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Alaska Highway, Rockies, Prairies - car hire, accommodation and when?

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My wife and I are planning a couple of trips to Canada for 2009 and 2010. We're at a a very early stage at present but would welcome some advice on general principles on this particular trip .

First thoughts were to fly from UK into Calgary, hire a car to drive across Saskatchewan and back (family connections), have a look at Waterton Lakes NP, possibly drop into US for Glacier NP, then West Kootenay, Icefield Parkway to Jasper, back to Calgary and home. This would be maybe three weeks of looking at museums, scenery and doing a little gentle walking. We were thinking perhaps start in late August to hit the mountains in September after the main rush. This was based on comments we had read about the mountains being busy in July and August but that trails may not be open in June.

Those thoughts have begun to develop into a longer trip including the above (possibly not US) but also driving the Alaska Highway one way to/from Whitehorse (and yes, we know it's a very long way with limited accommodation). That begins to lead to a number of specific questions, not least as to whether we need to rethink timing.

With regards to the Alaska Highway:

1) How severe would the extra cost be for a one-way hire to/from Whitehorse? Is there any way of avoiding/reducing this?

2) When is the best time to do this run? May and June obviously have attractions in terms of day length but would that be too early in terms of road conditions? Would September be too late? Are there any other considerations, eg flies, fires?

With regards to the mountains:

1) We assume it is best to try to avoid July and August because of visitor numbers/costs. Is this valid thinking?

2) If we were to head for May or June how restrictive might we find closures due to snow? We wouldn't be aiming to do any serious walking, maybe more like a few hours maximum from the car.

There is also a general question about accommodation. Our preference would be to find fairly simple accommodation in which we could get our own meals in order to give us the maximum flexibility in terms of when we go out, come in, eat etc. Initial research doesn't throw up much apart from hostels, which may or may not be for us. We will be going to New Zealand later this year where many motels actually have kitchen facilities in rooms. Is there anything similar in Canada?

If you've got this far, many thanks, and your ideas will be welcome.


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    (that was a lot of reading and thinking)

    Firstly, for any serious trip on the Alaska Highway, the "Milepost" guidebook is essential, and quite thorough... last I knew the cost was $35 or $40 U.S.

    Your concerns about the AK highway weather in May or June are fair, but really not anything to fear. I drove the entire path from northern BC to TOK, Alaska beginning on April 3 a few years ago and was never in any peril. At places there was compact snow on the roadways, but that was limited to the hilly, mountain areas in a very SMALL area of the giant path.

    (most of the road passes over flat terrain on the northeast edge of the mountain range in a considerably dry climate)

    I cannot answer your questions about the costs of one-way transport to Whitehorse.

    Road conditions simply WILL NOT be an issue of any sort (unless the hundred-year blizzard arrives then) I was in the Dawson Creek area prepared to begin my trek on the highway toward the northwest and much of the rest of Canada seemed to be in the throes of fierce winter weather (April 3-ish, 2003) but my path was a piece of cake.

    (during 2400 miles from Seattle to Anchorage there were approximately 30 miles of 'unpaved' road - this merely due to road repairs) It's gravel, you slow down, and no other cars are typically around so no big deal.

    I would say May/June (or even April?) merit consideration because of so little traffic, the lakes being frozen over at least until well into April if not later (prettier), NO MOSQUITOES!, AND those late daylight hours.

    Nowthen, much/most of what you actually SEE on the AK highway between Dawson Creek and Whitehorse is TREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES !! Sometimes the only things in your vision are hills and valleys of lush green trees with ONE path cut through the thick forest (the path you're on).

    There are some beautiful LAKES up that way, my favorite of which is actually beyond Whitehorse (Kluane Lake).

    I can appreciate your interest in the nature and what you might find up the highway, but it just seems that something is missing if only going as far as Whitehorse, which, with population of perhaps 25,000, isn't a whole lot to see.

    As I drove late one early April night, knowing that I was about an hour away from Whitehorse, I began to play with the car radio which had been out of range for ANY stations for hours if not days. I scanned the dial and was excited to find that one station came in all of a sudden. Then my excitement turned to let-down when I learned that they were wasting that one station broadcasting the FRIDAY NIGHT BINGO GAME in town!!!

    The drive was so boring that I sat there listening to "... O-sixty-two... B-nine... N-thirty-eight".

    I'm afraid that, while you will see SOME natural wonders along the path, that the whole trek of getting 3/4 of the way to Alaska, just won't be worth it.

    I say that even though, for me, the entire drive up AND BACK of the Alaska Highway was a great experience (to do once, I mean).

    On the way back, I drove 2000 miles in 3 days getting from Anchorage to Calgary. (and again, that was before the middle of April)

    I hope some of this helps.

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    I got from my travel agent a one way fee for the company "national" between Whitehorse and Calgary (750 CAD+tax) and from Whitehorse towards Vancouver (800 CAD+tax). The one-way fee is substancial. You can avoid the one way fee by renting a RV between Calgary and Whitehorse. The companies are looking for tourists to transfer in the early season the RV from Calgary towards Whitehorse. This is very often offered as special offer.

    I would not recommend to pick up the Alaska Highway as highlight. The highway is in some portion quite boring. My favourite highway into the north is the Cassiar Highway, which is a very senic road from my point of view and more attractive than the Alaska Highway.

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    Very many thanks for such helpful responses.

    I've got a copy of Milepost ordered. The points about distances and trees are understood. Mind you, somewhere that rates its Friday night bingo so highly sounds like my sort of town - except I'd probably give the bingo a miss. ;-)

    The whole idea is still in its infancy. As explained in the OP we had been talking about a trip to the south for some time and this had moved into initial planning stage when looking at the map led to a yearning to extend it to the north, the only problem is how far! At least, being retired, we have plenty of time. (I should perhaps explain that we have a fondess for empty places especially at the edges, at home we often head to Shetland and Lewis, we took our own car to Iceland last year, we're going to Greenland soon and are planning a trip to Tierra del Fuego in 2008 during part of which - wait for it NorthWestMale - on a ferry in the Chilean fjords there'll be bingo one night!)

    The possibility of an RV had crossed my mind, so the comments about discounted rates northbound are useful. On the other hand I despise the things when I meet (or worse follow) them when I'm driving, and have unpublishable feelings about those of their drivers who can't handle them. As I've never driven a vehicle that size I don't want to end up in that category myself - or worse still another statistic.

    Thoughts are developing of perhaps a loop via Cassiar/Alaska Highways so I'd be interested to know what Cassiar Highway is like. My understanding is that quite a bit is still gravel. Whilst I'd obviously check with rental companies does anyone know if there are any problems with rental vehicles on unsealed roads in Canada - I know a number of companies elsewhere won't cover any damage that occurs on unsealed roads.


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    Michael, I just about COMMAND you to post a "bingo report" here with the blow-by-blow account of bingo on a ship near Tierra Del Fuego.

    And do tell me if the Chileans spell "B-I-N-G-O" differently.

    OK now what were ya sayin' ???

    As for "empty places and at the edges"... maybe the Alaska Highway early in the season is going to be perfect for you.

    It was amazing to drive for seven straight hours seeing only two other cars ever in my direction.

    The best part was, when you round a curve and see a stunning photo opportunity, instead of noting the "photo turnout 500 meters" sign and waiting, you just STOP your car right in the middle of the freeway, knowing that you'd hear any nearby vehicle when it was within 5 miles of you.

    In terms of my general familiarity with rental vehicles/contracts... the main rental companies require you to drive only on paved roads.

    I was in a rental car driving to Alaska, and in 2400 miles there were perhaps 30 miles of unpaved road, but as there were no alternatives, nor much traffic, I just took my chances and went slowly.

    In mainland U.S. we might see a yellow "BUMP" sign indicating an upcoming bump in the road, but on the AK highway they go a step further and put a red flag at the side of the road EXACTLY where the bump is (after the sign) and that helps you to keep your car from being harmed.

    From all I read, the Cassiar Hwy was considerably gravel, and I was too scared liability-wise to even think of taking that path.

    There really are some awesome nature scenes up that way, and the mountains around Alaska and the western Yukon are breathtaking.

    I truly would not rule out commencing your trip in April, OR making the entire drive into Alaska.

    At least you have years to plan it.

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    Once drove from NYC to Fairbanks and worked for the summer. Then drove down to Seattle and back to NYC. Had a great time and it was a fantastic trip. However---IMO---The Icefield Parkway from Banff to Jasper, in sheer beauty, was the best part of the trip.
    going back this June w/ the family but will not go too far north of Jasper.

    I don't remember BINGO but I do remember radio anouncers saying which mile marker to stop at for a weekend garage sale! (I even bought a tent for $5!) And I remember signs posted to remind us that we can/will be sharing portions of the road with light aircraft. And YES--Trees--4-ever!

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    First of all, June is a great time to travel north as you get the almost constant daylight so that is an experience in itself. I live near the start of the Alaska Highway and really hope all our snow is gone by April!
    Most motels have kitchenettes available, these can range from small kitchens to just a fridge, coffee maker and microwave. It can really save on your time and costs.
    As I drive through Jasper and the Icefield Parkway a few times every summer, that is where you may not want the RV. And the Kootneys can be fun driving just a car! You will be in that undesirable catagory....The rest of the way is pretty well wide flatter roads. And you have the freedom to stop anywhere along that long road of trees. Off topic a bit, enjoy those trees, in my area they are disapearing so fast. Many times just a thing line of them along the roadside.

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    I just about COMMAND you to post a "bingo report" here with the blow-by-blow account of bingo on a ship near Tierra Del Fuego.

    Well we got back from South America about two weeks ago after an amazing trip. But I am sorry to report I chickened out on the bingo during our four nights on the Navimag ferry. I can only plead old age and a lack of sealegs. The day before had seen us crossing the Golfo de Penas where we had 12 hours of extreme movement followed by about five hours of decided lumpy. Our usual ploy of going to bed to get horizontal worked but we got little sleep that night with the rolling, pitching and now-you're-in-a-lift movements coupled with the noise of crockery falling off shelves in the galley and rolling around. Those who watched that night's film (Pirates of the Caribbean) said they were alright as long as movements on screen and outside were in sync. But the following night bingo was late and the next morning was to be an early start with a hire car on strange, wrong-sided roads so I chickened out. Sorree!

    However to get back on topic and my OP. We gave up on the romantic idea of driving to see the trees in the north and have now settled on six weeks in May-July from Edmonton to Edmonton basically going AB SK AB BC AB. We will be going slowly taking plenty of time to stop and idle and hopefully avoiding the worst tourist traps. One problem we did encounter was finding a hire car firm that would let us go on gravel (wife's mother was from SK and we know we need to get off pavement there). Most either banned it outright or did not provide LDW off pavement. In the end we found Enterprise impose no restrictions and will be using them.

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    When you are in Jasper, private home accommodation may be just what you are looking for. These are rooms or suites in residents' homes and are much less expensive than a hotel room. The directory at the following website is searchable - some of them have a full kitchen, or a kitchenette:

    Some of the Jasper hotels also have kitchen units. Check out the accommodation pages at

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    Darn, I wanted to know whether they spell "Bingo" differently!!

    Might not be a terrible idea to have given up the long, long drive round trip to Alaska.

    I keep having thoughts of driving up to the Canadian prairies as you will be doing, so I don't mind the sound of your plans.

    The trouble is, the best inspirations for such trips are towns medium and small that one only knows of as the result of the famous hockey players those towns have produced.

    If you're a UK'er, the chances are that you know or have known even fewer hockey greats than I have. That means, when staring at a rather large map of Saskatchewan, you simply won't have the small inspirations that I would have in order to guide me. (translation: to cause me to pick one path rather than waste the day away staring at the map in indecisive fashion)

    I've never yet been to Saskatchewan, but I know I'll be all about "North Battleford" (for example) at such time as whenever I get there!

    Hopefully those relatives will inspire you to pick a path (or "trail") so you won't have to contemplate the truly mundane.

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    As long as you minimize the amount of gravel you travel and make darn sure that you stay well back when following someone AND slow down and move over when meeting someone you'll be fine. It's only when someone comes roaring down the gravel road towards you at a high rate of knots or you start riding somebody's rear bumper that your windshield stands to need replacement! Generally almost all of the highways and roads will be paved; it'll only be the minor "farm lanes" that are in gravel (although I'll admit that some Saskatchewan pavement can resemble gravel!)

    I've rented cars in Alberta and they do not ask about whether or not you'll be driving gravel: that question is reserved for when you are going "out of province" or "especially" taking the highways north of Edmonton to the Yukon or Alaska.

    Driving the Prairies can be scenic...and boring! "The sky is going to be your friend"! Being from the UK you'll likely enjoy it (at first) but find that you are soon wishing that you could measure your "time to destination" in terms of minutes rather than hours.

    Rather than wrestle with maps, I've recently invested in a GPS: it even marks the rural section roads! Ideal for travel in "lands unknown". I'd still keep a map handy but only for when I chose to disbelieve the GPS instructions (which can happen, especially if there are detours or recent road construction).

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