By Car or RV
Unless you’re planning to visit just one city, or you’re on an escorted tour, driving is the best way to get around Alberta. All you need is a vehicle, a map, a full tank of gas, and a sense of adventure.
Driving in Alberta is no different to other parts of Canada or the United States. Highways and city streets are kept in excellent condition. In the two largest cities, Calgary and Edmonton, expect the usual traffic delays associated with morning and evening rush hours, especially on arteries leading to and from downtown. Finding parking in the center of these two cities can be problematic, with on-street parking costing up to $8 per hour and underground parking costing up to $40 per day (parking is generally not included in the rates of downtown hotels). In winter, blowing snow can be especially hazardous, but major roads are cleared of snow regularly.
Apart from other drivers, the most important thing to watch for is wildlife, especially at dawn or dusk. In Banff and Jasper National Parks, areas with lots of animal activity are signposted.
All major car-rental agencies have outlets at Calgary and Edmonton International Airports as well as multiple city locations throughout the province. To ensure that a vehicle is available for you when you arrive, book in advance, especially through the busy June–September period.
In summer, expect to pay around $60 per day for an “economy” or “compact” car, $75 for an “intermediate,” $85–100 for a “full-size,” and $120–180 for an SUV. Between late September and mid-June all vehicles are heavily discounted, with smaller vehicles available from $40 per day and $230 per week. All major agencies now offer unlimited mileage, but not for rentals originating in Banff or Jasper National Parks. Check to confirm this policy. In all cases, insurance costs from $20 per day and is compulsory unless covered by a personal policy or on your credit card. Charges apply if you need to drop off the car at an agency other than the rental location. All agencies provide free pickup and drop-off at major city hotels.
Vehicles can be booked through parent companies in the United States or elsewhere using the Web or toll-free numbers. Discount (403/299-1202 or 800/263-2355, www.discountcar.com) is a Canadian company with 200 rental outlets across the country. Their vehicles are kept in service a little longer than the other majors, but they provide excellent rates, especially if booked in advance and even through summer.
Other companies include Avis (800/974-0808, www.avis.ca), Budget (800/268-8900, www.budget.com), Dollar (800/800-4000, www.dollar.com), Enterprise (800/325-8007, www.enterprise.com), Hertz (800/263-0600, www.hertz.ca), National (800/227-7368, www.nationalcar.com), Rent-a-Wreck (800/327-0116, www.rentawreck.ca), and Thrifty (800/847-4389, www.thrifty.com).
Campervans and RVs (recreation vehicles) are a great way to get around Alberta without having to worry about accommodations each night. The downside is cost. The smallest vans, capable of sleeping two people, start at $150 per day with 100 free kilometers (62 miles) per day. Extra charges include insurance, a preparation fee (usually around $50 per rental), a linen/cutlery charge (around $60 per person per trip), and taxes.
Major agencies, with rental outlets in Calgary, include Cruise Canada (403/291-4963 or 800/671-8042, or, in the U.S., 800/327-7778, www.cruisecanada.com), Canadream (403/291-1000 or 800/461-7368, www.canadream.com), and Go West (403/240-1814 or 800/661-8813, www.go-west.com).
In most cases, a drop-off fee of $400 applies to drop-offs made in Vancouver from rentals originating in Calgary, or vice versa. At the end of the summer season (early September), look for some great online bargains.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition