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Traveling to Canada: What You Need To Know

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Let’s Go To Canada!
But before the trip…

I’ve taken a lot of road trips around the United States, but I hadn’t wandered outside the U.S. in quite some time.  So, when I headed to the Canadian Rockies, I had to learn a few things about traveling internationally.  Before I begin telling you about the trip, here are a few tips that might help you prepare for life north of the 49th parallel.

Passports

You’ll need to have a passport or NEXUS card to get into, and out of, Canada.  Yes, that rule even applies to Americans.  It didn’t used to be that way — you used to be able to show a birth certificate to get through customs.  But in 2009 the rules changed.

If you’re traveling by air, you’ll need an old-fashioned Passport book (which costs around $100) or a NEXUS card (which costs around $50).  The passport book is good for ten years, and it can be used to enter other countries.  The NEXUS card is good for five years, and is only good for travel to Canada, but there’s an extra benefit of the card.  To obtain a NEXUS card, you have to undergo a security screening.  Once that’s done, you can speed through customs at the airport.  Judging from the line I stood in, in Calgary, on my way back into the U.S., the NEXUS card would be well worth the investment.

If you’re traveling by sea or land, you can also get a passport card.   It costs $45, and allows travel to Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean.  Some states also offer an enhanced driver’s license, which is good for passage between the U.S. and Canada, by land or sea (but not by air).

You can find out all the complicated requirements and restrictions at the WHTI website.  Also, remember that all of these documents and cards contain RFID chips, which could potentially put you at risk for identity theft or big-brother-style tracking.  Take a minute to read about RFID here.

Language

Good news, Canadians speak English!  At least, most of them do.  If you’re traveling to Quebec, you’ll want to brush up on your French, but for this trip to Alberta and British Columbia, you’ll do just fine with English.  Of course, there are a few curious oddities about the Canadian tongue.  They do say “eh?” from time to time, and “about” sounds more like “a boat”.

Even though most of the country is primarily English-speaking, the French language is everywhere.  Everything for sale in stores throughout Canada is labeled in both languages.  (I especially enjoyed my box of Craquelins au Fromage — otherwise known as Cheese Nips).  Some road signs are bilingual, too — especially signs in national parks, where it’s more politically correct to use both languages equally.

Measurements

Speaking of road signs, perhaps the biggest adjustment for road-tripping Americans is thinking in kilometers instead of miles.  All distances are measured in either meters or kilometers.  One meter is just a little more than 3 feet, and one kilometer is 6/10 of a mile.  When you’re approaching an exit, signs will tell you it’s 500 meters away, instead of 1/2 kilometer.

One thing that’s nice about kilometers is, it’s easier to calculate your drive time.  You’ll probably average about 100 km/h on the highway (62 mph), so 100 kilometers equals 1 hour, 200 kilometers equals 2 hours, and so on.  Freeway speed limits can go as high as 110 km/h, while 2-lane roads normally top out at 90 km/h.

You’ll also notice that gas is sold in litres (or the American spelling, liters) instead of gallons.  1 gallon equals 3.79 litres.  During my trip in 2009, the cheapest gas was 79 cents per litre, or about $2.99/gallon.  The most expensive was $1.10 per litre, or about $4.16 per gallon.

Money

Before you freak out over the high cost of gas, remember, there’s one more conversion that must be performed.  The Canadian Dollar (CAD) is worth less than the American Dollar (USD).  As of 2009, there’s about a 10% difference between the two, meaning $1 USD equals $1.10 CAD.  So, that $4.16 gallon of gas is actually about $3.75.

What you gain in conversion, you’ll likely lose in fees.  American credit cards convert your CAD total into USD, but then they tack on a percentage fee for every transaction you make in Canada. I decided to spend cash in Canada whenever possible, so I visited an ATM three times for withdrawals.  Once I got home, I discovered two fees for each transaction: a $5 international ATM fee, and another percentage-based fee of about $3 (on a $300 CAD withdrawal).

There will be a money-conversion booth at the Calgary airport (and, I imagine, most other airports), but in order to use it, you’ll have to carry a lot of cash with you.

You can check with your local AAA office and see if they sell travelers cheques in CAD.  AAA offices near my home in Tampa, Florida used to offer them — but they don’t anymore.  Funny, I didn’t see my AAA dues reduced when they did away with that service.

Once you get a wad of Canadian cash, you’ll notice the pretty colors.  Bills come in $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 denominations, and each is a different color.  Coins are pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters (called a 25-cent piece in Canada), dollars (or loonies – because they carry a picture of a loon) and 2-dollar coins (called toonies, because they’re worth two loonies).  The only coin that looks markedly different than American coinage is the $2 coin, which is copper on the center, surrounded by a ring of nickel.

Roads

Canadian roads are just as good as the roads in the United States.  They drive on the right, just like we do.  Road signs look a little different (thanks to using kilometers instead of miles), but you won’t be confused — stop signs are still octagons, and yields are still triangles; red means stop, green means go.

There are limited-access freeways in Canada (the equivalent of an Interstate in the U.S.), however there’s no nation-wide numbering system.  Each province has its own route numbers.  Some of those routes, like Trans-Canada Highway 1, carries over between provinces, however they are not freeway-grade from end to end.  Trans Canada 1 is two-lanes in places, 4 or more lanes in others.

TV and Radio

In Canada, you’ll be able to pick up radio stations on your car radio, just like you would in the United States. You’ll find the same kinds of music and the same formats.  My only complaint was, no Rush Limbaugh.

TV is a bit more confusing.  No matter where you stay, you’ll get several Canadian TV networks (like the government-sponsored CBC, as well as Global and CTV and a few others).  I’m a news junkie, so I watched their evening newscasts, which are similar to American news programs.  The only surprise: they air a lot of American news stories.  It’s a lot different in the U.S., where you could go days or weeks without hearing about one single thing that happened in Canada.  I came away with the realization that, despite America’s problems, it still has an incredible influence on the rest of the world.

You’ll also get a few American networks — and this is where it gets confusing.  The American stations could be from anywhere — Spokane, Seattle, Detroit, even Rochester, New York.  Those stations could be 2 hours ahead, or one hour behind you.  Also, the Canadian networks buy American TV shows, so you’ll likely see some FOX shows on Global, airing at different times or different days.

Now You’re Ready!

I think I’ve covered everything that might be a shock to your system, or get you into trouble at the airport.  Now, let’s jump into the Canadian Rockies trip!

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