Planning A Road Trip from Vancouver to Banff
Written by Brian Callender | Photography by Julie Boyd
In 2016, Julie and I took our first trip to Canada, spending a week exploring Banff and Jasper National Parks. After seeing a seemingly endless stream of photos of Alberta on social media, we were inspired to visit and explore this land of lakes and mountains for ourselves.
Our takeaway from that trip centered around how absolutely beautiful Western Canada is, and an immense desire to return as soon as possible. Coming home from that trip, we proceeded to build a list of places we would visit on our next trip, whenever that day arrived.
Fast forward to earlier this year when I started to piece together a trip back to Canada. This time starting in Vancouver, then making our way East to Yoho and Banff National Parks. Once again, Julie and I were excited to be heading back to one of our favorite places, and we were excited to see a few new ones.
Flying to Canada using Miles | Road Trip from Vancouver to Banff
Since getting into points and miles back in 2014, I always make a concerted effort to save them for our international trips. We have a healthy stash of Chase Ultimate Rewards Points which we have used on two separate trips to Europe. While the flight to Canada is of course an international trip, it’s one of the shorter ones in terms of flight time and distance. However, any opportunity to save money on flights means greater flexibility to spend on other parts of the trip that we can’t use points for, mainly activities and meals.
Late last year, I applied and received the United MileagePlus Explorer card, which netted us 40,000 miles after spending $2,000 in three months. Since earning the spending bonus though, the points had been sitting in my account while we mostly focused on local, domestic trips. This seemed as good a trip as any to cash in those United miles, while also having the opportunity to not pay a checked bag fee, which would come in handy with all of our hiking gear.
Although we live closer to San Jose International Airport, and it is our preferred choice for domestic flights, we opted to fly out of San Francisco International for this trip. Going out of San Francisco, while meaning an extra hour drive in either direction, allowed for us to enjoy the beloved direct flight. On our last trip, we had to transit through Seattle and arrived in Calgary close to midnight. This time, flying into Vancouver, we took a morning flight and would be in the city by lunch time.
Cashing in the points looked like this:
Two, economy tickets from San Francisco to Vancouver – 25,000 points, round-trip
Two, economy tickets from Calgary to San Francisco – 25,000 point, round-trip
Additionally, we paid $111.82 in taxes which meant our out of pocket cost was just $55.91 per person. For our purposes, that was a pretty solid redemption! With our United card, we had the added benefit of premier access, which meant a dedicated baggage line and access to Group 1 or 2 boarding. This turned out to be a great bonus as we arrived a bit later than we had planned for our departing flight, but had plenty of time thanks to this perk and were easily able to place our carry on luggage overhead. Between premier access for the flight, and the combination of TSA pre-check and Global Entry, we are all about making our travels easier!
Getting Around | Road Trip from Vancouver to Banff
My initial thought was that we would not need a car until Saturday when we left Vancouver to drive to Kamloops. However, I quickly realized that it would be easiest to have a car during our time in Vancouver as we had plans to leave the city quite a bit. Ultimately, we ended up with two different car reservations for our time in Canada and an interesting experience with both companies with whom we rented from.
Budget Car Rental – Vancouver International Airport
Our original reservation for this trip was six nights with Avis. When I called Avis about extending my reservation to accommodate the additional two days (picking up on Thursday) the reservation agent said they were sold out. Perplexed by this, since there was availability to make a separate reservation online, I decided to book with someone else for our additional nights. Enter: Budget at the Vancouver Airport.
When we arrived at the Vancouver Airport, we made the short walk from baggage claim to the car rental pickup center. At the counter, I went through all the standard car rental business and then the agent told us to have a seat and the manager would be getting our car ready. Maybe this is standard practice at this airport, but that’s the first time I wasn’t handed keys and told to go pick up my car from a stall in the structure. So we waited, for about 10-15 minutes, before someone came to let us know our car was ready. Eventually, we ended up picking it up from a parking place in the structure, so I’m still not really sure what the manager needed to do for us. And we weren’t alone, as another couple who arrived before us were waiting against the wall near the door.
Annoying pick-up process aside, the car we ended up with worked perfectly fine for the two nights we had it. We ended up driving it out of the city a couple of times, and only needed to fill up the gas tank once. The return process was easy enough on Saturday when I drove it back. I pulled into the return section for Budget and parked behind a long line of other rental cars. An attendant came up to me as I was unloading our remaining items and did a quick check of the car before letting me know I was set to go.
Avis Car Rental – Vancouver Hornsby Street to Calgary Executive Royal Hotel
On Saturday morning, I left our hotel room after breakfast, and walked the 0.5 mile to the Avis on Hornsby Street. While our reservation was for 8: 00 a.m., I didn’t arrive until close to 10:00 a.m. When I opened the door, I found 10 people in line ahead of me. Thirty minutes later, I was at the counter, the line still long behind me. Despite the number of people in that morning, the agent was very nice when I made it to the counter. He asked where I was heading and suggested an upgrade to an SUV for $20 additional. I politely declined, but when he informed me that my original car would be an additional 30 minutes, I confirmed with Julie that it would be best to just get on the road.
While it ended up being the gas guzzler we expected it to be, Julie and I thoroughly enjoyed our Ford Explorer rental. It was especially nice having all the bells and whistles on the vehicle, which included four wheel drive, satellite radio, and the heavily used, and appreciated, power lift gate. We had more than enough room for our two large suitcases and backpacks with extra space to spare.
At the end of our trip, we drove the Explorer to the Executive Royal Hotel about 15 minutes from the airport. When renting a vehicle and dropping it off in another state or province, I have found that the only way to do this cost effectively is by going through city (non-airport) rental locations. So while this wasn’t the ideal scenario, it ended up being the most cost effective. Returning the car to the hotel was easy enough once we figured out that the rental agency was in the rear of the hotel. Julie asked the front desk if we could use their shuttle to take us back the airport where we were staying, but they declined once they learned we weren’t staying there. Instead, we hopped in an Uber and were back to our hotel easily enough.
Where We Stayed | Road Trip from Vancouver to Banff
For two nights in Vancouver, we opted to stay centrally located, as the hotel borders the popular Yaletown and Gastown. We have learned time and again that when we travel, it is best to stay in a central location so that we can get around easily. While we don’t normally stay at luxury hotels, it was nice to start our trip off comfortably. Despite some minor issues with a less than helpful valet staff, we enjoyed our stay at the hotel. It is within walking distance of a number of restaurants and bars, and is next door to the stadium that plays host to the Vancouver Whitecaps, and other events.
Looking for a good breakfast spot? Be sure to check out Jam Cafe on Beatty Street. We got there when they opened which was a mistake as there was already an hour long line. But the delicious food and excellent service made up for the lengthy wait For an early lunch, we enjoyed Central City Brew Pub, also on Beatty Street.
On our road trip across Western Canada, we opted to break up our drive and spend the night in Kamloops. The city was a good halfway point, and we stayed at the Fairfield Inn, a more cost effective option than our first stay. We ended up grabbing a quick bite on the road, and breakfast in the morning at the hotel. The location ended up suiting our needs perfectly and allowed us to be rested, refreshed, and back on the road early the next morning.
During our five nights in the mountains, we called the Mt. Burgess Guesthouse in Field, BC, our home. The small town of Field is just a 20 minute drive to Lake Louise and conveniently located in Yoho National Park. Staying in Field essentially means you’ll be staying in a guesthouse, which I think compares well to something like an AirBnB. Since we booked our trip in a shorter window, many places in Field as well as Lake Louise and Banff were already booked out for the summer. I sent emails to several guesthouses in the Field area before settling on the Mt. Burgess Guesthouse. We ended up booking the Ranger’s Roost room which was a second floor unit with a full kitchen, washer/dryer, two bedrooms, and two baths. Definitely an eclectic place to stay, but the location was perfect for our needs and had fantastic views out to the surrounding mountains.
We didn’t end up eating at either of the dining options in Field, but rather opted to have some meals in the apartment and others in Banff or Lake Louise.
The last night of our stay found us at the Calgary Marriott In-Terminal Hotel, which is attached to the Calgary Airport. On our last visit, we stayed just outside the airport and took a shuttle in. This time, it was nice to be able to walk directly from our hotel to the gate. The hotel is still quite new, so the whole building looks great. We ate dinner at the hotel’s restaurant/bar and while the food was good, the service left something to be desired. Since our flight the next day wasn’t until the afternoon, we laid low in our room, happy to relax and enjoy a late check out.
Final Thoughts | Road Trip from Vancouver to Banff
Planning for this trip took a bit more effort as we booked more last minute for the region. Many accommodations within Banff and Jasper National Parks fill up well in advance, often a year out. The locations we selected ended up working out well, though the early summer mountain weather did not always cooperate as we had hoped.
We’re excited to share more of our second Canadian adventure! Let us know if there is anything we might have missed in the comments!
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