Getting Around Canada
Getting Around Canada
Canada is large - the second largest country in the world after Russia. This means that you will need several days to appreciate even a part of the country. In fact, St. John's, Newfoundland, is geographically closer to London, UK, than it is to Vancouver.
The best way to get around the country is by air. Air Canada is the main national carrier, and has by far the largest network and most frequent schedules. For travel between major centres, no frills carrier WestJet offers competitive fares. Unfortunately, due to protectionism policies favouring Air Canada from the Canadian government, fares tend to be more expensive than flying similar distances in the United States, Australia or China, and sometimes, transiting in the US could be cheaper than a direct domestic flight. Most major airports are served by public transit. This consists of feeder buses running at peak frequencies ranging from five to fifteen minutes or less (Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, Ottawa). Service may be spotty or nonexistent late at night or on weekends if you are outside the major centres. To travel to the city centre/downtown, one or more connections are required in all cities except Vancouver, Montreal, Winnipeg and Ottawa, making a taxi or shuttle a better idea for large groups or those with a lot of luggage.
Float planes, lake to lake in northern Canada is another way to travel. It is possible to do this for free. One can Air Hitch above the Arctic Circle by flying out of any of the airports, but the trick is getting access to pilots. This can be easier at the Abbotsford Air Show, near Vancouver, Canada, in the summer.
When one gets further north, above Prince George say, one needs to hook up with pilots, often delivering mail lake to lake. Often there are general store and post office type places near the lakes. Many air hitchers catch up with the pilots when they stop for a meal or coffee as one does with truck drivers. In the major and regional airports, one can catch the pilots going in or out of the Environment Canada weather offices.
Italy apparently offers expatriot citizens and their children one free flight to Italy. One should make application to the Italian Embassy. France offers citizens who are resident in the overseas territories like Saint-Pierre et Miquelon near Newfoundland free or subsidized flights via Montreal to Metropolitan France.
Often professionals like lawyers need to transport documents urgently between cities and countries. Most use FedEx or UPS these days, but sometimes it is possible to wangle free air transportation, as an Air Courriers, a category of traveler recognized by IATA. Air Courriers negotiate either directly with a professionals or through a broker or courrier agent. In this way many Air Hitchers travel for free between Paris and Montreal, the main difficulty being that one may only travel with carry on luggage.
If one accepts work in Canada’s high north, many employers will pay ones passage. Because it pays so well and there is little work in places like Newfoundland, many Canadians commute from the North Atlantic to well paid jobs in Northern Canada and Alberta.
Travel by intercity coach is available between most major cities in Canada. Service is best in the densely packed Windsor - Quebec City corridor which includes the major cities of Toronto and Montreal as well as the national capital, Ottawa. Service in this corridor is provided by a number of companies, chief among them being: Coach Canada and Megabus whose main route is the heavily used Toronto - Montreal route, Greyhound who runs the Toronto - Ottawa route, the Montreal - Ottawa route and routes between Toronto and southwestern Ontario and Orleans Express who runs the Montreal - Quebec City route using modern, leather-upholstered coaches with North American and European electrical sockets at every seat. To the west of this corridor most routes are operated by Greyhound and to the east routes are operated by Acadian a subsidiary of Orleans Express. In Canada, only one company is given a license to run a particular route, as a result there is little to no competition among providers and fares can be unusually high and can be raised without notice. The only exception to this is the Toronto - Niagara Falls route, which is run by many American coach companies, who continue on to Buffalo and ultimately New York City. Prices on a U.S. bus company are usually slightly less than their Canadian counterparts.
Routes in the prairies can be extremely long, some of them taking several days; as a result, passengers should be sure they will be able to bear sitting in a seat for 48 or more hours with only rare stops for food and toilet breaks. Despite a recent violent murder on a bus in the prairies, intercity buses in Canada are generally very safe, however travelers should be aware of their belongings at all times and make sure that their valuables are on their person if they intend to sleep. In contrast to the United States, most Canadian bus stations are not owned or run by the coach companies serving them, they are generally run by the municipal government or, in the case of Montreal and Ottawa, a separate third-party corporation. Also unlike the United States, bus stations in Canada are not generally in the worst parts of the city, in fact, in Toronto, the bus station is located between a major theatre and shopping district and a neighbourhood full of large, wealthy, research-intensive hospitals.
Of course, many people choose to rent a car. Although somewhat expensive if you are travelling alone, this can be an economically reasonable alternative if you are sharing the costs with others. However, there are many limitations and drawbacks on car rentals in Canada. To name a few of them:
- there can be very high surcharges associated with dropping off the car at a different location than where it was picked up.
- Unlimited km are usually offered for the province you rent it in only. As soon as you enter another province, even for a few km, your entire trip gets limited (mostly to 200 km a day).
- Driving is usually permitted on paved roads only.
- There are no manual transmission rental cars available in Canada. Don't bother searching.
Basically said, if you really want to get around in Canada, except in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, or places where there are few or no roads, it is best to have or buy your own car.
In some cases, frugal travellers may be able to "earn" budget automobile travel by delivering a car across Canada. The option is not common. Nor does it offer the opportunity to spent much time stopping along the way. However, it can be a cheap way to cross Canada while seeing the interior. TorontoDriveAway and HitTheRoad.ca are two options. Do your research though as travellers have had mixed reviews with such services.
In Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, public transit is a strongly recommended alternative to driving.
Gas prices are (May 2011) in the range of $1.30-1.40 per litre in most urbanized areas in the country, but that is typical and usually goes up in March, just in time for summer driving season. Year round, prices tend to be about 50% higher than those in the U.S. after converting litres into gallons and factoring in higher taxes and the currency exchange rate. American drivers will generally find that their credit and debit cards do not work in gas pumps in Canada (due to US cards generally not having "chip and PIN" functionality), although many of the larger chains (such as Petro-Canada and Esso) can run US cards via magnetic stripe if you bring the card inside to the cashier.
Of particular note is highway 407/ETR (Express Toll Route) in Ontario, which circles around the northern flank of Toronto. The 407 is an electronic toll road (the only privately owned road in Canada), in that tolls are billed to the vehicle's owner based on license plate number, or transponder account. Be sure to check your rental agencies' policy regarding use of this road as some firms have been known to add fees and surcharges that can easily double or triple the original toll.
Many jurisdictions also have red light and speed cameras that issue fines via mail to the car's registered owner, again via license plate when the car is automatically photographed running (disobeying) a red traffic light or going above the speed limit. The above warning regarding rental agency policies applies to these as well. Your best bet to avoid this nasty surprise is to simply not run any red lights or speed.
If you are set on a road trip, an alternative to car rental is to hire an RV (motorhome or campervan). This gives you the flexibility to explore Canada at your own pace and is ideal if your trip is geared around an appreciation of Canada's natural environment. Costs can also be lower than combining car rental with hotels.
Traffic rules to be aware of:
- Canadians drive on the right of the road.
- In the province of Quebec, roadsigns are written solely in French but for the most part their meaning is obvious.
- Canadians use the metric system for traffic measurements (hence speed is quoted in kilometres per hour, and distances in kilometres).
- In many areas of Canada (with the exception of Montreal) it is legal to turn right (after stopping) on a red light. Drivers may also turn left after stopping at a red if they are turning onto a one-way street from another one-way street.
- Pedestrians have the right of way at intersections and crosswalks, provided they are not crossing against a signal.
- In Canada, you must always yield to a police car, fire truck, or ambulance when their emergency lights are flashing - if they are approaching from behind, you must pull to the right and stop.
- Private vehicles displaying flashing green lights in Ontario are volunteer fire fighters responding to an emergency, and should be yielded to as a matter of common sense.
- In many jurisdictions, including British Columbia, motorists are also required to slow down and move into a non-adjacent lane when passing a stopped emergency vehicle. Slowing to 60 km/h is the norm on a highway.
- The use of hand-held mobile devices while driving is banned in all provinces; the last holdout, New Brunswick, passed a ban that took effect in early 2011. Yukon is considering such a ban as well. 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 expand upon this basic ban with Distracted Driving laws that also forbid other activities such as reading maps, doing makeup, and programming on-board GPS systems while driving.
- Some provinces have blood alcohol limits of 0.05%. The national Criminal Code limit is 0.08% - a foreign national exceeding this can expect to be fined heavily and deported - See respect below. Police in some provinces such as B.C. and Alberta may impound vehicles temporarily if the driver is between 0.05% and 0.08%, even though this doesn't violate national laws. Most provinces have "Checkstop" programs in place -- these are randomly placed police checkpoints, usually set up at night, during which an officer will ask motorists of they've been drinking and gauge based upon their response and other factors whether to initiate further roadside sobriety or breathalyzer tests. If you encounter one while driving -- and assuming youhaven't been drinking -- in most cases you'll be let through after only a few seconds, though you may be asked to show your driver's license (have your car rental agreement handy too, if it's requested).
- During winter, a flashing blue light usually identifies a snow removal vehicle. Snow removal vehicles in the four western provinces use amber lights.
- Beware: In British Columbia, a (slow) flashing green light means the traffic light is green (you can go) but it is controlled by the pedestrian. The light will remain flashing green until a pedestrian pushes the button to cross the street; when you see a flashing green light, traffic coming towards you will also see a flashing green light. In Ontario, Québec and Nova Scotia, a (fast) flashing green light indicates advanced turn, signaling the driver can make a left hand turn across oncoming traffic because oncoming traffic has a red light.
- In British Columbia there are many roads, mainly in mountain passes, which require vehicles to be equipped with winter tires or carry chains from October 1 - April 30.
- In Quebec, winter tire use is mandatory for all taxis and passenger vehicles from December 15 to March 15. (Note that this applies only to vehicles registered in the province; tourists driving into the province can use all season tires.)
- Speed limits vary per province anywhere from the relatively low 100 km/hr to 110 km/hr and are enforced by radar. Don't be fooled to think you can speed as many native drivers across eastern Canada will speed.
Passenger rail service in Canada, although very safe and comfortable, is often an expensive and inconvenient alternative to other types of transport. The corridor between Windsor and Quebec City is a bit of an exception to this generalization. Also, if natural beauty is your thing, the approximately three-day train ride between Toronto and Vancouver passes through the splendour of the Canadian prairies and the Rocky Mountains, with domed observation cars to allow passengers to take in the magnificent views.
Make arrangements ahead of time to get lower fares. VIA Rail is the main Canadian passenger rail company.
Canada is a great place for hitchhiking, and is still quite common among younger travellers strapped for cash, or seeking adventure. It's most common in the far western provinces, where there are generally more travellers. Hitch hiking in the urban areas of Southern Ontario, and Montreal is not a sure thing as many drivers will not pick up hitch hikers in these regions.
As anywhere in the world, use your common sense when taking a ride.
By Ride Sharing
Ride sharing is increasing in Canada, as well as the United States, due in large part to the internet website Craigslist and dedicated ridesharing sites such as LiftSurfer and RideshareOnline. This method of transport works best between major centres, for example Toronto-Montreal or Vancouver-Calgary. Generally 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.
Some tourist destinations, especially those popular with young people, can be accessed via rideshare as well, for example: Vancouver-Whistler or Calgary-Banff. People sharing a ride will usually be expected to pay for their fair share of the fuel cost, and may also be asked to do some of the driving on long hauls.
For best results be sure to post a request listing, and start checking for offer listings at least one week prior to your anticipated ride date. Backpacker's hostel notice boards are also a good resource for ride sharing.
Like hitchhiking, some common sense and discretion is advisable.
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