How to Travel More and Pay Less: Canada to the U.S.

I often find myself traveling to the U.S. due to its close proximity to Toronto. Unfortunately, the unfavourable exchange rate the last few years hasn't been so friendly on the wallet. As a generally frugal person, I still manage to find ways to work around the exchange rate. If you're a Canadian who wants to make your next trip to the U.S. more budget friendly, keep reading!

Last Updated: November 27, 2020

Disclaimer: Some of the links below are referral links, which means I earn a small commission at no additional cost to you. This post is not sponsored by any of the companies mentioned. All opinions are my own.

Get the best exchange rate

The best way to get the best exchange rate is to sign up for a no-foreign transaction fee credit card. You will rarely find a store, attraction or restaurant in the U.S. that doesn't take credit card. This reduces the need to carry cash or change around when you're at a restaurant or shopping.

If you don't like credit cards and prefer to use cash, I also have tips for finding ways to get a better cash exchange rate.

Sign up for the right U.S. roaming plan

If you don't need to make any calls and only need data for GPS, then you might want to download offline maps from Google Maps and remember to keep your phone on airplane mode the whole time you're in the U.S. However, if you need data for things like calling an Uber or Lyft, there are several ways to do this.

Depending on your carrier and wireless phone plan, you might be able to add on a reasonably priced roaming plan that simply uses the minutes and data from your current plan:
Unfortunately, I don't have phone plans that are eligible for these packages, and even if I did, these charges would add up quickly for me as I typically take 3-4 day trips down south. The best option is either getting a prepaid plan with a carrier (assuming your phone is unlocked) or signing up with providers that specifically offer plans targeted at Canadians traveling to the U.S., such as H2O Wireless, which are on the AT&T network.

Look out for flight deals, or use credit cards to subsidize your flight

Air Canada, Westjet, Porter and other airlines often have sales right after peak travel season. For example, I found deals in late January and late August for spring and early fall travel, respectively. You can also try discount airlines such as Swoop (starting October 2018) and Flair Air (starting December 2018), but keep in mind they don't necessarily fly from major airports and Flair in particular has a long history of very mixed reviews.

If you want to book a long weekend trip to somewhere close by, consider using American Express Fixed Points Travel or RBC Rewards Fixed Points Travel. Using either program, you can travel from Toronto to New York City for 15,000 points + $130-160 over popular long weekend dates such as Labour Day, which is way better than paying $500+ otherwise. This is easily doable by signing up for the American Express Cobalt Card, or the RBC Visa Infinite Avion.

The RBC Avion Visa Infinite card usually offers a bonus of 15,000 welcome bonus points for new customers, which is enough for a short-haul trip up to a maximum ticket price of $350.

Outside of Fixed Points Travel, the RBC Visa Infinite Avion also allows you to convert points to Westjet dollars at a rate of 100:1. There are occasional 30% transfer bonuses, which allow you to stretch your points even further.

The WestJet RBC World Elite Mastercard is also offering a signup bonus of $450 WestJet dollars until January 31, 2021, though it comes with a $119 annual fee. In theory, the annual fee is made up for by the WestJet companion fare which is basically "buy one get one for $99 + taxes".

You can always check Aeroplan for U.S. flights, but you will need to do some digging to find availability for the dates that you want and airlines that don't charge absurd taxes, such as United.

Use credit cards to earn points for accommodations

While more and more people opt for AirBnBs these days, I typically stay in a hotel. Here's the thing - I almost never pay cash for it. I collect points from Marriott Bonvoy and almost always redeem them for hotels in the States. Between the exchange rate and hidden fees, I find the U.S. to be the best value for hotel loyalty points.

You can earn these by signing up for the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card, American Express Cobalt Card, or any other American Express card that earns Membership Rewards (convertible to Marriott points).

Sample past redemptions include:
  • Sheraton New York Times Square: The first time I was there, New York Fashion Week drove up hotel prices to $300+ USD per night. Instead, my friends and I each signed up for a Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card for $120 each and got 3 nights at the Sheraton for 12,000 Starwood points apiece (now 50,000 Marriott points each).
  • Four Points by Sheraton Philadelphia Airport: During Memorial Day Weekend, hotel prices downtown were $180+ USD per night. Since we needed to rent a car anyway, we decided to stay near the airport, which was a 15-20 minute drive from downtown. It cost us a total of 10,000 Starwood points for three nights (now 17,500 Marriott points per night).
  • Sheraton Grand Chicago: My friends and I received free certificates for any Sheraton in the world as part of a Starwood promotion, and decided to use it on Chicago.
Now that after the launch of Marriott Bonvoy, a lot of the hotels I listed above require significantly more points per night. The good news is that there are still a few hotels that are 35,000 points per night downtown in major cities (e.g. Chicago and New York City) that provide very good vlaue.

Another great program is the Best Western, which also has an associated credit card in Canada. Currently, you can get 20,000 welcome points if you sign up for the MBNA Best Western MasterCard. I've been eyeing the The Cartwright Hotel in San Francisco for a future redemption (36,000 points per night), as accommodations in California aren't cheap!

Canadians don't have great credit card choices for Hilton or other hotel brands, so generally I would look at Marriott and Best Western for options.

Earn Air Miles to use on entertainment

Finally, if you plan on going to California or Florida and want to stop by Disneyland or Universal Studios, use Air Miles on Park Hopper passes. Earning thousands of Air Miles is unfortunately a very slow process, but you can expedite it by:
Between the five strategies above, you should be able to shave some dollars off your flight, accommodations, entertainment, food and general shopping when traveling to the U.S.!

Take advantage of corporate and other discounts for car rentals

Kayak is available to everyone to search for cheap car rentals, and oftentimes they will have the lowest price. Be sure to pay attention to the pick-up/dropoff location, as well as reviews of the actual car company.

Costco Travel can offer great deals on vacations and/or car rentals if you have a Costco membership.

Corporate discounts on the big car rental companies (Avis, Budget, Hertz, Enterprise, National, etc.) are available if you're a member of CPA Canada, a CFA charterholder, or if your company uses Perkopolis or Venngo for employee discounts.

Finally, there is also the AirBnB equivalent of car rentals, which is Turo. Perkopolis even offers $35 off your first rental with Turo.

Alternatively, you can also get status with Hertz by signing with the American Express Platinum and get access to exclusive discounts for cardmembers.


These should apply to your trip to the States no matter if you're popping in for a long weekend getaway or doing a two-week roadtrip. As long as you plan ahead, you will definitely be able to get a great deal!