BC Ferries is the ferry service that links the Lower Mainland with Victoria and Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, as well as with various Gulf Islands.
Vancouver Island & Gulf Islands Ferries
There are two BC Ferries terminals in the Lower Mainland. One is at Tsawwassen and the other is at Horseshoe Bay. Ferry departures are usually once every two hours from 7:00 am or so until about 9:00 pm. Ferries run hourly in the summer. As of the spring of 2023, fares to Victoria are $18.50 one-way for adults, and $63.85 for an average-sized vehicle.
Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal
Ferries from Tsawwassen go to Victoria and Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, as well as to smaller islands including Galiano, Mayne, Pender, Salt Spring and Saturna.
Tsawwassen is the most developed of all of BC Ferries’ terminals, with a selection of shops and food court-style places to eat while waiting for your sailing.
The Tsawwassen terminal is close to a one-hour drive from downtown Vancouver. You’ll want to arrive at least 30 minutes before your sailing to increase your chances of getting on, or even earlier at busy times if you don’t have a reservation.
Horseshoe Bay Ferry Terminal
Other than cars waiting to board, there isn’t much to see while waiting for your ferry at the Horseshoe Bay terminal. That said, the village next door is picturesque and worth a quick visit if you want a stretch. Just remember though to take your ticket so you can get back in, and be sure to return to your vehicle at least 20 minutes before your sailing.
The village isn’t one of “Vancouver’s number one best places” in and of itself, but it is beautiful. If you plan to use the BC Ferries terminal then a quick visit to the Horseshoe Bay village while you’re waiting is highly recommended.
Horseshoe Bay is a very attractive and picturesque area, and a good place for a short stroll, coffee, some fish and chips, or a pint of beer.
Close to Horseshoe Bay are a couple of beautiful parks. If you have lots of time before needing to catch your ferry, wonderful places to check out include Whytecliff Park close by, or Lighthouse Park a bit further back towards West Vancouver.
See the BC Ferries website for sailing schedules and further information.
Liquor Service on BC Ferries
BC Ferries’ passengers can enjoy a glass of wine or beer with their buffet meals on select sailings. The adult beverages are available on sailings between Vancouver’s Tsawwassen terminal and Victoria’s Swartz Bay terminal on the Coastal Celebration, Spirit of British Columbia and Spirit of Vancouver Island ferries. Passengers are limited to just one alcoholic drink each.
The sale of wine and beer on select ferries is a pilot project. If successful (which we’re sure it will be), then it will likely be both continued and expanded.
Advice Regarding BC Ferries
Below are some tips to help you make the most out of your voyage with BC Ferries.
Advice Regarding Reservations
TIP #1: It can be worth paying extra in advance for a vehicle reservation on summer weekends (Friday and Sunday late afternoons and early evenings), and especially on long weekends. Reservation fees range from $19.45 (if you book at least 7 days in advance) to $22 or so (if you reserve on your day of travel).
TIP #2: If you do make a reservation, you’ll need to arrive between an hour and 30 minutes prior to your scheduled departure – not a minute before or after. Arrive less than 30 minutes in advance and you’ll have to join the back of the regular line!
Murphy’s Law says that if you pay the extra for a reservation, you won’t need it, but if you don’t reserve then there will be at least a one sailing wait!
What to Look Out For
TIP #1: Both the Tsawwassen and Horseshoe Bay routes to Vancouver Island can be spectacular with their scenery on a sunny day.
The best views on the Horseshoe Bay trip are during the first 20 minutes or so, with the Coastal Mountains rising out from the ocean. The route via Tsawwassen on the other hand is most interesting during the second half of its 95-minute trip, and especially through Active Passage, as the ferry passes close to a number of the Gulf Islands.
TIP #2: On both routes, look out for pods of dolphins and orcas (a.k.a., killer whales), which you have about a 0.5% chance of seeing.
Advice about the Food
TIP #1: The cafeteria and buffets on the larger ferries are popular at mealtimes, so if you are hungry be sure to get there fast before the lineups get long. If you are especially hungry, then the all-inclusive buffet can be a pretty good deal. It’s not cheap, with adult meals costing over $20, but it’s very good value, plus it’s a most pleasant way to pass the time. As of the spring of 2023, the buffet lounge is currently closed with no timeframe given for re-opening.
Getting to the Ferries as a Walk-on Passenger
TIP #1: You can catch the Pacific Coach Lines bus on the Vancouver to Victoria and Nanaimo ferries if you buy your ticket on board during the first 30 minutes of the sailing. The bus will then take you to downtown Victoria, Nanaimo or the Vancouver bus station, all depending on what ferry you are on and your direction.
TIP #2 Pacific Coach Lines is convenient, but not the cheapest form of ground transportation. If you don’t mind a little more work, Public Transit is also quite convenient, and a fraction of the cost. From the Tsawwassen terminal take bus #620 to Bridgeport station, and then the SkyTrain to downtown Vancouver.
From the Swartz Bay terminal (45 minutes from Victoria on Vancouver Island), take bus #70 to downtown Victoria. (For transit schedules and exact details, click Metro Vancouver Transit or Victoria Transit.)
TIP #1: If you have a vehicle and need a hotel in either Vancouver or on Vancouver Island, you can often find great package deals at BC Ferries Vacations. The packages include the cost of a two-way ferry crossing for two, plus hotel accommodations. In the off season, these deals can be especially attractive.
TIP #2: If you can afford it and the weather is good, consider traveling to Vancouver Island one-way by ferry and the other way (or both) by seaplane.
By the time you travel to the terminal, get there in plenty of time before the sailing, and then drive or catch a bus into town, the entire trip by ferry can take over four hours (assuming you get on without any sailing waits). The flight by seaplane on the other hand takes less than 30 minutes and is spectacular in sunny weather.
Just be sure though to get in line early to get a window seat. On a sunny day, both the ferry crossing and seaplane flights can be breathtaking experiences in themselves. If it’s cloudy though, or night time, you’ll want to take a book on the boat to help pass the time.
TIP #3: BC residents who are 65 or older can travel on most BC Ferries’ routes for free with valid ID from Monday through Thursday, except for holidays. The fare discount applies to the adult fare – not to vehicles. Unfortunately, the reduced rate doesn’t apply to out-of-province seniors, but then again, it’s not their taxes that are subsidizing the ferry, which we guess makes it fair.
For more information on ferry transportation between Vancouver, Vancouver Island and other destinations, check out the BC Ferries website.
Other BC Ferries’ related articles are the following:
- Tsawwassen and Horseshoe Bay (both of which are BC Ferries’ terminals)
- Bowen Island and Victoria (both of which are BC Ferries’ destinations)
Alternative travel providers include the following:
- Harbour Air Seaplanes (float planes with Vancouver to Victoria routes as well as service to other destinations).
- Helijet (Vancouver’s local helicopter company with daily service to Victoria).
Other articles that may be of interest include the following: