Money & costs
Accommodations are likely to be your biggest expense, but as fuel prices rise, transportation ranks up there too. Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia are more costly than other provinces, but not as bad as the three northern territories (Yukon Territory, Northwest Territories and Nunavut). Your dollar will stretch furthest in Québec, the Atlantic provinces, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
In most regions, single travelers who rent a car, stay in decent B&Bs and eat at least one daily meal out will spend $175 or so per day. The total cost is only a little bit more for a couple traveling together. For those on a tight budget, costs can be brought down by staying in hostels or camping, self-catering from local markets, taking public transportation when available and limiting entertainment options. This will reduce your daily costs to around $80 to $90.
To break down the expenses you’ll incur: comfortable midrange accommodations start at $80 to $90 for a double room, usually including breakfast. A midrange restaurant meal with wine or beer costs between $15 and $25 plus tax and a tip. Rental cars cost from $35 to $65 a day for a compact-size vehicle, not including gas. Attraction admissions range from $5 to $15.
Discounts are widely available to children, students and seniors throughout the country. Many attractions also offer a family admission price, which can save dough for two adults and their brood.
Taxes of 6% to 14% and up are added to nearly all goods and services.
In restaurants, leaving a 15% tip on the pretax bill is standard. Tipping is expected for bar service, too.
At hotels, tip bellhops about $1 to $2 per bag. Leaving a few dollars for the room cleaners is always a welcome gesture. Cab drivers, hairdressers and barbers also expect a tip, usually 10% to 15%.
Canadian coins come in 1¢ (penny), 5¢ (nickel), 10¢ (dime), 25¢ (quarter), $1 (loonie) and $2 (toonie or twoonie) denominations. The gold-colored loonie features the loon, a common Canadian water bird, while the two-toned toonie is decorated with a polar bear.
Paper currency comes in $5 (blue), $10 (purple), $20 (green) and $50 (red) denominations. The $100 (brown) and larger bills are less common, and are tough to change.
Thanks to an unstable world economy, wars and other factors, the Canadian dollar has seen fluctuations in recent years, bottoming out in January 2002 when one loonie was worth a mere US$0.62. By late 2007, it had rebounded and almost achieved parity with the US dollar. Good websites to check for the latest rates include www.xe.com and www.oanda.com.
When changing money, compare rates and fees. In the larger cities, currency exchange offices may offer better conditions than banks. Conditions are likely to be less favorable at counters in airports, train stations and tourist centers than in larger city centers. Some businesses near the US–Canadian border and in big cities accept payment in US dollars, with change given in Canadian dollars. Don’t expect the exchange rate to be in your favor.
Many grocery and convenience stores, airports, and bus, train and ferry stations have ATMs. Most are linked to international networks, the most common being Cirrus, Plus, Star and Maestro.
Most ATMs also spit out cash if you use a major credit card. This method tends to be more expensive because, in addition to a service fee, you’ll be charged interest immediately (in other words, there’s no interest-free period as with purchases). For exact fees, check with your own bank or credit card company.
Visitors heading to Canada’s more remote regions (such as in Newfoundland) won’t find an abundance of ATMs, so it is wise to cash up beforehand.
Major credit cards such as MasterCard, Visa and American Express are widely accepted in Canada, except in remote, rural communities where cash is king. You’ll find it hard or impossible to rent a car, book a room or order tickets over the phone without having a piece of plastic. Note that some credit card companies charge a ‘transaction fee’ (around 3% of whatever you purchased); check with your provider to avoid surprises.
Carry copies of your credit card numbers separately from the cards and immediately report lost or stolen cards.
American Express (866-296-5198; www.americanexpress.com)
MasterCard (800-307-7309; www.mastercard.com)
Visa (800-847-2911; www.visa.com)
Taxes & refunds
Canada’s federal goods and services tax (GST), variously known as the ‘gouge and screw’ or ‘grab and steal’ tax, adds 6% to just about every transaction. To make matters worse, most provinces also charge a provincial sales tax (PST). New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador have combined the GST and PST into a harmonized sales tax (HST) of 14%. Unless otherwise stated, taxes are not included in prices given.
Remember that sweet rebate program where you could get the taxes refunded on your short-term accommodations and non-consumable goods if you spent $200 or more in Canada? That rebate is gone – the government whacked it in 2007. But all is not entirely lost: if you’ve booked your accommodations in conjunction with a rental car, plane ticket or other service (ie if it all appears on the same bill from a ‘tour operator’), you should be eligible to get 50% of the tax refunded from your accommodations. Fill out the GST/HST Refund Application for Tour Packages form available from the Canada Revenue Agency (902-432-5608, 800-668-4748; www.cra-arc.gc.ca/E/pbg/gf/gst115).
Traveler’s checks are becoming more and more obsolete in the age of ATMs. Still, they may come in handy as a backup. Traveler’s checks issued in Canadian dollars are generally treated like cash by businesses. Traveler’s checks in most other currencies must be exchanged for Canadian dollars at a bank or foreign currency office. For lost or stolen checks call the issuer.
American Express (866-296-5198)