Polar Bears in Churchill - Independent and on the Cheap

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Well, this one sorta miraculously fell together.  For a quick few days this November we'll be in Churchill, Manitoba to check out some Polar Bears.  Then later in life after they've all drowned, we'll be able to tell our grandchildren: "Back in our day, we had Polar Bears…"  And then we'll all have a cry together.

Anyway, the rest of this post is all about the logistics behind the booking of this trip as I'm sorta proud of it.  So that's a warning to most that this is going to get boring real quick…

In an economy where people are actually employed, these trips cost several thousand per person and are booked solid with old people and photographers.  To view the polar bears in Churchill you cruise around in these big ol' Tundra Buggies. 

Courtesy: http://www.discover-the-world.co.uk/

No chance we'd be paying those sort of prices, though.  There are three parts to the puzzle to see Churchill polar bears independently/cheaply:

  • Tundra Buggy reservations – sent an email and got a list of available dates for independent travelers.  The only downside was that they didn't have any consecutive days.  So we'd only be able to do one day out on the tundra.  Better than nothing, I'd say.
  • Motel reservations – combed the internets for email addresses for all the lodging in Churchill.  The number of rooms in Churchill is actually very small, so I got a totally mixed bag of responses regarding availability and dates.
  • Flights – you can fly any number of major airlines to Winnipeg and then you can hop Calm Air up to Churchill.  This Winnipeg to Churchill flight alone is $1,000 USD round-trip per person.  (of course we didn't pay that much!)

End of October through early November is when you want to be in Churchill, so after looking at Buggy and motel availability I was happy that November 4 turned out to be the sweet spot.  Also, keep in mind I started this process in August—so I wasn't really planning too far ahead.

Flights from Seattle to Winnipeg were a cinch.  I snagged award tickets on Northwest with my first choice of dates and flight times.

Now how to get those $1,000 Calm Air tickets on the cheap?  Brace yourself.  The only avenue to redeem tickets with Calm Air is through a Canadian scheme called Air Miles (generic name, eh?).  So I signed up for an account with them.  Now I just needed to scrounge up 850 Air Miles for each Winnipeg-Churchill roundtrip.

I then discovered that with Priority Club (Holiday Inn, et al) you can convert 10,000 PC points into 250 Air Miles.  So I needed 70K PC points to get 1,750 Air Miles—enough for two tickets.  That sounds like a lot of points, but PC points are cheap to acquire. To start out, I already had 15K in my account from a single night stay in Bend, Oregon that cost a whopping $90.

Next thing you know, I had a Priority Club Visa in my wallet that earned 45K points for a $59 annual fee and then I straight up purchased 10K PC points directly for $60.  Now I had the 70K PC points I needed.  Just a short wait after redemption with PC, my Air Miles balance jumped to 1,750 and I immediately redeemed those for our Calm Air flights to Churchill.

Got it?  For a glimmer of transparency (as I think readers might be curious), here are the price breakdowns for this trip:

  • Winnipeg to Churchill flights: $353
    • Again, this would be $2K total if booked through "normal" channels—my new all time favorite redemption of points!
      • To acquire PC points: $119 (not including the cost of points earned incidentally from the Bend stay)
      • To redeem the Air Miles I had to drop $234 in "taxes and fees"
  • Seattle to Winnipeg flights: $94.02 plus 50K SkyMiles
  • Tundra Buggy: $700
    • That's for a full day of two people out scouting Polar Bears—including hot cocoa and soup. 
  • Churchill Motel: $188
    • No points redemptions available in Churchill, sadly!  And prices are high across the board.
  • Winnipeg Hotel (2 nights): $90 plus 5,600 Starwood Points
  • Car Rental in Winnipeg: $32
  • Vacation days: 2

Grand Total: $1,457.02 plus misc points (which were earned on the cheap)

Everyone values their pesos differently.  And many people might not even think Hudson Bay in November sounds like fun.  But for our money, this is great bang for the buck on a once in a lifetime trip.  Plus I'm not going to lie, it was a very fun puzzle to put together.

Again emphasizing that it's very possible to travel in a style well beyond your means while staying within your means.  Any questions?  (And props to anyone who read this far.)

Otherwise, expect the full trip report and photos here the week of November 2nd!


I bow down before your travel skills.

I can't wait to see the photos - this will be amazing!

Wow! That sounds like an amazing trip. How do you guys find out about these neat adventures?

Ahem: VERY nicely played. And graciously shared. Eager to see the photos. You guys rock.

Wow, I have been dreaming to see the polar bears for years but the tours have been too cost prohibitive for me! I just ran into your post while searching for Galapagos and this is awesome info! Great work on getting the bonus miles. I am inspired by the logistics of your trip and am wondering if I can still do it for this Nov!

Momo: fantastic! Great to hear from people that this sort of a post is helpful to them.

It's probably a little too close to get all the points in order in time for a November trip. But I'd think with some proper advance planning, you'd have no problem getting a trip for 2010 together.

Ok you guys are amazing! I love reading about all of your trips and I'm gathering all of your advice to plan my first "Vinod sytle" funded trip :)

Really enjoy your post and amazed by your creation... :-) Great job...

But the Airmiles only works out for the Canadian only, right?? I assume only Canadian can open Airmiles account and if that’s the case then it’s way too bad since I have enough Priority Club reward point… :-( Any good suggestion??


Well, I suppose strictly speaking this is for Canadians. But given that I live in Seattle, you can definitely work around that! I borrowed a Canadian address from a friend to open my AirMiles account, then also changed my address online for Priority Club.

The Priority Club-->Air Miles transfer is done over the phone--easy as can be. When I phoned Air Miles to book the tickets, I simply verified the info on my account and then paid with my regular US Amex card. YMMV, as they say...but I don't think you'd have any problems...

Unfortunately, I do not have a friend who lives in Canada as I live in Pennsylvania and don't know how to obtain a canadien address but I do have a Priority Club account. Is there anything I can do? Love the story though............

Curious who you used for the tundra tour? Thanks!

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