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Loonies And Toonies – Tips For Your Trips To Canadian National Parks

A "Toonie" (on the left) and "Loonie" (on the right) are about the same size, but are very different in appearance. Image from the Royal Canadian Mint.

For an international park trip with opportunities for outstanding scenery, compelling history, and minimal challenges for American travelers, you can't beat the neighboring country to our north.

The Traveler is beginning a short series on national parks in the Canadian Maritime Provinces, and even though these tips won't keep your accent from marking you as a tourist, they'll at least ensure you know the difference between a "loonie" and a "toonie." Although the following information is based on a recent visit to eastern Canada, most of it will apply elsewhere in the country as well.

1. Colorful money. Money issues for Americans traveling in Canada are minimal'”no worries about understanding terms like euros, pounds or pesos. Canadians use our same decimal system for currency (dollars, quarters, dimes and nickels), but their bills are much more colorful than the U. S. version. A clear, see-through "stripe" with an embedded metallic image on newer bills helps defeat counterfeiters, but count your cash carefully. One clerk cautioned me while making change that these new versions, made of polymer rather than paper, tend to stick together.

Don't worry about counting your pennies'”they're no longer used in Canada'”so transactions are rounded off to the nearest nickel. 

Two other coins will be new to most Americans. Since the smallest folding money in Canada is a five dollar bill, one and two dollar coins are in wide use. The one dollar coins feature a likeness of a loon, so are called "loonies," while a two-dollar version is a "toonie." The two coins are different in appearance, but similar in size, so just double-check before plunking down a "buck."

2. Exchanging money. At the time of our visit in July, there was minimal difference between the value of the U. S. and Canadian dollars. As long as that holds true, many merchants, especially those near the border, are likely to accept U. S. currency "at par." Even so, we found it more convenient to keep some local cash on hand for use in rural areas or for smaller transactions.

Although you can certainly exchange U.S. money for Canadian at any bank (for a fee), we just used an ATM card to withdraw cash in Canadian bills from our U. S. account. Our bank has branches in Canada, so there were no ATM use fees.

3. Credit and debit cards. Our U. S.-issued credit and debit cards were accepted in virtually all the same kinds of locations as at home, but if a clerk asks if your card has a "chip," the answer is almost certainly "no." Canadian credit cards use the same technology employed throughout Europe and even Mexico, which embeds data on a microchip in the card rather than on the magnetic strip we find on the back of our cards.

The more secure chip cards are reportedly coming to the US in the next year or two, but for now, don't worry. Every merchant we patronized in Canada had the ability to process both chip and strip cards. The only minor snag we encountered was the inability to pay at the pump for gas, and that's not a problem'”just pump your gas and then go inside to pay, where the clerk can "swipe" your card the old-fashioned way.

In a refreshing indication that Canadians are apparently more honest than we Yanks, I never had to "pay before pumping." Scofflaws who drive off without settling up are apparently a rarity in Canada.

Most credit and debit card issuers will add a service charge (about 3 percent) for an international transaction, but we avoided those as well by using a credit card that waives those fees. By paying the bill in full once we got home, we avoided any service or interest costs.

4. Fill 'er up. You'll likely be surprised the first time you see the posted prices for gas or diesel at a Canadian station'”but don't get too excited. That $1.35 or so on the sign is the price for a liter, not a gallon, so multiply by four to get an approximation of the same amount of fuel in U. S. gallons. The translation throughout our three-week trip was about $5.50 U.S. per gallon.

At least throughout Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, we soon found there was no need to waste time looking for a station with lower prices. Primarily due to government price controls, there was very little variation in the cost per liter, regardless of brand or location. We also found gas stations were not as plentiful as in the U. S., so don't run your tank too low, especially in rural areas.

5. Other prices. At least in the areas we visited in eastern Canada, food prices'”both in restaurants and grocery stores'”were a bit higher than at home. I'd estimate the difference for comparable items at about ten to fifteen percent. Lodging for comparable accommodations was also a little more expensive than in the U. S., but we were travelling during July, the peak of the tourist season.

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An annual Park's Canada Discovery Pass comes in the form of a "hanger" you can display on your vehicle's rear-view mirror. Parks Canada photo.

6. National Park Passes. As is true for our national parks, expect to pay an entrance fee to Canadian parks. If you're only visiting a few sites, it's probably cheaper to pay by the visit, but if you're going to enjoy more areas, an annual "Discovery Pass" is a good option.

Entrance fees vary a bit from park to park, so you'll have to do a bit of calculating to see if an annual pass is the best deal. You'll find fees for all of the sites operated by Parks Canada at this link. 

As a quick rule of thumb, admission to individual sites ranged from about $6 to $15 per day for adults, with discounts for seniors, children and family groups. The annual pass for all Parks Canada locations costs $53 for adults, $45.10 for seniors, and $26.60 for youth.

If there are more than two in your household or small group, the real bargain is the Family/Group pass for $106.90. You can purchase the annual Discovery Pass at any park where you'd have to pay a fee. If you want to buy one before you leave home, you can do so, but you'll pay a little more, and have to allow for delivery time. You'll find details at this link.

7. Roads and navigation. The Canadian versions of U. S. interstates that we drove in the eastern provinces were almost always in very good shape, but conditions vary widely on secondary highways. We almost never encountered a pothole, but due to a combination of soil conditions, severe winters and frost heaving, it wasn't unusual for the ride to be pretty bumpy on many secondary roads. In fairness to the Canadians, we found the same situation to prevail in parts of Maine.

Road signage was usually pretty good, especially on major roads, except for one quirk. More often than not on secondary roads, the turn for an upcoming intersection was marked much further in advance than here in the U. S., but there was often no sign at the junction itself. That meant we found ourselves slowing down several times for what turned out to be a driveway, but once we got to the actual turn, it was a guessing game about whether this was really "it."

Our GPS worked well in most locations and was a big help, but we supplemented it with the free highway maps available from provincial "visitor welcome centers."

8. Kilometers vs. miles. The U. S. threw in the towel several years ago on a plan to adopt the metric system, so you'll need to do a little mental math as you move about the country.

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The speed limit is "50" what? The answer in Canada is kilometers, not miles, per hours. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The good news: it's not quite as far as it may sound when you see the distance to the next town on a highway sign. A trip of 200 kilometers, for example, is about 120 miles. To make the conversion, just multiply kilometers by 0.6 for a very close estimate.

The flip side? Don't expect to save a lot of time on the road, even though the first speed limit sign you see after you cross the border may read something like "Maximum 100." Most of those signs don't say 100 what, so don't forget that all speed limits in Canada are posted in kilometers per hour, not miles per hour. For a quick conversion, just multiply the posted limit by 0.6, which makes a maximum of "100" a more familiar 60 m.p.h.

Will you actually need to do the mental math? I was a bit surprised that our 2013 rental car (a G.M. product) did not show the scale for kilometers on the speedometer, and if you have a digital readout, you may need to check the owner's manual for instructions on resetting it to display the metric version...or just leave it alone, and do the math.

As a rule, I found speed limits in the eastern portion of Canada to be a bit lower than on comparable highways in the U. S., and with frequent passages through small towns on secondary roads, the limits change frequently, so pay attention.

9. Border crossings. We made a total of four crossings (two into Canada and two back into the U.S.) during our trip, and found them to be easy and quick, but it's important to plan ahead. Be sure everyone in your group has a valid passport, have your vehicle registration (or rental car agreement) readily available if you're arriving by road, and be prepared for a few polite questions from a steely-eyed border guard. You'll save yourself a lot of potential hassles if you don't try to carry firearms across the border; the same applies to most fresh fruits and vegetables. You'll find additional details about crossing into Canada here.

10. Plan for the "HST." For many transactions in the Maritimes, you'll find prices quoted as "+ HST," and if you're traveling on a tight budget, don't overlook this "Harmonized Sales Tax" in your pre-trip planning. The HST rate ranges from 13 to 15 percent in the three provinces, so don't forget it will be added to most purchases once you get to the register.

11. Time and temperature. All three maritime provinces are in the Atlantic Time Zone, which is one hour ahead of Eastern time in the U. S., and all three observe Daylight Savings Time during the same dates that we do. In Canada, the temperature is stated in degrees Centigrade, not Fahrenheit, so for a quick rule of thumb, highs in the low to mid-20s equal  the 70s and 80s in °F.

The conversion is pretty easy: Start with the temperature in °C, multiply by 2, and then add 32. For example, 20° C x 2 = 40 + 32 = 72° F.

12. "Bonjour" and "Good Day." Although the situation might be a bit different in other areas such as Quebec, we found no language barriers in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, or Prince Edward Island. Virtually all highway signs and national park publications are bilingual (usually English and French, although on parts of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, the signs were in English and Gaelic!).

Since Canada does have two official languages, expect to be greeted with both "Bonjour" and "Good Day" when you enter any national park facility. Once the employee knows which of the two lingos you prefer, the conversation will carry on without a hitch.

We found virtually everyone we encountered during 20 days in the Canadian Maritime Provinces to be friendly and helpful, and the trip was delightful. If you're looking for the easiest possible "international" experience, this area area fits the bill'”even if the money is a bit looney.


Looking forward to this series. I'm guessing you stuck to the three actual Maritimes and didn't make it out to Newfoundland and Labrador? Oddly, I've done a lot of traveling in NB, NS, and NL, but never went to Prince Edward Island.

You're correct, Kirby - we found that three weeks (and the budget :-) didn't allow the addition of Newfoundland and Labrador to the trip without feeling too rushed, although I understand there's some outstanding parks there as well. I plan to cover PEI in one of the upcoming stories in this series.

This is helpful info. We could've used this before we made our trip this summer and last summer. We spent a few weeks traveling in Canada this summer...Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and PEI and a quick day trip to Montreal. We have been traveling the US and Canada the last 18 mos. with a 36ft travel trailer so we look for RV parks or campgrounds to stay in. I'd like to add a couple of addi'l hints (some of which are helpful for travel in the US too):

1. Stop at visitor centers - they are a wealth of information. We picked up not only brochures on attractions and campgrounds, but a handy little brochure on metric conversions and road maps.

2. We stayed at or visited several Provincial Parks in Canada. Canadians seem to be more used to rustic conditions. We did not find a lot of private campgrounds in Canada, particularly in Ontario where we did the Circle Tour of Lake Superior. We found out that our pass for camping in a park was good for visiting other parks until the end of the last day. We visited a couple of additional parks on our way to our next stop for free.

3. We spent a couple weeks in the Maritimes of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, PEI. They are all wonderful to visit. They all have wonderful parks and villages. The people are friendly and they love to tell you history and stories. I wish we would've included Cape Breton, but we just couldn't this time. But almost everyone we talked to - even in other provinces - recommended it. PEI definitely fulfills their slogan of the "Gentle Island". I'll always remember it as having soft green hills and fields that go right down to the sea and red clay roads. There are architechurally distinctive churches everywhere throughout the countryside.

4. Be prepared for the border crossings, most are quick and easy, but be prepared for long lines around Canadian holidays. We had our truck searched once and our travel trailer once. Watch the fruit thing. The agent found an orange in my refrigerator that I did know I had. He confiscated it, but he could've given us trouble. Also be prepared to answer the questions. We have crossed the border many times recently and because we travel full time in an RV, have a winter place in AZ and register our vehicles in South Dakota (for mail forwarding). We had to think about the answer to "Where do you live?" Also, we made sure we knew when we had last been to Canada - sometimes when you travel alot the dates are forgotten. All border agents - US and Canada seemed very surprised that we do not carry any weapons - not even pepper spray. They each asked the question several times.

5. Be prepared to have technological difficulties. We carry 2 smart phones, 2 laptops and an iPad. We have our own wifi (AT&T), but we didn't want to pay for having Canadian service on our accounts. AT&T is not really usable in most areas. Our Verizon phones would do ok, (we tried it), but in so many areas there is no service at all. Some of the private campgrounds have wifi, but it is usually slow and with restrictions. It drove us crazy not to be able to do a quick google map search or search for a campground online.

We didn't consider any of this a reason not to visit Canada. Take your time to stop at the parks along the way, the historical markers. There is wonderful scenery - Waterfalls, coastlines and forests. It's all well worth it.

Certain border crossings are often a disaster in their long waits. Port Huron, MI and the Detroit crossings come to mind as does the I-5 crossing into BC. As for the latter, I have saved a lot of time by going a little further east to one of the other more rural crossings. I once sat 4 hours on a Sunday trying to get into BC on I-5 about 5 years ago. Also, the crossing from Glacier NP to Waterton Lakes closes at night around 11 pm as I recall.

Radar detectors are illegal in Canada. If you have it plugged in and functioning, the troopers will detect its presence, stop you, and tear your car apart until they find it before fining you and confiscating it.

Rudy - thanks for some more good tips...and the reminder that all border crossing points are not created equal.

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