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UM-Fan

Vancouver to Alaska - Am I going to wait hours?

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I have sailed before out of a Canada port (Montreal) and had no long lines to get through customs, matter of fact it was a fairly easy process, however I was just chatting with my TA about something else and she started telling me horror stories about check in and customs waiting times of over three hours before you can board the ship when sailing out of Vancouver. Is this normal?  I have already had to change my flights into Vancouver since my airline cancelled my original flight and the only thing I could arrange was a flight into Seattle the night before then a morning flight from Seatac to YVR that doesn't get into YVR until just before 11AM.  I was okay with the flight change until I heard about the long lines getting through the embarkation.  Should I be worried?

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In my experience, that hasn't been the case but there is always the opportunity for a horror story to occur. Of course, you still need to clear customs but wait times of 3 hours+ seems quite abnormal. It all depends on how many people are on duty, how many cruise ships are in port, how many "problem" passengers they have encountered, etc. 

 

I would not worry about it too much, but do know that to get from YVR to the cruise terminal, it will take you at least 35 minutes if not more to get there as traffic can be a nightmare once you get downtown, plus you have to clear customs in Canada upon your arrival at the airport. Not sure when your ship is leaving, but it seems like you'd be cutting it close. 

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Posted (edited)

3+ hours is not what happens very often.  Take a look and see how many ships are in port on your embarkation day.  Unless there is some major inspection or a late arrival in port of your ship, things should be fine.  You will have plenty of time to get out of YVR, to Canada Place and onboard. 

 

Enjoy!

Edited by SilvertoGold

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13 minutes ago, UM-Fan said:

the only thing I could arrange was a flight into Seattle the night before then a morning flight from Seatac to YVR that doesn't get into YVR until just before 11AM. 

 

You will need to clear Canadian Customs/Immigration at the airport, and get your luggage.  The taxi service is pretty efficient, there is usually a line up of taxis waiting at the airport. 

 

Once you are in the vicinity of the cruise terminal in downtown Vancouver, traffic can be a nightmare, so that 35 minute ride might turn into 50 or 60 minutes. 

 

We've had several experiences early in the season with long, long, long lines to clear US Immigration at the terminal before boarding the ship.   In every instance, the ship has waited for the passengers.

 

Have you looked at taking an early bus or train to get from Seattle to Vancouver?

 

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The worst lines we have seen was in Montreal, while never (4 times) much a wait in Vancouver!  It just depends on how many ships, how many Customs staff show up, etc.

 

 

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Posted (edited)

I sailed from there last May (mid-month).  I had read in advance that the early cruises are typically slower because they're not always fully staffed + a lot of new people are working at the port since it's a seasonal job.  We went to the port a little after 11am.  There were three ships in port embarking that day (two HAL + one Princess).  This is how it worked:

 

  • Arrive at port
  • Directed downstairs to check bags with porters
  • Go back upstairs to big holding room where you are given a card with a number
  • Sit in that big room until they call your number
  • Go by group to the security lines (to x-ray your carry-ons and go through metal detectors)
  • Go to US Customs
  • Get to the check-in counters for HAL

We had to sit in that big holding room for about 45 minutes.  We have Global Entry, which did not do anything for the relatively short security line but did allow us to go to a dedicated booth at Customs, so it was maybe 5 minutes to get through it. However, we got to skip in front of several hundred people, and this is where the major hold-up was occurring. Consider that I was "in line" in the big room for 45 minutes and then would have had to stand in an actual line for who-knows-how-long after that. Also, when we got to the big room, it was only about 1/4 full; by the time we left, it was about 3/4 full. There was no way to skip the big holding room part, even with Global Entry (we were also in a suite, but that didn't matter, either).

 

From Customs, we proceeded to the HAL check-in desks to get our room keys. That part was practically empty, and the check-in people asked us if the lines were long because they had seen very few people come through. We were on the ship around 1pm, so it took about 2 hours from start to finish, and that was because we arrived before "the rush" and also had Global Entry. All of the ships set sail late that day because of the Customs lines.  I believe the experience is a matter of how many ships are in port and what time of year it is. 

Edited by bEwAbG

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Don't worry.  You will clear Canadian customs at YVR.  After that just go to the front of the terminal and get on the Sky Train to Waterfront Station. It's a short 2 block walk to Canada Place.  Much quicker and more convenient than a cab, due to traffic enroute and at Canada Place.  Depending on how many ships are at Canada Place it could take a while as you now have to go through U.S. Customs before boarding. We've been sailing out of Vancouver for many years and they won't leave you behind.  Relax and enjoy your cruise along the beautiful West Coast.

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3 minutes ago, bEwAbG said:

I sailed from there last May (mid-month).  I had read in advance that the early cruises are typically slower because they're not always fully staffed + a lot of new people are working at the port since it's a seasonal job.  We went to the port a little after 11am.  There were three ships in port embarking that day (two HAL + one Princess).  This is how it worked:

 

  • Arrive at port
  • Directed downstairs to check bags with porters
  • Go back upstairs to big holding room where you are given a card with a number
  • Sit in that big room until they call your number
  • Go by group to the security lines (to x-ray your carry-ons and go through metal detectors)
  • Go to US Customs
  • Get to the check-in counters for HAL

We had to sit in that big holding room for about 45 minutes.  We have Global Entry, which did not do anything for the relatively short security line but did allow us to go to a dedicated booth at Customs, so it was maybe 5 minutes to get through it. However, we got to skip in front of several hundred people, and this is where the major hold-up was occurring. Consider that I was "in line" in the big room for 45 minutes and then would have had to stand in an actual line for who-knows-how-long after that. Also, when we got to the big room, it was only about 1/4 full; by the time we left, it was about 3/4 full. There was no way to skip the big holding room part, even with Global Entry.

 

From Customs, we proceeded to the HAL check-in desks to get our room keys. That part was practically empty, and the check-in people asked us if the lines were long because they had seen very few people come through. We were on the ship around 1pm, so it took about 2 hours from start to finish, and that was because we arrived before "the rush" and also had Global Entry. All of the ships set sail late that day because of the Customs lines.  I believe the experience is a matter of how many ships are in port and what time of year it is. 

 

Do you know if they did anything to expedite passengers with priority boarding? (NS, PS, 4* and 5* Mariners)

 

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2 minutes ago, 3rdGenCunarder said:

Do you know if they did anything to expedite passengers with priority boarding? (NS, PS, 4* and 5* Mariners)

 

Not until you got to the check-in area, which was the last part of the process.  There were zero lines when we got there, but they were separated by type (regular versus priority).  All of the priority check-in workers were standing around our one check-in person because they were bored.  It was a very slow trickle of people coming through.

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Posted (edited)
6 minutes ago, 3rdGenCunarder said:

 

Do you know if they did anything to expedite passengers with priority boarding? (NS, PS, 4* and 5* Mariners)

 

 

I don't think one's cruise line status makes any difference to U.S. Immigration/Customs. Once you get through the security line and Customs, of course it does.

Edited by SJSULIBRARIAN

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6 minutes ago, liontamers said:

After that just go to the front of the terminal and get on the Sky Train to Waterfront Station. It's a short 2 block walk to Canada Place.  Much quicker and more convenient than a cab, due to traffic enroute and at Canada Place.

 

Second this suggestion.  That train is a great amenity for cruisers and is very easy to navigate (assuming you're not bringing a ton of luggage & are mobile enough to walk a few blocks).

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12 minutes ago, SJSULIBRARIAN said:

 

I don't think one's cruise line status makes any difference to U.S. Immigration/Customs. Once you get through the security line and Customs, of course it does.

 

But if the first step is the holding pen, they could give different numbers to the suites and 4-5* passengers. Cunard does that at some of the Southampton terminals, depending on how they're set up. It worked very well last time I was QM2. Priority passengers went right to check in (security was after check in), and they called numbers to check in small groups of non-priority passengers at a time. So people may have had to sit for a while (and the terminal we were in has loads of seating), but there was almost no standing in a line to check in, and because the flow was controlled, almost no waiting at security.

 

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Posted (edited)

Security and Customs is before check-in in Vancouver.  They could allow those with priority to skip the waiting room, but for whatever reason, they don't.  You'd have to be familiar with the terminal building to understand why the flow works the way it does, and I don't think there would be an easy solution to move security and Customs without construction.  I like the idea of giving priority numbers to priority customers but for now the numbers are just sequential: first-come, first-serve style.

 

I believe what I described is the "improved" process they instituted a couple of years ago because people were having to stand in line for Customs for hours (it's been a long-time complaint).  So, at least this process lets your sit down while you wait.  Hopefully it will evolve so that priority passengers do get to skip that part of the wait.  One complicating factor is that there are different cruise lines using the same facilities at the same time so it would take close coordination with the port to make it work seamlessly.

Edited by bEwAbG

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5 minutes ago, bEwAbG said:

Security and Customs is before check-in in Vancouver.  They could allow those with priority to skip the waiting room, but for whatever reason, they don't.  You'd have to be familiar with the terminal building to understand why the flow works the way it does, and I don't think there would be an easy solution to move security and Customs without construction.  I like the idea of giving priority numbers to priority customers but for now the numbers are just sequential: first-come, first-serve style.

 

I believe what I described is the "improved" process they instituted a couple of years ago because people were having to stand in line for Customs for hours (it's been a long-time complaint).  So, at least this process lets your sit down while you wait.  Hopefully it will evolve so that priority passengers do get to skip that part of the wait.  One complicating factor is that there are different cruise lines using the same facilities at the same time so it would take close coordination with the port to make it work seamlessly.

 

I understand the layout of the building. I've only been there once, but I remember the sequence being as you describe it except for the pre-security holding pen. We got there early and the line wasn't excruciating. I'm not asking them to rearrange the building. But if they have a pre-security holding area it would be easy enough to give out different numbers. As I said, Cunard makes it work. My next Alaska cruise is on QE, so I hope Cunard will do it in Vancouver the way they do in Southampton. If not, at least I'll have somewhere to sit and read while I wait.

 

 

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OP - since I don't know when you are cruising, I can only give you the general info and point you to the cruise schedule on the port website, so you can assess the likelihood of long delays for yourself. The key points are, first: how many ships? and second: when during the season are you cruising?

 

The horror stories pretty much all share two points in common: 3+ ships, and a May departure. The latter because of new shoreside staff, CBP agents who may also be unfamiliar with the port as they just got assigned, and therefore a lack of efficiency until people get trained up and familiar with processes and location. The former because the pier itself has limited capacity to process passengers - with one or two ships, there can still be bottlenecks if too many folks show up at about the same time (e.g. every  cruise day there is a surge of pax a little after noon because that's when Amtrak arrives) but it should never be too bad.

 

But with 3 or 4 ships there is no room for error and even a minor snag causes backups - with CBP being by far the worst offender as not only is there a physical limit to how many agents and kiosks they can make use of in the space, but they're also prone to not staff all the desks all the time. CBP have total control over when people get to move - if their room is full, they stop anyone being allowed to leave the 'holding pen.' This does tend to mean that once you DO leave the first room, you should in theory flow relatively smoothly through Security and then CBP.

 

You can't do anything about either of these key points (short of rebooking a different cruise!), but you CAN minimise the likely delays by choosing when you arrive at the pier. With a flight ETA of 11am, going early is off the table - even if you didn't have Canadian immigration to deal with at YVR, there's no way you could get to the pier fast enough (it's all about beating as many other pax as possible - and Joe Experienced Cruiser knows that 11am is a nice time to arrive at the pier!) What you can do though is arrive as LATE as possible - and that's actually the most efficient thing to do anyway, with the shortest possible time spent queuing (early people sit around until anywhere from 11am to noon before anyone is allowed to start moving, so show up at 10-ish and you'll always wait 90mins or more to get on board).

 

Since we abandoned the concept of boarding early enough to get lunch in the MDR, and instead show up after 2pm, we've been flowing right through with almost no waiting ever even on 3 ship days. You MUST arrive at least 90mins before departure for the manifest to be locked-down, but the closer you get to that limit the shorter the queues - aim for 2 hours before, be somewhere close by having lunch or sightseeing so that you don't have any travel risks, and you'll be weighting the odds as much in your favour as you can. Boarding late, sometimes we literally only stop walking when we have to interact with someone so it's 20 minutes from curb to cabin.

 

Even though you won't have time for much sightseeing OP, assuming an on-time flight you can expect to be downtown by some time between noon and 1pm - you can drop your bags with the longshoremen right away, but then instead of joining the queues go for lunch or maybe ride FlyOverCanada (this is right at the pier, takes <30mins to experience, so even with a bit of a queue you can be in and out and back to start the boarding process within an hour).

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56 minutes ago, 3rdGenCunarder said:

 

I understand the layout of the building. ... But if they have a pre-security holding area it would be easy enough to give out different numbers. As I said, Cunard makes it work.

Back in the day, on quieter days with just one or two ships, check-in did sometimes happen first so that priority folks could indeed get first dibs on the Security and CBP process. So it's been tried, and unfortunately it leads to WORSE delays throughout the season because it simply cannot be done on busy days so everyone has to learn two separate processes - more confusion, more delays for longer.

 

It's not feasible to continue doing check-in first on busy days - and that's the only way to verify who everyone is priority-wise as nobody has their fancy cards until after check-in. There is just not enough room to pack in desks and lines for ALL the cruise lines, each separating Priority pax from the Plebs, and then of course because it's up to CBP not the cruise line when people move out of holding there also has to be room for the fancypants people to wait before being called up, without the third-class types being able to sneak in.

 

Given we are up to 4 ships at Canada Place simultaneously now, potentially four cruiselines would need their individual spaces and of course there would be infighting as to WHOSE priority people got priority over the OTHER lines' priority people because everyone then has to merge into the communal Security and CBP queues. Lastly, Princess are one of the biggest lines in Vancouver - and thanks to their Loyalty program allowing 'completed cruises' as a way to qualify, the many 1 day Van-Seattle cruises are used to boost Status by all sensible locals in Seattle and Vancouver. It's actually quite normal in Vancouver for the Princess 'priority' line to be longer than the pleb line because so many people have high status! I've been on cruises where over half the pax onboard were Platinum+ in this part of the world.

 

I'm guessing that Cunard at Southhampton are the ONLY line using a given pier, and obviously they don't have US government officials demanding that things happen under their control, so it's trivial for them to do things in whatever order they like - but we unfortunately have many more constraints on Canada Place. At least our pier is slap bang downtown though, surrounded by all the delights of Vancouver - instead of folks mostly schlepping their way in from London on embarkation morning! So personally I'd wager that the total time from airport to cabin is still better here even on crappy May 3 shippers than it ever gets for folks using Southhampton unless they actually live in town 😉

 

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I can buy that figuring out the various lines' priority schemes would be a mess, but it makes less sense that anyone with Global Entry (or any trusted traveler program with status) has to stand in the Customs line, which is what is happening when they have to go to the waiting room.  That is the next evolution they should start pursuing this season.  There was zero wait for that line once we got to Customs, so they could process more people through quickly by focusing on just that program. 

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18 minutes ago, martincath said:

Back in the day, on quieter days with just one or two ships, check-in did sometimes happen first so that priority folks could indeed get first dibs on the Security and CBP process. So it's been tried, and unfortunately it leads to WORSE delays throughout the season because it simply cannot be done on busy days so everyone has to learn two separate processes - more confusion, more delays for longer.

 

It's not feasible to continue doing check-in first on busy days - and that's the only way to verify who everyone is priority-wise as nobody has their fancy cards until after check-in. There is just not enough room to pack in desks and lines for ALL the cruise lines, each separating Priority pax from the Plebs, and then of course because it's up to CBP not the cruise line when people move out of holding there also has to be room for the fancypants people to wait before being called up, without the third-class types being able to sneak in.

 

Given we are up to 4 ships at Canada Place simultaneously now, potentially four cruiselines would need their individual spaces and of course there would be infighting as to WHOSE priority people got priority over the OTHER lines' priority people because everyone then has to merge into the communal Security and CBP queues. Lastly, Princess are one of the biggest lines in Vancouver - and thanks to their Loyalty program allowing 'completed cruises' as a way to qualify, the many 1 day Van-Seattle cruises are used to boost Status by all sensible locals in Seattle and Vancouver. It's actually quite normal in Vancouver for the Princess 'priority' line to be longer than the pleb line because so many people have high status! I've been on cruises where over half the pax onboard were Platinum+ in this part of the world.

 

I'm guessing that Cunard at Southhampton are the ONLY line using a given pier, and obviously they don't have US government officials demanding that things happen under their control, so it's trivial for them to do things in whatever order they like - but we unfortunately have many more constraints on Canada Place. At least our pier is slap bang downtown though, surrounded by all the delights of Vancouver - instead of folks mostly schlepping their way in from London on embarkation morning! So personally I'd wager that the total time from airport to cabin is still better here even on crappy May 3 shippers than it ever gets for folks using Southhampton unless they actually live in town 😉

 

 

I think we were the only ship boarding when we were there, as it was late in the season. I didn't realize the holding pen was for all sets of passengers together. I have never been in a situation where check in and security were shared like that. It's been quite a while since I've boarded at westside piers in NYC, where ships could have to share a pier,  but back when we did, if our cruise shared a pier, the passenger streams were always separated. 

 

I'm sorry if my "fancypants" attitude annoys you, but I've got 300+ days on Cunard and I feel that I've paid for a little priority. Cunard does, too. They take good care of their past passengers, and I can't imaging that the super-fancypants folks in Queens Grill suites are going to love the cattle pen. 

 

 

 

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3 hours ago, bEwAbG said:

 

Second this suggestion.  That train is a great amenity for cruisers and is very easy to navigate (assuming you're not bringing a ton of luggage & are mobile enough to walk a few blocks).

The train from Seattle stps at the Central Pacific Station and that is a cab ride from Canada Place,

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7 minutes ago, 3rdGenCunarder said:

I think we were the only ship boarding when we were there, as it was late in the season. I didn't realize the holding pen was for all sets of passengers together. I have never been in a situation where check in and security were shared like that. It's been quite a while since I've boarded at westside piers in NYC, where ships could have to share a pier,  but back when we did, if our cruise shared a pier, the passenger streams were always separated. 

 

I'm sorry if my "fancypants" attitude annoys you, but I've got 300+ days on Cunard and I feel that I've paid for a little priority. Cunard does, too. They take good care of their past passengers, and I can't imaging that the super-fancypants folks in Queens Grill suites are going to love the cattle pen.

Yup, one holding pen so it's cattle-class for everyone - like I said, physical space limitations! Manhattan has no more than 2 ships on a pier, one berth each side, and no Immigration for folks getting on so it's trivial there to just have 2 sets of everything - we have to get up to 4 ships boarding at once, and the only separate elements are the ones unique to each separate cruiseline, i.e. Check-in, which is done as physically close to each berth as possible while everything else is communal. There simply isn't room to squeeze in multiple Security stations, and even if there were it would lower efficiency - imagine Security and CBP agents standing around whistling at the HAL queue while the Princess queue was slammed? One queue for all leads to the most efficient use of thoise resources.

 

I have no beef with folks who have lots of cruises under their belts or just drop lots of cash getting priority - I've got NEXUS myself purely to expedite my US/Canadian border crossings compared to Joe Q Public - but I do admit to reveling in a little schadenfreude when I overhear complaints from folks about having to slum it with the commoners in Vancouver 😉

 

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1 minute ago, martincath said:

Yup, one holding pen so it's cattle-class for everyone - like I said, physical space limitations! Manhattan has no more than 2 ships on a pier, one berth each side, and no Immigration for folks getting on so it's trivial there to just have 2 sets of everything - we have to get up to 4 ships boarding at once, and the only separate elements are the ones unique to each separate cruiseline, i.e. Check-in, which is done as physically close to each berth as possible while everything else is communal. There simply isn't room to squeeze in multiple Security stations, and even if there were it would lower efficiency - imagine Security and CBP agents standing around whistling at the HAL queue while the Princess queue was slammed? One queue for all leads to the most efficient use of thoise resources.

 

I have no beef with folks who have lots of cruises under their belts or just drop lots of cash getting priority - I've got NEXUS myself purely to expedite my US/Canadian border crossings compared to Joe Q Public - but I do admit to reveling in a little schadenfreude when I overhear complaints from folks about having to slum it with the commoners in Vancouver 😉

 

 

I never said I objected to "slumming it with the commoners." I just hate standing/sitting around waiting, and not having to do that is one of the perks I've become used to traveling on Cunard. And HAL, too, now that I hit 4-star. I may be spoiled, but I'm not a snob. I travel in what we affectionately call "steerage" on Cunard, so I'm a commoner.

 

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27 minutes ago, bEwAbG said:

I can buy that figuring out the various lines' priority schemes would be a mess, but it makes less sense that anyone with Global Entry (or any trusted traveler program with status) has to stand in the Customs line, which is what is happening when they have to go to the waiting room.  That is the next evolution they should start pursuing this season.  There was zero wait for that line once we got to Customs, so they could process more people through quickly by focusing on just that program. 

They don't - there is a Global Entry line for Security as well as Immigration. Furthest left IIRC. Signage however, is VERY poor at Canada Place as it is not a permanent cruise port so everything is temporary and often just one of the little waist-height poles for marking queues has a roughly Letter-size sign stuck on top of it.

 

If you don't get proactive about asking people where the GE line is you will end up stuck with everyone else!

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Just now, 3rdGenCunarder said:

I never said I objected to "slumming it with the commoners." I just hate standing/sitting around waiting, and not having to do that is one of the perks I've become used to traveling on Cunard. And HAL, too, now that I hit 4-star. I may be spoiled, but I'm not a snob. I travel in what we affectionately call "steerage" on Cunard, so I'm a commoner.

I think this is a case of message boards, like email, being a poor medium for communicating tone and subtleties. I never meant that I assumed you were, or would, vocalize your complaints in such a manner - I'm referring to the entitled but classless people who stand in line moaning out loud to all and sundry about how much Status/how many cruises/how much they spent on a Suite (i.e. basically "I am more important/richer/worthier than all of YOU and should not have to hang around with such people") rather than gracefully accepting the fact that it's just not done that way here.

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14 minutes ago, martincath said:

I've got NEXUS myself purely to expedite my US/Canadian border crossings

 

We also have NEXUS. Can you use that at the GE line?

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1 minute ago, PSR said:

We also have NEXUS. Can you use that at the GE line?

Yes indeedy - read the small print on your card very carefully (or the original leaflets if you still have them). NEXUS is the best TT program as it incorporates ALL the benefits of GE and TSA Pre, PLUS the extraspecial magical land border lanes at the Canadian border AND expedited Canadian domestic flight Security queues. For half the cost of GE. The only downside is the very limited number of sites for interview due to requiring both CBSA and CBP staff.

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