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March 5, 2004 -- Canada's discount airlines are extending tendrils across the border, claiming to offer lower fares to folks willing to seek out their websites. But because of very high taxes and some smoke-and-mirrors dealings by Canadian airlines, the fares aren't as low as they seem. In fact, of the three airlines venturing south, only one -- Jetsgo -- gets our low-fare seal of approval.

A Quick Primer For Ugly Americans

Over here "down south," as the Canadians call it, we have full-service airlines like American and United, and low-fare airlines like Southwest and JetBlue.

Canada has only one full-service airline, though it goes by many names. Air Canada (www.aircanada.com) dominates the skies up there; its sub-brands and partners include Jazz, Zip, Air Nova, Air Ontario, Air Georgian, AirBC, Canadian Regional Airlines, Air Alliance, Air Creebec, Air Labrador, Aviation Quebec Labrador, Calm Air and Central Mountain Air.

Charter airlines Skyservice (www.conquestvacations.com) and Air Transat (www.airtransat.com) also offer scheduled service from Canada to various Canadian and international destinations.

WestJet (www.westjet.ca) is the biggest of Canada's low-fare carriers, considered the "Southwest Airlines of Canada." It has recently been joined by Canjet (www.canjet.ca), Jetsgo (www.jetsgo.ca) and HMY Airways (www.hmyairways.com). Zip (www.4321zip.com) is a "low-fare" spinoff of mega-airline Air Canada.

Crossing the border, you'll find plenty of flights on Air Canada and major US airlines, including United, American, Alaska and America West. None of the smaller US budget airlines fly to Canada.

Of the Canadian budget bunch, Jetsgo flies from Toronto to New York, Las Vegas, and during winter and spring to three other cities in Florida: Fort Lauderdale, Ft. Myers and Sanford, near Orlando. It also flies from Halifax and Montreal to Fort Lauderdale during cold months.

Canjet flies from Toronto to New York and Chicago (starting June 4), and to three cities in Florida: St. Petersburg, Sarasota and West Palm Beach.

HMY Airways flies from Vancouver to Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Doing the Canadian Shuffle

Of the Canadian low-fare bunch, Jetsgo offers the best fares -- and they're the only one truly honest about taxes. Other Canadian airlines advertise low fares, but then pad the bottom line with bogus "fuel surcharges" and a fee for maintaining the Canadian air traffic control system (NavCan) that by all rights should be part of the base fare, as it's paid by airlines, not by individual travelers.

(We're not alone in our anger. A Transport Canada working group agreed that fees such as fuel surcharges and NavCan "seem to be broken out only to make the base price seem lower than it really is."

Jetsgo's deals between New York and Toronto are pretty sweet: US$118/C$158 roundtrip, plus an obnoxious US$59.18/C$97.35 in taxes. For that you get three flights a day between Newark and Toronto on Mondays-Fridays, plus one roundtrip on Sundays.

Their one flight, three times a week between Toronto and Las Vegas runs US$212/C$278, plus the same taxes. Fares to and from Florida start at US$150/C$238, not bad at all.

Of course, you have to deal with a much more limited selection of flights than you'd get from Air Canada. And if a plane breaks down, you might be in for quite a wait.

Canjet advertises C$188 roundtrips from New York to Toronto and Montreal and C$248 trips from Chicago to Toronto. That's a crock, because they tack a C$58 "Nav-Fuel-Ins Surcharge" onto every roundtrip ticket. In English, that means "gas prices went up, so we want to raise the fare, but in a sneaky way."

Where Jetsgo adds C$97.35 in "taxes" to a ticket, Canjet adds an amazing C$143.51 to every roundtrip. Keep that in mind when comparing their prices to other carriers'.

HMY Airways falls in the middle in the sleaziness sweepstakes. They aren't trying to fob off a phony fuel surcharge, but they do tack on C$30 for air-traffic control. Their one flight, Mondays-Fridays, between LA and Vancouver costs C$298 before taxes; their twice-weekly trip on Sundays and Thursdays from Vancouver to Vegas is C$358. In both cases, tack on around C$105 in taxes.

(Air Canada isn't all that virtuous, either. Like HMY, they add in air-traffic control fees after the fact, fees that should be part of the base price of a ticket.)

How Do They Compare?

JetsGo's fares are a breath of fresh air bringing neighbors closer together. Their US$177.18 (including tax) roundtrips between New York and Toronto spank the competition. Major airlines can't seem to pull below the US$200 mark.

JetsGo's fare from Las Vegas, at US$271 including tax, also consistently beats the competition -- if you can put up with their less-than-frequent flight schedules.

Canjet, on the other hand, seems to be running a bait-and-switch deal. For a trip from Chicago-Toronto in June, the cheapest regular fare we found was US$267 on United. Canjet advertises a fare of C$248/US$183 -- which looks great -- but their insane "taxes" drive it up to C$391/US$289, no longer a deal.

How does HMY do? So-so. For a round trip between LA and Vancouver, they'll charge you US$279 including taxes. That was the lowest fare we found, sure -- but Alaska Airlines matched it, and they have more daily flights. And their US$342 roundtrip between Las Vegas and Vancouver was walloped by America West when we checked for April dates.

Still, if you're flying on routes served by these three airlines, make all three part of your comparison-shopping experience. Given the variability of airfares, you very well might find a deal.