In case no Canadian has ever boasted to you, know that Canada is the second largest country on earth. And like Russia (the largest) the vast majority of the population is concentrated in one zone. In Canada this is along its southern border with the United States. Some ninety percent of Canadians live within 160km (100 miles) of the U.S., and about the same proportion of its visitor attractions lie a couple of hours’ drive or less from its southern neighbor, too. Anything much further north of this is properly remote, even for most Canadians. Covered in forest, tundra or ice, these regions are home to small bands of First Nations, miners, prospectors and the occasional hardy adventurer looking for real wilderness to get away from it all.
With this great northern wilderness out of the equation, Canada becomes an exceedingly long and thin country that joins the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It’s about 6000km or 65 hours’ drive between its two big coastal cities – Halifax in the east and Vancouver in the west – and traveling between them must rank as one of the world’s ultimate transcontinental road or rail trips. Those who fancy the challenge will appreciate that Bindu’s itineraries can be put end to end to complete the trip by road or rail. For others these itineraries can form the backbone for exploring individual regions.
Readily identifiable by bare rock headlands and cheerfully painted houses Canada’s Atlantic Provinces – Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island (PEI) – have long standing links to the Old World, which live on in the pubs and maritime culture of its colorful fishing villages and regional hub of Halifax.
Francophone culture is in evidence in all the Atlantic provinces, but far and away at its most pronounced in Quebec, whose own version of French language, culture and tradition has been fiercely defended with intriguing results. Its tidy capital Quebec City, with its castle and huddled old town, looks almost European, while its giant metropolis Montreal is more far more shambolic, hip and cosmopolitan.
Quebec’s traditional rival is its gigantic anglophone neighbor Ontario. This province forms the northern boundary to America’s Great Lakes region and is a place of countless lakes, gentle farming country and endless forests. It’s also home to Canada’s government in Ottawa and to the endlessly sprawling conurbation of Toronto, the country’s great commercial hub. This makes it a great magnet for new immigrants, who help make it Canada’s most cosmopolitan and multicultural city – with all the good food that goes with that. An easy day trip away, on the U.S. border, lies Niagara with its famous falls.
West of Ontario, lakes and forests quickly give way to the Canadian Prairies, which stretch over the provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan and most of Alberta. Single farms can fill the horizon in all directions here and cowboy culture lives on; and nowhere more so than at the Calgary Stampede, the country’s greatest rodeo and agricultural show. Otherwise cities are interesting mainly as stopovers, though Winnipeg is likeable with great restaurants; Regina a must for Mountie fans; and Edmonton boasts North America’s largest mall.
The landscape’s transition could hardly be more abrupt than in Alberta where the prairies buckle into the Rockies. Of all Canada’s landscapes the Canadian Rocky Mountains needs the least introduction, so it’s comforting to find the craggy peaks, emerald lakes, glaciers, and rolling evergreen forests of Banff National Park living up to the superlatives dreamed up by generations of travel writers since Victorian times.
Marginally less famous, but as just as dramatic is British Columbia, whose dazzling combination of vast lakes, stellar peaks, pounding surf and lush rain-forests make it many people’s favorite Canadian province. The merits of the ski and mountain-bike resort of Whistler, and outdoorsy and vibrant Vancouver are well known. But the gentler charms of the Okanagan and the Kootenays in Interior BC; and of Vancouver Island – which include genteel Victoria, its main city – are not to be missed.
Given the country’s huge dimensions, Canada’s climate is predictably varied, with regions around the Atlantic and Pacific coasts usually a good bit milder than the interior during both its famously fierce winter and surprisingly hot summer. Meanwhile, spring and autumn tend to be relatively short, unpredictable and more local in character, but the big upside to both transitional seasons is that you’ll have even the most popular places pretty much to yourself.
White Christmases are the norm not a rarity in Canada and much of the country is snowbound until mid-March. Skiers should find dependably good snow throughout the season but might suffer some severely low temperatures – below -30ºC (-22ºF) – which are common when winds blow from the north. But these winds rarely last for more than a week. Canadian cities have learned to cope by using enclosed walkways between downtown buildings and malls to make it easy to wander all day without putting a foot outside.
The Canadian spring is rapid and hard to predict. Snow can linger pretty much anywhere until the end of April, but it’s soon replaced by outstanding displays of wildflowers, particularly in the mountains. But in mountains near the Pacific depressions can cause rain to last for days and some trails will be snowbound or muddy until June. Daily temperature swings can be bewildering and up to 30ºC (86ºF); glorious summer temperatures can certainly arrive in May.
Peak season lies between two pivotal National Holidays: mid-June’s Victoria Day and early-September’s Labour Day. These dictate the summer hours of most visitor attractions and outside these dates services will be cut or even close. Canada’s school holidays run July and August, during which temperatures heat up – often exceeding 30ºC (86ºF) for days at a time. This can be an uncomfortably humid experience in Ontario and Quebec, whose cities empty as locals retreat to waterside cabins.
September marks the gradual onset of Autumn, with day temperatures staying in the high 20ºCs (around 80ºF) but nights becoming much colder. Generally this is a great time to visit Ontario and Quebec, since the humidity has begun to recede along with any crowds. The autumn colors are an additional attraction toward the end of the month and in October, which is perhaps the perfect time to visit the climatically milder Atlantic Provinces. Meanwhile, snow will begin to accumulate in November in many places, particularly the mountains of British Columbia.
Unless you have a large tour in mind, two weeks can be enough to get a good flavor of any Canadian region; in a week you’ll want to narrow things down, or driving will become a big part of your trip.
You’ll probably need at the very least a month to comfortably complete a coast-to-coast trip (around 65 hours of driving) and have enough time to explore along the way.
The Canadian calendar is full of events celebrating its heritage and contemporary culture, but many are low-key and quite commercial – often feeling like just another chance for local vendors to sell their wares rather than locals letting their hair down.
That said, it’s always worth dropping in to the local visitors’ centre to find out what’s on (or checking their website). Those with an interest in First Nations culture should check powwows.com to find out times and locations of aboriginal Canadian celebrations.
Otherwise events that justify having a trip planned around them are listed below – along with national holidays. Keep an eye out for both when you’re planning: accommodation of all types can be at a premium and hard to find on long-weekends.
Many but not all time zones change at provincial borders, and some regions don’t observe summer time, so it’s always worth checking when you’ve travelled any distance.
The Canadian climate specialises in surprises. Arrive in winter and you’ll be surprised by how much warm clothing you’ll need; arrive in summer you’ll be surprised by how little; at any other time you’ll be surprised by the range needed.
Certainly winter travellers should have a good pair of boots for snowy conditions and a warm down jacket or similar to deal with freezing temperatures.
In summer you may not need much more than short sleeves, though it’s always important to take a light sweater everywhere to deal with over-zealous air conditioning.
At other times you’ll need a little of everything, but don’t worry about dressing up. Canadians are in general very casual (though Quebecers fancy themselves a little smarter) and there’s little need to dress up anywhere but the smartest restaurants. If you do make an effort no one will look askance though, particularly in bigger cities like Montreal or Toronto where fashion statements are common.
Recent falls in commodity prices (which underpin the Canadian economy) have put the Canadian Dollar back at a more usual rate against most other currencies. This means travellers from Britain and Europe will find Canada quite reasonably priced while travelers from the US, Australia and New Zealand will find overall costs similar to back home. No matter where you’re from, the single most significant way of saving money is to avoid travel in the July and August peak season when most costs are at a premium.
Accommodations, almost certainly your main cost, can be very pricey if you want luxury, or are traveling alone, since single rooms tend to be priced similarly to doubles. But in general modest motels tend to be priced keenly and there are plenty of bargains to be had elsewhere, not least via the burgeoning Airbnb market.
The costs of travel to and around Canada can vary wildly depending on where you’re flying from and what your plans are. Certainly, if you’re exploring more than one Canadian region you’ll likely need to budget for a flight or two.
The price of eating out tends to be reasonable, though supermarket food can be expensive – particularly in Alberta and British Columbia – or in the far North where the high cost of transporting foodstuffs is passed on to the customer.
One final cost to bear in mind is that of travel insurance, particularly medical insurance.
Here are some typical costs depending on your style of travel, though many variables that can throw these figures out.
If you’re traveling on a tight budget you could get by on around C$70/US$55/£35 a day. You’d be buying food to picnic, staying in hostels or similar and sticking to the least expensive bars and restaurants.
More standard would be a moderate budget of around twice that – C$140/US$110/£70. This would allow you to stay in a motel or nice private (eg Airbnb) accommodation, eat out in medium-range restaurants and enjoy nightlife most nights; the main variable would be the cost of your room.
Double the standard budget again to arrive at a more typical cost of a luxury holiday: C$280/US$220/£140. Of course the sky’s the limit really and if you want to stay in the very best hotels and make every night a big one, you’ll need more.
Rather than always quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest to provide a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes. Note that for accommodation prices can fluctuate dramatically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals.
Price ranges are quoted in C$.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $5 per person
$$ => Tickets $6-15 per person
$$$ => Tickets $16 per person
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $101-200 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $201 for a double
$ => $1-20 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => $21-40 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $41 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-30 per person
$$$ => Tickets $31 per person
Aside from the cost of your flight to Canada, you might also need a flight or two within the country if your time is short and your travel plans ambitious.
Prices for internal flights are reasonable given the distances involved – a Toronto – Calgary return will be around C$400, for example – but your exact fare will depend mostly on how far in advance you book. Book at least three weeks in advance to get any kind of deal; last-minute fares can easily cost double the base rate.
Costs on the ground don’t vary hugely if you choose to bus, train or drive it – with luck (and a site like hotwire.ca) you might be able to secure a rental car for around $20 per day. But don’t forget extra costs like insurance, fuel and parking which can easily double this price.
Travel insurance is one cost that’s often overlooked until the last minute, yet the medical insurance component is particularly important. Check any existing policy you have in your home country and if there’s no cover in Canada it’s best to buy insurance.
Annual policies can be good value if you plan to travel elsewhere in the same year, but be sure you have cover for any outdoor activities you may plan, particularly skiing, though activities like mountain biking may need special cover too. In general policies should not cost as much as those covering you in the USA since medical expenses in Canada are more moderate.
Canada’s dollar ($), is made up of 100 cents (¢) that come as 5¢ (nickel), 10¢ (dime), 25¢ (quarter), $1 and $2 coins. The $1 coin’s nicknamed a “loonie”, after the bird on one side; leading to the $2 coin earning the nickname “twoonie”. There are notes of $5, $10, $20, $50 and the rarely-seen $100.
Current approximate exchange rates for the Canadian Dollar are: US$1=C$1.30; £1=C$2, , €=C$1.35, A$1=C$0.93, NZ$1=C$0.83. The most up-to-date rates are here.
US dollars are frequently accepted in Canada, but only on a one-for-one basis. And since the US dollar is generally worth more than the Canadian, it makes sense to change US currency if you can.
The easiest way to get hold of Canadian money is through ubiquitous ATMs. Machines accepting Visa and Mastercard are both commonplace, though you should check with your home bank that your card will work in Canada. Before you leave home also look into getting a currency card that provides preferential rates on foreign transactions and avoids the around 3% charge your home bank likely charges for foreign currency transactions.
Once in Canada steer ?away from convenience store ATMs (unless they have bank logos), which usually add an extra charge, ?and towards those attached to banks.
If given the choice always withdraw money or pay for things in the local currency (not your home currency), rates are more favorable this way.
Two things many overseas visitors to Canada find hard to get used to, is the amount of tipping that goes on and the hidden nature of sales tax.
Tipping at restaurants is customarily a hefty 20%. For less-than-stellar service, 10-15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. Often servers work for below minimum wage and live mostly on tips, so consider the ramifications of your tipping decisions. In hotels bell staff typcially receive $1-$2 per bag they assist with; if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, expect to tip $10. At properties with concierge services, consider tipping staff who assist you in planning activities, making reservations or acquiring tickets, or simply orienting you with driving directions or public transportation info. Current etiquette calls for $10-$20 per person, per day for concierge help. Car valet staff expect $1-$2 for delivering you your car. Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) usually expect 20% tips.
Despite being mandatory, almost no prices anywhere include sales tax (fuel at gas stations being a notable exception). Sales tax (called GST, PST or HST) is added when you pay and is not standard on all goods or even between provinces. Total rates vary from 15% in Nova Scotia to 5% in Alberta; with 10-13% most common everywhere else.
Because of both its vast size and relatively peripheral world location most trips to Canada involve both a flight and a car. That said, for Americans it might be easier to just drive in order to have your vehicle at the other end.
If, on the other hand, you want to avoid driving altogether then trips can certainly be planned using buses and trains; though neither option is usually faster or cheaper, they may provide a more interesting experience.
Other getting around options include ride-sharing or even cycling. Summer in Canada is a brilliant time to do some cycle touring and many cities are best explored by bike too thanks to their almost uniformly excellent bike-path network.
Even so, most visitors exploring anything more than a city or small region, will certainly benefit from having a car for some part of their trip and rentals are easy to find.
Unless you’re skipping over the border from the US by bus or car you’ll probably fly to Canada.
Far and away the biggest hub in Canada is Toronto and long-haul fares to and from it will almost inevitably be a little cheaper (perhaps around C$100) than any other airport. Otherwise the main hubs are Halifax for Atlantic Canada; Montreal for Quebec; Winnipeg, Calgary or Edmonton for The Canadian Prairies; Calgary for the Canadian Rockies and Vancouver for the rest of British Columbia.
Punching your desired flights into your favorite search engine (we recommend Momondo) will almost certainly yield results involving Air Canada, as well as flights via the US with United and Delta together with a raft of options from Europe which include British Airways, KLM, Air France and Lufthansa. If options involving Westjet, Wow Air and Air Transat don’t come up in your search, it might be worth checking these separately, particularly if you’re looking for a single fare (all three airlines charge by the leg rather than in terms of single or return tickets).
Most airlines also offer open-jaw deals that enable you to fly into one Canadian city and back from another – useful to prevent you needing to make your trip a loop – though extortionate one-way rental fees on cars can make this quite a bit more expensive.
Airfares tend to be highest between mid-June to early September. You’ll get the best prices during the low season, mid-November to April (excluding Christmas and New Year, when seats are at a premium). As a sample fare: a standard return from London to Toronto (7hr) with Air Canada can cost anywhere between C$450 and C$950 (low/high season), or C$600 and C$1250 to Vancouver.
One other option to bear in mind is to fly to the USA, rent a car and drive over the border to explore Canada. Usually there’s absolutely no problem taking a rental over the border, but you should check with any agency first. This might enable you to take advantage of lower fares and better connections to the US and lower car rental and gas prices, but bear in mind that the likely US hubs (Chicago and New York) are both a six hour drive from the Canadian border.
Finding the ideal flight and fare can be an agonising and time-consuming project, so get all the help you can from various sites dedicated to doing just that.
You can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.
Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.
That said, there is an advantage to visiting individual airline sites as some really great deals don’t show up on aggregator sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings.
Unless you’re just homing in on one region an internal flight is likely to be part of your Canadian travel plans. Once on the ground there are a plethora of transport options. Public transport can get you most places, though outside the big cities cars are usually the clear winner in terms of speed and convenience. Journeys can be long though, so if there’s one feature to look for on a rental car, it’s cruise control.
Canada’s main domestic flight hubs are and Halifax then Saint John’s in the Atlantic Provinces; Montreal then Quebec City in Quebec; Toronto then Ottawa in Ontario; Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton, then Regina and Saskatoon in the Canadian Prairies; Calgary for the Canadian Rockies; and Vancouver in British Columbia. That said more minor airports with daily services to these hubs are dotted all around the country. Air Canada and WestJet are the two major airlines that control the vast majority of traffic. You’ll likely only end up on a smaller airline if you’re flying somewhere remote in northern Canada, such as Churchill, Manitoba.
Most visitors over 21 with a full drivers’ license in their home country are allowed to drive in Canada.
Most vehicles in Canada run on unleaded fuel; sold by the litre in gas stations which really thin out in remote regions, where you need to fill up where you can. Prices vary widely: as a broad rule of thumb, the further you are from Toronto (where 2017 prices are around C$1), the more expensive the fuel – costing up to 20–30¢ more in Newfoundland and the Northern Territories. It’s usually about 20% more expensive than in the US, which explains the many gas stations just south of the border.
Canadians are prone to grumble that their seasons are identified by either snowbound highways or giant road-works; and that you know when you’ve entered a Canadian city, as you’ll be sitting in traffic. But this is only part of the story, and really the Canadian road network is a credit to the nation since maintaining such a vast amount of infrastructure for such a relatively small populace in such extreme weather and with such small maintenance windows is an incredibly big ask.
This makes the quality of Canada’s national backbone system of lightly-used two-lane highways (one in each direction) all the more remarkable. In cities multi-lane highways abound, but struggle at peak times (usually rush hour around 9am and 5pm Monday to Friday, but also Friday evenings leaving town and Sunday evenings on the way back in).
Note: exits on multi-lane highways are numbered by the kilometre distance from the beginning: so exit 65 is 10km after exit 55.
In the north and off the beaten track, highways may be entirely of gravel and treacherous after rain, so budget extra time. You’ll also need to take it easy and be especially vigilant at dawn and dusk as this is when wildlife is most active and headlights can dazzle them into inaction. Some 1 in 14 accidents in Canada relate to wildlife, so be especially vigilant when roadside warning signs are displayed.
Rules of the Road
Americans coming to Canada will have little problem adapting, but others should bear in mind:
• Traffic drives on the right.
• Junctions without traffic lights will have “Yield” signs or red octagonal “Stop” signs (sometimes “Arrêt” in Quebec) at all four corners. In the case of “Stop” signs, the first vehicle to arrive gets priority; or the vehicle on the right if two arrive simultaneously.
• You can turn right when a traffic light is red, unless otherwise indicated (except in the island of Montreal) and as long as no traffic’s coming from the left.
• A traffic light flashing green gives you right of way over all traffic at that junction, including oncoming traffic.
• Traffic in both directions must stop if an orange school bus is stationary and flashing its lights, as children are getting on or off.
In cities, private parking lots charge up to $30 a day and are best for stays of more than a couple of hours, otherwise parking meters are common and often cheaper and more convenient. When on the street, park in the same direction as the traffic flow. Parking otherwise, or in the wrong place (such as within 5 meters of a fire hydrant) and your car may be towed. If this happens, contact the police.
Renting Cars and Motor Homes
These are most conveniently picked up at major airports, where rates tend to be lower. Rentals start at about C$20 per day, but luxury cars will cost ten-times this. When booking try comparison shopping companies like Expedia and Hotwire, or sites like Priceline, who’ll search for a rental car based on the price you name.
If touring Canada be sure unlimited mileage is included, otherwise you’ll likely exceed a daily quota and accrue expensive per kilometer charges.
Extra charges for one-way rentals can be hefty enough to effect travel plans, so check these before booking flights. On the other hand, one attractive, potential money-saver (on accommodation) is renting a recreational vehicle (or RV) that range from simple camper-vans to huge motor homes with two bedrooms, showers and full kitchens. Expect rates of around C$1300 in low season, C$2200 in high season, for a five-berth van for one week, but also take into account the cost of fuel (RVs are thirsty) and campgrounds, which often charge C$50/per night for hook-ups to electricity and water. Provinces also have vehicle-size regulations, which you should check if you’re coming from the US in a really large model.
Whatever you rent you will need insurance too. This is provided by many North-American issued credit cards if used pay, otherwise you should look for a company offering a package in advance of your travel, rather than pay the prohibitive rates of rental car companies.
With the rails taking the strain, crossing Canada is relatively pain-free, while comfortable sleeping cars glass-domed sightseeing carriages and inexpensive dining cars will transport you to another era of travel.
But with speeds no quicker than driving (coast to coast takes almost 5 days), tickets that rival airfares, and the constraints of infrequent services to just major cities – and often far from national and provincial parks – trains are not ideal for most.
The largest Canadian cities have a subway or light railway. So once you’ve cracked their individual and sometimes complicated ticketing methods, travelling longer distances away from traffic snarl ups is easy.
Long-distance buses are the key choice for solo travellers on a budget; services are fairly comfortable, non-smoking and have toilets. The network is maintained by Greyhound Canada and supplemented by smaller regional companies. Most long-distance buses only run two or three times per day, with stops at smaller places often at awkward times.
Smaller towns may not have a bus station, in which case a gas station typically doubles as the bus stop and ticket office. In less populated areas, buses are fairly scarce, sometimes only appearing once or twice a week, so plan your route with care!
An example standard fare from Toronto to Winnipeg (2100km and 23 hours) costs $285 one-way. To cut costs buy well in advance and get a Hostelling International Card ($35 tax) which will give you a 25% discount. Students and seniors also get a discount.
Shuttle buses are commonly used to get passengers from the airport to their hotel and are often free, but some companies also run shuttles straight from an airport to other destinations. Examples include from Calgary airport to Banff; and from Edmonton to Jasper. The best place to find this info is on the website of individual airports.
Cycling in Canada is a mixed bag: almost half the year it’s either virtually impossible or just for the very hardy, the other half it’s a dream, with cycle-paths crisscrossing most cities, often with attractive riverside sections.
Long-distance touring can also be very rewarding. The ultimate challenge is obviously a 6,000–6,500km coast-to-coast Trans-Canada route which is best done west-to-east to take advantage of the predominant tailwinds, but most people will enjoy settling in to explore just one region for a week or so. Nova Scotia and PEI make particularly good destinations in the east. In Quebec, try the hilly Laurentians or bucolic Eastern Townships. In British Columbia the Kootenays and the Okanagan are both great and include the Kettle Valley route which follows former railroad beds – like so many good long-distance Canadian cycle routes. In general most people find Ontario and the Prairies a little to monotonous for cycle-touring, while the Rockies may be scenically amazing, but tend to constrain you to busy roads, which really takes away from the experience.