How to Take a Cheap Vacation to Alberta, Canada to See the Northern Lights and More

If you’ve ever been curious about the Canadian Rockies, now is the time to adventure to the Great White North. You’ve probably never visited Canada in the winter due to finger-numbing Fahrenheits and icy roads, but that’s a sorry excuse to not witness the stunning scenery of Alberta. In fact, winter is the cheapest time of year to take a trip. From seeing the northern lights at Jasper’s Dark Sky Preserve to driving the Icefields Parkway to go ice skating on Lake Louise, there are many affordable activities and mountain views that’ll remind you that Canada is wicked cool. Also, one Canadian dollar equals 75 cents, so you might save some hard-earned cash in the end. Here’s how to road trip through Alberta and see Calgary, Banff, Jasper and Edmonton in under a week without breaking the bank.

Airfare and Transportation

Flying into Calgary can be as cheap as flying to Vegas from Denver, so be sure to take advantage of the ridiculously low fares during winter. Flying round-trip from Denver to Calgary can be as low as $93 on Frontier Airlines, but you can also find great deals on Air Canada and United. To save time driving, flying into Calgary and out of Edmonton is ideal, but making the trek back to Calgary to save on airfare will only add a couple more hours. Rent a vehicle for as low as $22 per day from Calgary International Airport and start on your journey.

Calgary

Calgary. Photo courtesy of Travel Alberta.

Accommodations

Alt Hotel Calgary East Village

Photo courtesy of Alt Hotel Calgary East Village on Facebook.

Where: 635 Confluence Way SE, Calgary
Cost: Starting at $90 CAD per night through various booking sites

The Lowdown: This Alt Hotel in Calgary is technically a three-star hotel, but you’d be hard-pressed to find affordable accommodations in the area with trendy, upscale décor, modern, eco-friendly amenities and easy access to mouthwatering cuisine nearby. Located in Calgary’s East Village, Alt Hotel is only a seven-minute walk from the light rail station, so you can get wherever you want to go.

Sightseeing

Central Library

Photo by Marissa Kozma.

Where: 800 3 St. SE, Calgary
Cost: Free

The Lowdown: When locals suggested we check out the nearest library, we were a little skeptical as to how impressive it’d be, but we were wowed the second we walked in. Given that this incredible architectural feat cost roughly $245 million CAD to construct, it’s no wonder the Central Library is perhaps one of the most beautiful libraries in the world today. Flip through a book in the cozy alcove seating, sip espresso at the second-floor coffee shop or just take an Instagram — whatever you decide to do, it’s worth a spare moment.

Peace Bridge

Photo by Marissa Kozma.

Where: Memorial Dr. NW, Calgary
Cost: Free

The Lowdown: An iconic photo in downtown Calgary is certainly one of Peace Bridge, so make sure you stop by. Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava in 2012, the red bridge is used for pedestrians and bikers crossing the Bow River. It’s a calming place to take in the skyline too.

Historic Inglewood

Photo by Marissa Kozma.

Where: Start at Recordland Limited, 1208 9 Ave. SE, Calgary
Cost: Free

The Lowdown: Established in 1875, Inglewood is Calgary’s oldest neighborhood and boasts small-town charm just within city limits. Stroll down 9 Avenue Southeast to stumble upon quirky thrift stores, boutique shops and other hidden gems such as Recordland Limited, a massive vinyl store, and Plant, a garden center with a surprising variety of handmade pots, knick-knacks, stationery and other gifts.

Food and Drinks

Oolong Tea House (Tea)

Photo courtesy of Oolong Tea House on Facebook.

Where: 110 10 St. NW, Calgary
Cost: $10 CAD and under

The Lowdown: Calgary gets pretty chilly in the winter, so start your day off right with a hot cup of tea. Located in the laidback Kensington neighborhood, Oolong Tea Shop is a short walk from Peace Bridge and features over 100 selections of fine teas to choose from and a cozy atmosphere to boot. Share a pot with a friend to warm up from the wintry weather or get a piping hot chai latte to go.

Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters (Coffee)

Photo courtesy of Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters on Facebook.

Where: 618 Confluence Way SE, Calgary
Cost: $10 CAD and under

The Lowdown: If you’re staying at Alt Hotel in the East Village, make sure you cross the street to check out Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters in the Simmons Building. Although there are numerous shops around town, this brick-and-mortar, industrial location serves as the brand’s roastery and is actually a converted mattress factory. The coffee shop also shares a building with wood-fired steak and seafood restaurant charbar and the bakery Sidewalk Citizen if you find yourself hungry.

Hexagon Board Game Café (Coffee)

Photo courtesy of Hexagon Board Game Cafe on Facebook.

Where: 1140 Kensington Rd. NW #200, Calgary
Cost: $10 CAD and under

The Lowdown: Well, we’ve already given you a tea and a coffee option, but having a backup can’t hurt especially if you’ve been shopping downtown and need another warm refuge. Plus, this coffee shop is a great way to meet some friendly locals. Hexagon is a café with coffee, tea and baked goods, but also features an impressive (and often humorous) collection of board and card games. Whether you’re looking for hardcore fans to fantasize with during Dungeons and Dragons or just want to play checkers, Hexagon is a fun way to spend a morning or afternoon.

CHIX Eggshop (Brunch)

Photo courtesy of CHIX Eggshop on Facebook.

Where: 624 6 Ave. SE, Calgary
Cost: $15 CAD and under

The Lowdown: CHIX Eggshop is attached to the Alt Hotel, so it’ll be hard to not eat here every day. Although if you did, we couldn’t blame you. With counter service only, this kitschy, pink “fast-food diner” serves up hot chicken sandwiches, nacho cheese fries and chocolate-chip cookies as large as your face. This new breakfast spot is bold and inventive food at its best.

Sidewalk Citizen (Breakfast or Dinner)

Photo courtesy of Sidewalk Citizen on Facebook.

Where: 340 13 Ave. SW, Calgary
Cost: $25 CAD and under

The Lowdown: If you’re in search of sustainable Canadian fare, then look no further. The popular bakery around town recently opened an Israeli-inspired restaurant of the same name inside a solarium to create a bright, airy atmosphere that’s quite cozy — particularly under the night sky. Indulge on Shakshuka made with free-range, organic eggs from Alberta in the morning or savor spiced barramundi, falafel and whipped labneh in the evening. Whatever you order will be delicious.


Banff

Banff. Photo courtesy of Travel Alberta.

Accommodations

Mount Royal Hotel

Photo courtesy of Mount Royal Hotel on Facebook.

Where: 138 Banff Ave., Banff
Cost: Starting at $97 CAD per night through various booking sites

The Lowdown: Staying in downtown Banff might sound pricy, but compared to luxury hotels in Aspen or Vail, it’s actually decently affordable. Mount Royal Hotel is located off the main drag and includes parking, a luxurious, cabin-inspired lounge with a fireplace, a hot tub with a view of the mountains and a sauna.

Sightseeing

Gondola to Sulphur Mountain

Photo courtesy of Banff Gondola on Facebook.

Where: 100 Mountain Ave., Banff
Cost: Starting at $50 CAD per person

The Lowdown: If you don’t get to go skiing, spending a day on top of Sulphur Mountain promises the same stunning views of the Canadian Rockies. Take the gondola up the mountain for interactive museum exhibits, dining and a chance to peer off the insane 360-degree rooftop observation deck with insulated domes, lounge chairs and a fire pit. We know you live in Colorado, but this will still take your breath away.

Banff Upper Hot Springs

Photo courtesy of Banff & Lake Louise Tourism on Facebook.

Where: 1 Mountain Ave., Banff
Cost: $8.48 CAD per adult entry

The Lowdown: A vacation to Alberta in the wintertime wouldn’t be complete without a soak in soothing mineral water. After you head up Sulphur Mountain, make sure you stop at Banff Upper Hot Springs to end your day. It’s the highest operating hot spring in Canada and features pools with varying minerals, gases and temperatures. The view of the mountains definitely adds to the experience.

Drive the Icefields Parkway

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Where: Take Highway 93 northwest from Banff towards Jasper
Cost: Free

The Lowdown: We’re not exaggerating when we say that the Icefields Parkway might possibly be the most beautiful stretch of highway on earth. Drive the entire road from Banff to Jasper and witness surreal scenery featuring ancient glaciers, snow-capped forests, crystal blue lakes and waterfalls cascading from jagged cliffs. Just make sure you fill-up with gas before you head out on your journey since there’s not a town in sight for miles.

Lake Louise

Photo courtesy of Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise on Facebook.

Where: Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, 111 Lake Louise Dr., Lake Louise
Cost: $20 CAD for ice skate rentals

The Lowdown: Roughly 40 minutes into your drive along the Icefields Parkway from Banff, be sure to stop at Lake Louise, the famous view you’ve probably seen in many desktop backgrounds. The historic Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is situated at one end of the lake and if you get an early start, you can grab rental skates and go ice skating. It’s a scene straight out of a fairytale.

Food and Drinks

Wild Flour Bakery (Breakfast)

Photo courtesy of Wild Flour Bakery on Facebook.

Where: 211 Bear St. #101, Banff
Cost: $10 CAD and under

The Lowdown: Wild Flour Bakery is a short walk from Mount Royal Hotel and will start serving hot coffee, fresh-baked pastries, croissants and baguettes before the sun comes up. Banff can be a little sleepy in the morning, so if you want to start your day early, this is the place to go.

Sky Bistro (Lunch)

Photo courtesy of Mount Royal Hotel on Facebook.

Where: Take the gondola up Sulphur Mountain
Cost: $25 CAD and under

The Lowdown: If you’re hungry on your visit up Sulphur Mountain, don’t leave without dining at Sky Bistro. With panoramic views of the Canadian Rockies at 7,150 feet and delectable food deserving of such a magnificent location, this restaurant promises a meal you’ll never forget. The quality Canadian cuisine served here consists of sustainably-sourced, fresh, local ingredients carefully prepared in appetizers like bison tartare and entrées like braised Alberta beef short rib stroganoff. The dinner menu can be a bit pricy, so make sure you head here for lunch instead.

Lakeview Lounge (Lunch)

Photo courtesy of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.

Where: Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, 111 Lake Louise Dr., Lake Louise
Cost: $30 CAD and under

The Lowdown: If you’ve worked up an appetite ice skating, head inside the Fairmont on Lake Louise to enjoy breakfast or lunch at the Lakeview Lounge. The view doesn’t get better than this. Though some entrées can be on the pricier side, a warm bowl of tomato or broccoli and gouda soup is not and makes for the perfect afternoon meal before heading back out on the road.

The Bison Restaurant & Terrace (Dinner)

Photo courtesy of The Bison Restaurant & Terrace on Facebook.

Where: 211 Bear St. #213, Banff
Cost: $30 CAD and under

The Lowdown: Just like in Colorado, Albertans love their bison and The Bison Restaurant & Terrace is the best place to try it in Banff. This romantic, second-floor restaurant features live music and a menu with Canadian staples such as elk poutine alongside wild-caught trout atop seasonal vegetables. A hearty bison burger won’t cost you a pretty penny, but if you want a well-portioned tenderloin or rack of ribs, you should share with a partner.


Jasper

Photo courtesy of Jasper, Canada on Facebook.

Accommodations

Bear Hill Lodge

Photo by Marissa Kozma.

Where: 100 Bonhomme St., Jasper
Cost: Starting at $82 CAD per night through various booking sites

The Lowdown: A cozy cabin meant for two is super affordable in downtown Jasper. Bear Hill Lodge provides private accommodations with everything you need for a comfortable getaway. With a fireplace, TV, bathroom and kitchenette or kitchen (depending on which style you choose), guests have access to a lot more than just basic amenities. There’s even a relaxing sauna room in the main lodge.

Sightseeing

Maligne Canyon Ice Walk

Photo by Marissa Kozma.

Where: Maligne Lake Rd., Jasper
Cost: Free

The Lowdown: Explore Maligne Canyon in Jasper National Park for a hike that’ll allow you to witness the beauty of waterfalls, wildlife, forests and mountain peaks in the distance. Measuring just over 164 feet deep, Maligne Canyon is a slot canyon eroded out of the Palliser Formation. Although it’s icy in the winter, exploring the adjacent trail is relatively safe and crampons are advised but not mandatory. If you’re looking for a unique hike, this makes for an exciting afternoon.

Pyramid Lake

Photo by Marissa Kozma.

Where: Take Pyramid Lake Road and park to walk to Pyramid Island
Cost: Free

The Lowdown: There are many majestic peaks located within Jasper National Park but Pyramid Mountain’s beauty is staggering. Driving to Pyramid Lake to witness this spectacular mountain in all its glory is only a 10-minute drive from downtown Jasper. Park along the road to walk across the pedestrian bridge for a closer view on Pyramid Island. You haven’t seen a mountain quite like this before.

Jasper Planetarium

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Where: 1 Old Lodge Rd., Jasper
Cost: $29 CAD per adult

The Lowdown: Did you know that Jasper National Park is home to the second-largest Dark Sky Preserve in the world and the largest accessible Dark Sky Preserve (this means there’s a town nearby)? The beautiful starry night sky can easily be seen in Jasper, where no artificial lighting is visible. Visit the Jasper Planetarium for an introduction to some iconic constellations and take turns looking through telescopes. If you want to witness the preserve at its darkest and starriest time of year, check out the Jasper Dark Sky Festival in October. Winter months are also a prime time to see the northern lights since it gets darker much quicker. Although the planetarium can’t promise you’ll sight them for sure, they do update a live map of aurora action on their website. Whether you just see stars or a spectacle of dancing lights, the planetarium is a memorable experience and a fun activity for when the sun goes down.

Food and Drinks

SnowDome Coffee Bar (Coffee)

Photo by Marissa Kozma.

Where: 607 Patricia St., Jasper
Cost: $10 CAD and under

The Lowdown: If you packed light and need to do a little laundry or just want a cup of coffee, head to SnowDome Coffee Bar. This coin laundry facility is comfy and makes the perfect place to read while you wait for clean clothes. It’s the kind of casually hip atmosphere you’d only find in Canada.

Sunhouse Café (Breakfast)

Photo courtesy of Sunhouse Cafe on Facebook.

Where: 610 Patricia St., Jasper
Cost: $10 CAD and under

The Lowdown: If the winter’s starting to give you the blues, head inside Sunhouse Café for a sunny, California-inspired atmosphere. A healthy espresso menu and avocado toast are just what you need before you bundle up to go outside.

Downstream Lounge (Dinner)

Photo courtesy of Downstream Lounge on Facebook.

Where: 620-B Connaught Dr., Jasper 
Cost: $25 CAD and under

The Lowdown: If you want to experience some nightlife, Downstream Lounge on a weekend is bound to be bumping. Watch locals do a shotski and enjoy a heavy dinner that will fill your stomach after a long day outdoors. With everything from vegetarian lasagna to a smoked duck club sandwich,  Downstream is a safe bet for satisfying everyone’s cravings.

Evil Dave’s Grill (Dinner)

Photo courtesy of Evil Dave’s Grill on Facebook.

Where: 622 Patricia St., Jasper
Cost: $25 CAD and under

The Lowdown: Canada is home to melting pot of cuisines from around the world and you can still find international entrées in tiny, remote Jasper. Evil Dave’s Grill has a global menu with locally sourced, spicy dishes such as bison and wild boar meatloaf and Chinese barbecue chow mein noodles. Some dishes might have a kick but it’s all part of the experience.

Jasper Brewing Co. (Beer)

Photo courtesy of Jasper Brewing Co. on Facebook.

Where: 624 Connaught Dr., Jasper
Cost: $10 CAD and under

The Lowdown: Nothing beats a cold Canadian craft beer. The Jasper brewery scene might not be as massive as Denver’s, but Jasper Beer Co. boasts IPAs on tap that’ll make you reconsider your favorite brew back home.


Edmonton

Photo courtesy of Edmonton Tourism.

Accommodations

Crash Hotel

Photo courtesy of Crash Hotel on Facebook.

Where: 10266 103 St. NW, Edmonton
Cost: Starting at $74 CAD per night through various booking sites

The Lowdown: After staying at the Crash Hotel, we’ve determined that Edmonton is slightly edgier than Calgary. This ultra-hip, budget hotel reminds us of a quirky hostel without the shared dorm rooms and bathroom facilities. With graffiti-inspired walls, funky carpeting and even arcade games in the hallway, Crash isn’t your typical hotel but it’ll definitely leave an impression.

Sightseeing

Old Strathcona

Photo by Marissa Kozma.

Where: Start at Junque Cellar, 10422 82 Ave. NW, Edmonton
Cost: Free

The Lowdown: Whyte Avenue is the South Broadway of Canada and you’ll find eccentric stores and street art in the Old Strathcona district of Edmonton. From funky antique finds at Junque Cellar to taxidermy butterfly art and colorful sequined costumes inside Mars & Venus, you’ll leave wondering why nobody has named Edmonton the hipster capital of the world quite yet.

West Edmonton Mall

Photo by Marissa Kozma.

Where: 8882 170 St. NW, Edmonton
Cost: Free

The Lowdown: The West Edmonton Mall in Alberta is the largest enclosed mall in North America and is technically the size of a small city. At 5.3 million square feet, it features over 800 stores and services including two hotels, over 100 restaurants and cafés, amusement parks, an ice area, a water park, and even a zoo. If retail shopping isn’t quite your thing, we understand, but it’s still worth a stop if you’re intrigued.

Royal Alberta Museum

Photo courtesy of Royal Alberta Museum on Facebook.

Where: 9810 103-A Ave. NW, Edmonton
Cost: $19 CAD per adult admission

The Lowdown: Every province in Canada has a royal museum dedicated to human and natural history in its capital, so make sure you visit the Royal Alberta Museum to learn more about this part of the country. It’s the largest museum in western Canada and features dinosaur fossil exhibits and artifacts from World War I.

Food and Drinks

Duchess Bake Shop (Pastry)

Where: 10718 124 St., Edmonton
Cost: $5 CAD and under

The Lowdown: Want to eat a world-class pastry and spend less than $5? Duchess Bake Shop in Edmonton bakes French macarons, croissants, tarts, cakes and éclairs. It’s a cheap breakfast option when you’re out and about and will satisfy your sweet tooth.

Toast Culture (Breakfast)

Photo courtesy of Toast Culture on Facebook.

Where: 11965 Jasper Ave., Edmonton
Cost: $15 CAD and under

The Lowdown: Sometimes it can be difficult to find decent breakfast toast, but foodies will rejoice when they look at the menu at Toast Culture. The art behind proper toast topping is more than just bread and butter. Order the Mediterranean with red lentil hummus, Greek vegetables, feta cheese, pickled onion and lemon yogurt on toasted naan bread or the sweet and salty pink pepper and goat cheese toast for a unique alternative to a muffin. We really wish they’d open a second location in Denver.

Under The High Wheel (Lunch)

Photo courtesy of Under The High Wheel on Facebook.

Where: 8135 102 St. NW , Edmonton
Cost: $20 CAD and under

The Lowdown: Sustainability is the name and tasty brunch is the game at Under The High Wheel. Located in Old Strathcona, this restaurant serves everything from crab cakes to huevos rancheros. Whatever breakfast or lunch staple you’re craving, you can find it here.

Fox Burger (Dinner)

Photo courtesy of Fox Burger on Facebook.

Where: 6423 112 Ave. NW, Edmonton
Cost: $20 CAD and under

The Lowdown: A juicy burger is the best way to end your trip to Alberta. Fox Burger promises mouthwatering meat patties and loaded smashed taters so that you leave this beautiful country well fed.