Canada | Personal Finance

Canada is a large country. Here are 9 ways to see it inexpensively

Looking to travel coast to coast, or somewhere in between? With these tips, you can see the sights without breaking the bank.

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Young lady wearing hike gear and back-pack standing by a lake over looking beautiful Canadian vista with mountains and treesWhether you’re vacationing as a family, a group, a couple or on your own, find a travel method that works for you (Getty Images/Hero Images)

Canada has long been known as an explorer’s paradise. And no one knows it better than residents themselves. As CPA Canada’s 2019 Summer Spending Survey shows, 35 per cent of Canadians plan to travel within their home province or territory this year, and 23 per cent have set sights on other provinces/territories. 

If you’re planning to get away soon or looking ahead to next year, these pointers highlight the best ways to see Canada without breaking the bank. Whether you’re vacationing as a family, a group, a couple or on your own, you’re sure to find a travel method that works for you. Better still, you’ll come back with a proud sense of having seen a part—however tiny—of this immense land.   

1. Flying? Book far, far ahead—or go low-cost

Sticker-shocked Canadians often joke that it costs less to go to Europe than it does to fly from one location in the country to another. That’s because we have only two major airlines, which limits the options (and prices) available. But if you are a committed air traveller, Flight Centre recommends booking at least 10 months in advance—especially if you’re travelling on holiday weekends and at Christmas/New Year’s. As Allison Wallace, VP, Corporate Communications & CSR, The Americas, for Flight Centre Travel Group points out, “Normally a flight from Toronto to Halifax should be $400. But if you wait too long, an economy ticket can go for as much as $1,500.” 

Travellers in some cities do have access to a lower-cost alternative called Swoop. This regional airline operates out of select airports (Abbotsford, Edmonton, Halifax, Hamilton, Kelowna, London and Winnipeg, as well as some U.S. locations). Also, if you can be flexible with your dates, check out YYZ Deals news alerts for super cheap flights across Canada, as well as around the world. 

2. Travel by car and see more for less

If you want to see what you want, whenever you want, there’s not much that can beat driving. As Donna Lee Rosen, president and CEO of Majic in Motion and a professor in the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at George Brown College, explains, “Canada is about landscapes and what each locale offers,” she says. “Driving offers the flexibility to be able to stop and sample the locale fare.” 

Rosen recalls taking a few trips from Toronto to the west and east coasts with her children, at various ages. On one occasion, they travelled to B.C. for clam digging off the coast of Vancouver Island and collected sand dollars at the bottom of the ocean. On another, they drove to the Bay of Fundy, where they walked on the bottom of the bay during low tide. Crossing to Prince Edward Island via the Confederation Bridge, they picked up some red clay and stopped at a farmer’s stand where they bought the Island’s famous potatoes. “You can use moments like these to teach your children about Canada,” she says. 

3. Take your home with you in an RV

Want the freedom of a car, combined with a roof over your head? Then travelling in a recreational vehicle can be a relatively inexpensive way to go. 

Bill Best, a veteran RVer, has especially fond memories of driving through the Rockies in his bus-like motorhome (the view was magnificent, he says, because the RV has glass all around). And he highly recommends the Cabot Trail. “I compare it to the Pacific coast highway in California,” he says. “It’s a beautiful winding trail right along the oceanside. We stayed on a cliff overlooking the ocean.” 

4. Like the train? Go for the off-season

For a stress-free way to take in the scenery, train travel can be a good option— especially if you book in the off-season. For example, from November to March, one-way prices for a cabin for two on the Canadian, Via Rail’s iconic route through the Rockies from Vancouver to Toronto (four days/three nights) start at approximately $1,785 per person, compared with $2,125 for June to October (2019 prices). 

For comparison purposes, a two-day trip on the Rocky Mountaineer with a one-night hotel stay starts at $1,579/pp plus tax in April and October, based on double occupancy. And prices can climb all the way up to $15,000 or more, depending on the length of the trip and the options chosen.

5. Bike your way to savings

Canada offers all kinds of opportunities for cycling adventures. For example, the 24,000-km-long Canada Trail features large portions that run along gravelled former train tracks and are ideal for biking. In Quebec, there’s the Route Verte—a 5,300-km-long network of cycling paths that wind through cities and along pretty country roads, with beautiful river views.

In Ontario, the Great Lakes Waterfront Trail extends from Cobourg to Niagara on the Lake, with routes through the Greenbelt as well as along the water. As Rosen points out, “There are areas to park anywhere along the trail and take in sections of it or challenge yourself to the entire trail. It’s a great way to engage in physical activity with your family.” (For info on every imaginable kind of biking route, see Bike Map.) 

6. Group travel: An organized way to save

No matter what your destination, it’s hard to match the economies of scale you can achieve by travelling as a large group. Julia*, a student from Leeds University in England who is completing an exchange at the University of Waterloo, turned that kind of travel into a science this year. On several occasions, she went as part of a group of 10 to 14 students on weekend jaunts to various locales, including Algonquin Park, where they hiked on the Hemlock Bluff Trail. Typically, they would rent cars and stay at an Airbnb house or cottage, with each person contributing to one meal. All in, each three-day weekend cost $100 to $200.

“Since a lot of the students were on a term exchange, this was a great way for them to see as much as they could without sacrificing their studies,” she says. 

7. See the best by bus

Some people find charter bus trips a remarkably cost-effective way to travel. For example, Elise Boucher has taken a number of tours with Groupe Voyages Québec and always comes back with good memories of the experience and the connections that were forged along the way. She especially liked the tour she took a few years ago from Montreal to Newfoundland and Labrador. “It cost $4,000 for a 10-day trip, but that included hotels and almost all meals,” she says.

8. Think beyond hotels

Whether you want to minimize costs or simply live a unique experience, it’s worth checking out alternatives to traditional hotels. On sites such as Airbnb, you can find anything from a simple room to a treehouse. And some hostels can rival hotels in many ways. For example, the Tofino Hostel boasts a sitting room with a fireplace, as well as a library, a game room, a patio with a BBQ and a magnificent view overlooking Clayoquot Sound.

9. Stay for free (almost) via home exchange

Want to share your home with other vacationers while you’re away? Then you might want to head to Home Exchange. For an annual fee of $150 or $15 per night, you can either swap homes directly with another owner or use “points” to book a home somewhere else. This summer, for example, Montrealer Delphine Coppé-de Lajartre and family will be exchanging a house on Vancouver Island with another family that wants to discover Quebec. “Not only is this option almost free, but you get to live in a furnished home—it’s much cosier than a rental,” says Coppé-de Lajartre. 

Whichever way you choose to see Canada, you can be sure that you won’t have seen it all, which is why makes sense to save for your next trip, and the one after that.   


CPA Canada’s 2019 Summer Spending Survey shows that budgeting for summer spending causes stress for 19 per cent of Canadians. And a full 47 per cent say they have less money left after buying household essentials compared to a year ago. See our tips on how to budget for vacation and plan a carefree and wallet-wise road trip.

*Last name withheld on request for privacy