For those of you that don’t know, Canada is not just a big state to the north. It’s actually a whole separate country.
I say that because the few times I’ve visited Canada over the years, it never really felt that different. Although, if I’m being honest, my experience was limited to a few quick trips over the border at Niagara Falls to do a little sightseeing and mainly buy beer (hey – it was in college and the drinking age in Canada was only 19!).
Last week, I had a chance to experience just a touch more of Canada when I attended the BlissDom Canada conference and this time, I truly felt like I was in a foreign country.
If you’ve never traveled to Canada before and you’re an American, you can’t help but compare there to here. So in order to get you ready for your next international adventure north of the border, I’ve put together the most important things I picked up on in my latest trip.
Disclaimer: My trip involving flying in and out of Toronto so all of my experiences are based on that. I don’t claim to speak for the entire country, unless they really want me to.
1. You need a passport.
Gone are the days of flashing a driver’s license and going about your business. Canada now requires all U.S. Citizens to have a passport. That also means you’ll have to deal with customs and immigration upon arrival.
Be prepared to explain if you’re there for business or pleasure and if it’s business, they’ll probably ask you what kind of business. Don’t take it personally. They ask everyone.
At the very end of the long walk through Pearson airport, after customs and immigration, you’ll collect your bag (if you checked one), flash your customs forms, and be on your way.
2. The U.S. Dollar is strong right now.
That means that when you leave the airport get thee to a shopping mall! After looking up the exchange rate, I found that $1 USD was equivalent to around $1.26 CAD. Or a better way to look at it is $1 CAD was equivalent to around $.77 USD.
THAT’S LIKE GETTING AN AUTOMATIC 20% DISCOUNT EVERYWHERE YOU GO!
When I arrived for BlissDom Canada, they invited us to experience Vaughan Mills – a indoor outlet mall. I couldn’t have asked for a better welcome and when Vaughan Mills provided us gift cards to many of their stores, I almost considered moving.
3. The stores are different, but not really.
They had stores like Old Navy, but it was Old Navy Canada. It literally had more sweaters and flannel shirts than I could count. And remember Bombay (once called The Bombay Company but now out of business)? It lives on in Canada.
And stores like Marshalls and HomeGoods are replaced with their Canadian counterparts, Winners and HomeSense. Sadly, I didn’t get to visit either one.
4. They don’t have bathrooms or restrooms.
They have washrooms! The signs call it a washroom and so do the people. But it probably makes a little more sense since I’ve never taken a bath or a rest in one of those places while out in public.
5. They use the metric system.
You probably knew this already and while I learned the metric system in school and understand it, I’m not so great at doing conversions in my head. Everything was listed in kilometers. The snow forecast was given in centimeters. And the temperature was always in Celsius.
In fact, when I got to my room, my thermostat was set to 21 degrees. Being too lazy to lookup the conversion, I shrugged my shoulders and said to myself, “Well, that sounds like a good temperature.” It was only when I told my Canadian friend at home that my room had dropped to 19 degrees that she said, ‘That’s pretty cold.” Thank goodness I didn’t actually have to look anything up!
6. Paying the bill at a restaurant is different.
And by different, I mean better. First of all, it is the bill and not the check. Your server will bring the bill to your table and when you’re ready to pay by credit card, he or she brings the credit card machine to you. You swipe your card, add your tip, print your receipt and go!
That way no one is handling your credit card and causing any unauthorized shenanigans.
7. There are many uniquely Canadian foods but know what you are getting.
When I travel to another country, I like to try whatever is native. I know that Canada is known for good steak and maple syrup but I wanted to try local favorites like poutine and beavertails.
My first attempt at poutine (French fries with cheese curds and gravy) was ironically from a fast food shop called New York Fries. When I told other Canadians that I had tried poutine there, they all made the same face indicating that I had chosen poorly. It actually made me feel better because it wasn’t very good. (Apparently a sign of bad poutine is chewy cheese curds which is what I had).
To go along with my poutine, I ordered a hot dog and loaded it up on what was surely a Canadian fixins bar. I figured that Canadians must eat pickles, tomatoes, green olives, and mustard on their hot dog. So that’s what I did. Then I was told that NOBODY eats their hot dog that way. It was an eating adventure at least!
I did finally make it to a real poutine shop and I was glad I had the less-than-average poutine first. It made me appreciate the smooth melty cheese curd and perfectly salty gravy all the more. And it paired perfectly with my new favorite Canadian beer.
Unfortunately, the beavertail shop would not take credit cards so I’ll still keep that eating adventure on my bucket list.
8. There’s more to sports than hockey.
While I did see kids in the hotel hallway playing hockey, most Canadians were focused on what they considered a very Canadian sport – BASEBALL. Sure the Toronto Blue Jays are doing exceptionally well and everyone is very excited, but I’m pretty sure baseball is about as American as it gets.
Football also exists there in both college and professional leagues (CFL) but the rules are a little different. The fields are bigger and they play with only three downs.
Now I’m sure that you were hoping for more practical things like the electric currency and plug shape (it’s the same as the U.S.), or how to deal with currency exchange (you can use your credit card in most places but your credit card company will probably charge a small transaction fee) but you can easily google that stuff.
Or just play it by ear, take in as much local culture as you can, and enjoy the warmth, friendliness, and good humor of the people (at least the ones I met). Long live Canada!