Home to everything from sandy beaches and temperate rainforests to world-class ski slopes and bustling city streets, Canada is among the most geographically diverse and culturally varied countries on the planet. Of course, the fact that it’s the world’s second largest (after Russia) gives it plenty of room to be different, but with its sheer size comes one pretty big hurdle — domestic travel.
According to the Road Trip Guy, you’ll need to set aside around five weeks to drive from one end of the country to the other. Doable if you’ve got plenty of time on your hands, although not so much if you’re limited to only a couple of weeks.
When I booked my trip, flying between cities seemed like the most logical option, but I was saddened to learn that unlike domestic travel in the States, flights aren’t cheap. A study by Kiwi ranked Canada as the world’s sixth most expensive country for air travel (thanks to an unfavourable combination of little competition, next to no ultra low-cost carriers, and through-the-roof taxes).
But as any adventure-seeker will tell you, often the best places are furthest from our reach.
Having a limited budget doesn’t need to stop you from travelling Canada — just take note of these pointers beforehand.
lesson #1: you don’t need to fly everywhere
Eager to tick as many cities off my list as possible (and with 15 short days to do so) I booked flights between almost every city. If your expected driving time is over five hours, it might be worth it — but if you have the time, buses are often the cheapest and easiest option. Maritime Buses offer journeys of varying lengths (I took one from Charlottetown to Halifax).
FYI: If you know you’re flying to or from a small airport (where the chances of a small aircraft are also likely) avoid booking a seat. I spent upwards of $25 CAD per flight on seat reservations alone, which combined with baggage and the base cost of the flight makes for a hefty per-journey sum. Although it may look like seat selection is mandatory on some airlines, it’s always optional.
lesson #2: traveling during winter? do your research
Circumstances meant my chosen month for travel was March — which I should add is by no means the best month for travel. If you’re travelling outside of summer, or during Canada’s coldest months (January to March) be sure to research before visiting. When arriving in the country’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island (or ‘PEI’ as it’s better-known) I was met by baffled glances and more ‘closed for the season’ signs than you could shake a stick at. Of course, travelling outside of peak times also means you get to experience beautiful scenery tourist-free, so silver linings.
FYI: Many activities and tours only operate during certain months of the year, so be sure to do your research before booking. Having said that, I booked a tour across Nova Scotia with Alternative Routes, who although don’t typically operate during early March, made an exception on my behalf, so it’s worth checking!
lesson #3: learning french isn’t necessary (but it definitely helps)
It’s no secret that the inhabitants of some of Canada’s best-loved cities are primarily French-speaking (Montréal and Québec City among them). If anyone tells you that the residents of these places won’t speak to you in English, don’t take their word for it. Still, learning a few basic phrases is definitely useful, especially if you’re visiting some of the more rural French-Canadian cities.
FYI: If you’re looking for a great selection of bars and clubs, Montréal is your place. CNN Travel coined it the ‘undiscovered party gem of North America’ and ranked it number seven in the world for nightlife. But like most east coast cities, its winters are cold — so pack wisely.
lesson #4: chefs give the best recommendations
Guidebooks are great if you don’t mind tourist hotspots, but for the best of the best, pick the brain of a local. After enjoying a delicious meal in the restaurant of my hotel in Ottawa, I was greeted by the chef who prepared it (and had lived in the city all his life). Eager to share his must-visit spots, he shone a light on some of the capital’s hidden gems, including my favourite — a speakeasy disguised as a bookcase.
FYI: Hotel concierges are also always more than happy to pinpoint their favourites on a city map, so take full advantage.
lesson #5: don’t be shy — locals love you
Contrary to popular opinion, eating and drinking alone has its perks — but rest assured that bars aren’t the only place to meet people. After losing my camera at Charlottetown’s airport, a baggage attendant offered to show me PEI on her day off. Bad weather meant I was the only person on a tour of Nova Scotia, and led to a friendship with Halifax’s best tour guide. You’ll be surprised at how many people are willing to lend a helping hand, so don’t be shy.
FYI: Apprehensive about the prospect of driving on the other side of the road, I didn’t hire a car — but I’d say it’s worth it (particularly in places like PEI and Nova Scotia where public transit is limited).
Words by HQ