CBC Investigates

Here's when to shell out money for BC Ferries reservations

A CBC analysis of BC Ferries reservation data identifies the busiest months and days on each of the major routes in 2016.

CBC's route-by-route analysis reveals when paying reservation fee could prevent lengthy waits

Vehicles wait to board a ferry at Tsawwassen terminal. Thursdays and Fridays, especially before long weekends in the summer, were when vehicles were most likely to have to wait, a CBC News analysis revealed.

Colin Wilson avoids BC Ferries in his summer travels between Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland.

Wilson, who has to drive an hour from his home in Courtenay to the ferry terminal in Nanaimo, would normally reserve a spot for his vehicle in order to avoid a wait. 

But he frequently found himself waiting regardless.

This was because Wilson was unsure which ferry he'd be able to make, and the more expensive last-minute reservations close two-and-a-half hours before the sailing time.

Or it was because it was too hard to guarantee arrival during the half-hour window during which reservations are redeemable.

"It's just not convenient and easy to work with," said Wilson, of the ferry reservation system. He's a chiropractor who travels to Vancouver for both work and cycling trips.

Some find system complicated

Unlike the coastal ferry system on the U.S. side of the border, the cost of BC Ferries reservations vary in price depending on when the reservations are made. BC Ferries prices are also steeper than the ferries in Washington state, where there is a discount for round-trip reservations.

For many travellers, the B.C. Ferries reservation system is costly and complicated to navigate, leaving customers frustrated and sometimes stranded at packed terminals during busy summer months.

Vehicle reservations cost between $10 and $21, depending how far in advance the reservation is made, in addition to the cost of a ticket. Reservations close two-and-a-half hours before a vessel departs and are only redeemable between 60 and 30 minutes before the sailing time. And fees paid for unclaimed reservations are not refunded.

On one occasion, Wilson had a bike worth several thousand dollars stolen at West Vancouver's Park Royal mall, where he was killing time until he could check in at Horseshoe Bay to redeem his reservation.

Analysis of 31,000 sailings

A CBC analysis of BC Ferries reservation data showed the terminal Wilson travelled through frequently — Nanaimo's Departure Bay — was the site of many of the longest waits in 2016.  

The data on more than 31,000 sailings in 2016 pertained to five routes between Victoria, Vancouver, Nanaimo, Gibsons and the southern Gulf Islands. It came from a Freedom of Information request filed by CBC News in June 2017.

CBC used the data to identify the busiest months and days on each of the major routes in 2016, offering ferry travellers a hint at when shelling out for the reservation is likely to save time and frustration, and when you can probably get away without one.

Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen

This was the busiest route in 2016. It also had the most sailings that left at full capacity.

More than half (52 per cent) of sailings on this route left some cars behind in the terminal, which was nearly double the proportion of any other route. 

More than half the BC Ferries sailings between Swartz Bay (pictured) and Tsawwassen left some vehicles behind in 2016.

Vehicles travelling from Vancouver were more likely to experience waits overall, but the longest waits on this route were from Swartz Bay. 

Eleven of the 34 sailings in 2016 that left more than 500 cars behind were on this route, all departing from Swartz Bay. Four were on Victoria Day and the others were on Sunday afternoons in late August.

  • Busiest days of week: Thursdays and Fridays
  • Busiest sailings: From Swartz Bay, the 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. sailings. From Tsawwassen, the 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. sailings. Morning sailings were more likely to get all vehicles on board.
  • Busiest months: August was the busiest month in both directions. September was the second-busiest month from Swartz Bay, while from Tsawwassen it was July.
  • Busiest specific days: From Swartz Bay: Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays in July and August, and the Thanksgiving and Canada Day long weekends. From Tsawwassen: Thursdays and Fridays in July, and the Thursdays and Fridays leading up to the Canada Day and Labour Day long weekends.

Departure Bay-Horseshoe Bay

This Nanaimo-Vancouver route bore the dubious distinction of having the longest waits for vehicles in 2016.

Twenty-three of the 34 sailings that left more than 500 vehicles waiting were on this route, mostly on the Nanaimo side.

(CBC)

BC Ferries spokeswoman Deborah Marshall said Departure Bay takes a lot of vehicles headed back to the Lower Mainland on Sunday afternoons in the summer.

"The other terminal that's in the area is our Duke Point terminal and that's often a good option for customers, depending on where they want to wind up in the Lower Mainland. But if Departure Bay is busy, Duke Point is a good option."

Busiest days of week: From Departure Bay, Sundays and Fridays. From Horseshoe Bay, Fridays and Thursdays.
Busiest sailings: In both directions the 10:40 a.m., 12:50 p.m. and 3:10 p.m. sailings were the busiest. Ferries departing before 10:40 a.m. had far fewer vehicles left behind.
Busiest months: July-September, with July the busiest from Horseshoe Bay and August from Departure Bay
Busiest specific days: From Departure Bay, Sundays and holiday Mondays in August. From Horseshoe Bay, Thursdays and Fridays in July.

Duke Point-Tsawwassen

Of the routes examined by CBC, this one had the fewest sailings and also the lowest proportion of vehicles left behind.

Vehicles leaving Tsawwassen for Nanaimo were significantly more likely to experience waits than those departing from Duke Point.

Busiest days of week: From Duke Point, Thursdays and Mondays. From Tsawwassen, Fridays and Thursdays.
Busiest sailings: From Duke Point, afternoon sailings from 12:45-5:45 p.m. From Tsawwassen, 3:15 p.m. and 10:15 a.m.
Busiest months: July and August. July was busiest from Tsawwassen and August from Duke Point.
Busiest specific days: From Duke Point, the Tuesdays after summer long weekends were busiest, notably after the August and Labour Day weekends. From Tsawwassen, Thursdays and Fridays in July and August.

Horseshoe Bay-Langdale

Vehicles travelling from Horseshoe Bay were more likely to experience waits than those departing from the Sunshine Coast. 

This was the only route where morning sailings were more likely to leave cars behind than those leaving in the afternoon.

Snow covered North Shore mountains as seen from the Langdale Ferry Terminal. (John Farrer)

Busiest days of week: From Horseshoe Bay, Fridays and Thursdays. Sundays were the least busy day. From Langdale, Sundays were the busiest, followed by Mondays.
Busiest sailings: From Horseshoe Bay, the 7:20 a.m. sailing was by far the busiest. From Langdale, 12:30 p.m. and 10:50 a.m. were the busiest times.
Busiest months: From Horseshoe Bay, July and August were equally busy, but from Langdale, August was significantly busier.
Busiest specific days: From Horseshoe Bay, the days leading up to the Victoria Day and Canada Day long weekends. From Langdale, Sundays in August.

Tsawwassen - Southern Gulf Islands

Sailings on this route were far less likely to have any vehicles left behind, because unlike the other routes in this analysis, it is fully reservable. 

There were typically fewer than 100 vehicles per month left behind on this route, but the numbers were highest between May and September.

Changes to reservation system coming

Meanwhile, Wilson now opts to fly to Vancouver if he's travelling for work. 

When he travels to the U.S., he takes the Black Ball ferry from Victoria to Port Angeles, saying that system is cheaper and reservation costs are uniform.

Travellers can also make vehicle reservations by phone up to an hour before the sailing time, he added.

Marshall said BC Ferries is working on implementing a similar reservation system, but could not give a timeline more specific than within the next five years.

About the Author

Tara Carman

Data Journalist

Tara Carman is an investigative journalist who specializes in finding the stories buried in big data. She has more than a decade of experience reporting in B.C., across Canada and overseas. She joined CBC News in February 2017. You can reach her at tara.carman@cbc.ca or on Twitter @tarajcarman.