They say the best things in life are free, and that really does go double for the land of the double-double (that’s a Canadian way of ordering coffee to the uninitiated) – but with these money saving tips, you could cut the cost of that Canadian coffee as well as every other aspect of your trip to Canada, in half and half.
The second largest country in the world usually makes headlines for its vast and stunning scenery, which doesn’t cost a cent to enjoy, but getting here and staying here doesn’t come cheap – you’ll rarely read about a holiday to Canada and amazing value in the same sentence.
Having lived in Canada for coming up for two years now I am still routinely shocked by the cost of living in the USA’s Northern neighbour compared to my native Europe – despite the fact that my previous home was one of the most expensive cities on the planet (London).
I consider Canada to be a North American version of Switzerland (and to be clear, I’ve spent a great deal of time in Switzerland and I love it there too) – while the best things about these unbelievably beautiful countries are technically completely free just being in the destinations is a budget-buster because both accommodation and food are not cheap, and this deters a lot of tourists. So how should you go about booking a holiday to Canada while keeping an eye on the purse strings?
The reasons behind the high cost of living in Canada are manifold, and if you just want to come here on holiday it won’t matter much to you why a beer is $8, you’ll just want to find a way to see the country and have fun while not breaking the bank.
In case you are curious the high prices have a lot to do with the relatively small population which is spread unevenly across a vast physical space – there are 10 times fewer people here than in the USA but on a larger land mass – meaning the economies of scale and competition just aren’t available.
That makes it very rare to find the kind of deals and bargains that you’ll be expecting if you’re familiar with European or American economies – from competitive cell phone services to sales in shops and multiple options on airlines routes.
But now for the good news – the Canadian dollar is at decent exchange rate against the Euro right now, and if you’re bringing pounds its a very nice feeling indeed to be able to mentally half the prices (It’s closer to 1.6 but let’s face it we all round down when we’re on vacation).
So while I don’t think anyone can argue that Canada is a budget destination that doesn’t mean it can’t be done on a budget. And this is how to do it.
1. Travel off-season
Travelling in shoulder season is even more important here in Canada than in many destinations, as most of Canada has very pronounced seasons which transform the trip you can have.
Canada in general (and by talking about such a vast country as one destination I will always be generalising) pulls in large numbers of tourists for season-specific and highly weather-dependent activities such as skiing and snowboarding, dog-sledding and bear-watching in winter and fishing, hiking and bird-watching in summer.
So if your holiday to Canada is all about visiting the cities or just getting a feel for the destination without being bound to a particular sport or pastime, you’ll find the options much more varied during low season and shoulder season.
Using generous tourism budgets garnered from their big spending clients during high season, prominent Canadian destinations like Whistler are investing in a myriad of events, and striving to be seen as year-round destinations.
Whistler offers a 12-month calendar of festivals from food and wine celebrations like Cornucopia to mountain biking championships – and some of the best things to do like the Scandinave Outdoor Spa can be enjoyed at absolutely any time of year.
You’ll find a similar story in Alberta which has historically enjoyed a generous tourism budget and is well known for iconic events like the Calgary Stampede but isn’t as sought after during off-season, making it a cheaper time to check it out.
2. Take Your Training Seriously
I’ve written about the iconic Rocky Mountaineer train in the past, one of the most famous luxury train trips in the world, and Canada is also famed in travel terms as the jumping off point for Alaskan cruises – but these are two bucket list trips with price tags to match. You don’t have to come to Canada just to do the big hitters and spend a fortune.
If you’re on a budget train travel is a real option; the Canadians are very proud of their railway network, it’s what the country was literally built upon and completely bound up with the history of confederation, so you’ll get plenty of history into the bargain as well as the jaw dropping views.
Even if you don’t have the money to travel on the Rocky Mountaineer (which is best thought of as Canada’s answer to the Orient Express) VIA Rail lets you travel through the same stunning scenery at a far cheaper seat price – look out for their Tuesday deals too (see point 8 for more about so-called Toonie Tuesdays).
3. Keep A Close Eye On The Planes
Flights always soak up the lion’s share of the budget on any long haul trip, but when making the journey to Canada you’ll need to plan your flights especially carefully to keep costs down.
This is because as well as the potentially high cost of a flight from your home country to your port of entry in Canada, any domestic flights you plan to take within Canada can be shockingly expensive – and with the long (and I mean really long) distances between major cities and only a couple of major airlines (namely Westjet and Air Canada) routinely serving most hubs and virtually no low cost airlines operating (save Porter) , your budget will drain fast.
The first time I came on holiday to Canada I made the mistake of assuming I could grab a cheap domestic flight from Vancouver to Toronto, having been spoiled by the likes of Ryanair and Easyjet back home.
But I hadn’t bargained on the scale of the country (it’s a 5 hour flight and 3 hour time change between those 2 major metropolises) or the fact that a flight from West Coast to East Coast will probably set you back as much if not more than your transatlantic flight.
The severe lack of competition on routes means that shopping around early, looking for flash sales and booking in advance or during promotions works best for flights.
Canadian website Flight Network is the one with the best deals. Airlines like Air Transat offer the most reasonable flights from England but don’t get much press outside Canada, and if you’re coming from Europe Aer Lingus is good value too.
However the good news is that each province or territory is so vast that there’s really no need to take internal flights at all because you could easily spend your two or even three-week holiday to Canada exploring one and barely scratch the surface.
For example British Columbia (which is my area of expertise) has everything from amazing nature – mountains, forests, lakes, national parks, farms and beaches, to wineries in the Okanagan – as well as major cities like Victoria and Vancouver.
4. Drive prices right down
Given that distances are vast and flights are expensive, finding a way to get from A to B in CA by road without paying for traditional car hire has got to be worth investigating.
Step forward car delivery services that pay you to transport vehicles one way like Hit The Road – though it does get mixed reviews it’s worth considering, and there are of course plenty of other companies offering a similar service.
Also check out Car2Go which is available in Calgary, Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto and is a cheaper alternative to traditional car hire.
5. Perspiration Leads To Cheaper Accommodation
There’s no shortage of high class, high end, high priced hotels in Canada, and the well-known and very comfortable luxury hotel group Fairmont is actually a Canadian company with a large presence across the country – these are properties in which you can’t help but delight in staying and most package holidays to Canada with large operators will steer you to one of these comfortable hotels.
But if you want to keep your standards high while keeping a lid on spending there are some more options.
There are some great little places across Canada on Airbnb and add in the general politeness and friendliness of Canadians and you will find yourself saving a packet on accommodation while also having an in-house tourist guide – you probably won’t miss the concierge service of a 5 Star Hotel.
In Vancouver BeVancouver is a decent deals site for hotels and often runs promotions with Amex or Amazon giving you cash back in the form of a reward card when you book – so it is well worth a little online digging to unearth these extras.
6. Camp Out At A Cut Price Site
Another key factor about Canada is how great the camping is – the scale of the scenery makes camping a real joy and it’s a way to get out and explore and experience the Canadian Wilderness that you couldn’t possibly do if you stayed in a hotel.
The best campsites are hours away from civilization – down remote logging roads, on lake shores, in forests, and at natural hot springs and it usually costs just a few dollars a night to enjoy an open fire, some s’mores and have the real Canadian experience.
As nature is what Canada does best, it’s even better news to know that you can actually camp completely free: for example in BC Provincial camping can be quite pricey (though arguably worth every cent) – charging up to $35 a night for a vehicle even if there’s only one or two occupants and adding a $6 surcharge per night if you book online.
So for bargain hunters alternative options from power company BC Hydro are worth a try. The firm maintains free camping facilities at six recreation sites across the province – or you can search websites like Free Campsites to find a free campsite near your location.
7. Daily Deals Dedication
Whether you use sites like Groupon at home or not, I highly recommend checking them out when you’re researching your holiday to Canada as they’ll help keep your costs down – activities and eating out tend to be expensive and through the course of your holiday these costs will seriously add up but you can get everything from ice creams to ice fishing on the daily deals sites.
Travel specific sites like Travelzoo also have some fantastic deals on accommodation and activities and other sites which are Canadian-specific include Red Flag Deals – or if you’re a social media fan Facebook forums can be an amazing source of information try Canadian Travel Hacks or my local forum YVR deals which has an active Facebook community.
8. Hit The Toon On Tuesdays
The best time to get bargains is on a Tuesday – this is the unofficial discount day in Canada, mainly because the Canadian slang word for $2, ‘Toonie’ alliterates with the word Tuesday meaning everywhere from art galleries to fast food chains and frozen yogurt stores have special offers on Tuesdays – and sometimes, in the case of cinemas for example, it can even extend across the week.
It can just be a challenge to get around everywhere you want to go on a Tuesday but as 2 bucks doesn’t usually get you very far in Canada, it’s worth the effort.
9. Find the Obscure Deals
One more idea to cut the cost of a holiday to Canada is to opt for the lesser-known Canadian provinces which tend to be more competitively priced.
It may not be your average holiday but come winter you can enjoy a very unusual and quirky vacation in Winnipeg during Festival du Voyageur. While tickets to a more well-known music festival such as Pemberton cost around $300, here a pass to see 80 bands as well as enjoy a snow sculpture competition, sledding and an ice bar costs just $28 which is under 20 Euros – so there are bargains to be had you just have to know where to find them and be willing to look outside the obvious.
10. Cross The Border To Bargains
Growing up in England with no ties to Canada I knew precious little about the country, but something I did learn, and which most educated Europeans seem to be inducted into, is that 75% of Canadians live within 100 miles of the US border.
So if your trip to Canada takes you within spitting distance of the Stars and Stripes you may, depending on your preferences and spending currency, find it preferable to take a leaf out of the Canadians’ book and do some shopping across the US Border – and for avid passport stamp addicts and country collectors it’s also an opportunity to add an excursion onto your trip.
Money-saving outlet malls are something that the US undoubtedly does better than Canada – there are reportedly 135 Premium Outlet malls in the USA but incredibly this concept is just starting to make it across the border – for example European outlet specialist MacArthurGlen is scheduled to open the first outlet mall in Vancouver in July 2015 – so if you need me this summer, that’s where I’ll be.
Thanks for reading – as I’m based in BC many of my examples are in and around Vancouver but if you have suggestions for ways tourists can save money in any part of Canada that I haven’t covered please share them in the comments below, I’d love to hear your suggestions.
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