed on weekends, causing further delays.

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“We originally planned to cross into Canada from Idaho after our visit to Glacier National Park” to visit friends who lived right over the border in Christina Lake, says Cynthia Matthews von Berg of Connecticut, who was traveling with her husband and two daughters, ages 4 and 6, in late September. “However, we couldn’t find any testing options that would guarantee us results in the required 72 hours, so we completely rerouted our trip. We drove to Seattle, where we could book guaranteed tests ahead of time, crossed at Douglas/Peace Arch into Vancouver, and then drove back out to Christina Lake,” a three-day detour including waiting for results in Seattle.

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When selecting a Walgreens test for Canada, make sure you choose the approved Rapid Diagnostic Test (ID NOW) so you can get results within 24 hours — ideal for travel. I have made the mistake of choosing the PCR test (also approved), the results of which took 60 hours to receive, meaning a bit too close for comfort to meet that 72-hour cutoff.

US Customs and Border Protection agents at a checkpoint at the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit on Nov. 8.
US Customs and Border Protection agents at a checkpoint at the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit on Nov. 8. Matthew Hatcher/Bloomberg

Before departing for Canada, download the easy-to-use ArriveCAN app on your Apple or Android device or set up an account using ArriveCAN’s Web version. Using your ArriveCAN account, you must answer questions and submit information within 72 hours before arrival, including your contact information, your travel plan (how and why you’re entering the country), vaccination information, pre-entry test results, and quarantine plan even if you’re just doing a day trip. Once you have successfully entered this information, you’ll receive a QR code with the letter I or V next to it — print it out. In fact, it’s best to carry card copies of all your paperwork in addition to any electronic documents, just in case.

With all your documents in hand — vaccination card, negative test results, QR code from ArriveCAN, and your usual passport or Nexus card — you’re ready to travel.

Upon arriving in Canada, you may be randomly selected to take a COVID test, which can be completed at an airport for free or with a self-swab kit you can take with you. You can still continue on your travels but must complete this mandatory test within 24 hours.

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Angela Essington, a travel blogger from Chicago who drove to Canada in August and returned home in October, recommends that you proactively open a SwitchHealth Account before you travel, as she did, in case you’re flagged for the random COVID screening test.

“We were selected, and already having an account open helped the whole process go smoothly,” says Essington. “It only took 10 additional minutes for the random test on our travel day.”

Unvaccinated children between ages 5 and 11 also need to take a COVID test upon arrival, as happened with von Berg’s daughter. “Our 6-year-old was required to do a Day 1 test at the border . . . and we were given a Day 8 test for our child in case we chose to stay that long,” she says.

Here’s the great news for drivers: You don’t need to take an antigen test if you return to the United States by car (this applies when traveling by boat and train, too). For those flying back, a rapid test — also called an antigen test — is required. Vaccinated travelers must receive a negative test result within 72 hours of boarding their return flight, while unvaccinated or partially vaccinated Americans must get their negative results within 24 hours before takeoff.

The golden question: Where to get an antigen test? Research your destination for test availability and cost since rules and rates vary from province to province.

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An RV driver headed into the United States from Canada after passing through the Peace Arch border crossing on Nov. 8, in Blaine, Wash.
An RV driver headed into the United States from Canada after passing through the Peace Arch border crossing on Nov. 8, in Blaine, Wash. Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Visitors generally have to pay for this test in Canada if it’s for travel and costs can range from $40 to hundreds of dollars (some insurance companies may reimburse for this, so ask before you travel and keep your receipt). Go Rapid Test has opened drive- or walk-thru testing sites in Montreal, Banff, Calgary, and Vancouver for visitors passing through these areas.

“We used Go Rapid Test, paid online, and at our convenience went to a walk-thru testing site in Banff,” says Michelle Steinhardt, who was flying home to Los Angeles. “We were in and out of the testing site in less than five minutes and received our results via e-mail about 30 minutes later.”

In popular travel destinations, clinics, pharmacies, and traveling doctors offer antigen tests; some require advance booking, whereas others welcome walk-ins. In Whistler, a physician with Airwolf Medical will come to your accommodations and provide a rapid antigen test before you fly home, providing results within about 30 minutes.

Some hotels also offer their guests access to an on-site rapid test, such as the Fairmont Banff Springs and Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise in Alberta. Ask about this service when booking your room — at any hotel — especially if you’re traveling during a busy period.

Cars lined up to enter the US from Canada at the Peace Arch border crossing Nov. 8 in Blaine, Wash.
Cars lined up to enter the US from Canada at the Peace Arch border crossing Nov. 8 in Blaine, Wash. Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

One of the easiest and cheapest ways to get tested before travel is by using an approved home test kit, such as select ones made by BinaxNOW, Ellume, and Qured, which range from about $50 to $70. Patrick Smith, an airline pilot from Somerville, recently used a Qured kit before flying back home from Toronto. He scheduled a video call with a Qured representative who guided him through the process of swabbing his nose, putting the swab in a tube with a solution and a paper strip, and then photographing and e-mailing the results to be verified.

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“The test can be completed in the privacy of your hotel room and takes no more than 10 minutes,” says Smith. “All you need is Wi-Fi and a phone. I had my e-mail confirmation less than 15 minutes after the call,” and then he was on his way.

Just remember: Rules change quickly, test prices and availability fluctuate, and technology can add to the challenge when traveling, but navigating the nitty-gritty details is part of the journey and, dare we say, the fun.

Kari Bodnarchuk can be reached at travelwriter@karib.us.


Kari Bodnarchuk can be reached at travelwriter@karib.us.