Ed Schmidtke started noticing more Minnesota license plates early this past summer, and the Yanks just kept coming.
Schmidtke, who runs the Thunder Bay, Ontario, airport, said there's been a noticeable rush of Minnesotans driving north this year to save money on airline flights to Europe and other international destinations.
The airlines won't share actual passenger data with Schmidtke, but he said his staff counted 50 percent more U.S. license plates in the airport parking lot in 2016 compared to 2015, helping push the airport to its busiest summer ever.
He expects the trend to continue this winter as Northlanders begin to book trips to warm weather destinations.
"The big draw over the summer was Europe, because Air Canada really does Europe well,'' Schmidtke said. "People were saving $400 or $500 per ticket by driving here and flying to Europe through Toronto rather than driving to Minneapolis and flying out of there."
Schmidtke said he's also compared winter vacation package deals to places like Cancun and Punta Cana, Mexico, "and found the same $400 and $500 difference."
But is it worth the extra hour drive from Duluth to Thunder Bay rather than driving to Minneapolis? That depends on how much money "worth it'' is for you.
A News Tribune online search on Friday found the price difference has narrowed since summer months but that tickets to several international destinations still are cheaper from Thunder Bay than from Minneapolis or Duluth. Air Canada to Paris was $150 less round trip from Thunder Bay than Delta from Minneapolis for a round-trip ticket leaving Jan. 11 and returning Jan. 25. Thunder Bay to London was $265 cheaper for the same dates, and Thunder Bay to Tokyo was more than $300 cheaper than Minneapolis to Tokyo.
A weeklong airfare and hotel package trip to Cancun was more than $400 less through sunwing.ca from Thunder Bay than at suncountry.com from Minneapolis, according to a News Tribune search.
It should be noted that online ticket prices change often, even within a 24-hour period.
Heidi Willeck of Cloquet traveled to Ireland in June for a wedding and said she and her boyfriend saved about $300 per ticket compared to flying out of Minneapolis or Duluth. The trip - from Thunder Bay to Toronto to London to Dublin - had an extra stop, but was well worth the drive north.
"We actually had a big group go over, about 20 of us, and we all went out of Thunder Bay,'' she said. "We have a friend who lives up there, so that helped save a little more (parking) money. But the (airfare) savings was pretty substantial."
Part of the phenomenon can be explained by competition in the Thunder Bay market. Three airlines - Air Canada, Westjet and Porter Airlines - now combine for 16 flights daily to Toronto, a busy international hub airport with direct flights to many overseas cities, said Schmidtke, CEO of the Thunder Bay Airport Authority. Added capacity in a market, more seats on more planes, often results in cheaper fares, he noted.
Add in a strong U.S. dollar - worth about $1.35 in Canada as of Monday - and the price differential continues to widen.
Moreover, travelers heading overseas already have the passport necessary to drive back and forth across the border to Canada.
"Most of the (U.S. traffic) is from Minnesota. But our favorite story is a Wisconsin family from Eau Claire,'' Schmidtke said. "Four of them were going to Spain for a wedding, and they found it considerably less expensive to fly out of Thunder Bay than Chicago, which is about the same distance from Eau Claire."
Some U.S. passengers without friends in Thunder Bay are leaving their vehicles at the airport parking lot during their trips or opting to spend a night at a Thunder Bay hotel and taking hotel shuttles to the airport.
"We saw a noticeable trend of U.S. guests parking here, staying the night and doing our park-and-fly option,'' said Laurie Hoskins, director of marketing at Thunder Bay's Valhalla Inn. "We had a very busy summer in general, and I think that was a good part of it. We obviously don't ask people where they are going. But it was mostly Europe, from what people did tell us."
Natalie Peterson, spokeswoman for the Duluth Airport Authority, said her agency has not seen any data that shows Northlanders flying out of Thunder Bay at any major level. Most Duluth-area passengers who don't fly out of Duluth fly out of Minneapolis-St. Paul, she said.
Many Northlanders remain loyal to Delta, which acquired Minnesota-based Northwest Airlines a decade ago, she noted, and Delta doesn't fly out of Thunder Bay.
"Our data shows that, if we have leakage, it's to MSP. We just aren't seeing anything with Thunder Bay,'' she said. "Most people just aren't going to drive four hours into Canada to fly."
Peterson noted that, over the long term, international flights booked out of Duluth are often as cheap or even cheaper than flying out of other airports.
Duluth travel agents interviewed say they haven't used Thunder Bay much when booking their customers' overseas flights, saying they try to search for the least expensive fares out of Duluth - if their clients are flexible in what days they can travel.
Jennifer Maki at Duluth's Divine Destinations said she has sent some travelers through Toronto on their way to popular destinations at peak seasons, when comparable U.S. routes are full.
"It's an interesting concept and when it works, it works well. But to be honest, it's not always the best choice,'' Maki said of the Canadian option. "We are lucky to have two great carriers here in Duluth, United and Delta, who can get us to anywhere in the world as it is. I've found that most people don't even know how affordable flying from Duluth can be. ... A few weeks ago I found tickets to Mexico 50 cents more out of Duluth than Minneapolis. It pays to look."
Maki also cautioned international travelers about online, cut-rate fares that are not refundable or exchangeable if weather while driving to a faraway airport forces travelers to miss a flight. Travel agents often can help solve that problem with tickets they book, she notes, by changing itineraries even at the last minute.
Some Northland travelers are saving money by driving to Thunder Bay to start their overseas flights. Here are some comparisons made by a News Tribune search on Friday.
Destination: Paris, Jan. 11-25
- Leave from Thunder Bay, Air Canada $640
- Leave from Minneapolis $790
- Leave from Duluth, Delta: $1,371
- Leave form Duluth, United: $1,449
Destination: London, Jan. 11-25
- Leave form Thunder Bay, Air Canada: $613
- Leave from Minneapolis, Delta: $878
- Leave form Duluth, Delta: $1,371
- Leave form Duluth, United: $1,475
Destination: Tokyo, Jan. 11-25
- Leave from Thunder Bay, Air Canada: $722
- Leave from Minneapolis, Delta: $1,444
- Leave from Duluth, Delta: $1,048
- Leave form Duluth, United: $1,048
Destination: Cancun, Mexico, Jan. 11-18
- Airfare and hotel package
- Leave form Thunder Bay, sunwing.ca: $702
- Leave from Minneapolis, suncountry.com: $1,177.90
All flights round trip, per person, cheapest fare available, includes taxes and fees, U.S. funds.