There are several ways to visit the main attractions of Alberta, Canada’s Rocky Mountains. Many companies offer package tours with various options. Some feature just the area around Banff and the Columbia Icefields, while others cover more of western Canada, including British Columbia. There are Canadian tour companies that provide organized hiking or hiking/camping tours. Road Scholar (formerly Elder Hostel) has active educational tours of the Canadian Rockies. You know how organized tours go; up at 6:30 AM, luggage out and breakfast at 7:00, on the bus by 8:00; herded into any lunch or dinners provided.
At the other end of the spectrum is an independent trip. Fly into Calgary, rent a car. It is an hour and a half from Calgary to Banff, two hours to Lake Louise, and about six to Jasper. There are mobile device GPS-based apps such as GyPSy Tours that are available to guide the trip from Calgary to Banff and through the Icefields Parkway. They can be downloaded so that they work without WIFI or data roaming charges.
You know how traveling independently works. One person has to navigate while the driver screams at the navigator when she tells him to turn right and instead he turns left.
You see a mountain goat up high, but only one of you can really get a good look at it.
A third option is the Rocky Mountaineer, which offers four train routes in Alberta and British Columbia. There are three levels of service (and corresponding prices) withsingle and double level dome coaches that maximize viewing opportunities. Narrated commentary is offered throughout. Breakfast and lunch are served either at your seat or in a dining car, dependent upon the service level booked. There are long, scenic days on the train with possible opportunities to view wildlife in transit. Sleeping accommodations are in hotels. The Rocky Mountaineer can be booked directly; some of the organized packages offered by tour companies include a trip on it. If booking directly, consider booking additional days for sightseeing and other activities in desired locations. If you are contemplating the Rocky Mountaineer on your own, read some of the comments on Trip Advisor carefully for additional tips.
When planning our trip to the Canadian Rockies, none of the above options appealed to us. Whenever there are better options, we eschew organized tours. All that driving involved with traveling independently with only one of us able to really enjoy the scenery didn’t seem like a good choice. Although we rely on train travel when we visit Europe and love it, and have taken a scenic train trip in Alaska, the Rocky Mountaineer didn’t entice us.
I did a little investigation and found, among other local transportation companies, the Brewster Travel Canada bus company. Although they do offer packaged trips, I worked with one of their vacation specialists to put together an individualized itinerary. We used their airport shuttle to and from the airport and, in one case, from one town to another. We planned afew days in each location we wanted to visit; one of those days in each town, we booked their sightseeing tour(s), the other day(s), we were on our own for exploring the towns, hiking, relaxing, whatever appealed to us at the time.
The vacation specialist was pleasant, helpful, and accommodating in making our plans and the additional times I called with questions. The Brewster website is full of helpful information and has webcams that I used to monitor the weather prior to and during our trip. A month or so before the trip, the company sent me a package of additional useful information as well as vouchers for our hotels which I had booked through them and all of our excursions.
Each tour we booked worked out well. The buses had WIFI when in areas where it was available, air conditioning (and heat on those cold days!), bathrooms, and clean windows. We were picked up and dropped off at our hotels (or sometimes other locations that we desired) efficiently and on time. The drivers/guides had a lot of local knowledge, were accommodating, and stopped for scenic and wildlife viewing. We had the opportunity to spend some time off the bus at popular/or and photogenic spots.
Although we were with a group, the group varied with each excursion we took, so we were not with the same people day in and day out. We met many friendly people from as close as Naples, Fla. to as far as Australia, Japan, and India, andwe were able to see all of the major and many minor sights without being locked into a packaged tour or having to deal with driving a car. Combined with totally open days to do whatever we wanted, this option worked well for us.
No matter which method you choose for touring Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, here are two tips. We never saw a public water fountain anywhere, not even in the airport. Therefore, if planning a trip there, be prepared to purchase bottled water or bring your own fill up water bottle.
If you fly out of Calgary to return to the U.S., be aware that you go through U.S. customs at Calgary Airport. It is an involved procedure. First, documents are checked as you “leave” Canada. Upon “entering” the U.S., you show documents again, then go through customs, drop off your checked luggage and pass through security. Unless you have Nexus or Global Entry, the process can take more than an hour. However, although you can check in at the airline counter early, you cannot begin the customs process until two hours before your flight. Plan accordingly.
Vickie is a former member of the Marco Island City Council and Artistic Director of the Marco Island Film Festival, and has been a volunteer for many island organizations. She is a former board member of the Naples Mac Users Group. Prior to relocating to Marco, Vickie served as a school psychologist, Director of Special Services, and college instructor and also was a consultant to the New Jersey Department of Education.