Everything you need to know to make the most of your time at Vancouver International Airport (YVR)
If you're traveling to or through Vancouver, here's a complete guide to the airport: where you can sleep, where you can get coffee in the middle of the night, the best food, even where you can get...botox. Who knew?
There's a lot you probably don't know about the Vancouver International Airport. Like the fact that you can get botox treatments at the dental office pre-security. Or that scientists study mating eels in the international terminal. Or that $25 gets anybody access to a "premium" lounge, complete with a bar, "nap rooms" and showers.
Curious? Thought so. If you've ever wondered about the best place to sneak away for a nap during a layover, or where to get a coffee at 4 a.m., this is the guide for you.
The Vancouver Observer asked YVR Communications Specialist Lara Gerrits and Service Manager Chris Gilliland to share some of the airport's coolest features and hidden amenities. So the next time you fly, here's how to make the most of your experience.
If you’re heading to YVR from somewhere in the Lower Mainland, there are a number of options to make your way there. Getting dropped off at the curbside area is great, if you have the luxury of a vehicle and someone to drive it. But for many of us, public transit is a necessity for getting around the city – and a trip to the airport is no exception.
The Canada Line, the new rapid transit system connecting the airport with downtown Vancouver, is by far the fastest and most convenient way to make the journey. From the terminus station downtown at Waterfront, it takes exactly 25 minutes and 30 seconds to reach the platform at YVR. From Broadway Station, it’s more like 20 minutes. And if you’re coming from somewhere further south, like Oakridge Mall or 49th Avenue, your trip should only be about 12 or 15 minutes.
Because the trip is so short, travelers can actually consider leaving the airport to head downtown during longer layovers. There are baggage storage services outside of security so you can leave your luggage and take off to explore, even if you only have a few hours.
The tricky thing about taking the Canada Line is the somewhat confusing system around fares. When you’re coming to the airport from downtown, you are required to pay a regular “2 Zone” fare of $3.75 (for adults). But if you’re leaving from the airport and heading downtown, there’s a $5 “YVR AddFare” that hikes the trip cost up to $8.75.
Even with the added fare, the Skytrain method is much cheaper than taking a cab. According to Myra from YVR’s Curbside Operations, a taxi downtown can cost anywhere between $30 and $35. There are also shuttles available to take you into the city, at the reasonable price of $14 (one-way) or $25 (round trip) – but don’t forget to tip the driver.
Parking can be quite expensive, at $8.50 per hour and over $100 to leave your car for a week. If you’re feeling energetic and want to try biking to the airport, that option is available as well. It may not be too practical with your 50 lb. suitcase, but the YVR website goes over a few key bike routes for cycling to the airport’s home on Sea Island.
Timing your trips
One of the biggest concerns most people have while traveling is arriving late and missing a flight. Airlines give passengers information about how early they should plan to arrive at the airport, and they tend to schedule layovers and connections that accommodate the time it takes to get from one gate to another.
That said, we all know planes aren’t always on time. A mad dash through the international terminal can be a very unpleasant experience, but sometimes making your next flight is worth the momentary distress. While the airport itself has little control over delayed landings or difficult connections, YVR has created a really helpful map – including timed walking distances – that may help you get to your gate on schedule.
For instance, it should take you approximately 24 minutes to get from the farthest domestic gate to the very end of the international terminal. The farthest possible distance from a domestic gate to one in the US terminal should take about 25 minutes, but you’ll have to budget extra time to go through the additional security checkpoint.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) publishes minimum connection times for airports around the world – including YVR – and airlines use these to set their schedules. According to their guidelines, connection times should be as follows:
Domestic to domestic: 45 minutes
Domestic to international: 50 minutes
Domestic to US: 60 minutes
International to US or Domestic or International: 90 minutes
These standards are designed to help airlines make appropriate plans, and they don’t account for delays or late arrivals. In those cases, there are no real rules for making it to your gate on time. But even if you think you can’t get there, it’s usually worth a shot. If you’ve come into YVR from Toronto and have a flight to Tokyo in less than 45 minutes, there may still be a chance you can make it.
“Those are the minimum connection times that are prescribed to airports in Canada,” said YVR’s Lara Gerrits.
“It’s not designed for you to run or panic at all, but of course every instance is different depending on what your connection is.”
Pre-board screenings at YVR are handled by the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), and operated by independent sub-contractors. This month, YVR’s security operations were taken over by a new company called G4S. Recent cuts to airport security jobs have raised concerns about employee performance and the potential for increased wait times, but compared to other international airports, Vancouver’s security is fairly quick.
On their website, CATSA lists a number of instructions for travelers to help speed up the screening process. But long lineups are generally dependent on passenger traffic and the number of flights departing.
Typical wait times can range from less than five minutes to over a half hour, depending on the circumstances. To be safe, it’s best to leave yourself the extra time. Besides, who cares if you get through the screening early? There’s lots more to do beyond the barrier.
Grab some grub
One thing almost everyone wants when they’re hanging out at the airport is food, and there is certainly no shortage of options at YVR. There are bars and sit-down restaurants like White Spot and Milestone’s, as well as a number of cafés and fast food establishments.
Photo courtesy of YVR Airport.
Food courts in each terminal feature the standard fare: burgers, sushi, sandwiches, pizza. And with six locations each, you can take your pick of either Tim Horton’s or Starbucks coffee.
So what’s the best place to get a bite to eat? Jan, who works at the international terminal Information Booth, says her pick would be the Japanese restaurant, Hanami.
“But of course when we eat here, it’s usually Tim Horton’s,” she said, echoing the sentiments of many of her colleagues.
And what about late night snacks? Concession Manager Chris Gilliland told us that there’s one café in the international terminal open 24 hours, along with the Subway and A&W restaurants in the food court. In domestic and US terminals, vendor hours usually depend on daily flight schedules, which don’t run overnight.
“In US and domestic, the flights usually stop at around 11:30 or earlier and don’t start till the next day. So we’ll close everything down,” said Gilliland, noting that vendors open again between 5 and 6 a.m. when the morning flights begin.
“But a lot of people, if they’ve got an overnight connection and they don’t have a hotel, they’ll go before security because there we have a lot more open 24/7,” he said.
The airport experts suggest leaving security if you have the time, because there’s a lot more to do and it’s more accessible around the clock. On the outside, there are Starbucks, 7-Eleven, Burger King and Tim Horton’s restaurants open for business all night long. Gerrits points out that many of the vendors stay open not just for travelers, but also for the benefit of the thousands of employees work at YVR.
Shopping is one of the airport’s most common guilty pleasures. Apart from the 13 different Duty Free locations at YVR, visitors can spend their varied currency on everything from jewelry and fashion to souvenirs and electronics.
And if you forgot a book to read on your 15-hour flight, don’t worry. There are enough newsstands and bookstores in the airport to fill a library. With 10 different locations, Hudson News is one of the primary vendors, selling a wide range of books, magazines, newspapers, snacks, souvenirs and other travel items.
There are also vendors that offer book exchanges – a convenient system allowing travelers to buy books at one airport, read them, and return or exchange them at another store location to get a certain percentage of their money back.
“Some of our newsstand operators offer that service,” explained Gilliland. “Because they have multiple locations in Canada and the US, you can buy the book here and travel all day to New York or whatever, then you can exchange it and get some money back.”
If you’ve got a long delay or a few hours to kill between flights, there’s nothing worse than being bored and uncomfortable. But when it comes to keeping yourself entertained, YVR is really not a bad place to be stuck.
One of the airport’s most impressive features has to be the 114,000 litre aquarium in the main atrium of the international terminal. As part of YVR’s partnership with the Vancouver Aquarium, this marine exhibit is the main attraction for most new visitors.
“It’s really designed so that if you were to dive under the BC coastal waters, this is what you would see,” said Gerrits, gushing about the thousands of marine creatures in the giant tank.
“There’s a team of Vancouver Aquarium biologists that monitor this, and every Wednesday they do a big tank cleaning. Right now they’re actually doing research on a pair of wolf eels in here, and it’s hoped that they will mate.”
There’s a separate exhibit on the fourth floor containing only jellyfish, but the larger aquarium is clearly the centre of attention. According to Gilliland, these marine displays are all a part of the terminal’s “theme”.
“The theme of this area is the Pacific Ocean. When you walk through the airport, the theme is really important to us. We want people to know when they’re traveling through YVR, that they’re actually in Vancouver, British Columbia,” he said.
“When you compare that to other airports – with some airports, you could be anywhere in the world. So this is the whole kind of West Coast [experience].”
All along the terminal – as well as outside security and in domestic and US wings – there are large sculptures, paintings and art installations for visitors to look at (and read about). Many of the pieces showcase First Nations art from the Northwest Coast, like the Pacific Passage that features a traditional longhouse doorway and 12-metre carved canoe, and the famous Bill Reid sculpture of The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, which also appears on the Canadian $20 bill.
Photo courtesy of YVR Airport.
If you’ve never traveled internationally from YVR, chances are you haven’t seen some of its most interesting features. Unfortunately, the domestic and US terminals got the short end of the stick when it comes to art and entertainment. But according to Gilliland, there’s a reason for that.
“Usually the dwell time, or the amount of free time is longer in this area. So when you have longer dwell time, we need more types of passenger amenities,” he said.
One of these “amenities” is more comfortable seating. Everyone who’s traveled has likely experienced the discomfort of the standard row chairs at airport gates. In the domestic terminal, there are a few semicircles of armchairs that exist on a first-come-first-serve basis. But passengers in YVR’s international terminal have some nice, cushy alternatives.
Each gate has a small row of reclined seats, which look like the standard metal-and-vinyl chairs except with a slight tilt, headrests and footrests. There are also movable cushioned chairs with no armrests, which you can rearrange to create a mini-sectional sofa.
If you’re trying to get some sleep, employees say the best places to rest are generally near the unutilized gates. They’re quieter, and since there’s nobody waiting for boarding, they’re more likely to have seats available to stretch out on. These unused gates may vary from hour to hour, but there’s one particular spot that insiders claim is the number one place to get some shuteye.
“I’ll show you, if I had a long connection, where I’d go hang out,” said Gilliland, making a beeline straight towards the very end of the international terminal. Past all the active gates is a window looking out on the runway, where construction on the terminal expansion was completed in 2007.
“There’s no gates down here, and traditionally it’s really quiet and private,” he said. “So it’s a good place to grab a few Z’s.”
Conveniently placed in a semicircle by the window are several of the cushioned sectional chairs, perfectly aligned to create a comfy, curved napping space.
“It’s all dependent on flight schedules, of course,” added Gerrits. “But because there isn’t a gate down here, you’re definitely away from it all.”
If you’re not looking for a rest, you can also check out the TV entertainment centres. Positioned near several international gates, they’re each comprised of a console displaying three different television channels, and are surrounded by brightly coloured theatre-style chairs.
Right next to these stations are childrens’ play areas, where kids can watch different programming and climb around on wharf-themed toy structures. And if that’s not enough to please the young ones, there’s one other special place Gerrits said is sure to get them going.
“One of the really cool areas for kids at the airport is the public observation area,” she said.
“It’s on the public, pre-security side of the airport, and basically it’s floor-to-ceiling views of the airfield. Nothing amazes kids more than watching airplanes in action – big planes, big trucks, there’s lots of cool stuff happening out there.”
Photo courtesy of YVR Airport.
There are telescopes, information panels and interactive videos to look at, allowing kids (and adults) to learn about the airplanes and how the airport works. There’s even a video that shows you where your baggage goes when you put it on the conveyor belt at check-in. And the best part? It’s all free – you don’t even need a boarding pass.
“It’s fun for kids, young and old. I like to go and have my lunch up there,” said Gerrits.
There are stations at each gate equipped with four to eight electrical outlets, so passengers can plug in and recharge their devices. And if you need to check your email or tweet about your flight delay, have no fear. The entire airport offers wireless Internet, free of charge.
“We actually have free Wi-Fi everywhere, but if you don’t have a smartphone or a laptop or an iPad or any of the digital devices that connect to the Internet, you can use these,” said Gerrits, pointing out one of the several compact computer stations scattered through each terminal.
YVR boasts a wide array of handy (and often surprising) amenities, including a medical clinic, a rehab centre and a dental office. Need a prescription for your malaria pills? Head down to the pharmacy on the lower floor. Need a haircut or pedicure? Check out the spa and salon.
“The dentists can also do express teeth whitening and botox. So people with a really long connection can come through and fix their face up,” said Gilliland with a laugh. But he’s serious…the service is available.
If you’ve got some extra time and want to work out, the Fairmont Hotel connected to the airport offers $15 drop-in rates for the gym, pool and sauna. You can also book a room for those long layovers or unexpected overnight delays.
Inside security, passengers may also pay for time at the Plaza Premium facilities. Similar to a business class lounge, these areas are for passengers of any class or airline. For a drop-in fee of $25 to $35, you can spend a few hours making use of the hot buffet, bar, showers and the private nap rooms (a tiny booth containing a single reclining chair). There is one Plaza Premium located in each terminal.
Of course, terminals are all well-equipped when it comes to bathrooms, payphones, currency exchange booths and ATMs – and outside of security near the domestic terminal you can also visit a full-service Royal Bank teller. The ATMs post-security are operated by the currency exchange company, so watch out for a hiked-up transaction fee. And in the US terminal, the bank machines only dispense American cash.
By the Numbers
10 minutes – the shortest flight from YVR, to Nanaimo Harbour, BC
15.5 hours – the longest non-stop flight from YVR, to Sydney, Australia
19 storeys – the height of the control tower, second highest in Canada
68 airlines – flying in and out
50 volunteers – wearing green coats and helping visitors each day
80 years – since the airport first opened in 1931
121 destinations – in Canada, the United States and around the world
5,000 creatures – living in the airport’s aquarium
6,000 lights – illuminating the airfield
6,687 items – logged at the airport’s Lost and Found in 2010
(including dentures and an NFL Championship ring)
23,600 employees – making YVR the largest employer in the City of Richmond
46,000 bags – traveling through YVR’s baggage system every day
16,800,000 passengers – served in 2010
The top three most popular locations for flyers to and from YVR are:
It's just too bad none of those passengers will get to see the aquarium!
Over a million travelers pass through the Vancouver International Airport every month, making it the second-busiest airport in Canada. Some are locals heading out of town, and many are visitors flying in to work, play or explore our beautiful city. Others have layovers at YVR and never see the city.
It could take days to go over all the fascinating details, but the most enjoyable part of a trip to the airport is experiencing it for yourself. So next time your travels bring you to the transport hub on Sea Island, be sure to keep your eyes open and make some discoveries of your own.