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Alberta and the Canadian Rockies

Photo by James Wheeler

Alberta and the Canadian Rockies destinations

Alberta

Banff National Park

Calgary

Canadian Rockies

Edmonton

Alberta and the Canadian Rockies

Many of the 5 million annual visitors to Alberta have their “Now, this is Canada!” moment in its portion of the Canadian Rockies, and particularly in two giant National Parks: Banff and Jasper. These are are world-famous for those most quintessentially Canadian landscapes of all: pretty turquoise lakes cradled by gorgeous mountains whose craggy summits poke from a blanket of evergreen forests where wolves, grizzlies and moose roam.

These mountains are every bit as packed with premium spots for outdoor adventures as they are attractive. Your choices include hiking, biking, climbing, canoeing and rafting and, in winter, all sorts of skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing and ice-climbing. All these activities and itineraries across the entire region are covered in depth in our Canadian Rockies section.


Prairie Alberta

The rest of Alberta is very different and includes a couple of major cities just east of the mountains – Edmonton and Calgary – and a large tract of Canada’s prairies beyond. Here in eastern Alberta, the key attraction is the otherworldly Badlands area. The dusty town of Drumheller is its hub and dinosaur-mad, due to a glut of finds in its sandstone valleys and the presence of the extraordinarily good Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology.


Northern Alberta

Northern Alberta – a remote patchwork of aspen and boreal forests dotted by tiny settlements – is barely visited, and mostly only by those on their way to Yellowknife and the Northwest Territories. These travelers, and others with time, would do well to visit Wood Buffalo National Park where bison graze amid giant salt lakes.


When To Go

In general both Alberta and the Rockies are at their busiest in July and August, when crowds can become problems at key events (particularly the Calgary Stampede) and sights and accommodation becomes expensive and hard to find.

A better bet, if you can, is visiting in June or September, or even October, though be prepared for snow at higher elevations in June and for evening temperatures to be chilly in September and October.

The other great peak in activity is at the ski resorts during their mid-December to March season.  The busiest periods around Christmas and New Year and during the March Spring Break, but outside these times accommodation bargains are easy to come by total since visitor numbers are far below the summer highs.

November is a pretty unpredictable time for a visit and snow will certainly be building up in the mountains; Spring in April and May can produce nice weather – as well as lengthy rainy periods which, together with the snowmelt, makes this “mud-season” on the trails and hiking and biking a lot less pleasant.

How Much Time To Spend

You’ll need about two weeks for a leisurely loop of all the prime destinations in the Canadian Rockies and still have time for a few days of outdoor activities along the way.

A week-long highlights tour is also possible, but with less time; try just try to zero in on one area: you can get a good feel for Banff and its most accessible attractions in just a weekend.

Weather and Climate

Mountain weather is anything but predictable, but the pleasant 20ºCs (approx. 70–85ºF) reign between June to mid-September, while the altitude and terrain prevent the build up of heat common on neighboring plains.

At the other extreme you’ll find a good covering of snow everywhere from mid-December to mid-March, when temperatures consistently stay below freezing and when northerly winds can make temperatures drop below -30ºC (-22ºF) for days on end.

Springs (April, May) and Autumn (mid-Sept to Nov) can be more variable and unpredictable but temperatures generally don’t stray too far away from the 10ºC–20ºC band (approx. 50º–70ºF) in the valleys for too long.

Time Zone

The Rockies are on Mountain Time, irrespective of their location in Alberta or British Columbia – the only exception to this BC’s Mount Robson Provincial Park near Jasper, which is on Pacific Time, an hour earlier.

What To Pack and Wear

Versatility and layering are names of the game here. Even summer evenings in the mountains can require a thick sweater, while in winter the more prepared you are for really cold temperatures, the greater the chances that you’ll have a good time. Lightweight neck-warmers (such as Buffs) are particularly useful to ensure no skin is unnecessarily exposed without adding too much bulk.

If you own binoculars, be sure to bring them for wildlife viewing.

What it Costs

Recent falls in commodity prices (which underpin Canada’s economy) have put the Canadian Dollar back at a more usual rate against most other currencies. These rates mean travelers from Britain and Europe will find Canada quite reasonably priced ,while travelers from the U.S., Australia and New Zealand will find overall costs similar to back home.

No matter where you’re from, the single most significant way to save money is to avoid travel in the July and August peak season when accommodation costs are at a premium. This still will be your main cost at other times, too, and things can get pricey if you want luxury, or are traveling alone (single rooms are barely cheaper than doubles). In general modest motels tend to be priced keenly and there’s a good network of hostels throughout the Rockies.

The price of eating out tends to be reasonable, though supermarket food can be expensive particularly in British Columbia. It’s certainly best to stock up on food and fuel before you head into the mountains.

Average Costs

Many variables can throw these figures out, but here are some typical costs depending on your style of travel:

Budget: 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 with the least expensive bars and restaurants.

Standard: 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 a simple bed and breakfast, eat out in medium-range restaurants and enjoy some nightlife most nights; the main variable would be the cost of your room.

Luxury: 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’re want to stay in the very best hotels and make every night a big night out, you’ll need more.

Abstract Pricing at a Glance

Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.

Price ranges are quoted in C$.

See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
Free
$ => Tickets less than $5 per person
$$ => Tickets $6-15 per person
$$$ => Tickets $16 per person

Sleep
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $101-200 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $201 for a double

Eat
$ => $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)

Shop
N/A => Not applicable

Tours
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-30 per person
$$$ => Tickets $31 per person

Insurance

One other cost to bear in mind is that of travel insurance, particularly medical insurance. Check any existing policy you may have and if there’s no cover in Canada it’s best to buy a policy. 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.

Exchange Rates and Currency

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.

Money, ATMs, Credit Cards

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.

Tipping and Costs That Add Up

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 see 20% tips on their services.

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. All our prices are quoted without sales tax; which is 5% in Alberta and 12% in British Columbia. Where tax is included in a rate this has been mentioned.