If you’re heading into remote parts of the country, check the availability of accommodation before setting off. Places that look large on the map often have few facilities at all, and US visitors will find chain motels far scarcer than in similar regions back home.
It’s best to try to book a room before you arrive, particularly in summer. Also look out for local events and festivals such as the Calgary Stampede, when accommodation is always at a premium. Most places have a 24-hour-notice cancellation policy, but in places like Banff it can be as much as three days. Room taxes can add as much as seventeen percent to the quoted price; the highest rates tend to be in the Maritime Provinces (thirteen to fifteen percent), the lowest in Alberta (nine percent).
Local tourist information offices will invariably help out with accommodation if you get stuck: most offer free advice and will book a place free of charge, but few are willing to commit themselves to specific recommendations.
Canadian hotels tend to fall into one of three categories: high-class establishments, plain downtown places and roadside motels. In the cities, the emphasis is often on the business traveller rather than the tourist. Top-notch hotels charge anywhere between $150 and $500, though $250 would get you a fairly luxurious double in most places.
Mid-price hotels are often part of a chain, such as Holiday Inn or Best Western, and usually offer a touch more comfort than middling motels. You should be able to find a high-season double in such places from around $110; more if you’re in a well-known resort or the downtown area of a major city.
Bottom-bracket hotels – those costing anything from $65–80 – are mostly hangovers from the days when liquor laws made it difficult to run a bar without an adjoining restaurant or hotel. Found in most medium- and small-sized towns, they usually have the advantage of being extremely central but the disadvantage is that the rooms are mostly an afterthought.
Although variously called inns, lodges, resorts or motor hotels, motels all amount to much the same thing: driver-friendly, reasonably priced and reliable places on the main highways almost always on the edge of town. The simplest rooms start at around $75, with the average price nearer $100 – though in resorts and more remote areas it’s not unusual to find well over this being charged for what are fairly basic rooms. Prices usually drop in the larger centres the further you move from downtown. Many offer off-season rates, usually between October and April, some have triple- or quadruple-bedded rooms, and most are fairly relaxed about introducing an extra bed into “doubles” for a nominal charge. Many also offer a family plan, whereby youngsters sharing their parents’ room stay free. You may also be able to negotiate cheaper deals if you’re staying more than one night, and especially if you’re staying a week – many places advertise weekly rates.
Bed and breakfasts (B&Bs)
Recent years have witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of B&Bs – or Gîtes du Passant – both in the big cities and in the towns and villages of the more popular resort areas. Standards are generally very high, and prices are around $85 and upwards per couple including breakfast. There are no real savings over cheaper hotels and motels – B&Bs in Canada are more like their posh American counterparts than the budget European version – but you’ll often end up with a wonderful room in a heritage building in a great location, with the chance to meet Canadians on closer terms.
Hostels, Ys and student accommodation
Canada has around sixty Hostelling International (HI) hostels and around 140 non-affiliated hostels, with almost all of the latter members of the Backpackers Hostels Canada network – these can range from small, typical dormitory-type hostels to summer student accommodation and budget guesthouses with private rooms. Many unaffiliated hostels still give discounts for HI members or students. Quality varies considerably, but most of the hostels listed on the websites below should be of a reasonably high standard, and we’ve described the best ones in this guide. For HI members dorm beds usually cost $20–25, with basic private rooms starting at $35 (nonmembers will usually pay $5–15 more).
Both the YMCA and YWCA also offer hotel accommodation in many Canadian cities. Some of them, such as the YWCA Hotel in Vancouver, are part of the Backpackers Hostels network, while others – like the Hôtel Y Montréal – are more like smart, private hotels. Most Ys in Canada are focused on providing community activities and affordable housing for locals – tourist accommodation, where offered, is usually a related but separate business.
In Canada’s university cities it’s usually possible to stay in student accommodation during the summer vacation. The accommodation is adequate and functional, if soulless, and you’ll have access to the campus’s sports facilities; on the downside, most places are a good distance from city centres. Prices for single and double rooms start at around $35. It’s a good idea to call well ahead to be sure of a room – many places are part of the Backpackers Hostels network.
Farm vacations
Farm vacations, where you spend time as a paying guest on a working farm, give you the chance to eat well, sleep cheaply – and even work (if you want) – as well as mingle with your hosts. Ontario has a range of farm-based B&Bs with reasonably priced accommodation. In western Canada, it’s possible to stay on a ranch and work as a ranch-hand. Due to the isolation of these places prices are usually for full board and include riding (from $120 per day). For further details, consult tourist offices and provincial accommodation guides. See also the Alberta Country Vacation Association (w albertacountryvacation.com), BC Guest Ranchers’ Association (w bcguestranches.com) and Ontario Farm & Country Accommodations (wgitescanada.com).
Few countries offer as much scope for camping as Canada. Many urban areas have a campground (in Canada the convention is to term the whole site a “campground” and individual pitches as “campsites”); all national parks and the majority of provincial parks have government-run sites, and in most wilderness areas and in the vast domain of Canada’s federally owned Crown Lands you can camp rough more or less where you please. If you’re travelling with a tent, check a campground’s small print for the number of unserviced (tent) campsites, as many places cater chiefly to RVs, providing them with full or partial hook-ups for water and electricity.
During July and August campgrounds can become as busy as all other types of accommodation in cities, and particularly near mountain, lake or river resorts. Either aim to arrive early in the morning or book ahead. Generally reservations can only be made with ease at private campgrounds, not – crucially – at national park or provincial park campgrounds, where access is often, but certainly not always, on a first-come, first-served basis (you can make reservations at some national parks; check w reservation.pc.gc.cafor more details). Finally, check that your chosen site is open: many only open seasonally, usually from May to October.
Types of campground
At the bottom of the camping pile are municipal campgrounds, usually basic affairs with few facilities, which are either free or cost only a few dollars – typically $5 per tent, $10 per RV. Private campgrounds run the gamut: some are as basic as their municipal cousins, others are like huge outdoor pleasure complexes with shops, restaurants, laundries, swimming pools and tennis courts. Private campgrounds have several ways of charging – some do so by the vehicle, others per couple and comparatively few on a tent or per-person basis. Two people sharing a tent might pay anything between $2.50 and $25 each, though an average price would be nearer $15.
Campgrounds in national and provincial parks are run respectively by Parks Canada and individual provincial governments. All are immaculately turned out and most, in theory, are open only between May and September. In practice, most are available year-round, though key facilities are offered and fees collected only in the advertised period: off season you may be expected to leave fees in an honesty box. You’ll usually find at least one site serviced for winter camping in the bigger national parks, particularly in the Rockies. Prices vary from about $20–40 per pitch for full amenities (electricity, sewage, water and showers), depending on location and the time of year, and $16–25 for basic pitches (wood, water and pit toilets). Most parks also have basic backcountry sites usually providing only fire pits and fire wood (see Primitive camping). If you want to use an official backcountry campground or just camp rough in parks, you must obtain an overnight permit from the park centre ($9.80).
Primitive camping
Though commonplace in all the larger national and provincial parks, primitive camping (or backcountry/wilderness camping as it’s known in Canada) has certain rules that must be followed. In particular, check that fires are permitted: in large parts of Canada they aren’t allowed in summer because of the risk of forest fire. If they are permitted, use a fire pit (if provided), or a stove in preference to local materials. In wilderness areas, try to camp on previously used sites. Be especially aware of the precautions needed when in bear country. Where there are no toilets, bury human waste at least 10cm into the ground and 30m from the nearest water supply and campsite. Canadian parks ask for all rubbish to be carried away; elsewhere burn rubbish, and what you can’t burn, carry away. Never drink from rivers and streams, however clear and inviting they may look. If you have to drink water that isn’t from taps, you should boil it for at least ten minutes, or cleanse it with an iodine-based purifier or a Giardia-rated filter, available from camping or sports shops.
In recent years Parks Canada has started offering more comfortable accommodation at national park campgrounds. Dubbed oTENTik tents, these are a cross between a tent and cabin (canvas roof and walls on a wood frame, and hardwood floors, bed frames and basic furniture), with room for three beds and up to six people. Bathrooms are still shared, however, and no food or cooking is permitted inside the tent. Rates range from $75 to–150 per night depending on the park and the season.