A Hillbilly's Guide: Toronto on the Cheap

September 4, 2020

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Canva.com — John M Dabbs

My family of four, two adult sons, and my wife made the trek to Toronto. It was a daunting task with our finances as they were. That said, we made it.

It began with our need for a getaway. The boys were out of school (college) for the summer, and we’d wanted to explore. We are like Trekkies, without the starship — seeking out new life and new civilizations. We had planned for Europe, but that was a no-go. Instead, I devised a plan.

Travel Problems

  • We are poor.
  • Toyota Camry has over 200,000 miles. It’s ten years old.
  • Hotels aren’t cheap.
  • Airfare isn’t cheap for four people.
  • Meals.

We weighed our options — driving and flying. The costs involved in flying would be excessive on our budget. We would still need transportation around town. We thought about staying outside of Toronto to save money. Then again, our travel costs would increase.

Step-by-Step Solutions

I decided to tackle our problems one-by-one.

Travel

I used our insurance membership discount. We bought our car and homeowner’s insurance there. We found our member perks covered car rental. We were able to rent a car with unlimited mileage for the cost of one round-trip airline ticket. A rental car came with roadside care and vehicle replacement. This is better than insurance if the rental car broke down.

We double-checked. The trip to Canada would not be a problem with the vehicle rented from the car rental place. Our insurance agent confirmed they would also cover us during the trip to Toronto — no worries.

Going by car solved our mobility issue in and around the city. We could change plans in a flash — fuel would be our only added expense. Bam! Problem solved.

Lodging

With two weeks of research -blind luck- we found a deal! On Expedia, I located an apartment for rent. It came furnished, in a great location, the Waterfront District. Did I mention it was cheaper than the hotels we’d been looking at too?

The apartment on Queens Quay West was sweet. Everyone would have their bed, free wi-fi, and it came with three TVs.

We didn’t realize it until we checked in, but there was 24-hour security. It was like a gated community. We hit the jackpot!

Food

Food was now less of a concern as the apartment came with a furnished kitchen. With a car, we had the freedom to navigate to lesser-known eateries. Eating out would be an option if we watched our spending. We could be frugal with our sightseeing trips.

Cash

As international travel goes, we were unsure about the exchange rate or how much to bring. My wife and I bank at a credit union whose headquarters are close to home. The credit union rivals the largest banks in our area. I made a trip to the local branch and spoke with a teller. They were most helpful. He provided the current exchange rate and asked if we wanted to order any Canadian money.

As it turns out, our credit union provides free currency exchange to members. This was better than I’d hoped. I ordered $1,000 U.S. worth of Canadian dollars. I could pick it up there after 10 a.m. the next day. Cool beans! Having the local currency on hand would be much easier. I didn’t want to figure out how much money to give people or if we received the correct change.

While there, the teller asked about credit cards. I told him we’d pre-pay for our lodging and car by card. We may use our credit cards for dining, gas, and emergencies. He saw two credit cards on my account and told me he’d put a note on my account with the travel dates. If the fraud department saw suspicious transactions, the cards are frozen. If a purchase flagged during our travel is in our likely area, they could tell if it is likely legitimate.

This was quite refreshing. I hadn’t thought about it. Though I did remember to schedule our mail-hold until our return.

Language Barriers

I come from a family of heathens. I married into an educated family of Cherokee and Russian immigrants. We knew issues would come up. One arose when my wife remarked to her cousins (from New York) about something “over yonder.” Hmmm. They didn’t understand, and I translated — “over there.”

I am an educated man. I went from kindergarten through grade 12. A college graduate now, I can translate for the most part. The dialect from the hill-folks is sometimes an issue — more than the actual language spoken. My youngest son took two years of high school French, so we had that covered.

We could only hope they spoke American English and not the Queen’s English. We could have issues if we aren’t lucky.

A new dawn

That wasn’t to come for many hours. We chose to leave the night before our scheduled arrival. The family came together for our rendezvous after everyone was off work. Our bags packed, we loaded the rental car with precision and were on our way.

Exactly ninety minutes into our trip, somebody wanted to stop and eat. Okay, it was me. My body is on a schedule!

We stopped for dinner and topped off our fuel tank when near empty. The four of us alternated between reading and playing with music or apps on our cell phones. We changed drivers as needed.

In the wee hours of the morning, my wife woke me. She wanted me to drive.

I began my turn at the wheel. Astonished, I realized we were now in upstate New York. We must have passed through ten small towns, each almost identical to the other. Very homey and inviting, even if no one was awake. As dawn came, I was witness to the beauty of a sunrise over Lake Erie. I’m not sure who put the directions into our GPS, but I was content with our scenery.

A few hours later, we arrived at the Canadian border. A nice solid concrete wall with metal gates protected the Canadians.

The border guard was very professional. Dressed in a crisp uniform with a very clean black sweater, hat, boots, and a bullet-proof vest. He was intimidating, to say the least.

He asked for our passports. Thankful we put them together before we approached, I handed our passports to him for his review. He took them into the booth for further inspection. Most likely checking to see if we were terrorists or criminals, he returned in the same somber tone. Returning our documents to us, he allowed us to pass as he wished us a nice day. Whew! Who knew crossing the border could be so intense. I could never be a criminal. My nerves could not stand it!

Time to eat

As we settled into our trip, we found the signage easy to navigate. Thankful that our vehicle had the kph and mph both, it made staying under the speed limit easy. We didn’t want to end up in a salt-mine in Montreal or a sweatshop in Quebec. My imagination does get the best of me at times.

We turned at the first sign for food, driving for five miles through empty grassland. Finally, arriving at a closed building, we read the sign: Closed for the season. I speculated we should have waited until summer instead of mid-spring to make our journey.

Turning around, we made our way back to civilization in only 30 minutes. Wanting some authentic Canadian breakfast food, we stopped for gas and looked around.

We ended up eating at a place called Tim Hortons. There were enough people for us to feel good about choosing it. After looking over the menu and the offerings — we decided it was about like going to a Dunkin Donuts back home. The coffee was good, and the sandwich and donut selections were okay. On a side note, we discovered Tim Hortons is also found in the Northeastern U.S. and expanding.

Advice for travelers

Our trip was one of discovery. The people are friendly, as they are in most places. The cost of food is comparable, as is transit on buses and the trolley.

I would suggest planning for the weather, especially the further north you travel. Remember, our summer and spring return quicker than theirs. The autumn and winter arrive faster in Canada than in Tennessee too.

One stark contrast that made us all sad. As we returned to the U.S.A, we stopped to enjoy the majestic Niagara Falls. The view, parks, and town in Ontario, Canada were pristine and welcoming. We crossed into the United States to run-down buildings, trash, and excessive signage.

We enjoyed our trip in many ways. The hardest part was coming home. Not to Tennessee, but crossing the border. I almost felt ashamed. We realize the area is a major tourist area and destination, especially on the American side. Most of the United States is also very clean and welcoming — but it made me more conscious of my efforts.

It has always been our practice to pick up trash, when not out of our way, and deposit it into the nearest waste can. When hiking, we each take a bag and bring home any trash we find on the trail or parking area — at least until our bags are full. I wish others would do the same.

Traveling and seeing how others live day in and day out is a gift. It is important to share this with our children and others. Traveling to new communities, states, and countries gives us that opportunity. We can all learn from one another.

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