How about some European lessons from our summer vacations?

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Appeared in Calgary Herald, Victoria Times Colonist, Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury

Back when I was in elementary school, come September, teachers often asked students to write an essay describing their summer vacation. I don’t know if the practice still exists. But given most Canadians will take time off this summer, let’s improve Canada by copying some of the places Canadians might visit.

Let’s start with some possibilities for improving travel.

A few years back I was in Washington, D.C. and hailed a cab to get me to some event. When I chatted with the driver he mentioned he owned his own taxi, didn’t take dispatch calls, and set his own hours. That meant he didn’t share his fares with a middleman (i.e. a taxi company). Nor was he required to work awful shifts such as at bar closings when patrons were often less than pleasant.

In D.C., cab drivers must be licenced and regulated for public safety but like the driver I talked with, could own their own taxis. So consumers benefit from lower fares (cutting out the middlemen will do that). And the drivers, often newer immigrants, make more money than they would if employed by a taxi company. It’s a win-win situation for cabbies and consumers.

But in Canada, city governments grant taxicab cartels a quasi-monopoly which greatly restricts supply and competition. The result is a gouging of drivers and consumers.

Another travel thought: Europe has some of the best deals on airline fares on the planet, in distinct contrast to Canada’s anti-competitive, anti-passenger policies, which result in high consumer prices.  Europeans see great fares and plenty of choice because the European Union decided, starting in 1997, to open up European Union member countries to full cabotage. That’s where airliners can pick up and drop off passengers in the same country regardless of the carrier’s flag.

So a German airline company such as Lufthansa can pick up a passenger in Vienna and drop her off in Milan. A British carrier such as Ryanair can pick up someone in Rome and drop her off in Palermo (for just under 20 Euros in one instance that I found online).

But the expanded choices and cheaper fares are unavailable in Canada due in part to a lack of wide-open competition. Unlike European countries, Canada’s federal government forbids such open skies. Foreign carriers can only pick up or drop off passengers in this country—but not both. So Air France, perhaps on a Paris-Toronto-Vancouver flight, cannot pick up someone in Toronto and drop them off in Vancouver. The result is less downward pressure on airline fares.

Lastly, here is another matter to ponder as Canadians travel this summer, at least, for those who make it to Europe.

European countries have never engaged in a Prohibitionist policy against beer, wine and spirit sales. So for Canadians who picnic on some alpine slope or beach in Europe, it is easy enough to wander over to the local corner store or supermarket for a favourite summer beverage.

In contrast, Alberta is the only Canadian province to go without government liquor stores.

But even in Alberta, grocery stores and corner stores, with the exception of rural areas, cannot stock wine, beer and spirits on their main shelves. As a bonus, most European countries also do not apply the same high level of markups (taxes by another name) that Canada’s provincial governments do.

Instead, Alberta’s liquor stores must be separate, stand-alone stores with separate entrances and tills—thus driving up costs the same way stand-alone government stores (and government employees who staff them) drive up costs in other provinces. But at least in Alberta, one doesn’t have to traipse to some government liquor store on the other side of town only to find it shuttered on Sundays and holidays.

School might be out but that doesn’t mean we (and our politicians who make the rules) can’t learn a thing or two on our summer vacations, be it taxis, airline travel or on convenience in shopping for beer, wine and spirits. Can Canadians learn from the rest of the world? We’ll find out in September.

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