Travelling between Victoria and Vancouver on public transit is straightforward, but it is multi-step, requires at least three types of fares, and is not suited for the impatient and the easily annoyed.
Here are condensed instructions to travel downtown to downtown, followed by much greater, judgmental detail.
From Victoria, catch Bus 70 (express) or 72 (not express) to Swartz Bay terminal. Buy yourself a ferry ticket.
On the other side of the Strait of Georgia, at Tsawwassen terminal, board Bus 620, which takes you to Bridgeport station. At Bridgeport, transfer to the Canada Line to catch a light rail train to downtown Vancouver, to Vancouver International Airport, or to Richmond’s shopping and business district. You can also catch a variety of buses at Bridgeport, including, at Bay 5, Bus 407 or 430, for an eight-minute ride to the Richmond Ikea, home of Swedish meatballs and self-assembly furniture.
To go back to Victoria, do the reverse.
The journey, under ideal conditions, takes four hours from downtown Victoria to downtown Vancouver, including bus, ferry, train and waiting. The bus and train portion, depending on day and time and whether you need to make transfers, can cost as little as $4.35 one way. (All fare examples are for adults.) That’s on weekends or at night. The most expensive way is by paying cash on a weekday up to 6:30 p.m. — topping out at $11.75. Add ferry fare of $17.20 (a little less if fuel rebate is in effect; more discounting if there's a promotion on). You’ll save the most money by having a monthly bus pass on the Victoria side and a Compass fare card on the Vancouver side.
Another way to do it
An aside. It’s more comfortable and less aggravating if you ride the privately run B.C. Ferries Connector bus. Board at the downtown Victoria bus terminal, the bus drives onto the ferry, you get off the bus on the ferry. As you near Tsawwassen terminal, you get back on and ride into Vancouver. There are several dropoff points, including downtown hotels, before the bus ends its journey at the Vancouver bus station. Minimal fuss, plenty of luggage space, wi-fi, a seat for all passengers. Depending on how you’re comparing, it costs roughly 2 to 3 times as much to ride in luxury. Fares are higher for non-B.C. residents, lower for students and children. You are asked to reserve.
A big down side is that in low season, there are only three Connector bus trips a day. In late spring and summer, there are up to eight trips a day.
The extra cost for the Connector bus could be worth it on a day when you want to avoid crowds and can’t face the uncertainty of whether you'll get a seat.
If the Connector bus isn't full, you can buy a seat after you board the ferry; tickets are sold in the first half hour of sailing. You could, for example, use public transit to get to Swartz Bay, ride the ferry, then ride the Connector into Vancouver.
(Basics for out-of-towners: Swartz Bay terminal is on Vancouver Island and is entry point for Greater Victoria. Tsawwassen terminal is on the mainland and is entry point for Metro Vancouver. Large car ferries sail daily between the two terminals, the first sailing usually at 7 a.m., the last at 9 p.m. Service is on the odd hour during slower times; sailings are added for busier times.)
Journey to Vancouver
I originally wrote these instructions for visiting relatives, and then adapted them for a blog post back in January 2014. A lot has changed since 2014, so I’m offering this update.
If you don’t mind sitting or standing really close to other people, are tolerant of lineups, can put up with line-jumpers, have time to spare in case connnections don’t work, are a touch cheap, and can cheerfully shrug when the line you’ve been standing in for 20 minutes disintegrates into a dash to be first at the bus door, then public transit is for you.
Here’s a sample trip. To ride the 9 a.m. ferry on a weekday, catch Bus 70 at 7:44 a.m. at the Government and Superior stop, or at 8:02 a.m. at the Vernon and Saanich stop. Bus 70 is scheduled to arrive at Swartz Bay at 8:39 a.m., giving you just enough time to buy a ticket and board the 9 a.m. ferry.
You can also catch the non-express 72.
The 70 takes about 55 to 60 minutes, and the 72 takes about 70 to 75 minutes from downtown. Schedule details are here.
Pay a $2.50 cash fare. It’s $2.25 per trip if you buy a sheet of 10 tickets. No extra charge if you have a pass.
If you need to ride more than one B.C. Transit bus in Greater Victoria to get to the ferry terminal, you’ll have to pay two fares and ask the driver for a day pass. Transfers are not free. It’s $5 cash for a day pass, or two tickets ($4.50). If you’re coming back the same day, buy a day pass. Day passes are only available on board buses. (There’s been grumbling about this system.)
You can usually get a seat, especially if the bus is a doubledecker. I’ve only had to stand for the entire trip once.
Get off at Swartz Bay terminal. Enter the terminal building and either line up to buy your ferry ticket from a cashier or line up to use one of the ticket machines, which are to your right as soon as you enter the terminal. Go to the cashier if you are paying in cash. Ticket machines are not necessarily faster because people can be fumbly at them. The machines take credit cards and debit cards. You can swipe, insert and type your PIN, or tap.
The walk-on ferry fare is $17.20 one way, but might be a little less if a fuel rebate is in effect. ($16.70 with rebate in March).
Board the ferry when called, following the crowd.
The ferry journey takes about 95 minutes.
Locate the ferry’s departure doors shortly after you board to avoid last-minute scurrying. Signs point the way.
To ride public transit in the Vancouver area, it’s convenient to have a Compass fare card. You load dollar amounts onto the card, and it’s deducted when you tap the card on a reader to board Translink buses, SkyTrain, Canada Line or SeaBus. More details at the Translink website.
If you don’t have a Compass fare card, you can buy one from the ferry’s gift shop. One card costs $16. Of that amount, $6 is a deposit for the card and $10 is fare value. (You can buy a card online and have it mailed to you. More details here.) The gift shops might also have day pass tickets in stock. More info about Compass cards here; and about fares here.
Compass fare cards are also sold at machines in the Tsawwassen terminal arrivals area. To avoid lineups and anxiety about missing the bus, buy your Compass card at the ferry gift shop.
When the ferry nears Tsawwassen, if you want to increase your chances of getting a seat on the first bus, line up at the departure doors to be among the first to get off.
On the Spirit of Vancouver Island and the Spirit of British Columbia, the departure doors for Tsawwassen are at the front of the ferry, aka the bow. (You boarded at the back, aka the stern.)
It’s different on Coastal Celebration and Coastal Renaissance, which have bridges at both ends, so that the vessels don’t have to turn around when leaving port. Approaching Tsawwassen, you get off through doors at Stairwell 3, on the right side, facing the direction the ferry is sailing.
You might encounter Queen of New Westminster, an older ferry. I avoid it, so I’m not familiar with its layout.
Walk briskly off the ferry and through a series of walkways to get to the terminal exit. Buy your transit fare at a ticket machine if you didn’t buy on the ferry. Or pay cash on the bus. But the ticket you buy on the bus is only good for buses. You’ll need to buy another fare to ride the Canada Line. To save money, buy your fare from the machine or on the ferry. I’m repeating myself. But I hate to see people pay way more than they need to. (More fare details below.)
Outside, two bendy buses will likely be parked to your left. But you’ll need to veer right, joining the lineup for Bus 620. In a few minutes, one of the bendy buses will pull up for people to board.
This part can be vexing. Even in pouring rain, the first bendy bus will often sit out of service for interminable minutes while a long line forms. A colleague who frequently travels to Vancouver has been annoyed enough by this to switch to the Connector bus, despite its higher cost.
If you’re not near the front of the line, would like to get a seat, and can spare 10 minutes, let people go ahead of you in line and ride the second bendy bus. Being first in line for the second bus can be a little tricky because the line sometimes disintegrates and the entry door is mobbed. Both buses travel the same route.
At busy times, there might be a third bendy bus. There might occasionally be just one bus. In that case, of course, don’t hang back.
I like to sit at the back in the side-facing seats because there’s more leg room. Luggage can go into a small area at the back window, but it’s often filled before I get there. So you’ll likely need to tuck your luggage at your feet or put it on your lap. It’s bad form to put luggage on a seat.
The trip to Bridgeport station takes 35 to 40 minutes, depending on traffic. There are a few stops along the way. But most of the time, you’re on the move.
At Bridgeport, get off the bus and veer left if you’re catching a Canada Line train; enter the station, go up the escalator or stairs (there’s also a small elevator), tap your Compass card on the reader at the fare gate, go up another level and wait on the platform for your train. The journey downtown takes roughly 20 minutes.
Here’s a simplified map.
Back to Victoria
To return to Victoria, time your ride on the Canada Line so that you get to Bridgeport station at least 10 to 20 minutes before the top of the hour to board Bus 620. Here’s the schedule for Bus 620.
When ferries are running, there tends to be a bus leaving at or close to the top the hour. There might also be a bus that leaves at roughly 43 to 45 minutes past the hour. That bus will give you a little more cushion against traffic delays. The ferry does not wait for late buses.
When you arrive at Tsawwassen terminal, buy your ferry ticket from either a person or a machine. Go up the stairs or escalator and follow the walkway. Or, if there is plenty of time until the ferry leaves, stay on the ground floor and walk outside, across the parking lot (watch out for traffic) to Tsawwassen terminal’s food court.
If you skipped the ferry terminal food court and get hungry, consider a visit to the buffet if you’re on one of the Spirit vessels or on Coastal Celebration. It can be a better deal and healthier than eating burger, fries and Cola in the cafeteria. The best buffet deal is on the 3 p.m. sailings, when it’s $12.95 for an abbreviated but still extensive offering that includes hot soups, salad bar, desserts and beverages. There’s no buffet on Coastal Renaissance, but there’s a pay by weight salad bar. You can get a decent amount of food for around $10.
This departure and arrivals page on the B.C. Ferries website lists vessels and their departure times for the Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen route.
As the ferry approaches Swartz Bay, go to the departure doors to be among the first off if you want a good shot at getting a bus seat.
On the Spirit vessels, you exit from the rear doors, near the buffet.
On the Coastal vessels, go to Stairwell 1, and exit through the doors on the left side in the direction the ferry is travelling.
A few people will circumvent the system by getting off on the car deck, which typically allows them to leave the vessel before people on the passenger deck. This is not well regarded by B.C. Ferries. There are announcements urging people to exit via the passenger deck.
As you leave the Swartz Bay terminal building, you’ll likely see buses waiting to your right. (Though, sometimes there won’t be a bus in sight.)
Join the line. You may not be able to board immediately because the bus driver is taking a break.
Again, Bus 70 is the express. Bus 72 is the milk run. You might see the infrequently-offered Bus 76, which is an express bus to the University of Victoria, travelling along the Pat Bay Highway and then McKenzie Avenue.
If it looks like a seat won’t be available on Bus 70, and you want a seat, hang back for Bus 72, which tends to be less crowded.
Cash fare is $2.50 or use a ticket. Or use two tickets (or $5 cash) to get a day pass if you need to transfer to another bus.
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An overview of fares, as of March 2017
Cash fare: $2.50, no transfers
Day pass: $5, unlimited riding on day of purchase, only sold on buses, exact change, can’t buy in advance.
Sheet of 10 tickets: $22.50; that’s $2.25 per ticket; 2 tickets will buy a day pass
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It’s way more complex in Greater Vancouver, which has zones and other stuff. Some key points:
• Travelling across zones will cost you more money during peak hours.
• The trip from Tsawwassen to downtown is a two zone trip.
• Except, if you travel exclusively by bus, everything is one zone, one cash price: $2.75. But travelling by bus only to downtown Vancouver is not efficient.
• Plus, there’s this quirkiness. If you pay for a bus fare in cash when boarding at Tsawwassen, you’ll have to pay again to board the Canada Line. Your bus fare won’t get you onto the rail system.
Bottom line: you pay the least if you use a Compass card or Compass ticket. You pay the most if you use cash. So, either get a Compass fare card (instructions above) or pay your fare at the machines in Tsawwassen terminal, not as you board the bus.
Fare for travelling from Tsawwassen terminal to downtown Vancouver on a weekday up to 6:30 p.m.:
$6.75 cash and ticket ($2.75 cash to board bus, $4 to buy ticket to board Canada Line)
$3.15 stored value on a Compass card
Weekdays after 6:30 p.m., Saturdays, Sundays, holidays:
$5.50 cash/ticket ($2.75 cash to board bus, $2.75 ticket to board Canada Line)
$2.10 on Compass card
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Cash fares on weekdays up to 6:30 p.m.
1 zone $2.75
2 zone $4
3 zone $5.50
Weekdays after 6:30 p.m. and all day Saturday, Sunday, holidays:
All zones $2.75. But double that if you start a trip on a bus by paying cash, and then transfer to rail. (Yes, a touch complicated.)
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A new downtown Victoria to downtown Vancouver ferry is scheduled to start service in May. Fares start at $120 one way; the trip is estimated to take 3.5 hours. Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.
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Here's a video on YouTube, showing the car-boarding process.