Whether you’re ready to set off on an epic quest to cross the country or just want to see if Canada lives up to the hype, it’s time to learn what you’re in for.
Canada is big. Real big.
Although Russia is nearly twice as big, Canada ranks second in the world ‘land mass’ category, just above the United States and a bit larger than China. While most of that land is unlikely to hold a whole lot of stuff to capture your fancy, it does mean a lot of kilometers from point A to point B.
You’re (probably) gonna want a car.
This is partially because of the distance, but it’s also the most common choice. You can certainly try the VIA Rail lines if you like the trains, or Greyhound or Megabus if you prefer the buses. Once you’ve arrived, however, only a handful of cities have a substantial set of buses or metros to get around.
The solution: Kijiji for the win. You might have some luck with the craigslist for the city you’re in (we didn’t) or the local newspaper ads (though we didn’t try this ourselves). Kijiji makes it very easy to send messages and get in contact with people, while all responses come to your e-mail inbox of choice. Yeah, the design still kinda screams turn-of-the-century, but whatever. It loads fast and is functional. Give me that over pretty and good design most any day.
It’s pretty easy to research – with some caveats.
You might be tempted to file this one under ‘no sh!t Sherlock’, but not all countries are as good at putting info online. However, I’ve seen a number of hilariously outdated websites for places that are closed (one place that was on our itinerary closed six years ago but still had an active website that came up in search results!)
If it’s obviously been updated to show hours or prices for the current year, it’s going to be fine. If not, call ahead to confirm times are as expected.
Summer is the only season to visit stuff.
Sorry, Canada. I didn’t want to have to say it like this, but it’s a stereotype proved true from first-hand observations. Most places unrelated to snow and ice aren’t open to the public until Victoria Day (the Monday before May 25th) and are unlikely to be open much past Labour Day (the first Monday of September). We started traveling Canada in mid-May, and it definitely felt like our timing was off.
With that said, the stereotype isn’t entirely true. Some places are open by appointment, while others are staffed year-round, but it’s more than a bit unpredictable. Few things in life are as disappointing as spending the time, effort, and money to get yourself to whatever place you’re trying to see… and then finding out it’s closed.
Note this rule only tends to apply to rural destinations. They often rely on volunteers from the local schools, which don’t let out until May. Urban destinations tend to have more paid staff, or at least have more chances to add volunteers to even things out year-round.
Routing and planning are key.
Plenty of highways have 100 or 110 kph speed limits (62-68 mph), and as you might guess for a first-world country, they connect the biggest cities well. Once you’re off the major highways, speed limits drop to 80-90 kph (50-56 mph); as you approach a town, they’ll drop to 70 kph (43 mph), and once in town it’s usually 50 kph (31 mph). While we’ve found roads that look more direct than major highways, they’re not necessarily faster when you factor in the lower speed limit – and the rides are often bumpier and/or curvier.
I don’t have a specific suggestion here, except to say detours to save a short bit of driving on the expressway probably aren’t worth it. If it’s going to save you more than 30-40 kilometers of driving, it’s probably going to be a worthwhile alternative.
Tim Horton’s remains king for a few different reasons.
Sorry, Starbucks fans, but you’re in Canada now. As of 2015, there were 1,358 Starbucks stores open in Canada – and at least 3,660 Tim Horton’s locations. Which coffee’s better? I’ll leave that one to the coffee snobs… but I’ve never been disappointed by a double-double.
Beyond the coffee, two other things make Timmie’s an easy choice: plenty of competitive food options that don’t feel like fast food, and each location offers a very Canadian look at life in that city. I’ve taken to asking the locals what’s worth seeing in their hometown – you never know what you’ll learn from them. As for the food, some good sandwiches are on the menu, and combos offer an easy excuse to work one of their donuts into lunch =)
Be prepared to spend.
No easy way to put this – very little about Canada feels cheap, especially after you’ve spent years in Asia and some time in South America. Between the realities of a 12-15% sales tax (which isn’t always part of the price on the menu) and the ubiquitous necessity to tip, it’s a very spendy country. At over a dollar a liter (about $3.85 CAD a gallon, or about $2.95 USD as I type this), gas is more expensive in Canada than anywhere in the US.
Some cooking in hotel rooms is easy enough. Even so, a non-fast-food dinner under $10 CAD is rare, and hotels end up being our biggest expense. One possible solution? connectoncampus.ca/. One of the places we stayed whilst traveling across Canada was a dorm room. Laura found it on booking.com, but Connect on Campus aims to offer a more complete list of university facilities made available for tourists. (She found that some places were more expensive than nearby hotels, so remember to compare!)
There’s plenty of weird – and mainstream – stuff around.
From when we arrived to when we’re planning to leave, we will have had about four months to see the country. Some of that was downtime in Nova Scotia, while more of it will be spent in a base near Toronto for a few months (at least, that’s the plan right now). It’s not nearly enough time to both traverse the country and take some needed downtime.
Don’t let that discourage you, however. It just means you’ll need to focus in on what you want to see or do while in Canada. Limiting yourself to a few major cities means a car may be unnecessary, while taking on a section of Canada may be more realistic for your timeframe.
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Also published on Medium.