Montreal to Toronto in Feb driving filter
January 10, 2006 12:17 PM   Subscribe

Canadian travel in February filter: We'll be doing some college tours of Canadian colleges, including McGill and University of Toronto. To see these places AND impress upon my daughter the reality of what COLD weather feels like (we live in California), I'm thinking of taking her up to Montreal and Toronto between Feb 17 - 21. Cheap flights are available to Burlington (close to Montreal) and Buffalo (close to Toronto). Is it possible to drive from Montreal to Toronto in February? Or is it so snowy and blizzardy that this is ridiculous, and we should take the train or fly? Airfares seem high, but maybe I'm just not looking at the right flights. Any suggestions as to how to cram visits into those places during mid-Feb?
posted by jasper411 to Travel & Transportation (36 answers total)
Hahahaha. You want to impress your fiction upon your daughter. Of course you can drive on the roads in the winter here. There are freak snow storms but those happen across the entire continent.

Good lord, do you think commerce and road travel between Canada's two biggest cities stops in the winter?
posted by jon_kill at 12:19 PM on January 10, 2006

It is a 5-6 hour drive between Toronto and Montreal. Right now, it's above freezing and clear. In February, it might be above freezing and clear, or it might be freezing and snowing. The weather here is not cold and snowy all the time, it's just cold and snowy some of the time, and which of the times is which is not predictable, really. I suspect your perception of how miserable the weather is here is probably as unrealistically cold as hers is unreaslistically warm.

You can take the train from downtown Toronto to downtown Montreal for about $125 per person each way. Flying is often cheaper if you book in advance, though the price of cab fare to and from the airports, which are both a good ways from downtown, adds quite a lot to the cost of flying.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:22 PM on January 10, 2006

The drive from Burlington to Montreal is easy, no matter what the weather. There are also buses available.
posted by k8t at 12:27 PM on January 10, 2006

I've driven from Montreal to Toronto in the summer and in the winter countless times. I was born and raised in Montreal and now live in Vancouver (since 1990).

May I be direct in saying this: if you currently live in CA and you don't live in the Sierras, say - then pls stay off Canadian highways in the winter. Snow-driving is a learned skill. Sure you could drive slowly and carefully, but Quebec and Ontario drivers drive way faster than we do on the Coast, and they drive different. Don't put your family through this. Please.

Take the train instead - VIA Rail between Montreal and Toronto takes about 5 hours, downtown to downtown. There's a first class and a second class, and both are inexpensive and delightful. Canadian train service between Montreal and Toronto is terrific - think European City trains rather then Amtrak (bleh).

As for winters, I remember walking from my home on Sherbrooke/StLaurent to McGill campus in -40 windshield conditions, and taking refuge in heated office-building atriums a few times before reaching my destination. This usually happened in February. The other months were less cold - by the end of March I was in shirtsleeves again.

Seriously though - the COLD weather is nothing when compared to the HOT HUMID weather there in the summer. That's the ghastly season.

By the way, both universities are very good - what will your daughter study there?
posted by seawallrunner at 12:27 PM on January 10, 2006

You can also fly between Toronto and Montreal for about $80 CDN each way. It's a lot faster than driving and you don't have to worry about icy roads.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:28 PM on January 10, 2006

Oh yeah, I was so taken aback by you stopping just short of asking if there was a good sled-dog service that I forgot to mention that, yes, in all seasons, the 401 between Montreal and Toronto is the most dangerous highway in the country.

In all seasons.
posted by jon_kill at 12:30 PM on January 10, 2006

PS, McGill is great. Montreal is great.
posted by k8t at 12:30 PM on January 10, 2006

The drive is totally do-able, and Toronto isn't really that cold in the winter most of the time. Montreal can be very cold for extended periods, but there's about a 50% chance if not better that it's quite mild when you plan to visit.

I would rent a car and drop in on Queen's University in Kingston on the way down. Make sure you clear taking the car across the border with the rental company and the one-way nature of the trip (try and get the drop-off fee waived).

The alternative is to book round trip flights from LA or SF or wherever in California you're leaving from to Montreal through Toronto and just split up the return leg.
posted by mikel at 12:30 PM on January 10, 2006

You can fly to Montreal or Toronto too, you know.

Driving from Montreal to Toronto is long enough to be an irritating drive. I recommend avoiding it, all else being equal. The highway will be passable, but snowstorms happen, and you may not be experienced at driving in adverse conditions.

As for schools, Toronto is roughly as cold as any northeastern U.S. city: Boston, NYC. Montreal is colder, more along the lines of Chicago, brrr.
posted by jellicle at 12:32 PM on January 10, 2006

Oh and I think seawallrunner is exaggerating a lot. Unless you are actually IN a snowstorm, the highway is 99% sure to be completely dry and clear. Even just one day after a large snowstorm it wouldn't affect your driving on a major highway one bit.
posted by mikel at 12:33 PM on January 10, 2006

Thanks for all the suggestions -

jon_kill - no need to get snarky! I didn't think the trip was impossible, or that people hibernated.

seawallrunner - I was raised and learned to drive in Colorado, and I'm used to driving in the snow. It's just that the last time I was on the east coast, it was February and a terrible blizzard basically shut down all traffic. I'm well aware that the weather is variable. I was just wondering how common those traffic-stopping blizzard conditions are.

She has no idea what she's going to study - just that she wants to be in an urban place far from home. We've been investigating Canadian colleges both because we love Canada, have family up there (in BC), and because the exchange rate makes it (relatively) affordable.

jellicle - i looked into that, and the fares seem really high to fly direct to Montreal or Toronto, and really cheap to go from SFO to either Burlington or Buffalo on JetBlue. But I'll keep looking
posted by jasper411 at 12:37 PM on January 10, 2006

I highly recommend the train. My wife and I used to have to take the train between Toronto and Montreal every weekend to see each other. There's an express that runs between the two cities and I highly recommend you try to get on it - the milk run is a fucking nightmare.

The drive between the two cities, as others have pointed out, is a bit treacherous and seriously boring. Avoid it. Plus the trains are downtown to downtown - which makes things a lot easier.

If your daughter wants to make the most out of a four year stay in Montreal, encourage her learn some French - it's not necessary to be bilingual to get by, but all the coolest stuff in the city is Francophone.

For truly cold weather I recommend standing at Yonge and Eglington in Toronto when the wind is blowing. In February it will be so cold you might have a vision or something. In Montreal, well, the whole damn city is cold - way more snow.

Good luck to you both.
posted by theinsectsarewaiting at 12:46 PM on January 10, 2006

jasper411, I am sure you have checked the foreign student tuition fees, which are much higher than for Canadians.

I drive the 401 quite a bit (I live in Ottawa and go to school at U of T) and would echo others who suggest the train.

U of T and McGill are probably the two best schools in Canada, but they are also very large (U of T especially) and overwhelming for undergrads. You might want to look at Concordia as well (which is also mostly downtown in Montreal).
posted by tranquileye at 12:47 PM on January 10, 2006

Its much MUCH snowier in upstate New York than it is in Southern Ontario; a snow belt begins right around buffalo. You could well fly into buffalo and see two feet of accumulated snow on the ground, only to drive north two hours and not see a single flake. So keep that in mind when you assess your driving conditions upon landing.

As mentioned above, the drive from Toronto to Montreal is excrutiatingly boring. Nothing to see, straight and flat all the way through. I'd second the suggestion to take VIA Rail between the two cities. It actually takes about the same amount of time as flying, when you factor in that you need to drive out of the city to the airport, arrive at the airport at least an hour ahead of time, and then drive all the way into your arrival city. (With the train, you can arrive shortly before departure, and it departs/arrives right downtown in both cities, not too far from the universities.)
posted by Kololo at 12:51 PM on January 10, 2006

Consider UBC in Vancouver. A top-notch school (in the same rank as U of T or McGill) in a beautiful city, and closer to your relatives. Not to mention much much closer to California.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:51 PM on January 10, 2006

tranquileye - yes, I know the international tuition is more than Canadian, but even so, they're more reasonable than many US tuitions. You make a really good point about the fact that both of them are large universities. Down here, a lot of large university undergraduate classes are taught by TAs, which seriously blows. We'll have to ask that when we take the tours. I appreciate the pointer to Concordia.

mikel - thanks for the pointer to Queen's. We'll check it out!

theinsectsarewaiting - Great to hear about the trains being good. I remember taking the train from Vancouver to Toronto years and years ago, and how wonderful it was. Down here, Amtrak is seriously bad! It's nice to hear that Canadian Rail is still great. I'll check out the fares for the express.
posted by jasper411 at 12:55 PM on January 10, 2006

On preview, you seem less like a dork. Your initial question really came off as "OMG! SNOW!!1!"

In my experience, Toronto is warmer than San Francisco about 6 months of the year . Montreal, probably only for 3-4 months. (OK, only if you stay near the ocean, not really in Oakland or Berkeley) I used to travel YYZ-SFO every few months and for the first year I could never figure out why I was always cold in the summer in San Francisco... it was because I was wearing shorts. Crazy me, wearing shorts in July - and freezing! I will refrain from trotting out the old Mark Twain quote about San Francisco.

Anyway, driving Toronto-Buffalo is not bad at all if you don't want to just fly into Toronto. A neighbour of mine makes the drive monthly to catch cheap JetBlue flights from Buffalo to New York. I would rather avoid the hassle of extra drive time, but it's your money/time.

Driving Montreal-Toronto is merely long. Unless you happen to catch a really horrible storm, the road will be clear. It's about an six hour drive, depending on how fast you like to drive. Even if it snows, road crews are out very quickly. The 401 is a very well-maintained highway.

The trains are nice, somewhat expensive (I find VIA overpriced) and the schedules between Toronto and Montreal are bearable, unlike most of VIA's schedules. As others mention, get the express.

Assuming you are coming from San Francisco, I would suggest flying directly into Toronto, renting a car, driving to Montreal and then flying back from there. You might be able to save money by not flying over the border, but there is the extra time & expense of the driving, plus the issue of whether you can get a rental car that you can drive into Canada. It is an issue at some rental places.

I, personally, don't mind the drive from Toronto to Montreal and if you have an extra day, there's lots of nice places to go, like Ottawa or Kingston, which also have good universities, though arguably not as good as McGill or U of T.

Also, note that your daughter might want to attend university in Canada because we have a lower legal drinking age (19). But, yeah, maybe not.

Also, I get SFO-YYZ for $489 USD, return, directly off of Air Canada's web site. If you call them up you should be able to get the same fare flying SFO-YYZ YUL-SFO. Air Canada's discount fare class is called "Tango", so if you talk to an agent, ask for the Tango fare. Same planes though. This seems like a pretty decent fare, but maybe there's something really cheap to Buffalo.
posted by GuyZero at 12:56 PM on January 10, 2006

I drive from Toronto to Kingston (which is a good way toward Montreal) about 5-6 times a year, and in all types of weather. I can honestly say that I would take that stretch of road, in a terrible snowstorm, before I venture out on to another highway in southern California.
posted by purephase at 1:07 PM on January 10, 2006

PercussivePaul, we're considering both UBC and Simon Frasier as possibilities. We'll probably hit them during spring break.

GuyZero - I'll sleep better knowing that you no longer think I'm a dork. My point is just that my kids only know San Francisco weather (where there are no seasons), and the occasional snowtrip up to the Sierras, where you're free to hang out in a heated lodge if it's too cold for you. I want her to experience the fact that people have to deal with some seriously cold weather up there, before she makes an application to spend 4+ years there. Also, RT to Buffalo and/or Burlington is $200, so it's seriously cheaper, though it's certainly true that I have to factor in the car rental issues you raise.
posted by jasper411 at 1:08 PM on January 10, 2006

You make a really good point about the fact that both of them are large universities. Down here, a lot of large university undergraduate classes are taught by TAs, which seriously blows. We'll have to ask that when we take the tours.

The larger arts & science courses at U of T generally feature a large lecture taught by the professor, and a separate 20-person tutorial section taught by a T.A. I'm not sure how the other faculties do things though.
posted by DrJohnEvans at 1:13 PM on January 10, 2006

About a year ago, I went back to school to get a master's degree. I went to Waterloo, which is quite close to Toronto, but because it's not close to any lakes, the weather is a lot worse. As cold as Montreal, without quite as much snow.

Several of my classmates were foreign students - two from Mexico, one from Bangladesh, one from the Philippines and two from India. None of them had been to Canada before they signed up for a year of grad school. They all managed to figure out how to survive cold weather in short order and I imagine your daughter will too.

Also, if you're serious about having your daughter attend school in Canada, Maclean's magazine publishes an annual review of Canadian universities, as does the Globe and Mail.

Maclean's University review
The Globe and Mail University Report Card

They're good research reading.
posted by GuyZero at 1:18 PM on January 10, 2006

Other universities to consider are McMaster (Hamilton), Uinversity of Western Ontario (London) and Univeristy of Waterloo (Kitchener-Waterloo). These are all smallish cities with very good undergrad programs. Think Ann Arbor. If you really want cold, look at the Univeristy of Alberta (Edmonton).

And the best way to travel, your first time? Take the train. Driving in February can be easy, but it can also be farily dicey. VIA is hardly the cheapest way to go, but certainly the most scenic and the most fun. If you have time, checking out Queen's Univeristy in Kingston would be well worth your while.
posted by bonehead at 1:23 PM on January 10, 2006

Train baby.
There is an overnight train between the cities that is the bees knees.
Montreal is cool in a smarmy Leonard Cohen way. Tdot is about as urban as it gets in Canada. I'm in Ottawa...the unfortunate middle child with a complex.
posted by badkarmaboy at 1:27 PM on January 10, 2006

It's worth nothing that both Toronto and Montreal are designed around the need for people to be indoors frequently during the winter. (Well, the downtown cores, at least.) Toronto has the PATH system, connecting much of downtown, though not UofT, to subway stations, shopping, etc. Montreal has a similar system, I believe. There will always be warm places to duck into, too. So although it's oppressively cold at Young and Eglinton (I live at that corner,) the cold is totally livable.

Also: taking the train is seconded/thirded/n'thed. It's a long, sort of boring drive to Montreal. The trains run from downtown Toronto to downtown Montreal in comfort and speed.
posted by generichuman at 1:41 PM on January 10, 2006

On preview: too damn may commas. Too much writing today.

Also, have you checked out York University? It's in suburban Toronto, just past the tip of one of the subway lines. It's not a pretty place, but they're consistently reasonably well rated.
posted by generichuman at 1:44 PM on January 10, 2006

Also for the fun and funky disciplines:

Ryerson Polytechnic University, in downtown Toronto.
posted by generichuman at 1:45 PM on January 10, 2006

generichuman adds a good point - the two cities are indeed built around the (insufferable) weather that citizens must endure in winter and (ugh) in the summer.

Montreal has an underground tunnel network that I have not seen in other cities. A downtown underground network spanning several blocks with well-lit tunnels, areas to sit in, cafes, stores - augmented to the suburbs by a predictable and safe subway system. The bus system too is very very good (not like here in Vancouver)

Re UBC and Simon Fraser - both are good schools here in Vancouver, I have some experience with both, drop me a line at the email in my profile.
posted by seawallrunner at 2:38 PM on January 10, 2006

Good idea to take your daughter to these schools in the winter. I went to the University of Toronto, and having grown up in Vancouver, had absolutely no clue how cold it got and how looooong it lasted. But I made an excellent choice and had an amazing four years there. Yes, first year classes are big in the general courses you take, but after that, things get much more intimate and rewarding. In my third and fourth years I only had 6-20 people in each class (English Lit.). Also, a great thing about U of T is that each undergrad belongs to a college on campus (Victoria, Trinity, University, Innis to name a few) so you do belong to a community on such a large campus.

My one word of advice for choosing a Canadian university is to pick one that is well-known worldwide if your daughter is at all considering graduate or postgraduate work. When I went for my Cambridge interview for my MA, the only Canadian universities they had heard of were U of T, McGill, Queens and UBC. And I was told later that going to U of T helped my graduate (and later PhD) acceptance. Anyway - sorry this is long - if you want any other advice, feel free to email.
posted by meerkatty at 3:29 PM on January 10, 2006

Kingston is just about exactly halfway between Montreal and Toronto, such that the bus service that leaves each city at the same time pauses at the depot there at the same time. I don't think Kingston would be a very interesting place to spend a lot of time, though.

If your daughter is clever and adventurous, check out Université de Montréal, Université du Québec à Montréal and - if she really wants to experience the deep freeze - Université Laval in Quebec City. In Montreal, at least, the profs in many disciplines will accept papers written in English, even if the lectures are in French.
posted by zadcat at 4:01 PM on January 10, 2006

I personally like taking the train, though it can sometimes be a bit less than economical.

Big tip -- if you want a decent hotel rate in Toronto, try, and enter no more than $40 at the two-star level. I've gotten rooms for that much and less at some of the nicer 3- and 4-stars hotels that way.

Also, I graduated from U of T and work there currently, so feel free to send questions my way.
posted by greatgefilte at 4:56 PM on January 10, 2006

FWIW, WestJet has flights between various cities in California and Toronto or Montreal for between $200 and $400 each way.
posted by winston at 5:27 PM on January 10, 2006

Other universities to consider are McMaster (Hamilton), Uinversity of Western Ontario (London) and Univeristy of Waterloo (Kitchener-Waterloo).

I would be remiss if I didn't also reccomend the University of Ottawa and Carleton University. You can do the Toronto-Montreal-Ottawa triangle almost as fast as just Toronto-Montreal, and Ottawa is a much nicer city than either in my (biased) opinion.

Per the question though, VIA used to have overnight service between Toronto and Montreal, but they seem to have discontinued it. Pity. Anyway, the train is a much nicer, and more scenic way to travel. Driving the stretch from Toronto to Kingston always puts me to (near) sleep.
posted by Popular Ethics at 6:22 PM on January 10, 2006

jasper, i just this summer made pretty much the exact same move as your daughter will (if you decide on toronto, anyway) - from menlo park to U of T.

honestly, so far the winter hasn't been that big of a deal - a few days of very cold, pretty much as gray and wet as northern california during the winter, but the rest of the time not so bad. driving is only problematic if you're on the road while it's snowing, as they are very, very good at clearing it off up here.

i've never been to montreal, but i'm under the impression that it's a lot colder but less snowy than toronto. i think the weather here is comparable to detroit, buffalo, cleveland, or any of the other nearby american great-lakes region cities.

also, having visited a lot before i moved, i have flown the SFO-YYZ air canada flights many many times, and would just like to say that you can book those flights through united too, which code-shares with AC. united's customer service is way, WAY better than AC, so if given a choice i would book through them in a heartbeat. experience speaking here. i seem to remember flights to toronto being pretty cheap during the winter, around $300-$400 or so? america west has a flight w/ one stopover at $359. nonstop on united/AC for $440. is your friend here (use the my-dates-are-flexible search thingy).

enjoy your visit! feel free to email me if you have any questions (address in profile).
posted by sergeant sandwich at 7:59 PM on January 10, 2006

i've never been to montreal, but i'm under the impression that it's a lot colder but less snowy than toronto.

Montreal is much more snowy than Toronto , but we're also more professional at clearing it away.
posted by zadcat at 10:50 PM on January 10, 2006

To fit in and promote what I think is a really good school (in which I also attend!), try Brock University just outside Niagara Falls. It's fairly close to Toronto, but actually closer to Buffalo which could be convenient since you're American.

It's not small but not huge, but the quality of education is great. Beyond second year, all seminars and tutorials are lead by PhD's as opposed to under-paid and under-valued TA's.
posted by travosaurus at 11:39 PM on January 10, 2006

Regarding snowiness: I grew up in Ottawa. It gets much more snow than Toronto and pretty much any snow that falls after November stays until at least March. In Toronto, each major snowfall usually melts away before the next one. But from kindergarten through the end of high school in Ottawa I had a total of two days off school due to snow. In Toronto there are 4 to 5 days per year.

I expect that Montreal is similar to Ottawa.

About flights between Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal. You should be easily able to get flights for around $100 each way. I've flown about 10-15 times in this area in the past 4 months and never paid more than $170 CAD per leg (including all taxes, etc.). Remember that only Canadian airlines (e.g. Air Canada, WestJet) can have direct flights between two Canadian cities (just as only US-based airlines can have flights between two American cities).
posted by winston at 6:05 AM on January 11, 2006

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