How to Travel to Canada From the US by Land on a Budget

beautiful lake louise

This past September, my wife got notice she was selected to be an extra on one of her favorite television programs that is filmed in Alberta, Canada. Since we hadn’t been on an extended vacation together since our honeymoon (some 7 years prior) and felt this was one of those “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunities – we went ahead with travel preparations to Canada.

One of the main issues we had from the onset was: would we be able to get a passport in time to leave? This would be my first time traveling outside the country and my wife hadn’t been out of the country in years, so we both needed to secure one – and quickly.

Besides the passport – there are other things to consider when traveling to Canada. And, since this was our maiden voyage – I hope this post may serve others who are going through a similar “first-time” traveling experience to visit our neighbors to the north, eh? (and as an aside, I recommend not saying that when you meet others there as they really don’t use that phrase)

Travel plan

Since we’d be traveling by car, our initial plan was to go up and through western Minnesota, through North Dakota to the Canadian border, and then finally to our destination: Calgary.  After some deliberations we thought it would be wise to go up north to Winnipeg and then across, since we would be leaving later in the day on a Friday.

It's a loooong drive to Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
It’s a loooong drive to Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Securing a passport

First things first: the passport. No passeport, no travel.

Because of terror concerns – the borders are getting tighter. Currently, the requirements for entering Canada by land are as follows (from the US Department of State):

Canadian law requires that all persons entering Canada carry both proof of citizenship and proof of identity. A valid U.S. passport, passport card, or NEXUS card satisfies these requirements for U.S. citizens.

Children under 16 need only present proof of U.S. citizenship.

Since we did not anticipate traveling much outside the US, we elected to get a passport card (which looks much like a drivers licence).

The US State Department has a very useful website regarding passports and we really didn’t have a lot of trouble figuring out the requirements to apply. Basically their website will walk you through the whole process and what is required (if you’ve had a prior passport or never have applied).

You’ll basically need the following items when you go to your nearby Passport Acceptance Facility (be sure to schedule a time to get your papers processed – especially if expediting):

  • Evidence of U.S. Citizenship
    • Certified U.S. Birth Certificate (must meet all of the following requirements):
      • Issued by City, County, or State of birth
      • Lists bearer’s full name, date of birth, and place of birth
      • Lists parent(s) full names
      • Has date filed with registrar’s office (must be within one year of birth)
      • Has registrar’s signature
      • Has embossed, impressed, or multicolored seal of registrar
    • Previous U.S. Passport (may be expired, must be undamaged)
    • Consular Report of Birth Abroad
    • Certificate of Naturalization/Citizenship
  • Photo Identification & Photocopy of that Identification
  • Passport Photo
  • Form DS-11, completed but not signed (you can find this info / docs on the link in the green box above)
  • You may also be required to show a hotel reservation (we had to)

We spent a total of $115 each to get our passports because we needed them expedited. If you have time to plan for your departure, you should only have to pay about $55 (as of 10/12/16).

One note on the passport photo. You can do this yourself. But you do need to follow certain criteria otherwise you will risk having to retake one. We paid CVS pharmacy to take ours for $23 total – and mine almost got rejected because I had a slight tilt in my head / glare on my glasses.   So, make sure you are going some place where the person has done them before or follow the following criteria (which I will detail more in a future post to help save you more in travel expenses):

  • Make sure the photo presents the full head from the top of the hair to the bottom of the chin
  • Center the head with the frame
  • The person in the photo should have a neutral expression and be facing the camera
  • Photo must be 2 inches by 2 inches
  • The height of the head (top of hair to bottom of chin) should measure 1 inch to 1 3/8 inches (25 mm – 35 mm)
  • Make sure the eye height is between 1 1/8 inches to 1 3/8 inches (28 mm – 35 mm) from the bottom of the photo

Be sure to use quality photo paper too when you go to print your photo.

Expedited travelers: If you are planning to expedite your passport like us – be prepared to answer some personal questions about your travels at the Acceptance Facility. They will ask you the nature of your travel / how long you plan to be there / etc.

We received our passports quicker than we had anticipated and were past our first important step in getting to Canada!


Our travel to Calgary would be the equivalent to traveling to Texas from MN (and just a tad more) – so we realized we’d be putting a lot of mileage on the car. Because of this and reliability concerns – we opted to rent a car for the week. We got a fairly decent deal through Travelocity, which we booked online.

Most rental car companies allow travel to Canada – just be sure to let them know you’ll be planning to do so. Also have your rental car papers handy as you may need to show them when you cross the border. My wife is pretty organized, so she kept all our travel information in nice folder so it was at the ready whenever we needed it. We used Hertz and were very pleased with their service / the vehicle we got.


This trip was a lot of “firsts” for both of us. We had heard good things about friends who used Airbnb (to rent / stay) so we thought we’d give it a try in Canada. We found a neat place in Winnipeg that had a private floor w/ bedroom and bathroom in a newer townhome for about $40/night. Since this would be a one-night-stand – we thought this was a very fair deal. For our longer stay in Calgary we found a neat private suite that a couple had built in the backyard of their property, minutes from downtown. This was about $60-70/night and also thought this was a good deal considering the location / what hotels might be charging.

Both places turned out great. We actually didn’t even meet the first host because we arrived so late and left early the next morning – but had communicated via Airbnb. I kinda felt bad about not even saying hi – but I shouldn’t. I realized this is a business for folks and like my friend Rod said (who hosts people at their home via Airbnb), guests aren’t regular “company”.


In Calgary however – we did meet the busy couple who owned the property we stayed at. They gave us some helpful tips about the area as well as ideas for things to do in Banff (which was a highlight of our trip and one of the most beautiful places we’d ever seen).

One note about Airbnb. They have some pretty stringent policies in place. We made a couple boo-boos in the reservations that were a result of not being familiar with these policies and wished we had known more about them beforehand. One in particular is be sure you know your hosts policies before you book with them. There are basically 3 levels of host with regards to cancellations/reservations: Flexible, Moderate and Strict (and a couple other levels of “Strict”). We made the error in booking one place too long only to find out that we couldn’t cancel and get our money back after plans changed. We’d also booked another place on our way home but needed to cancel that same-day due to slow travels. While the host refunded us for that cancellation – we did not get back the Airbnb service fee (about $18 for this place). And, this is the case for most refunds.


The good thing about being an American in Canada, is that our dollar is very strong. The time we were there, the dollar’s purchasing power was peaking at about $1 USD to $1.35 CAN. This can add up to some excellent “savings”. Prices seemed to be similar as what you might expect in the states for things too.

I was a little weary about the ins and outs of getting Canadian money when we crossed the border even though I had asked a couple of my good college friends from Canada beforehand. I think it was just the process of exchanging the funds that kinda gave me some trepidation. But it really couldn’t have gone much smoother.

Since we arrived late in Winnipeg, we went to get gas first thing in the AM and used a credit card for the purchase and then crossed the street to get money out of an ATM machine. I knew that my bank would waive the fee charged by the machine (about $2.50) but they would access a 3% international processing fee for exchanging the cash. And, since most cash machines only hand out a certain amount of money at a time ($400 at most machines we frequented), these fees can add up.

So, when I got home, I learned that it may have been better to have grabbed a travelers card from my bank as many of the fees are waived by the card and it offers other traveler benefits.

All that said, Canadian cash is cool. It’s “plasticy” in nature and very durable. They also have neat sounding names for their coins: a looney ($1) and a twoney ($2). They’ve also done away with pennies. So if your bill at the store ends up being an odd number like $2.41, they would round down to $2.40 and call it good.

canadian cash
Neat looking Canadian money

When we left Canada, we exchanged our Canadian dollars for US at a duty-free shop near the border. They offered us a decent rate and were friendly to boot. There are also other exchange places that you can visit before getting to the border. Just be sure to check their rates. They may have other fees on top of the exchange rate – so just beware of this.

If you plan to use a credit card for the duration of your stay, there are a few things to make note of:

  • Alert your credit card company that you’ll be traveling out of the country and provide them with dates. They’ll make note of this so they won’t put a stop on your card due to irregular activity.
  • Not all credit cards are accepted in Canada. But, you can be pretty safe with Visa, MasterCard and American Express.
  • Make note of the fees you’ll be accessed for each charge. Some may waive these fees.

Tipping is a common practice in Canada, as it is in the US. At a restaurant, the standard 15-20% gratuity rate applies.


Since my wife has some pretty strict dietary needs – she packed a lot of food beforehand. We also shopped at the grocery stores while there and cooked our own meals. We did eat out one time in Jasper – but that was about it (save for my quick trips to Tim Horton’s – Canada’s version of Dunkin Doughnuts). We saved a good deal of money by doing this and we avoided any issues of constipation or other digestive issues when eating out.

Other travel notes

We really enjoyed our stay in Canada. While we traveled mostly in the western region (Alberta) – the scenery is incredible and the people are genuine. I don’t think my wife and I have ever seen a more beautiful area as Banff / Jasper National Parks.

  • Canada is on the metric system. When we crossed the border, we couldn’t believe they were allowing people to drive 110 on the freeway! Needless to say it took us naive American’s several miles before we finally caught on.
  • French is spoken in certain Providences.
  • If you travel to Banff, you will have to pay a park fee (depending on how many in your party / how long your stay). But it will cover you for all the sights in this large park system. Banff to Jasper is about 3.25 hrs.
  • In Banff, you may want to check out this view from Sulphur Mt. While the gondola ride up is expensive – $50CAN – its worth the views. You can also hike to to the top to save money – but it will take about 1.5hrs vs 10 minutes via the gondola. Also, be sure to hit up Lake Louise, and the Columbia Ice Fields.
View from Sulphur Mountain in Banff, Alberta Canada

Love to hear if you have ever been to Canada and your experience traveling there by car.

Safe and thrifty travels to you!

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  1. Avrom says:

    Great post! The dollar difference certainly makes traveling to Canada very economical! As a Canadian I do find the dollar difference bites me when I travel to the U.S.

    One thing though, you may find hotels etc. are far more expensive than in the U.S. which kinda negates the +30% savings.

    You’ll find all the same stores and chains as in the US as well.

    You really do need to see Vancouver and especially Victoria. ;)


  2. We just came back from Nova Scotia in September. It was absolutely gorgeous. Canada is a wonderful country, especially when it’s still warm outside :) We didn’t travel by car but did travel by cruise ship which was really nice and economical for us. It was less than $100 a day for including food and lodging.

    We also used a credit card which waived our international fees so that was nice.

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