Cross-Canada trip: mode of transport?
March 4, 2008 8:26 PM   Subscribe

My girlfriend and I are planning a trip across Canada. Should we rent a car or take the train?

We are currently living in Toronto and want to visit my family in Kelowna, British Columbia. Currently, the big question is how to get there. We've agreed we're not interested in air travel. Neither of us owns a car, so if we went that way we would have to rent. The train seems promising, but is it more or less expensive than renting a car, once you factor gas in and extra km? Oh, and food/accommodation, of course.

I think the train would be less of a headache and probably (in the end) less expensive. But we would have more flexibility to see different places with the car... time is not an issue btw. We have about 9 weeks for the trip, and we're happy to make a sizable portion of that about enjoying the process of travel.

Our travel budget at this point is somewhere around $5000.

So. I turn to the hive mind to share experiences, insights, potential oversights, things to look out for, things to consider - any and all input that will help us have the most pleasurable travel experience possible.
posted by ndicecco to Travel & Transportation around Canada (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The main determining factor is whether or not you want a car while you are in Kelowna. If you do want one, then it might be worthwhile to shop around and get the best rental rate you can for those 9 weeks (or you might consider buying a used car and selling it again once you are done, though that introduces more hassle). If you don't want the car while you are in Kelowna, you'll have to pay a lot for two one way rentals, so the train starts to look a little better, but will likely end up costing you more in the end. Assuming you won't be paying extra kilometre charges, the cost of gas is pretty insignificant (in a reasonably efficient car, ~$300 one way) compared to the cost of train fares. If you do keep a rental car for the whole 9 weeks, I don't think you'd have any trouble with the daily kilometre allowance (for example, 200km a day would be more than enough).

That said, I've done the drive and I didn't find that I had a lot of fun in Northern Ontario or on the prairies. I'd imagine that the train would be much more pleasant for those sections.

Are you aware of the passes offered by Viarail? You can get a National pass and a North American pass, both lasting for a month, for not much more than the cost of a cross-country ticket. You could make the trip in segments (be warned though that the train only travels every couple days on the main East-West route) and stop in cities (Winnipeg, Edmonton, Saskatoon) or to rent a car for a short trip (e.g. in the Rockies so you can drive the Icefields Parkway). You'd also have other options like going to the Maritimes first, visiting Churchill, or going to Vancouver & Vancouver Island. If you buy another month's pass, you could return through the US as well.

If I were in your shoes and didn't mind spending thousands of dollars on train fares, I'd take the train. If you'd rather not spend so much on transport, look into a used car or try to find a cheap longer term rental.
posted by ssg at 9:00 PM on March 4, 2008

Contrary to SSG I wanted to say I thoroughly loved the drive cross-country both times I did it. I particularly loved driving through Ontario north of Sault Ste-Marie. Really gorgeous terrain. I'm not sure how the train route corresponds to the highway there but I always recommend people make the drive if they have the opportunity at hand. I would do it again in a second if I could.

(I must point out that Ontario is almost half-way across already; this is not a cross-country drive.)
posted by loiseau at 9:13 PM on March 4, 2008

In regards to ndicecco's comment about if you want a car in Kelowna:

I've lived here in K-town since June sans car, and you want a car in Kelowna. Now, you may have access to one anyways when you're here, in which case it's reasonably irrelevant.
posted by Lemurrhea at 10:31 PM on March 4, 2008

I have done both - drive across and train it, and nothing beats a sleeper car on the train, plus you get to meet all sorts of characters in the bar car at night. Assuming you have car access in Kelowna thru the relatives, I would take the train. Plus, it is kind of romantic to lie there at night and watch the prairies go by. And driving seems like it would be fun, but there aren't a lot of places to stop that are that interesting between Banff/Calgary and Ontario. Sorry, prairie people! But the prairies are not fun to drive.
posted by kristin at 10:38 PM on March 4, 2008

I second Kristin, having done both. The prairie is nice and all but looks a lot better from the train because you're not scraping bugs off the windshield every couple of hours. The idea of a rail pass allowing you to get off at various cities sounds like a great idea to enhance the journey. Rent a car, drive around for a day, come back and leave the driving to the engineer. Love those sleeper cars at night, though. rock on.
posted by ptm at 3:24 AM on March 5, 2008

I made that same trip by car a few years back, but only over 4 weeks. Some rental places don't charge for extra kms. I think I used Avis. Also, the major expense when renting is insurance. But some credit cards cover insurance on rental cars. That alone can cut your rental costs in half.
posted by trigger at 5:48 AM on March 5, 2008

You could take the train and then do a few short-term rentals in/near Kelowna if you want more options once you're there.
posted by bassjump at 7:44 AM on March 5, 2008

I think both are great ideas. I just wanted to point out the option of driving through the US, where gas would be considerably cheaper, for what it's worth.
posted by billtron at 9:07 AM on March 5, 2008

Given the fact that you have $5000 to spend for the trip and enough time, it would be better to travel by car, just for the flexibility it offers.
You could travel without any plans and even visit all those small sites alone the way.
posted by WizKid at 1:59 PM on March 5, 2008

I would second travelling through the US if saving money is the goal. Not only is gas cheaper, but you'll shave a lot off the distance. Getting from Toronto all the way over the lakehead to northwestern Ontario takes a lot longer than the southern route (Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Mpls.)
posted by evilcolonel at 3:45 PM on March 5, 2008

Not only is gas cheaper, but you'll shave a lot off the distance.

While the gas is cheaper and you'll get there faster because you can drive faster, the distance is actually roughly the same (according to Google maps: 4079km through the USA, 4034km staying in Canada). Also, you'll probably burn more fuel going through the USA because the higher speeds are less fuel efficient (unless you are going to travel slower than most everyone on the interstate).
posted by ssg at 4:37 PM on March 5, 2008

have you considered taking the bus?
posted by canoehead at 6:22 PM on March 5, 2008

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