Tips for travelling around

Air travel

Air Canada is the national carrier and operates most of the routes within Canada. Different routes, especially in the north of Canada, are operated by privately owned and smaller airlines.

Discount Airlines

There are some discount airlines tickets provided by Air Canada and WestJet. Often the service is the same as full paying passengers but the tickets may need to be bought quite some time in advance and carry restrictions.

Remote Destinations and Northern Routes

Canada’s size means that some places are not connected by road and air travel is the only option. Some remote and very northern destinations are accessible by air only. Air Canada provides service to the larger towns and smaller independent airlines operate a web of routes across the northern 2/3 of Canada.

Seaplane / Float Plane Services

Coastal communities and those around the Great Lakes can be accessed by floatplane service. This can be an enjoyable but costly way to travel. Some routes, such as Vancouver to Victoria, are operated by multiple airlines so competition helps keep the prices low. This can also be a quicker and more convenient option to taking the ferry as downtown to downtown services are offered.

Bicycle touring

Cycling in Canada is a cheap method of transport but you have vast distances to content with. You are better to spend time in one area rather than using it as a method of transport between places.

There are rental stores all over Canada and if there are more than one in a city then it can be worth while finding out which provides better quality bikes.

Boats & ferries

Ferries link some provinces and islands to the mainland and are often the only way there.

You can also canoe across vast distances in Canada through rivers and lakes that are linked up. It is recommended to seek further advice on doing this before planning your trip. Tourist offices and national park centres can provide you with plenty of useful details about travelling by canoe in Canada.

Bus and public transit

Travelling in the slow lane has almost become a lost art. Even on holidays, people rush to get away so that they can have an extended time to relax. In these days of tight schedules and the frantic rush from one place to another, few people seem to be able to take the slower route. But for those who are willing to take the time, getting there can be part of the holiday. Travelling long distances by bus can be uncomfortable, but the chance to see the country and to experience travel from a new perspective can be worth the extra time and effort it takes.

Riding the bus can be a relaxing way to get to places near and far. Bus trips are generally not for busy managers on their way to meetings, but rather for people who are in no particular rush to get to their destination. Passengers will see few business suits or briefcases on board, but many backpacks and diaper bags. Stops along the way are frequent, and the route sometimes includes long detours to travel through small towns to pick up passengers or packages. Travellers should count on being on the road for several more hours than the trip would otherwise take by car and for considerably longer than a plane would take. But if the trip is as important as the destination, the extra time can allow for contemplation, watching the landscape go by, or visiting with fellow travellers.

Boarding a bus is a considerably more relaxed process than boarding a plane. It is best to arrive at bus depots in major cities at least thirty minutes ahead of time to allow time for getting through the lines and choosing a seat, but unless travellers still need their luggage labels, the process of boarding is very quick. Two properly tagged bags can be stored under the bus; at some depots, labels are available only at the ticket counters, while others provide colour-coded labels (such as green for Manitoba destinations and yellow for Alberta). There are normally no security checks, although a guard may on occasion request to see inside a passenger’s bag. Ten or fifteen minutes before a bus leaves, passengers line up at the appropriate gate or bench, show their tickets, and hand the luggage they want stowed underneath to the baggage handler or driver. Although passengers can reserve a particular seat for a small extra fee, most prefer to arrive early enough to take their chances and find the seat they like best.

Long hours of confinement in a vehicle require some way to pass the time. Sleeping is always an option; the seats are not very roomy but offer some opportunity to stretch out and push the seat back. Many passengers bring their own pillows as these are not provided on the bus. Many buses are fitted with small screens where passengers can watch movies selected by the driver, and several music stations are also available; headphones are available for purchase in major centres, but most commercial headphones will also fit into the one-pronged outlets. Reading, knitting, writing, or other activities can also fill the time between departure and arrival.

However interesting the activities on board are, passengers should not forget to look outside. From rolling hills and forests to towering mountains to the flat expanse of fields stretching out as far as the eye can see, the Canadian landscape provides fascinating insights into the diverse country where we live. A look out the windows may even yield the sight of wildlife such as birds, bears, and deer. Who would have thought that a stop near the Manitoba town of Wasagaming in Riding Mountain National Park could yield a view of a mother bear with three cubs? Travelling by bus can be a wonderful way of seeing the countryside and its wild inhabitants.

Towns and cities along the way complement the experience of watching the landscape go by, and they also provide the opportunity for crucial breaks. At least every few hours during the day and at longer intervals at night, the bus will stop for anywhere from five minutes to an hour for passengers to stretch their legs, get a meal at a nearby restaurant, or to allow new passengers to board. No food is served on the bus, and passengers should remember to bring what they need with them or to have sufficient money to buy meals at the restaurants and fast food outlets near the depots. While doughnut shops and fast food outlets dominate, some stops are more interesting. Near many of the downtown depots are museums, restaurants, shopping areas, and other places to eat and to pass the break time.

Besides eating and enjoying the sights of each stop, breaks provide a way of avoiding the stiffness and pain that can come with sitting for long periods of time. Taking a short walk at every stop can help alleviate the problems of inaction and also provide a chance to get fresh air. Even at night, it can be important to get out of the bus to avoid a stiff and painful morning the next day.

The bus is an ideal way to travel to small towns. Planes normally land only in fairly major centres, and the trip to a smaller place can often be quite involved. The bus, however, stops at many small towns, thus giving the residents an easy means of travelling outside the area. Even going to bigger centres may be easier by bus than by plane. In many cities, the airport is some distance from the rest of the metropolis; most major bus depots, however, are located downtown and many buses stop at several other places in each city. With these advantages and the chance to see the country, the bus is an ideal way to travel.

It seems that few people these days take the time to see Canada in all its colour and variety, but bus travel offers the opportunity to experience the cities, towns, and natural sights of Canada in new ways. For people who can take the time, it can be an ideal way to travel for business or pleasure.

Areas of bus service

People unaccustomed to travelling by bus may be at a loss about where to start looking for information, but the process of selecting a carrier is quite easy. Bus travel in Canada is still limited to a small number of companies. In addition to local bus and charter companies such as Beaver Bus Lines in Manitoba and the Moose Network for backpacking groups, only one company serves each region: Acadian and DRL operate in the Atlantic Provinces and Orleans in Quebec, with Greyhound serving the rest of the country west of Ottawa. The latter also has extensive service in the United States and some in Mexico. While this limits choice, it also makes the process of planning a bus trip easier; with no need to compare different companies, passengers need only choose the right kind of ticket and the best time to travel.

Orleans Express serves mainly Quebec and also uses subsidiaries for the Atlantic Provinces. With four departures per day from Quebec City to the Pierre Eliot Trudeau Airport, the service caters to the special requirements of the region. Acadian Bus has certain restrictions about reservations from certain points. There are rates for adults, students, club 60, and children. DRL Coachlines in Newfoundland also offers tours of the province in addition to its regular schedule.

Finding specific information is not a difficult process. The best places to look are the company websites and telephone information lines, where schedules and ticket prices are always available.

Best times for bus travel

Finding the best time to travel involves careful planning, forethought, and a degree of guesswork. Travelling around a major holiday like Christmas may be impossible on a discounted ticket and difficult otherwise, but usually the advance-purchase tickets are valid several days before and after the rush. Discounts are limited in the holiday and summer months, although they still may be available. It is best to call or check the company’s website for any restrictions on travel before planning a trip. Proximity to a holiday usually means the buses are likely to be quite full, although there are normally at least a few seats left for stragglers.

Location is a major factor in how full a bus is likely to be. Some routes are busier than others; fewer people tend to ride the route from Winnipeg to Saskatoon, for example, than from Saskatchewan’s capital to Edmonton. Other routes may be consistently empty or full, but frequent travellers will soon know the best time to plan their trips.

The time of day also affects the fullness of buses. Afternoon buses are often fairly empty, but a surprising number of people opt for the midnight bus. Routes between major centres are naturally busier than rural routes, but all become busier close to holidays, and weekdays are often better times to travel than weekends.

Personal preference is the main criterion for determining the best time to travel, but keeping ticket restrictions and each route’s level of busyness in mind can help travellers decide when to be on the road.

Choosing a bus ticket

Deciding where to go and how to get there is the first step in planning a trip, and the next important task is to buy a ticket. Although tickets are normally still available only minutes before a bus leaves, it is a good idea to take advantage of the benefits advance planning can give.

Most bus lines recognize the varied needs of the travellers in need of their services. Greyhound, for example, offers a variety of tickets, most of which allow a great deal of flexibility. For people who wish to travel around and see the country, the Discovery Pass is well suited to their needs. This ticket is the most flexible of all, allowing passengers to travel around the country with unlimited stopovers and transfers as long as the pass lasts. Most other tickets do not allow for stopovers other than scheduled stops and transfers, but because they are valid for a range of dates, they still allow passengers to choose their own timetable. Buying a ticket a week or two in advance can cut the price by up to half, and there are various discounts for students, seniors, and others. The compassionate discount will help those who must travel unexpectedly to be with their families. Other last-minute travellers need not worry, however; even full-price tickets are rarely more expensive than plane fare, and few buses are so full that they cannot accommodate one more person.

Cancellation fees for air travel can be prohibitive, but bus travel allows passengers greater freedom to change their plans. While tickets are non-refundable, they are valid for up to forty-four days after the date stamped on the ticket. Advance-purchase tickets may not be valid on weekends or holidays, but there are no restrictions on the time of day passengers can travel. With this flexibility, passengers can decide how best to use travel time to fit in with their needs. Schedules change often, and it is a good idea to check on a specific route a day or two beforehand.

Flexibility and low price make buying bus tickets a painless experience.

Preparing for long journeys by bus

Passengers accustomed to air travel will notice how different restrictions are when taking the bus. While only two bags may be stored under the bus, as on planes, restrictions on what can be brought on the bus are considerably more lenient. Travellers can take as many bags and pillows as they wish on board as long as they do not encroach on another’s space. With no take-off or landing, there is no requirement to store bags under the seat or in the overhead bins, and it is common for passengers to have two seats each, allowing them more room for stretching out and sleeping. Alcohol is not allowed on the bus, but there are few other restrictions about what can be taken on board. A bottle of water, snack food to eat between rest stops, and personal items such as toothbrushes and medicines can ease the trip, as well as activities to occupy the hours on the road.

One of the most noticeable features of bus travel is time. Especially on very long trips, finding something to do is important. Parents of small children should remember to pack sufficient books and toys to keep the young ones occupied, and all passengers, young or old, should be prepared to look for ways to allay boredom. A good supply of books, magazines, or crossword puzzle books can help occupy long hours on the bus, and many routes also include movies, played on screens scattered throughout the bus. Most regular headphones will work with the sound system on the bus, but headphones are also available at some major cities. There are also several music stations to listen to, and passengers can also have their own electronic devices as long as they do not disturb other travellers.

Riding on a bus for hours can cause serious discomfort for people with physical restrictions, and it is best to prepare for any problems that may ensue. Obtaining support pillows for back problems and packing special footwear for swollen feet are only two of the preparations travellers may want to make before setting out. People who are easily chilled should remember sweaters and possibly a blanket for night routes. A pillow can also help to ease the discomfort of tired bones.

Preparations will vary, but passengers will find the journey much more enjoyable if they remember to pack whatever supplies they need for their comfort and amusement.

What to see along the way

Riding a bus can be a good chance to see large sections of the country in a relatively short time. In less than a day, passengers can cross several provinces, going between towering mountains, along vast expanses of forests and farmlands, and beside blue lakes. Bus tickets allow passengers great flexibility in choosing a time and date to travel, but some restrictions in their use apply. On most tickets, passengers are not allowed to break their journey anywhere along the route except for scheduled stops and layovers. One exception is with long-term passes such as Greyhound offers, which allows passengers to stop and start their journey as they wish. In general, however, passengers have only a limited amount of time in each place they visit along the route to their destinations.

Even without the chance for stopovers with most tickets, bus travel allows passengers the chance to see the country without the worry of maps or driving. Most long trips include scheduled stops at least every few hours during the day and less often at night, from five-minute breaks to pick up passengers or mail to hour-long meal breaks, and passengers can spend the time stretching their legs, eating, and seeing as much as the short time allows. City bus depots are normally downtown, and a fairly long stop or a transfer may allow for a short stint of sightseeing. The Winnipeg depot, for example, is right next to the University of Winnipeg, within easy walking distance of several stores and malls, and a slightly longer distance from the Manitoba Legislature. In Edmonton, the depot is near a shopping centre, and other depots are also conveniently located near places of interest. A long stop in Vancouver, for example, may allow visitors to take a walk along the waterfront of English Bay. Determined sightseers may even want to break their trip up by buying separate tickets for each part of the journey to allow for longer stops than are normally given, although the trouble of collecting luggage at each journey’s end might make the disadvantages outweigh the advantages.

Even in small towns, where bus depots may be little more than a sidewalk with a bench, there can be unexpected sights to see. In Wainright, Alberta, for example, the bus depot houses a small cafe where travellers can find soup, sandwiches, and other food to eat before they view the antique typewriters, coins, and other items in the small museum. Unusual architecture, special shops, or other unexpected features can make even the most remote small town interesting for the visitors passing through it.

Public Transit for Tourists

A bus rumbles along the road, its passengers dozing quietly in their seats or standing and staring out the windows. There is normally little smiling or talking as the people grimly travel to work, intent only on the destination and not on the sights and fellow passengers around them. The scene is a stereotypical movie or television cliché, but using public transit is much more than just riding a bus to get from one place to another. Most mid-sized or large centres in Canada have transit systems including anything from the traditional diesel-powered buses to underground subway systems to electric trolleys. More than just a way to get from one place to another, they can contribute to the experience of being in a city.

The reasons for taking public transit are probably almost as varied as the passengers themselves. For long-term residents, it can be a convenient way to save money and to make the streets just a bit less crowded. The federal government is currently offering tax credits for regular transit use as well as promoting research into alternative fuel sources; soon transit may be one of the most environmentally-friendly transportation option. For tourists, taking buses or trains can be a good way to see a city from a local point of view while avoiding the hassle and expense of renting a car and trying to find parking in busy spots. Whatever the reason, taking public transit can give tourists an exceptional view of city life.

Transit systems can tell people a great deal about a city. A fairly limited transit system, for instance, often indicates a strong reliance on cars, while an extensive and inexpensive transit system could indicate a vibrant and active community or just a city too large and congested for individual vehicles. Toronto, for example, is sprawling and busy compared with many other cities, but the local transit system helps to accommodate the city’s special needs. Not only is transportation available on the subway, buses, or streetcars all over the city for the price of a single fare, but the city even has a late night service between 1:30 and 5:00 a.m. on many major routes. With the Blue Night Network, students can stay late at the university and shift workers can be assured of a ride home at any time of the day or night, and late-night social events need not be cut short. Vancouver’s transit system also reflects the city’s unique character in its links with the BC Ferries system, while Winnipeg Transit’s dedicated bus route from downtown to The Forks reflects a special connection with the shops and museums at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. Each city’s transit system is unique and indicates something of what the local people value.

Taking public transit can be an interesting cultural experience, but visitors to a city should consider their options before deciding not to rent a car. Most large cities have fairly extensive transit systems, but smaller centres may have only a few limited routes. Buses and subways can be very crowded at peak hours of the day, while long waits may be inevitable at other times. In the last ten years, the amount of service in many cities has declined while transit use in Canada has increased, and this discrepancy shows in increased crowds. Cold, rain, and snow can make waiting uncomfortable, and transit stops and routes can sometimes be dangerous places, especially late at night. Learning as much as possible about potential problems will help tourists enjoy their experience.

Relying on public transit can enhance or limit travel. In Manitoba, for example, only Winnipeg and Brandon have major transit systems, while British Columbia’s roster is much more extensive, with over twenty-five transit systems. Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal have put the most money and effort into transit systems, with extensive service and plans for expansion to accommodate their large populations.

Transit in smaller cities like Winnipeg and Edmonton varies. While Winnipeg has only a traditional bus system, Edmonton is slowly expanding its Light Rail Transit system, the city’s version of a subway. Transit systems in smaller places like Steinbach, Manitoba or Squamish, British Columbia may be limited or non-existent, and it is best to check the city’s website before planning to rely on public transportation. Many cities, however, have some kind of Handi-Transit service available for those people who need it. Between cities there are usually services such as Greyhound buses, and travellers can also find day tours going to various locations to supplement their city visits. Sometimes, taking the bus is the best way to travel; at Edmonton’s Heritage Festival each summer, for example, cars are not allowed within the park where the festival is held. In cases like this, public transit may be the only option.

Cost is often a major consideration for tourists. Transit fares vary from city to city, and they are subject to frequent changes. However, most cities allow for transfers from one bus to another, and they often allow for fairly long stopovers at the destination spot. Sometimes, a single fare can take a traveller quite far.

If pressed to choose the best transit system in Canada, which one would most people select? Each one has its quirks, such as a differential payment system for travelling from one “zone” to another in Vancouver, a feature that might baffle newcomers to the city. Toronto’s system is extensive and efficient, but many other cities are trying to catch up. The three largest cities have the most extensive systems, and Ottawa also has a variety of choices for travellers. The smaller cities tend to be variable, with some excellent routes and others that would challenge the hardiest tourist.

Riders should be careful in planning their touring around bus schedules. Service changes can disrupt travel plans, and it is important to get current information. Libraries often have route maps, and city websites are normally a good source of information.

Despite the quirks, public transit systems give local residents and tourists alike the chance to experience the city without huge costs and give the freedom to visit places where vehicles are not allowed to go. For tourists willing to take the extra time and make the effort to use the bus or subway, public transit can be an inexpensive and exciting way to visit the cities of Canada.

Driving and car rental

Driving is one of the best ways to see Canada. If you intend to drive a good map is recommended and also some tapes to listen to when driving for hours through regions where there is nothing to listen to but static and nothing to look at but flat crop fields. Believe me the attraction wears off when this is what you are faced with for days on end! You should also bring a French phrase book to help you understand the French only signs in the province of Quebec. Make sure you always have enough fuel because especially in the north of some provinces and the territories the service stations are few and far between.

Remember Canadian’s drive on the right hand side of the road. The speed limit is 100kph on the highways and in towns it is 50kph or less. Signs change on different stretches of road so make sure you keep an eye on this.

School buses, when stopped must, not be passed. Getting caught by the police, especially in Quebec, can cost a small fortune, so it is not worth speeding. Cars must stop at pedestrian crosswalks when someone is waiting.

A valid driver’s licence can be used for 3 months and an international licence will last for up to a year.

Many main roads in the northern parts of Canada are gravel along with many roads in the rest of the country that link towns. Dust and flying stones can be hazardous so be careful when driving on these roads and leave plenty of distance between vehicles. Spare parts and certainly at least a spare tyre is essential.

Be aware of wildlife. Moose and other deer have been known to be a serious hazard on the roads both in the day and night. Drive with caution. Do not leave your vehicle unattended at the side of the road unless it is safely out of the way of other traffic and sealed up properly. Open windows can attract bears from the smell of food, no matter how little. Bears have been known to wait for the owner to return to open the door. The same level of caution should be given when relieving yourself in the bushes at the side of the road!

Rental cars can be obtained for good prices from about $25 and upwards per day. Some have kilometre inclusive packages that can be useful to find out about. There are many rental agencies providing new and used vehicles.

Documentation required for Car Rental

To rent a car in Canada the only documentation you require is your driver’s licence. A credit card and passport may be required especially if your driving licence does not contain a photograph.

Travellers from within Canada who hold a Canadian licence can rent a vehicle if a full Canadian G2 licence is held. Other types of licence are not accepted but it is often best to check with the car rental company before.

If you are from the United Kingdom, you may require both parts of your licence to obtain vehicle rental. It is highly advisable that you bring both parts of your licence due to the information contained on the counterpart (paper part) that may be required by some car rental agencies and the police should an accident occur.

Foreign visitors can use their driving licence in Canada so long as it is readable to Canadians. This means it must be in either English or French. If this is not the case then an international permit is required. If the licence states the class, date of birth, expiry date and conditions it can be used in Canada for up to 6 months. International driving permits can be used for up to 12 months on the condition the holder is a visitor and not a resident.

Immigrant residents to Canada can use their driving licence so long as it meets the requirements explained above for up to 60 days. After which the licence holder is required to complete a written text of 50 questions and obtain 47 correct answers in order to pass. A G1 licence is then issued and can be used when accompanied by a full driving licence holder. Within 6 months of obtaining the G1 licence a practical test must be completed to advance to the G2 driving licence level.

International driving permits are available from your home country and cannot be obtained whilst in Canada.

Driver’s checklist

Before you go you should make sure you carry out a standard safety check on your vehicle.

A visual check of the tyres and engine is often a good start to making sure the vehicle is safe even if you have no mechanical experience.

Make sure the windows and mirrors are not chipped or cracked and are clean.

Lights should be fully operational.

Check to see if there are any scratches, chips or other marks on the vehicle. Report these to the rental car agency before signing the rental agreement. Failure to do so could result in being charged for the damage.

Additional items should be brought with you even on short journeys. These should include food, water, extra fuel, flashlight, vehicle toolkit, cellular mobile phone and highway maps.

Canadian driving conditions

Road quality in Canada is usually of a very high standard. The occasional pothole or roadside debris can be hazardous but so long as you are aware of the road ahead there is rarely any danger as far as the condition of the road itself is concerned.

Peak time traffic can build up around cities especially along highways leading from Toronto to neighbouring cities. These routes are notorious for traffic jams. Try to avoid travelling by road during peak times or give yourself plenty of time.

Snowstorms during the winter months are common across Canada. Check the weather report for your route and make allowances if the weather is likely to be bad. Local radio stations often advise if it is particularly hazardous to travel and in if so alternative travel arrangements should be made.

Many roads and some highways, especially in rural Canada are unpaved, gravel roads. These roads are particularly hazardous due to the rough surface which can result in potential damage to your vehicle. Tyre punctures and windscreen cracks from flying stones are common. Give plenty of distance between your vehicle and any in front. Dust from other vehicles are also a hazard.

When travelling in the territories and also in the north of the provinces make sure you have enough gasoline (gas) for your car. The distance between gas stations (service stations) can be vast.

Speed Limits, Signs and Road Law

The speed limit in Canada is measured in Kilometres Per Hour (km/h). 90km/h is approximately 60mph, 50km/h is approximately 30mph.

Driving on highways is usually 100km/h, in towns and built up areas the limit is 50km/h or less. Speed limits can change suddenly and it is important to be aware of these changes.

Seatbelt usage is compulsory. Drivers and passengers can be fined heavily for failure to comply. Motorcyclists and their passengers must wear helmets at all times.

When a school bus stops and its red lights are flashing traffic travelling in both directions must stop.

You are allowed to turn right through a red light provided the way is clear except in the province of Quebec.

When arriving at a four-way stop the vehicle must come to a complete stop before passing the white marker line.

Signage is very similar to that in the United States and is easy to understand. Most signs are written rather than symbols and are in English. In Quebec signs can be in French only and may be important so an understanding of French or the signs is essential.

Canadian train travel

Canada’s railway has traditionally been the link between communities in Canada and for many it still is. Canadian Pacific and Canadian National Railways only provide freight services and the passenger trains are operated by the government agency Via Rail Canada.

The train service is very good as an alternative to the bus especially on longer journeys but is often much more expensive. A CanRail Pass is recommended if you are going on more than one trip. It might also make a single train trip cheaper and more flexible. When you buy your ticket discuss your travel plans with the agent.

Via Rail Canada passes start at around $450 and increase during the summer months. Students can receive quite a good discount. A pass gets you 12 days of travel in a 1 month period with the option to add a few more days if needed.

Amtrak provide the links to the USA including Vancouver – Seattle, Toronto – Buffalo, Montreal – New York. All these routes interlink with the national Amtrak network providing service across the USA.

Travel in Canada by Walking and Hiking

Walking in Canada is more of an activity (see the activity section) but some cities and towns are connected by walking trails that can be walked in a day. Make sure you have enough food and water when doing this. Some trails can lead away from the road and there might be no where to refresh yourself. Drinking from water in lakes and rivers is not recommended – see the health section.

Hitching in Canada is usually very easy. It is not as easy as Europe but can still be worth while.

Stay on the main highways out of the cities where there is more traffic and more chance of someone going the right way. Make sure your ride is going exactly where you want to go. It can be quite a walk from the edge of a city to downtown.

Hitching inside cities is not a good idea and most people will just ignore you.