Many visitors to Toronto have questions about whether to rent a car, how easy it is to get around and what they need to know before driving in the Toronto area.  This article covers:

  • Deciding Whether You Need a Car
  • Renting a Car
  • Parking
  • Toronto-Area Highways
  • Driving Tips: On the Highway
  • Driving Tips: Within the City

If you don't find the answer to your question below, feel free to ask in the TripAdvisor Toronto forum.

 

Deciding Whether You Need a Car

Whether or not you need a car depends mostly on where you plan to go.  Also, if you're visiting in winter but don't have winter driving experience, it may be a better idea to leave the driving to trained professionals.

Within Toronto

Traffic in Toronto can be heavy and parking can be expensive.  You can walk between many of the major attractions downtown and most others are reachable by public transit.  (While the Toronto Zoo can be reached by transit, it is far from downtown and easier to get to with a car.)

If you plan on staying mostly in the downtown core or near the major subway lines, then you can skip the car rental and buy a daily TTC pass or a bunch of tokens.  Otherwise, if any part of your trip involves travelling outside of the major TTC areas, then rent a car.

Visiting Niagara Falls

You can get to the Falls without driving, though having a car does give you the most flexibility especially if your plans include the wineries of the Niagara region.  See Niagara Falls – A Side Trip from Toronto for all your options.

Going Elsewhere in Southern Ontario and Quebec

The major cities of Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec City are some distance away.  Renting a car is one way to explore them, and allows you to stop at smaller towns in between.  Other options include VIA Rail train service; intercity bus services from Greyhound, Coach Canada, or Megabus; or flights on Air Canada, WestJet, or Porter Airlines.  Which option is best depends on the length of your trip, the number of people, and the time of year.

 

Renting a Car

See the TripAdvisor article Canada: Rental Cars for tips on rental car costs, surcharges, and insurance.  One extra charge in the Toronto area that may catch you by surprise is a surcharge for driving on Highway 407; GPS users may want to set their GPS to avoid toll roads.

Most visitors to the Toronto area renting a car do so either at the airport or at a downtown location.

Sports Car / Convertible

Both Avis & Budget are now stocking Ford Mustang convertibles at their airport location. (spring 2012) Other outlets around the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), may have these cars available as well.

At the airport

If you're arriving at Toronto Pearson International Airport, you'll find most of the major rental car companies.  On-site agencies are located in the parking garage of each terminal, while off-airport agencies use shuttle vans.

You may want to compare rental car rates between the airport and downtown locations, as renting at the airport is sometimes more expensive.  Plus, if you're staying in Toronto for a few days before driving out of the city, it may make sense to pick up your car at the end of your stay, saving both rental and parking charges.

Downtown

You don't need a car to get downtown from the airport

If you're arriving by VIA Rail, GO Transit, Porter Airlines, or picking up a car after staying downtown, Union Station is the easiest place to go.  There are a number of rental car places on-site and within as a short walking distance.  National and Hertz are on-site, while Avis/Budget are located in Brookfield Place, across the street.  (Note that you can only enter the Brookfield Place garage from the westbound lanes of Front Street.)

Or, if arriving by intercity bus or staying a little further north, there are Discount and Enterprise locations on Bay Street within walking distance of the Toronto Coach Terminal (610 Bay St., at Dundas St. West).

Parking

Parking prices can be exorbitant in downtown Toronto, especially if you're not used to big city rates.

Most of the downtown hotels have valet parking which includes in and out privileges all day.  This is particularly useful if you have a number of events and destinations to get to throughout any one single day of your stay.  Usually, non-valet, self-parking will require only two trips outside of the hotel using the car before you would have been better off going with valet parking.

There are public parking garages and lots throughout the city.  Green P (the parking agency run by the city, often with the most affordable rates) and Impark have many convenient locations.

Street parking is subject to many restrictions found on street-side signs.  Where no sign appears, free parking is allowed for up to three hours – but this is hardly ever seen downtown.  In many residential areas, a permit is required to park on the street, especially overnight, so check the signs beforehand.

Parking meters in Toronto operate differently than in some other North American cities.  Look for a dark grey machine on the sidewalk that prints a ticket to be placed on your dashboard.  

 

Toronto-Area Highways

  • Major freeways in the Toronto area include highways 400, 401, 404, 427, and the Queen Elizabeth Way (almost always called "the QEW").  These are the equivalent of U.S. interstates: divided highways with two or more lanes in each direction and a 100 km/h (60 mph) speed limit.
  • The two major routes into downtown are the Don Valley Parkway ("the DVP") and Gardiner Expressway ("the Gardiner"), which are also divided highways but with a 90 km/h (55 mph) speed limit.
  • The largest and busiest highway through the Toronto area is highway 401, which is 18 lanes across at its widest point.  These are divided into "collector lanes" (with the usual exits 1-2 km apart) and "express lanes" (which have transfers to/from the collector lanes every 5 km or so).  Drivers new to the area may want to stay in the collector lanes to ensure they won't miss their exit, though traffic is often so heavy on the 401 as to allow plenty of time to read the overhead signs!
  • Highway 407 ETR is an "electronic" toll highway; it can be very expensive to drive it in a rental car.  Because it is the only toll road in the area, GPS users may want to set their GPS unit to avoid toll roads.

 

Driving Tips: On the Highway

  • Try to plan your trip to avoid rush hours, which in the Toronto area are about 6 am to 9:30 am and 3 pm to 7 pm.  Although the heaviest traffic heads into the city in the morning and back out in the evening, highways can be busy in all directions.
  • For traffic updates every ten minutes (at :01, :11, etc.), tune your car's radio to 680 AM.
  • The left lane should be kept free, except for passing.  It is not illegal to pass on the right, though it is discouraged.
  • If an emergency vehicle is stopped on the shoulder of the road, you are required to move over one lane to pass it, or to slow down if that is not possible.
  • A few highways have carpool lanes.  Check the signage carefully to make sure you have enough people in your car, and make sure to enter and exit only at the designated cross-over points.
  • To plan your trip, you can use an online mapping site like Google Maps or an old-fashioned road map.  You can pick up a free Ontario road map from the Ontario Travel Information Centre on Dundas Street West, just west of Yonge Street, in downtown Toronto.

 

Driving Tips: Within the City

  • Streetcar routes crisscross downtown.  On some streets, streetcars have their own raised lanes (marked with white-on-black diamond signs), but in most cases the streetcar lane is shared with regular traffic.
  • Streetcars make frequent stops.  If a streetcar going in your direction stops to load or unload passengers on the street, the law requires you to stop behind its open doors.  At stops where there is a dedicated streetcar platform for loading and unloading, you do not need to stop.
  • Streets are named, not numbered, so a map is essential.
  • "East" and "West" in street names is relative to Yonge Street; for example 100 Queen Street West is a short distance west of Yonge Street.
  • For north/south trips through downtown, University Avenue moves more smoothly than Yonge Street; instead of King Street and Queen Street use Richmond Street westbound and Adelaide Street eastbound.
  • Where not posted, the speed limit within the city is 50 km/h (30 mph).  Residential streets are often 40 km/h (25 mph) or 30 km/h (20 mph) zones.
  • Throughout Ontario, right turns are permitted on a red light (except where signed), after making a full stop and yielding to any pedestrians.