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How to Prepare for (and Survive) a Cross-Canada Trip

CANADA | Friday, 3 February 2012 | Views [3674]

It started out as an idea, and grew to obsession. 

Early last year, a friend and I were trying to figure out a way to make it to TBEX 2011 in Vancouver, British Columbia. Flying across the country is hardly an option at times, with flights costing often more than my salary. Well, close to it.

But being the second largest country in the world, we wondered if travel by land was even possible, or affordable.

Thankfully, our awesome powers of travel planning helped traverse us across the country in just under three weeks, resulting in one of the most incredible trips I’ve ever taken.

Preparation

Don’t be fooled: although it’s just ONE country, the differences in geography, people, culture, landscapes, etc. are extremely variable from coast to coast. Newfoundland, for example, is a different world than most of Canada. We have our own dictionary.
Preparation was the tricky part, but also pretty fun. 

Sign up for VIA Rail’s newsletter 

VIA Rail is the only passenger rail system in Canada, stretching from British Columbia to Nova Scotia. While we were still figuring out the particulars of the trip, we received an email announcing a mega-sale. We booked our trip from Halifax to Montreal to Kingston for $180 CAD each...a fraction of what most airlines charge.

Seek alternative travel methods.

We were fortunate enough to score the perfect travel deal with HittheRoad.ca, a company which “hires” people to move cars from destination A to B (meaning the driver gets a free trip). In Kingston, we picked up a bright yellow Mazda Protege named Daytona Beach Bad Boy, signed a few papers, and started the rest of our journey across Canada. We were reimbursed for gas, and given a fairly lax schedule.

Another alternative: RideShares. On the website, seek out people traveling to your destination, pitch in with gas money, and you’re all set.

Plot your route carefully, and don’t underestimate the size of the country.

We had a limited time to reach Vancouver. When we first started planning, we wanted to spend a couple of days in Montreal, Toronto, Banff, and Calgary. We expected to breeze through most of Ontario. 

Here’s something you might not know: Ontario is BIG. Like, really, really big. It took us three days to drive through JUST Northern Ontario, never mind our stopovers in Ottawa and Toronto. It threw a wrench in our plans, and most of our days ended up being eight hours of driving, but it was worth out...turns out Northern Ontario is one of the most scenic drives in the country. Dip your toes in one of the Great Lakes; it’s totally worth it.

Give yourself more time.

Things don’t always go as planned, and my one regret from the trip is not having spent more time in a few places. If I were redoing the trip, I’d spend a few more days in Montreal (the love of my life), meander up to Quebec City, and spend the night in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. 

Bring a GPS.

Cell phone navigation be damned! Most of Northern Ontario doesn’t have cell phone service, especially during the two-day stretch from Toronto to Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay. You will need the GPS. 

Survival 

How do you survive a 7500-kilometre trip crammed into tiny quarters and on a tight budget? Well, other than traveling with someone you actually like, here are a few suggestions.

Make yourself as comfortable as possible on the train.

Despite the journey being affordable, the train trip from Halifax to Montreal was, well, less than comfortable in economy class. We were hushed by attendants for chatting, drinks were not cheap, and sleeping was a total nightmare. I brought a Snuggie along and turned it into a person-sized tent, plopped my head onto the table, and tried to get as much sleep as possible. Montreal is not a city for the sleepy.

Rest!

Speaking of which, rest is SO important. There were times when I felt too dragged out to move, and the pressure to see everything in a short amount of time is exhausting. Don’t let it kill you.

Take the advice of others with a grain of salt.

We were told countless times that we should do the USA route, skipping over Northern Ontario and much ofthe prairies...which would have defeated the purpose of our trip entirely. 

But the backcountry of Northern Ontario is stunning, and filled with rolling green hills, tons of opportunity for wildlife spotting (including moose and black bears), and endless stretches of road where not another soul is in sight. I loved every minute of it.
Similarly, the wide open prairie skies blew my mind, and the busy metropolis of Winnipeg was an anomaly among all the isolation.

On the other hand, listen to the locals.

If it weren’t for the friendly tourism folks we met in Saskatchewan, Cailin and I would have bypassed Moose Jaw entirely. The Tunnels tour was one of my favourite highlights from the trip, and the town itself is worth exploring.

We were also told to fill up on gas before leaving Sault Ste. Marie on our way to Thunder Bay. Somehow, it slipped our mind...and we ended up driving for nearly an hour on gas fumes. It was nerve-wracking. 

Music, yummy treats, and car games.

For the stretches of road with no radio, make sure you bring a few burned CDs. Sing loudly. 

Pack munchies for when your energy levels start to plummet. Trail mix with M&Ms was our favourite!

And car games, like travel bingo, will help keep your sanity.

Related articles:

Cruising Canada

5 Tips for Surviving the AMTRAK Train

Canada: Born to be Wild

About the Author

Candice Walsh is a travel writer and blogger currently stationed in St. John’s, Newfoundland. When she’s not shooting whiskey and hitting on men, she’s eating nachos and dreaming about her next big adventure. Check out her blog, Candice Does the World

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Tags: canada, train, travel

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