Confession: Growing up in the States, I never once considered vacationing in Canada. I am a sun worshiper by nature and my only thought was COLD.

It was only after moving here with my Canadian husband that I realized just what I was missing – and how wrong I was! It is a beautiful country, with wide-open spaces, friendly people, and all kinds of adventures. The whole country is a hidden gem.

Do I need a Passport?

Yep. Or a NEXUS card.

Make yourself aware of what you can and can’t bring across the border. There are limits on things like alcohol and tobacco. If you’re driving across for a camping trip, buy your meats, fruits and vegetables after you get here. Packaged food is generally okay. If you’re a hunter, there are forms you need to complete in advance to bring firearms.

If you’re driving across the border, the Canadian government provides a website with border wait times, and there are some crossings that are much faster than others. For example, the main border crossing in Vancouver can get very busy, but the two just to the east have much shorter wait times. Planning ahead and deciding which crossing to use can save you time.

Money

Good news for you – the American dollar goes further in Canada. That $100 jacket you fell in love with? Guess what? $100 Canadian is typically $75-80 in US dollars, which is how it will show up on your credit card bill.  Canada does have a 5% national sales tax, plus local taxes are common, so be aware of that. Still, it’s nice to mentally take 20% off everything when you’re shopping.

More good news – Your VISA and MasterCard are widely accepted. While you can’t use your debit card for most purchases, you can get cash with most debit cards at Canadian ATMs.

Do you need cash? It’s always good to carry a bit of cash for things like bus fare, some vending machines, and the few places that don’t take credit cars. We have a $1 coin, called a “Loonie” because of the image of a loon on the back. The $2 coin is called a “toonie” (two + loonie) because we have a great sense of humour here. The penny was discontinued a few years ago, but nickels, dimes and quarters all have the same name as they do in the US.

Language

You don’t have to speak French – many people whose first language is French are bilingual in English, particularly if they work in the tourist industry. When I used to travel to Montreal for business, I noticed an interesting thing: Service people would wait for you to greet them and then address you in the language that you used. So at the ice cream shop, when I said, “Hi!” they’d say “Hi!” back and speak to me in English. When the next person said, “Bon jour!” they would respond “Bon jour!” and speak French to them.

Getting Around

The larger cities have excellent transit systems that are safe, easy to navigate, and well used. And public transit is well-established in many tourist destinations as well.

If you do drive, whether you rent a car or drive your own, here are a few things to know:

  • Your US drivers license is valid in Canada – no special permits are required to drive
  • Speed limits are in kilometers per hour. This is not such a big deal, as most speedometers show both. And it’s kind of fun to drive down the road going 100! (Even though 100 kilometers per hour is only 66 miles per hour, it feels faster!)
  • Winter driving conditions can be dangerous. Winter tires are required in many places from October 1st to April 30th. Not that we’re covered in snow the whole time, but storms do pop up.

Pets

We love our pets here, too. Dogs and cats require documentation of current rabies vaccines in order for you to bring them into Canada. If you’re flying in, our very own WestJet airlines is very pet-friendly and will allow some small pets in the cabin. Many hotels welcome pets and it’s pretty easy to find a dog park. Leashes are required in national parks.

Cannabis

Yes, it’s legal here. However, it is ILLEGAL to bring cannabis across the border in either direction, even in places where it is legal on both sides of the border. This goes for medical cannabis as well.

Phone service – 911

Cellular service is generally good, though there are blackout spots in some of the more remote areas. Be sure you get a roaming plan from your provider to avoid international charges. Wifi is widely available at hotels and restaurants, just like in the States.

Canada also has 911 service for emergency calls.

Weather

Yes, winter is longer and unexpected storms can pop up, so bring a variety of clothing and think layers. Summer doesn’t really start until late June (when summer actually starts on the calendar, oddly enough). It varies. I’ve seen snow in late September and hiked to the Lake Louise Tea Hut in 80-degree weather in mid-October. But it is so beautiful and there is nothing like a summer night where it’s light out until 11 p.m.

About Canadians

A family analogy works well here – we’re related, but not the same. And there’s a problem – Canadians in general know much more about the United States and Americans than than the other way around. That’s because we get ALL of the American news and television here, while Canadian news and television shows are rarely seen in the the US. Most Canadians live within 90 miles of the US border and we visit often. There is a definite knowledge gap – not your fault. So don’t assume they know nothing about the United States and be open to learning about Canada. I say this as an American who always visualized Canada in a rather vague way until I married a lovely Canadian man, moved here, and got to know these friendly, generous and good-natured people.

So…know that not everyone says “eh?” all the time. Almost no one pronounces “out and about” as “oot and aboot”.  Mounties, moose and beaver aren’t everywhere. Jokes about the cold wear thin quickly. It’s cool to say how cute our Prime Minister is, though.