How to: Visit Banff on a Budget

by  Teresa Bitler | Jun 17, 2014
Banff / Susan Rydberg/iStock

The Canadian resort town of Banff was founded in the late 1880s as a retreat for the rich, so it’s no surprise that you can spend a small fortune in this hot spring haven. Still, with a little planning, a trip to the birthplace of Canada’s national park system can most certainly be affordable. Here’s how:

Where to Stay: Keep It Simple
A stay at the luxurious and historic The Fairmont Banff Springs will set you back on average 500 CAD ($460) during the summer months -- this is, after all, where Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, and other celebrities have stayed while visiting Banff National Park. But local inns provide a much more economical, still comfortable option. Try the family-owned High Country Inn  (from 150 CAD or $138), located two blocks from downtown Banff, or the pet-friendly Red Carpet Inn (145-180 CAD or $133-$166).

If you plan to spend your day out and about anyway and don't need the bells and whistles, Banff has several hostels that might fit the bill. The Banff Y Mountain Lodge has 31 en-suite rooms, 12 rooms with shared baths, and 86 bunks in dorm rooms, with rooms with private baths starting from 109 CAD in high season. For even more savings, there's a large communal kitchen where you can prepare your own meals. Samesun Backpacker Hostel (70 CAD), which tends to attract younger crowds and the young at heart, offers a free breakfast of pancakes, orange slices, toast, juice, and coffee.

Or, for the best deal, get in touch with nature and set up camp at one of Parks Canada's three campgrounds. Within these, we recommend Tunnel Mountain, which encompasses three areas: Tunnel Mountain Village 1, Tunnel Mountain Village II, and Tunnel Mountain Trailer. They're all an easy hike to Banff, saving you additional travel time. Camp fees range from 27 to 38 CAD, and you’ll need to provide your own tent or RV.

Where to Eat: Chow Down at Pubs
Dining in Banff is where it can get rather expensive -- expect to pay at least $20 per dinner entree at most establishments, unless you stick to the sports bars and pubs. If meals are where you'd like to save, Beaver Bar, located on the first floor of the Samesun Backpacker Hostel, serves a 6.50 CAD nightly dinner special; Sunday’s roast with mashed potatoes and Thursday’s pulled pork sandwich with fries are just two examples. You might also find some live entertainment there: Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday are, respectively, trivia, open mic, and karaoke nights.

Slightly more refined meals at Elk & Oarsman Pub & Grill are also a little pricier, but the pub runs a few specials during the weekdays. On Mondays, you can order any burger, typically 15 CAD, for 12 (with 1 CAD going toward a local charity). A six-ounce Angus beef steak sandwich with fries is yours for 8 CAD on Tuesdays, and a half rack of baby backs is just 13 CAD on Thursdays. Finally, on elk nights on Wednesdays, you can sample an elk burger for 10 CAD or elk poutine -- a plate of fries smothered in gravy, slow braised elk, and cheese curds -- for 10 CAD.

When you tire of pub food, Balkan Restaurant dishes up authentic Greek food at comparatively reasonable prices. Order the gyro (15 CAD) or a pasta dish for an inexpensive meal. If you feel like a splurge, the vegetarian eatery Nourish Bistro is a great option. Try the King Kong noodles in a sweet coconut chili sauce (16 CAD for a half order, 24 CAD for a full order) or the 27-ingredient nachos (15 for a half order, 22 CAD for a full order).

What to Do: Explore Nature
Emerald lakes, white-capped mountains, glacial icefields, soothing hot springs, and lush forests draw more than 3 million visitors to Banff every year. At Banff National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, adults are charged a daily entrance fee of 9.80 CAD. But if you're traveling with family, a group pass at 19.60 CAD, for seven or more people in one vehicle, might make more sense -- fees for kids ages 6-16 are 4.90 CAD each. Planning to stay for a week or longer? Consider the annual pass, at 67.70 CAD for adults and 136.40 CAD for groups.

On the grounds, start with the Cave and Basin National Historic Site for views of the hot spring that put Banff on the map. You can even dip tired feet into the waters at Banff Upper Hot Springs for a modest additional charge (adults 7.30 CAD, groups 22.50 CAD). Then, area hikes take you into the heart of the Canadian Rockies. For an easier beginning, set out with Tunnel Mountain Trail or Bow Falls Trail. Or, strike out a little further and head twenty miles north of the resort town, where Lake Minnewanka’s trails offers incredible views and scenery. From there, Lake Louise is just a little further.

Driving the Icefields Parkway, which runs from Banff to Jasper, doesn’t cost anything but gas money. Pull over along the way to see the Columbia Icefield, a massive thick ice mass that most of the area's highest peaks surround. While tours that take you out on the Athabasca Glacier aren’t cheap -- around 50 CAD -- it may be an once-in-a-lifetime experience. Brewster, the company behind many of the area’s attractions, also offers an Ultimate Explorer package that includes the newly opened Glacier Skywalk, the Banff Gondola, and the Banff Lake Cruise for 110 CAD.

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