With oceans at both ends of the country and a lake- and river-filled interior, don’t be surprised to find yourself in a boat at some point. Extensive ferry services between islands and the mainland exist throughout the Atlantic provinces and in British Columbia.
Walk-ons and cyclists should be able to get aboard at any time, but call ahead for vehicle reservations or if you require a cabin berth. This is especially important during summer peak season and holidays. Main operators include the following:
BC Ferries (250-386-3431, 888-223-3779; www.bcferries.com) Huge passenger-ferry systems with 25 routes and 46 ports of call, including Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, the Sechelt Peninsula along the Sunshine Coast and the Queen Charlotte Islands, all in British Columbia.
Canadian law requires liability insurance for all vehicles, to cover you for damage caused to property and people. The minimum requirement is $200, 000 in all provinces except Québec, where it is $50, 000. If you already have auto insurance at home, or if you have purchased travel insurance, make sure that the policy has adequate liability cover for where you’ll be driving. Americans traveling to Canada in their own car should ask their insurance company for a Nonresident Interprovince Motor Vehicle Liability Insurance Card (commonly known as a ‘yellow card’), which is accepted as evidence of financial responsibility anywhere in Canada. Although not mandatory, it may come in handy in an accident.
Car-rental agencies will provide liability insurance. Sometimes adequate cover is already included in the base rental rate, but always ask to be sure. Insurance against damage to the car itself, called Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), reduces or eliminates the amount you’ll have to reimburse the rental company. It’s optional but, although it’s expensive ($13 to $17 per day), it’s unwise to drive without it. Certain credit cards, especially the gold and platinum versions, cover CDW for a certain rental period, if you use the card to pay for the rental, and decline the policy offered by the rental company. Always check with your card issuer to see what coverage they offer in Canada.
Personal accident insurance (PAI) covers you and any passengers for medical costs incurred as a result of an accident. If your travel insurance or your health-insurance policy at home does this as well (and most do, but check), then this is one expense you can do without.
As anywhere, rates for car rentals vary considerably by model and pick-up location, but you should be able to get an economy-sized vehicle for about $35 to $65 per day. Expect surcharges for rentals originating at airports and train stations and for additional drivers and one-way rentals. Child safety seats are compulsory (reserve them when you book) and cost about $8 per day.
In order to rent your own wheels in Canada you generally need to be at least 25 years old and hold a valid driver’s license (an international one may be required if you’re not from an English- or French-speaking country) and a major credit card. American Express, Diners, Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted, and JCB (Japan Credit Bank) and Discover are usually fine as well, but it’s best to check in advance. Some companies may rent to drivers between the ages of 21 and 24 for an additional charge (about $15 to $25 per day). Those under 21, or not in possession of a credit card, are usually out of luck.
Major international car-rental companies usually have branches at airports, train stations and in city centers.
Avis (800-437-0358; www.avis.com)
Budget (800-268-8900; www.budget.com)
Dollar (800-800-4000; www.dollar.com)
Enterprise (800-736-8222; www.enterprise.com)
Hertz (800-263-0600; www.hertz.com)
National (800-227-7368; www.nationalcar.com)
Rent A Wreck (800-327-0116; www.rentawreck.ca)
Thrifty (800-847-4389; www.thrifty.com)
Local agencies may offer lower rates, so it’s worth checking with them as well. Independents are more likely to rent to drivers under 25, and may even accept cash or traveler’s-check deposits. About 300 independent agencies are represented by Car Rental Express (www.carrentalexpress.com), which may yield savings of up to 25% off rates charged by the national chains.
Pre-booked and prepaid packages arranged in your home country often work out to be cheaper than on-the-spot rentals. The same is true of fly-drive packages. Search the car-rental agency and airline websites, as well as online travel agencies for deals.
The RV market is big in the west, with specialized agencies in Calgary, Edmonton, Whitehorse, Vancouver and other cities (see the Yellow Pages under ‘Recreational Vehicles’). But RVs and camper vans can also be rented in Toronto, and other central and eastern cities. For summer travel, book as early as possible, as the popular models rent quickly. The base cost is roughly $160 to $265 per day in high season for mid-sized vehicles, although insurance, fees and taxes add a hefty chunk to the final bill. Diesel-fueled RVs have considerably lower running costs. Your travel agency back home may have the best deals, or check out some recommended companies:
Greyhound Canada (800-661-8747; www.greyhound.ca) is the king of the bus world, plowing along an extensive network in central and western Canada, as well as to/from the USA. In eastern Canada, it is part of an alliance of regional carriers, including Orléans Express in Québec and Acadian Lines in the Maritime provinces. You can usually transfer from one carrier to another on a single ticket.
Tickets can be bought at Greyhound terminals. You can also purchase tickets by phone or online (depending on if you reserve 10 days in advance, if the bus station you’re traveling from has a ‘will call’ service and if you don’t mind paying a service charge, which can be up to $15). One-way tickets are generally valid for 60 days and round-trip tickets for a year, but this may vary by company and ticket type.
The frequency of bus services ranges from ‘rarely’ to ‘constantly, ’ but even the least popular routes usually have one bus per day. Main routes will have a service every hour or so. Buses travel mostly on highways, but trips can still be very long because of the great distances. Express buses operate on busy routes.
By most standards, bus services are really quite good. Buses are generally clean, comfortable and reliable. Amenities may include onboard toilets, air-conditioning (bring a sweater), reclining seats and onboard movies. Smoking is not permitted. On long journeys, buses make meal stops every few hours, usually at highway service stations, where the food tends to be bad and overpriced.
Laidlaw Transit (519-376-5712, 519-376-5375) Operates within Ontario.
Buses are the most ubiquitous form of public transportation, and practically all towns have their own systems. Most are commuter oriented, and offer only limited or no services in the evenings and on weekends.
VIA Rail (888-842-7245; www.viarail.ca) operates most of Canada’s intercity and transcontinental passenger trains, linking most of the major cities and about 450 smaller communities along 14,000km of track. The network does not extend to Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and Canada’s Northern territories. In some remote parts of the country, such as Churchill in Manitoba, trains provide the only overland access.
Rail service is most efficient in southern Ontario and southern Québec. Many trains connect Montréal and Toronto, which are both major hubs with service to many other communities. From Montréal, there are trains bound for Ottawa, Québec City, Jonquière and the Gaspé Peninsula. Communities served from Toronto include Windsor, London, Kingston, Niagara Falls, Sarnia and White River.
For a complete train schedule, check the website or pick up the National Timetable booklet at any VIA Rail station. Most train stations have left-luggage offices. Smoking is prohibited on many trains, and is restricted to designated areas on others. There are snack services on most routes, and some trains have dining cars (some tickets even include meals).
Train buffs should also check out Canada by Rail (www.canadabyrail.ca), an excellent portal packed with information on regional excursion trains, railroad museums and historical train stations.
On VIA Rail, fares are lowest in comfort class, which is offered on all trains, and buys you a fairly basic, if indeed quite comfortable, reclining seat with a headrest. Blankets and pillows are provided for overnight travel.
On trains operating in southern Ontario and Québec, you can upgrade to the VIA 1 class, where seats are more spacious and have outlets for plugging in laptops or other devices; tickets also include a meal. On some routes, wireless high-speed internet access is available.
For overnight travel, VIA offers various sleeping-car classes, including compartments with upper or lower pullout berths, and private single, double or triple roomettes. Fares usually include access to a shower and the sightseeing car, and sometimes meals as well.
Taking the train is more expensive than the bus, but most people find it a more comfortable way to travel. Thanks to numerous special deals, you rarely have to pay full fare. Round-trip tickets are cheaper than one-way fares, and buying tickets five days in advance can yield 30% to 40% savings. Students save with an ISIC card, though the savings has mostly to do with flexibility (ie the ability to make last-minute bookings and no-fee ticket changes). Seniors over 60 can shave 10% off the price of regular tickets. Children aged between two and 11 pay half of adult fares. See VIA Rail’s website for further promotions and vacation packages.
VIA Rail’s longest continuous route travels between Toronto and Vancouver, a stretch covered by the Canadian, so named in memory of Canadian Pacific Railway’s original route. It even looks like the 1950s stainless-steel classic, complete with the two-story windowed ‘dome’ car – prime for sightseeing. On its three-day journey, the train crosses the northern Ontario lake country, and ploughs through the western plains via Winnipeg and Saskatoon, before reaching Jasper in the craggy Rockies, and then on to Vancouver. There are three departures weekly in both directions year-round. Fares vary widely by season and comfort level. In July, one-way tickets start at $597 for a reclining seat, but zoom to $2075 for a single room; an upper berth costs about $1376, including taxes. For the same trip in November, prices drop to $454, $1308 and $897 respectively.
If you want to cross the entire country, hop on the overnight Ocean in Halifax, then change in Montréal for the train bound for Toronto, where you can catch the Canadian. Of course, you can also start your trip in Vancouver and work your way east. In either direction, a cross-country trip can be very pleasant and relaxing, particularly if you have your own room. For travel during the summer months you should book well ahead.
In the west, the Skeena is an all-daylight route chugging from Jasper, Alberta, to coastal Prince Rupert, British Columbia, in two days, with an overnight stop in Prince George (you must make your own hotel reservations). Seats cost about $200 in comfort class. From May through September only, you can travel in Totem Class ($635), which includes meals and access to the glass-domed sightseeing car.
On Vancouver Island, British Columbia, the Malahat carves through magnificent countryside from Victoria to Courtenay once daily in each direction. The entire trip lasts 4½ hours, but you’re free to get off and back on as many times as you’d like. The cheapest fare is $49.
There are several privately run regional train companies that offer additional rail-touring opportunities:
Algoma Central Railway Access to northern Ontario wilderness areas.
Greyhound and most other bus lines don’t take reservations, and even buying tickets in advance does not guarantee you a seat on any particular bus. Show up at least 45 minutes to one hour prior to the scheduled departure time, and chances are pretty good you’ll get on. Allow more time on Friday and Sunday afternoons and around holidays.
Tickets and train passes are available for purchase online, by phone, at VIA Rail stations and from many travel agents. Seat reservations are highly recommended, especially in summer, on weekends and around holidays. During peak season, some of the most popular sleeping arrangements sell out months in advance, especially on long-distance trains such as the Canadian. The Hudson Bay often books solid during polar-bear season (late September to early November). Booking early gives you the best chance of snagging fare discounts.
Tour companies are another way to get around this great big country. Reliable companies operating in multiple provinces across Canada include the following:
Arctic Odysseys (206-325-1977, 800-574-3021; www.arcticodysseys.com) Experience Arctic Canada close up on tours chasing the northern lights in the Northwest Territories, heli-skiing on Baffin Island or polar-bear spotting on Hudson Bay.
Elderhostel (800-454-5768; www.elderhostel.org) Nonprofit organization offers study tours in nearly all provinces for active people over 55, including train trips, cruises, and bus and walking tours.
Moose Travel Network (in eastern Canada 416-504-7514, 888-816-6673, in western Canada 604-777-9905, 888-244-6673; www.moosenetwork.com) Operates backpacker-type tours in small buses throughout British Columbia, Alberta, Québec and Ontario. The two- to 10-day trips hit Whistler, Banff, Jasper, Calgary, Toronto and Montréal, among others, and you can jump on or off anywhere along the route. In winter, various skiing and snowboarding packages are available.
Nahanni River Adventures (867-668-3180, 800-297-6927; www.nahanni.com) Operates rafting and kayaking expeditions in the Yukon, British Columbia and Alaska, including trips on the Firth, Alsek and Babine Rivers, as well as down the Tatshenshini-Alsek watershed.
Routes to Learning (613-530-2222, 866-745-1690; www.routestolearning.ca) From bird-watching in the Rockies to trekking around Québec City to walking in the footsteps of Vikings on Newfoundland, this nonprofit group has dozens of educational tours throughout Canada.
Salty Bear Adventure Tours (902-202-3636, 888-425-2327; www.saltybear.ca) Backpacker-oriented van tours through the Maritimes with jump-on/jump-off flexibility. There’s a two-day circuit around Nova Scotia, or a more stimulating four-day route into Cape Breton and beyond.
Trek America (in USA 800-221-0596, in UK 0870-444-8735; www.trekamerica.com) Active camping, hiking and canoeing tours in small groups, geared primarily for people between 18 and 38, although some are open to all ages.
Toronto, Montréal and Edmonton are the only Canadian cities that have subway systems. Vancouver’s version is mostly an above-ground monorail. Route maps are posted in all stations, and you can pick up a printed copy from the stationmaster or ticket office. The frequency of services fluctuates with demand, with more trains during commuter hours than, say, in the middle of the day.
Most of the main cities have taxis. Taxis are usually metered, with a flag-fall fee of roughly $2.70 and a per-kilometer charge around $1.75. Drivers expect a tip of between 10% and 15%. Taxis can be flagged down or ordered by phone.
The Canadian airline industry has experienced great turbulence in recent years. Even Air Canada, the country’s largest carrier and a Star Alliance member, got into trouble for a while but finally emerged from bankruptcy protection in October 2004 following major financial restructuring. Despite such woes the company still operates the largest domestic-flight network serving some 150 destinations together with its regional subsidiary, Air Canada Jazz.
Low-cost, low-frills carriers are chasing Air Canada’s wings. The biggest is Calgary-based WestJet. In response, Air Canada entered the discount game by introducing inexpensive ‘Tango’ fares, which sometimes undercut even the discount carriers, on its regular flights.
The Canadian aviation arena also includes many independent regional and local airlines, which tend to focus on small, often-remote regions, mostly in the North. Depending on the destination, fares in such noncompetitive markets can be high.
The following is a list of the main domestic carriers.
Air Canada (888-247-2262; www.aircanada.com) Nationwide flights.
Air Canada Jazz (888-247-2262; www.aircanada.com) Regional flights throughout western and eastern Canada.
Sunwing (877-786-9464; www.flysunwing.com) Charter airline that flies throughout Canada.
Cycling is a popular means of getting around during the warmer months and many cities have hundreds of kilometers of dedicated bike paths. Bicycles may often be taken on public transportation at certain times of day.
Cycling across Canada would be an enormous, though not impossible, undertaking, but touring individual regions is easier to do and popular. Long-distance trips can be done entirely on quiet back roads, and many cities (including Edmonton, Montréal, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver) have designated bike routes.
Cyclists must follow the same rules of the road as vehicles, but don’t expect drivers to always respect your right of way. Helmets may give you a bad hair day, but they are mandatory for all cyclists in British Columbia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, as well as for anyone under 18 in Alberta and Ontario.
Emergency roadside assistance is available from the Better World Club (866-238-1137; www.betterworldclub.com). Membership costs $40 per year, plus a $10 enrollment fee, and entitles you to two free pick-ups, and transport to the nearest repair shop, or home, within a 50km radius of where you’re picked up.
Most airlines will carry bikes as checked luggage without charge on international flights, as long as they’re in a box. On domestic flights they usually charge between $30 and $65. Always check details before you buy the ticket.
If you’re traveling on Greyhound Canada, you must ship your bike as freight. In addition to a bike box ($10), you’ll be charged according to the weight of the bike, plus a 40% oversize charge and GST. Bikes only travel on the same bus as the passenger if there’s enough space. To ensure that yours arrives at the same time as (or before) you do, ship it a day early.
VIA Rail will transport your bicycle for $20, but only on trains offering checked-baggage service (which includes all long-distance and many regional trains).
Buying a bike is easy, as is reselling it before you leave. Specialist bike shops have the best selection and advice, but general sporting-goods stores may have lower prices. Some bicycle stores and rental outfitters also sell used bicycles. To sniff out the best bargains, scour flea markets, garage sales and thrift shops, or check the notice boards in hostels and universities. These are also the best places to sell your bike.
Outfitters renting bicycles exist in most tourist towns. Rentals cost around $15 per day for touring bikes and $25 per day for mountain bikes. The price usually includes a helmet and lock. Most companies require a security deposit of $20 to $200.