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

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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.

Frontiers North Adventures tundra buggy in Churchill, Manitoba
Me in 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?

Buggy Love
Worth it?

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 Northern Lights in Churchill, Manitoba

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.

Churchill, Manitoba
No beluga tours in the winter, I'm afraid.
SeaWalls mural in Churchill
Bears and belugas

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.

The Northern Lights in Churchill, Manitoba
The Northern Lights in Churchill, Manitoba
Even right in town, the Lights can put on an incredible show.

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!

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

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.

Polar bear on the tundra in Manitoba

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!

Twin polar bear cubs in Manitoba

RELATED: How to See Polar Bears in Churchill: A Polar Bear Tour for Your Bucket List

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.

Polar bears sparring
A “show” people will definitely pay to watch

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.

Churchill mural

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.

Dogsledding with Wapusk Adventures
Dogsledding in Churchill
Northern Lights
2013 group shot taken by Dan Harper

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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Reasons to visit Churchill, Manitoba

*Note: I was a guest of Travel Manitoba and Frontiers North Adventures on my first trip to Churchill, but paid for the second one myself! As always, all opinions are entirely my own.

"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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62 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!

        I had the opportunity to go there right after 9/11 in 2001 as soon as airlines resumed traffic because I worked for the company that owned the Hudson Bay Railway. Made the round trip twice from La Pas to Churchill in the cab of the locomotive. Which is where I slept also. Got to see both the northern lights and the polar bears up close. Also saw enormous herds of caribou on the trip up and one lone musk ox.

    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.)

    Thank You for the write-up. I want to fly my little plane up there, but I was wondering if it’s worth it. It is a long flight from California. Do you think swimming with the beluga is still offered?
    I heard some new law may have eliminates it.
    Thanks again.

      I don’t think you can swim with belugas any longer, but you can still kayak with them and see them up close. I think it’s more worth it to see polar bears, but I’m not sure how easy it would be to fly a small plane up there that time of year!

    We would like to take the train from Winnipeg. Is it possible to buy a package that includes hotels, meals ans sightseeing for a local vendor in Churchill ?

    My husband and I went to Churchill last August – 2018. Our total cost with travel insurance was $4200.00 USA money. We spent 3 nights and a large share of 5 days in Churchill. We booked the Lazybear Lodge Beluga package. They did a day/night add on for us and we added the tundra buggy tour. Lazybear also lined up airfair for half price. We saw beluga whales, the forts, the community, Miss Piggy, and a mother polar bear nursing her cubs from about 150 feet away. We had no bugs and about 50 degree weather. If you tell the front desk you want to be notified for northern lights viewing, they will call your room if the northern lights are showing. The food was fantastic.

      Great to hear, Janelle! That seems like a very reasonable price indeed for a trip to Churchill, and lucky you that you got to see polar bears in the summer!

    I’am actually looking foreward going to Churchill one day. The main reason will definitely be the train since I’am after trains all over the world. The northern lights yes too. and wintertime as well.
    So when going the first time is somehow given.

    So if the Belugas are there in September, and the bears begin to appear in September, and the Aurora is visible at the equinox late September, & I believe you can dogsled then, that would be prime time to do/see all four, in one trip? Or have I got that wrong? (Because if I can go it wonโ€™t be twice!) Since I plan to se Alaska too, itโ€™s mosty polar bears and belugas for me – is there one time thatโ€™s good for both?)

      There’s unfortunately not one time where you would be guaranteed to see everything. I went one year in March and saw the aurora but no wildlife, and went in October and saw bears but no Northern Lights. July/August is best for belugas and I know people DO see polar bears around that time of year, but I think you’re generally considered lucky if you do. On paper, you would have the chance to see all 3 in September, but I don’t know that you could count on any of them! The belugas start moving out of the area in early September, bears don’t really start congregating until well into October, and it’s often too humid and cloudy to see the Northern Lights until the Hudson Bay freezes over (usually November).

    Not worth it at all!! $5,000 to see northern lights when you can practically see them anywhere else in Canada for free… $10,000 to see polar bears (with touching them) when you can go to a zoo and see them for what $20. Biggest rip off in the world. Just a money grab. Thereโ€™s no reason they need to charge that much. The only reason they do is because they can. Youโ€™ll regret spending all that money afterwards when you realize everything else you could have done with it.

      You’re of course entitled to your opinion – just as I’m entitled to disagree with you. There’s a HUGE difference between seeing animals in captivity in a zoo and seeing them wild in their natural habitat. For me, it’s worth it; so worth it, in fact, that I’m planning another wildlife-focused trip to the Arctic. As for the pricing… it’s a matter of supply and demand. There’s lots of demand, but not that much supply. Add to that the fact that Churchill is an incredibly remote community that has to have everything from food to building materials flown or trained in, and maybe you’ll begin to understand why life is more expensive there. No one is saying you have to pay to go there. In fact, it sounds like it’s probably best if you don’t!

    Can I rent winter clothing? I would love to see the polar bears and northern lights, but I live in AZ and don’t have winter clothing….it almost never gets below 32 degrees Farenheit here. Do I just have to cave in and buy clothing?

      That’s a great question, Rachel! In many cases, if you book a tour with a company in Churchill, they will give you the option to rent all the winter gear you’ll need. I know for sure Frontiers North does this, renting out coats, pants, and even warm boots.

        umm. Maybe an October trip isn’t out of the question…. Thanks! I kind of knew I would have to go twice. I’m going this July/August, am planning that part now. The summer trip is easier to plan as an independent, not relying on a tour. Winter seems to require the tour…. 2021 I guess.

          Yes, it’s definitely easier to go in the summer; for polar bear season, you basically have to book some sort of tour in order to ensure a chance to see bears!

    Which would be your choice for northern lights, Churchill or Auroa Borealis Observatory in Norway? Cost from San Diego CA is a factor. I am also open to other places if you have another favorite.

      It’s tough to compare different sites; a lot of it comes down to whether you’re interested in other things, too, or solely want to see the Northern Lights. After the Hudson Bay freezes in the winter, the conditions in Churchill are usually pretty good to see the aurora. BUT, there isn’t a whole lot to do in Churchill, and the weather there in winter is truly frigid. In contrast, if you go to Northern Norway in winter, there’s a slightly higher chance of bad weather, but it’s not as cold, and there may be more options when it comes to other things you can do during the day.

    I hear they don’t look after there equipment. Kayaks and other to go see belugas and can drown.

      It’s always important to do research on any tour company you’re thinking of using no matter where you’re traveling. But as far as I know, no tour operators have reported any major accidents in Churchill.

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