The Canadian Rocky Mountains and Banff in particular have a reputation for being expensive. There’s certainly no shortage of establishments catering to deep pockets, but you don’t have to spend a small fortune. There are ways to help keep your vacation costs down.
Skip The Paid Attractions And Stick To Free Or Lower Cost Activities
One way to save money is to avoid the high priced tourist attractions. Adding these pricey activities into your itinerary can quickly escalate the cost of your visit. The parks are a vast area consisting of some of the most beautiful nature and mountain scenery in the world. They attracted visitors long before any gondolas, boat cruises and glacier rides were operating. You can spend time admiring the majestic mountains and glacier lakes, walking along the pathways and hiking trails and driving the scenic roadways. With the exception of purchasing a park pass it’s all free!
Don’t feel you are missing out if you can’t afford to partake in the paid attractions that are geared to empty tourist’s wallets. There are so many beautiful spots to visit such as Lake Louise, Moraine Lake and the Icefields Parkway and many free and low cost activities in Banff to enjoy.
Cheapest Times Of The Year To Visit Banff And The Rocky Mountains
The better advice might be to tell you when not to visit. Summer is peak tourist season and if you plan to stay in Banff during this time you’re going to have to be prepared to pay for it. Budget priced accommodation by Banff standards can be shocking. A room in what’s considered a two or three star hotel can be $200 a night or more.
This is a rough breakdown of the seasonal accommodation pricing tiers. These are just general guidelines of what to expect for budget accommodation. We’ve based the pricing on a double occupancy room during the week. Weekends during peak demand during the summer or the ski season could be as much as $50 more per night.
Update: with the high exchange rate of the U.S. dollar against the Canadian dollar the Rocky Mountains have become even more popular with visitors from the United States. You may find the that accommodation pricing is even higher than what has been listed below. With the free Canadian National Parks pass available for 2017 it’s proving to be an extremely busy year. The summer months will be even busier than usual and the peak travel season will likely continue through the month of September and into early October. Accommodation prices may remain high and availability could be limited.
$$$$ – Last week of June through mid-September accommodation is at premium pricing. Some hotels may have a 2 day minimum stay for weekends. Expect up to $200 or more per night. Consider anything less a bargain.
$$$ – Mid-September to the 1st or 2nd week of October is shoulder season. Prices are still high, but a bit cheaper than the summer months. Anything from $100 to $175 per night.
$$ – Mid-October until the weekend before Christmas is somewhat off-season. The pricing stays fairly consistent through this period, you can find deals as cheap as $80 to $115 per night.
$$$$ – The weekend before Christmas through the first week of January is at premium prices. Hotels may have 2 day minimum stays over the weekends and up to a 4 day minimum over Christmas. Expect up to $200 or more per night.
$$ – $$$ The second weekend of January through to mid-May remains fairly consistent in pricing. During the peak of the ski season ski season prices may be higher, especially on the busy weekends when many skiiers come in to town. You may save some money if you can visit during the week, the slopes will be a lot less crowded too. Rooms range from $90 to $120 per night.
$$$ -The 3rd week of May until the 3rd week of June is another shoulder season. The prices get raised, but they are still of good value compared to the high cost of the summer months. $120 to $170 per night.
Canadian Statutory Holidays To Take Note Of When Planning A Trip
Take note of the holidays that may affect prices and may require advance booking due to high demand.
- December 25th Christmas Day and the 26th Boxing Day through Jan 1st New Years is a busy time
- February – third Monday is Family Day which creates a busy long weekend during the ski season
- March/April – Good Friday through Easter Sunday creates a busy long weekend, the dates fluctuate between late March and April each year.
- May – the Monday before May 25th is Victoria Day creating a long weekend and is dubbed as the start of the tourist season
- July 1st – Canada Day. If it’s on a Friday or Monday it creates a busy long weekend. Even if it’s during the week the day is busy in the parks.
- August – Civic Holiday, first Monday of the month. It creates another busy long weekend
- September – Labour Day the first Monday of the month. The last long weekend of the summer tourist season.
- October – second Monday of the month is Canadian Thanksgiving
- November – Remembrance Day the 11th of the month. Usually not too busy to worry about this date.
What Are The Disadvantages Of Visiting In The Off Season?
If your plan to partake in activities such as boat tours on lakes or the Ice Explorer on the Athabasca Glacier take note that most of those types of tourist operations close for the season by mid-October. From then until the first week of December is a time of transition or off-season. The summer/fall activities have ceased but the winter ones have not yet started.
Mid-April through mid-May is another time of transition, especially in places of higher elevation. Winter activities are ending as Spring is trying to take hold. Many of the glacier lakes remain frozen, only the lower valley trails are free of snow for hiking and most tourist activities such as lake cruises don’t start up until the beginning of May. Temperatures can still be quite cold and the weather can be unpredictable with snow storms still occuring. Tour operators offer cheaper rates during this time for visitors coming from overseas. If you’re planning your once in a lifetime dream trip make sure your visit is going to meet your expectations. For more detailed information on visiting in the spring see our post Pros and Cons of Banff and Jasper National Parks in the shoulder eason of April and May. If you have always wanted to see the beautiful turquoise glacier waters of the Rocky Mountain lakes this is not the right time to visit. This is particularly true for the most popular spots of Lake Louise and Moraine Lake.
Booking Banff Accommodation
Booking accommodation well in advance is a must for July and August and through the first half of September. Any lower priced rooms are gone early. Start looking three to six months ahead of time to secure a better rate.
If you try to book last minute or arrive without a place to stay you can expect to shell out big dollars for a room, if you can find one at all. Weekends and holidays in the summer are the most expensive and book up the quickest. If you’re only staying for a few days try to plan it between Monday and Thursday to save a few dollars. You can search for hotels that offer package deals, some have rates that include the Banff Gondola or ski passes.
Consider A Room With A Kitchenette To Save On Food Costs
Having accommodation with a small kitchenette or full kitchen can allow you to prepare at least some of your own meals and cut down costs. In the crowded and busy summer months it can be much more relaxing to come back to your own peaceful space for your evening meal. Some hotels offer BBQ areas for guests to use in the warmer months.
Many of the hotels that offer kitchens have condo or chalet style accommodations with several bedrooms that can sleep 6 or more people. If you’re traveling with family or friends this can be an economical option compared to paying for several hotel rooms.
Here’s a list of some of the properties offering accommodation with a kitchenette or full kitchens. In the town of Banff there’s the Fox Hotel and Suites, Rundlestone Lodge, Irwin’s Mountain Inn, Charelton’s Cedar Court. On the outskirts of town and up on Tunnel Mountain there’s the Banff Rocky Mountain Resort, Douglas Fir Resort & Chalets, Buffalo Mountain Lodge, Hidden Ridge Resort and Tunnel Mountain Resort.
Banff Hostels And Budget Hotels
There’s four budget friendly hostels in Banff. The first three are within a few minutes walk from the core of downtown Banff.
- Banff International Hostel – 449 Banff Avenue. Dorms, private rooms and a guest kitchen.
- YWCA Hostel – 102 Spray Avenue. Dorms, private rooms and family rooms with kitchenettes. Café and guest kitchen.
- Samesun Backpackers – 433 Banff Avenue. Dorm rooms and a bar.
- HI Banff Alpine Center – 801 Hidden Ridge Way. 1.8 km from town. Dorms, private rooms and cabin suites, guest kitchens and a restaurant and bar. They offer guests complimentary local bus passes.
There’s far too many Banff hotels to supply a list, but any google search of “budget Banff accommodation” will bring up the options. Remember that the price of a “budget” hotel in Banff might be a lot higher than what you’re expecting. If being located right downtown is not a priority try some of the properties that skirt the edge. They may have cheaper rates. Do your research, lower cost hotels may be older properties that may not have been updated for quite some time.
Canmore serves as a good base, it’s just a 15 minute drive east from downtown Banff. There’s a larger selection of lower to moderately priced accommodation in Canmore. There’s also a large number of vacation condos that can be a good choice for longer stays. They have full kitchens, multiple bedrooms and in-suite laundry. For a full comparison see our post on Staying In Canmore Versus Banff As A Base.
Canmore might not be the best chioce if you will be doing a lot of trips back and forth to the other end of Banff National Park to places like Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, the Icefields Parkway or into Yoho National Park. The extra driving may become a nuisance. Canmore is the perfect base to explore Kananaskis Country as it sits right on the back door to everything the area has to offer.
One of the cheapest options in Canmore is the Hostel Bear offering dorm and private rooms as well as a kitchen for guest use. The majority of the hotels are along Bow Valley Trail, it’s convenient to downtown Canmore. There’s a large amount of vacation condos located along Kananskis Way, a few minutes drive or a 15 minute walk to downtown.
The amount of accommodation in Lake Louise is limited and there’s not much that fits into the budget category. During the summer months and early fall it’s expensive and books up fast. The lowest price option would be the HI Lake Louise Alpine Center. If you don’t usually stay in hostels don’t be so quick to dismiss this option. It’s situated in an attractive log cabin style building and offers some private rooms. You might be surprised that they run as high as $100 during the summer, but this is a bargain compared to other options in Lake Louise. The Mountaineer Lodge and the Lake Louise Inn would be the next best priced choices. You can also check out the Great Divide Lodge, it’s 17 km’s west of the Lake Louise village right off the Trans Canada Highway. The only accommodation right at Lake Louise is the Fairmont Chateau Hotel and it’s far from being budget. There’s only a dent of dining options in Lake Louise compared to Banff. Finding low cost places to eat can be a challenge, we’ve covered the choices here of Cheap Eats In Lake Louise.
The Town Of Field As An Alternative To Staying in Lake Louise
The small town of Field can be an excellent base in the Rocky Mountains. It’s situated in the center of Yoho National Park allowing easy access to explore the highlights such as Emerald Lake, the Natural Bridge and Takkakaw Falls. Consider it as a cheaper alternative to staying in Lake Louise, it’s just a 15 minute drive west. You can easily visit other areas of Banff National Park from Field, such as Moraine Lake and it has quick access to the Icefields Parkway. The town does not have a lot of amenities and it’s not the place to be if you are looking for any nightlife. There’s only a couple of places to eat at, but many of the accommodations are part of a house with access to a full kitchen. The town has an excellent visitor center full of information about the area and the surrounding Rocky Mountains.
If you are arriving with your own RV or have a tent the cheapest way to stay in the parks is to camp. Late May to mid-September is the best time to camp in the Rockies. At the early and later ends of that time frame you still need to be prepared for night time and early morning temperatures that can drop below freezing. Snow is always a possibility. The rest of the year you definitely have to be equipped for cold weather camping.
From July through early September make sure you have reservations for campgrounds that accept them, especially if you need full hookups for your RV. Parks Canada Camping Reservations. Back country hiking in the parks requires the advance purchase of a wilderness pass. Back country campsites and shelters can be reserved up to 3 months in advance. Reservations can be made through the same camping link above.
Show up early in the day for places that are first come/first serve. The check in time for most campgrounds is 2pm, but it’s probably best to show up around the check out time of 11 am. The campsites will start to fill up for a summer long weekend as early as Thursday night.
If want to be close to the town of Banff the Tunnel Mountain Campground is the best option. It’s just a few minutes drive or a 15 to 20 minute walk from downtown. It’s also on the local bus route. The Two Jack Lake campground is not too far from town, but has more of a wilderness feel to it.
Near the Lake Louise area the Mosquito Creek Campground is a nice option, it’s 24 km’s north of Lake Louise on the Icefields Parkway (Hwy 93). There’s also a campground in the village of Lake Louise, but be warned if you’re a light sleeper it’s right near the train tracks.
Further up the Icefields Parkway the Wilcox Creek Campground is near the Columbia Icefields. It makes a good base for exploring that area of the park. Closer to Jasper there are the Wapiti and Whistler’s Campgrounds.
Camping equipment can be purchased at places in Calgary such as Canadian Tire or Walmart at fairly reasonable prices. MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op) tends to have higher prices, but the selection is excellent. Renting camping equipment is possible through Camping Banff. There’s also a Canadian Tire in Canmore.
Renting an RV or caravan in Canada is generally not a cheaper way to travel as it is in other parts of the world. A one week rental of a basic RV in the summer will start at $1500.00 Do your research and thoroughly check what the rental includes. There can be extra charges for insurances, bedding and linens, kitchen cookware and propane. Unless you pay for extra mileage, you may be limited to 100km’s a night. That’s not a lot if you plan to explore a lot of different areas of the parks. Driving and RV in from Calgary to Banff is 120km’s one way, runs between Banff and Lake Louise and Moraine Lake are 60 to 70km’s each way and the drive from Banff to Jasper along the Icefields Parkway is over 300km’s one way.
When you start adding on all the extra fees your rental can easily reach $2500.00 for the week. This doesn’t include your fuel and camping spot fees.
If you’re interested in driving from Vancouver to the Rocky Mountains and back. There is a company called Wicked Campers that rents camping vans at a more reasonable cost. They are quite compact, but offer everything you need to function and can start as low as $800 per week. Unfortunately they only have rental pick ups and returns in Vancouver.
Budget Priced Dining And Drink Options
Besides the accommodation in Banff your dining costs can be your next largest expense. A typical hamburger meal can be $16 to $20. Check the daily specials at various restaurants and happy hours and food specials offered in the pubs. As with many things in Banff “budget” food is a relative term.
It’s not a complete list, but here are some dining options that are budget to moderately priced or offer regular specials:
- Rose and Crown, 202 Banff Avenue – cheaper eats and drinks with a roof top patio for the summer months and often has live music.
- St. James Gate, 207 Wolf Street – a classic Irish style pub offering hearty food.
- Tommy’s Neighbourhood Pub, 120 Banff Avenue– pub fare at a reasonable price.
- Melissa’s Missteak, 218 Lynx Street – a family owned restaurant with large portions of hearty food at reasonable prices. They also have an upstairs bar.
- Coyote’s Deli & Grill, 206 Caribou Street – locals love having breakfast here, French toast and huevos rancheros.
- Pad Thai, 110 Banff Avenue at the backside of the Clocktower Mall – tasty Thai food at reasonable prices
- Chaya, 118 Banff Avenue – Japanese noodle and sushi dishes
- The Old Spaghetti Factory, 317 Banff Avenue on the 2nd level of Cascade Plaza, complete pasta meals at a low price that include bread, soup or salad, ice cream and tea or coffee. The kids meals are the same and very reasonably priced.
- Ricky’s All Day Grill, 333 Banff Avenue inside the Banff International Hotel – breakfast served until 4pm, reasonable priced burger platters, lunch and dinner entrees.
- The Castle Pantry – 405 Spray Avenue within the Banff Springs Hotel – it’s a little pricier, but offers high quality options for a quick meal or breakfast. Has great items for take away eating or packing a picnic like pre-made sandwiches, muffins, etc.
Fast Food And Take Away
- The Foodcourt in the lower level of Cascade Plaza, 317 Banff Avenue – various quick food options, Dairy Queen, Rocky Mountain Flatbread Company, Edo Japan, Subway, Mrs. Vanelli’s, Taste Of Sri Lanka, Lotus Lotus, Booster Juice
- McDonald’s – 116 Banff Avenue
- Subway, 37 Banff Avenue and in the Cascade Plaza food court
- Tim Horton’s, 100 Gopher Street
- Skokis, 109 Banff Avenue, crepes and frozen yogurt.
- Aardvark Pizza and Sub, 304A Caribou Street– Pizza, poutine and wings.
- Barpa Bill’s Greek Food, 223 Bear Street – takeaway at reasonable prices
Cheap food at hostels
- Cougar Pete’s Restaurant and Storm Cellar Pub at the HI Alpine Hostel, 801 Hidden Ridge Way – reasonably priced meals and drinks.
- Samesun Backpackers, 433 Banff Avenue – nightly dinner specials.
- Evelyns Coffee Bar – two shops along Banff Avenue, good coffee, lattes, muffins, desserts and sandwiches
- Jump Start, 206 Buffalo Street – breakfast bagels, muffins, scones, sandwiches, quiches, desserts. On Buffalo Street just before the Bow River Bridge.
- Second Cup, 317 Banff Avenue on the main level of Cascade Plaza– coffee, pastries, muffins and pre-made sandwiches.
- Starbucks, 225 Banff Avenue – coffee, fancy lattes, desserts, small selection of food items. Located on Banff Avenue.
- Wild Flour Artisan Bakery Café, 101-211 Bear Street– locals love to hang out here. House made breads, panini sandwiches, pastries. home made granola parfait and waffles for breakfast, vegan and gluten free and raw options. A bit pricier but of good value for the quality.
Grocery Stores For Self Catering And Picnics
Preparing your own meals can save a lot of money. Skip expensive breakfasts and buffets at your hotel. Buying a couple of cheap bowls, cutlery, a knife and cutting board can go a long way. Many hotel rooms have a small fridge, stock it up with fruit and yogurt, grab a container of milk and cereal. Buy a loaf of bread or bag of buns and deli cheeses and meats to make sandwiches. If you don’t want to make your own you can still save money by purchasing pre-made sandwiches and salads available at the grocery stores. If you’re going to be out sightseeing all day you can pick up a small cooler or insulated bag and fill it with some ice to help keep things cold.
Banff Grocery Stores
Banff has two main grocery stores that you can find most everything you would in big city grocery stores.
- Nestors – 122 Bear Street
- Safeway – 318 Marten Street
There’s a the small Chalet Grocery and Beer and Wine store located at the Douglas Fir Resort on 525 Tunnel Mountain Road that’s convenient for the resort hotel properties and campground located there.
The farmers market in Banff is another great place to buy produce and locally made foods and baked goods. Mid-June through the 3rd week of September on Bear Street, every Wednesday from 10 to 6pm.
Lake Louise Grocery Stores
Lake Louise has a small grocery market in the Samson strip mall in the village. It has everything you need to get by in a pinch, but it’s quite expensive and there’s not a lot of variety. Produce and popular grocery items can easily run out of stock in the busy summer months and during holidays. The mall also has a small liquor store.
The Petro Canada gas station in Lake Louise sells some basic grocery items like milk, cheese, cereal and pop and snack foods. Prices tend to be a little better than the market. It’s on 100 Village Road, diagonally across the intersection from the Samson Mall.
Canmore Grocery Stores
The are two main grocery stores in Canmore, Safeway and Save On Foods. They are much larger than the ones in Banff and offer more selections.
- Safeway and liquor store – #200-1200 Railway Avenue
- Save On Foods – 950 Railway Avenue
- Nutters – 900 Railway Avenue, Bulk, natural and organic foods
- Mercado Market #817 – 8 Street – gourmet market and deli. It’s not in the budget category but if you want any gourmet grocery items to cook for yourself or pack a special picnic this is your place.
- Canmor Farmer’s Market, downtown Canmore 7 Avenue. Every Thursday from June to October, 10 to 6pm.
Calgary Grocery Stores
Most grocery items can be found in Banff and Canmore, including some gluten free, organic and some ethnic food options. Only very hard to items may need to be sought out in Calgary. The grocery store prices in Banff and Canmore are the same as Calgary, the only exception would be the big box stores that offer lower food prices in Calgary such as Superstore and Walmart. There’s also two Costco Warehouses.
Buying Supplies In Calgary, Canmore And Banff
Calgary is your best bet if you are wanting to pick up any supplies such as camping gear, coolers, plates, cutlery or any other kitchenware or clothing you didn’t bring with you. There’s many sporting good stores like M.E.C. (Mountain Equipment Co-op) and places like Canadian Tire and Walmart that have camping and kitchen wares. Canmore has a Canadian Tire and and Valhalla Pure Outfitters, Banff has Monod Sports.