So you've seen all the polar bear photos, and images of the dancing Northern Lights. You've read about the quirky little town, and its population of beluga whales. You've said to yourself, “You know, I think I'd really like to visit Churchill, Manitoba.”
But then you start doing some research and see the price of some of these trips to Churchill.
Northern Lights tours can cost $5000; polar bear tours sometimes double that. And you've wondered if it's worth it to spend so much money on one travel experience.
I get it. I had the exact same thoughts about my first visit to Churchill in 2013.
Back then, I was invited by Travel Manitoba and Frontiers North Adventures to join a weeklong “Northern Lights, Winter Nights” tour 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 I wasn't sure if I could justify promoting a tour that was so expensive.
I've never been a true “budget traveler,” but nor have I ever considered myself a luxury traveler, either. So did that mean that an expensive trip to a remote part of the world was a good fit for me and my blog?
Thankfully, I ended up saying yes to that trip back in 2013. 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. Churchill is one of those towns on the edge of nowhere that works its way under your skin.
The one warning I will give you is that if you visit Churchill once, chances are it won't be your only trip.
In 2018, more than 5 years after my first trip to Churchill, I returned in the autumn to finally see the polar bears. That trip was truly the trip of a lifetime, and I 100% think it's worth whatever the pricetag is.
The only 3 reasons to visit Churchill you need
Churchill is a pretty unique location. It's basically in the middle of nowhere on the sub-Arctic tundra, situated on the edge of the Hudson Bay. It's not easy to get to, which makes it expensive.
But here are three unique draws that make Churchill absolutely worth the money and hassle to visit.
1. Play with belugas
From June to September 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 zodiac or kayak tours.
There are so many belugas around Churchill in the summer that the town claims to be the Beluga Capital of the World.
2. Watch the Northern Lights dance
In the winter, 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.
I saw the Northern Lights for the very first time on my 2013 trip to Churchill, and it will always be a very special memory for me!
3. View polar bears in the wild
Churchill is also known as the Polar Bear Capital of the World, with bears often outnumbering residents in the area during the months of October and November.
During the cold winter months, the big white bears are out on the Arctic sea ice hunting seals. 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, Churchill becomes one of the only human settlements in the world from which people can observe polar bears in the wild. Going on a polar bear tour in Churchill is probably one of the most incredible wildlife experiences I've ever had!
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.
Can you visit Churchill on a budget?
So now that you totally want to go to Churchill, too, I'm sure you're wondering if you can get there without booking 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.
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.
Ways to visit Churchill for (a little) less
1. 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 $400-$500 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.
2. Book a shorter package
If you can't afford the list price for multi-day adventure in Churchill, there are shorter and cheaper packages you can book. For example, if you can get yourself to Churchill and book your own accommodation, you can book a 1-day Tundra Buggy tour to see polar bears for $500 CAD, or book a half-day beluga cruise for about $120 CAD.
So, theoretically, you could visit Churchill for just a few days, plan everything independently, and definitely save a few dollars.
There are many more companies operating in Churchill today than there were even just a few years ago, so you can always shop around for better prices. For polar bear and Northern Lights tours, my picks would be Frontiers North Adventures (their Tundra Buggy Lodge during the winter is so special) and Churchill Wild (which offers polar bear walking tours and some unique lodges to stay at). And for beluga cruises, Sea North Tours has good reviews.
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.
Booking a packaged tour like the ones I took with Frontiers North Adventures might seem shockingly expensive, but it's actually not terrible when you think about it. The tours I took, for example, included ALL food, transport (including flights from Winnipeg), accommodation, and activities for an entire week, along with a fantastic local guide to take care of all the logistics for us.
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.
READ NEXT: In the Land of the Ice Bears
Which of the 3 reasons listed above would be the most likely to draw YOU to Churchill?
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