Budget Travel

How to Stay in the Canadian Rockies on a Budget

Canada's 150th birthday (2017) was a big year for tourism in Canada's national parks. Entry was free of charge that year. Banff and Jasper National Parks are the most visited by far. I remember being in bumper to bumper traffic miles from the Jasper entrance on my first visit. All the sites were packed and campgrounds and parking lots overflowed throughout summer and fall. It was nuts! Free admission led to an increase of over 400,000 visitors. In an average year, a whopping 8.5 million people still visit Canada's 7 Rocky Mountain Parks. That means high demand for accommodation. That also means you have to plan far ahead (even a year or more) in order to get a place to stay in Jasper and Banff during peak summer season.

I've managed to make paying for accommodation in Alberta and British Columbia's mountain parks relatively cheap. I've visited Banff and/or Jasper NP every month for the last 10 months on a tight budget. Here's what I've learned.

Avoid peak season

It's convenient for most people to head to the Canadian Rockies in summer during vacation season and when school is out. It's also the most pleasant time to visit Canada's natural places weather wise. For these reasons, the high season (June, July, and into August) is the most packed. Knowing this, hotels, lodges and Airbnbs all hike their rates to alarmingly high levels. Supply is low and demand is high...it's simple economics really. 

If possible, it's best to visit the Rockies during shoulder seasons like spring and fall. Autumn can still be quite busy as throngs of tourists (and photographers) flock to the mountains for fall foliage, but it's less crowded than the high season. Winter in the mountains is stunningly beautiful. If you love winter outdoor activities, then you'll also enjoy lower hotel rates and having more Airbnbs to choose from. My wife and I once stayed in a very nice modern hotel in downtown Banff for $350 CDN for a weekend getaway....half the summer rate for the same room.

Tourists harassing an elk in Jasper National Park, Summer 2017. I pulled over 30 yards down the road, whipped out my 500mm lens, and had about 30 seconds alone with this elk before about a dozen other cars showed up. At that point I moved on. People should never get this close to wildlife. 

Tourists harassing an elk in Jasper National Park, Summer 2017. I pulled over 30 yards down the road, whipped out my 500mm lens, and had about 30 seconds alone with this elk before about a dozen other cars showed up. At that point I moved on. People should never get this close to wildlife. 

Book weekdays, not weekends

Year-round weekday rates are typically much lower than weekend dates. I once stayed in a great little Airbnb in downtown Jasper mid-week during February for only $58 CDN per night. That same room costs $30 more per night on weekends in winter (double during high season). If you have flexibility with your dates, use it. It can save you hundreds versus choosing "weekend getaways."

book accommodation wayyyy in advance

If you don't have the flexibility to visit the rockies in the low season, you should book your stay as far in advance as possible. The best and most affordable places book up quickest. This is especially true for Airbnbs. They are usually much cheaper than lodges, hotels, or renting RVs (the latter is surprisingly expensive). Many Airbnbs have kitchens, providing guests the ability to save more money by cooking their own meals (eating out in Jasper and Banff is pricy).

Both Airbnbs and hotels begin disappearing as early as a year in advance in the towns of Jasper and Banff. I recommend booking yours at least 6 months in advance in order to take advantage of the more reasonably priced ones. Wait until the spring before, and you'll have to choose accommodation in one of the peripheral mountain towns farther from the parks.

drive more, pay less

Staying in one of the small towns outside of Banff and Jasper isn't necessarily a bad thing. Towns like Golden, BC, Invermere, BC, Hinton, AB, or Canmore, AB have lots of great places to stay as well. Accommodation in these areas is not as expensive as Jasper and Banff and tend to not book up as quickly. They are all located within the beautiful Canadian Rockies, just a bit farther from the National Park entrances. Even though you may drive a little more to get to the sites within the parks, you'll pay a lot less per night to stay. There are awesome things to see and do within these towns as well. If staying on the British Columbia side of the Rockies, you'll have quicker access to lesser known (but no less amazing) Glacier and Kootenay National Parks, as well as Mount Robson Provincial Park. 

Located on the British Columbia side of the Rockies, Glacier National Park of Canada boasts some pretty awesome sites and hikes for those keen on avoiding crowds. (Photo: Bear Creek Falls, Glacier National Park, BC)

Located on the British Columbia side of the Rockies, Glacier National Park of Canada boasts some pretty awesome sites and hikes for those keen on avoiding crowds. (Photo: Bear Creek Falls, Glacier National Park, BC)

Camping - the most budget friendly option

The most affordable way to spend time in the Canadian Rockies by far is to pitch a tent. There are loads of front country campsites, some primitive, and some with basic amenities like showers and electricity (most also have fire pits and picnic tables). Backcountry camping is also an option for more adventurous travelers. Backcountry camping is around $10 CDN a night, while more convenient front country campsites cost between $22 and $32 CDN per night. Note that some campgrounds are first come, first serve, while some may be booked in advance (the earlier, the better).

Sites with sewer and electrical hookups for RVs cost more, but unless you own a camper van or RV, I wouldn't recommend visiting the Rockies this way. Renting an RV in Canada can cost $400-600 per night excluding gas, insurance, and park fees - not exactly budget friendly. You could stay in a hotel in town or lodge within the park boundaries for that price. 

the elephant in the room: car camping (aka sleeping in your vehicle)

There are no official rules or regulations against overnighting in your passenger vehicle (car, SUV, mini-van) within the national parks. I feel, however, that it's only a matter of time before parks officials figure out a way to regulate this practice. At the time of this writing, there is no mention of "car camping" on the Parks Canada site. Doing so is fairly common practice, especially with those traveling through the park alone. Sometimes the campgrounds are simply booked up entirely, and you may have no choice. It is obviously preferred that people pay and use campsites even if not tent camping. Those with camper vans and small RVs must still register for a campsite. 

Discretion should be used. If overnighting in your vehicle (and assuming you have paid your admission fees for the duration or purchased a discovery pass), you must not park in areas which overnight parking is prohibited or in day use only areas. Do not build fires or pitch tents in areas outside of designated campsites. If overnighting in your vehicle, you should not let your "footprint" grow beyond the parking spot. Photographers typically don't sleep for very long, so the practice of overnighting in their car is common. In the summer months, daylight is so long, and nighttime so short that overnighting is really only a 3 to 4 hour nap, and not technically camping. There are no rules against napping in your car during the day, so why would it matter at night? There is a lot of grey area surrounding this topic...just use your head, pay your fees, and respect the park rules, wildlife, and other visitors.

Where to Eat in Reykjavik

Bread on display at Sandholt, Reykjavik, Iceland

Bread on display at Sandholt, Reykjavik, Iceland

Where to Eat in Reykjavik

Reykjavik has a budding food scene and several world-renowned chefs offering classy modern twists on traditional Nordic fare. This post is not about that, however, nor is it about fermented shark meat, roasted puffin, or anything kitschy like that. This post is about moderately priced meals at a few good restaurants that I personally have eaten at and enjoyed (most of them more than once). I’ll try to keep this on the budget end as much as possible (hotdogs are cheap). Reykjavik is known for having steep food prices (but delicious hotdogs). Though that is mostly misconception based on a few poorly written accounts, dining out in Reykjavik can come with a bit of sticker shock (except hotdogs). If you are on a budget in Iceland and would like some ideas for good eats at reasonable prices, this is your post!

Breakfast in Reykjavik

So, you just got off the plane at KEF at 5 AM and you’re about to the board a bus for Reykjavik, nearly an hour away. It’s raining, hard, and near freezing even though it’s Summer. You realize you can’t check into your hotel until 3 PM. You’re hungry, wet, and drowsy from airline travel. What on earth are you going to do for 9 hours until you can check into your hotel?! One thing you can do is join a tour, though I know I am always so sick of being on a moving vehicle at that point that I just want to sit for a quite minute with a cup of coffee and can’t imagine riding around on another bus for hours looking through rainy windows. You could go to the Blue Lagoon, which opens at 8 AM, and chill for $60-$100 USD (plus extra for food), though I couldn’t see myself personally enjoying sitting in a stew of industrial runoff for several hours….I prefer option three: EAT. ALL. DAY.

It’s a good idea to drop your bags at the hotel/apartment/hostel and ask the desk attendant if there’s any way your room will be ready earlier. Sometimes you can check-in a couple hours sooner. Until then, it’s breakfast time. Here are a couple of my favorite places to eat breakfast in Reykjavik:

1st Choice - Sandholt Bakery

No trip to Iceland is complete without visiting Sandholt at least once. My wife flips out over their chocolate croissants, which are buttery, fluffy, and flaky and rival any that we’ve had anywhere (including France). Aside from an amazing assortment of artfully crafted pastries, buns, and breads, they also have a breakfast menu (in English) and full-service restaurant/dining area. This is also a great first opportunity for you to try Skyr – Iceland’s famous protein-packed yogurt-like cheese food. Sandholt is always my first thought when arriving in Reykjavik. It has a relaxing and cozy environment: modern-minimalist in the interior (typical Icelandic design) with comfortable booths and lots of soft pillows. It’s the perfect place to start and plan the rest of your Icelandic adventure. It’s easy to spend a couple hours in Sandholt, and this being Europe, they don’t mind as long as you’re buying something. Sandholt opens at 7 AM daily and is conveniently located downtown on Laugevegur, one of downtown's main streets.

Freshly-made breads and sandwiches at Sandholt. Since I took this picture, Sandlot has renovated and installed a more modern display case and marble countertop. 

Freshly-made breads and sandwiches at Sandholt. Since I took this picture, Sandlot has renovated and installed a more modern display case and marble countertop. 

Desserts at Sandholt

Desserts at Sandholt

2nd Choice - Bergsson Mathus

Bergsson Mathus is another great restaurant located downtown. It’s near Reykjavik City Hall on Templarasund across from the lake. I’ve only been there once, on my way out of Reykjavik, because it’s farther from the area I usually stay in. It has the same cozy atmosphere as Sandholt and several great breakfast options. Bergsson Mathus is serious about sustainably and locally sourced ingredients. Their menu also caters to the vegan and vegetarian crowd. I ordered a simple, yet satisfying, breakfast of soft-boiled egg, cold cuts, house-baked bread, and plenty of jam and butter (Iceland has the best butter). Bergsson Mathus also opens at 7 AM, and though their prices are a little higher than Sandholt, you wont be disappointed in the quality. They are also open for lunch and dinner.

Lunch in Reykjavik

So, breakfast is taken care of, you’re adequately caffeinated, and feel more like a human being again. Hopefully the clouds have parted and you’ve been able to walk around Reykjavik, visit a museum or two, admire the Harpa and Hallgrimskirkja, and pop into some shops to buy some authentic Icelandic woolens. What’s next? Lunch, and here’s where to go.

1st Choice - Noodle Station

You need Noodle Station in your life. This simple hole-in-the-wall only serves one dish three ways. You can have it with chicken, beef, or just vegetables. It’s a simple Thai-style bowl of noodles, but it is just what you need, especially if you’re still damp and cold. Simply tell the cashier which protein (or lack of) you want, and they’ll fill your bowl with noodles, meat, pour on a rich and robust broth, then pass it over to another kind soul who will customize your bowl with spicy toppings and condiments. I simply say yes when they ask if I want it spicy. If I’m eating Thai food, my nose better be running. Noodle Station has few locations in Reykjavik. Two of them are downtown.

Noodle Station

Noodle Station

I enjoy Noodle Station’s bowls so much that I’ve actually tried to recreate their recipe at home. I’ve come close. My noodle soup is pretty good, too, but not the same. I start with a slow shimmering chicken broth made from bone-in thighs, add green onion, ginger, garlic (lots), fish sauce (essential), chili paste (generous), soy sauce, turmeric, shiitake mushrooms, and sesame oil. Then, I pour it over some udon or rice noodles and top with green onion. It’s darn good, but doesn’t quite satisfy my appetite for Noodle Station Reykjavik.

Ugly food is the best food! Thai chicken noodle soup at Noodle Station, Reykjavik

Ugly food is the best food! Thai chicken noodle soup at Noodle Station, Reykjavik

2nd Choice - Baejarins Bestu Pylsur

Iceland has become as famous for hot dogs as for waterfalls and volcanoes. The top spot is Baejarins Bestu Pylsur. Pylsur means hotdog and Baejarins is synonymous with hotdogs in Iceland. This isn’t a sit down establishment. It’s a food cart and picnic table that occasionally changes locations. Visit their website or facebook page to find their location. When I last ate a Baejarins hotdog, they were located near the Harpa. I think they’ve moved on from there, but are never far from downtown. This is a cheap lunch for sure. A hotdog with everything on it will only set you back about $3 USD or $5 USD if you add a coke.

These hotdogs are not hype. I love them. The sausage (made from lamb and beef, not pig snouts and anuses like in the states) has a snappy casing and a very mild flavor. The bun is fluffy and has a more spongy spring to it than American buns (it's reminiscent of sourdough). Icelanders top their dogs with mustard, a sweet and tangy remoulade, and both fresh and crispy fried onions. You can have it any way you like, but I always get one all the way (ein með öllu – one with everything). There is an outdated article on Baejarins from a reputable travel publication out there that has some facts wrong. Baerjarins Bestu Pilsur does accept credit cards and has since before that article was written. Actually, they prefer cards as Iceland’s economy is becoming more and more cashless each year. Also, trying a bit of Icelandic may be appreciated, but I’ve never come a cross an Icelander anywhere during both of my trips that didn’t speak perfect English. And don’t order “The Clinton” (meaning a hotdog with just mustard – apparently what the former U.S. President ordered). The 20 year-old Icelander at the Baejerins window will probably have no idea what you’re talking about. Just tell them exactly what you want so the line can move a bit faster.

My wife at Baejarins Bestu Pylsur

My wife at Baejarins Bestu Pylsur

Dinner in Reykjavik

By now you’ve already checked into your room and taken a nap. You’re feeling pretty good again, but the evening hunger pangs are kicking in. Dinner is where things can get out of control if you don’t have an expense account when traveling to Reykjavik. I find it easy to control my travel budget in Iceland when I’m only eating breakfast and lunch out once or twice and cooking almost all my dinners at the apartment (and getting alcohol at the duty-free shop at the airport). I always rent an apartment with a kitchen when in Iceland so I can cook with all the high-quality Icelandic ingredients and save money. For that one splurge out on the town with the wife, however, there isn’t much choice for the budget minded…unless you can talk her into getting hotdogs again. If not, here is my top recommendation for dinner in Reykjavik.

Top Choice - Icelandic Fish & Chips:

Icelandic Fish and Chips is not a pub; it’s a delicious restaurant with a great menu of fresh and sustainably sourced seafood. It’s moderately priced, too (as far as Reykjavik goes). Most menu items cost between $10-$25 USD. The produce and fish are of premium quality, sourced from the waters around Iceland. They take quality very seriously here. I enjoyed the standard fish and chips. The options for the type of fish change daily depending on what was caught that morning (on the day I ordered it was arctic char or cod). The fish was battered in organic spelt flour and fried perfectly crispy on the outside and was perfectly cooked inside. A delicious sauce made with skyr (aka "skyrnaise") was provided for dipping. I washed it down with a Kaldi, one of Iceland’s unfiltered beers (Fish and Chips only offers Icelandic beers). It’s an upscale quality menu, but a relaxed atmosphere, and I very much recommend it as an affordable dinner option.

Icelandic Fish and Chips

Icelandic Fish and Chips

Go. Do. Eat.

The only limitation in your search for awesome eats in Reykjavik is your own budget. Fortunately, I’ve been there and done all that, so I can provide you with a few delicious budget-friendly choices. There are lots of awesome restaurants not listed here. I’m about to make my third trip to Iceland this winter. If I find another great spot to eat in Reykjavik, I’ll definitely update this post to include it. Use the map below for location info. Thanks for reading! For tips on saving money for travel, click here.

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