Beyond the cities, getting around Canada by public transport can be tough: train services are limited to a light scattering of routes, and although buses are much more plentiful and cheap, bus stations and stops can be miles from the nearest hotel or campsite. Flying is far more expensive, and the vast bulk of visitors rent cars and drive.
Canada has a comprehensive network of domestic flights that covers every corner of the country. The big carriers are WestJet (t 1 888 937 8538, w westjet.com) and Air Canada (t 1 888 247 2262, w aircanada.com) and its subsidiary airlines, although there are a number of smaller airlines operating regionally. Throughout the Guide, we have given details of the most useful services.
Prices remain generally high: a one-way fare from Toronto to Winnipeg with Air Canada can cost $250–270, and about the same on WestJet. Standard fares to the more remote settlements in the north can become prohibitively expensive for non-business travellers: single flights from Toronto to Goose Bay are $600–800 in the summer, and well over $1000 for Montréal to Iqaluit. One way around this particular cost is the Arctic Circle Air Pass (t 1 800 661 0407, w flyairnorth.com), which allows you to fly return from Vancouver, Calgary or Edmonton to five destinations in the Yukon or Northwest Territories, starting from $1399. For a way to cut costs outside of the north, think about an Air Canada Flight Pass. There are endless permutations, but the principle is that you buy a fixed or unlimited number of flight credits, each of which is valid for an internal flight; the larger the area covered by the pass, the more expensive it is. For example, the Canada Western Flight Pass offers three months unlimited travel starting at $3545 per month for western Canada.
Travelling by car is the best way to see Canada. Any US, UK, Australian or New Zealand national over 21 with a full driving licence is allowed to drive in Canada, though rental companies may refuse to rent to a driver who has held a full licence for less than one year, and under-25s almost invariably get lumbered with a higher insurance premium. Car-rental companies will expect you to have a credit card; if you don’t, they may refuse to rent to you.
Most of Canada’s vehicles – and almost every rental car – run on unleaded fuel, which is sold by the litre. Petrol stations thin out markedly in the more remote regions, where you should fill up where you can. Petrol is heavily taxed in Canada and is usually twenty percent more expensive than the US (though still cheaper than the UK). Prices can vary widely throughout the country: Ontario petrol is often 20–30¢ cheaper (per litre) than Newfoundland and the Northern Territories.
Roads and hazards
Canada has a superb road network and although multi-lane highways radiate from every city, the bulk of the system is comprised of (lightly used) two-lane highways. Exits on multi-lane highways are numbered by the kilometre distance from the beginning of the highway, not sequentially – thus exit 55 is 10km after exit 45. In the north and off the beaten track, highways may be entirely of gravel. After rain, gravel and dirt roads are especially treacherous; if you’re planning a lot of dirt-road driving, you’d be well advised to rent a four-wheel-drive.
Rural road hazards include moose and other large animals trundling into the road – particularly in the summer at dawn and dusk, when the beasts crash through the undergrowth onto the highway to escape the flies, and in winter, when they want to lick the road salt. Warning signs are posted in the more hazardous areas. Headlights can dazzle wild animals and render them temporarily immobile.
In cities, parking meters are commonplace, charging 25¢–$1.50 or more per hour. Car parks charge up to $30 a day. If you park in the wrong place (such as within 5m of a fire hydrant) your car may be towed away – if this happens, the police will tell you where your car is impounded and then charge you upwards of $350 to hand it back. When parking, ensure you park in the same direction as the traffic flow.
Rules of the road
Traffic drives on the right-hand side of the road. In most urban areas, streets are arranged on a grid system, with traffic lights at most intersections; at junctions without traffic lights there will be either yellow triangular “Yield” signs or red octagonal “Stop” signs (“Arrêt” in Québec) at all four corners. In the latter case, priority is given to the first car to arrive, and to the car on the right if two or more cars arrive at the same time. Except in Québec, you can turn right on a red light if there is no traffic approaching from the left. Traffic in both directions must stop if a yellow school bus is stationary with its flashing lights on, as this means children are getting on or off.
Driving laws are made at provincial level, with the maximum speed limit ranging 100–110kmph on major hwys, 80kmph on rural hwys and 50kmph or less in built-up areas. On-the-spot fines are standard for speeding violations, for failing to carry your licence with you and for having a passenger not wearing a seat belt.
Canadian law requires that any alcohol be carried unopened in the boot of the car. On the road, spot checks are frequently carried out, particularly at the entrances and exits to towns, and the police do not need an excuse to stop you.
Renting a car or RV
The least expensive way to rent a car is usually to take a fly-drive package or book in advance with a major rental company. Competition is fierce and special deals are more commonplace in the shoulder and low seasons.
In Canada itself, expect to pay from around $300 a week for a two-door economy saloon in low season to $450 in high season, though throughout the year special promotions are offered by the major companies, which can get rates down to as low as $200 per week. Provincial taxes and GST or HST are not included in the rates, but the biggest hidden surcharge is often the drop-off charge, levied when you intend to leave your car in a different place from where you picked it up. Check if unlimited mileage is offered – an important consideration in a country where towns are so widely dispersed. The usual free quota, if you don’t get unlimited mileage, is 150–200km per day, woefully inadequate if you’re contemplating some serious touring – after which an extra charge of around 13–20¢/km is standard. You should also check your insurance policy for the excess applied to claims and ensure that, in general terms, it provides adequate levels of financial cover. Additionally, the Loss Damage Waiver (LDW), a form of insurance that isn’t included in the initial rental charge, is well worth the expense. At around $25 per day, it can add substantially to the total cost, but without it you’re liable for every scratch to the car – even if it wasn’t your fault.
A recreational vehicle (RV) can be rented through most travel agents specializing in Canadian holidays. It’s best to arrange rental before getting to Canada, as RV-rental outlets are not too common. You can rent a huge variety of RVs right up to giant mobile homes with two bedrooms, showers and fully fitted kitchens. A price of around $1300 in low season, $2200 in high season, for a five-berth van for one week is fairly typical. On top of that you have to take into account the cost of fuel (some RVs do less than 25km to the litre), extra kilometre charges, drop-off charges, and the cost of spending the night at designated RV parks. Canada also has strict regulations on the size of vehicle allowed; in British Columbia and Ontario the maximum length for a trailer is 12.5m (41ft) (in Ontario it’s 23m or 75.5ft for trailer plus car, but just 20m or 65.6ft in BC) – if you are coming from the US check that your RV isn’t over the limit.
A variation on car rental is a driveaway, where you deliver a car from one place to another on behalf of the owner. The same rules apply as for renting – but look the car over beforehand as you’ll be lumbered with any repair costs and a large fuel bill if it’s a gas guzzler. Most driveaway companies (such as w canadadriveaway.com) will want a Canadian, US or international driving licence and personal reference as well as a deposit of up to $500. The most common routes are Toronto or Montréal to Vancouver, or to Florida and Arizona/New Mexico in the autumn and winter. Not a lot of leeway is given – around eight days is the time allowed for driving from Toronto to Vancouver.
Greyhound Canada runs most of the long-distance buses west of Toronto, including a service along the Trans-Canada Hwy from Toronto to Vancouver, and is well represented in the east of the country, though here a network of smaller companies rules the roost. Long-distance buses run on a fairly full timetable (at least during the day), stopping only for meal breaks and driver changeovers.
Fares are pretty standard for all Canadian bus companies: for example, Toronto to Winnipeg, a distance of 2100km, costs around $145 one way (cheaper in advance), while Montréal to Toronto, an eight-and-a-half-hour (540km) ride, costs around $40 one way. Note that the Greyhound Discovery Pass was discontinued in 2012.
Canadian passenger trains are now few and far between, though at least the national carrier, VIA Rail (t 1 888 842 7245, w viarail.ca), runs speedy and efficient services between Montréal and Toronto. VIA also runs several prestige routes through some of Canada’s finest scenery, the long, thrice-weekly haul between Toronto and Vancouver, the two-day journey from Jasper to Prince Rupert, and the excursion round Québec’s Gaspé peninsula being the prime examples.
There’s always a choice of ticket on these flagship routes. The most basic entitles passengers to a reclining seat and access to a public lounge and dome car, but not much else. Top-of-the-range tickets include meals in the restaurant car, access to comfortable lounges, hot showers and accommodation in either a bunk-bedded sleeper, a “roomette” for one, or a bedroom for two. For more information, check with VIA or consult w seat61.com. To give an idea of peak-season fares, Toronto-to-Vancouver tickets cost anywhere between $445 (supersaver economy), $1541 (upper berth) and $2324 for a single cabin; expect to pay about 25 percent less for off-peak travel.
VIA sells a number of rail passes, which can reduce costs considerably. Perhaps the most tempting is the Canrailpass (June to mid-Oct $1008; rest of year $630), which allows seven one-way trips anywhere in Canada during a 21-day period at the economy class.
Other, smaller companies offer scenic rail trips: Rocky Mountaineer trains (t 604 606 7245, t 1 877 460 3200, w rockymountaineer.com) run from Vancouver to several western destinations, including Jasper, Kamloops, Banff and Calgary; Ontario Northland’s Polar Bear Express (t 1 800 461 8558, w northlander.ca) goes from Cochrane to Moosonee, though its Northlander train was cancelled in 2012; Algoma Central Railway (t 705 946 7300, t 1 800 242 9287, w agawacanyontourtrain.com) has excursions through the Agawa Canyon; the White Pass & Yukon Railroad trains (t 907 983 2217, t 1 800 343 7373 w wpyr.com) run from Fraser to Skagway; and the epic Québec North Shore & Labrador Railway (w tshiuetin.net) travels between Sept-Îles in Québec and Emeril Junction in Labrador, now operated by Tshiuetin Rail Transportation.
You’ll likely make the most use of Canadian ferries in BC, travelling between Vancouver, Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands and north up the Inside Passage as far as Prince Rupert. BC Ferries (t 250 386 3431, w bcferries.com) runs all these services and fares are reasonable. To go from Vancouver to Victoria, for example, costs $14.85 per passenger, plus another $49.25 with car ($2 for bicycles).
On the East Coast, you might take a ferry between Caribou, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island (t 1 877 635 7245, w nfl-bay.com), which costs $17, plus another $66 with car. Yet the more useful route would be from Sydney, Nova Scotia, to points in Newfoundland (t 1 800 341 7981, w marine-atlantic.ca). For example, a trip to Channel-Port aux Basques, Newfoundland, from Sydney costs $40.76, plus another $105.65 with car.
City cyclists are reasonably well catered for in Canada: most cities have cycling lanes and produce special maps, and long-distance buses, ferries and trains will allow you to transport your bike either free or at a minimal charge. An interesting on-going project is the development of a coast-to-coast recreational path, the 21,500km Trans Canada Trail (w tctrail.ca), sections of which are already open to cyclists. The Canadian Cycling Association (CCA; t 613 248 1353, w canadian-cycling.com) has information on cycling and publishes several books, including the Complete Guide to Cycling in Canada. Standard bike-rental costs start at around $15–20 per day, plus a sizeable cash sum or a credit card as deposit; outlets are listed throughout the Guide.