There’s something to be said for packing your bags, jumping behind the wheel and taking to the open road for a week or two.

The “Great Canadian Road Trip” had always been a dream of mine, and it was made into a reality last September. For a total of 17 days, my husband and I drove from Toronto to Prince Edward Island and then Halifax, stopping at all the main cities and towns in between, and driving along the spectacular Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island. I’d say it was the best vacation of my life, accomplished comfortably for just over $3,500.

We live in a country which has one of the largest land masses in the world and there’s no shortage of things to explore – all you need is time and a carefully planned-out budget. Here is a list of ways you can have an exciting and memorable experience without digging deep into your pockets.

Compare lodging rates

Nowadays, there are so many comparison sites for hotels, motels and lodges, so there is really no excuse not to shop around for the best price. One of my personal favourites is which finds quaint properties like bed and breakfasts that may not be listed on other sites.

However, you’re no longer limited to motels or hostels to get the lowest price – Airbnb is a great way to find an inexpensive place to stay while being immersed in the local culture. Another way to save on accommodations is to travel during the off-season. If you don’t have school-aged children, September is a terrific month to explore Canada. The weather is still nice and you can avoid summer crowds. Something else to consider – ask to stay with any friends or family who live somewhere along your route.

Pack a cooler

You can save a lot of money on a road trip by bringing your own cooler with items like sandwich meat, cheeses, fruits, drinks and snacks. Certain coolers even plug into the cigarette lighter in your car which keeps everything chilled while on the road, but do note that they can also double as a warmer if you reverse the plug.

This happened to us in P.E.I. where we discovered that all our roast beef and turkey slices were now hot and our cheese was melting. We had to throw out half the contents of our cooler – so much for saving money! When eating out, stick with local cafés, fast food like Tim Hortons, and inexpensive chains such as Swiss Chalet. These types of eateries can be found in any town no matter the size. But do put aside enough money to treat yourself to the local cuisine. This is an essential part of the Canadian experience, especially if you’re travelling through the Maritimes or Québec.

Take a walk

After hours of driving, what better way to get the blood flowing than exploring cities by foot – especially smaller urban areas like Halifax or Québec City. It’s easy, free and a lovely way to squeeze in some exercise. Get a map, skip the bus tour and put on your best walking shoes. However, for larger cities like Toronto, Montréal or Vancouver, starting out with a bus tour is a great way to cover a large area in decent amount of time. Take note of any areas you wish to go back to and explore by foot, like museums or tourist sites that do not charge admission fees.

Don’t buy kitschy souvenirs

It’s very tempting to pick up a t-shirt, apron, or silver spoon from every town you visit, but will you really appreciate these items once you get home? You can save quite a bit by just skipping out on the souvenirs. If you really want to take a piece of your vacation home, spring for one or two items you feel have more value than its actual cost, like a locally-made wood carving or a book detailing the city or region’s history.  But the best souvenirs of all are the photographs you take. Rather than simply posting them on Facebook or Instagram, print them out and frame them once you get home.

Get a Parks Canada annual pass

A truly great Canadian road trip will pass through a number of national parks, especially if you’re headed out through western Alberta and B.C. Since each park charges an admission fee, a Parks Canada Annual Pass is a good money saver. These are currently valid for two years as part of the celebrations for Canada’s 150th birthday. Prices range from about $15 for a child to just under $100 for a family.

Use a credit card that gives you points

Just because you’re sticking to a car and not jumping on a plane doesn’t mean you can’t earn rewards for your vacation. Cross country driving will result in plenty of trips to the pumps, so why not collect points on gas?

The Shell CashBack World MasterCard from BMO earns you three per cent cash back on every dollar you spend at Shell locations within Canada and also offers free roadside assistance.

If you’ve got that cooler in your backseat, you may benefit from the President’s Choice Financial MasterCard which can earn you points towards free groceries at stores within the Loblaw group across Canada. For instance, my husband and I took advantage of an Atlantic Superstore in Moncton, where we took refuge from pouring rain with a hot cup of their freshly-made soup.

Have fun

The best part of being out on the road is having the freedom to do your own thing wherever and whenever you please. Canada is a beautiful country with so much to see on a budget. Plan ahead and get ready to enjoy an experience you will remember for the rest of your life. Taking to the open road? Don’t forget to buy travel insurance.


The RATESDOTCA editorial team are experienced writers focused on sharing stories and bringing you the latest news in insurance and personal finance. Our goal is to provide Canadians with the information and resources they need to make better insurance and financial decisions.

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