3 Reasons to Suck Up the Cost and Visit Churchill, Manitoba

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When I first received the invite from Travel Manitoba and Frontiers North Adventures to join a weeklong trip to the Canadian sub-arctic, I nearly turned it down. Not because of the timing or the frigid temperatures or because I wasn't interested. But simply because the tour I was invited to join — Frontier North's weeklong “Northern Lights, Winter Nights” tour — normally carries a hefty pricetag of nearly $4,000 USD, plus the cost of getting to Winnipeg.

I don't necessarily ever pigeon-hole myself strictly into a “budget travel” or “backpacker” category with this blog. But I certainly am not a luxury traveler, either; I am a grad student who travels on a limited budget most of the time. How could I accept a trip worth $4,000+ and relate the experience back to my readers?

Tundra Buggy

But then I read more about the trip. The tour included two huge bucket list items of mine (dogsledding and seeing the Northern Lights), as well as some time in the fascinating town of Churchill, Manitoba. This tiny town on Hudson Bay is all at once known as “The Polar Bear Capital of the World,” “The Beluga Capital of the World,” and one of the top 3 places in the world to view the Northern Lights.

When it came down to it, I simply couldn't pass up the opportunity.

Wapusk Adventures

Northern Lights

So I accepted to trip, pledging to myself that, while I was there, I would do my best to research ways that average, adventurous travelers like me could make a similar trip to Churchill a reality.

But why visit Churchill?

As I mentioned above, Churchill is a pretty unique location. It's basically in the middle of nowhere on the sub-Arctic tundra, but has some seriously (namely 3) unique draws that make it absolutely worth the money and hassle to visit.

Swim with belugas

During the months of July and August each year, the Churchill River becomes the prime congregation spot for pods of playful and curious beluga whales traversing in from Hudson Bay. Thousands of these gentle giants can be spotted in the waters around Churchill during the summer months, and visitors can interact with them via zodiak tours, kayaking, and even snorkeling/swimming.

Churchill
The river looks MUCH different during beluga season!

View polar bears in the wild

Churchill is also known as the Polar Bear Capital of the World, because, in the fall (October-November), there are actually more polar bears in and around Churchill than regular residents. During the cold winter months, the big white bears are out on the Arctic sea ice. But, once the ice begins to melt in the spring and summer, they return to the mainland in the far north of Canada. In the autumn, it just so happens that the ice on Hudson Bay near Churchill is some of the first ice to begin freezing, thereby being the target for the region's polar bears so they can get back on the ice to hunt as soon as possible. For 6-8 weeks in the fall, then, Churchill becomes one of the only human settlements in the world from which people can observe polar bears in the wild.

Watch the Northern Lights dance

Lastly, Churchill claims to be one of the best places on earth to view the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights. South of the Arctic Circle, Churchill is positioned perfectly beneath the auroral oval, where the dancing green lights are most active and able to be seen. Thanks to cold, crisp, and long winter nights and very little light pollution in the surrounding tundra landscape, going to Churchill in the off-season guarantees you a very good chance (75% or better) of seeing the Lights.

Northern Lights

RELATED: A Dance of Lights: Awed By the Aurora Borealis

As you can see, the “why visit Churchill?” question is incredibly easy to answer. No matter what time of year you want to visit, there's some unique and once-in-a-lifetime-type experience to have in Churchill.

Churchill on a budget

So now that you totally want to go to Churchill, too, I'm sure you're wondering how to do it without having to book a tour that costs thousands of dollars, right?

Well, the bad news is that, in some instances, these expensive tours actually ARE the best and cheapest way to experience Churchill. In polar bear season, for example, the population in Churchill increases by roughly tenfold, and you won't find ANY cheap options. Seeing polar bears in the wild is the sort of once-in-a-lifetime experience that people WILL pay money for, and there's simply no way to avoid that.

Churchill

If, however, you'd prefer to visit Churchill during beluga season or during the winter to see the Northern Lights, there ARE some ways to save a little bit of money:

Take the train

There are no roads leading to Churchill, meaning that driving up to this part of the Great White North is not an option. You can drive as far north as Thompson and then catch a flight or the train to Churchill from there. You can also fly from Winnipeg, but as there are only a handful of flights to/from Churchill each day on tiny little planes, you can bet that you'll pay a premium for such a flight (like, we're talking at least $1,000 roundtrip).

The most adventurous option would be to take the train all the way from Winnipeg on Via Rail Canada, which is a 2-day journey that can cost as little as $300-$400 roundtrip — for an economy coach seat, which you will have to sleep in for two nights. There are also sleeper cabins on the train, though they obviously are pricier.

Stay in the hostel

Churchill actually does have ONE hostel in town, run by the same couple that runs the Tundra Inn hotel. The hostel — called the Tundra House — is located in a cozy house that's been renovated to serve the hosteling crowd. The hostel is an HI and YHA recognized property, and offers small dorms as well as private rooms. The dorms start at $32 per night if you're an HI or YHA member, and private rooms run around $75 per night. All the expected amenities — linens, wifi, cable TV — are available, and an Australian couple I ran into in Churchill said that the Tundra House was one of the most “homey” hostels they've ever stayed in.

The only downside is that the hostel is NOT open during polar bear season.

Churchill
No, you can't rent an igloo…

Book a shorter package

If you can't afford the list price for a Frontiers North or similar adventure in Churchill, there are shorter and cheaper packages you can book — many of them through the Tundra Inn. For example, a 2-night beluga package (with accommodation and tours included) starts at $693 per person, and a 2-night Northern Lights package (similar to the tour I experienced, but just shorter) starts at $630 per person.

There sadly are no cheap/shorter polar bear packages available… if you want that experience, I'm afraid you'll just have to pay for it!

Or just give in and shell out

When it comes down to it, Churchill just isn't an especially budget-friendly destination. It's remote, it's small, and it's incredible — all factors that contribute to it being on the pricier side.

But it is SO WORTH IT.

Northern Lights
Group shot taken by Dan Harper.
Snowshoeing
Group shot taken by Cindy Baldhoff.

Booking a packaged tour like the one I took with Frontiers North Adventures might seem shockingly expensive, but it's actually not terrible when you think about it. The tour I took, for example, included ALL food, transport, accommodation, and activities for an entire week, along with a fantastic local guide to take care of all the logistics for us. When you consider that the flight alone between Winnipeg and Churchill is upwards of $1,000, you start to realize that it's not really that outrageous.

If a trip to swim with belugas, view wild polar bears, or watch the Northern Lights is on your bucket list, then I think saving up for a packaged tour like this would be well worth the effort.

Which of the 3 reasons listed above would be the most likely to draw YOU to Churchill?

 

Reasons to visit Churchill, Manitoba

 

*Note: I was a guest of Travel Manitoba and Frontiers North Adventures on this trip. But, as always, all opinions are my own. And, I should note that I HAVE saved up for tours nearly as expensive as this one before in the past (I spent 3 years in high school saving up for a Lord of the Rings tour around New Zealand while working at a movie theater only on weekends), so I know it CAN be done!

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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42 Comments on “3 Reasons to Suck Up the Cost and Visit Churchill, Manitoba

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  1. I cannot wait to see the Northern Lights! I’ve always wanted to and this blog post just pushed me over the edge. Thanks so much for writing about this trip!!! ๐Ÿ˜€

      The Northern Lights are indeed incredible; glad I’ve inspired you with this post!

    The northern lights are HIGH on my list! It’s just a matter of working WHEN to see them, at the moment I’ve committed myself to chasing summer for the foreseeable future… But I WILL get there, one day!

    Looks amazing! I agree that there are some things you just can’t do on a budget. If someone paid for me to go to Cape York in Australia, I would definitely go, despite the fact that there is no cheap way to go about it. You pay for remoteness!

      You definitely do pay for remoteness. And there are places – like Churchill – that are 100% worth it!

    Wow, it really does look fantastic and worth the money. We’ll start saving. We felt the same way about traveling to Tibet – it was ridiculously expensive but worth every penny!
    Thanks for the info. ๐Ÿ™‚ Shame we can’t rent an igloo though. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      It was so worth it that I’m planning to start saving up for either a beluga or polar bear trip sometime in the future.

    So glad you didn’t pass up on this opportunity – it sounds amazing. Churchill is so on my dream list, that I actually sat down and researched ways to make it cheaper (i.e: I think I did find 1-day polar bear tours – don’t remember on which site, just that it still sounded expensive). I’d even be willing to consider 2 days inside a train for this, yet the added cost of coming from the other side of the world is also a challenge. Hopefully I’ll get there in the future.

      I really hope you do get the chance someday; it’s such a unique place! Definitely dream list-worthy.

      And, honestly, I think the train would be a great adventure!

    I agree that some destinations are worth the splurge! I call it “luxury lite”. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Basically it’s all about priorities. Splurge on one trip that really means something to you and then skip the one you’re only ho-hum about. ๐Ÿ™‚

      I love that outlook, Oneika! And I’m totally with you – I do that all the time! I splurge on the trips/experiences that I’m REALLY excited about, and skip some others to compensate.

    Yes, traveling in Canada – and not just for Northern Lights – is expensive. That’s one of the main reasons why I have seen so little of my own country. Because of the lack of competition, prices tend to be very high either for hotels, transportation or sightseeing. But I would willingly pay a whole lot of money for a tour like that!

      Even just flying within Canada is ridiculous! Lack of competition, like you said. But some places are definitely worth the cost, if you can afford it!

    I’ve wanted to visit Churchill ever since I saw Mary (last name escapes me) do a highlight of the town and olar bears during the Vancouver Olympics. She highlighted several places to see across Canada, but that one really stuck in my mind.

    I appreciate all your insight into cost options. I’ll have to start saving.

      The belugas were actually the first thing I learned about Churchill. Then once I heard about the polar bears AND the Northern Lights? I knew I had to get there! It’s definitely not cheap. But, like I said, very much worth it.

    This is such an adventure! The Northern Lights dance photo is amazing!

    I’m glad you didn’t avoid the budget question. It’s been a couple of times that I’ve read posts on stays in luxury resorts and things like that on a blog that normally concentrates more on budget travel.
    I don’t mind these people writing about luxurious trips, but it’s good to link back to what for many people is the financial reality: that such things often require saving.
    There’s actually a discussion going on about this on The Professional Hobo at this moment as well.

      Yeah it’s a difficult thing to tackle as a travel blogger. On the one hand, I’m always so honored and thrilled when I get invited on press trips (actually very rare for me). But on the other, I always have to keep my readers in mind. I knew this trip was unique enough that my readers would be interested in it, but I didn’t want to gloss over the cost factor, because obviously that’s important!

    That “Dog Sled Parking” sign isn’t a real sign, is it? There’s no possible way that’s a real sign.

    I want to believe…

      Hahaha well, it’s real in the sense that yes, it does exist. But it’s definitely tongue-in-cheek, as it’s outside a cabin at Wapusk Adventures, right next to the dog yard. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I went to Churchill in Oct 2004 for the express purpose of seeing polar bears and was so glad I did. I took the train, quite a feat of endurance but leg room was good and it was great to sit back and read or look at the landscape (including beautiful sunset and the Northern Lights… speaking of which, excellent photos in your post!). Churchill is such a unique and interesting place, I would definitely consider returning.

      That’s great that you found the experience worth it, too, Hayley. I’d definitely like to go up on the train at some point! Nothing says “adventure” to me like a good old fashioned train journey!

    Another great story. Wow. I’m still working on my material. But I had two more trips and just got back midnight last night.

      I’m just so used to churning stuff out; such is the life of a blogger! Thanks for reading, Yvette!

    looks great and you sure managed to turn the post around by offering cheaper options! thanks!

    …AAnd now that you’ve inspired me with your awesome photos, the gong are the expenses. Drat. Gonna have to put that one on hold either, until I get a real job or my blog does better. =(

    Still nice post & thanks for the breakdown.

      A trip to Churchill definitely isn’t cheap. ๐Ÿ™ But if you’re able to save up for it, I really hope you go!

    If seeing the Northern Lights is on your bucket list, this is a great place to do it… I don’t imagine it’s “cheap” anywhere in such extreme conditions.. And yes it can be done, and if it’s your dream or a bucket list – I recommend it strongly.
    stay adventurous, Craig

      Exactly; if it’s a bucket-list item, the cost is SO worth it.

    Me again. I am reading your posts in reverse order! This one nailed it. The one day polar bear trips are about $1400 from Winnipeg but you risk having a bad weather day. Better to have at least two or three days on the tundra. Juliann: that was Mary Carillo, from NBC, who I travelled with pre-Olympics, to see the bears and dogs. For info on bear, beluga and lights trips (not all at once!), visit http://www.travelmanitoba.com.

      I would think the polar bear trips would be SO worth it! Definitely need to save up and do one eventually!

    Try the local bear guides tundra buggy is not the only show in town. You want eye to eye on the ground bear encounters……go with the local guys ..

    […] as I’m sitting in a tricked-out Tundra Buggy (think a monster truck crossed with an RV) in Churchill, Manitoba, wearing roughly 17 layers of warm clothing and preparing to go chasing the Northern Lights for the […]

    Wondering as travel is only available for us in July August how many days should we look at of adventure in Churchill

      In July and August you can still see/do quite a bit in Churchill. Namely, you can see beluga whales! I’d say at least 3 days in Churchill makes it worth to to fly up there. (But do note that July/August is NOT polar bear season, so I wouldn’t count on seeing any that time of year.)

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