Planning a Trip to Banff National Park • A Step By Step Guide

Planning a trip to Banff is extremely easy, and there aren’t many destinations you can say that about! However, if you’re still unsure where to start with your Banff trip we have you covered.

We visited this little mountain town a few years back and fell in love so much that we decided to move to the Canadian Rockies.

There’s really nowhere quite as special as Banff National Park. Whether it’s the winter or summer in Banff there is so much to do in Banff it’s impossible to get bored. You’ve picked an amazing outdoor destination in the world to travel to, now let’s make sure all your Banff plans line up!

So You’re Planning a Trip to Banff, eh?

Decide When You Want to Visit Banff

Planning a trip to Banff
Lake Louise in July

The first thing you need to do when planning your trip to Banff is to decide when you want to visit. Banff is wonderful all year round, but the two high seasons are between December-February for Christmas in Banff and skiing in the Rockies, and of course the summertime between June and August.

Banff’s shoulder seasons are May, September, and October and you’ll find slightly discounted prices on everything.

March, April, and November are Banffs low seasons, that doesn’t mean they are a bad time to travel – they just might be less than ideal for you. March sees cold winter weather still, but the skiing is still great. While April, is chilly, but things start to warm up by the end of the month, it’s also spring skiing at it’s finest.

Things are what you might expect during the month of November. Cold, dreary, and there’s probably gonna be some snowfall. The lakes are frozen – but hey – at least the ski resorts are opening up!

In my opinion, summertime is the Crème de la crème in Banff, but it’s also the busiest time. If you don’t mind cooler temps perhaps September is the best time for you to visit. You can see my full breakdown of the best time to visit Banff here.

Set Your Banff Budget

Planning a trip to Banff
Vermillion Lakes in June

Banff is far from the cheapest place to visit, but it’s also not very expensive either. A trip to Banff can honestly be as cheap or expensive as you want it to be. It’s definitely possible to have an awesome trip to Banff for under $50 a day. Keep in mind at the time of writing the Canadian Dollar is much lower than the USD so you may also get bang for your buck on the exchange rate.

The best ways to keep your budget down is to plan your trip to Banff outside the high season months, split car rental prices, purchase a Parks Canada Pass if you’ll be here for more than three days, cook your own food, and do more hiking – less touristy attractions.

What do I mean by more hiking – less touristy attractions? Well, Banff is smack dab in the mountains. That means if you want to enjoy them to their fullest you can either hike among them or you can go to a few of the attractions like the Banff Gondola, Glacier Skywalk, or Mt Norquay Via Ferrata. These types of Banff attractions gives you easy access to the mountains, but they are expensive and will add to your cost.

If you are fit and able I highly recommend skipping these types of things and hiking for free. For instance, you can either pay over $60 for the Banff Gondola or hike 1.5 hours up Sulphur Mountain instead. I’m not knocking on these attractions. They are great in making the mountains available to ALL, but they are not cheap.

Book Your Flights to Alberta

Planning a trip to Banff
Lake Louise in December

Okay so you have planned out when you want to visit Banff, you have set a budget, now it’s time to book your flight. If you’re flying to Alberta you have two main options for international flights: Calgary and Edmonton. Calgary is a little over an hour from Banff National Park and is by far the larger and more connected airport to fly into. It’s more expensive to fly to Edmonton, but if you plan to spend more time in Jasper National Park it’s not a bad option.

The best news about flying into Calgary is it’s by far the most chill airport I’ve ever flown in and out of, and I’m guessing I’ve been in over 200 airports in my life!

Book a Rental Car

Move to Canada
The first day we bought our car here!

You have a few options for getting to Banff National Park. Rental car, public bus, or transfer services like the Banff Airporter. You can see the details of all those options here.

If you want to explore Banff on your own free time and have complete flexibility you’re going to want a rental car. It’s best to rent your car from Calgary, but shop around for prices. Sometimes it’s much cheaper to rent from the city center than from the airport, although much less convenient. We saved over $100 by renting a car from Downtown Calgary than from Calgary International Airport.

If you have driven in the US and feel comfortable, you are more than capable to drive in Canada, it’s pretty much the exact same. The only difference would be if you are driving in Banff in the winter. If you are driving in the mountains during the winter you should have snow tires and have experience with winter driving. Read all our tips for renting a car in Canada here.

Book Your Banff Hotel

Things to do in Banff around Christmas
In front of the Chateau Lake Louise

Next you’ll want to book your hotel in beautiful Banff National Park. Most people will probably book a hotel in Downtown Banff, though there are some options in the wilderness, and around Lake Louise. You can see all the best hotels in Banff here.

Between June and August accommodation prices will be at their highest, and it’s best to book in advance.

Plan Out Your Days

Moraine Lake
Moraine Lake in August

You’ve got most of the transport and logistics down, now it’s time to actually plan our your days in Banff. We have put together a few extensive and awesome Banff itineraries for multiple days here.

Here’s a few examples of things you can do (but it’s best to look at the itinerary post):

  • Sunrise at Moraine Lake
  • Canoe on Lake Louise
  • Hike Around Lake Louise
  • Dinner at The Fairmont
  • Drive the Icefields Parkway
  • Stand Up Paddleboard on Bow Lake
  • Take in the Views at Peyto Lake

Buy Outdoor/Hiking Gear

Planning a trip to Banff
In my Down Jacket in July

Theoretically, you can come to Banff National Park in whatever you want, but keep in mind this is an outdoor destination and it’s best to be prepared for the wilderness.

I’m not saying you need to know how to start a fire from scratch and survive in the woods for three days, but things like a hat, gloves, and jacket will come in handy – even in the summer.

Yes, it’s Canada, and yes it gets very cold here, even in the middle of August we wear down jackets. You can see my full Banff packing list here.

In general some items you definitely need for a trip to Banff National Park are:

Leave the high heels and short dresses at home, seriously there is no where to wear them here.

Travel to Alberta

Planning a trip to Banff
Lake Louise in August

You’ve got your flight tickets, hotel reservation, and all the backpacking essentials you could possibly need. Now it’s time to get to Alberta and marvel in the beauty.

Once you get to Calgary don’t waste any more time. Wake up early and stay up late. In the summertime, the sun rises before 5 am and sets well after 10 pm. It’s going to be some full, but awesome days. Don’t worry you can sleep when you’re dead.

Purchase a Parks Pass

I mentioned a Parks Canada Pass briefly above. Any visitor to Banff needs to purchase a park pass before entering the park. Day passes for adults are $9.80. If you are staying longer than a week it’s probably worth it to buy either a seasonal adult pass ($67.70) or a Family pass which gets you access for a car full up to seven people for $136.40. If you have a family and are staying longer than three days it’s definitely worth it to get the Family Pass.

Don’t try to cheat getting a Parks Pass. They do issue tickets to rental cars at Banff parking lots.

Keep Your Schedule Flexible

Things to do in Canmore
Canmore Sunset

While it’s advisable to plan out the highlights of your trip I also can’t recommend enough to keep your Banff schedule flexible. One thing to know when planning a trip to Banff is that activities will come up. Many that you didn’t know about, but you will likely want to do while you’re here and you’ll want time in your schedule to allow that.

I also recommend carving out some time to adventure out of Banff National Park while you’re in Alberta. Spend a day in Calgary, head to Canmore, or venture up to Jasper National Park.

Dine In All the Best Places

Things to do in Banff
At Banff Ave Brewing

As far as small mountain towns go, the Bow Valley sure has a lot of fantastic restaurant options. Yes, we may be in the middle of the Canadian Rockies, but you can get anything your heart desires in Banff and Canmore.

Indian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Pizza, Brazilian, Fondue – it’s all served here! Some places may require reservations during the holiday season and in the middle of summer so if you have your eye on somewhere it may be wise to call ahead. Here are some of our favorite restaurants in Banff and our favorite places to eat in Canmore.

Take Memories Leave Only Footprints

Planning a trip to Banff
Our famous Elk!

I know I don’t have to say this as many of you respect nature, but just a gentle reminder that Banff is a special place. Please keep the Canadian Rockies as clean, or cleaner than you found them, and leave the wildlife alone!

I’ve seen a huge difference here in the summer months with trash and disrespect in the park. In major hot spots like Lake Minnewanka and Two Jack Lake there are garbage bins literally everywhere, make sure to use them and don’t leave garbage behind. This includes orange peels, banana peels, and apple cores too – do now just throw them on the ground, they take forever to decompose and can attract bears in causing human/wildlife conflict.

If there is no trash can around, carry everything out with you until you can access one. And yes, please don’t harass any wildlife. If you’re lucky enough to see a bear, elk, mountain goat, or moose while visiting Banff stop briefly, snap a photo, and move on. And don’t get out of your car. This is called a “bear jam” and it happens a lot more than you would think here. It’s not only harmful to you but also stressful for the bear.

We Have an Entire Website on Banff!

We live in this beautiful area of the world and want to make sure you have an epic time in the wilderness. Check out The Banff Blog for more travel information.

Banff Blog 4

Plan Your Trip to Banff

Travel Insurance

We don’t travel without travel insurance and neither should you. You never know what can happen in a foreign country and it’s best to be prepared. World Nomads provides good short term coverage

SafetyWing is perfect for digital nomads. See our full review here!

Accommodation in Canada

To feel more at home we use Airbnb you can check out some tips and read more about getting an Airbnb coupon code hereOr just take this coupon for your first stay!

Hiking/Daypack Backpack

You’re going to need something to carry your belongings in while your traveling around Jasper. Even if you’re not doing extensive hikes you need at least something small for day trips. My favorite daypacks are from Camelbak.

Beach Packing List Sunglasses

Make sure to protect your eyes from the sun in Canada. There are a lot of options for sunglasses and everyone should own at least a pair. It’s best to make sure they do have UV protection for the health of your eyes. We made our first investment in quality polarized sunglasses with a pair of SMITH Optics Lowdown 2.

Danner Mountain 600 Mens Travel Boots
Hiking Shoes or Boots

If you’re wondering what necessities to bring to Banff then sturdy shoes are perhaps the most important thing you will need before you get to Canada. I love my Merrell Moab Ventilators and have been going strong in them for two years! Check out my other recommendations on women’s shoes, and we have a post on the best safari boots.

Best Down Jackets
Down Jacket

Down jackets pack up light and small so there is no reason NOT to have one in your bag. Seriously it could save your life in a bad situation. We wrote a whole post on our favorites (hint –Feathered Friends, Arc’Teryx Cerium LT Hooded JacketPatagonia Down SweaterREI Coop Down Jacket)

Packable Rain Jacket - Arcteryx Women’s Beta SL Gore-Tex Jacket
Goretex Shell

We’re building up a collection of shell jackets. We always carry one in our pack and they’ve come in handy a number of times. They are lightweight, durable, packable, waterproof, and windproof. We have a bunch of different shell jackets after several years, but my favorite right now is from Arc’teryx.

Best Travel Water Bottles
Water Bottle

Please consider purchasing a travel water bottle before your trip! We hate to see one time use plastic bottles ending up in the ocean. The tap water is so good here – seriously please don’t be one of those tourists that buys plastic water bottles in Jasper. It’s a waste of money and plastic!

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