Canada is huge – the second largest country in the world after Russia. This means that you will need several days to get to know even a part of the country. In fact, St. John’s, Newfoundland, is geographically closer to London, UK, than to Vancouver.
The best way to travel around the country is by plane. Air Canada is the main national airline with by far the largest network and most frequent schedules. For travel between major centres, WestJet offers competitive fares. Unfortunately, due to the protectionist policies that favour Air Canada and the high taxes imposed by various levels of Canadian government, fares tend to be more expensive than for flights over similar distances in the United States, Australia or China, and sometimes transit via the United States can be cheaper than a direct domestic flight. Most major airports are served by public transport. These are feeder buses that run at intervals of five to fifteen minutes or less at peak times (Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, Ottawa). If you are outside the major centres, service may be irregular or non-existent late at night or on weekends. To get downtown, one or more connections are required in all cities except Vancouver, Montreal, Winnipeg and Ottawa. Taxis or shuttles are therefore preferable for large groups or people with a lot of luggage.
Seaplanes flying from lake to lake in northern Canada are another way to travel. You can do it for free. You can fly across the Arctic Circle from any airport, but the trick is to have access to pilots. This can be easier at the Abbotsford Air Show near Vancouver, Canada in the summer.
If you are further north, for example via Prince George, you will need to contact pilots who often deliver mail from lake to lake. There are often general shops and post offices near the lakes. Many flight attendants meet pilots when they stop for a meal or coffee, just as they do with truckers. At major and regional airports, pilots can be seen entering or leaving Environment Canada weather offices.
Italy apparently offers a free flight to Italy for foreign citizens and their children. Contact the Italian embassy. France offers free or subsidised flights to mainland France via Montreal to citizens residing in overseas territories, such as St Pierre and Miquelon near Newfoundland.
Airmail is a dying phenomenon. It used to be common practice to deliver urgent documents and parcels faster on frequently travelled routes (e.g. Paris-Montreal) with the baggage allowance of a passenger ticket; since checked baggage must have a corresponding passenger, space with a carry-on was only offered to a discounted traveller. With few exceptions, any time advantage has been eliminated by airlines that have improved their cargo operations and by major parcel carriers (such as FedEx and UPS) that shift most of their cargo to their own aircraft.
If you take a job in Canada’s far north, many employers will pay your way. Because it pays so well and there is little work in places like Newfoundland, many Canadians commute from the North Atlantic to the well-paying jobs in Canada’s north and Alberta.
Intercity buses run between most of Canada’s major cities. Service is best on the busy Windsor-Quebec City route, which passes through Toronto and Montreal and the capital Ottawa. Service on this corridor is provided by a number of companies. The main ones are Coach Canada, whose main route is the busy Toronto-Montreal route; Greyhound, which serves the Toronto-Ottawa route, the Montreal-Ottawa route and routes between Toronto and southwestern Ontario; and Orleans Express, which serves the Montreal-Quebec City route in modern, leather-upholstered buses equipped with North American and European power outlets at each seat. West of this corridor, most routes are operated by Greyhound. To the east, routes are now operated by Maritime Bus, a company that recently replaced the longstanding Acadian Bus line. In Canada, only one company is licensed to operate a particular route, so there is little or no competition between operators. Fares can be exceptionally high and can be increased without notice. The only exception to this rule is the Toronto – Niagara Falls route, which is operated by many American bus companies and continues to Buffalo and eventually New York City. The fares of American bus companies are usually somewhat lower than those of their Canadian counterparts.
Journeys can sometimes be extremely long, some lasting several days, so passengers need to be sure they can cope with sitting in one seat for 48 hours or more, with only infrequent stops for food and toilet breaks. Intercity buses in Canada are generally very safe; however, travellers should be mindful of their belongings at all times and ensure they have valuables with them if they intend to sleep. Unlike the United States, most Canadian bus stations are not operated by the bus companies that serve them, but are usually managed by the municipality or, in the case of Montreal and Ottawa, by a separate third-party company. Also, unlike in the United States, Canadian bus stations are not generally located in the worst areas of the city. In fact, Toronto’s bus station is located between a large theatre and shopping district and a neighbourhood full of large, affluent, research-oriented hospitals.
Of course, many people choose to rent a car. Although it is a bit expensive if you are travelling alone, it can make economic sense if you share the cost with others. However, there are many limitations and disadvantages to renting a car in Canada. To name a few:
- Dropping off the vehicle at a location other than where it was collected can result in very high additional costs.
- Unlimited kilometres are usually only available for the province you rent it in. As soon as you enter another province, even if only for a few kilometres, your entire journey is limited (usually to 200 km per day).
- Riding is generally only allowed on paved roads.
- There are no rental cars with manual transmission available in Canada.
In some cases, frugal travellers can “earn” a discounted car ride by delivering a car across Canada. This option is not common. It also does not offer the opportunity to spend a lot of time making stops along the way. However, it can be a cheap way to drive across Canada and visit the interior. Canada Drive Away and Hit the Road are possible options.
Although Canada is a former British colony, traffic drives on the right side of the road and most cars are left-hand drive (as in the United States and France).
Driving in Montreal, Vancouver or Toronto is not always convenient; these cities are densely populated and parking can be difficult and/or expensive. All three cities have extensive public transport systems. It is best to park in a central location or at your hotel or accommodation and then use public transport. Public transport maps are usually available at airports, metro stations and train stations.
In 2011, petrol cost between $1.30 and $1.40 per litre in most Canadian cities; by 2015, this price had fallen below $1 per litre in many areas. Debit and credit cards without a “chip and PIN” are not recognised at the pump, although most shops accept cards when presented at the register.
Ontario’s Highway 407/ETR (Express Toll Route), which circles the north side of Toronto, is one of the most expensive toll roads (per kilometre) in North America. It is an electronic toll road (the only private highway in Canada) where the toll is charged to the vehicle owner based on the licence plate number or number of transponders. Be sure to check your car rental company’s policy regarding the use of this road, as some companies have been known to charge fees and surcharges that can easily be double or triple the original toll.
Generally, foreign visitors are allowed to drive for up to 90 days on their foreign driver’s licence if it is in English or French. After that, they must obtain a Canadian driver’s licence from the province or territory in which they reside. Foreign driver’s licences in other languages must be accompanied by an International Driving Permit (IDP). Most foreigners must pass a written and practical test before obtaining a Canadian driver’s licence, although some provinces have reciprocal agreements that exempt some foreigners from this test; check with the appropriate provincial government to be sure. Driver’s licence and traffic laws vary slightly from province to province.
Many jurisdictions also have red light and speed cameras that issue fines by mail to the registered owner of the vehicle, again via the number plate, if the vehicle is automatically photographed running (disobeying) a red light or exceeding the speed limit. The above warning about the rental agency’s policy also applies to these cases. Because the ticket is sent to the vehicle owner (rather than the driver) long after the alleged offence, it is difficult, if not impossible, to obtain due process or a fair trial, making these traps a lucrative source of revenue for local and provincial governments.
If you are planning a road trip, an alternative to renting a car is to rent an RV (motorhome or camper). This gives you the opportunity to explore Canada at your own pace and is ideal if your trip is focused on enjoying Canada’s natural environment. The cost can also be lower than a combination of car rental and hotel.
Traffic rules to be observed
- Canadians drive on the right side of the road.
- In the province of Quebec, street signs are written only in French, but their meaning is generally obvious.
- Canadians use the metric system to measure traffic (i.e. speed is measured in kilometres per hour and distance in kilometres).
- In many parts of Canada (with the exception of the island of Montreal), it is legal to turn right at a red light (after stopping). Drivers are also allowed to turn left after stopping at a red light when entering a one-way street from another one-way street.
- Pedestrians have the right of way at crossings and pedestrian crossings unless they are crossing against a signal.
- In Canada, you must always yield the right of way to a police car, fire truck or ambulance if their emergency lights are flashing – if they are coming from behind, you must stop and pull over.
- Private vehicles flashing green lights in Ontario are volunteer firefighters responding to emergencies and common sense dictates that they be given the right of way.
- In many jurisdictions, including British Columbia, motorists must also slow down and move to a non-adjacent lane when overtaking a stopped emergency vehicle. Slowing to 60 km/h is the norm on the highway.
- The use of portable mobile devices while driving is prohibited in all provinces. Yukon is also considering such a ban. The use of hands-free devices while driving is legal throughout Canada, although the Canadian Automobile Association is currently (January 2011) lobbying for such a ban. Some provinces, such as Alberta, extend this basic ban with laws that also prohibit other activities such as map reading, face painting and programming GPS systems in cars while driving.
- In some provinces, the blood alcohol limit is 0.05%. The national Criminal Code limit is 0.08% – a foreigner who exceeds this limit faces a heavy fine and deportation – see Respect below. In some provinces, such as British Columbia and Alberta, police can temporarily impound vehicles if the driver has a blood alcohol level between 0.05% and 0.08%, even if this does not violate national laws. Most provinces have “checkstop” programmes – random police stops, usually at night, where an officer asks motorists if they have been drinking and assesses whether further sobriety tests or breathalysers are appropriate based on their answer and other factors. If you encounter one while driving, and assuming you have not been drinking, you will usually be allowed to pass after a few seconds, but you may be asked to show your licence (also have your rental agreement ready in case you are asked).
- In winter, a blue flashing light usually identifies a snow removal vehicle. In the four western provinces, snow removal vehicles use yellow lights.
- In BC, a flashing green (slow) light means that the traffic light is green (you can drive) but is regulated for pedestrians. The light will flash green until a pedestrian presses the button to cross the road; if you see a flashing green light, oncoming traffic will also see a flashing green light. In Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia, a green (fast) flashing light indicates an early turn and signals that the driver can turn left across oncoming traffic because oncoming traffic has a red light.
- In British Columbia, vehicles must be equipped with winter tyres or chains on many roads, especially on mountain passes, from 1 October to 30 April.
- In Québec, winter tyres are mandatory for all taxis and passenger vehicles from December 15 to March 15. (Note that this only applies to vehicles registered in the province; tourists travelling to the province may use all-season tyres).
In Canada, passenger rail travel, while safe and convenient, is often an expensive and inconvenient alternative to other modes of transport. The corridor between Windsor and Quebec City is an exception to this generalisation. The roughly three-day train journey from Toronto to Vancouver also traverses the splendour of the Canadian prairies and the Rocky Mountains, with passengers in dome cars enjoying the magnificent views. Unlike in Europe or East Asia, there are no high-speed lines in Canada and the Canadian rail network is mainly used for freight transport.
Make arrangements in advance to get cheaper fares. Via Rail is Canada’s leading passenger rail company and often offers 50% off or last-minute discounts.
Some tourist trains can also get you from A to B, but they focus mainly on sightseeing rather than transport and are usually much more expensive than travelling by plane, car or bus.
Canada can be a great place to hitchhike, which is still practised by young travellers who are short on cash or looking for adventure. It is most common in the western provinces, although its popularity is declining. Hitchhiking in the urban areas of Southern Ontario and Montreal is not a safe thing to do, as many drivers in these areas do not pick up hitchhikers.
In densely populated areas, such as Toronto and Montreal, the original highway was a surface street that ran as a main road through each city. These were completely bypassed by a highway in the 1960s, leaving three options: hitchhike on the old bypass (which is problematic because most remaining traffic is local or goes to a single town), stand on the shoulder of the highway itself (which is technically illegal but not uncommon), or stand at the on-ramp and hope that someone coming up that turnoff will take your way. In less populated areas (such as the vast stretches of the Trans-Canada Highway in northern Ontario), the surface street remains the only highway, so pedestrians (and hitchhikers) have free access to anywhere.
It is best to avoid hitchhiking in winter (except as a last resort) as it gets dark early and motorists cannot see you well in snowstorms or dangerous weather conditions.
Like everywhere else in the world, you should use common sense when taking a taxi.
Carpooling is becoming increasingly popular among users of the website Craigslist and specialised rideshare sites such as Kangaride, LiftSurfer and RideshareOnline. This mode of transport works best between major centres, such as Toronto-Montreal or Vancouver-Calgary. In general, anything along the Trans-Canada Highway corridor (Victoria, Vancouver, Banff, Canmore, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Sault Ste Marie, Sudbury, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, St. Johns, Halifax, PEI) should be no problem if your dates are flexible. Allo-Stop offers long-distance ridesharing in Quebec, but is not licensed to operate in Ontario.
Some tourist destinations, especially those popular with young people, can also be reached by carpooling, for example: Vancouver-Whistler or Calgary-Banff. Carpoolers usually have to contribute to the fuel costs and may have to drive part of the way themselves for longer journeys.
For best results, make a list of requests at least a week before your planned travel date and start looking for deals. Hostel notice boards are also a good source for carpooling.
As with hitchhiking, it is advisable to use common sense and discretion.