Towering snow-capped mountains, lush evergreen forests filled with wildlife, deep blue coastlines dotted with little towns: this isn’t the setting of a fantasy novel, this is Canada, home to some of the world’s most awe-inspiring landscapes.
Canada spans six time zones across 10 provinces and three territories, and it’s over 5000km (3107 miles) from the west coast to the east coast.
Traveling around the second biggest country in the world might seem like a daunting challenge, but with new budget airlines, a national train service, and loads of car rental options, Canada is more accessible to travelers than ever.
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Due to its vast size and varied regions, different parts of Canada rely on different modes of transportation: trains run in the more densely populated centers like the Toronto–Montréal corridor, while public ferries operate extensively in British Columbia, Québec and the Maritime provinces.
If you want to cover large distances in a shorter period of time, regional and national carriers crisscross the country, taking days off travel time and reaching northern towns inaccessible by road.
All of Canada’s major cities have public transportation – subways, streetcars, buses and bike routes are expanding all over the major metropolises of the country (not just Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver).
If you want to city-hop across Canada, flying and taking the train (and perhaps occasionally ferrying) from province to province to avoid renting a car is totally doable.
Soak up some of Canada’s best scenery on a road trip © iStockphoto / Getty Images
Driving is one of the best ways to see the country
Canada is packed with amazing road-trip opportunities and driving is one of the best ways to get around such a vast country – trains and flights can be expensive and can’t get you to the more remote spots.
Exempting the northern territories, all of Canada is connected by the Trans-Canada Highway and you could easily drive from Vancouver, British Columbia to St John’s Newfoundland in a mere 76 hours without traffic.
Having a car makes it super easy to jump from town to town, visit national parks, and stop at interesting places, which you just can’t do on any other form of transport.
Even major cities like Toronto and Montreal were built to navigate by car, although they have ample public transportation (and horrible traffic) now.
Tip for traveling coast to coast: If you’re short on time, a combination of car rentals and inter-province flights will probably be your best option for traveling across Canada. There are long stretches on the drive that are just prairie land, and although not without its interesting points, driving over 12 hours in them can be a wasted day if you’re only here for a few weeks.
How easy is it to rent a car in Canada?
In most provinces, visitors can legally drive for up to three months with their home driver’s license. In British Columbia, that period is six months.
If you’re spending considerable time in Canada, think about getting an International Driving Permit (IDP), which is valid for one year. Your home automobile association can issue one for a small fee. Always carry your home license together with the IDP.
To rent a car in Canada you generally need to: be at least 25 years old (some companies will rent to drivers between the ages of 21 and 24 for an additional charge); hold a valid driver’s license (an international one may be required if you’re not from an English- or French-speaking country); and have a major credit card.
Major international car-rental companies usually have branches at airports, train stations and in city centers. In Canada, on-the-spot rentals are often more expensive than pre-booked packages (i.e. cars booked with a flight or in advance). More affordably, you can also rent with Zipcar and Turo in Canada now (think Airbnb for cars).
Take a luxury train trip through the Rocky Mountains © iStock / Getty Images
Enjoy Canada’s incredible scenery while taking the train
If you have the money, traveling by train in Canada is a bucket-list luxury activity – the rail tracks run through some of the most gorgeous landscapes in the world, passing through mountain valleys and along rivers.
VIA Rail operates most of Canada’s intercity and transcontinental passenger trains, chugging over 14,000km (8699 miles) of track. In some remote parts of the country, such as Churchill, Manitoba, trains are the only overland access.
Rail service is most efficient in the corridor between Québec City and Windsor, Ontario – particularly between Montréal and Toronto, the two major hubs. The rail network does not extend to Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island or the Northwest Territories.
Taking the train is more expensive than the bus and often comparable to flying, but most people find it a fun, comfortable way to travel. June to mid-October is peak season, when prices are about 40% higher. Buying tickets in advance (even just five days before) can yield significant savings.
If you want to take a train ride that doubles as a sightseeing tour, VIA Rail has several classic trains – Canadian (Toronto to Vancouver); Hudson Bay (Winnipeg to the polar-bear hangout Churchill); Ocean (Montréal to Halifax): and Jasper to Prince Rupert.
There are also privately run regional train companies offering additional rail-touring opportunities, like the famed Rocky Mountaineer.
Save some money by riding the bus
You can travel between most major cities by shuttle bus. Although Greyhound Canada has cut service dramatically (the only routes in Canada are now to the States), Megabus still offers many routes in Ontario and Quebec. The other province-to-province routes are bussed by regional companies.
Buses are generally clean, comfortable and reliable. Amenities may include onboard toilets, air-conditioning (bring a sweater), reclining seats, free wi-fi and onboard movies. Smoking is not permitted. On long journeys, buses make meal stops every few hours, usually at highway service stations.
Bus travel is slower and cheaper than other means of transport. The earlier you buy a ticket online, the cheaper your fare, but if you wait too long prices can be as high as $250, and it could cost the same to fly.
If you’re short on time, take a plane
A very recent (and welcome) addition to Canadian transportation is a host of shiny new airlines like Swoop, Flair, and Lynx. WestJet and Air Canada no longer control Canadian skies with their relatively expensive inter-province flights, instead, you can now fly from Toronto to Halifax for as little as CAD$49, or from Vancouver to Montreal for $60.
Forget about bringing carry-on baggage though – with a one-way cost around $45, the prices add up. But if you’re thrifty and are carrying just a small backpack (always check dimension restrictions before booking), it’s more affordable than ever to explore Canada by plane.
Star Alliance members can use their “Round the World” trip planner to make up to 16 different flights at a discounted fare.
Enjoy Canada’s back roads on a bike
Much of Canada is great for cycling. Long-distance trips can be done entirely on quiet back roads, and many cities (including Edmonton, Montréal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria) have designated bike routes.
Traveling all the way across Canada on a bike is a three-month marathon, but there’s a big community of support at Biking Across Canada if you want to team up with a group or get some tips for this Herculean task.
Buying a bike is easy, as is reselling it before you leave. Specialist bike shops have the best selection and advice, but general sporting-goods stores may have lower prices. Some bicycle stores and rental outfitters also sell used bicycles. To sniff out the best bargains, scour flea markets, garage sales, thrift shops, Facebook Marketplace and Kijiji, or check the noticeboards in hostels and universities. These are also the best places to sell your bike.
Ferry is the primary form of travel in some Canadian provinces © iStock / Getty Images
Get a taste of Canada’s island life on a boat
Ferrying around Canada may not the most efficient method of transport, but can often be quite an enjoyable way to get to specific areas like Victoria, BC or St John’s, Newfoundland. In Toronto, you can get to the islands by ferry – time it right for one of the most gorgeous sunset views of the city.
Ferry services are extensive, especially throughout the Atlantic provinces and in British Columbia. Walk-ons and cyclists should be able to get aboard at any time, but call ahead for vehicle reservations or if you require a cabin berth. This is especially important during summer peak season and holidays.
Accessible travel in Canada
Canada is making progress when it comes to easing the everyday challenges facing people with disabilities, especially the mobility-impaired. Many public buildings, including museums, tourist offices, train stations, shopping malls and cinemas, have access ramps and/or lifts. Most public restrooms feature extra-wide stalls equipped with hand rails. Many pedestrian crossings have sloping curbs.
Newer and recently remodeled hotels, especially chain hotels, have rooms with extra-wide doors and spacious bathrooms. Interpretive centers at national and provincial parks are usually accessible, and many parks have trails that can be navigated in wheelchairs.
Car rental agencies offer hand-controlled vehicles and vans with wheelchair lifts at no additional charge, but you must reserve them well in advance.
For accessible air, bus, rail and ferry transportation, check the federal government’s website. In general, most transportation agencies can accommodate people with disabilities if you make your needs known when booking. Or download Lonely Planet’s free Accessible Travel guides.