A tightwad’s guide to Canada

Fly fishing, Banff National Park - Travel Alberta

You can have a heckuva lot of fun without breaking the bank. Here’s how.

By Mark Stevens


View from the dock at Emerald Lake Lodge

We Canadians come by our tightwadliness honestly. Our first prime minister—a Scotsman, no less—fell from grace for asking for a second bribe. Call it Kismet.
While we consider ourselves sensible, the rest of the world may think us tightwads. True, it’s easier to get a suntan on Baffin Island, NU, than to get money out of a Canadian, but we don’t mind sharing this birthright with visitors—as long as it doesn’t cost us money.

Here’s our “Tightwad’s Guide to Canada.” Use it wisely; pack it next to your wallet.


1. Camp it up

I saw every major Canadian city as a kid without ever setting foot in a hotel lobby. Sat around a lot of campfires, climbed into a bunk housed in a tent trailer my dad built out of a wooden box on wheels (the erstwhile garbage hauler). True Canadians, we.

Figure even cheap hotels in major cities run you at $100 a night and you gotta love the campground concept (see Parks Canada for info). Plus, it’s a great way to see the country.

Some of the best views of the Rockies can be found at Banff, AB’s Two-Jack Lakeside Campground. Indian Line Campground, coming in at $28.50 CDN a night, is almost as close to Toronto as the airport.

Camped for free in Newfoundland and Labrador, sleeping beside a river rushing for the sea, swimming in a tidal pool and entertained by cavorting seals. You might have to buy a tent, but that lets you partake of another Canuck rite of passage: a visit to Canadian Tire (a quintessentially Canadian retailer, we really can’t explain it!).


2. Poor man’s Hilton

Smoke gets in your eyes? Then try the hostel thing.

You don’t have to sleep with a knife under your pillow or hide your valuables in your unmentionables at every hostel. We stayed in a fancy chalet just outside Banff one time. A quadrillion a night. Then we did breakfast down the road at the hostel. Nicer view, great room with fireplace, games room and breakfast with three kinds of granola and fair-trade coffee.

Seventy hostels here: from the one at Banff to downtown offerings in Toronto, Vancouver, Montréal and other major cities.

Or combine your rest with a bit of higher learning. Most universities offer up cheap accommodation when school’s out.  Better yet, a lot of universities are front-and-centre when it comes to accessibility to downtown. Rooms can be as little as $15 to $30 a night.


Niagara Falls

3. A table with a view

What you save on the sack lets you splurge on dining. Or go for the savings and the view.

Best seats in the house might be those hot dog vendors, though if you go to Toronto, you can sample international cuisine for a couple of toonies (a $2 coin)—in the shadow of CN Tower, people-watching downtown or with a view of the lake.

Forget the lowly hot dog. This year you can step up to the curb and order Pad Thai, jerked chicken, Greek.

Canadian travel writer and photographer Gary Crallé suggests doing lunch instead of dinner, while colleague Ann Fawcett suggests chowing down at five-star, no-star diners.

“Gotta try Georgette’s at Welsford in New Brunswick,” she advises. “Senior special: five dollars.” She knows whereof she speaks. She’s working on a book extolling the virtues of Canadian eateries where ambiance takes a back seat to value.

In Niagara Falls you can tour a Buddhist temple then get lunch for five dollars. Great deal for any visitor, along with a fascinating look at our multicultural heritage. For a tightwad, it’s pure Nirvana.


4. Happy hour

Sure, you won’t get a cocktail with lunch if you go curbside, but even tightwads who like the occasional libation will be happy here.

One summer, I hit the Hiram Walker distillery in Windsor, Ontario, every week for its tour. Finished up in a wood-panelled bar with a generous sampling of whiskies. Finally got banned for life when I got caught reciting the tour word-for-word.
Might learn way too much about the art of spirits, but it’s a true tightwad paradise.

Niagara, Prince Edward County and Pelee Island—all in Ontario—will delight the cheapest wine lover, along with British Columbia’s Okanagan and Fraser Valley wineries out west. Alexander Keith’s Brewery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, offers a great tour. Worst case, prowl the streets of your favourite city for happy hour.


cycling Rideau Canal, Ottawa

5. The colour of money

Not that you get to keep any, but you can look at all the money you want at The Bank of Canada’s Currency Museum in Ottawa — including one-time legal tender distributed by the Molson breweries. When you’re done there, you can zip over to the Canadian Museum of Nature for another freebie on Saturday mornings or hit the Museum of Civilization on Thursday evenings from 4 pm to 8 pm.

Ontario’s Art Gallery of Hamilton offers a “First Fridays” program from 5 pm to 9 pm that’s free; Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) won’t take your money on Wednesdays from 4:30 pm to 5:30 pm. Ontario’s Bata Shoe Museum has a “pay-what-you-can” program on Thursdays from 5 pm to 8 pm.

Important caveat though: both Bata and ROM are right beside the “Mink Mile,” Toronto’s answer to Rodeo Drive. Let your significant other discover that and your savings could be washed out with a cascade of designer fashion.

In some cases, Canada being what it is, you might find deals during the off-season. In British Columbia, the Vancouver Aquarium’s admission is $28 in the summer. During the winter, it goes down to $22.

For every dime there is a season. For tightwads, there’s Canada.


For a comprehensive list of Canadian campgrounds visit www.canada-campgrounds.com

Find and book hostels online at www.hihostels.com

For university stays, check out www.trailcanada.com/travel/where_to_stay/universities

For Ontario wineries and tours, go to www.winesofontario.org.

For BC winery tours, check out www.bcwine.ca/tours

Like beer? Go to www.keiths.ca

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