Driving to airport on departure day 

Something that United States-bound travelers sometimes do not appreciate is the amount of time they need to allow between leaving the Rocky Mountains and taking off from Calgary International Airport.  

It is prudent to allow 5 hours from Banff (2 hours for the drive to the airport, 2 hours for check in, and 1 hour for contingencies).  If the passenger is setting out from Lake Louise, it is wise to allow 6 hours (3 hours for the drive, 2 hours for check in, and 1 hour for the unexpected).  If the departure point is Jasper, an even more generous time of about 9 hours is required (5 hours for the drive, 1 hour for a meal along the way, 2 hours for check in, and 1 hour for unforeseen circumstances).  

The reason for the 2-hour check in is that passengers clear  American immigration and customs at Calgary International Airport.  Then, when their plane lands in the United States, it is treated like a domestic flight.  Sometimes the immigration, customs and airport security procedures go very quickly and smoothly.  They may be completed in as little as 30 minutes.  At other times they take in excess of 90 minutes.  There is no way of telling in advance whether the process will be fast or slow.  So the safest thing to do is to allow for the "worst case scenario," and check in 2 hours before take off.

Spending the last night of your vacation in the mountains is feasible only if you have a flight that departs from Calgary around noon or so. 

Overnight in Calgary before morning flight

If you have a morning flight out of Calgary, it is necessary to spend the previous night in Calgary.  You still could have dinner in Banff on your last evening, and then drive to Calgary for the night. 

If you need to be at the airport early in the morning, the most convenient part of Calgary in which to stay is the northeast quadrant, in which the airport is located.  Please note that the northeast quadrant, while it is safe enough and clean enough, has large swaths of commercial zoning (areas in which big box stores are located, etc.).  Consequently it generally is not the most charming part of Calgary.  If you will be spending a couple of days sight seeing in Calgary before you take off, you would be better off staying in the downtown core.  

Here is a list of northeast hotels that offer airport shuttle service:

  • Best Western Airport Inn
  • Best Western Port O'Call
  • Coast Plaza Hotel
  • Comfort Inn & Suites
  • Country Inn & Suites
  • Days Inn Calgary Airport
  • Delta Calgary Airport Hotel -- this is the only hotel that is located inside the airport complex
  • Executive Royal Inn North Calgary
  • Greenwood Inn
  • Hampton Inn & Suites North Calgary
  • Hilton Garden Inn
  • Holiday Inn Airport
  • Marriott Residence Inn
  • Quality Inn Airport
  • Radisson Hotel Calgary Airport
  • Sandman Hotel Airport
  • Sheraton Cavalier
  • Super 8 Motel Calgary Airport
  • Travelodge Hotel Calgary Airport

Although many hotels in the northeast quadrant call themselves airport hotels, it may help you to be aware that there is only one hotel that is right inside the airport complex.  That is the Delta Calgary Airport Hotel. Although most airport hotels used to be only about two or three minutes from the terminal, a major road connection was required to shut down to allow new runway construction. Thus, the drive to the airport from most airport hotels is now around ten minutes.

Airport food

Another challenge that the USA-bound passenger faces is that, once he/she has passed through immigration, customs and airport security and is waiting at the departure gate, the food choices are very limited.

If you want to have lunch before your flight, it is best to eat before you start the check in process. Once you are in the "pipeline" (going through immigration, customs and airport security), there is no opportunity to eat until you reach your departure gate.  Once you do reach your departure gate, you will find that there is only a small selection, and there may be a long line up for service.  Since you will have passed through American immigration and customs, it will be as if you are in the United States.  You will not be allowed to return to other parts of the airport complex in search of better food options.  

If you prefer, you can eat before you reach the airport. There is practically nowhere to eat between Canmore and Calgary, but once you reach Calgary there are plenty of restaurants.

Another option is to drive all the way to Calgary International Airport, hand in your rental car, and eat in the airport complex before checking in for your flight.  If you choose this option, you need to build in extra time for your meal at the airport.  You cannot afford to encroach on the 2 hours that you need for check in.

There are several options for dining at Calgary International Airport.  The most formal facility is the restaurant in the Delta Calgary Airport Hotel.  The airport also has a small handful of informal full service restaurants.  There is a food court just like one you might expect to find in a suburban shopping mall.  Scattered throughout the airport there are a number of fast food outlets.  If you want something other than fast food, it is worth asking for directions to the food court or to a full service restaurant.

Still another solution would be to pack snacks , such as granola bars, into your hand luggage prior to check in.  If you opt for carrying snacks with you, be aware that American customs agents will not let you carry meat or any fresh fruit or vegetable that contains seeds, e.g., apples, etc.  This limits what you can take in the way of sandwiches.