Planning a Quick Getaway to Montréal, Québec

First in a series about Montréal

Colors of Vieux-Port de Montréal
Colors at the Montréal waterfront.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

If it wasn’t already evident, I’ve become a bit of a travel addict of late.  It wasn’t until this year that airline points and websites like The Flight Deal enabled me to take more than two or three trips a year, and I’ve been fortunate to see some amazing places recently.  Earlier this week, I traveled to Montréal for a quick trip on my days off.  I’d only begun planning a week in advance when I noticed that award space was wide open on the American Eagle (operated by Air Wisconsin) route between Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) and Montréal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport (YUL).  I studied a Québec foliage map and noticed that there was a good chance foliage would be peak soon.

Vieux-Port de Montréal
Vieux-Port de Montréal

The handsome buildings of Vieux-Port, the natural beauty of Mont Royal and the Saint Lawrence River, the charming row homes with their curved staircases, and abundance of local craft beer combine to make Montréal one of my favorite cities.  Although less than 8 hours by car from home, I hadn’t visited in four years.

During my first two visits to Montréal, I’d traveled on Amtrak’s Adirondack.  Although a very scenic route along the Hudson River and Lake Champlain, the 11-hour journey from New York (plus another two to get there from Wilmington, Delaware) made the train impractical when I only had a little over 48 hours off.  Air was the logical choice, given the flight clocks in at just over an hour (the same time the Adirondack typically sits waiting to go through customs at the border).

The train journey between New York and Montréal is scenic, but slow. Lowell Silverman photography, 2009
The train journey between New York and Montréal is scenic, but slow. Lowell Silverman photography, 2009
Lake in upstate New York seen from the train. Lowell Silverman photography, 2011
Lake in upstate New York seen from the train. Lowell Silverman photography, 2011

Waiting for the NB

Air

This trip illustrates the extreme usefulness of airline points for making practical trips that would otherwise be quite unaffordable.  American Airlines has a monopoly on nonstop flights between PHL and YUL and it shows.  Although only 392 miles by air (631 km), flight prices hover around $550-600 roundtrip even when booking months out, whether week or weekend.  When I looked a week prior to my trip, cash prices were $899 roundtrip.

Update on November 28, 2015: Air Canada announced that two Air Canada Express flights in each direction will begin May 24, 2016 so we may see a drop in prices due to competition in the market.

I’ve written before about how valuable the British Airways points currency known as Avios are when a traveler lives near a oneworld alliance hub (in this case the American Airlines hub at Philadelphia).  The great thing is that the British Airways award chart is distance based and can be used on partner airlines.  Flights up to 650 miles (1,046 km) are just 4,500 Avios each way.  PHL – YUL falls into this sweet spot: Though my itinerary would have cost 25,000 AAdvantage points roundtrip, the very same flights cost just 9,000 Avios roundtrip (plus $52 in fees).  That’s an impressive 9.4 cents/point in value, transferred instantly from Chase Ultimate Rewards.  (Opinions differ but a good ballpark figure is that more than 2 cents/point is a good redemption value.)

Update on July 7, 2016: A few months ago, the Avios program devalued short distance trips beginning or ending in the United States; flights up to 650 miles are now 7,500 Avios each way.  That still can be a good value under some circumstances, since this trip would have been worth 5.65 cents/point.

Hotel

I was able to save money in another way as well.  American Express frequently has offers that cardholders can activate online.  One recent offer was $50 statement credit for $200 or more spent on Rocketmiles.  Rocketmiles is a hotel booking website sort of like Hotels.com.  Instead of getting free hotel stays, users can accumulate a lot of extra miles in a wide variety of airline programs (and now, it seems, non-airline companies like Amtrak and Amazon.com).  Miles vary widely by hotel but 1,000-2,000/night is pretty typical.  Rocketmiles processed the transaction themselves so there was no foreign transaction fee.

I’d only used Rocketmiles once before.  In many cities they offer limited hotels (or none at all) compared to other hotel booking websites, and I’ve also found in the past that their prices are sometimes higher than their competitors’.  It’s typically most useful in larger cities.  In this case, I was pleased to find that the hotel I wanted to stay in, the Zero 1, was available on Rocketmiles at the same price as competing websites.  I earned 2,000 Alaska Airlines miles for my stay (worth about $40), plus the $50 reimbursement from American Express.  If you would like to try Rocketmiles, feel free to use this link (we both get 1,000 bonus miles if you book).  Remember to compare other hotel booking websites like Hotels.com or Booking.com or the hotel’s own website to see if a better deal is available.

Kiosk selling tickets for the 747 bus from YUL to downtown
Kiosk selling tickets for the 747 bus from YUL to downtown.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

Ground Transportation

All the things I wanted to see in Montréal are accessible by foot or public transportation (operated by STM).  The 747 bus connects YUL with downtown Montréal.  You can pay $10 Canadian (about $7.68 US at the current favorable exchange rate; exact change only, no bills) to ride the bus from the airport.  A better option is to buy a STM pass at the kiosks located on the other side of customs.

The passes are $10 for a day or $18 for three days.  The STM pass is good for the airport bus, as well as buses and the subway downtown.  I definitely got my money’s worth with the three day pass.  Unlike automated kiosks in Europe (which usually require PINs), I had no trouble using my Chip+Signature credit card.  Both buses and subway entrances have a reader that the STM pass is placed atop, not a slot like similar cards use.  STM recommends allowing 45-60 minutes for the bus ride, depending on traffic; the ride to my hotel took about 40 minutes.

Farms in Québec just north of the border with New York
Farms in Québec just north of the border with New York

Start of the Journey

On Monday, October 19, 2015 I headed to PHL for my 1:45pm flight.  My emailed boarding pass didn’t specify which terminal to go to, so I had the shuttle from the PreFlight Airport Parking drop me off at the American Airlines international flights area at Terminal A.  It turned out the flight was departing from Terminal F, a bit of a trek (either by shuttle bus from Terminal A or a long walk from Terminal E).  I shouldn’t have been surprised since Terminal F is designed for the smaller regional jets.  On the plus side, it seems there were very few international flights (Canada notwithstanding) at this time of day, so there were only two other people in the security line ahead of me.

I was surprised that my boarding pass listed boarding time as 40 minutes prior to departure.  It doesn’t take that long to board a 50-seat regional jet, but I guess it couldn’t hurt given that some travelers might not have anticipated the shuttle ride.  Our aircraft still had US Airways Express markings.  Although US Airways officially merged into American Airlines as of last week, it will probably be some time before all aircraft are repainted.  (I was amused when one of the PA announcements referred to a flight as belonging to “American Eagle Express”, the gate agent flummoxed by the previously separate American Eagle and US Airways Express!)

Île Sainte-Thérèse in the Saint Lawrence River, taken just prior to landing at YUL
Île Sainte-Thérèse in the Saint Lawrence River, taken just prior to landing at YUL

Actual boarding began 20 minutes prior to departure and we still pushed back a minute early.  After reading rather pejorative reviews on SeatGuru about the CRJ-200, I feared an uncomfortable flight, but it wasn’t too bad.  Flight time was 1 hour, 13 minutes (1 hour, 31 minutes gate-to-gate), arriving five minutes early.  Scenery was decent, with views from the right side of the aircraft of the New Jersey seashore, Lake Champlain, and the Saint Lawrence River.  It was sunny most of the way, but got cloudy right as we crossed the Canadian border.

Entrance to Chinatown at Boulevard René-Lévesque/Boulevard St-Laurent
Entrance to Chinatown at Boulevard René-Lévesque/Boulevard St-Laurent

There was a pretty long line to get through Canadian customs, but it went quickly enough.  It only took about 30 minutes from exiting the aircraft to boarding the 747 bus.  The 747 bus stops first at the Lionel-Groulx metro station (access to Orange and Green Lines) before heading down Boulevard René-Lévesque.  There is Wi-Fi on board.  A map on board the bus displays numbered stops with the hotels and cross streets closest to each stop.  After the metro station, stops were only on request.  The driver didn’t call out the stop numbers but rather some of the major cross streets, so travelers should identify the ones closest to their hotels in advance.  Hotel Zero 1 is just across the street from stop #8, near the entrance to Chinatown. 

Rue Sainte-Catherine, downtown Montréal: Originally established during the 17th century for the fur trade, the Hudson's Bay Company runs department stores these days
Rue Sainte-Catherine, downtown Montréal: Originally established during the 17th century for the fur trade, the Hudson’s Bay Company runs department stores these days

It was a gloomy evening downtown.   After checking into my hotel, I walked up to Rue Sainte-Catherine.  One of Montréal’s main thoroughfares, Sainte-Catherine features a wide variety of restaurants and shops.  I ate at Les 3 Brasseurs at Ste-Catherine/McGill, one of a chain of brew pubs scattered throughout the city.  Each individual restaurant has a unique beer in addition to the normal line-up shared with the others.  Their beer is a bit better than their food, but service was every bit as friendly as it had been during my last visit in 2011.  After browsing in a photo gallery nearby, I headed home early to get some sleep before tackling Mont Royal in the morning.

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