So you want to see Canada, but you don't have the money for five-star hotels or Michelin-star restaurants. We can help. Here are some easy general tips for getting around and finding somewhere to stay. In the future, we'll add some city and region profiles to help you get the most for the least when you're finding something to eat and seeing the sights.
Leaves [Public Domain]
Unlike Europe or the US, Canada has no dedicated discount airline, so unfortunately you won't find any $20 flights from Toronto to Calgary. Air Canada, the formerly government-run airline, has a pretty secure grip on air travel, with competitors like WestJet and Porter offering limited savings and alternative travel experiences on certain routes. Porter has frequent sales that can get you from Toronto to Halifax, say, for less than the price of a bus ticket. Of course, the earlier you can book a flight, the better your chances of finding a deal. The airline websites and Hotwire are good places to start.
The national passenger train service, Via Rail, is no longer the transport backbone of the country that it once was. You can still chug through the Rockies and peer at mountain goats from the dining car, but you're going to pay for it. Travailing by train in Canada is frequently just as expensive as flying, especially if you're hoping to cover long distances. The best deals are the 6-Pack (for youth) and the BizPak, both providing multiple tickets for specific routes and zones at discounted rates, and the Canrailpass for seven one-way trips in a three-week period. Every now and then Via will offer great sales in the heavy-traffic routes in the central Canada “corridor” (from Windsor, Ontario to Quebec City), so dig around the website when you're planning your trip. Canadian trains might be more expensive, but the added comfort and feeling of nostalgia are worth it sometimes.
Coach Canada [Public Domain]
The king of land transportation in Canada right now is Megabus, an American and British idea imported to the aforementioned travel corridor. For as little as $12, you can get from Toronto to Montreal, a distance of roughly 550 km. The key to getting the rock-bottom price is to book far enough in advance (the sweet spot is about nine weeks, when seats first become available). Outside of central Canada, Greyhound and regional carriers maintain an extensive network of routes priced for the budget traveller. Advance purchase at Greyhound, for example, can get you from Vancouver to Montreal, almost 5,000 km away, for under $200. It'll take three days and nights to get there, but the price is unbeatable!
The best places for the budget traveller in Canada to find shelter right now are Airbnb and Couchsurfing. Airbnb has very active Canadian participation, with thousands of affordable and interesting rooms and apartments in all major cities (and plenty of smaller ones). Couchsurfing is more of a reciprocal arrangement: you get to stay with others for free, on the assumption that you're interested in forming part of a sharing community. There's no obligation to offer your home to guests, but that's kind of the point. If staying with other people freaks you out and you'd prefer to be the sad face behind the flickering blue glow of the TV, there's always a cheap motel somewhere close by.
Check back soon for our guides to visiting, dining, and partying on a shoestring in Canada's cities and regions. In the meantime, do you need a visa to come to Canada?