The most popular Canadian national park is undoubtedly Banff. With millions of yearly visitors and hotel prices in hundreds per night, it makes you wonder if it’s possible to visit Banff on a budget, right? You bet it is! And I’m spilling out all the details right here.
Banff National Park is an incredibly popular place to visit, and prices reflect that. Travellers get discouraged from visiting because of the high cost of everything – accommodation, transport, dining, and attractions can cost you thousands in just a week spent in Banff.
In this post, I’m going to show you step by step how to visit Banff on a budget.
This guide covers:
- Transport & how to get around Banff
- Budget-friendly accommodation option
- How to save on attractions & free things to do in Banff
- Where to eat delicious food
- Detailed budget, how much exactly the trip will cost you
- Tips for saving money
After living and visiting Banff all-year-round for over five years, we found many budget options to keep our wallet happy. I’m sure you will appreciate my tips, so you can visit the stunning Canadian Rockies without breaking the bank.
Let’s get right into it.
Banff on a budget
Even though this guide is created for a week in Banff, you can extend it however you like.
Get ready to pack your bags!
This is exactly how you can visit Banff for only 2,240 CAD per week for a couple(280 CAD per day).
Book your flights to Calgary, the nearest international airport to Banff, at least a few months in advance. If you can, avoid July and August (or at least Canadian holiday days) when it’s crazy busy in the Rockies. In our experience, the best time to visit Banff is in June or September.
The famous turquoise lakes are thawed by June and still not covered with snow in September.
Transport & how to get around Banff
Calgary to Banff
After arriving at Calgary International Airport, take an Uber or taxi to pick up your campervan. Our Smile Campervans are your home on wheels in the Canadian Rockies. They’re a budget-friendly option for transport and accommodation, and each campervan very comfortably sleeps two people.
From June to September, it costs 200 CAD per day, including everything you might need – bedding, kitchen utensils, 200 km/day, insurance, and roadside assistance.
Banff is about 1,5 hours from Calgary on a well-maintained toll-free Trans-Canada Highway.
Once you get to the gate of Banff National Park, you’re required to pay an entrance fee.
If you’re visiting during the weekend or summer, the lines at the gate can be very long. Purchase the park pass in Canmore’s Visitor Centre (about 20 minutes before you reach Banff) or order your Park Pass online in advance.
For a couple travelling in one car, the best option is to purchase a yearly pass for 139,40 CAD (the only other option is daily pass). It’s valid for all National Parks in Canada.
How to get around Banff
Banff is a small town with limited parking spots. You can find a free spot on this website. While parking is free of charge, I recommend getting around town on foot. The traffic is slow, and the streets often congested with tour buses.
If you are camping in Banff, there’re free shuttles to take you to town. Banff also has Roam public buses to take you around town, and it makes sense to use them (especially mid-day) to visit popular attractions around Banff – Banff Gondola, Johnston Canyon, Johnson Lake, and Lake Minnewanka.
But if you wake up early enough (before 9 am), you should have no problems finding a parking spot.
The total budget is 1,580 CAD:
- 200 x 7 days = 1,400 CAD for Smile Campervan
- Park Pass: 160 CAD
The fresh air, mountain views, and chirping birds are going to be your daily morning pleasures. You’re saving hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars by skipping hotels and sleeping in the campgrounds.
Camping in Banff National Park
Banff National Park has 14 campgrounds, three of them are right in Banff (Tunnel Mountain), two of them are within a 15-minute drive (by Two Jack Lakes), and the rest are mostly first come first serve campgrounds along Trans-Canada Highway towards Jasper. These are very popular and usually reserved months in advance.
Other nearby options are near Canmore – Wapiti Campground, Bow River Campground, or Three Sisters Campground.
Basic first-come-first-serve campgrounds cost 15,70 CAD – 21,50 CAD per night per campsite and campgrounds with showers cost 27,40 CAD – 32,30 CAD per night per campsite.
I recommend booking a campsite at Two Jack Lakeside Campground. It’s in the forest right by a picturesque lake, has toilets, hot showers, cooking shelters, and drinking water. Also, plenty of activities I’m going to suggest are within a short drive from here.
The fee in 2020 is 28 CAD per night per campsite. If you’d like to have a fire, the permit costs an additional 8,80 CAD.
For detailed photos and more information about campgrounds, check out our guide to camping in Banff National Park. And if you’ll be driving the scenic Icefields Parkway from Lake Louise to Jasper, we also have a camping guide for Jasper National Park.
The total budget for accommodation is 196 CAD:
- 7 nights x 28 CAD = 196 CAD
Free or cheap things to do in Banff
While many tourist attractions are very well thought out and organized, they can also be a huge money sucker. Luckily, there’s a ton of things you can do for free or very cheap. Here’s what I recommend the most:
Fun things to do in Banff for first-time visitors
- Have a morning picnic
A picnic by Vermilion Lakes or Two Jack Lake is amazing in the morning also because of the lighting for stunning pictures.
- Rent a canoe or stand up paddleboard
Banff Canoe Club rents both by the Bow River (SUP is 30 CAD per hour), and I highly recommend trying SUP on any nearby lake in the morning when the waters are calmest.
The below picture is from very calm Vermilion Lakes. It’s a perfect place to try stand up paddleboarding as the water is shallow and not very cold, in case you fall in.
- Jump into a lake
The only lake warm enough for a swim in summer is Johnson Lake. However, jumping into an ice cold lake is fun and very memorable experience, trust me!
Pictures of famous lakes – Lake Louise or Moraine Lake are always beautiful. But imagine your excitement when you get home, look at your pictures and can say – I jumped into this lake! They’re both very cold but worth a quick dip.
- Visit breathtaking Moraine Lake
It’s the most beautiful lake in the Rockies, and due to its high popularity and limited, it requires careful planning.
Canoe rental is available for 120 CAD/ hour, or you can bring your own and paddle around with no permit required. Read our tips on how to visit Moraine Lake before you go.
- Wildlife watching
One of the main reasons people like to visit the Canadian Rockies is the wildlife. Apart from cute bears, you can see moose, deer, elk, bighorn sheep and more. See our best tips for wildlife watching, including a video of our interactions throughout the years.
- Drive the scenic Icefields Parkway
The 230 km stretch between Lake Louise and Jasper is one of the most scenic drives in the world. Prepare to see snow-covered mountain peaks, impressive glaciers, bustling waterfalls, and breathtaking lakes. To stretch your legs, there’s no shortage of picturesque hikes as well.
Read our guide to Icefields Parkway for the best tips on hikes and lookouts. Definitely don’t miss Bow Lake and Peyto Lake in Banff National Park; Wilcox Pass Hike and Valley of the Five Lakes in Jasper National Park.
For more activities in Banff, read the comprehensive list available online: 100 things to do in Banff National Park.
Best hikes in Banff
While Banff Gondola is a paid attraction, you can hike up the mountain (5.5 km one-way) on a series of switchbacks. The bird’s eye view of Banff from the top is spectacular.
- Visit Lake Minnewanka
You can hike along the lake, have a picnic or take a scenic cruise along the lake (59 CAD per person). If you’d like to take it up a notch, Aylmer Lookout Hike (can be combined with mountain biking) is one of the best in Banff.
- Hike above Lake Louise
The lakeshore is usually a battlefield of selfie sticks. Snap a quick picture and hike in the area to get away from the crowds. The most popular hikes are to the teahouses – Plain of Six Glaciers or Lake Agnes.
Our favourite hike (and also the least crowded) is Mount Saint Piran with a view of Lake Louise, Victoria Glacier, and few other lakes on the other side of the mountain.
- Hike through Johnston Canyon
This place is a madness mid-day, so plan to visit early in the morning. Whether you’ll only hike to see the waterfalls or all the way to colourful Ink Pots, you won’t be disappointed. Ice walk through the frozen winter wonderland is also pretty cool.
We cover more than 20 hiking options in our post Banff hikes.
The total budget is 178 CAD:
- 2 x 30 CAD for SUP rental
- 2 x 59 CAD for Minnewanka cruise
Food and dining options
When you pick up your Smile Campervan in Calgary, head to the nearest grocery store to stock up on essential items.
Food is generally cheaper to buy in Calgary than in Banff or Canmore, and the selection is much bigger (the best grocery store is Canadian Superstore). The most noticeable difference is for beer in a liquor store, 12-pack for 30 CAD on average.
Smile Campervan has a small kitchen in the trunk, including a 2-burner stove, small sink, and all utensils. You can cook all your meals in the campervan and fill up the water tank in the campgrounds or at Visitor Centres.
Restaurants in Banff
However, this is going to be your vacation, and I’m sure you’d like to taste the local cuisine and go out for dinner a few times.
Our favourite place in Banff is the Old Spaghetti Factory. Their menu includes an entrée, salad or soup, main course, coffee, and ice cream. I’m addicted to their Pesto Linguine pasta. Most of their meals are under 20 CAD for the whole menu.
Another option is the Vistas Dining Room in Banff Centre, where they offer daily breakfast, lunch and dinner menu. Expect to pay 37 CAD/person for a buffet-style dinner. Somehow we always leave fuller than we intended to be.
For local treats, head to The Bison, one of the best restaurants in Banff, for their signature bison burger (24 CAD).
The total budget for food is from 210 up to 330 CAD:
- 7 x 40 CAD per day = 210 CAD when cooking in a campervan
- 150 CAD (groceries) + 180 CAD (dinners at above restaurants) = 330 CAD
The total budget for gas for one week is 70 CAD:
- 70 CAD from Calgary to Banff and back (including visiting all above-mentioned places)
Banff on a budget: the total for one week is from 2,240CAD (140 CAD per day) – 2,360 CAD/couple (depending on the dining options).
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