When people think of taking an epic trip to Canada, there’s so much to think about before you get on the plane to go! The second-largest country in the world by land, Canada takes up a whopping 11% of the Earth’s landmass.
This means that you really need to narrow down exactly what you want to do here when you start planning a trip to Canada. For example, a trip to Banff in Alberta is very different than a trip to Montreal or Vancouver Island, plus you’ll need to make a budget, check on eTA requirements, and more.
Whether you’re looking for an epic trip to one of Canada’s amazing cities or something more rugged at one of the country’s fabulous national parks, here’s exactly how to plan a trip to Canada so you can enjoy a stress-free time once you get here!
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Planning a Trip to Canada Checklist
Follow these thirteen steps, and you’ll find that planning a trip to Canada is easier than it seems.
1. Commit to a Trip Budget
Canada can seem like a bargain if you’re coming from the United States or Great Britain, but it’s by no means a budget travel destination. Now that I spend so much of my time traveling around Eastern Europe, I am extra sensitive to just how expensive a country Canada is for travelers. You need to commit to a budget before you start booking things so that you can try to keep your costs under control.
If you don’t need to worry about your budget, then hurray! But you still might want to commit to a number so that you don’t come home and realize you spent twice what you expected.
How Much Should You Budget for Canada?
I think you can split it into three categories.
Budget travelers can get by on $75 USD per day plus airfare. This would mean staying in a hostel dorm, doing mostly free activities, and eating a mix of street food and groceries which you prepare at your hostel. One of the biggest costs that will blog a hole in your budget is transportation, so keep movement between cities to a minimum.
Mid-Range travelers can get by on $125-150 USD per day plus airfare. This would be doing what I typically do and sharing a double room in a mid-range hotel, doing a few guided tours and activities, and eating a mix of street food, nice meals out, and cooking for yourself. Bonus if you can find an amazing friend to stay with when you’re in Toronto to avoid those hotel prices.
Luxury travelers can have a baller time on $200-250 USD per day plus airfare. This would mean lots of guided tours and activities, eating all your meals out, enjoying more than one cocktail at dinner, buying trip souvenirs instead of mostly window shopping, and staying in a nice hotel, seeing multiple cities in one trip, etc.
2. Choose Your Travel Dates
Once you know what your budget is and you know how long you want to go, you can settle on your trip dates. Canada is a great place to visit year-round, but there are differences throughout the year.
The summer is the high travel season, so you’ll see bigger crowds in the cities and the National Parks. However, you’ll also be able to do almost any kind of tour or activity you want because most of the activities are open.
Spring and autumn are shoulder season when some things are closed but the crowds are smaller. I’ve spent time in Montreal in April and September. While I loved being there with fewer crowds, early April in Montreal still feels like winter to me!
If you want to see the Northern Lights, then schedule a trip to see Canada in winter! Just make sure you pack for it and select places on your itinerary where the Northern Lights are likely to appear, like a visit to the Yukon.
3. Check to See if You Need an eTA or Visa Before Arrival
Canada has recently implemented an eTa process for travelers coming from countries that don’t need a visa for vacationing in Canada. This means that many people who have traditionally not had to consider getting any documentation beforehand now need to add this extra step into their travel planning.
You should check ahead of time if you need either a visa or an eTa Canada. If you do, then make sure you apply for your eTA for Canada ahead of your trip. You do not want to show up without the required documentation!
What happens if you need an eTa and don’t get one? It’s highly likely you won’t be let into the country, so don’t forget to check!
4. Book Your Flights
Most travelers to Canada either fly into one of the country’s major airports like Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver, or they drive across the border from the US. I’ve visited Canada many times and arrived both by crossing land borders and by flying into the country.
When booking flights, I use a combination of Skyscanner and Google Flights. Skyscanner is great for figuring out where to go, like seeing if there are any other airports in the country that happen to have a special international flight scheduled. This is rare, but it does happen. Google Flights is better for when you know where you want to fly in and out of already. It will show you all the options.
You should feel confident booking flights to Canada, but things can happen like inclement weather that interrupts your plans. This is a good reminder that you should always travel with a valid travel insurance policy because things like airline bankruptcies and snowstorms can’t be foreseen but crazy stuff happens on the road.
5. Create a Detailed Canada Itinerary
Figure out what you want to do and where you want to be based. If you want to explore Quebec, you can base yourself in Montreal or Quebec City. If you are more interested in Toronto and Niagara Falls, you’ll want to stay in Toronto.
Look up what you want to do in each place and about how long each activity will take. This will help you decide how long to be in each location before you’re ready to move on.
6. Book Your Accommodations
I use Booking to book my hotel rooms because they have a pretty flexible cancelation policy (unless you pick the no-cancellation rooms). They have a large selection from hotels to hostels to private apartment rentals (similar to Airbnb).
You want to book your accommodations early. If you’re looking for a good deal, they get snapped up because so many people are trying to save money when traveling here. This is extra important if you’ll be visiting during high season or attending a popular event like the Calgary Stampede.
You should set aside this much for your budget per night (though this can change a lot depending on what part of the country you are in):
- Budget: A room in a hostel, usually $20-30 USD per night for a dorm bed.
- Mid-range: Around $50-75 USD per night
- Luxury: Around $150 per night or more
7. Book Your Activities
I use GetYourGuide to book my activities and tours because they tell you who the actual tour operator is so you can check their reviews independently on websites like TripAdvisor. They also have awesome customer service, which I learned when I needed their help dealing with a bad tour in Dresden.
There are two more reasons to use GetYourGuide specifically while in Canada. The first is that things sell out, so if you wait to book through your hotel or hostel there might not be any spots left. The second reason is that booking tours through your accommodations typically cost more money than booking online.
I have a lot of specific activity suggestions for anyone staying in Montreal. You can see them on my guide to the most Instagrammable places in Montreal.
8. Research Vaccinations
Wondering if you need vaccines before you go to Canada? According to the CDC travelers should have:
Routine Vaccines: Make sure you are up-to-date on routine vaccines before every trip. These vaccines include measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, polio vaccine, and your yearly flu shot.
- Infants (6 through 11 months old): 1 dose of measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine before travel. This dose does not count as the first dose in the routine childhood vaccination series.
- People 12 months old or older, with no evidence of immunity or no written documentation of any doses: 2 doses of MMR vaccine before travel. The 2 doses must be given 28 days apart.
- People 12 months old or older who have written documentation of 1 dose and no other evidence of immunity: 1 additional dose before travel, at least 28 days after the previous dose.
Bottom line is that most travelers just need routine vaccinations, but you should double-check the CDC for any changes.
9. Learn How Language Works in Canada
Canada is a bi-lingual nation. Don’t show up in rural Quebec and expect everyone to speak English, and they may even be offended if you don’t speak French.
While most Quebecois that I’ve met are perfectly happy to switch to English for someone who’s a foreigner, if they think you’re Canadian they’ll expect you to speak to them in French.
10. Prepare for Your Arrival
Plan what you’ll do on your first day. This means figuring out how to get to your accommodations (next step), checking what time you can get to your hotel (many flights get in before you can check in to your hotel), and communicating with your accommodations if you need to.
Other things to think about is if you’ll be getting a sim card in Canada or using your plan from home. Call your cell phone company if you need to have your cell phone unlocked so you can get a sim or if you need to let them know that you need international coverage.
Full disclosure: I found the prices for tourist sim cards in Canada to be outrageous and chose not to use one.
Organize your travel documents, including your passport, eTa if required, instructions for getting to your hotel, and emergency information like travel insurance. You’ll want to have these all easily accessible and within reach during your travels.
11. Book Ground Transportation
You need to know how you’ll get to your accommodations after your flight arrives. If you’re flying into Toronto, keep in mind that the airport is connected to the city center by an easy train ride. However, taxis and Uber are pretty expensive if you want to go out this far.
Research every airport’s best connection to the city center and make sure you know your options.
If you are from another country and planning a road trip in Canada then you need to get an IDP on International Driver’s Association.
12. Purchase Travel Insurance & Send Policy Information to Your Emergency Contact
Never travel without a valid travel insurance policy, because accidents happen on the road. I pay for World Nomads when I travel, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance when you’ll be doing any outdoor activities (like…ahem…exploring Banff national park…) since accidents happen. Or in cities (like…Montreal and Toronto) where travelers are targeted by pickpockets.
TL;DR, all of Canada is lovely and safe, but you still want to be prepared.
I have been a paying customer of World Nomads for travel insurance for three years, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance when participating in outdoor activities or driving in foreign countries. Even in the cities, though, you’ll be happy when you’re able to replace your stuff if it’s lost or stolen.
13. Pack Your Bags
The Lonely Planet Canada guidebook for your trip. I used a Kindle version during my first few trips to Canada. It’s hard to find guidebooks once you’re actually on the ground.
Backup Charging Bank for your cell phone since you’ll be using it as a camera, GPS, and general travel genie.
A Full-Sized Travel Towel for anyone taking advantage of Canada’s hostels or private accommodations. This is the best travel towel in the world, and you’ll need it if you are staying in hostels or anywhere that requires you to bring your towel.
Travel Insurance Policy information. If you have travel insurance, you need to be able to access the information easily in case of an accident or another incident. I have my travel insurance company recommended below.
More Canada Travel Resources
If you’ll be spending time in Ontario, I have guides to visiting Ottawa’s Rideau Canal plus histories on Toronto’s CN Tower and Canada’s role at the end of the Underground Railroad.
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