Business

New business ventures help Canadian snowbirds circumvent a closed U.S. land border

Many Canadian snowbirds are determined to head south this winter despite the COVID-19 pandemic, but they face hurdles getting their vehicles across a closed U.S. land border. In response, several transport companies have come up with new ways to help snowbirds — and their cars — get across.

Transport companies drive snowbirds' vehicles across the Canada-U.S. border and meet them at airports

Canadian snowbirds Sylvie Charbonneau, left, and Bernard Loiselle on a flight to Plattsburgh, N.Y., organized by Transport KMC. The company also transported their RV across the border to the Plattsburgh airport. The couple are now driving to Florida. (submitted by Sylvie Charbonneau)

Despite the Canada-U.S. land border closure to non-essential traffic, Canadian snowbirds Bernard Loiselle and Sylvie Charbonneau are on their way to Florida — in their RV.

"Finally, we're going," said Loiselle, 57, from a road stop near Albany, N.Y. "The weather in Quebec was getting cold."

The couple from Marieville, Que., southeast of Montreal, live in their RV year-round and spend the winter in Florida. This year, however, they faced a problem because they can't drive their mobile home across the United States border during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But that problem was solved when they learned of a new service offered by Transport KMC.

The Quebec company flies snowbirds on a chartered plane from an airport just outside Montreal to nearby Plattsburgh, N.Y. KMC employees also drive the snowbirds' vehicles to the Plattsburgh airport so, after landing, the passengers can continue their journey down south. 

"It was great to — from the plane — see our RV down there, just waiting for us," said Loiselle. 

Loiselle and Charbonneau on Thursday, just before they boarded their flight from Montreal Saint-Hubert Longueuil Airport to nearby Plattsburgh, N.Y., to begin their migration south. (submitted by Sylvie Charbonneau)

Despite soaring COVID-19 infection rates in the U.S. and Canada's advisory not to travel abroad, many snowbirds are determined to head south this winter. 

Although Canadians can't drive to the U.S. due to the land border closure, they can fly to the country. But that still creates a problem for snowbirds who want to take their vehicles down south. 

In response, several transport companies have come up with new ways to help snowbirds — and their cars — cross the border. 

KMC ships vehicles to the U.S. sunbelt for snowbirds. But the fee can be prohibitive to transport an RV — around $4,300.

So owner and president Michael Couturier devised a cheaper option: starting in late October, he arranged charter flights for snowbirds to Plattsburgh, plus transport service for their vehicles.

Customers pay $500 per seat on the plane and $1,000 for the vehicle transport. As a commercial transport company, KMC can bring vehicles into the U.S., despite the border restrictions, Couturier said.

"Every commercial transaction at the border is considered essential," he said. "We've got to have all the paperwork, and then we are allowed to do it."

U.S. Customs and Border Protection confirmed to CBC News that there are no restrictions on Canadians importing vehicles to the United States during the land border closure.

Warning to snowbirds

KMC flies to Plattsburgh twice each weekday. Couturier said the nine-seater plane is always full. 

The added business has been a big boost for the company, which normally focuses on transporting RVs to dealers.

That side of the business has slowed during the pandemic, said Couturier, but catering to snowbirds has allowed him to keep all his 35 workers employed.

"If it wasn't for snowbirds, the company would be in trouble this year," he said. "It's a good opportunity for us."

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Meanwhile, the federal government continues to warn Canadians to avoid non-essential travel abroad during the pandemic. 

"People are safest when they stay at home," said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a news conference on Tuesday. 

However, the message hasn't deterred eager snowbirds. Some argue they will be safe, because they have COVID-19 medical insurance and plan to stick to their gated community at their destination. 

"[You] just do your groceries, you go back to your RV and you have your supper there and that's it," said Loiselle.

Helicopter rides for snowbirds

Jeremy Rood's parents were still keen to go to Florida this winter, but wanted to take both their car and their Labrador, Abby. So the helicopter pilot came up with a solution that his employer, Great Lakes Helicopter in Cambridge, Ont., has turned into a business. 

The company picks up snowbirds at the Hamilton, Ont. airport and helicopters them just across the border to Buffalo, N.Y. Then, Rood's friend — who runs a transport company — transports the passengers' vehicles, typically on a flatbed truck, to the Buffalo airport. 

"My parents wanted to get to Florida for the winter and I said, 'No problem, I'll make sure you guys get down there,'" said Rood. "We put our heads together and ended up with this little thing that we're doing here."

Pilot Jeremy Rood flew his mother, Diane, his father and their dog from Hamilton to Buffalo. He also transported their car, so the snowbird couple could have their vehicle with them during their winter in Florida. (submitted by Jeremy Rood)

Since starting the service in late October, Great Lakes Helicopter has flown 30 passengers and has hundreds more bookings. The cost for a couple to fly in their own private helicopter and transport their car is $1,900. Pets are welcome onboard. 

Rood said he's not surprised by the brisk business, despite the pandemic. 

"We have long, cold winters here," he said. "You're not able to get outside, stay fit, stay active."

Serving snowbirds due to popular demand

On the West Coast, the winters may not be as cold, but many snowbirds there still want to head south — and take their cars. 

That created an opportunity for Bidbuy Importers based in Blaine, Wash. The company traditionally imports vehicles to private buyers and dealers.

But this year it has branched out to also transport snowbirds' vehicles from the Vancouver area to U.S. sunbelt states or to closer destinations, such as the Seattle airport. 

Jayde McElroy, vice-president of marketing and sales with Bidbuy Importers, is also helping snowbirds on the West Coast travel south. The service costs from $500 to upwards of $3,000. (submitted by Jayde McElroy)

Jayde McElroy, Bidbuy's vice-president of marketing and sales, said the company took on snowbird clients due to popular demand.

"When the border shut down, we received so many inquiries from snowbirds that were wondering if we could help them out," he said. "At first, we didn't know because it is not something we've done."

So far, Bidbuy has transported 40 cars. The company has about 100 more booked over the next couple of months. Costs range from around $500 to upwards of $3,000, depending on the type of vehicle and the distance it's travelling. 

When asked about helping snowbirds go south during the pandemic, McElroy said he's happy to help them escape winter. 

"You never know how long this is gonna go on for. You got to enjoy your life." 

About the Author

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris covers business and consumer news. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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