So, even before I became a True Blue Vancouver Islander, I was a frequent flier (swimmer?) on BC Ferries. I guess I've had a bit of a love affair going on with island life ever since my family moved to the West Coast (from, yes, sigh, the Greater Toronto Area) when I was 10.
Over the years, I've built up quite a repertoire of BC Ferries knowledge; from my own experiences, from friends who've had the "pleasure" of working for BC Ferries, from other more-frequent BC Ferries travellers. And today I will share some of that knowledge with all of you! Oh boy, can you stand it??
And actually, there has never been a better time to travel by BC Ferries than now. Yes, the prices are WAY higher than they used to be. BUT, the food is WAY better (although I do miss chicken strips & fries with gravy - you can still get it but it's not the same - and the baked potato with chili you used to be able to get for $3 on the Gulf Islands milk-run boat), the gift store is WAY better, the seats are WAY more comfortable (although you used to be able to move them around to where you wanted them!! I guess that's not really very safe!) and now you can see in real-time online where the ferries are and how full they are. Which is pretty cool, especially if you're catching one of the ferries that often runs an hour late...
So, my first top tip: if you have to travel by car, spend the extra $17.50 and get a reservation. If you're a seasoned BC Ferries traveller like me, you know which routes & times will be full and which will be empty (empty meaning you can roll up to the ticket window EXACTLY 5 minutes before sailing time - just before they stop selling tickets - and drive straight on to the ferry); but if you're a sporadic ferry traveller chances are you're probably travelling at a peak time and it is SO worth $17.50 to be able to just show up 1/2 hour before your ferry and know you'll get on it.
But, travelling as a foot passenger is super great! Especially now that the Canada Line exists for the Vancouver side of things. Canada Line to Bridgeport, #620 to Tsawwassen; vice versa for the way back. Easy as pie. $5 to / from Vancouver on a weekday, $2.75 on a weekend. On the Victoria side it's $2.25 any day of the week, #70 "express" to / from Downtown. It's a whole lot cheaper to travel as a foot passenger. And there is luggage service - look for it just after you buy your ticket, they'll take your bag & put it on a van & you can pick it up on the other side (although it does make you a bit later getting to the bus, which could be a problem if there are a lot of passengers and not enough busses.... so if you *can* carry your bag, do it).
If you're a runner (and I'm assuming most of you are, if you're reading this website), do your best to get to the front of the foot passenger line. In Tsawwassen this is easily achieved by lining up in the wheelchair & stroller access lane. I'm not saying, you know, cut off a person in a wheelchair, but since you're going to be booting it up the ramp, you're really not going to be in anybody's way. I like to get on the ferry as soon as possible because I always have my laptop with me and I want to find a seat in close proximity to a power outlet. There are lots of them, but you have to know where to look - most of them are up high on the wall.
I always head as high up on the ferry decks as I can - fewer people = more seats. I NEVER head straight to the cafeteria lineup: (a) it will always be a GIANT line unless you're the very first person on board in which case they might not even be ready to serve food yet! (b) if you wait just 1/2 hour, the lineup will be practically nonexistent, so go sit down first (c) depending what you're looking for, the snack bar will probably have what you want and the lineup there is never as long (d) if you go to the cafeteria first you'll miss your chance to get a good seat and you'll (hopefully!) be spending more of your time in a seat than in the lineup so it makes sense to prioritize!
And in fact, on the subject of food, BC Ferries still offers: free boiling water (for tea, oatmeal, mr noodles, whatever you remembered to bring along!) and free milk (tea, oatmeal, cereal) - and the milk isn't just those little plastic containers, they actually have a big machine that pours the milk straight out and it's outside of the payment area so you can just go to town; and there is always a microwave & toaster (usually near the snack bar). If I'm taking a morning ferry, I always bring a tupperware or jar full of dry oatmeal or cereal and cut up banana, nuts, brown sugar to go on top, and then once I've settled into a seat and dropped off my stuff I'll wander down to the snack bar and get boiling water and milk and grab a spoon (a real metal spoon!) and carry it back to my seat where my laptop awaits ready to regale me with whatever DVD or (illegally downloaded??) video I've brought along, or perhaps the work I should be doing (ha ha ha). If it's during the day, I sometimes bring my own food, although BC Ferries food isn't actually that bad (other than the price). The food at Tsawwassen ferry terminal is also pretty good - more options than on the ferry and generally slightly better prices. Just don't miss your ferry 'cause you're wandering around the shops!
If you're a little bit crazy like me and think to yourself "an hour and a half on the ferry!? that's going to seriously cut into my running time", just remember: you can run on the ferry! Run around the outside decks, up & down the stairs, backwards, forwards, jump up & down off the big boxes that hold lifejackets, whatever! You can always head into a bathroom and take a paper-towel shower and change afterwards :)
Getting off the ferry: in a car, as soon as you can get reception start listening to the radio in case there are any big accidents on your route - News1130 has saved my bacon on more than one occasion, telling me about big accidents. CBC in Victoria is 90.5FM. Get to know the alternate routes to / from the ferry terminals - there are alternatives in both Vancouver & Victoria, but they're a little bit complicated. Carry a mapbook!
Getting off as a foot passenger planning to take the bus: again, do your best to get to the front of the line and then RUN! It's not unusual to have far more people than busses. In Swartz Bay (Victoria), ask the drivers nicely which bus is which (there are usually 2, one is the #70 express and the other is not and they never turn their stupid signs on until they're just about to leave). In Tsawwassen all the busses go to Bridgeport; if you're wanting to go to Ladner Exchange you have to figure out which bus to take (one of them goes there on its way to Bridgeport, the other one doesn't, but I think they're both #620).
OOOOh and make sure you have gotten change for the bus DURING the ferry ride, otherwise they won't let you on the bus (they'll make you go back into the terminal and get change so you'll lose your place in line). The Vancouver busses don't take bills so you need $5 in change (how stupid is that??? Good thing they got all those fancy new coin machines a few years ago...). It's way easier to get change on the ferry than in the terminal.
Also, if you want to travel as a foot passenger, but you want to bring your car to the ferry ('cause you'll be getting back into Vancouver late and don't want to take transit, or whatever), there's a really good parking lot just before you get to the ferry terminal http://www.tsawwassenferryparking.com/, turn R at the lights just before the long straight stretch out to the ferry (Tsawwassen Rd N). They have free shuttle service to the ferry and they're better priced than the BC Ferries lots.
And remember: if you are planning to ride your bike to the ferry, you HAVE to put your bike on the bus to get through George Massey Tunnel (no bikes allowed in the tunnel - and you'd be CRAZY CRAZY CRAZY to try). But you can put your bike on the Skytrain (in off-peak hours) and on the bus on both the Vancouver & Victoria sides.
I think them's all my BC Ferries tips! Hopefully this helps you Vancouver-dwellers feel a bit more confident coming across the Georgia Straight (or Salish Sea or whatever) to join us island-folk in some Fat Ass adventures - we'd love to see you @ the Full / Half Monty & Spaghetti Trees in the near future!
Take care & happy ferry-riding,
P.S. I have gone on two paid whale-watching trips & never seen a whale. But on BC Ferries, I have seen probably 150 - 200 orcas. Sometimes when they make the announcement, I don't really even bother looking 'cause it's like "Oh yeah, whales..." :) [It's not true, I always bother looking, 'cause they're INCREDIBLE!] [you only see them in the summer though, don't get mad at me if you come in the winter and don't see any! although you *might* see humpbacks in the winter. i never have, but it's theoretically possible...]