Toronto: Insider Secrets (From a Local!) for Big Travel With Small Money

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Toronto: Insider Secrets (From a Local!) for Big Travel With Small Money

Million Mile SecretsToronto: Insider Secrets (From a Local!) for Big Travel With Small MoneyMillion Mile Secrets Team

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Million Mile Secrets team member Jasmin grew up in the Toronto area and visits with her kids frequently.  So I’ve asked her to share her favorite activities.  And how to save money on flights, attractions, and more!

Toronto Insider Secrets From A Local For Big Travel With Small Money
It’s Not Just About the CN Tower! If You Visit Toronto, You Can Find Adventures by Checking out the Amazing Neighborhoods, Like Chinatown and Kensington Market

Jasmin:   My kids and I live in Western New York not far from the US / Canada border.  So we visit friends and family in the Toronto area whenever we can.  And the kids love all the fun things to see and do there.

Toronto can be pricey.  But I’ll share 3 of our favo(u)rite 😉 activities in the area and how you can save on a visit!

Big Travel in Toronto

There are tons of things to do in Toronto!  And you can find fun (and relatively inexpensive) adventures.

1.   Gear up for a Multicultural Adventure … on Foot!

One of our favorite things to do in Toronto is take the double-decker GO Train or subway downtown (no need to worry about expensive parking!).  Then wander through our favorite neighborhoods looking for an adventure!

Tantalize Your Taste Buds in North America’s 2nd-largest Chinatown!

My kids love visiting Chinatown to check out the colorful markets, trinket shops, and incredible Asian restaurants.  A few of our favorite cheap and yummy spots to eat in Chinatown:

  • Dumpling House – For ~$7 you can get a big plate of dumplings (fried or steamed) – the pork and chive are awesome!
  • King’s Noodle – Amazing wonton noodle soup and BBQ pork (and the kids love the “Chinese donuts”) – super cheap and always busy
  • Pho Hung – There are lots of pho joints in Toronto – this is one of our faves!
  • Swatow – Authentic food, huge menu, something for everyone – any of the noodle dishes, congee, or soups are terrific
Toronto Insider Secrets From A Local For Big Travel With Small Money
Lucky Kids Got a Free Lesson in Dumpling Making From the Lovely Folks at Dumpling House in Toronto’s Chinatown
Escape the Ordinary in These Neighborhoods

And right next to Chinatown is Kensington Market, an incredibly diverse neighborhood with unique shops, restaurants, and tons of funky vintage clothing stores.  Or walk a little further south to Queen Street West, which has a hip and artsy vibe (it’s a great area for shopping and people-watching).

In the warmer months, Little Italy is a great spot to sit out on a patio with a cocktail or gelato.  Or wander along The Danforth and take your pick of dozens of Greek and Mediterranean restaurants.  They close off a huge stretch of the street each summer for an incredible food festival called Taste of the Danforth, where you can sample all kinds of tasty dishes and enjoy musical performances (come hungry and be prepared to walk a LOT).

Or take a stroll along Harbourfront to watch the boats and planes taking off and landing at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport.  From Harbourfront, catch a ferry to the Toronto Islands and spend a cheap and cheerful day enjoying the park and beaches there (there’s even a nude beach if that’s your kind of thing)!

Toronto Insider Secrets From A Local For Big Travel With Small Money
You’d Never Guess You’re Only ~1 Mile From the Downtown of North America’s 4th Largest City When You Visit the Toronto Island Park

And if you’re into shopping, Yorkville is a top pick for designer clothing stores, boutiques, and high-end restaurants.  During the Toronto International Film Festival, it’s not uncommon to spot movie stars and celebrities in the area.

Do NOT Miss This During Christmas Season!

If you visit during the holidays, the Distillery District hosts a Christmas Market similar to what you’ll find in Europe (complete with cobblestone streets).  There are plenty of kids’ activities (and grown-ups can grab a mug of mulled wine while they’re at it!).

Definitely stop in at SOMA Chocolatemaker and try a Mayan Hot Chocolate!

How to Save Money at Toronto’s Top Tourist Spots

Downtown Toronto is packed with paid attractions, like CN Tower, Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, Royal Ontario Museum, and Casa Loma.  If you’re planning to visit several top spots, it could be worth purchasing a Toronto CityPass, which includes admission to these attractions plus either the Ontario Science Centre or Toronto Zoo for a discounted price.

If you’re a member of your local zoo or science center, you could be eligible for a 50% discount to the Toronto Zoo, or free admission to the Ontario Science Centre.  We use the science center reciprocal benefits often in our travels!

2.   Satisfy Your Inner Thrill-Seeker at Canada’s Wonderland

OK, theme parks aren’t cheap, and Canada’s Wonderland is no exception.  But it’s a top spot for our family, especially because my girls are huge roller-coaster and waterslide junkies.

Located just north of the city, it’s one of Toronto’s top-rated attractions, and is ranked 3rd in the world for number of roller coasters.  Our favorites are Leviathan (the tallest and fastest coaster in Canada) and Behemoth.  Plus the kids love the massive waterpark.

Toronto Insider Secrets From A Local For Big Travel With Small Money
Not for the Faint of Heart! Leviathan Is the 9th Tallest Steel Roller Coaster in the World, and My Kids Would Ride It Over and Over If They Could (Once or Twice Is Enough for Mommy)

Do NOT buy your tickets at the gate.  You can save by booking online in advance, or sometimes through Costco.ca.  This past summer, we found discounted admission tickets on Groupon for ~$24 per person (normally ~$50 at the gate or ~$33 online).  Plus, by going through a shopping portal first, we earned additional cash back!

To save on food, consider packing a lunch to eat outside the park gates (they won’t let you in with a cooler) in one of the picnic areas.  You’ll also see lots of families tailgating in the parking lot.  🙂

3.   Cross Niagara Falls off the Bucket List

While not technically in Toronto (it’s a ~90 minute drive away), Niagara Falls is a must-see if you’ve never been.  The Falls themselves are breathtaking.  And there are plenty of other activities in and around the area to enjoy.  Journey Behind the Falls and the Hornblower (the Canadian version of Maid of the Mist) are a couple of our favorites!

Note:  While the American side is pretty and boasts a State Park, there aren’t nearly as many attractions there.

If you’re visiting the Canadian side and think you’ll visit several attractions, you can save by purchasing a Niagara Adventure Pass.  Or check discount sites like Groupon for cheap admission tickets or activities like wine tours.

And it’s free to walk around the Falls and Clifton Hill, but beware – there are plenty of opportunities to spend money with arcades, games, rides, and themed museums.  I usually give the kids a budget and when the money’s gone … we’re done!  🙂

Toronto Insider Secrets From A Local For Big Travel With Small Money
Yes, You WILL Get Soaked! Get up Close and Personal With the Falls on the Maid of the Mist (US Side) or Hornblower (Canadian Side) Cruises

For a more Victorian, romantic feel, the nearby town of Niagara-on-the-Lake is a lovely spot for shopping, carriage rides, and quaint shops and restaurants.  We’ve driven through on our way home just to stop for fudge and an ice cream cone (but many folks stay overnight at one of the many B&Bs there).

If you’ll be doing a lot of activities in the area, it’s worth considering spending the night.  Most major hotel chains have locations in Niagara Falls you can book with points.  We’ve also stayed at Great Wolf Lodge, which can be pricey (but super fun for the kiddos).  But sometimes you can find deals on Groupon in the off-season.

You might consider these cards for free hotel stays in Toronto:

Getting to Toronto

Air Canada, American Airlines, Delta, Porter Airlines, United Airlines, and WestJet all serve Toronto from several US cities.  However, airlines like Allegiant, Frontier, JetBlue, Spirit, and Southwest do NOT.

Toronto has 2 airports – Toronto Pearson International and Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport (much smaller).  If you’re flying on a US or international airline, or most Air Canada flights, you’ll fly into Pearson.  Billy Bishop (formerly Toronto Island Airport) is the downtown airport on Toronto Island, and only offers flights from Porter Airlines (domestic and US) and regional Air Canada flights to and from Montreal.

Toronto Insider Secrets From A Local For Big Travel With Small Money
Toronto’s Billy Bishop Airport Is on Toronto Island and Offers US Flights to Spots Like Boston, Chicago, Newark, and Washington, DC, on Porter Airlines

You’ll typically pay 25,000 to 30,000 miles for a round-trip flight to Toronto from the US on the major airlines.  However, short-haul  routes can sometimes cost less.  For example, American Airlines charges 15,000 miles round-trip for flights to Canada 500 miles or less (like New York or Chicago to Toronto).

Some folks (even Canadians) prefer to fly to / from Buffalo Niagara International Airport, which is ~100 miles or ~2 hours drive from downtown Toronto.  More US airlines, including Southwest and JetBlue, serve the Buffalo airport.  And the taxes and fees are much lower than flying into Toronto Pearson International Airport.

This is also a good option if you plan to visit Niagara Falls (~30 minutes drive from Buffalo airport).

You can check out passport and visa requirements for Canada on the Canada Border Services Agency website.

You might consider these cards for award flights to Toronto:

Remember, if you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Ink Business Preferred, Chase Sapphire Reserve, or Chase Ink Plus / Ink Bold (no longer available), you can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United Airlines at a 1:1 ratio.  And book award flights to Canada on United Airlines or Air Canada (a Star Alliance partner).

Bottom Line

Toronto doesn’t have to be expensive if you pick the right activities and know where to find discounts!

You don’t have to spend a lot of money exploring fantastic neighborhoods like Chinatown, Queen Street West, or the Toronto Islands.  And because Toronto is so multicultural, the restaurant scene is amazing (and you can find plenty of cheap eats!).

Don’t forget to check discount websites like Groupon for deals on admission to big attractions.  Or consider purchasing a multi-attraction pass to save if you’ll be visiting several spots.

If you’ve visited Toronto, I’d love to hear about your favorite things to do!

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Great article! Will use these tips when we go next month. Thanks!