While many Australian travellers bound for US east coast cities like New York will default to flying via Los Angeles, Vancouver presents an interesting alternative, and can take some of the hassle out of the typical Stateside transit experience.
For instance, when flying from Australia to the US via Vancouver, passengers do not have to collect and re-check their bags in transit, and can clear US passport control on the ground in Vancouver through the US Preclearance facility, to arrive in the United States just like a domestic passenger.
In some cases, it can also be faster to reach your US destination via Vancouver than an airport on US soil. Door-to-door, Brisbane-Vancouver-New York takes just 19hrs 35min with Air Canada, versus 20hrs 10min to fly Brisbane-Los Angeles-New York with Qantas.
Connecting to the United States via Vancouver: the basics
First things first: as always, Australians jetting to the USA require either an ESTA if travelling on business or tourism under the visa-waiver program, or a pre-arranged US visa for all other purposes or on longer trips.
Those rules remain in place even though you're not flying directly to the US. In addition, Canadian authorities require you to obtain an Electronic Travel Authorisation (eTA) to board flights to and from Canada, even as an international transit passenger.
It might sound like a hassle, but it's easily done online and takes just a few minutes. You'll pay a CAD$7 (A$7.60) fee, but the eTA remains valid for an unlimited number of trips for five years from the date of issue or until your current passport expires, whichever comes first.
Most eTA applications are approved within a few minutes, if not instantaneously.
The outbound journey: Australia to the United States via Vancouver
Beginning the day's travel in Australia, your luggage can be tagged right through to your final destination and you'll receive your onward boarding pass for the Vancouver-USA leg before leaving home.
In this direction, you don't go through Canadian Customs or passport control, and so don't need to complete a landing card for Canada – instead, you'll enter the United States on Canadian soil via the US Preclearance facility.
There's no need to collect and re-check your bags, as would be the case if transiting via other airports like Los Angeles: you simply touch down from Australia, follow the signs to "USA Connections", and clear security screening.
For those with checked baggage, the next step involves having your boarding pass scanned, which either confirms that your bag has been cleared and you're clear to proceed through passport control, or that you should take a seat and wait for your name to appear on the screens nearby (which confirms the same), before heading through.
If your US visa type requires you to complete a US landing card, this is a great oportunity to get that done, although I've found that Air Canada also stocks these on flights from Australia, and so was able to complete one on my Brisbane-Vancouver flight.
Here at the US Preclearance facility, there are dedicated lines to the far left for passengers in international transit, so you're not stuck at the back of the queue with those beginning their journey in Vancouver.
As a US visa holder, I've become accustomed to wait times of one hour or more at passport control during the morning rush in places like Los Angeles, but here, there were only a few people in front of me, and I was through in a few minutes.
Then, it's as simple as heading to the lounge or your boarding gate, and upon landing in the United States, you're considered a domestic passenger – so there's no passport control to worry about after your flight, and with a checked bag, you can simply collect it and walk straight out of the airport.
Welcome to the United States!
The return trip: flying from the USA to Australia via Vancouver
In the opposite direction – for example, flying New York-Vancouver-Australia – things work a little differently, because you have to clear Canadian Customs during your Vancouver transit.
While you don't have to collect and re-check your bag (it can be tagged right through), you will need to complete a Canadian landing card and proceed through a Customs point in Vancouver Airport's international transit area, before continuing your onward departure gate.
This is done by following the "International Connections" signs, and as you'll have received your onward boarding pass for Australia at check-in in the USA, you'll be able to use this for lounge access (if eligible) and to step aboard the flight home.
Vancouver Airport's website also features handy step-by-step directions for passengers based on the airline flown and that day's travel plans, so for further information or if your travels are taking you to other places, click here and key in your journey details for the latest information.
Air Canada also provides Concierge assistance at Vancouver Airport for Signature Class (business class) passengers with "at-risk" connections, so if you're pushed for time, you may find Concierge staff waiting to assist you at the 'baggage check' area between security screening and US passport control.
Overall, not having to collect your checked bags when entering the United States removes a lot of hassle from the transit process you'd otherwise have at other airports, although on the journey back to Australia, a Customs check and security re-screening in between flights isn't as efficient as being able to walk from one gate to the next as you would in major US airports, so allow a little extra time.
Chris Chamberlin travelled to New York as a guest of Star Alliance and Air Canada.