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Travel essentials

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Costs

The commodity-fuelled Canadian economy is currently one of the world’s strongest, and though most things in Canada are reasonably priced by western European standards, food and drink, even basic items and snacks, can be relatively expensive. US residents will also find the cost of petrol (gas) and car rental much higher. In remote areas such as Labrador and the far north, everything starts to get significantly more expensive – travel here is much harder on a budget. Accommodation, almost certainly your major outlay, can be very pricey in any of the country’s cities and towns – especially if you’re after a degree of comfort – but there are plenty of bargains to be had, not least in the burgeoning hostel and B&B market.

On average, if you’re prepared to buy your own picnic lunch, stay in hostels and stick to the least expensive bars and restaurants, you could get by on around £35/US$55/C$55 a day. Staying in a good B&B, eating out in medium-range restaurants most nights and drinking regularly in bars, you’ll get through at least £90/US$140/C$140 a day, with the main variable being the cost of your room. On £150/US$235/C$235 a day, you’ll be limited only by your energy reserves – though if you’re planning to stay in the best hotels and make every night a big night out, this still won’t be enough.

Taxes

Virtually all prices in Canada for everything from bubble gum to hotel rooms are quoted without tax, which means the price you see quoted is not the price you’ll end up paying. With the exception of Alberta, the Yukon, Nunavut and NWT, each province levies a Provincial Sales Tax (PST) of between five (Saskatchewan) and ten (PEI) percent on most goods and services, including hotel and restaurant bills; this is supplemented by the Goods and Services Tax (GST), a five percent Federal levy applied nationwide. In BC, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador, the two taxes are amalgamated into the so-called Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) at a rate of 12–13 percent; PEI is expected to apply this flat HST rate (14 percent) in 2013.

All of this means Alberta has the lowest total sales tax of just five percent (though hotels are slapped with an additional four percent), while PEI has the highest, at 14 percent.

Crime and personal safety

Canada is one of the safest countries in the world and although there are a few crime hot-spots, these are confined to the peripheries of the country’s three big cities – Toronto, Montréal and Vancouver. Few Canadian citizens carry arms, muggings are uncommon, and even in the cities, street crime is infrequent. Canadian officials are notorious for coming down hard if you’re found with drugs, especially on non-Canadians. Stiff penalties are imposed, even when only traces of any illegal substance are found. Police are also diligent in enforcing traffic laws.

Electricity

In Canada electricity is supplied at an alternating current of 110 volts and at a frequency of 60Hz, the same as in the US. Appliances such as shavers and hair dryers from most other countries need transformers – most phones, laptops and mp3 players can usually handle both 220/240 and 110 volt currents. For all appliances, you’ll need a plug converter for Canada’s two-pin sockets.

Entry requirements

Citizens of the EU, Norway, Iceland and most Commonwealth countries, including the UK, Australia and New Zealand, only need a valid passport to enter Canada – passport holders from South Africa must still apply for visas. US citizens need a passport or approved alternative to enter Canada. Alternatives include passport cards, new enhanced driver’s licences and “Trusted Traveller” cards, such as NEXUS, SENTRI and FAST – passport cards can only be used at land borders. US citizens can stay in Canada for up to six months without a visa.

All visitors to Canada by air and sea have to complete the Welcome to Canada customs declaration form, which you’ll be given on the plane or at the port of arrival. The immigration officer decides the length of stay permitted – usually not more than six months. The officers rarely refuse entry, but they may delve deep, asking you for details of your schedule and enquiring as to how much money you have and what job you do; they may also ask to see a return or onward ticket.

For visits of more than six months, study trips and stints of (temporary) employment, contact the nearest Canadian embassy, consulate or high commission for authorization prior to departure. Once inside Canada, if you need an extension of your stay or want to change the basis on which you were admitted, you must apply to the nearest Canada Immigration Centre at least thirty days before the expiry of the authorized visit.

For duty-free, the standard allowance is 1.5 litres of wine or 1.14 litres of liquor or 24 355ml bottles/cans of beer, plus two hundred cigarettes, fifty cigars or cigarillos, and 200g of tobacco.

Health

Canada has an excellent health service, but non-residents are not entitled to free health care, and medical costs can be astronomical – get insurance before you go. If you have an accident, medical services will get to you quickly and charge you later. If you are carrying medicine prescribed by your doctor, also bring a copy of the prescription – first, to avoid problems at customs and immigration and, second, for renewing medication with Canadian doctors, if needed. Most larger towns and cities should have a 24-hour or late-opening pharmacy. For general information on public health, and a list of travel clinics across Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada is a good resource (w phac-aspc.gc.ca).

You are unlikely to face any special health issues in Canada, though there are certain dangers in the backcountry. Tap water is generally safe to drink, but at campgrounds water is sometimes good for washing only. You should always boil backcountry water for at least ten minutes to protect against the Giardia parasite, which thrives in warm water, so be equally careful about swimming in hot springs – if possible, keep nose, eyes and mouth above water. Symptoms are intestinal cramps, flatulence, fatigue, weight loss and vomiting, all of which can appear up to a week after infection. If left untreated, more unpleasant complications can arise.

Blackflies and mosquitoes are notorious for the problems they cause walkers and campers, and are especially bad in areas near standing water and throughout most of northern Canada. Late April to June is the blackfly season, and the mosquito season is from June until about October. If you’re planning an expedition into the wilderness, take three times the recommended daily dosage of vitamin B complex for two weeks before you go, and to take the recommended dosage while you’re in Canada; this cuts down bites by up to 75 percent.

Once you’re there, repellent creams and sprays may help: the best are those containing DEET. Don’t go anywhere near an area marked as a blackfly mating ground – although it’s very rare, people have died from bites sustained when the creatures are in heat. Also dangerous is West Nile virus, a mosquito-born affliction with life-threatening properties; the virus has infected people as far west as Alberta and has killed over fifty since 1999, so pay attention to local advice.

If you develop a large rash and flu-like symptoms, you may have been bitten by a tick carrying Lyme borreliosis, or Lyme disease. This is easily curable, but if left untreated can lead to nasty complications. It’s spreading in Canada, especially in the more southerly and wooded parts of the country, so you should check on its prevalence with the local tourist authority. It also may be advisable to buy a strong tick repellent and to wear long socks, trousers and sleeved shirts when walking.

In backcountry areas, look out for poison ivy, which grows in most places, but particularly in a belt across southern Ontario and Québec. If you’re likely to be walking in affected areas, ask at tourist offices for tips on where it is and how to recognize it. The ivy causes itchy open blisters and lumpy sores up to ten days after contact. If you do come into contact with it, wash your body and clothes as soon as possible, smother yourself in calamine lotion and try not to scratch. In serious cases, hospital emergency rooms can give antihistamine or adrenalin jabs.

Insurance

Prior to travelling, you should take out an insurance policy to cover against theft, loss and illness or injury. You’ll probably want to contact a specialist travel insurance company, or consider the travel insurance deal we offer. Most policies exclude so-called dangerous sports unless an extra premium is paid: in Canada this can mean whitewater rafting, mountain climbing and so on. If you need to make a claim, keep receipts for medicines and medical treatment. In the event you have anything stolen, you must obtain a crime report statement or number from the police.

Internet

Internet access is commonplace at Canadian hotels, hostels and B&Bs, and there are also plenty of cafés with wi-fi in cities and towns. Free internet access is available at all major libraries.

Mail

Every Canadian city, town and village of any significant size has its own post office, operated by Canada Post (w canadapost.ca). Opening hours are usually Monday to Friday 8.30am–5.30pm, though a few places open on Saturday from 9am–noon. Much more numerous are Canada Post service counters inside larger stores, especially pharmacies, and here opening hours vary considerably, though core hours are the same as those of the post offices. To check for the nearest postal outlet, call t 1 800 267 1177, or consult the website. Apart from Canada Post outlets, stamps can be purchased from automatic vending machines, the lobbies of larger hotels, airports, train stations, bus terminals and many retail outlets and newsstands. Current postal charges are 61¢ for letters and postcards up to 30g within Canada, $1.05 for the same weight to the US and $1.80 for international mail (also up to 30g).

Maps

The free maps issued by each provincial tourist office are excellent for general driving and route planning, especially as they provide the broad details of ferry connections. The best of the commercially produced maps are those published by Rand McNally (w randmcnally.com).

Measurements

Canada uses the metric system, though many people still use the imperial system. Distances are in kilometres, temperatures in degrees Celsius, and foodstuffs, petrol and drink are sold in grams, kilograms or litres.

Money

Canadian currency is the Canadian dollar ($), made up of 100 cents (¢). Coins come as 1¢ (penny), 5¢ (nickel), 10¢ (dime), 25¢ (quarter), $1 and $2. The $1 coin is known as a “loonie”, after the bird on one face; the $2 coin is known as a “toonie”. There are notes of $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100. US dollars are widely accepted near the border, but generally – banks, etc apart – on a one-for-one basis. For up-to-date exchange rates, check xe.com.

Banking hours are a minimum of Monday to Friday 10am to 3pm, but many have late opening – till 6pm – on one night a week, others are open on Saturday mornings.

ATMs are commonplace. Most accept a host of debit cards, including all those carrying the Cirrus coding. All major credit and charge cards are widely accepted.

Phones

When dialling any Canadian number, either local or long-distance, you must include the area code. Long-distance calls – to numbers beyond the area code of the telephone from which you are making the call – must be prefixed with “1”.

Most mobile providers in Canada (Bell, Telus, SaskTel & MTS) use CDMA technology compatible with their US counterparts (though gradually converting to HSPA and LTE), so US mobile users should have no problems using their phones; you should still check whether international charges apply. Rogers Wireless and several other providers use GSM technology, which means that mobiles bought in the UK and Europe can also be used in Canada (assuming you have a roaming option and your phone is tri-band) – in this case you’ll definitely be charged international rates for incoming calls that originate from home. UK providers that have roaming agreements with Rogers include Orange, T-Mobile, Vodafone and 3. If you have a Blackberry or iPhone these should work in Canada, but you’ll need to be extra careful about roaming charges, especially for data, which can be extortionate; even checking voicemail can result in hefty charges. Many travellers turn off voicemail and data roaming before they travel. Most phone companies will provide cheaper options for customers travelling to Canada, so check in advance. In Canada, mobile networks cover every city and town, but in rural areas you’ll struggle to get a signal.

Public telephones are becoming harder to find due to the popularity of mobile phones. The cost of a local call is usually 50¢ for three or four minutes, depending on the carrier (each phone company runs their own booths). Long-distance calls are much pricier, and you’re better off using a prepaid calling card ($5, $10 or $20), which you can buy at most grocery stores and newsstands.

Useful phone numbers

Police, fire, ambulance 911.

Operator 0.

Information Within North America  411; international, call the operator  0.

Time zones

Canada has six time zones, but only four-and-a-half hours separate the eastern extremities of the country from the western.

Newfoundland is on Newfoundland time (3hr 30min behind the UK and 1hr 30min ahead of the eastern US).

The Maritimes and Labrador are on Atlantic (4hr behind the UK and 1hr ahead of the eastern US), though southeastern Labrador follows Newfoundland time.

Québec and most of Ontario are on Eastern (5hr behind the UK) – the same zone as New York and the eastern US.

Manitoba, the northwest corner of Ontario, and Saskatchewan are on Central (6hr behind the UK; same as US Central).

Alberta, the Northwest Territories and a slice of northeast BC are on Mountain (7hr behind the UK – same as US Mountain).

In the west, the Yukon and the remainder of BC are on Pacific (8hr behind the UK and 1hr ahead of Alaska – same as US Pacific).

Nunavut spans a number of time zones, from Mountain to Atlantic.

For daylight savings (used in all regions except Saskatchewan, parts of Québec and northeast BC), clocks go forward one hour on the first Sunday of April, and back one hour on the last Sunday in October.

Tourist information

All of Canada’s provinces have their own tourist website and these, along with those run by Parks Canada, covering the country’s national parks and historic sites, and Travel Canada’s generic website (w travelcanada.ca), are the most useful source of information before you set out. Each province and territory operates a toll-free visitor information line for use within mainland North America. In Canada itself, there are provincial and territorial tourist information centres along the main highways, especially at provincial boundaries and along the US border; information centres at every national and many provincial parks, selling fishing and backcountry permits and giving help on the specifics of hiking, canoeing, wildlife watching and so forth; and tourist offices in every city and town.

Useful websites

Assembly of First Nations afn.ca. Lobbying organization of Canada’s aboriginal peoples, with plenty to get you briefed on the latest situation.

Canadian Ice Hockey hockeycanada.ca. The official site of the amateur governing body for the national obsession.

The Globe and Mail theglobeandmail.com. Canada’s premier newspaper online.

National Atlas of Canada Online atlas.nrcan.gc.ca. Maps, stats and plenty of details on Canada’s geographic features.

National Library of Canada collectionscanada.gc.ca. Information on all things Canadian, ordered by subject. Includes Canadian arts, literature and history.

Parks Canada pc.gc.ca. Excellent website with detailed information on all of Canada’s national parks and national historic sites. Reserve space at some national parks at w pccamping.ca.

Weather – Environment Canada weatheroffice.gc.ca. Get the most accurate weather forecasts at this government site.

Travellers with disabilities

At least in its cities and towns, Canada is one of the best places in the world to travel if you have limited mobility or other physical disabilities. All public buildings are required to be wheelchair-accessible and provide suitable toilet facilities, almost all street corners have dropped kerbs and public phones are specially equipped for hearing-aid users. Wheelchair users may encounter problems when travelling on urban public transport, but this is changing rapidly. Out in the wilds, things are inevitably more problematic, but almost all the national parks have accessible visitor and information centres and many have specially designed, accessible trails. In addition, VIA Rail offers a good range of services for travellers with disabilities – and the larger car-rental companies can provide vehicles with hand controls at no extra charge, though these are usually only available on their most expensive models; book one as far in advance as you can. Provincial tourist offices are the prime source of information on accessible hotels, motels and sights. To obtain a parking privilege permit, drivers with disabilities must apply to a provincial authority, though the permit itself, once issued, is valid across Canada.

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