How to take an epic road trip across Canada - Canada, Getting Around -

EPIC ROAD TRIP! YEAH!…or something like that. Here’s how to make it happen north of the border.

Ahh, the great open road. For decades, people of many nationalities and age groups have talked about, joked about, and often taken the Great Road Trip Across the Country.

This is a story about how two thirtysomethings got themselves ready for an epic road trip across Canada.

This is also a story about you can do it too.

First question: How long do you have?

It’s one of the pre-requisites for most people. Jobs or loved ones may be counting on you to return. Knowing how long you have helps to frame your trip as a ‘cross-province’, ‘cross-a-couple-of-provinces’, or, yes, actually get all the way across the country.

Canada’s tourist season is essentially Victoria Day (the Monday preceding May 25) to Labour Day (first Monday of September). As I’ve discovered, this is essentially the only time to visit Canada non-wintry attractions. Some of the Nova Scotia destinations we tried to reach were closed as late as mid-May (museums in smaller cities tend to rely on student volunteers, so museums can’t open until school is out. The weather can also be a factor.

Bottom line: Plan your trip for the summer to avoid disappointment.

The car: rent or buy?


Buying a cheaper / older car is almost certainly the better bet here. Even with some of ‘by-the-week’ and ‘by-the-month’ rental options out there, you’re paying a ton to have everything taken care of you. Further, you’ll need to be at least 25 years old to avoid those pesky ‘underage’ surcharges if you’re renting from any big company.

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Where to buy? We had the best luck on, which is essentially a Canadian Craigslist. With a pretty simple learning curve, you’ll be filtering things like manual vs. automatic, prices, and location. The site seems to come up in conversation quite a bit (as Craigslist does in the US), and is the starting point for a ton of transactions.

How much? We found enough cars on Kijiji in the $2,000 CAD range, even though we had prepared to spend up to $2,500 CAD. Most cars we saw in the $500-$1,000 CAD range were for parts, needed serious work, or didn’t have a safety inspection and therefore couldn’t legally be driven. If you’re really on a budget and don’t mind getting your hands dirty, this might be an option for you.

Things to watch out for? While it will look different for each province, Canadian cars need to have a safety inspection sticker to be legal. Rust can be a serious issue, and you’ll want to note whether the car has winter tires (which have deeper grooves and specific tire patterns designed to grip the road better in wintry conditions) or summer tires (which use a softer rubber optimized for warmer temperatures).

Bottom line: Buying is almost certainly cheaper than leasing, though it’s worth doing a proper search instead of just buying the first one that fits your price range.

What about insurance?

If you picked up a rental car, you’re probably good here. Learn what it covers, then pick up some extra insurance if you want.

If you’re buying a car, car insurance in Canada works pretty much the same as in the US: a minimum level of liability insurance is required by law. Insurance that covers damage to the car is not, and if you’re picking up an older car, insurance may not cover all that much once the deductible is factored in.

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How much? This one’s going to vary, obviously. We were told that while a Canadian insurance company can’t get your driving records from the US or other provinces, the US branch of Geico had no problem finding my driving records from Kentucky in a matter of minutes. As a result, Geico was able to get me a much better rate for driving in the US. However, their coverage wouldn’t have been enough to be legal while we were traveling around Canada, and I’d have had to show proof of residency in the US. We ended up going with a personal recommendation from Laura’s parents, and I’d imagine any insurance office in Canada would be happy to sit down to have a chat with you. Compare some prices at while you’re at it (and no, that’s not an affiliate link).

Bottom line: A Canadian insurance broker was able to get us set up with the required minimums in Canada ($1,000,000 in third-party liability insurance) for six months for about $380 CAD.

What about taxes, license plates, registrations, inspections, etc.?

Even if you’ve bought a car in the US, this one threw us a twist. In Canada, the license plate stays with the person, not the car. This makes transferring a plate from one car to another pretty easy, though it’s less than ideal for folks like us.

As for safety inspections, I can’t speak first-hand to those yet. We were warned that bringing an older car into compliance could be a costly endeavor, so it’s a good idea to look for cars that already have safety inspection stickers and were good for awhile. This small sticker should be on the lower right corner of the windshield (as you’re looking at it from the outside), and holes are punched out to indicate the month and year of expiration.

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Taxes are based on the weight and selling price of the vehicle — pretty straightforward I suppose.

Bottom line? We paid about $265 CAD for the license plate, the sticker, and taxes.

Will you be crossing into or traveling through the US at all?

You’d think that going between long-time, strong allies would be a fairly simple matter. When we crossed into the US, there were no questions related to the car, just about us.

Bottom line: have all your paperwork in order, but you shouldn’t need any of it at the border.

When it’s time to sell…

Selling the car you bought in Canada while traveling through the US is likely to be a pain in the butt since there’s a lot of import stuff to take into consideration. You’re better off selling once back in Canada (if you ever left). It might go without saying, but give it a good wash and vacuum to have the best chance of making your money back.

UPDATE 5 April 2017: In the end, we ended up giving it to Laura’s parents in Nova Scotia. It’s a ‘floater car’ for the family right now, and if it’s still around the next time we’re in Canada I hope we’ll take it for a spin!

Have you taken a roadtrip across Canada? Any tips to pass along? Share in the comments!

Worthy Go.

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