I traveled through Canada for five months in 2013 and only spent US$30 per day. It is possible to travel Canada on a budget.
Before you ask, no, I didn’t sleep in the streets, sell my body or dumpster dive for food. I ate pretty well (most of the time), we always had a roof (or tent) over our heads and it was one hell of an adventure.
Over 146 days we travelled mainly overland through Canada and the US; from Toronto all the way up to Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, back down through Toronto to Chicago, flying from Chicago to Seattle, catching a bus up to Vancouver then across to Calgary for a road trip in the Rocky Mountains. Next we explored the Shuswap Lake Region before heading to Osoyoos in the middle of Canada’s only desert. We finished our trip on Denman and Quadra Islands before flying out of Vancouver.
We covered a lot of distance in the nearly five months we were traveling in Canada and the US and although we did it on a very tight budget, I honestly don’t feel like I missed out on a thing.
After our original plan to move to Canada for a year to live and work fell through, we came up with an alternative Canada plan.
We would travel through Canada over a three to six month period instead. Both of us could easily get six month visitor visas and we planned to travel until we ran out of money.
The problem was that we didn’t have much money to begin with.
We realised that we would have to do this Canada trip on a drastically reduced budget to what we were used to spending, even as backpackers. It would be a commitment but we were prepared to make it work.
If we didn’t travel on a tight budget then we would only be able to afford to stay for around a month which just didn’t cut it for me.
I love Canada. Ever since I first visited in 2009 it has been like a siren song to me, constantly luring me back. I could tell you all of the reasons that I love it so much (beautiful scenery, friendly people, exciting cities, amazing wildlife) but it is more than that. It is that undefinable quality that you can’t quite put your finger on. It feels like home to me. I feel a strong sense of belonging there.
So one month back there after three years away just wasn’t going to be good enough.
Just being there in my chosen country was what mattered to me so I didn’t care if I had to live on peanut butter sandwiches and Kraft Mac and Cheese. If I had to camp and couchsurf and hitchhike. Even if I had to miss out on kayaking with Beluga Whales (which I REALLY want to do at some stage). I can always splash out on activities, meals and accommodation another time when I am traveling with more money.
There will always be a next time when it comes to me and Canada.
With each of us only having £2650 to start with and earning a further CAD$550 that we made while in Canada, we managed to undertake a trip of a lifetime. It was challenging at times and a lot of time was spent on the net researching and planning as we went. But despite this, it ended up being so much easier than I thought it would be and it was also so much more rewarding that I could have ever imagined.
We managed to stay on budget and only spent a total of CAD$5400 each, or $37 per day – a little under US$30 per day. Some days we spent double that and other days we spent nothing. My most expensive day was when I purchased the flight from Chicago to Seattle; I spent over $200 that day. Then when I was volunteering in the Shuswap I only spent $1 in two weeks. It all evened out nicely in the end.
I want to share how we did it by breaking down our methods and costs as well as the highlights and low-lights of our time in Canada. Costs that are listed below in Canadian dollars and are per person. The costs that I have listed are not exhaustive as I didn’t track everything but I just wanted to give you an idea of where our money was being spent.
How I Traveled Through Canada on a Budget
Couchsurfing – 31 nights
Couchsurfing was a saviour for cutting costs and we met some amazingly generous and friendly people. We stayed with ten different hosts and didn’t have one bad experience. The youngest person we stayed with was a 19 year old student and the oldest were a couple in their 60’s.
I loved that through couchsurfing you can meet such a wide spectrum of society. The only thing that most people we met had in common was their love of travel. We are planning to be hosts ourselves once we get our own place because we loved our experience so much.
Help X – 41 nights
Help X was another amazing resource and it is a great way to save money while traveling. It works like woofing where you work for a few hours a day in exchange for room and board. Where it differs from woofing is that it isn’t only farm work.
You can do a wide range of different ‘jobs’ such as working in hostels, looking after husky puppies (I wish I got to do this one!), working for a tour company, helping someone in their home, looking after children and so much more.
We did four different assignments that included a range of duties including cleaning a hostel and cooking the guest breakfast, gardening, weeding, mulching a path, painting the inside of a cabin, cooking, creating a rock garden, sweeping leaves, picking and preserving mushrooms, collecting walnuts, planting trees, collecting eggs and picking apples.
You are usually expected to work between four to seven hours per day, and if you are there for over a week you are generally given two days off per week you work. I learnt some new skills and hardly spent a cent.
Camping – 22 nights
Starting at $5 each for a basic campsite to $15 each for a campsite with all the amenities, camping was a great accommodation option for keeping costs low.
We camped in private camping grounds as well as in National Parks. We didn’t free camp as I just wasn’t sure how to go about it and I was scared we would get caught, but I think that I will give it a try next time.
Our most amazing campsite was on Grand Manan Island where we were perched on a cliffs edge overlooking a beautiful lighthouse. We could see and hear whales breaching from our campsite too!
Stay with Friends – 16 nights
We were lucky to have some amazing friends who put us up and it was great to see some familiar faces. We appreciated their kindness so much and hopefully they will come to Sydney soon so we can return the favour!
Nights on Buses – 1
Our 16 hour night bus from Vancouver to Calgary. Pretty uncomfortable but at only $60 it was so much cheaper than flying and we saved on a night’s accommodation.
Hostel – 1 night
We didn’t have any luck finding a couchsurfing host in Saint John and there were no camping grounds near town so we had to splurge $30 for a bed in a dorm. We ended up with a dorm room to ourselves and we got a free cooked breakfast and did our washing for free so our one night in a hostel turned out to be pretty good value for money.
Hotels and Luxury Cottage – 6 nights
We managed to rack up enough airmiles to spend our first two nights in Canada in a Hilton Hotel at the Toronto Airport. It felt so luxurious after backpacking through Latin America for seven months and we stuffed our face at the breakfast buffet, swam in the pool, watched mindless TV and enjoyed sleeping in a King size bed.
The other four nights we were very lucky to be traveling with one of Trav’s South African friends who was working in Northern Alberta on a one year contract. He only gets four days off a month and his company pays for the flights and accommodation to anywhere he wants to go in Canada so he came to meet us.
We had a night in a hotel in downtown Toronto followed by a night in picturesque Niagara-on-the-lake and finished our mini holiday off with a bang by renting a 2 bedroom cottage in cute Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula. We were so spoilt!
Sublet Room in House – 25 nights
At only $200 each this was definitely a bargain! Craigslist is a very popular community website in North America where people advertise jobs, stuff they are selling, rooms for rent and everything in between.
We found a room in a student house in the beautiful beachside suburb of Kitsilano in Vancouver. The girl who was renting the room was a student at UBC and was going home to California for the holidays. We paid a small bond of $200 which we got back when we left and paid the rent up front when we arrived.
The other flatmates had rented their rooms out too so we ended up sharing the house with a lovely English couple and an American Opera Singer.
Our house was only 10 minutes by bus to the city, 20 minutes walk to the beach and 5 minutes to great restaurants and cafes. What a great find.
Food and Drink:
- Most days we tried to eat breakfast where we were staying, buy lunch for under $12 and then cook dinner.
- When camping to offset the cost of having to pay for accommodation, we ate a lot of Kraft Mac and Cheese – a $1 packet would feed both of us. We would just add milk and sometimes onion and tomato.
- When Hiking we packed a lunch. We ate rice crackers, homemade salads, peanut butter sandwiches, boiled eggs and sweets.
- We didn’t buy drinks very often when eating out, generally we would drink tap water and buy soft drinks from supermarkets and convenience stores as they were cheaper than at Cafes/Restaurants
- When on the road we got breakfast at Tim Hortons – $1 donuts and $1.40 coffee – can’t beat it.
- We hardly ever went out drinking, if we did it would usually just be for one or two.
- When we did go out for a drink we would research which places had happy hours online and make sure we took advantage of that. One night in Toronto we had a massive night out for $12 at a University bar that had $1 burgers and drinks specials.
- Sometimes we would buy a few beers and drink them at the place we were staying (sharing with our Hosts of course).
- Beer was cheap in the US, even delicious craft beer, so we took advantage of that over the two weeks we spent in the States
- Meals were cooked for us a few times by couch surfing hosts and friends we stayed with. We also returned the favour.
- When buying food to prepare ourselves, we tended to go to a No Frills (cheap) supermarket if possible or would look for deals. Cooking a lot of Vegetarian meals also helps to keep costs down.
- Vancouver had some insanely cheap deals such as $3.50 each for a sit down sushi meal and $1.25 pizza slices
- We looked out for Restaurants that were doing Lunch specials
- Subway was a place that we frequented a lot. We would share a 12 inch Veggie Delight and it was less than $4 each and reasonably healthy.
- Instead of buying expensive snacks I would get cheap snacks from the supermarket and carry them around with us in case we got hungry. We would also take a bottle of tap water with us when we were out and about.
Greyhound and Megabus:
We used Greyhound and Megabus a few times and found great deals when booking in advance on popular journeys. Here’s some examples of what we paid:
- $35 from Toronto to Montreal
- $60 from Vancouver to Calgary
- $40 from Toronto to Detroit
- $20 from Detroit to Chicago
We caught a few ferries, mainly to get over to islands. The ferries we took in Toronto, Vancouver, Grand Manan Island, Denman Island, Quadra Island and Vancouver Island were between $5 and $17 each way. Ferries are reasonably cheap in Canada as they are subsidised by the Government a lot of the time.
Ridesharing was a great way to get around. On average per ride we paid about 25% of the cost of a bus doing the same route and it was faster! For cost comparisons and more information about how ridesharing works, see my post on it.
We didn’t hitch a lot but when we did we were lucky to pick up rides within an hour and always with awesome people. My favourite hitching experience was when the Mayor of Grand Manan Island picked us up and gave us a full island tour for 2.5 hours and wouldn’t take a penny for it.
It cost us $114 for 10 hours, 3 bus changes through 3 Provinces to take us from Charlottetown, PEI to Riviere du Loup, Quebec. We desperately tried to get a rideshare for this but it wasn’t to be. We thought it would be too far to hitch but I wish that we had tried because paying $114 for a bus meant peanut butter sandwiches for days.
One of the biggest splurges of our trip, we hired a car for nine days to do a Rocky Mountain road trip. It cost us a total of $100 each including taxes for the rental period. Petrol was on top of this. We booked in advance and compared a lot of rental companies to get the best deal possible.
Flight from Chicago to Seattle
We purchased our flight for $175 on Priceline using the ‘name your price’ function. It was a lot cheaper to fly within the US rather than within Canada and we saved about 25% by using name your price. This flight was included in our budget.
We are big walkers so if our destination was anywhere up to 1.5 hours walking distance, we would generally walk it. In Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal we purchased day passes or single passes depending on what we were visiting on that particular day. Single tickets in these cities are valid for up to 1.5 – 2 hours so you can continue to use them during that time, even changing buses/streetcars/trains.
We knew that there wouldn’t be much money on this trip for activities and to be honest, we weren’t too worried as my favourite activities are free anyway. Hiking, urban exploration, checking out local markets, architecture appreciation and wildlife watching are a few of my favourite things, and all of them are free activities.
On top of this we managed to kayak, ride bikes, canoe, visit Museums and historic sites, go to concerts, see a salmon run, go out on a houseboat, attend a First Nations Pow Wow and soak in hot springs. Here is a breakdown of a few of the activities we did and associated costs, if any:
- Hiking – free!
- Return boat across Waterton Lake to hike the Crypt Lake Trail $15
- Movies in Montreal with our couchsurfing hosts – $10
- Christa Couture concert on Denman Island – $15
- Pier 21 Immigration Museum in Halifax – $10
- Maritime Museum in Halifax – free (one evening per week)
- Blues festival in Toronto – free
- Currency Museum in Ottawa – free
- Parliament Tour in Ottawa – free
- Fortress of Louisbourg – included in Canada Pass
- Montmorency Falls – free
- Chateau St Louis ruins – included in Canada Pass
- Radium Hot Springs $6.30
- Guided Beaver walk in Tadoussac $5
- Visiting Food and Craft Markets – free
- Kayaking around Heriot Bay, Quadra Island – free
- Canoeing in Shuswap Lake – free
- Seeing Sockeye Salmon run – free
- Bike riding in Vancouver and Niagara Peninsula – free (friend’s bikes)
- Attend a First Nations Pow Wow – free
- Visiting Niagara Falls – free
- Visiting Titanic Cemetery – Halifax – free
Canada Family Pass – $68.20 (my half)
This enabled us to get into any of Canada’s National Parks as well as Historic sites. We used it for Bruce Peninsula National Park, Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Fortress of Louisbourg, Chateau St Louis ruins, Yoho National Park, Waterton Lakes National Park, Kootenay National Park, Banff National Park and Prince Edward Island National Park.
Camping Gear – $150
We bought a tent, warm sleeping bags, camp cooker, cooking set and bed rolls. It was annoying to carry the extra load but worth it so that we could camp.
Clothing – $80
My clothes were getting pretty worn out from being on the road for months and I had lost some things along the way so I picked up some tops, shorts and Moose print PJ pants (they were irresistible).
Toiletries – approx. $40
Just the regular products such as shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, body wash, face wash, sunscreen etc.
Gifts for Family – $10
I picked up some maple sweets and cookies to take home
Park Pass for Glacier National Park – $16 (my half)
Pretty cheap for three days entry
Travel Insurance Renewal – $238
My travel insurance ran out 4 months before the end of our trip and I didn’t want to risk not being insured. This cost came out of my budget.
How we Earnt Money in Canada
We didn’t earn a lot while traveling, but the little we did earn helped us to stay on budget. We shared whatever money we earnt with each other.
- Sold Guide books at Bookshop $10
- Sold Canada Pass to fellow travellers $35
- Job selling credit card machine rolls, three days a week for three weeks in Vancouver $300 (Craigslist)
- Marketing research focus groups and Software testing $160 (Craigslist)
- Taking a passenger on our overnight trip from Halifax to Lunenburg $30 (Craigslist)
- Online Surveys $15
Craigslist and Gumtree are amazing resources. I found my short term job on Craigslist, where I was selling credit card machine rolls business to business. We also found Market Research Focus Groups and Software testing on both websites.
We advertised on Craigslist to take a passenger on our overnight trip to Lunenburg from Halifax to cover our petrol costs.
The online surveys that I had to do for $15 weren’t really a good investment of time as I probably spent about three hours on surveys for only $15.
My Best Bargains in Canada
We managed to find some amazing bargains in the Canada, and the US, during our time there. Here are the highlights:
- Amazing view over the Chicago skyline by visiting the lounge in the John Hancock building. No entry fee and we only had to purchase a drink for $8. The Observation tower that was one floor below would have been $18, just for the view
- Free winter clothes from the Free Store on Denman Island
- Free drink from a friendly bartender in Saint John, New Brunswick
- Free entry into the amazing Maritime Museum in Halifax (free after 5.30pm on Tuesdays)
- Free entry to watch Improv at Second City after the main show
- Free lunch at a Middle Eastern Takeout in Chicago
- Car hire for four days on airmiles
- Hotel for two nights on airmiles
- Private concert by the talented Christa Couture on Denman Island
My Best Meals in Canada
So MANY amazing meals, but these were the best:
- Traditional Poutine at Chez Ashton
- Lobster poutine in Saint John
- Creamed rice gelato in Quebec City (like frozen rice pudding!)
- Maple icecream in Montreal
- Pecan pie from Chewy’s Restaurant in Vancouver
- Rice pudding tart in Vancouver (mmm rice pudding in pastry)
- Jade Dynasty for Dim Sum in Vancouver
- Strawberry Shortcake donut from Lucky’s donuts in Vancouver
- Tim Horton’s donuts (Blueberry Fritters, Tim bits, Canadian Maple = LOVE)
- Seafood chowder at Kiwi Café in Chester, Nova Scotia
- Miso gravy fries from Naam in Vancouver
- Blueberry pie from Crane’s Pie Pantry in Michigan
- Banana Cream pie from Hoosier Mama Pie Company in Chicago
- Due Deep dish pizza in Chicago (Best pizza EVER!)
- Beetroot, baby spinach, candied pecan and goats cheese salad at a BBQ in Vancouver – best salad I have ever eaten
My Worst Meals in Canada
I honestly can’t remember eating anything really bad. We did try to eat budget brand ramen noodles a couple of times and they were pretty unappetising. After traveling through Latin America and enduring the mostly bland, deep fried food for seven months; peanut butter sandwiches and Mac and Cheese took on a new level of tastiness.
My Best Experiences in Canada
- Finally seeing a beaver and it swimming within a metre of me
- Hiking in the Rockies and seeing Moose and a Bear in the wild
- Stargazing from the private dock on Shuswap River
- Seeing and hearing whales from our campsite on Grand Manan Island
- Spending a month back in my favourite city, Vancouver
- Our private beachfront cabin on Quadra Island
- Chicago – everything. I love that City.
- Wandering the old town of Quebec City
- Maritime Museum in Halifax, one of the best Museums I have ever been to
- Day trip to the cute village and beaches of Ward and Centre Islands from Toronto
- Biking around Niagara on the Lake
- Exploring Tobermory and the Bruce Peninsula
My Worst Experiences in Canada
After our bad luck in Guatemala, Panama and Colombia, it finally turned around in Canada and I can honestly say that things went remarkably smoothly during the North American section of our trip. Sometimes things didn’t work out as planned; getting bored waiting for an hour for a ride when hitching, a Help X Experience we wanted to do not being available, having trouble finding couchsurfing hosts and spending more money on a bus than we wanted come to mind.
I would have loved to have gotten to the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec, Victoria on Vancouver Island and a few other places but it wasn’t to be due to time and money restraints. But they aren’t bad experiences, or even regrets. That’s just life, things don’t always work out perfectly. There was only one really bad experience on this trip:
- Our atrocious Help X experience on a Farm in Osoyoos and being drugged by one of the other workers.
What I Learnt in Canada
Because I wasn’t treating myself and buying anything I want on a whim, I didn’t become complacent and I truly appreciated when I did splurge on a vanilla latte or a seafood meal. I definitely appreciated the small things in life so much more and I derived a deep sense of satisfaction knowing that I was traveling and LOVING it on such a low budget in a country that is known to be expensive.
I learnt that couchsurfing and Help X are just incredible resources for travellers and you get so much out of staying and working with locals, including a better understanding of the culture and the type of people within it.
I felt burnt out after traveling so fast through Latin America and having to constantly meet other travellers who you would know for about 5 minutes before moving on again, who you would have the same conversations with about where you are from and how long you are travelling for. It would feel so superficial at times.
What I learnt is that you really don’t need a lot of money to travel and still enjoy yourself immensely. This was truly one of the best traveling experiences of my life.
I went into this Canada journey with an open mind and a sense of adventure, and came away from the experience with incredible memories and a greater appreciation for the little things that make life special.
Have you traveled Canada on a budget? Have you got any other money-saving tips to add?
If you liked this post, check out some of my other Canada content:
- The Best Vancouver Itinerary: 4 Days in Summer
- Crypt Lake Hike: One of the Best Hikes in Canada
- Life in Field, BC: The Best Mountain Town in the Canadian Rockies
- How to Spend a Weekend in Revelstoke, Canada
- The Sunshine Coast, BC: Canada’s Most Underrated Destination?
- Revisiting Victoria: Canada’s English Themed City
- What to do in Summer on Denman Island, Canada
- Hiking Through the Mountains to Stunning Garibaldi Lake
- Why you Should Visit Vancouver in the Fall