Travel tips for visiting Toronto/Burlington ON
April 14, 2006 6:02 AM   Subscribe

Traveling alone to Toronto/Burlington ON for the first time in late July. I've never been to Canada at all. Tips please for a slightly nervous traveler.

I'm flying into Pearson, the conference & hotel is in Burlington. I'm assuming I would need to rent a car, or is there a reliable bus/subway I can use instead? I've already learned driving is on the right, but street cars and such confuse me. What do i need to be aware of, and how is driving there in general?

I've also learned that US dollars are accepted but I'll lose on the exchange when I get Canadian change. Someone suggested hitting an ATM upon arrival to minimize extra charges on credit or debit cards. Can I just use my US ATM card?

I'm sure I'll think of other things...thanks in advance for incoming sage advice!
posted by yoga to Travel & Transportation around Toronto, ON (29 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Can I just use my US ATM card?

Yes, and your bank will handle the exchange. You probably won't want to use US dollars for anything. In Maine, you can pay tolls and a few other things with Canadian currency, but the exchange is bad and clerks act like you're handing them used Kleenex. It will work the same way in the other direction.
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:14 AM on April 14, 2006

Driving from Toronto to Burlington would be same as driving outside any mid-sized city in the U.S. You will not notice a difference, I don't think.

I'd call your hotel for acurate directions from Pearson or for advice on airport bus service/taxi pricing.

Sadly, the only mass transit available at Pearson are Mississauga and Toronto local transit -- neither will get you to Burlington, which is west of Mississauga.
posted by girlpublisher at 6:36 AM on April 14, 2006

Best answer: Burlington is approximately 20-45 minutes from Pearson ariport (depending on traffic), while you might (might) be able to catch a GO bus, it would probably be in your best interest to get a rental car, which will give you the opportunity to do other travelling at convenience.

You can use your US bank card at any ATM, and you may be able to use in in most stores and restaurants directly (they will have a yellow Interac Pay Direct sign) depending on your service plan with your bank, and their network associations. You will want CAD, if you use USD you will definitely lose in the exchange at the store.

Street cars are mainly in downtown Toronto proper, if you drive there, they are basically treated just like a bus (you should yield to them), and in a few spots they do have a dedicated lane that is very obvious.

Driving follows pretty much the same rules as the US, though some of the differences I've noticed is - in the US if the speed limit is 70 MPH, people mostly top out aroung there, and the left lane remains open for passing. In Canada, if the speed limit is 100 KPH, people generally drive 110 - 120; with quite a few travelling at 130-140; people will cruise in the left lane. Although this may seem like the highway traffic law is lax, speeding tickets can be easy to come by, and going 140 in 100 zone would net you about a $300 ticket. On the highway, the best bet would be to travel in the center lane, at the flow of traffic leaving ample space in front of you.
posted by Mahogne at 6:36 AM on April 14, 2006

Are you coming from the states? Because Canada isn't much of a foreign country.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:37 AM on April 14, 2006

Where are you traveling from, yoga? You joke about driving on the right hand side of the road but have a US ATM card?
posted by anthill at 6:37 AM on April 14, 2006

Right, that confused me too.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:39 AM on April 14, 2006

You cannot use your ATM card at the point of sale as you can in the US, but you can use it in the bank machine. Carry cash as Tim Horton's (the coffee and donut mecca) does not take credit. Rent a car, as public transit inside Burlington itself SUCKS.

You have big US city traffic from Toronto to Burlington. Pay careful attention, as the signage from Pearson to the 403 is confusing. The drive from Pearson to Burlington can take up to 1.5 hours in rush hour (and only 30 minutes outside rush hour).

Burlington is boring. Don't expect to sight-see unless you are willing to drive to and park in downtown Toronto, which might be a bit much after a full day at a conference with a full day to follow. You can drive to downtown Toronto from Burlington in 30 minutes (light traffic) to 1:15 (bad traffic)/
posted by crazycanuck at 7:35 AM on April 14, 2006

You are going to a friendly place. Your ATM and credit cards will work fine, and the driving is easy as the roads are not crowded (even if you are used to driving on the wrong left side of the road). I always like to pick up at least a small amount of foreign currency at currency exchange before I leave just in case I have difficulty locating an ATM before catching a cab. I pay a premium for this little bit of insurance though.
posted by caddis at 7:37 AM on April 14, 2006

oops, sorry, I lied. Last time I was there I used my visa-logo debit card at a merchant that took credit cards, and that worked out fine. So you can use your ATM card at point of sale if it has the visa logo and the merchant takes credit.
posted by crazycanuck at 7:39 AM on April 14, 2006

Best answer: You might be able to take TTC to downtown Toronto and the GO train to Burlington. Proper Canadian people should chime in and say whether this would be more convenient than renting a car.

What do i need to be aware of, and how is driving there in general?

Metro Toronto is chock full of terrible, awful drivers, on the level of Boston or DC. A difference is that Boston/DC/NYC drivers are just very aggressive, but Toronto has a mix of aggressive morons and slow idiots who won't merge and won't signal and won't do anything except drive along slowly staring ahead in terror. It's not like you're going to be risking death or anything, just be prepared for bad drivers making your trip stressful.

If you are at an intersection and the light turns a flashing green, go. The flashing only means that the traffic in the other direction is being held for a few seconds so that people can turn left.

Someone suggested hitting an ATM upon arrival to minimize extra charges on credit or debit cards.

That works, and you can use your US ATM card. In my experience, pure debit cards don't work. I would not fear using a credit card, either; fees are small. That is, use whichever is convenient at the time, any fees are small enough to be outweighed by a convenience factor.

In Toronto, I would not bother with caddis' "insurance." There will 99% certain be an ATM in Pearson that you can use. If not, you will 99% be able to just use US currency for an hour until you get to an ATM or a business that will exchange your currency sans fee with purchase.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:59 AM on April 14, 2006

You assume yoga's currency is the US dollar, which assumption I believe is in error.
posted by caddis at 8:22 AM on April 14, 2006

Best answer: U.S. dollars are accepted in Canada the same way that, say, they would be France; which is to say, only at tourist destinations, and only at a heavy discount to face value. In Canada, people use Canadian money. I wouldn't take US dollars for any purchase, period, and neither will anyone in Burlington. The cabs at the airport probably will, but they'll gouge you shamelessly.

There is an ATM in the Pearson airport terminal you'll be debarking at, but it's not right at the exit. Go left inside the terminal until you come to it.

There's no easy mass transit from Pearson to Burlington. You can take a cab to your hotel, but then, as people have said, you're kind of far away from Toronto and would have to take the GO (light rail) to Toronto to sight-see. Driving is the same except for the flashing green light, which you should interpret as "green light with green left arrow". Yellow crosswalks in the middle of a block - if the lights are flashing and someone is trying to cross the street, you must stop and let them cross. If you drive in downtown Toronto and a streetcar stops, you must stop behind it and may not pass (because people are getting off/on). No streetcars in Burlington, as far as I know.

From Burlington, you could also sight-see to Niagara Falls, if you have a car of course.
posted by jellicle at 8:25 AM on April 14, 2006

There are certainly ATMs in every terminal in Pearson. I use them all the time. Don't bother with US cash. You'll take a 15% hit on just about everything. You can change anything left over at the airport when you leave.

Canadian and US debt cards don't work exactly the same way. You'll only be able to use a US card in an ATM, not at point of sale. The other alternative are credit cards---every major card in the US can be used in Canada. The only one you might have trouble with is AMEX. It has high merchant fees and not every retailer accepts it. Most restaurants and hotels will, though.

Certainly get a rental car to go to Burlington. You can take the GO train, but that may not be very convenient.
posted by bonehead at 8:36 AM on April 14, 2006

Best answer: There is a Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) bus that leaves Pearson Airport on a fairly regular basis. It's an express bus that goes to the Kipling subway station. Heading east from there will take you into downtown Toronto, but getting to a GO station that will take you out west to Burlington is a little tricky. Heading all the way from Pearson to Union station (depending on how long you have to wait for the bus at the airport) could easily take longer than an hour and getting to any of the GO stations further west of Union (Exhibition, Mimico, Longbranch) is very confusing unless you live in the city and are used to the extensive bus network that the TTC and/or Mississauga Transit operate.

In short, rent a car at the airport. I'm assuming this is a work trip so expense the rental and head south on highway 427 from the airport to the Queen Elizabeth way (or QEW) and head west towards Burlington. The merge from the 427 to the QEW is a little strange (and depending on the time of day, it might be very busy) but there is a lot of signage so if you pay attention you shouldn't have any problem. Once you're on the QEW it will take you right to Burlington and there are (I believe) 2 or 3 exits off the highway that will take you into the Burlington area (see mapquest). Once there, it is quite easy to get around the city and traffic is rarely heavy (there is not a lot to do in Burlington). With any luck, your conference and hotel will be right on the lakefront which is (IMO) the only decent place to go in the city in the warmer months of the year. If you're there on a weekend there is a good chance that something will be going on during the day or at night so check out signposts or pick-up a copy of the local paper (I can't remember what it's called).
posted by purephase at 8:39 AM on April 14, 2006

You assume yoga's currency is the US dollar, which assumption I believe is in error.

Okay. It seems odd that someone would have a US ATM card but no US currency, but okay.

U.S. dollars are accepted in Canada the same way that, say, they would be France; which is to say, only at tourist destinations, and only at a heavy discount to face value.

I can only assume that you've never walked around Toronto with a foreign person's point of view and so haven't noticed the little signs about US currency. I spend 2--3 months a year in Toronto (well, mostly North York) and I assure you that these little signs are all over the place, usually in restaurants or facsimiles thereof, and not just in the downtown core or touristy areas.

But you seem to be thinking that I'm telling yoga that (s)he should just not bother with getting CAD and just spend USD while lecturing people about why can't they use real money without beavers and why don't you execute your retards like real men do. This is not so. I am only suggesting that yoga should not bother with getting CAD from Thomas Cook's ahead of time for USD5 + 5% or whatever exorbitant fee they charge. Even if somehow all of the ATMs at Pearson were broken or empty, yoga would still be able to use USD to get to an ATM in a pinch. It's smarter to take that very small chance of very mild inconvenience than to lose nontrivial amounts of money at an exchangers for sure.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:15 AM on April 14, 2006

Best answer: If I understand your question correctly - you are coming to Canada from a country that drives on the other side of the road, for a few days' conference in a suburb of Toronto.

Save yourself from the bother of driving, particularly after a long flight into Canada. Save yourself the aggravation of driving on the 'wrong' side of the street. And save yourself the parking fees at the hotel.


It won't cost you as much. You will get to your hotel without getting lost. And, if the conference keeps you busy during the day - and likely in the evenings - that car is an albatross.

Regarding paying with US dollars, Starbucks coffee will take US cash and apply an exchange rate. You can buy coffee, pastries and sandwiches there. However, you still have to find the Starbucks and you have to like their food.

Alternatively, you can pay for all meals by charging them to your room (eg eat at the hotel). Likely the conference will feed you - so again, this might not be much of a worry.

I am Canadian and although I currently live on the Wet Coast, I was born and raised near Toronto. Our reputation as a 'polite' country is well earned. Of course, I am comparing generalities with generalities... If you spent time in Britain or Scandinavia, you will find many points of affinity with Toronto and Burlington. You will find Toronto people to be approachable yet a little remote - not overtly friendly but helpful. YMMV of course.

So, in summary: save yourself the aggravation - take a taxi to your hotel. Take some basic money out of the airport ATM ($60 - 100 should suffice for incidentals) then charge everything to your credit card or to your hotel. There are MANY more ATM machines on street corners if you run out (most of Canada's ATMs are on the Interac network - they all talk to one another and to banks outside of the country).

Most of all, have fun: Canada is a beautiful immense country. Visit the CN Tower if you spend time in Toronto downtown. There are also some beautiful museums to see (AGO) and of course someone already mentioned Niagara Falls (go with a tour). Have fun in your conference!
posted by seawallrunner at 9:27 AM on April 14, 2006

Response by poster: Sorry about the confusion and delay in clarification you guys. I'm coming from the US. It's been a long time since I was out of the country, and I've never been to Canada, hence the jitters.

Thank you all so much for the very helpful info! I feel better now!
posted by yoga at 10:18 AM on April 14, 2006

crazycanuck writes "You cannot use your ATM card at the point of sale as you can in the US, but you can use it in the bank machine. "

Incorrect. If your ATM can access the Interac system, you should almost certainly be able to use it for point of sale transactions.

As for transportation from Pearson, don't take the TTC. It's a long ride. Get on the GO bus (there should be signs; if not, airport staff can direct you), which will take you to Yorkdale TTC station. From there, you go south to Union station. Follow the signs and you'll get to the GO trains and buses, either of which will get you to Burlington. Taking a taxi to Burlington from Pearson, depending on the traffic, is going to cost you a shitload of money. $60-80 minium, I think.

Burlington is a hole. A barren, depressing wasteland. Given that you'll be in one of Canada's two major wine areas, I suggest you take (if they're being offered this early) a wine tour. Won't be too expensive, and you'll get to sample wines and such, some of the best in Canada. Especially if you go to Inniskillin, and do as my grandmother did--she talked the cellarmaster into taking her down to the actual cellars and giving (!) her a bottle of icewine. 'Course, it's easier to do that when you're an incredibly proper lady from New Zealand.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 10:33 AM on April 14, 2006

Incorrect. If your ATM can access the Interac system, you should almost certainly be able to use it for point of sale transactions.

Bank machines don't use Interac. For example, TD Canada Trust uses the PLUS network. (reference)

The local paper in Burlington is called the Burlington Post. It is useless. You can take the 427 or the 403 to get to the QEW, which will take you to Burlington. Tim Hortons is more prevalent in Burlington than Tim Hortons. Access to public transit in Burlington from the GO train station is horrible (outside of rush hour); you will have to take a cab back to your hotel from the GO station.
posted by crazycanuck at 11:01 AM on April 14, 2006

I just got back from Toronto less than a month ago.

Turned out, although I could use my atm card there, and at point of purchase (it has a visa logo), I was charged $1.50 "exchange fee" by my bank with every transaction.

Since I was using the card for EVERYTHING all weekend, it added up to a decent sum of money. May be worth calling your bank and finding out what their policy is, I wish I had just changed a couple hundred dollars at the duty free instead, it would have saved me a ton.

my old bank never did this, so it isn't universal. But it is certanly worth finding out about. I'd have taken money out here and changed it at duty free had I known I'd be socked with $50+ US in fees.
posted by Kellydamnit at 11:20 AM on April 14, 2006

Near Lake Ontario, highway directions are often either Torontobound or Niagarabound, N-S-E-W just aren't very relevant when you are trying to go around the tip of the lake to get somewhere.

I agree about heading for Niagara instead of Toronto if you have extra time - either by rental car or bus tour, to see wine or the falls, or whatever. You might even do your tourism in Hamilton (right next door toward Niagara), which is said to be a very nice city. I only ever see it from the highway though, so I don't believe it (all you can see from the QEW is steel mills). Toronto is great, but you will be hamstrung by the traffic and poor public transit between downtown and Burlington.

And yes, you can probably use USD almost anyplace, some non-touristy places won't like it, and you won't get USD pricing or USD change. Keep some around though, if you hit a touristy place they might give you a better exchange rate than the bank - this often happens on both sides of the border to encourage the foreigners.
posted by Chuckles at 11:39 AM on April 14, 2006

Best answer: I live in Hamilton, the city to the southwest of Burlington, I spend my weekends in Burlington.

Yes, the GO train will certainly save you some aggravation instead of driving in from the airport (getting out of the airport can be an adventure in itself). However, just one word about the GO train - if you are leaving back home on a Sunday, the train doesn't run out of Burlington - only Oakville (the town inbetween Mississauga and Burlington). However, I believe you can get a bus from the Burlington or Appleby GO Stations into Oakville, or take Airways transit or a taxi to the airport.

There is lots of fun stuff to do in Niagara region in the summer, even Niagara Falls. Burlington isn't that touristy (not like Niagara) and finding places that take USD won't be a problem per se, but it might be a bit of a hassle, so it just might be easier to get some bucks in CAD for tips and coffee shops and use your credit card for everything else.

If you are a nature lover, Hamilton and Burlington are home to the Niagara Escarpment and the Bruce Trail, which makes for some wonderful walking and hiking. Hamilton has something like 60+ waterfalls in various places because of the escarpment.

Walking Trails in Hamilton and Burlington
Tourism Burlington

Feel free to email me with any more questions - if you can give me more information about the hotel you are staying at, I can give you more information about the GO train - I take it quite frequently on trips into Toronto.
posted by Cyrie at 2:59 PM on April 14, 2006

Only use US money if you want to be treated with confusion (and slight resentment) rather than a smile and no hassle. Even in Niagara Falls, where American money is accepted more than anywhere else in Canada, it's still a major hassle that is going to likely make almost every transaction somewhat longer and highly unenjoyable.

Plus, I have always found that it is somewhat rude to go to a country and not use their currency. Canadian money is kind of cool, as well. It's colourful, and well-meaning.
posted by travosaurus at 4:18 PM on April 14, 2006

Oh, if you do choose to get some Canadian money out of the bank - we don't have bills for the $1 and $2 denominations (not sure how long it's been since you've been here). We use coins - loonies for $1 and twoonies for $2. Can be a bit confusing to get sometimes a fist full of change back when you hand over a $10 bill for a $2 purchase. I still get a bit disoriented when I get a bunch of bills back when I buy something in the US.
posted by Cyrie at 4:44 PM on April 14, 2006

I would suggest checking the foreign currency charges on your credit cards before leaving. An awful lot of USian credit cards have added foreign exchange fees in the last year or two, including AmEx (which surprised me).

If you have a credit card that doesn't charge fees, or has low exchange fees, they are usually cheaper than ATMs to use in Canada.

Avoid the currency exchange booths in Pearson. You'd do better changing cash at a bank.
posted by QIbHom at 8:26 AM on April 15, 2006

If you are going to rent a car at Pearson, your are going to be paying a lot of extra cash on nothing. Almost every rental company at Pearson charges an addition 15% premium location charge to rent out of the airport. Instead, take a taxi to the closest off airport rental site and save the 15% not to mention possibly getting a much cheaper rental.
I work for a rental company in TO, and the 15% will add up huge on a long stay.
Have fun in TO. We're having some awesome weather right now
posted by kevin_2864212 at 9:45 AM on April 15, 2006

crazycanuck writes "Bank machines don't use Interac. For example, TD Canada Trust uses the PLUS network."

Looking at my TD card, I see Interac and Plus. My card will work on either of those systems--and Interac is accessed by bank machines. All POS transactions are run through interac.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 11:28 AM on April 15, 2006

Oh, and if you're going to bars/ restaurants... If you want really, really good service, tip in American dollars, but tip the face value as if you were using Canadian. With the exchange rate as it is, you won't be spending very much more, and I can guarantee you'll have happy, happy servers.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 11:41 AM on April 15, 2006

Factors we don't know include your length of stay, disposable time and ambitions beyond your business here.

I'm not a Burlington guy but public transit from Pearson seems like an insane idea -- long, confusing and circuitous.

If you have no sightseeing ambitions (you're in for the conference, and out again) I would take a cab. You should be able to get a flat rate. This is still probably a good idea if you're a city guy and you'd prefer to spend any leisure time exploring Toronto (which is well worth doing). You could commute from Girlington to downtown easily and there is plenty there within walking/cabbing distance to keep you interested for a day or two, no matter what your tastes.

If the idea of Niagara appeals -- and I would highly recommend this as well -- then we're talking car rental. . Niagara Falls is cool but extremely touristy. Pretty Falls, good casino. A day well spent. Niagara-on-the-lake is a small, quaint, picturesque town surrounded by some fine wineries.

Avoid Hamilton at all costs.

You're coming at the perfect time of year (don't go buy a parka). Feel free to post another question when your intinerary and intentions are nailed down a little more and I'm sure there will no shortage of more specific suggestions that would help you enjoy your time in this strange and foreign land.
posted by raider at 10:00 AM on April 16, 2006

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