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Planning a Trip to Canada: Travel Tips for the First-Time Visitor

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Hold on to your toques (that’s Canadian for hats!) because you’re about to embark on an epic Canadian adventure. From majestic mountains scraping the sky to bustling cities and charming maritime towns, Canada offers a variety of travel experiences. But with a country this vast, planning a trip to Canada can feel overwhelming. 

This guide will be your trusty maple-flavored map as you navigate the must-sees, hidden gems, and practicalities of exploring Canada. We’ll break it down for you –  from visas and packing tips to where to stay and how to stay safe.  

Whether you’re a history buff craving cobblestone streets and historic sites, a nature lover yearning for epic hikes, or an urbanite seeking world-class museums and vibrant nightlife, you’ll love this northern country.

So, ditch the travel brochures and dive into this treasure trove of practical information. Let’s ensure your Canadian itinerary is meticulously planned, affordable, and, most importantly, unforgettable.

Planning a trip to Canada | Things to know before you go for the first-time visitor 

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Planning your trip to Canada

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Visiting Canada promises national parks galore, plenty of stunning small towns, and an unforgettable experience. 

But before you begin planning your time in Canada, here are a few essential things to remember if you’re a first-time visitor. 

Currency

The currency used in Canada is the Canadian dollar (CAD). Credit and debit cards are widely accepted, but it’s always a good idea to have cash on hand for smaller purchases or in case of emergencies.

Weather

Canada experiences four distinct seasons, with temperatures varying widely depending on the region and time of year. Be sure to check the weather forecast for your destination and pack accordingly.

Language

Canada is officially bilingual, with English and French being the two official languages. While English is widely spoken throughout the country, especially in urban areas, some regions, particularly in Quebec, primarily use French.

Transportation

Canada is a vast country, so travel between cities and regions may require long drives, flights, or train journeys. Consider renting a car, using domestic flights, or taking advantage of Canada’s extensive bus and train network.

Tipping

Tipping is customary in Canada, with typical gratuities ranging from 15% to 20% in restaurants, bars, and taxis. Tipping hotel staff, tour guides, and other service providers is common.

Wildlife

Canada is home to diverse wildlife, including bears, moose, and cougars, especially in rural and wilderness areas. Take precautions when hiking or camping, such as carrying bear spray and properly storing food.

Wildlife in Banff winter

Cultural etiquette & general awareness

Canadians are known for their politeness and friendliness. Remember to greet people with a friendly “hello” or “bonjour” and respect cultural differences, particularly in Indigenous communities.

When engaging in outdoor activities, be aware of the local wildlife and stay informed about safety guidelines, particularly in remote or wilderness areas.

Canada has a strict policy on impaired driving, and laws regarding the use of alcohol and cannabis are regulated provincially. Ensure you familiarize yourself with the laws in the province you’re visiting.

Avoid carrying large sums of cash and keep valuables secure, as you would while traveling anywhere. While Canada is generally safe, petty crimes like pickpocketing can occur in crowded tourist spots.

Visas & entry requirements

Before you pack your bags, check whether you need a visa or an Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA) to enter Canada.

Toronto Airport
Toronto Airport is a popular entry point to the country

While citizens of certain countries can enter Canada with just an eTA linked electronically to their passport, others may need to apply for a visa through their local Canadian consulate. 

The eTA is relatively quick and easy to obtain for eligible travelers, typically processed within minutes, but don’t leave this until the last minute!

View of waterfront in Charlottetown, showcasing the pros and cons of living in Canada

Ensure you check the official Canadian immigration website for the most current requirements and processing times.

Check the official Canadian government website to determine your specific requirements.

Staying connected

Purchase a local SIM card for your phone to ensure you have reliable data and calling throughout your trip.

Health insurance

Canada is known for its excellent healthcare system, but visitors must note that this does not extend to tourists without proper health insurance. Before traveling, ensure comprehensive travel insurance covering medical treatment in Canada. 

Healthcare costs for tourists can be high, and having insurance will give you peace of mind and protect you against unexpected medical expenses.

While it’s not mandatory for US passport holders, travel health insurance is highly recommended when visiting Canada, as health care can be expensive for non-residents.

When is the best time to visit Canada

Canada boasts four distinct seasons, each offering unique experiences. 

The summer months beckon with warm weather and vibrant festivals, while fall stuns with fiery foliage. Winter in Canada transforms the landscape into a wonderland for skiers and snowboarders, and spring brings a refreshing awakening. 

Johnston Canyon in winter girl hiking
Winter hikes in Canada
Fall vibes in Banff, Canada
  • June-August: This is peak tourist season, with pleasant temperatures perfect for hiking, camping, and exploring the outdoors. Expect larger crowds and higher prices.
  • April-May & September-November: Canada’s shoulder seasons offer a good balance. You’ll experience comfortable temperatures with fewer crowds and potentially lower prices. Spring offers vibrant blooms, while fall boasts stunning foliage.
  • December-March: This is prime time for winter sports enthusiasts. Expect cold temperatures and snow-covered landscapes ideal for skiing, snowboarding, and ice skating.

Read more:

How much money should I travel to Canada with?

Budget travelers should earmark spending around $100-150 CAD per day as a rough estimate. Mid-range travelers might budget $200-300 CAD per day, and luxury travelers might budget CAD 400 or more per day. 

These estimates are flexible and can vary based on your travel plans and preferences. It’s always a good idea to overestimate your budget to account for unforeseen expenses and ensure you have enough funds for a comfortable and enjoyable trip.

General tips for saving money

  1. Consider shoulder seasons (spring or fall) for cheaper flights and accommodation compared to peak summer.
  2. Take advantage of free activities like hiking, exploring museums on free admission days, and picnicking in parks.
  3. Purchase a travel pass for discounted access to public transportation.
  4. Cook some meals in your hostel or Airbnb to save on restaurant costs.

Getting to Canada: Travel Tips

Canada boasts several major international airports, including Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ), Vancouver International Airport (YVR), and Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport (YUL). These hubs connect to numerous international destinations and offer easy access to various regions within Canada.

YVR airport
Vancouver Airport

Upon landing, follow signage for international arrivals. You’ll likely go through immigration screening, where an officer will ask questions about your trip and verify your documents.

Be prepared to answer questions about your purpose of visit, length of stay, and onward travel plans.

From the United States of America

  • By air: The most efficient way to travel to Canada is to fly from a major city in the United States. Major U.S. cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago offer direct flights to Canadian cities such as Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. Many airlines, including Air Canada, WestJet, Delta Air Lines, and American Airlines, operate frequent routes between the two countries.
  • By car: Road trips are always a delight. If you’re located near the Canadian border, you can drive into Canada. The United States and Canada share one of the longest international land borders in the world, with numerous border crossings. Ensure that you have the necessary documentation, such as a valid passport or enhanced driver’s license, when crossing the border.
  • By train: Amtrak operates several routes connecting major U.S. cities to Canada. The Amtrak Cascades route runs from Seattle to Vancouver, while the Adirondack route connects New York City to Montreal. VIA Rail Canada also offers cross-border train services between Canada and the United States.

From the UK

  • By air: Flying from the UK is the most convenient way to travel to Canada. Direct flights are available from London Heathrow, London Gatwick, Manchester, and other major UK airports to Canadian cities such as Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary. Air Canada, British Airways, and WestJet operate regular flights between the two countries.
  • Land or sea: Traveling overland from the UK to Canada is impractical due to the Atlantic Ocean separating the two regions. However, you can combine land and sea travel by ferrying from the UK to continental Europe (e.g., France) and then flying to Canada from a European airport.

From Europe

  • By air: Flying is the most common way to travel to Canada from Europe. Many major European cities, including London, Paris, Frankfurt, and Amsterdam, offer direct flights to Canadian cities such as Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. Airlines like Air Canada, Lufthansa, Air France, and KLM operate frequent routes between Europe and Canada.
  • By ocean cruise: Some European travelers visit Canada as part of a transatlantic cruise. Cruises from European ports such as Southampton, Hamburg, or Copenhagen may include Canadian Ports of Call such as Halifax, Quebec City, or St. John’s.

Renting a Car in Canada | Canada Trip Planner

The best way to explore Canada’s breathtaking landscapes is by car. Whether you’re dreaming of cruising along the scenic Cabot Trail in Atlantic Canada, exploring the Rocky Mountains, or driving through the vast expanse of the Prairies, renting a car offers you the freedom to discover Canada’s stunning vistas and vibrant cities according to your own itinerary. 

road trip in Alberta
Road trip in the Canadian Rockies

Here’s everything you need to know to ensure a smooth car rental experience in the Great White North.

1. Book Early for the Best Deals

Planning is key when renting a car in Canada, especially during peak seasons like summer and winter holidays.

Early booking can help you secure the best rates and the type of vehicle that best suits your needs, whether it’s a cozy compact for city trips or a sturdy SUV for mountain adventures.

2. Have Your Documents Ready

Ensure you have all necessary documents on hand at the rental desk to avoid any surprises. This includes a valid driver’s license from your country, proof of insurance, and, if required, an international driving permit.

Keep these important documents easily accessible throughout your trip.

3. Opt for Winter Tires in Colder Months

Canadian winters can be harsh, and many provinces have laws requiring winter tires for added safety.

If you’re visiting during the colder months, make sure your rental car is equipped with winter tires. It’s not just about legal compliance; it’s about ensuring your safety on icy and snowy roads.

4. Understand Your Rental Agreement

Before you sign off on your rental car, take the time to read the agreement thoroughly. Pay close attention to all fees, insurance coverage details, and geographical restrictions on where you can take the car. Knowing these details upfront can save you from potential headaches down the road.

5. Go Unlimited on Mileage

Canada is vast, and its beauty lies in its sprawl. Opting for unlimited mileage is a wise choice if you’re planning extensive exploration. This will spare you from worrying about additional charges for exceeding a mileage limit, allowing you to venture freely from coast to coast.

6. Get Acquainted with Canadian Road Rules

Driving in a new country can be daunting. Take the time to familiarize yourself with Canadian road rules and signs, especially if you’re used to driving on the left. Remember, safety comes first!

7. Plan Your Route

With your car keys in hand, freedom awaits—but some planning goes a long way. Plan your routes and rest stops, particularly for lengthy drives. Canada’s natural beauty is unending, and knowing your main stops will help you maximize your experience.

8. Mind the Age Restrictions

The minimum age to rent a car in Canada is 21 years (except in Quebec, where it is 18 years). However, drivers under 25 may face additional fees, so verifying this information with your rental company is crucial.

Bonus Tip: National Park Fees

Exploring Canada’s national parks by car is a highlight for many. Remember, there are fees for entering these parks—whether as an individual adult or a family. Purchasing a Parks Canada Discovery Pass can offer unlimited admission and may be more cost-effective for extensive explorations.

Packing tips for your first time in Canada

Canada experiences 4 distinct seasons, so packing for each is crucial.We have a detailed Canada packing guide here – What to wear in Canada: Ultimate Packing List for Canada.

We have highlighted essential tips below,

  • Layers are essential: Layering allows you to adapt to changing weather conditions. This is true all year round (always pack a lightweight jacket and/or scarf with you).
  • Neutral colors: Opt for neutral-colored clothing for easy mixing and matching.
  • Versatile shoes: Choose shoes that can be worn for various activities. If you plan to hit the trails, hiking shoes and boots are necessary!
  • Pack light: If you plan on moving around a lot, consider packing light and doing laundry during your trip. (You can rent ski gear during winter instead of flying it in). Similarly, sunscreen, bug sprays, etc. can be purchased here).
  • Carry-on essentials: In case your checked baggage is delayed, pack essentials like medications, a change of clothes, and toiletries in your carry-on.

Where to stay in Canada for first-timers and Explore

For first-time visitors to Canada, choosing where to stay depends on your interests, budget, and the experiences you want to have.

Here are some suggestions for popular destinations:

Toronto, Ontario

Canada’s largest city, offering a vibrant urban experience with diverse neighborhoods, cultural attractions, and excellent dining options.

Sunsets in Harbourfront Toronto
Sunsets in Harbourfront in Toronto

Visit the CN Tower, explore neighborhoods like Kensington Market and Queen Street West, take a boat tour on Lake Ontario, and enjoy cultural institutions like the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Vancouver, British Columbia

Known for its stunning natural beauty, outdoor activities, and diverse cultural scene. Explore Stanley Park, visit Granville Island, and stroll along the Seawall. Don’t miss attractions like Capilano Suspension Bridge Park and Grouse Mountain.

Vancouver Downtown

Read more: ​​39 Vancouver Bucket List Attractions.

Montreal, Quebec

A vibrant city with a blend of European charm and North American dynamism, known for its cultural events, festivals, and culinary scene. 

Montreal Lanes
Old Montreal Lanes

Explore Old Montreal’s cobblestone streets, visit Notre Dame Basilica, and enjoy French-inspired cuisine. Experience the city’s festivals, such as the Montreal Jazz Festival or Just for Laughs comedy festival.

Banff, Alberta

Located in the Canadian Rockies, offering stunning mountain scenery and outdoor activities year-round. Explore Banff National Park, hike to iconic spots like Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, and enjoy outdoor activities such as skiing, snowboarding, hiking, and wildlife viewing.

Lake Minnewanka
Banff National Park – Lake Minnewanka

Don’t miss the small town of Canmore nearby (it’s one of our favorites!)

Read more: 3 days in Banff Itinerary: 3 days Trip for first-time visitors.

Here are some of the best places to stay in Canada. 

Quebec City, Quebec

Step back within the charming walled city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Explore historic landmarks like the Citadelle and experience the European flair of Quebec’s capital.

Québec City is like visiting a European country in North America!

St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador

This colorful city boasts a rich history and a vibrant culture. Explore Signal Hill National Historic Site, wander through colorful Jellybean Row houses, and visit museums showcasing the province’s unique heritage.

Victoria, British Columbia

This charming city on Vancouver Island offers beautiful gardens, stunning ocean views, and a relaxed atmosphere. Explore the historic Inner Harbour, visit the impressive Butchart Gardens near Victoria, and enjoy fresh seafood.

Vancouver to Victoria day trip guide

Read more: 9 Unique Places to Stay in Victoria, BC.

Halifax, Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia’s capital city boasts a historic waterfront district, delicious seafood restaurants, and a lively cultural scene. Explore the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site and take a whale-watching tour in the Bay of Fundy.

Suggested itineraries | Canada road trip and travel guide

Canada’s vastness offers endless possibilities. Here are three itineraries tailored to different interests and travel styles. 

Must-See Cities & Natural Wonders (5 days)

Take a trip anytime from March to May and see some of Canada’s most visited spots. 

  • Day 1-2: Arrive and explore Toronto’s highlights, such as the CN Tower, Ripley’s Aquarium, and Nathan Phillips Square. Enjoy dinner in diverse neighborhoods. On the second day, take a day trip to Niagara Falls, experiencing attractions like Hornblower Niagara Cruises and Clifton Hill before returning to Toronto.
  • Day 3-4: Travel to Ottawa. Visit Parliament Hill, explore ByWard Market, and discover museums like the National Gallery of Canada. Take a stroll along the Rideau Canal.
  • Day 5: Travel back to Toronto. Spend the afternoon shopping or exploring neighborhoods. Enjoy a farewell dinner at a top restaurant.

City Lights & Cultural Delights (8 Days) Eastern and Western Canada

If you have more time, you can add another popular city to your trip. This itinerary is flexible year-round, with each season offering unique experiences.

  • Day 1-3: Fly into Toronto, Ontario. Explore the iconic CN Tower, visit the Royal Ontario Museum, and stroll through the vibrant St. Lawrence Market. Catch a show on Broadway or enjoy the city’s diverse culinary scene.
  • Day 4-5: Travel to Ottawa, Canada’s capital city. Explore Parliament Hill, visit the Canadian War Museum, and skate on the Rideau Canal during winter.
Girl at the Capilano Bridge Vancouver 3 day itinerary
Vancouver Capilano Bridge
  • Day 6-7: Fly to Vancouver, British Columbia. Explore Stanley Park, visit the Vancouver Aquarium, and take a scenic ferry ride to Granville Island. Hike in the nearby Capilano Suspension Bridge Park for stunning views.
  • Day 8: Fly back from Vancouver.

The Majestic Rockies (10 Days)

Is there anything more magical than a Canadian Rockies road trip? Hike amidst snow-capped peaks, spot wildlife, and soak in the fresh mountain air.

  • Day 1-3: Fly into Calgary, Alberta. Explore the city’s museums, visit Calgary Tower for panoramic views, and spend an afternoon at Prince’s Island Park.
  • Day 4-6: Drive to Banff National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hike to iconic sights like Moraine Lake, Lake Louise, and Johnston Canyon. Take a gondola ride up Sulphur Mountain for stunning vistas. Go white-water rafting or explore the Bow River by canoe.
Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Falls Jasper National Park
  • Day 7-8: Continue to Jasper National Park, another gem of the Rockies, via Icefields Parkway, one of the most scenic routes in the world. Hike to Maligne Lake, explore the Columbia Icefields, and spot wildlife like elk and bears.
  • Day 9: Drive to Lake Louise for a final night, soaking in the mountain scenery.
  • Day 10: Fly back from Calgary.

Read more: Epic 10-day Canadian Rockies Itinerary & Road Trip

Enchanting East Coast (12 Days)

Experience Canada’s eastern provinces’ rich history, charming cities, and vibrant fall foliage. September-October offers comfortable temperatures and stunning fall colors.

New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, and Ontario form Eastern Canada. And of that 4 of them are part of the Atlantic provinces region – New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island.

Prince Edward Island
  • Day 1-3: Fly into Montreal, Quebec. Explore the historic walled city, visit the Notre Dame Basilica, and indulge in French Canadian cuisine.
  • Day 4-5: Take a day trip to Quebec City, another charming French colonial town. Explore the cobblestone streets, visit the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac hotel, and enjoy a cable car ride for breathtaking views.
  • Day 6-7: Travel to the maritime province of Nova Scotia. Explore the vibrant capital city of Halifax, visit the Peggy’s Cove lighthouse, and go whale watching in the Bay of Fundy.
  • Day 8-9: Head to Prince Edward Island, known for its beautiful beaches, lighthouses, and rolling hills. Rent a bike and explore the island’s scenic beauty. Sample fresh seafood in Charlottetown, and indulge in local Anne of Green Gables-themed treats.
  • Day 10-11: Drive back to Halifax for a final night and enjoy the city’s lively waterfront scene.
  • Day 12: Fly back from Halifax.

11 Safety tips for your Canadian trip

Canada welcomes you with open arms and boasts a reputation for safety. Crime rates are low, especially in major cities, and the culture is peaceful. Strict gun control laws contribute to a lower risk of gun violence compared to other countries.

Canada Road Trip Planning: Canmore Alberta
Canada Road Trip Planning Tips

However, a little preparation can go a long way. Following these essential safety tips and using common sense can ensure a worry-free and unforgettable adventure in Canada.

  1. Like any other destination, be aware of your surroundings, especially in crowded areas. Keep an eye on your belongings and avoid walking alone at night in deserted places.
  2. Familiarize yourself with Canada’s emergency number, which is 911.
  3. Consider purchasing travel insurance to cover medical emergencies, trip cancellations, and lost luggage.
  4. If you’re venturing into natural areas, be aware of wildlife. Research common animals in the area and follow park regulations regarding wildlife encounters. Store food properly to avoid attracting animals to your campsite.
  5. Be aware of the sun’s intensity, especially at higher altitudes. Apply sunscreen regularly and stay hydrated. If you’re swimming or boating, wear a life jacket and be mindful of water currents.
  6. Dress warmly in layers during winter and wear proper footwear with good traction to avoid slips and falls on icy surfaces. Be aware of avalanche risks in mountainous areas.
  7. If you plan on hiking, camping, or participating in any outdoor adventure, research the area beforehand, understand the terrain and weather conditions, and let someone know your itinerary.
  8. Whenever possible, explore with a companion, especially in remote areas.
  9. Leave no trace behind and follow all park regulations and campfire safety guidelines.
  10. Choose reputable accommodations and always lock your room doors and valuables in the safe provided.
  11. Familiarize yourself with Canadian traffic laws, such as stopping at red lights and yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks. Pay attention to road signs and weather conditions, especially on isolated roads.

Interesting facts about Canada

  • Canada boasts the world’s longest coastline, stretching over 202,080 kilometers (125,570 miles), which is longer than the Earth’s circumference at the equator. With three oceans bordering the country (Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic), Canada offers abundant coastal beauty and diverse marine life.
  • Did you know Canada produces about 85% of the world’s maple syrup? The provinces of Quebec and Ontario are the primary producers, and springtime brings on the tradition of “sugaring off,” where maple sap is collected and boiled down into this delicious syrup.
  • Beavers play a vital role in the ecosystem, creating dams that provide habitat for various species. This industrious critter is not just adorable; it’s also Canada’s national animal. Their image even graces the Canadian five-dollar bill.
  • Canada is officially bilingual, with English and French as the national languages. French is predominantly spoken in the province of Quebec, while English is more common in other regions. This bilingualism reflects Canada’s rich cultural heritage.
  • Canada is the world’s second-largest country by total area after Russia. This vastness translates into incredibly diverse landscapes. Canada offers a stunning variety of scenery, from the majestic Rocky Mountains in the west to the flat prairies of the central region and the towering glacial landscapes of the Arctic north.
  • If you love lakes, Canada is your heaven. It’s estimated that Canada has over two million lakes, containing about 20% of the world’s freshwater supply. Some of the most famous lakes include Lake Louise, known for its turquoise waters and mountain backdrop, and the Great Lakes, shared with the United States.
Lakes in Canada
  • Canada’s far north offers a spectacular light show during the winter months. The aurora borealis, or northern lights, dance across the night sky in vibrant colors. Places like Yukon Territory and Nunavut are prime locations for witnessing this natural phenomenon.

Keen to learn more? We have 100+ Interesting Facts About Canada for you.

Wrapping up the perfect planner for your next Canadian visit

Canada awaits with open arms and boundless beauty.  From the pulse-pounding thrills of the Rockies to the historic charm of Quebec City, every corner promises captivating experiences.

So, book those flights, finalize your itinerary, and get ready to be amazed by the magic of the Great White North! This adventure is yours to take.

Bookmark this guide as a handy reference throughout the planning process. Use it to refresh your memory on visa requirements, delve back into specific city recommendations, or revisit packing tips to ensure you’re prepared for all types of weather.

Don’t be afraid to deviate from the suggested itineraries and explore those quirky destinations that spark your curiosity. Research local festivals or events happening during your travel dates to add an extra layer of excitement.

Once the planning stress is over, why not list which of the 60 Canada Bucket List Items you’re most interested in seeing?

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