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Lines, crowds and delays: How to survive travelling through Canadian airports this holiday season

Crowds at Toronto's Pearson International Airport.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The holiday season is no one's favourite time to travel. Even once you've gotten over the sticker shock of those plane tickets (and let go of the fact you could get to Sydney, Australia, for the price of that trip to Sydney, N.S., at Christmastime), you've got to deal with crowds, weather delays, luggage fees, overstuffed overhead bins and that person in front of you in the security line who is trying to carry on a suitcase full of wrapped gifts – one of which is an oversize bottle of perfume.

But even a cross-country jaunt on Christmas Eve can be made less trying with a little know-how and planning. Here's how to soften the landing – no lounge access required.

Vancouver (YVR)

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Arrive early or, on a layover, exit security for a meal at the Fairmont Vancouver Airport, whose bar and dining room offer views of planes taxiing to and from gates. If the timing is right, splurge on afternoon tea – seatings are from 2 to 3:30 p.m. daily – complete with a fancy tiered tray packed with finger sandwiches, dainty pastries, and scones with preserves and clotted cream.

Alternatively, find the White Spot family restaurant outside the domestic security checkpoints to fill up on British Columbia's favourite burgers, whether you eat in or take out (check with security for what can be brought through).

Three locations of wine bar Vino Volo (international before security; after security at domestic and U.S. gates) mean there's no excuse not to sample some of the province's finest vintages alongside a charcuterie or cheese plate.

Shoppers travelling abroad and in need of last-minute gifts can check out the Canadiana on offer – striped sweaters, vintage tea towels and Olympic mittens – at the Hudson's Bay Company Trading Post, in international departures.

Have lots of time? Head outside security and take the Canada Line two stops (trains between the airport and Templeton station are free of charge) to browse the bargains at the enormous new McArthur Glen Designer Outlet mall.

Pass the time: Travelling with kids? Track down one of the four play areas scattered around the airport, or linger in the public observation area before you go through security and use the free telescopes to watch what's happening on the tarmac. Inside security in international departures, an outpost of the Vancouver Aquarium showcases some of the sea creatures that make the Pacific their home. Or download self-guided tours – themes include art and architecture and sustainability – for details on YVR landmarks such as Bill Reid's The Jade Canoe sculpture.

Calgary (YYC)

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Avoid the risk of breakage (or donating excess liquids to airport security) by purchasing a host gift of wine or liquor right before boarding or after landing. Multiple locations of Skyway Liquor and Cloud 9 Liquor & Wine (before security and after security for domestic travellers) sell made-in-Canada booze, such as spirits by Alberta's Eau Claire Distillery. Or spend some time getting a treatment at OraOxygen Wellness Spa, before security in the departures area. Book massages, aesthetic services and oxygen sessions online in advance; it'll be refreshing whether you're on a long transfer or heading out on a red-eye.

Pass the time: Relive glory days by rekindling your pinball and video-game skills at one of four locations of Flippers Arcades, both before and after security. Or get your blood pumping (and batteries full) at the new WeWatt charging station (outside security on the departures level), which lets you generate electricity by pedalling a stationary bike.

Saskatoon (YXE)

Newly expanded, the Saskatoon John G. Diefenbaker International Airport, as it's officially known, has taken on "local" as its mantra. Pick up last-minute souvenirs at Prairie Unique (outside security) and Prairie North (inside security), where you'll find locally made woodwork and crafts and all the saskatoon berry jam you can fit in your carry-on. Also inside security, toast your flight with a pint of craft beer from Saskatoon's Great Western Brewing Company at Refuel Restaurant and Lounge.

Pass the time: Designed by a local architect, the light-filled terminal building incorporates features symbolic of the area's landscape, with views of the surrounding prairie and of sunrise and sunset. Rotating displays show off Saskatchewan's finest arts, culture and attractions, while an interpretive area tells the story of Saskatoon's first potash mines.

Winnipeg (YWG)

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The airport outpost of local favourite Stella's Café & Bakery is worth arriving early for. Sit down for a guacamole BLT or maple caramel French toast topped with wild blueberries, grab a green smoothie if you're hungry when you land or pick up (liquid-free) takeout before going through security.

Near the gates, the recently opened second location of Winnipeg's Green Carrot Juice Company has you covered for cold-pressed juices, smoothies, wraps, and oat or açai bowls.

Pass the time: Once you're through security, head to Gate 12 for the best vantage point to watch planes take off and land.

Toronto (YYZ)

Dining-wise, there are a few highlights, especially among the airport's chef-driven restaurant revamps. In Terminal 1 domestic (post-security), Camden Food Co. has a DIY oatmeal and yogurt bar for breakfast (pile on the fresh raspberries). Nearby Boccone Trattoria Veloce serves up pizza, pasta and salad, while Bar 120, new this year, offers offbeat, modernist-style dishes such as a caprese salad with balsamic pearls. In Terminal 3 domestic (post-security), pick up a smoked meat sandwich from Caplansky's Deli, which also has a snack bar outpost pre-security in Terminal 1, near international check-in.

Pass the time: Restless souls on a layover at Toronto Pearson can fit in a workout at GoodLife Fitness, outside security on the arrivals level of Terminal 1. The club offers luggage storage and lockers, has clothing and shoes for rental, and features towel service and cardio and strength-training equipment.

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Montreal (YUL)

International travellers can shop Montreal-based women's activewear brand Lolë (inside security) to stock up on anything they forgot to pack: leggings for that on-resort yoga class or a tuque to keep ears warm on the snowshoe trails. Nearby, the airport location of Quebec's Archibald Microbrasserie serves up its craft brews alongside stick-to-your-ribs pub fare such as a duck confit grilled cheese.

Pass the time: Ease seasonal stress and get your back ready for those tiny seats with a chair or table massage at one of three Balnea Spa Voyage locations. Travel-specific treatments include the "anti-gravity" 20-minute foot and leg massage and the 10-minute "express lift-off" head massage focused on relieving tension and travel-induced headaches.

More awesome airport ideas

  • At YYT (St. John’s), shop for knit socks, mittens and other handicrafts at the Heritage Shop inside security.
  • YYF (Penticton, B.C.) may be tiny, but you don’t have to rely on the vending machine for snacks: Menu items at Sky High Diner include the self-proclaimed best borscht in the Okanagan.
  • Leave time for a drink at YQT (Thunder Bay, Ont.), whose bar serves beer from local Sleeping Giant Brewing Company on tap.
  • Inside security in Kelowna (YLW), Okanagan Estate Wine Cellar stocks bottles from top regional wineries such as Burrowing Owl and Nk’Mip.
  • One of Canada’s oldest drive-in diners, the renowned Chickenburger in Bedford, N.S., has a location outside security at YHZ (Halifax).

But no matter where you go this season, follow these airport survival tips:

1) Arrive early. Nothing takes the joy out of travel more than rushing.

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2) Eat. Low blood sugar does no one any favours. Pack food to bring with you or sit down for a relaxed meal at the airport before getting on the plane.

3) Make it fun. Take advantage of airport amenities: Get your shoes shined, indulge in a manicure or challenge your kids to a pinball tournament in the video arcade.

4) Travelling south? Many Canadian airports offer boot and coat checks for a nominal fee so you don't have to take your winter coat to Mexico.

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