Experiences mentioned were offered complimentary from Tourism Vancouver in order to facilitate this post. All opinions are my own.
Last week, I returned from my first-ever trip to Canada on a a mother-daughter trip to Vancouver. There wasn’t any attraction in particular that drew us to Vancouver specifically, but it was an affordable flight from both California and Nevada, and Canada had been on both of our travel bucket lists forever. Throughout our seven-day trip, we fell in love with the Pacific Northwest city. There was so much to see and a huge variety of activities, no two days were alike.
Even though Vancouver’s cost of living is high, traveling there doesn’t have to break the bank. You can definitely visit Vancouver on a budget while still taking advantage of the city’s highlights. Keep reading for my Vancouver travel guide for budget travelers, including my favorite attractions and money-saving tips.
Best Time to Visit Vancouver
Visiting in May was the perfect choice, in my opinion. The weather was beautiful, and actually a bit hot by Vancouver’s standards. We experienced highs of 70 daily, ideal for outdoor attractions and walking around the city. The city, while a bustling metro area, is full of awe-inspiring nature that is best appreciated the sunshine. Since May is a bit before the typical summer travel rush, we didn’t have problems with overwhelming crowds, and our flights were reasonably priced. Meanwhile, it’s the start of the official “summer” season, which is when many of the outdoor attractions open for business after a winter hiatus. Another great option would be Fall, or “back to school” season, when the summer crowd is dying down and the weather is still nice enough to enjoy the outdoors.
Best Place to Stay in Vancouver on a Budget
Staying in Vancouver can be pricey, especially if you want to be right in the middle of the popular districts. To save money, we opted for an AirBnB in North Vancouver. North Vancouver is the more residential area of the city, with single-family homes nestled in quaint neighborhoods. The north side is only a short SeaBus ride away from Downtown and the majority of other tourist areas. It’s also a great location if you want to take advantage of Vancouver’s best hiking trails or suspension bridges, as both Lynn Valley and Capilano Suspension Bridge Park are on this side of town. Renting an AirBnB was definitely the most budget-friendly option we explored, and you can save $40 off your home booking using my referral link!
Alternatively, if you prefer to stay in a hotel and want to be closer to the main tourist attractions of the city, try booking your entire trip with sites like Orbitz, Expedia or Travelocity and getting a bundle deal on your flight and hotel.
How Public Transportation Works in Vancouver
We made the decision to cut costs on our trip by forgoing a rental car and relying 100% on public transportation in Vancouver. It’s a very transit-friendly city with reliable busses, trains and ferries that are easy to figure out. Almost all transit can be paid for with pre-paid Compass Cards, which can be purchased at 7-11s and drugstores pre-loaded with $10 on it already. The card itself costs $6 on top of the loaded value. Using a pre-loaded card will get you discounted single fares, or you can load it with day passes for unlimited rides in one day. We spent around $10 a day in transit, but also did a lot of walking. Day passes are definitely worth it if you’re relying solely on public transportation.
If you have a US address, the only way you’ll be able to add value onto your card is by using a kiosk at the Station. Those with Canadian addresses can load the card online with a credit or debit card.
At the end of your trip, you can get a refund for your card plus withdraw any unused funds at a Compass customer service office. We did it at Waterfront Station on our way out of town.
Something to note about single fares is that they’re valid for 90 minutes on the bus, SkyTrain and SeaBus— you can transfer as many times as you need to within that timeframe for the same fare. Find out more about the fares on the Translink website.
We found all of the public transportation vessels extremely clean, always on time and used Apple Maps to plan our routes. Both Google and Apple Maps will tell you exactly which bus, train or ferry to get on and the departure times.
Cheap Things to Do in Vancouver
Rent Bikes and Ride through Stanley Park ($8-$36)
One of our favorite activities on our week-long trip was simply exploring Stanley Park’s nature paths and the Seawall on bike! Biking around the entire Seawall— the coastal perimeter of Stanley Park— can take 2-ish hours depending on your pace. There are a ton of shorter paths within Stanley Park you can take to appreciate the amazing scenery, too. We rented bikes through Yes Cycle which seemed to be the best value out of the local bike companies. Their bikes come with a free helmet, basket and bike lock, and the cost per hour goes down the longer you use the bike (starting at $8 for the first hour with a max of $36 for 8+ hours). Plus, you don’t have to decide how long you’ll keep the bike ahead of time. You pay when you return the bike, so you can take the day as it comes!
Rent a Kayak to Explore False Creek ($15-$35)
Another great way to enjoy the coastal views is by kayak! Rent a single or a double and paddle along the Seawall, pull up to a beach, and get a different perspective of landmarks like bridges and rock formations. Check out Vancouver Water Adventures to take off from Granville Island and kayak False Creek. They have kayaks, jet skis and paddle boards available for independent exploring, but the company also puts on boat tours that are engaging and informative. We took the City & Seals tour and not only did we learn so much about the city from our tour guide, Dylan, but also got thrills in the speedboat doing donuts on the water!
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden (FREE)
Right in the heart of Chinatown is this beautiful classical Chinese garden featuring koi ponds, gazebos, and flora galore. It’s a relaxing and tranquil place to spend an afternoon for a picnic or a quick pit stop to let your feet rest after walking the city. The majority of the space is a completely public park with free entrance, but you can pay $14 to enter the museum part of the park, which includes guided tours of the park.
Forbidden Vancouver Walking Tour ($25-$45)
This walking tour was one of the biggest highlights of our trip, and easily the most entertaining tours I’ve ever been on while traveling. The Forbidden Vancouver tour group runs several different themed walking tours, talking about the lesser-known history of the city. We went on the flagship tour (The Forbidden Vancouver Tour) where we explored Gastown and Chinatown, learning about prohibition-era Vancouver, corruption in government, the rise of drugs and even saw the sites of old speakeasies. Other tours they host center around LGBTQ history of the city, a ghost tour, and an art tour. Prices vary depending on the tour— their most expensive one includes chocolate tasting!
Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge (FREE)
You can’t leave Vancouver without seeing one of the suspension bridges. There are two options, one paid and one free. Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, costs $53.95 but also offers a new Cliffwalk attraction and Treetops Adventure featuring smaller bridges higher up in the trees. Your other, budget-friendly option would be to visit Lynn Canyon Park and hiking a free trail to find a suspension bridge 50 meters high that crosses raging waters and waterfalls. Aside from the bridge, Lynn Canyon is packed with trails and breathtaking scenery that won’t cost you a dollar to enjoy. Get more info on the trail on their website.
Where to Get the Best Souvenirs in Vancouver
You’re going to come across a lot of the same exact products in different souvenir shops at different prices. I found the most affordable prices for popular t-shirt designs, bottles of maple syrup, magnets and other common items to be Gastown and Chinatown. If you’re looking for something more unique, check out the booths within the Granville Island Public Market or the Lonsdale Quay Market where local artisans showcase and sell their handmade products.
Surprisingly, I actually found a ton of budget-friendly souvenirs at the duty free stores within the Vancouver International Airport. Usually, airport souvenirs are incredibly marked up for last-minute impulse buyers, but not YVR! T-Shirts and hoodies can be found for $12-$30, and the alcohol prices can’t be beat. Especially since the city has such a high sales tax, shopping duty free can actually save you a ton of money!
ALSO READ: 11 Best Tips for Traveling on a Budget
Overall, my mom and I went into this trip not really knowing what to expect from Vancouver. In reality, there’s a little bit of everything— nature hikes, urban scenery, beaches, gardens, and a ton of really friendly people. You’re bound to find an adventure that’s right up your alley.