Road Tripping To Canada For a Month
For those following along with my early retirement monthly updates, you’ll know the Root of Good family is heading north to Canada for the summer. At the end of June, we will pack our kids (age 2, 7, and 9) and a trunk full of gear into our trusty fourteen year old Honda Accord and set out on a 2,300 mile trek through the US and Canada for over a month.
After departing Raleigh, North Carolina, our route will take us through Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City. We will spend a few nights in Philly then a few more in New York City where we plan on catching the Fourth of July fireworks from the riverfront. When we leave New York City, we head north to Canada for almost a month. In order to break up the long driving segments, we will head to Montreal first, then proceed to Quebec City, Ottawa, and Toronto. Upon leaving Toronto, we’ll stop for a two night stay in Niagara Falls for the trip’s grand finale before heading back to Raleigh in early August.
How did we decide on Canada?
In the middle of winter, we tossed around a few ideas for a summer trip to celebrate our new found freedom from the working world. Except Mrs. Root of Good is still working “full time”! She requested a three month paid sabbatical from her employer but they denied her request. Instead, they offered her five weeks off (fully paid), and she can take her sabbatical next summer (if she makes it that long).
When we first started discussing potential destinations for our big summer trip, we didn’t know if Mrs. RoG would have off the full three months or some lesser period of time. We came up with locations literally all over the map. Somewhere in Asia like Thailand or Cambodia was our top choice, followed by Central or South America (Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala, Belize, or Chile). The least favorite choice at the time was driving north to Canada and stopping by a few US destinations on the way to and from our great neighbor to the north.
We were really excited about visiting Thailand and Cambodia. Then we thought about the really long flights and our two year old on those long flights. And the 90+ degree heat and high humidity. And our two year old. Sadly, we crossed Asia off the list for now, but hope to make it there sometime in the next few years.
Latin America was our next choice, and eventually we ruled it out as well. It’s a lot easier to get there (a long drive to Miami then a short to medium length flight to Central or South America). Some countries in Latin America have very favorable exchange rates right now. At some point, the “what about our two year old?” questions became too frequent. What if he gets sick? What if we’re halfway up the volcano and he’s too tired to walk any further? What if he overheats? What if we can’t find a comfortable place to stay for the night and have to sleep in the bus station? The overly cautious parental part of our brains overruled the otherwise rational parts of our brains that said “everything’s gonna be alright”.
Spain entered the list late in the game. Jed at Bucking the Trend is headed to Spain with his wife and two kids for a year. After reading Jed’s rave reviews and seeing other favorable footage of Spain, we figured it might be a nice place to stay for a couple months during the summer. We were looking at locations in the south of Spain in Andalusia such as Granada or Seville (or both) with visits to other parts of Spain and Portugal. For European countries, Spain is relatively affordable especially outside the largest cities.
Once we found out Mrs. RoG only had five weeks off this summer, we decided that wasn’t enough time to fully explore Spain and suffer through the long flights with a two year old in tow. By process of elimination, our last choice of driving up the east coast into Canada became our first choice.
Not that it’s a bad choice at all! I’ve always wanted to visit Philadelphia but it never made it to the top of our vacation list in years past. Now that we are driving north through Philly, we’ll get to visit for a few days. We will also visit New York City and Niagara Falls while driving to and from Canada. The main attraction of the trip is of course Canada, but we’ll be able to visit or revisit a few cool places on the way to Canada.
Why Canada? It offers a good mix of urban areas, forests, lakes, rivers, history, and culture. With an average high temperature around 80 degrees in the hottest part of summer, we will also be escaping the sweltering heat and humidity of North Carolina in July.
As part of our $32,000 annual early retirement budget, we included $5,300 for travel. This might not seem like a lot of money, but we are pretty good at stretching a budget and maximizing the fun units per dollar spent. For our trip to Canada, I have assembled a budget that totals $4,266. In reality, we’ll be shifting to our vacation budget some expenses normally incurred at home for things like groceries and entertainment, so the true cost will be less than $4,266 if we removed spending we would otherwise have at home. For the sake of giving a complete picture of our costs, I’ll leave the groceries in the trip budget presented here.
|Restaurant Meals||$35/day - lunch and sometimes dinner||$1,200|
|Gas||3000 miles @ $0.20/mile||$600|
|Parking||$20/day for half the days||$350|
|Transit||10 days at $25/day||$250|
|Sheration / Four Points||Philly, Toronto, Niagara Falls (8 nts)||31,000 pts|
|NYC Hotel||2 nts, incl. $50 off coupon @ Expedia||$192|
|AirBnB Apartment - Montreal||8 nights||$471|
|AirBnB Apartment - Quebec City||8 nights; incl. $25 discount||$446|
|AirBnB Apartment - Ottawa||7 nights, staying in Gatineau||$357|
|Barclay Arrival Plus bonus||$500 travel bonus for signing up||-$500|
|TOTAL LODGING||34 days/33 nights||$966|
|Entertainment/Admission Fees||$20/day for 10 days||$200|
|Souvenirs||who buys those things?||0|
|TOTAL TRIP BUDGET||34 days||$4,266|
The total budget of $4,266 for 34 days works out to $125 per day, or $25 per person per day. That puts us squarely in the “shoestring budget travel” category by many metrics. Our friends Jeremy and Winnie at Go Curry Cracker! spent an average of $92/day traveling the world in 2013. That’s just for the two of them, but they do “live it up” a bit more than we will. The Go Curry Cracker folks also stay in one place longer than we will. It’s cheaper to rent a place by the month than it is by the week or by the night.
Our biggest expense on the trip will be food. At $1,800 for restaurants and groceries for the whole trip, we will eat well. We plan on dining out for lunches almost every day and the occasional dinner out. I used $25 per meal as a guess of what we might spend on average for meals. Lunch tends to be cheaper than dinner, which will push the average lower. We might grab take out some days and save a few bucks on tip. We’ll probably end up at cheap restaurants pretty often, but definitely want to try a variety of cuisines on this trip. Some may be kid friendly, others not so much.
I’m hoping to find something like Groupon or Livingsocial for restaurant deals in the cities we visit in Canada. Taking 50% off the price of a low to moderately priced restaurant will go a long way toward keeping us within the $25/meal range.
We allocated $600 for groceries, which is about what we spend at home on groceries for a month. I did a little digging and found a few low cost grocery chains like No Frills, Maxi, and Super C which are convenient to our apartments in Canada. We won’t be able to optimize our grocery spending as much as we can at home, but buying groceries should be a lot cheaper and easier (and healthier!) than dining out for every meal. I have heard great reviews of markets like the Jean-Talon in Montreal that offer a lot of fresh produce, meats, and cheeses. There shouldn’t be a paucity of places that will accept our loonies (it’s what they call bucks in Canada) for good eats!
We’re also packing our incredible rice cooker and some kitchen essentials like a really sharp knife, a cutting board, and some spices to make basic cooking a little easier. For some meals, we will get some form of takeout meat for part of the meal and compliment it with fresh cooked rice and some veggies from the market.
Since we will be setting out on a 2,300 mile road trip and plan on driving around most of the cities we visit (for another 700 miles), we plan on spending a decent amount on gas. Gas is also more expensive in Canada than in the US. 3,000 miles at $0.20 per mile adds up to $600 on gas alone.
Driving around cities means parking somewhere. On-street parking is occasionally free, but we expect to pay for parking pretty often. I’ve allowed $20 per day for half the days of our trip, or $350 total (I rounded up). Some roads have tolls, so I stuck another $100 in the budget to cover whatever tolls we have to pay. We won’t be driving everywhere, so I allowed $25 per day for ten days for transit. New York City is one place we won’t be driving, so we will drop some cash on transit in the Big Apple for sure.
In the big Canadian cities we are visiting, the transit service seemed to be expensive at $3-4 per ride, while parking wasn’t as expensive as a city like NYC. The plan is to drive and pay for parking when it makes sense, and take transit when that option makes sense. With two adults and three kids, the cost of transit tickets can add up quickly and dwarf the cost of gas and parking. We are staying near the middle of downtown for all of our week-long stays in Canada, so we can walk to some destinations and take a short drive to other destinations. We also have the flexibility to time our trips for periods when traffic is light and parking is cheap or free (nights and weekends).
One remaining item on the to-do list is finding a GPS app for my phone that works in off-line mode. Ideally I could download the GPS data to my smartphone from our hotel or apartment and work off-line during the day when I won’t have constant internet access. Right now I’m investigating Sygic and Maverick GPS apps (both are free on Android) to see whether either one will work.
Another to-do item is requesting a Canadian insurance card from my insurance company. These are free to obtain with most (all?) US-based auto liability insurance policies. Apparently it’s important if you get pulled by the cops to have insurance that’s valid in Canada.
All hotel rooms and apartment rentals have been booked at this point, so the costs are fixed at $966 barring any unexpected last minute cancellations or changes outside of our control. We booked a nice two bedroom apartment in a quiet neighborhood for eight nights each in Montreal and Quebec City. In Ottawa, we booked a one bedroom apartment just across the river from downtown Ottawa in Gatineau, Quebec. The one bedroom rental was slightly cheaper than the two bedroom apartments. On average, we are paying $55 per night for the apartment rentals, which compares very favorably to the $100+ we would expect to pay at hotels that could accommodate a family of five. Not only are the apartment rentals cheaper, we will also have a full kitchen and living room so we can spread out, relax and enjoy real meals at home.
I used AirBnB.com for all the apartment bookings. They had the widest selection of properties available and they have a map-based search tool that makes it easy to find inexpensive (but nice) rentals in good locations around all the cities I looked at. If you want to check them out for your next trip, you can use my Airbnb referral link to get $25 off your first reservation. Using that discount, I saved $25 on my rental in Quebec City.
We saved another $500 on lodging costs by using the $400 bonus offer for the Barclay Arrival Plus card. After meeting the minimum spending requirement (currently $3,000), we received another $60 to use toward travel expenses, and each time you redeem travel rewards, you get a 10% rebate of the points expended. All together, we received $500 worth of travel redemptions between the sign up bonus and rewards for meeting the minimum spending requirement. The $500 redeemed toward lodging brings the total lodging expense down to $966.
In addition to the 23 nights of lodging booked through Airbnb, we also booked ten nights in hotels. We only paid for two hotel nights ($192) in New York City (booked with a $50 off coupon code on Expedia.com) where there weren’t any good Starwood/Sheration hotel redemption options. The other eight nights in a hotel were free courtesy of our Starwood Preferred Guest points that we received as a bonus for signing up for a Starwood Preferred Guest American Express credit card. The eight free hotel nights include three nights at a Four Points by Sheraton in Philadelphia, three nights at a Four Points by Sheraton in Toronto, and two nights at the Sheraton in Niagara Falls, New York.
Those hotels average $200+ per night normally, so we saved $1,600 by signing up for just one credit card. Add that to the $500 saved from the Barclay’s Arrival Plus card and we did pretty well on the travel hacking front with just two credit card sign up bonuses!
Rounding out our trip budget is $200 for entertainment and admission fees. So many things we want to do and see are free, but occasionally we’ll want to get into a park or museum that wants some of our hard earned money.
I didn’t include a “miscellaneous” expense category because I figure small incidental expenses like bug spray or suntan lotion will get lumped into the “grocery” category. We might have to spend a few bucks on laundry if we can’t wait until we get to one of the apartment rentals that comes with washer and dryer. Otherwise, I’ve included all the costs that I can foresee.
Edited September, 2014: We’re back home!. If you want to see how our summer trip to Canada went, check out the first five posts in the series:
- Part 1 – From Raleigh to Philadelphia
- Part 2 – A few days in New York City
- Part 3 – Settling into our apartment in Montreal
- Part 4 – Sights of Montreal
- Part 5 – Quebec City, Canada
- Part 6 – Trip Wrap up and Parting Thoughts
Have you ever traveled on a shoestring budget? Ever taken a long road trip?