One of the greatest joys in life is to take a Canadian road trip. There’s nothing like hitting the highway and exploring all the best the country has to offer.
The only way to do this though is with your own Canadian rental car. Renting a car in Canada is an easy process, but there are still a few things you should know before you get here.
Tips for Renting a Car in Canada
Planning your trip to Canada
Having a rough idea of where you want to go on your Canadian road trip before leaving home will make the process of renting a vehicle a whole lot simpler when you get there. You probably at least know what province or territory you are visiting. Knowing your start and end points in Canada – most likely dependent on where you’re flying into and out of – will be where you should pick up and drop off your vehicle.
The largest airports in Canada are Toronto Pearson International Airport, Vancouver International Airport, Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, and Calgary International Airport. Depending on where you’re going, one of these airports could be where you’re flying into.
Booking your rental vehicle in Canada
It’s advisable to pre-book your rental vehicle, which is why it’s important to know the location you’ll be looking to rent it from. It’s straightforward to do online. Though it’s unlikely a rental agency will ever run out of vehicles, turning up without a booking means the company might not have any of the size or type of car you’re looking for, and will also result in higher last-minute pricing.
You’ll need to be at least 21 years of age to rent a vehicle in Canada, those aged 21 to 24 will be likely be hit with a surcharge (since this age group is statistically most likely to have an accident). Similar charges sometimes exist for those over the age of 75, for the same reasons.
Those with a US license or International Drivers License (in English, French, or with English translation) can rent a car in Canada. If your license is in another language or uses Chinese, Arabic, Cyrillic, etc characters you will need an English translation. An International Driving Permit (IDP) is always recommended, but not mandatory for renting a car in Canada.
If you’re traveling as a group, it’s worth considering whether to name more than one driver. Doing this, you can divide up the driving time – but most rental agencies will charge you more for the privilege of having multiple drivers on the rental.
So, if you have specific requirements (see choosing your rental vehicle below), or want to keep costs to a minimum (and who doesn’t?), it’s doubly important to pre-book! A few sites I like to compare rates on are:
- RentalCars.com: Provides comparisons for car rentals in Canada.
- AutoEurope: I can often find deals here for car rentals in Canada.
- Discover Car Hire: Searches rental car prices around the globe.
Both times we have rented a car in Canada it has been with Enterprise. They are usually slightly more expensive, but provide excellent service and reliable cars.
Choosing your rental vehicle
Canadian drivers drive on the right side of the road, similar to the US. Honestly, American drivers won’t notice any difference in driving styles in Canada. Driving in Canada is extremely similar to driving in the US.
Unlike Europe, Most rental cars in Canada have an automatic transmission. Though it’s still possible to rent a manual car in Canada. Make sure to read your booking carefully so you know what transmission type you have selected.
When booking a rental car in Canada it’s extremely important to pick one that is suitable for the time of your visit. If you are visiting Banff, or any mountains in Canada a 4×4 vehicle should be considered. Four-wheel drive vehicles cost more, but they can be necessary for road trips in the mountains.
If you don’t want to rent a 4×4 at the very least get a car with snow tires in the winter. Remember that just because you rent a car in Canada in February doesn’t mean you will be given snow tires. You have to specifically request these from the rental agency and they may carry an additional fee. Some provinces in Canada, like British Columbia, actually require that you have snow tires on your car when traveling in the winter.
In the summertime, a normal sedan will work fine just about anywhere in Canada. However you will notice many huge trucks driving around.
Arriving to a rental office without a booking will almost certainly cost you more. Understandably, the larger the vehicle you rent, the higher the price will be.
Making life a little more complicated, any prices you see online will be a ‘from’ price. In other words, the lowest possible price your rental could be theoretically. You’ll only find the actual cost (generally somewhere close to the ‘from’ price) when going through the booking process to the end.
As is the case when renting a car almost anywhere in the world, you are responsible for fuel costs when renting in Canada which means returning your rental car to the agency with a full fuel tank or at least what they gave you the vehicle at.
These days, agencies will be happy to fill up the vehicle themselves on its return, but it will generally cost you more than visiting a gas station yourself. There are always gas stations near the airport that you can fill up at before you return the car. Don’t be surprised by the cost of gas either, it’s a bit more than in the US at $1.34 (CAD) per LITER (not gallon). Prices vary between provinces.
If you decide to pick up your rental car in Canada at one location and return it to another, just be aware that this is another way rental agencies have of adding to the overall price. Even if the locations are in the same city, if they are not the exact same location you will be charged a one way rental fee.
Lastly, if you are planning to do extensive driving around Canada make sure that your rental has unlimited mileage. Some rentals come with a cap on how much you can drive during the rental period. The mileage on the car will be noted before you leave and recorded when you return. Anything over your given mileage will be charged extra.
More on Pick Up and Drop Off
After all the paperwork is sorted with the rental company, you’ll be asked if you want to be shown around the vehicle. We always feel a little foolish agreeing to this, but it’s always worth it! Unless your rental vehicle is exactly the same as the car you have at home, several systems are likely to be different.
When the agent shows you around, make sure you ask them to show you how all the essential systems function. When you depart, you should be completely happy with using the vehicle – remember, you are legally responsible for it. So, make sure you know how to operate the headlights, indicator lights, hazard lights, and windscreen wipers. Also, be sure to understand how to engage reverse gear (sometimes you need to hold down a button or similar), and how to open the petrol flap and the trunk!
Inspect and Take Photos
If you run into a guardrail with your rental you’re going to be charged for damages. If someone else ran into a guardrail before you and you don’t note it when you pick up the rental car you could also be charged for damages. Always, always, always, inspect every single rental car you get with great detail – inside and out.
Note any damages with the company and take photos just in case. Keep those photos on your phone until you have returned the rental and signed off on the bill.
Cam and I are both meticulous with rental car dings, scratches, windshield cracks, and cigarette burns. Never assume that a scratch or ding is not important or big enough to note. When you return your rental make sure you get a slip signing off that all was okay on the car so they don’t come back and try to charge you later.
We’ve been blamed multiple times for things like “excessive sand on the floor in Mozambique,” random pieces of cheap plastic falling off in Mexico, and we were even charged for a small scratch on the hubcap in South Africa. Take photos and put up a fight if you think you are in the right.
Damage Waiver (DW) insurance is always offered at the time of rental for an additional daily charge. Damage Waiver is there to reduce your liability if you damage, or lose the rental car. You don’t have to purchase DW, it is optional, and usually costs between $10-30 CAD per day of rental.
If you have a US credit card, it’s possible you already have DW insurance and don’t know it! It’s worth it to check your documentation and call your credit card to find out. It’s even worth considering signing up to a new credit card that does offer this.
If you’re already covered, take a copy of paperwork as proof, though we have never been asked for this proof. Everytime we have rented a car in Canada we decline any extra insurance knowing our credit card will cover us. The rental car agency never pushes back and sends us on our way!
Get the Right Card
Bringing me to my next point – credit cards with primary rental insurance. The Chase Sapphire Reserve is my favorite travel credit card for many reasons, but the primary rental insurance is one of its best perks (including Priority Pass membership). When you put your rental car on your Chase Sapphire Reserve card you get primary coverage around the world up to $75,000.
That works out great for us since we are nomadic and don’t have a car or home. Car hire companies in Canada and around the world love to scare customers and upsell all their insurance packages. You need to make sure if you need it or not before falling victim to their trap. Call your credit card company and always find out before you get to Canada.
Expect a Hold Charge
Every single one of our forty or so rental cars has put a hold on our credit card for the rental period. Holds in Canada usually run between $200-$500. The “excess charge” as it is called is typically stated in your reservation details, but it is easy to miss.
We are aware that they must put this hold on our card, but it can be a huge shocker if you are unsuspecting and end up over your credit limit on your credit card. These excess charges are for scenarios where you disappear with the car and are never seen again, or get in a crash and refuse to pay. Stuff like that.
It’s worth mentioning that distances and speeds in Canada are recorded in kilometers rather than miles. This can make sights seem further away than they actually are, although the highways and transit system is extremely efficient and roads are in great shape.
It’s unlikely your rental vehicle will have a built-in GPS navigation system, however, you may be offered a separate GPS (at additional cost, of course), instead.
Whether you are traveling on your own or as a group, we think navigation – of whatever sort – is a must. It takes much of the stress out of driving on roads you aren’t used to and having to rely on road signage.
You might be happy using paper maps, but it’s not normal for them to be supplied with a rental car, which means you may as well opt for the GPS instead.
Smartphone apps such as Google Maps are a brilliant free alternative, which give you the additional advantage of knowing up to the minute traffic and road conditions. We always use Google Maps for getting around Canada.
You should download a map of where you’ll be traveling to your phone from Google Maps while you’re in good WiFi. If you forget to do this before you land, most of the Canadian Airports have free WiFi so you can do this when you land.
SIM cards and data is extremely expensive in Canada – one of the most expensive in the world actually! However, many US cell phone carriers allow you to add on a Canadian data and minutes plan for a small fee so you can enjoy your trip stress free.
Check Your Charges on Your Credit Card once You Leave Canada
We’ve had multiple instances of rental car companies charging our credit card for damages weeks after we returned the rental car and they signed off that all was okay. So make sure to monitor your credit card bills and keep your documentation for a few weeks after you return your rental. Without documentation, it can be hard to fight any false charges.
At the very least take photos of your receipt and store them on your phone for awhile. – you may end up needing them!
Drinking and Driving in Canada
This should go without saying, but drinking and driving is a grave offense in Canada. In Canada, the maximum legal BAC is 80 milligrams of alcohol in 100 milliliters of blood (.08). If you get caught driving with a BAC over this limit it will likely result in a DUI and being hauled off to jail.
Driving in Canada Tips
As mentioned earlier vehicles drive on the right hand side of the road in Canada and pass on the left.
Pedestrians have a right of way when in towns and cities and it’s a legal requirement for all passengers to wear a seat belt/safety belt at all times when the engine is running. You could face fines if caught driving without seatbelts on.
Likewise, it is not permitted to use a cell phone when driving in Canada to make calls or send/receive SMS text messages. You can use your smartphone for navigation purposes, but it must be hands-free only (such as safely stowed on the windscreen), and you must not program navigation while the vehicle’s engine is running.
It is against the law to drive without a drivers license in Canada. In case you get pulled over by the police you must present your license and proof of insurance.
In an emergency, you can call 911 (like the US).
How Much Will a Rental Car in Canada Cost?
Depends on the season and what type of vehicle! In the summer your rental car will likely be higher than in October and winter seasons.
We’ve scored great deals in Canada, but also paid quite a bit during times. Our last rental cost us 25 CAD a day in the winter. Some tips to save on car rental prices in Canada:
- The sooner you book, the better
- Do searches on AutoEurope, RentalCars.com, Skyscanner Car Rentals, Kayak, and Momondo and see what the best deals are.
- Go with well-known companies like Enterprise and Alamo. The smaller unknown ones are more likely to nickel and dime you.
Winter Driving in Canada
Canadian winters can be extremely harsh and dangerous for driving. If you are not an experienced winter driver and are planning on a magical Canadian winter trip you should take caution.
First, it’s important to get the right kind of vehicle for winter travel. A four-wheel drive truck or SUV might seem excessive – but there is a reason everyone has them here! If you don’t feel comfortable renting a larger car at least make sure your vehicle has winter tires.
Pay attention to road closures in the winter. Avalanches and high mountain passes pose a serious threat and if a road is closed there is always a reason.
If conditions are poor don’t tailgate cars in front of you. Maintain a safe distance and only drive as fast as you are comfortable with. We’ve seen way too many accidents in the winter here.
If it is snowing too heavily and you don’t feel comfortable driving pull over and wait out the storm. Better yet – don’t leave your hotel! Getting in an accident is not worth your life so better to bundle up by the fire with a hot chocolate.
Filling Up Your Rental Car in Canada
Gas stations are pretty easy to find in Canada, especially if you are near the cities.
However in the mountains, countryside, and rural backcountry areas, you will need to plan your mileage out. In general, the further north you go and further away from population the fewer chances to fill up there is. Most tourists probably won’t venture this way, but if you do it’s important to have jerry cans in case of an emergency.
Despite their name, petrol stations sell both gasoline (petrol) and diesel. Gas stations tend to be self-service, so you’ll need to fill up the tank yourself. In Canada you can place the pump in and it will lock in the car. The pump automatically stops when the car is full. You can typically pay at the pump with a credit card in Canada.
Watch out for wildlife!
Don’t be surprised if you come across some furry friends on the road while in Canada. This means bears, coyotes, goats, moose, and deer. Give them the space and respect they deserve and drive slowly around them.
Crossing Borders and Provinces
Unless otherwise stated in your rental contract you are allowed to drive over the border to the US and across provinces and territories in Canada easily.
Should You Travel Canada By Car?
ABSOLUTELY! Quite honestly getting around Canada is going to be seriously difficult without a car. North America is very much dependent on their vehicles as public transport is not that great outside of large cities.
A rental car gives you complete freedom to go where you want, when you want!
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