We travel in Canada nearly every year. We have had the good fortune to visit all ten Canadian provinces and one Territory—certainly some more extensively than others. Plus, we have returned to some of these provinces several times over the years.
We usually exchange money and use the Canadian currency while we are up there. When we drove to Alaska and back, we drove through Canada (both up and back) but did not exchange any money. Everything possible was charged to a credit card. We had only one instance where we were required to use cash (all we had was US currency). We purchased two cans of vegetables in a local, small grocery and they did not take credit cards. They took the US currency and gave us a fair exchange rate. The total purchase was only about $2.00.
Sometimes things are just a bit different when you leave home and this is very true with visiting another country. So, what follows are tips about money, credit cards, and other odds and ends while traveling in Canada. This may be new information especially if you have not previously traveled in Canada.
The most common and consistent difference is the Canadian use of metric measurement. I have added suggestions and information below regarding what you will need to be aware of regarding buying consumer goods in Canada.
If you are NOT going to exchange any money, take an excess of small US bills. Lots of $1’s, $5’s, $10’s, and a few $20’s. Small bills are best for payment in small businesses if they accept American money.
[Author Note… They do NOT have to accept your US money. Also, if you insist on only using American money in another country, don’t complain about the exchange rate. It’s their country. This advice applies to the other countries in the world—not just Canada.]
- Many Canadian businesses will accept U.S. bills but not U.S. coins. All change for purchases (bills and coins) will most likely be made in Canadian money—it’s what they have and use.
- One interesting note is that many Canadian businesses close to the USA/Canadian border may have a checkout register that has two cash drawers—one for Canadian money and the other for U.S. money.
- Canadians commonly use two coins unfamiliar to us. The coins are called the “loonie.” and “toonie.” The $1.00 coin has a picture of a loon (the bird) on it and became known as the “loonie.” When the $2.00 coin was released, it was nicknamed the “toonie”—short for “two loonies.” (Keep the “T’s” together—Toonie = TWO—and you will keep the coins figured out.) The loonie is brass colored. The toonie has a silver outer ring and a penny-sized brass section in the center. Both are about the size of our half-dollar. If you use a laundromat in Canada, it will typically take loonies.
- Canada no longer uses pennies. Prices are marked up or down to the nearest $0.05 so something costing $1.98 would be $2.00 but something costing $1.97 would be priced at $1.95. It’s their system and it works.
- Your credit or debit cards will typically work at ATMs in Canada. Check with the bank or company that issued your cards to verify if there are any additional fees associated with using the ATM outside the USA These fees are common and sometimes very high. Don’t be surprised.
- Find a credit card that does not charge an “International Processing Fee” or other fee with some such name. Most cards do! Typically, it is about 3% of your total charges.
Food (Eating In or Out)
- Traditionally, Canada has higher prices than the “Lower 48” for food (both for groceries and eating out). My “guesstimate” is about 10–15% but I cannot verify that.
- Food in restaurants is very typical to the food found in the USA. You will occasionally find some local or (to you) some unusual foods. Try them. They are usually good. It’s how we learned about foods such as Peameal bacon and Montreal Smoked meat—both wonderful.
- Canned goods and dry foods found in grocery stores in Canada are very similar to what you are used to. Of course there will be some different brands—but there are across the USA, too. These foods will be measured in metric quantities. One option for you is to simply look at the container. You know from years of experience about how big that can of chicken soup ought to be. Most recipes using canned goods are not that critical anyway. Guess at the approximate size if you don’t know your metric measurements. Another alternative is that before you cross over into Canada, use Google to convert your food quantities to metrics measurements. Just ask Google a simple question such as, “what is 14 ounces in grams.” Also, don’t get excited about tenths of a gram so just round off to whole grams.
- Bulk food (meat, etc.) is weighed and sold by the kilogram or gram (the conversion is 1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds). Since there are 1,000 grams in a kilogram, one rule of thumb is that 500 grams of anything (hamburger, for example) is very close to one pound and you won’t have to change any recipe. Yes, you can ask the butcher or grocer for 500 grams of meat and they will know exactly what you want.
- Canada always has higher prices for fuel (gas and diesel).
- One rule of thumb is that Canadian fuel prices will be about $1.50 higher per gallon than U.S. prices. This is a rough estimate I use for roughly calculating costs of travel up there.
- Fuel is purchased by the liter (litre is the correct spelling) in Canada. For your sanity, think of a litre as really close to a quart. The quick way to think about this is there are about four litres to a gallon. That will get you by and you will be really close on your fuel estimates. The actual conversion is… 4 liters = 1.056 U.S. gallons.
- When you see the Canadian station advertising (posting) a fuel price of, for example, $1.10—that is the price per litre. Multiply that posted price times four and you have a pretty close equivalent of what you would be paying per gallon in the USA. It’s okay to use your calculator if you want to be exact.
Toll-free and Phone Use
- You can often call from Canadian pay phones to toll-free numbers (800) in the USA without depositing any money. Hey, whatever works!
- Don’t assume you can call any USA toll-free (800) number. The toll-free numbers can be blocked by the USA-based owner of that number so that no toll-free international calls can get through.
- Do you know if your vehicle insurance claims number accepts toll-free calls from Canada?
- When driving close to the USA/Canadian border, be very careful when using your cell phone to make or receive a call. Simply look at your cell phone screen to determine if your phone is automatically on “Roam.” If it is, you may actually be connecting with a cell tower in Canada. If so, you will be charged for an international call. Check your manual for the “Roam” indicator
- Driving in Canada is very similar to driving in the USA. Canadians drive on the right (like the USA).
- Lane markings (passing/no passing, yellow, double yellow, white lines, etc.) are similar also.
- Canada has one type of traffic-light warning that is wonderful. I’ve only seen this a couple of times in the USA but wish we would adopt it nationwide. In Canada, especially on highways where the speed limit is higher but they also have an occasional stoplight, you will likely pass a big yellow warning sign with a warning light and it has an illustration of a stoplight painted on it. There will be a notice that states something like, “Prepare to Stop When Flashing.” If the yellow lights on that sign are flashing, you will NOT make it through the stoplight—even if you speed up—so don’t try. If it is NOT flashing, keep you speed steady and you will go through on green—guaranteed. It’s a great feature especially for RVers. Driving at, say, 55 mph and having to do almost an emergency stop for a traffic light in a big motorhome—especially at a light with a short yellow—is not exciting!!!
- Canada has two official languages—French and English. When you enter the province of Quebec, the traffic signs will be in French and English (typically French first). The bad news is that many signs do not have the English and it can be incredibly confusing if you don’t speak the language.
The other provinces we have visited primarily use English in their traffic signs. I do not know about the far northern provinces other than the Yukon Territory.
- It is legal to park overnight in pull-offs or rest areas, unless posted otherwise, in British Columbia and the Yukon Territory. This permission does not apply to private property. After lots of effort, I finally received confirmation of this in May 2010 from the RCMP. Please note that this permission has no bearing whatsoever on the other provinces and is not “blanket” permission across Canada. I continue to research this same question with the other provinces.
We absolutely love to travel in Canada and do so about every year. As in the USA, there are a gazillion places to see and all are fascinating. Having the ability to travel in both countries is wonderful and exciting. Being an RVer helps make it happen.