As we packed for a recent road trip to Vancouver, I gave my bags an extra look. Something seemed to be missing. But what?
"Did you remember our passports?" my husband called out. D'oh. I grabbed the documents and put them in my purse for easy access.
The Canadian Border Services Agency won't say how many Americans are turned away each year because they've forgotten their passport or other valid travel documents, which include a birth certificate with a driver's license, an enhanced driver's license or a NEXUS card (more on that later).
But the stricter entrance requirements, which went into effect in 2009, have decreased the number of U.S.-Canadian land border crossings. In 2010, 14.3 million Americans drove into Canada compared to 24.5 million in 2005, according to Statistics Canada.
Yet traffic from the States to our northern neighbor always increases during the summer months. So if you're heading on a road trip that involves crossing the Canadian border, here are a few things to keep in mind. Just make sure that passport is in hand.
Check -- and confirm -- border wait times.Nothing cuts into the fun of a road trip than idling in a line for three hours. In general, truck routes on smaller highways will take less time than those on a major highway, so if you can take the alternate route without going too far out of your way, it's usually worthwhile.
Several websites publish border crossing wait times; the Canadian Border Services Agency updates wait times hourly and also broadcasts delays on Twitter. Every hour, U.S. Customs and Border Protection updates its own chart, which also gives when each checkpoint is open.
I've downloaded the free iPhone app, Borderlines, so my next trip north through Peace Arch in British Columbia -- the busiest crossing between the U.S. and Canada -- will be less of a hassle. Other busy entry points, according to the Canadian Border Services Agency, include Peace Bridge, Ambassador Bridge, and Niagara Falls' Rainbow Bridge (all in Ontario).
Prepare at the border.Collect passports from all passengers and hand them to the driver. Take off sunglasses so officials can compare your face to your travel document. Roll down the windows so the border agents can talk to everyone in the car.
Traveling with children presents additional concerns. If you have a child with you who isn't yours, you'll need to have a written permission from their parents, along with telephone numbers and addresses where they can be reached. And if you're divorced, the Canadian Border Services Agency website recommends that you have a copy of your custody agreement that shows that you're allowed to take your kid out of the country.
Declare yourself.Bringing beer on your camping trip? You should declare it, even if it's under the duty tax limit. Canada also has a strict policy on bringing meats, fruits, veggies, plants, or animal products into the country so eat your apple before you hit the border. (For more details on Canadian customs, read this document).
Turn off all electronic devices. International charges for most cellular phones go into effect as soon as you enter Canadian airspace. Turn off data roaming if you don't have an international plan, and monitor your data usage even if you do.
Get a NEXUS card. See those cars whizzing past you as you wait in the border line? Those drivers have NEXUS cards, which pre-approve them as trusted travelers. You apply online for the card ($50 for five years), and then have a follow-up interview with U.S. and Canadian officials at a NEXUS enrollment center.Program manager Margit McGrath, a Vancouver resident who has both American and Canadian citizenship, finds the card invaluable. "Not only does it help when you're driving, but it saves time at the airport too," she said.
And make sure your family does, too.You can only use the NEXUS lane if everyone in your vehicle has a card. While McGrath said people do sometimes drop friends without cards off to cross the border by foot, it's not practical -- or nice.
More information on crossing the Canadian border is available on the Canadian Border Services Agency website.