Driving to Canada: An Honest Assessment
Many Americans travel to Canada during the summer months attracted by wonderful climate, normally seamless border crossings, majestic natural features and the generally polite and friendly Canadian People. Most are blissfully unaware of potentially vacation-busting problems they can face under the Maple Leaf flag. Having traveled extensively throughout most of Canada over the years, perhaps I can help? Begin your future trip to Canada by visiting their official Government web site. You'll find an easy to navigate web site in English and French with a good map and important information just for visitors.
Canada is less one Nation and more a group of independent Provinces that have begrudgingly agreed to unite and cooperate to avoid being gobbled up by what they call "the giant to the south." Beyond the federal level, laws and taxes can vary widely from Province to Province so be careful. If driving, stop at Provincial welcome centers and ask what is most important for you to know as a visitor from the USA.
As with any trip that takes you into the north country of the USA or Canada, leave extra time, bring extra money and keep your schedule somewhat fluid. Contrary to what you might think, flight delays can be far more numerous in the summer then in winter. Those driving personal or rented vehicles may fall prey to any one of many ongoing summer road repair projects and constructions which tend to be more numerous the further north you go. Check with your insurance company before you enter Canada to make sure you are still covered and do not need to purchase additional insurance to keep it all legal.
They use the metric system in Canada. That means you'll finally get to use those kilometer numbers barely visible on your speedometer. Many newer car models allow you to switch to kilometer displays. Either way, you'll be amazed at how fast you will get the hang of it all. The good news is that they drive on the same side of the road as we do and use the same dollar and cents type currency we have in the USA. The bad news is that Gasoline will easily cost you from three to four times as much as you're used to paying at home. Keep that in mind if you plan a trans-Canadian road trip or have a gas eating monster type vehicle.
Most major Canadian roads differ greatly from USA Interstate Highways depending on where you drive. Many of Canada's highways are actually just large roadways with lower speed limits that tend to take you right through cities, towns and villages instead of the system of exits available on USA highways. This is especially true in rural sections of the nation and throughout most of the Canadian plains. Some Provincial roads are just one lane in each direction. In most areas (if not all by now) it is the law that headlights be on whenever you drive, day or night.
If your vehicle is not equipped with special daytime headlights make sure you remember to turn your lights on and off. Carry some sort of emergency battery starter or power supply for when you forget to turn them off. You will not find all the services you're used to in the USA. Make rest stops more often and gas up wisely. Food and snacks will cost you more and you'll find a lot less to choose from when it comes to restaurants.
Lodging will cost you more in Canada and you will probably get a lot less bang for your buck. The most commonly available lodging chain up north appears to be Comfort Inn. Unlike most Comfort Inns and many other hotels chains in the USA, breakfast is usually not complimentary and there may be an extra charge for almost everything (including cable movie channels). Parents should note that even many mid-priced motels tend to run one or more porn channels with fully X rated and uncut adult presentations, so hold on to that remote!
Hotels and Motels between the coasts and outside of large cities can be rugged, expensive and tend to fill up fast. Reservations are only as good as your ability to get there in time. I suggest you wing it, start early each day and make sure you stop for the night between two and three o'clock in the afternoon. Canadian lodging is poorly regulated, so leave your temper and any high expectations of service or amenities back in the USA. Any request for an Innkeeper to make right an inconvenience will probably just label you (and the rest of us) as ugly Americans.
Ask about Air Conditioning before you check in. Some motels don't have any and an unusually warm summer night can make for a very uncomfortable sleep-over. A wise traveler will have an ample supply of packaged snack foods, some microwave stuff and beverages along for the ride. Save time by eating during off-hours. Seating can be limited and service slow during other times. RVer's can expect a lot of hassles and few services.
Tourism is a summer industry in many parts of Canada. Because of the many taxes Canadian citizens and businesses pay, there isn't a lot of enthusiasm for it and a labor shortage for service jobs exasperates the situation. Apart from those sorts of hassles, I have found most Canadians to be extremely friendly and helpful. The exception to that rule is also the world's greatest stereotype: The French can appear be very rude unless you happen to be or speak French. In more cases than not this is just a cultural thing that most Americans are not used to, so don't be offended or judge too harshly when you visit places like Ottawa, Montreal or Quebec.
Apart from what is dictated by business travel, the vacation traveler will find a journey to any one of the ten provinces or three territories of Canada require different levels of planning. Any travel to the east past Toronto will require careful planning, preparation and reservations. Lodging is catch as catch can and most of the Atlantic Provinces seem to both welcome and resent tourism at the same time. Prairie destinations like Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary and Edmonton are less stressful and a treasure trove of fun things to do in the summer.
People are very friendly and tourist services are ample in and close to town. Vancouver and Victoria are a must see at least once. If you go there be prepared to pay, stand in line, get caught in traffic and be more annoyed than a tourist should be. Only the hopelessly insane or Alaska bound need attempt a trip through the Nunavut, Northwest or Yukon Territories. Traditional tourist facilities are almost non-existent and kids will be bored out of their minds. Do this once (if you have to) after you retire or lose your mind. The scenery is worth it (I guess), but the hassles are not. Believe me, roads and facilities are very primitive and everything will cost you more than you ever dreamed possible.
A license to operate a store or food establishment is not required in some areas of Canada. Look for businesses that advertise themselves as being licensed. If you plan on purchasing any electronic equipment or other expensive items, be careful. It's been my experience that even large stores have a lot of what some have called gray market items. These are products sold as new that have been re-manufactured or rebuilt. Looking at any paperwork or instructions that come with the product is one way to tell. Gray market items tend to have no warrantees beyond what the store offers and the instructions are usually photocopied instead of printed.
Americans sometimes buy things in Canada when the exchange rate favors U.S. Currency. I suggest that careful consideration be given to every purchase. You may run afoul of Border Inspectors when returning to the USA if you have a carful of stuff bought in Canada. If you enter Canada with anything expensive (skiing equipment, designer clothes, electronics, professional items for your job), make sure you can prove you bought these things in the USA. Precise receipts describing the item and a serial number are the best way to stay out of trouble. In most cases, you will just breeze through the border. If USA inspectors stop you and ask you to park eb ready for a very long and thorough inspection.
Here's a quick border crossing checklist:
- Make sure you have your passport, legitimate photo identification and vehicle proof of ownership, rental agreement or lease contract and insurance documentation readily available.
- If the trip includes kids, bring their birth certificates and social security cards along with you.
- Any non-USA citizens in your party should check with both USA and Canadian authorities before starting the trip. I know of cases where visitors to the USA from places other then Canada were not permitted re-entry to the U.S. after a short jaunt into Canada because they had improper identification or lacked the required documents.
- Make sure all food items are sealed properly and carry documentation for any medications you have or plan to get. Keep pills and other medications in their original prescription bottles and make sure labels are readable. Keep your pharmacy and physician's phone number nearby. If you have a particular handicap that requires you to use special devices or receive special consideration, get a doctor's note.
- Do not (under any circumstances) carry any weapons, firearms or combustible materials with you. Spare gas in cans is a not acceptable. If hunting is your plan, ship your weapons ahead of you with a reputable carrier experienced in that service.
- Do NOT give ANYONE a ride across the border (even if they offer you a sad story or large sums of money).
- Make sure you read the riot act to anyone riding in your vehicle before you cross. Drug sniffing dogs are a common tool used at all crossings. If anyone in your car has anything illegal, you'll be in the cell next to them no matter what your story is.
- Large amounts of cigarettes, cigars or alcoholic beverages will send up a red flag. If you need those things, buy them in Canada.
- If you are religious or actively political and carry literature or tracts with you, be careful. Some religious or political materials fall under Canadian hate crime laws and you may run afoul of the authorities. Ask before you enter.
- Be totally honest with Border Guards. They are not there to restrict those who have legitimate business or pleasure interests, but it's their job to be sure you comply with all the rules and restrictions set forth by the USA and Canada.
Good Neighbors often quarrel. This is true of the USA and Canada. Sadly, it's usually the Traveler or Vacationer that must pay. Fishing rights, acid rain, nuclear disarmament...these are just a few of the things that have come between the USA and Canada and caused bad feelings on both sides of the border. I suggest that you put your politics aside and avoid any heated discussions that might arise. Remember, you are a guest in their country. Discussion of Canadian problems like Quebec independence or First Nation (Indian) issues will not bring you happy results, so keep your opinions to yourself.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my trips to Canada for many reasons. If you plan a trip to Canada, be smart. Don't let the similarity to the USA fool you. The moment you cross that border you are in another Country with a Queen instead of a President and a Parliament instead of a Congress. You need to respect their laws and culture as they do ours when they visit here. Be a good neighbor and a smart traveler. Plan ahead and be polite while in Canada.