Churchill on a Budget: Here’s the Cheapest Way to See Polar Bears!

Can you visit Churchill on a budget? Is it possible to see polar bears in Canada cheaply? These are the most common questions asked by folks considering making the journey to northern Manitoba to catch the polar bears in their natural habitat!

cheapest way to see polar bears in churchill

The answer to these questions is yes, sorta… and yes, sorta. It all depends on your definition of “cheap.” It is very expensive to fly all the way to Churchill, and once you’re there, lodging, food, and tours are also quite pricey. That said, if you DIY the trip and book everything on your own, instead of doing one of the luxury package tours, you can save a LOT of money.

The cheapest way to see polar bears involves taking the train to Churchill rather than flying. I visited Churchill last year using this very method, and I’ll share my tips, as well as my exact budget for the visit.

To summarize: Package tours to see the polar bears in Churchill often run in the $5000-6000 range, but if you book on your own, you may be able to get things around $3000-3500. That includes 3.5 days in Churchill with two polar bear day tours, and one city tour, plus all meals, spending, and flight/train costs from the U.S. There is even a way to do it for around $1500 if you’re really motivated to save money and have a lot of free time on your hands (and airline miles to spare.)

churchill on a budget polar bears
Read on to discover the cheapest way to see polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba!

Note: Unlike most bloggers who’ve written about Churchill, I visited Churchill 100% at my own expense. Nothing was booked or paid for by anyone else. That makes this guide entirely impartial, since I don’t have obligations to any tourism boards or tour operators, and can provide you with fully honest advice about the cheapest way to see polar bears in the city, and other fun things to do in Churchill.

If you’re interested in a do-it-yourself “Churchill on a Budget” trip to see the polar bears for as little cost as possible, read on!

polar bear tour safari
If you’re lucky, you can view bears up close on a safari tour outside Churchill.

Article Contents:
1 Logistics of Visiting Churchill
2 Things To See and Do in Churchill
3 Activities and Costs to Budget For
4 Suggested Itinerary and Sample Budget
5 The Absolute Cheapest Way to See Polar Bears
6 The Final Cheap Polar Bear Option: Day Trip From Winnipeg

Things to Know First: Logistics of Visiting Churchill

Visiting Churchill requires more planning than your typical vacation. The cost for flights and lodging can vary quite a bit, so you’ll want to keep checking prices well in advance,

Here are some commonly asked questions that you’ll need to understand before we can talk budget.

How do you get to Churchill?

Churchill is located way up north on Hudson Bay in Manitoba, Canada. The official population here is less than 900 people, though that number soars during peak tourist season.

churchill manitoba map

There are no roads leading into Churchill. The only way in is by plane or train. You can either take a 2-day train ride from Winnipeg on Via Rail, or hop a 2.5-hour flight from Winnipeg on Calm Air, the only airline currently serving the city. Either way, you need to get yourself to Winnipeg first, which can add several hours of travel time to your trip.

Why are there polar bears in Churchill?

The area of Hudson Bay near Churchill is typically the first part of the Bay that freezes each winter. Over time, the polar bears have learned this. So they come here because they want to get out onto the ice as soon as possible each fall to begin hunting seals.

The bears spend the early weeks of October lying around, conserving energy. They tend to congregate east of the town itself, in places like Wapusk National Park. But they are seen around town from time to time, and in the forests outside downtown.

polar bear in woods

What’s the best time of year to visit?

Strictly speaking, it is possible to see polar bears anytime of year in Churchill. However, it’s much easier to see them during peak polar bear season, which generally runs for 4-6 weeks from mid-October to early November.

That timeline can move a week or two in either direction, depending how cold the winter has been. For instance, in some years, the second week of November is a good time to see lots of bears; while in other years, the bears are almost entirely gone by then. You just never know.

The ideal time to visit is the final week of October. That’s a pretty sure bet to see bears, regardless of whether temperatures have been warm or cool.

During that time, polar bears gather just outside the city as they wait for the ice of Hudson Bay to freeze. That’s when you can book “polar bear safari” tours on the “tundra buggy” vehicles.

bear safari tundra buggy vehicles

In the summer, you can still see polar bears on occasion, but you’ll be lucky to see one or two bears from far away, compared to the much larger numbers you can encounter at peak season. People often come to Churchill from June through August to see the beluga whales.

The worst thing you can do is visit too late. If you plan a mid-November visit and the ice happens to freeze early this year, you may not see a single bear in town. It would be a shame to come all this way and miss out on the bears.

For that reason, I suggest visiting during the last two weeks of October and the first week of November. Anytime during those three weeks should guarantee that plenty of bears are around.

bear warning sign

If you can’t make that timeline, it’s better to visit too early in the season than too late, because if you’re early, bears can still be found outside the town with some effort.

When should you book a trip to Churchill?

Polar bear season is brief, and Churchill is a small town with limited lodging facilities. That means you need to book your trip as early as possible! Several months in advance, if possible.

Churchill from above
The town of Churchill as seen from the air.

If you plan to visit in October, I highly recommend booking by April or May at the latest, so that you still have multiple polar bear tour options and multiple hotels to choose from.

What’s the weather like in Churchill?

During peak season, it’s quite chilly. The average high in October is 35 F (2 C), and in November the average high is 17 F (-8 C). Prepare to bundle up!

Snowflakes are likely, but not guaranteed. I visited from Oct. 18-21 and there was no snow on the ground at all. Temps stayed in the mid 30s. We had a brief snow flurry, but otherwise it was gray and quiet that week, with no white stuff on the ground.

Summer temperatures in August reach average highs in the mid 60s F (18 C).

town of churchill

Fun facts: The highest temperature ever recorded in Churchill was 98 F (37 C) in August 1991. The coldest temperature ever recorded in Churchill was -45 F (-49 C) in February 1979.

How do you get around in Churchill?

There are some roads within Churchill itself – these roads just don’t connect with the rest of the country. So you can walk, bicycle, or drive around town. Many hotels provide a free ride from the airport into town. There are a few cabs.

Once you’re in downtown, you can walk most everywhere. But be careful! This is a town where polar bears can and do walk right through the middle of town on occasion. Tourists are urged to always walk in groups and try to avoid walking outside after dark.

stop don't walk sign

There are a limited number of cars for rent in Churchill, but the cost is very high, and you don’t really need a car here. Transportation is provided as part of all tours.

Activity Suggestions: Things To Do in Churchill

Before going over the best budget itinerary for Churchill travelers, let’s take a broader look at all of the possible activities you can do in Churchill, specifically during the months of peak polar bear season (Oct/Nov). There are some additional activities available only during the summer, such as beluga whale excursions, that aren’t covered here.

We’ll go over the group tours and activities in Churchill, followed by the sights around town that you may be able to visit yourself. You might end up deciding that some of these activities (helicopter ride?) are worth splurging for, regardless of budget.

Churchill Tours

Polar Bear Safari Day Tour 

This is the main reason you’re here! To get on those overland, safari-style vehicles and head out into the tundra to see polar bears! Frontiers North and Great White Bears are currently the main companies which run 1-day tours (the bigger companies mostly run week-long package tours that cost several thousand dollars.)

polar bear tour inside
Get your cameras ready to point out the windows at the bears!

Expect to pay at least $500 CAD ($400 US) for a day tour. For best results, I strongly recommend trying to book polar bear safari day tours with two different companies while you’re in town. This will obviously be more expensive than taking a single tour, but it doubles your odds of having a good polar bear experience.

The tours go out onto the tundra, in an area where cars are not able to travel. These are all-terrain vehicles with huge wheels that can power through mud, streams, even shallow rivers. They move very slowly. and the ride is bumpy, but they’ll get you out to where the bears are active.

The weather is a big factor in what kind of experience you will have. When it’s cold and windy, the bears often hunker down among the shrubs, so they’re harder to find, and they aren’t doing much.

On my first polar bear safari, the weather was poor. I only saw 3 bears, and they were from quite far away. If I had gone home after that, I would’ve been disappointed in my Churchill experience. Thankfully, I had a second safari booked, and that day was warmer. That time I saw around a dozen bears, including several from close range, and they were active and walking around. A couple came up to our vehicle and walked right past!

North Star Tours also offers a “Coastal Roads and Hidden Trails Polar Bear Tour” for $345 CAD. That tour doesn’t go out into the tundra, but stays closer to town. So you may see bears, but no guarantees.

Churchill Town & Area Tour

Some companies offer a half-day (3-4 hour) Town & Area Tour. Small groups of tourists are taken by van to most of Churchill’s main attractions. This is a great way to see the highlights, including Cape Merry Park, the Miss Piggy Plane Wreck, and the Polar Bear Jail. It’s a bit expensive, costing at least $150 CAD.

The tour I took visited all these spots, and also ventured onto some remote dirt roads as we looked for wildlife along the coast. We didn’t spot any bears, but did get to try some wild crowberries.

There are limited town tours after October 20, for some reason. You’d think they would keep running these tours throughout peak polar bear season, but that is not the case. So call to book ahead.

wolf statues churchill
Wolf statues on the main street of Churchill.

Helicopter Tour

You won’t find a budget-friendly helicopter tour. Expect to shell out close to 600 CAD (475 USD) to get up in the air for 60-90 minutes.

The good news is you’re 100% guaranteed to see polar bears from a chopper. They can fly directly to Cape Churchill in Wapusk National Park, where most of the bears hang out. I saw more than a dozen bears from above!

There’s a 2-person minimum for helicopter rides, so solo traveler will have to hook up with someone else, or call the company and see if they have room for you on an existing flight. I was able to join a couple other folks staying at my Airbnb to go on a copter ride, and for me it was worth the extra money. Plus, I got the life experience of riding in a helicopter!

helicopter bears
Two polar bears seen from the helicopter tour.

The copter companies in Churchill don’t do a great job of advertising themselves. Their websites aren’t all that helpful either. Your best bet is to call to make a reservation. Hudson Bay Heli is the company I traveled with.

Weather is a concern. If there are heavy winds, copter tours may have to be canceled for safety reasons. It was touch and go on my trip – it was very windy outside and I felt a little worried about going up – but they assured us we’d be fine with the level of wind gusts that day, and we ultimately had no problems.

This was only my second time ever in a copter, following my trip in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Aurora Borealis Tour (Northern Lights)

If you’re really lucky, you may be able to catch the northern lights during your October / November Churchill visit. But that’s not the best time of year to see them – January through March are ideal.

Some companies do have Northern Lights Tours in Oct / Nov, with the understanding that the tours will be canceled if it’s too cloudy and there’s no chance of seeing the aurora. I put my name on the waiting list for one of these tentative tours, and sure enough it was canceled since the lights weren’t visible.

Oh well. It was worth trying anyway! The price will be at least $140 CAD ($110 USD) if the tour does take place.

Other Things To See: Sights around Town

Cape Merry

polar bear crossing sign

Cape Merry is part of the Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site. At the cape, you can get a panoramic view of Hudson Bay and the Churchill River. You’ll see remnants of the old fort, including cannons and defense walls. Rangers lead guided tours.

Though you can walk to Cape Merry from downtown Churchill (it’s about 2 miles each way), you probably shouldn’t, due to the possibility of polar bears. Even the rangers here carry rifles for protection. Best to grab a taxi or visit as part of a town tour.

Itsanitaq Museum

Here’s an attraction you can definitely walk to. The Itsanitaq Museum is a one-room facility in the heart of town with a collection of Inuit artifacts and displays about Inuit history. See carvings made of whale bones and caribou antlers, wooden kayaks, and hunting equipment used by native settlers of the region.

itsanitaq museum

As of this writing, the Itsanitaq Museum is open from 1 to 4:30 pm on weekdays during peak polar bear season, so schedule accordingly. The museum is free but accepts donations and has a gift shop.

Miss Piggy Plane Wreck

In 1979, a Lambair C-46F experienced engine problems after taking off from Churchill and tried to return to the airport. It crashed on rocky terrain less than a mile from the runway.

miss piggy plane

No one lost their life, and the plane was left largely intact. Today, you can visit the wreckage and even go inside the cabin!

That is, if you have security with you. Polar bears can appear from out of nowhere in this forested area, so you should visit with a guide. Our guide on the Town and Area Tour carried a rifle to keep us safe while we climbed on the plane.

Polar Bear Jail

This is a real thing! Bears that repeatedly get too close to town and which are considered dangerous used to be shot and killed. But these days, they’re transported to the jail, officially called the Polar Bear Holding Facility.

polar bear jail

After a period of 30 days, the bears are usually transported by helicopter to somewhere far away from Churchill, a safe, natural habitat for the bears to continue their lives away from people.

You can’t go inside the jail without special approval, but you can visit the building, see the mural on the exterior, see the polar bear traps in the parking lot, and read the informational display.

Getting here requires a taxi ride or, again, joining a Town and Area Tour.

MV Ithaca Ship Wreck

mv ithaca shipwreck

In 1960, the MV Ithaca ship grounded itself in shallow waters off the coast. It remains there today. During summer (and low tide), you can actually hike out to the ship. For your winter visit, you’ll have to settle for seeing it from shore, or a helicopter ride.

Churchill Activities and Costs to Budget For

Flights & Train: Calm Air vs Via Rail

Calm Air is the only airline that flies to Churchill. The 2.5-hour flights are very expensive, and they have a very limited schedule. Calm Air typically flies in and out of Winnipeg four days a week: Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.

Flights to Churchill during peak season can be crazy expensive. Mine was $900 CAD ($730 USD) for a one-way flight!

Via Rail is the train that travels between Winnipeg and Churchill. Their schedule is even more limited: A train leaves Winnipeg each Sunday and Tuesday at noon, arriving in Churchill two days later following a 40-hour ride. The plus is that Via Rail is far cheaper than Calm Air.

Via Rail travels back from Churchill to Winnipeg on Thursday and Saturday evenings, arriving two days later.

via rail canada train
Wanna see polar bears on a budget? Consider taking the train to Churchill.

Taking the train can be much more affordable. I got a one-way economy ticket for $230 CAD ($175 USD). The train does have meals for purchase, or bring your own snacks.

I couldn’t afford to fly both ways, so I flew to Churchill and took the train back to Winnipeg. If you have the flexibility to add a couple extra days to your trip, you can save a TON of money with the train. Paying $350 round-trip is way better than paying $1450!

The train is reasonably comfortable, with plenty of room to stretch out, and has power outlets and food available for purchase. There are a couple longer stops where you can get off the train to walk around.

You do see some nice scenery as the train passes through Saskatchewan and Manitoba. On my trip, I counted 19 deer, one bald eagle, and countless beaver dams.

PRO TIP: The train is often late, sometimes by several hours. If you’re only going to take the train one way, take it from Churchill to Winnipeg at the end of your trip, rather than the other way around. You don’t want to arrive in Churchill late and miss out on planned activities.

Lodging

Lodging in Churchill is crazy expensive. Airbnb currently has no listings in Churchill. That means you’re stuck with hotels. There are only a few hotels, and prices go way up during polar bear season. You must book very early, because they fill up fast.

Most of these places provide free pickup from the airport, since there’s no public transportation in Churchill. Double check to be sure your hotel provides this service.

Somewhat affordable lodging options in Churchill:

Sarah’s Dreamhouse B&B: Perhaps the cheapest option currently available is Sarah’s Dreamhouse B&B. This is where I stayed during my visit. It’s kinda like a hostel, with private bedrooms and a shared kitchen. Rooms during bear season run in the $150 USD range.

Polar Bear B&B: Another good option, this B&B is charging $220 CAD per night during peak season (taxes included.) That’s about $170 USD per night.

Bear Country Inn: This inn is affordable, especially if you’re traveling as a couple. Rooms are available between $200-250 per night USD (before taxes.)

If you’re traveling with someone, that’s even better, because you can split the room cost!

The Seaport Hotel is also advertising cheap lodging – their website shows single rooms as low as $155/night. But their website hasn’t been updated in a few years, so it’s unclear whether those rates are current. They don’t take online reservations either – visitors must call by phone.

The Polar Inn and Suites is one of the most popular hotels, but it’s much more expensive. During polar bear season, a standard room is $345 CAD per night, plus taxes. That works out to about $315 per night in U.S. dollars.

As for other options during peak season, the Aurora Inn charges $300 CAD/night, and the Tundra Inn is at $325 CAD/night (rates current as of fall 2022.)

Polar Bear Tours and Town Tours

cheapest way to see polar bears in churchill canada

As mentioned above, polar bear tours can run $400-500 USD for an all-day tour. Just like the hotels, the polar bear tours can sell out, so be sure to book your tours immediately after booking your lodging and flights! You don’t want to wind up in Churchill without a tour!

Town tours and aurora borealis tours can cost about $150 CAD, and helicopter tours will cost closer to $500 USD. So it’s up to you which of these tours to splurge for. Aurora tours typically don’t happen during peak polar bear season, but one might take place if there’s a particularly clear night.

arctic hare churchill
We spotted an adorable arctic hare on the way back from the polar bear tour.

Meals and Restaurants in Churchill

Because of the city’s remoteness, food in Churchill is expensive. You can save money by bringing some of your own snacks in your baggage on the plane or train. The safari day tours include lunch, so you’ll have at least one meal covered.

There is one main grocery store in Churchill, called Northern Store. You’ll be able to walk there. They have all the staples, from meats to fruits/veggies to frozen dinners. Prices are a little high, but they’re not outrageous. The store also has housewares, jackets, and other department store items.

If you’re staying in a hotel with a microwave in your room, you can keep your food costs low by eating frozen dinners from the grocery store.

lazy bear cafe

But don’t pass up the chance to try Churchill’s restaurants. Here are a few to consider:

Lazy Bear Café. Located inside Lazy Bear Lodge, this cozy wooden lodge serves up filling meals like burgers and pulled pork sandwiches.

Reef Restaurant. Located inside the Seaport Hotel, this place is no-frills in terms of appearance, but it offers a ton of dishes, from basic sandwiches and salads to fine dining options like steak and fish platters. Most dishes cost between $17-30.

Tundra Inn Pub. Located at the Tundra Inn, this pub and restaurant has hearty meals like soups and sandwiches, plus homemade desserts. They have lunch specials, perfect for those on a budget.

Suggested Itinerary and Sample Budget for a DIY Trip to Churchill

How long should you stay in Churchill? In a perfect world, 5-7 days would be cool. But to do this trip on a budget, you’ll want to do a 3-4 day visit with a lot packed into each day.

Unfortunately, you won’t have a ton of flexibility with the schedule. Calm Air, the sole airline that flies to Churchill, only has 4 flights per week to and from Churchill. Via Rail, the Canadian train system, only arrives to Churchill twice a week (on Tuesdays and Thursdays.)

I arrived on a Monday afternoon by plane and departed on Thursday evening by rail. That gave me the better part of 4 days in Churchill.

cheapest way to see polar bears - statue canada

Here’s one suggested Churchill itinerary for budget travelers. It’s an 8-day itinerary in total, accounting for time traveling to Winnipeg and the 2-day train ride from Churchill to Winnipeg.

Sunday: Fly to Winnipeg from your hometown. If time, explore attractions and neighborhoods in Winnipeg. Unfortunately, the incredible Human Rights Museum is closed on Sundays, but you can walk around the famous Forks Market.

Monday: Fly from Winnipeg to Churchill early afternoon by plane. Use the afternoon to walk around Churchill, check out the Itsanitaq Museum, gift shops, and restaurants.

Tuesday: Do a polar bear full day tour. Get dinner at a bar/restaurant in town after.

Wednesday: Take a half-day Town and Area Tour if offered. Or hire a taxi to drive around and show you the main city sights. If you want to splurge, take a helicopter polar bear tour. I was able to schedule a helicopter tour in the morning and Town and Area Tour in the afternoon.

Thursday: Do a second polar bear day tour with a different company. Take the evening Via Rail train out of town from Churchill to Winnipeg. The polar bear safaris will always get you back to town in time to catch the train.

Friday: All day on train. Enjoy the scenery.

Saturday: Arrive in Winnipeg late afternoon. Find lodging for the night.

Sunday: Fly home from Winnipeg to your hometown.

How much would all of this cost? This was my budget for a solo trip to Churchill (in USD):

Average budget for a solo trip to Churchill:
500 Flights from your home to Winnipeg (roundtrip)
50 Lodging in Winnipeg for 1 night (Airbnb)
725 Flight from Winnipeg to Churchill (one-way)
600 Lodging in Churchill 3 nights
850 Two one-day polar bear safari tours
175 Via Rail train from Churchill to Winnipeg (one-way)
500 General spending – restaurants, groceries, taxis, tips
TOTAL: $3,400

This budget assumes that you’re taking a solo trip to Churchill from the continental USA and staying for 4-5 days during peak polar bear season in October or November. You can adjust the numbers up or down if your situation is different.

mom cub tundra

The Absolute Cheapest Way to See Polar Bears in Churchill

If a budget of $3,400 is still too expensive, there is a way to get to Churchill and back even cheaper. This itinerary is less ideal, because it doesn’t provide much wiggle room for plane delays or other unexpected surprises. And it includes four long days on the train.

But I’ll include it in case anyone is really determined to visit Churchill on a shoestring budget.

The absolute cheapest way to see the polar bears is to start by flying to Winnipeg for free. In a perfect world, you would have airline miles for Air Canada, United, or another airline that flies from your hometown to Winnipeg. Use those miles to book your flight, and therefore pay nothing for airfare.

After one night in Winnipeg (Airbnbs are very cheap), take Via Rail train roundtrip from Winnipeg to Churchill. If you book early and select the cheapest fare, you may be able to score a roundtrip in coach on the train for only $350 USD.

If you take the Sunday train departing from Winnipeg at noon, you’d arrive in Churchill on Tuesday morning. Stay in Churchill for two nights, and take the train back out of town on Thursday evening.

This schedule means you only have to pay for two nights of lodging in Churchill. You can book a single polar bear tour on Wednesday or Thursday. Remember, though, that booking only one polar bear is taking a risk, since you never know whether you’ll see a lot of bears on a single tour.

The absolute cheapest budget for Churchill:
0 Flights from your home to Winnipeg, roundtrip (book for free using airline miles)
40 Lodging in Winnipeg for 1 night (Airbnb)
350 Via Rail train from Winnipeg (roundtrip)
350 Lodging in Churchill 2 nights (Polar Bear B&B)
425 One polar bear safari tour
175 General spending: restaurants, groceries, taxis, tips
TOTAL: $1,340

If you don’t have airline miles, you’ll obviously have to include the additional cost of flying to and from Winnipeg as part of your budget.

A total cost of $1,340 is by far the cheapest way to see polar bears in Churchill. But are you willing to spend four days on a train to make that happen? That’s up to you!

You may find that the hybrid option (flying one way, taking the train the other way) is the best way to balance cost and time, give you the best overall experience in Churchill, and cross off your bucket list item of seeing polar bears in the wild!

One Other Cheap Polar Bear Option: Day Trip from Winnipeg

There’s one more affordable polar bear option that I should mention. This involves taking a day trip from Winnipeg to Churchill and back.

It’s literally just one day. You fly to Churchill in the morning, take a tundra buggy tour in the afternoon to look for bears, and then fly right back to Winnipeg. These tours tend to cost about $1800-2000 CAD, which is close to $1500 USD. For a single day.

Obviously, the problem with a day tour is that you don’t get time to explore the town of Churchill, and you only have a single polar bear safari, so it’s hit or miss whether you will see many bears. But this option could still be appealing to some people.

That’s our guide to visiting Churchill on a budget! Do you have any other tips for the cheapest way to see polar bears?

2 thoughts on “Churchill on a Budget: Here’s the Cheapest Way to See Polar Bears!”

  1. Thank you Scott for this blog. It will be helpful to us when we plan our trip to Churchill. Question: When you did the Helicopter tour to see polar bears, does the pilot get you as close as reasonably possible, or are you seeing these spectacular animals from way far away? We are interested in this type of viewing.
    thanks

    1. Hi Stephanie, thanks for reading! In the copter you can fly directly over the bears, but the copter has to stay above a certain height, so the bears will look small, as they do in the photo. You can see them walking around, but won’t be close enough to see their faces.

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