Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Twelve Terrific Travel Tips For BC Ferries

The thing that a lot of travellers don’t really appreciate about Vancouver Island is that it is an island. What that means is that unless you are lucky enough to fly directly to your destination, you are most likely going to have to deal with BC Ferries in order to get there. This has implications on travel plans, as you will abruptly find out on windy days, and holidays!

We make the trip from Schwartz Bay (Sidney) to Tsawwassen (Vancouver) and back about once a month. As seasoned and savvy Ferry travellers, we offer you the following tips to make your crossing as easy and pain-free as possible. While we travel this ‘southern route’ exclusively, I am confident that the vast majority of these tips also apply to the Naniamo runs, or any other BC Ferries route as well.

First of all, forget those urban legends about BC Ferries running into islands, dropping cars off loading ramps and slamming headlong into marinas when the brakes fail. Oh sure, that does happen, but rarely, and almost never to the same guy twice! And the food isn’t as bad as they say; in fact, it is quite decent and usually predictable. (The coffee can be something else, entirely) Furthermore, the employees aren’t all smoking them hand-rolled stogies of BC Bud! In fact, I have found BC Ferry employees generally to be courteous, capable, generally friendly, reliable and knowledgeable. (Only once did a lady in the ticket booth snap at me after I countered a tongue lashing about being late for my reservation with the fact that I had been in her line before the deadline, but it moved so slowly that I finally got to the booth about 10 minutes later.) They will be your best friend if you run into trouble.

So study the following items and you will arrive on the Island secure in the knowledge that you have an inside track in getting the most out of your BC Ferry experience. Notwithstanding anything stated below, always check the BC Ferry web site for the most current information on costs, schedules, services and details.

A key point here is that most of the issues with the ferries relate to the transporting of vehicles; if you are a passenger, only in extremely rare cases will you not be able to walk onto any ferry just 10 minutes prior to sailing. (they now close the pedestrian gates 10 minutes ahead of the sailing, to stop the last-minute frantic dash for the ramp). Thus, if you are walking on, many of the capacity issues discussed below is irrelavent.

1. Know The Flow
· To deal with the ferries when you have a vehicle, you have to know your travelling competitors, their habits and their tendencies. After all, you are competing for deck space with them.

Like most other areas, weekends are the busiest periods on the ferries. On Fridays, the biggest traffic flow is from the mainland to Vancouver Island, which means that there will be bigger crowds at the Tsawwassen Terminal than at Swartz Bay. However, on the last day before the weekend, many islanders make the dash for the mainland around supper time as well. The flow reverses on Sundays, (Mondays on Long Weekends), where the rush is to get off the Island and back to the mainland. This flow is particularly high from the early afternoon to supper time.

Likewise, the heavy ferry traffic is also concentrated during the months of July and August due to the influx of tourists, and during long weekends such as Christmas, Easter, Victoria Day, Thanksgiving and Labour Day. Fortunately, the ferries often run hourly during such times, but check the web site to make certain.

Furthermore, the 7 a.m. sailing, (the first of the morning), is ALWAYS the most popular of the day at both ends, and fills up completely an hour before sailing, EVEN IN THE OFF SEASON. Car traffic will be especially limited during this sailing, since this sailing is also extremely popular with big trucks, (especially Monday mornings), which take up large amounts of space on the boat.

There may also be special events on that could increase traffic flow. Examples include such things as a big-name concert, March Break, a Canucks game, a mass participation event such as the Vancouver Sun Run, etc. If possible, try to avoid such sailings, or arrive extra-early.

Off-season, the Victoria - Vancouver Ferry sails every two hours from 7 am to 9 pm; (just remember that is the ODD Hours!). The service increases to hourly during busier periods such as Summer, Long Weekends, etc., and there can be a 10 pm sailing at times. Check their web site for schedules.

2. Do You Have Any Serious Reservations?
If you have a vehicle, these key times [any 7 am sailing at either end; suppertime at Tsawwassen on Fridays; suppertime from Swartz Bay on Sundays; afternoons on Long Weekends], should be avoided if you can. If not possible, be sure to arrive at the terminal extra early (at least one hour prior to sailing) to give you the best chance of making the sailing. This has great implications for your departure time, since the terminals are a further hour outside of most homes in both Vancouver and Victoria.

If you must, fork over the $15 and make a reservation for your peace of mind, but remember that even here you have to show up 60 -30 minutes prior to sailing – otherwise you are forced to take your chances with the drive-ups. (The reservation system on the web site is relatively easy and painless to complete - we only use it on Boxing Day.)

On the other hand, on a typical day, sailings from 10 – 4 pm are usually less crowded, with the evening sailings from 7 – 9 pm (or even the occasional 10 pm) being the least travelled. You will not normally need reservations for such sailings, (other than long-weekends, special events, holidays, etc).

BC ferries allows up to 1/3 of the boat to be held by reservations, so drive-ups have a good chance of getting on any particular sailing.

As stated above, if you are walking on, just get there 10 minutes ahead of the sailing; the buses typically run to the ferry schedule, so if you are on one, you will be there on time.

3. Deals, Deals, Deals
Always check BC Ferries website prior to any trip. A little time spent checking can save you significant money. Look for Coast Savers using the site search engine, which are sailings with reduced fees. Non-peak hours and days are often subject to discounts. Depending on your routing, a Sailpass or Circle Route ticket may offer savings. Also, the last sailing of the day, ( 9 p.m. or sometimes 10 pm) at times allows CAA cardholders free sailing for vehicle passengers.

Currently, the BC Ferries fleet consists of two types of vessels; the ‘Spirit Class’, (a.k.a. the Super Ferry) and the ‘Queen Class’. The Spirits sail on the odd hours and are the biggest and most modern ships (circa 1986). All things being equal, these are the preferred vessel to take. The Queens are a little smaller, much older (circa 1967) and don’t have the amenities of the Spirits. I like to have The Spirit move me!

A new class, the Renaissance, is about to come into service in 2008. However, these will initially be put into service only on the Nanaimo run, so the Southern Route will have to soldier on with the Queen of New Westminster, which is being refit for the task.

4. Getting To The Boat

· One key thing to note is that both ferry terminals are about 20 km from downtown. This has time and cost implications. Taxi’s, for example, would run at least $50 or more.

· If you are driving to the boat, you might consider leaving the car off the ferry, since a one-way trip will cost about $45 for the family heap; (plus $13 per passenger). If so, you can park at either terminal, but it will cost you, and it is awkward. (you have to buy sufficient parking in advance and display the tag on your dash - there is no attendant at the lot. Tow trucks patrol the lot to look for expired tags).

A better alternative at Tsawwassen is to leave the car at the native lot, (last turnoff at the right before the terminal – they have a free shuttle). For Swartz Bay, (Victoria) get a ride or take public transportation unless you are taking your vehicle. (On the island side, I don't suggest the old dodge of driving your vehicle to the local town, Sidney, parking it on the street and taking the bus to the ferry - its just 4 km away. The locals will rat you out, and the fine is $50.)

· From downtown Vancouver, Vancouver International Airport or downtown Victoria, an easy commute for foot passengers is to take Pacific Coach Lines. This bus runs to the ferry schedule and costs about $45 per passenger, ferry included. Note; you can also take the Pacific Coach Lines bus just TO the ferry or just FROM the ferry; this helps if you have someone else picking you up or dropping you off. For details, check

· The easiest and cheapest way to ride the ferry is simply to have someone drop you off at the terminal and pick you up on the other side.

· There is also municipal transit available at each end. The bus to Victoria is right in front of the terminal and is only $2.25 (exact change). Check Vancouver bus routes and costs on the other side; probably around $4.

· Bicyclists pay the passenger rate, plus $2 for the wheels.

5. Getting In The Lot

Vehicles & Bikes
· All vehicles pay at the booths in front, so watch for the roadsigns and get in the correct lane. The best way to pay is with a credit card. If you have made a reservation, pay with the SAME credit card as you quoted when you made a reservation – otherwise be prepared to withstand the withering stares and rude remarks from your fellow travellers as you fumble for the card.

· The booth attendant will tell you what sailing you are on, and direct you to a numbered lane; put one set of wheels in it and one in the adjacent free lane as you travel to the far end. This puts you safely out of reach of swinging doors, kids or pets bolting between cars and the occasional ball rolling into your path. Only swing completely into your lane when you are coming to a stop. Please, no ‘creeping’ up, parking on the speed bumps and straddling the marked pedestrian crosswalks.

· Do NOT think that you can beat queue by ‘attaching’ yourself to another, more promising lane. The control tower in the lot keeps note of the last vehicle in any lane. Transgressors are identified by loudspeaker, which forces you to slink back to your allotted lane while enduring the shame of the entire lot staring at you. (above all, don’t try this in the State of Washington – it’s a $100 dollar fine)

· If you can’t remember the assigned lane #, it is printed on your ticket.

· Now safely parked, you can make a break for the washroom, get a coffee and light meal, or just sit back and relax. A newspaper cart will come by to offer a selection of reading material, if you wish.

· Once you have walked past the ticket booth at the ferry entrance, you can check your luggage if you want to free yourself from the hassle of lugging it around the vessel. Look for the luggage counter just past the ticket booth, and make sure it is appropriately tagged and deposited by the desired destination. (you have the choice to pick up the luggage at the other end, or have it automatically transferred to a Pacific Coast Lines bus going to either downtown or the airport - make sure the correct tag is put on or, bye bye suitcase!)

If you are retrieving the luggage at Tsawwassen it is to be found at the left side of the escalator in the Terminal, for Swartz Bay, exit the building and find the luggage kiosk at your left.

· Now you can proceed to the waiting area with the others.

6. Getting On The Boat
· As a walk-on, if you really must be one of the first to board the boat, here is how you do it. Wait until you see all of the newly-arrived passengers steaming off. Then, at Tsawwassen, go back down the waiting room stairs, turn left and then left again and you will find a handicapped ramp that leads to the side of the double doors. Once these open you will be ahead of most of the jam-up in front. At Swartz Bay, sneak past the line by going behind the long rows of couches and you will also find yourself right beside the door at the head of the jam-up.

· Hint; The Tsawwassen terminal also services the Nanaimo & Gulf Island runs. Therefore, it stands to reason that since the Swartz Bay route is busier than all of the other runs put together, the slip that BC Ferries assigns to the Victoria run is physically located the furthest away! At a brisk pace it takes 5 minutes just to get from the ferry into the Tsawwassen terminal.

· Meanwhile, out in the car parking lot, Vehicles will load by rows. As a general rule, if you are in the reserved lanes or the first two drive-up lanes for the sailing, you are good to go. The third drive-up lane is also likely to get on; depending on how many trucks and reservations are included. The front of the fourth drive-up lane has a chance, but even if you were told you would not be sailing on this departure, when the loading announcement is made on the public address system, return to your car. (As I found out painfully, part of the lane ahead of you might load, and the rest of the lane will pull around you if you aren't there to move your car up!

· There are steep loading ramps for the upper decks; if you have a standard transmission vehicle, allow plenty of room from the car ahead and ‘creep’ all the way up. Once on the ship the crew will direct you to your lane. Once again, edge away from the vehicles beside you as you roll down the lane and only pull in when you come to a stop. You want to get about 2’ from the vehicle ahead; not too close because vehicle will move slightly in rough weather. At this point, make sure that the lights and car are off, that any motion alarm you have is disabled, and carefully open doors (other vehicles are loading) to head for the stairs / elevator in the middle of the ship to access the upper decks.

7. Settling In For The Ride
· Walk-ons make it onto the boat-deck ahead of the cars. So you will have a choice of spots in which to sit. On the Spirits, the entry level is Deck 5; most people plop themselves down as soon as they get on, so this is always the most crowded area. I prefer the back of Deck 6, (one up) since it is usually less crowded and quieter and has a TV display. Just don’t get right upfront on Deck 6, where the kids play area is located, (unless you have kids!). For the same reason I also prefer the upper deck on the Queens.

If you want to catch the Pacific Coach Lines bus on the ferry, (to go to Vancouver or Victoria downtown, or to the Vancouver airport), you will have go to the counter on the entry deck during the first 30 minutes after sailing to get your ticket. You then just get on the bus (you did check your luggage at the terminal, didn't you?), when the ferry docks.

· Remember, these ferries have a bow and a stern. You will always be able to drive ahead, (both on and off), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you will sail in that direction. On the Spirits, the seats all face forward, but you can find yourself going backwards on the Queens unless you take note of the fact that you are boarding by the bow or stern, and sitting accordingly. This also has important consequences for #9, below.

At Tsawwassen the vehicles load from the bow, while at Swartz Bay they load from the stern.

· Now settled in your seat, you can read, watch the scenery, sleep or go for a walk to take photos. Leaving Vancouver you have a big stretch of open water with relatively little to see. About 30 minutes later you will enter Active Pass, which is narrow. There will be lots of interesting islands to see from here into Swartz Bay.

· For photo-taking, go to the top of the ship on the Spirit class; an open deck stretches the width of the ship, which allows one to quickly move to the other side of the ship for that critical photo. For a great photo-op, note that the other ferry often will pass very closely on the left side of the ship in Active Pass. The stern is the most sheltered area of the deck, and the side facing south will always have what sun there is.

· The entire trip will take about 1 hr and 40 minutes.

8. Chow Now, Brown Cow?
· I keep hearing about the bad food on the ferries, but frankly, I find that they do a good job of feeding the mobs under difficult conditions. On the Spirits there are three ‘levels of food service’; on the Queens, just the latter two.

· The Spirits feature a lounge at the back of Deck 6 where, for a mere $10 fee, you can sit in a quiet area at the stern, read the newspaper or magazines, sip juice or coffee and enjoy the panaramoc views.

· The Spirits also feature a Buffet in the Dining Room (at the stern) for $15.50 to $21.00, depending on the time of day.

· Most people eat in the café amidship, which features a variety of foods. The 'core' cuisine is based on White Spot burgers and fries, generously supplemented with additional hot items, sandwiches, wraps and even sushi. This is where the lineups are, so the decision must be made on boarding; head straight to the cafeteria (as most do), or wait.

Personally, my best advice is that if you aren’t among the early walk-ons, take a seat, wait 30 minutes, and then go to the café. Even if you are among the first drive-on's, you are guaranteed to be behind all of the walk-on's since they load well ahead of you.
By waiting the 30 minutes before heading for the cafe, the long lineups will be gone, plus you get to sit in the café for the rest of the trip. The first cafe service has to vacate their seats for the others that follow. (along that line, if you happen to be among the first in the chow line, don't 'camp' on the table. As long as there is a line-up you need to vacate the table to give others a chance to eat). This leads to another reason to wait for 30 minutes; if you eat first-thing you will have to hunt down a seat elsewhere on the boat. This can sometimes be difficult during peak travel times, and, rest assured, the best spots will all be occupied.

· However, if you are driving and really need to feed the family on the boat quickly, here is how you get to the head of the food line. Drop the family off at the terminal and have them walk on (give your food order to the most responsible member). They can then walk on as passengers, (thereby beating all the cars), and get to the front of the chow line. You can join them in the café when you get onboard with the auto.

· And remember this, the long line-up in the cafeteria is for the hot food; if you want a wrap, prepared sandwich or suishi, just step to the side of the line when you pick up your tray, and scoot towards the cash. You can still get a hot bowl of soup and a coffee on the way, and you will pass the rest of the line-up as long as the entree is not hot (this will save you a good 10 min).

· A tip; to get a free refill of coffee in the cafe, use the ceramic mugs – Styrofoam containers are not allowed free re-fills, but the mugs are.

· Both Spirits and Queens also have a small forward kiosk where you can get a quick coffee or drink, and a pastry. This is better than fighting the lines in the café, if that is all you want. Also, all vessels have video games for the kids, and a small gift shop to relieve you of all that heavy change you carry.

9. Hey Dude, Where’s My Ride?
· There is nothing more pathetic than panic-stricken people frantically searching for their car when the ferry pulls in. It is easy to misplace the vehicle since there are multiple decks, the ferry 'spins' around during the trip, (you can load/unload on either end, but there is still a bow and a stern on the boat), and you are often moving about the ship. The pressure to find you vehicle before you dock only adds to the sence of panic that grips the unprepared traveller at this point.

The ability to remember where your vehicle is located in relation to the vessel is an acquired skill; I got better at it the more I travelled.

· First of all, take note whether or not your car is boarding by the bow or the stern, and on which side you have ended up; this will tell you the physical whereabouts on the ship, no matter whether or not it 'spins', and what direction you are facing when you sit. (a memory aide - Bow to Tsawwassen, Swartz Bay is Stern).

Secondly, note which deck the vehicle is on; you might end up being parked on the truck deck, (Deck 2), or either of the two car decks above. The deck number is vital, otherwise you might have the correct location, but the wrong deck – guaranteed to produce a Maalox Moment.

· I note any large or unusual vehicles in the area; a reference that might be useful later. If you have a digital camera, take a snap of the physical location and of the deck number. You can always erase this later if you want, but if you get caught looking for the family heap, just recall the photo and refresh your memory.

Take note of the set of stairs that you use to access the upper decks. As I mount the stairs to the upper decks, I continually remember which side of the vessel the vehicle is on. When I exit onto the deck and take a seat I still make the effort to remember where the vehicle is located in reference to the seat. This will help reinforce your memory of the physical location of the vehicle.
My advice is to also take the same set of stairs back to your vehicle. This is a good way to avoid confusion later.

10. Seeing The Dock
· As you near your destination, a public announcement will be made to make your way to your vehicle. Don’t be cool; you might need time to panic if you can’t find your vehicle, lost the keys, remember that you left your jacket in your seat, are missing your wife and kids, etc.

· Put the key in the ignition, but avoid the temptation to fire up the family bomb to make sure that it starts. Nothing is more irritating than one person starting up early - the whole deck will then follow like a flock of sheep. The resulting fumes can be stifling.
Instead, remain calm; the worst that could happen is that the guy rolls off 10 seconds ahead of you - nobody else is going to move anyway, and there is just going to be a grinding halt up the road, anyway. Keep your eye on the vehicle parked two or three ahead; when he starts to move you have lots of time to fire up and roll. Can’t see ahead because of the beheamoth plunked in front? Try looking to the ceiling or the walls for a reflection; you can tell when they start to move.

Typically, the first vehicles to roll off are those in the lane closest to the middle of the vessel, then move progressively to the outermost lanes. Don't get fooled when a few cars at the front of each lane roll; they are only making room for the inner-most lanes to get clear. (Unfortunately, once any car in a lane moves, the entire lane usually fires up and then has to sit for 10 minutes in choking fumes until they get to drive off; this is especially troublesome on the truck deck, since it is within the vessel hull and the fumes can't clear)

11. Beating A Hasty Retreat

· The Pacific Coach Lines bus usually gets the chequered flag first; from there it is a rat-race with everyone for themselves!

· Walk-ons get on first, but off last, due to the long walk at the Tsawwassen end, or the need to position the ramp at Swartz Bay. Most of the vehicles will already be off the vessel before the gang-plank is put in place. However, if you are a walk-off and just have to get to the head of the line, there is a faster way off the boat.

Ever notice when the ferry docks at Swartz Bay that a large number of the ferry crew gather at the front of the lower truck deck? They are staff going off-shift, and they know what they are doing!

· When the vehicle ramp is lowered on the truck deck (the lowest deck), before the trucks roll, everyone gathered on the Truck Deck gets to walk off. Then you just take the elevator up to the passenger terminal, and arrive there about 5 minutes ahead of the rest of the foot-passengers, since they will still be waiting for the gangplank to be lowered!

This strategy of storming off the ferry from the truck deck is handy if you need to grab a taxi or a prime bus seat, but will not help if you have checked your luggage, since you will then have to wait with the others.

12. What About The Other Ferry?

· Being an island, the ‘other ferry’ might be anywhere. At the Tsawwassen and Swartz Bay terminals you can take ferries for the Gulf Islands, Nanaimo (Tsawwassen only).

· In nearby Sidney on the island, there is a ferry to Anacortes, Washington, and to the San Juan Islands.

· From Victoria’s Inner Harbour you can get a passenger ferry to Seattle, or to Port Angeles, Washington.

· Many tourists take the Southern Route to Victoria, tour, and then drive up to Naniamo where you can catch another BC ferry to Horseshoe Bay or back to Tsawwassen.

Alternatively, you could make a round trip from Victoria by driving north over the Malahats to Crofton, (just north of Duncan), take the ferry over to Saltspring Island, drive the length of the island south to Fulford Harbour, take the ferry from Fulford to Swartz Bay, and drive south to Victoria. This can be done in a day, and there is lots to see and do on the way.

In closing, remember that the BC license plate slogan proudly proclaims the province as The Best Place On Earth. Ironically, this obviously excludes the water! However, I am still confident that you will have a fun, safe and enjoyable experience on BC Ferries if you follow these tips. Besides, the new license plate slogan beats the former one, which was Keep BC Green. The rejoiner was Bring Money!

The Top 10 Failed BC License Plate Slogans.

10. You will find our license plates a-peeling!
9. Yours to recover.
8. Going Coastal!
7. It may not be the greatest, but it beats the heck out of going to Iraq!
6. Got any spare change?
5. How ‘Bout Them Canucks!
4. Dam It All!
3. One Blooming Thing After Another!
2. Are you going to smoke all of that?
1. Wet, eh?

Snapshots From About

1. My daughter's re-creation of the award-winning style used for Putin's Man of the Year cover on Time magazine, only this time using me as the subject.

2. Our cat, Buddy, doing his best imitation of road-kill while I was trying to take a photo of my sports car.

3. I kid you not, this morning shot was taken in front of a coffee (& doughnut?) shop in Vernon; could there be any enforcement left on the highways?

Douglas A;

Out Sidney Way;

Saying - No Worries For Now!