Driving from Seattle to Whistler Instead of Vancouver

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When we decided to fly into Seattle to drive to Whistler for our winter ski vacation as opposed to flying into Vancouver, this meant a much longer drive from the airport to our final destination. Assuming decent conditions, it is about a two-hour drive from Vancouver to Whistler, whereas it is about a four and a half hour drive from Seattle. Of course, in the winter you may not have perfect conditions, and when you drive from Seattle you have to factor in a border crossing.

So why would I put us in a situation of a longer drive both directions + a border crossing during the holidays? Well, it was partly for the adventure of it all, but mostly to save money and improve our overall travel logistics.

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Before we get into the Seattle to Whistler road trip, here are our other posts in this series on skiing in Whistler.

Planning a Whistler Ski Trip Using Miles and Points

How to Save Money Skiing at Whistler Blackcomb

Things to Know About the Westin Whistler Resort

Save money by flying into Seattle instead of Vancouver

First, let’s talk about the saving money aspect of why we drove. Departure taxes alone out of Canada are about $43 per ticket even if you are flying on miles. For a family of four that is $172 just in taxes that you could largely avoid by simply flying out of a US city instead of a Canadian city. Just to clarify, you don’t pay those big taxes on the inbound flight, just when you leave.

There is a closer US airport to Vancouver than Seattle in Bellingham, but that didn’t really help us as we would have had to connect in Seattle to fly there, and at that point, it is easier for us just to drive.

Rental car prices for the holiday week were roughly the same in Seattle and Vancouver, but we could get a nicer and larger car for the same price out of Seattle than we could in Vancouver.

Big rental car for lots of gear and people

Keeping travel days easier by flying into Seattle

Next is the reality of wanting to improve overall trip logistics, even if it came at the cost of a longer drive. We actually had award flights to Vancouver secured on the front-end of the trip. Our award flights included the flight we ultimately flew on Alaska Airlines from Houston to Seattle and then we connected from there on to Vancouver. However, the connection and clearing immigration in Canada meant we would have the girls up until at least 3AM according to their body clocks the day after Christmas, and we decided it would be better to ditch that last segment and just go to the hotel in Seattle when we landed. Even doing that had them up many hours later than normal.

Two tired zombies in Seattle

Coming home just after New Year’s we couldn’t get any ideal award flights out of Vancouver, but could get a reasonable itinerary home from Seattle. We could do the five-ish hour drive one day, sleep in Seattle using hotel points, and then do the flight portion of the trip the next day. It made for a longer overall journey, but one that could be done in very manageable steps. When little kids are involved, I highly recommend you don’t always take the quickest option between Point A and B, but instead sometimes break the journey up into manageable daily steps. In our case, getting from Whistler to Seattle was one step, and then from Seattle to home was a different step for a different day.

All smiles after a restful night in Seattle

As an added bonus, we got to enjoy some time in Seattle!

Shorten Canadian border crossing waits with NEXUS

That’s the why of how we selected Seattle as our flight destination instead of Vancouver, but was it worth it? We avoided dealing with Seattle traffic coming or going as we were traveling in the middle of the day during a holiday week where many folks are off of work and schools are closed. That said, we did encounter border crossing waits coming and going. While the three oldest members of our family have NEXUS which would have allowed us to use a much faster line, the youngest doesn’t yet have NEXUS as she hasn’t been near a border crossing city where she could apply until this trip – and we didn’t do it on this trip either. To use NEXUS all members of the car must have it, even if the one who doesn’t have it is a baby.

As we were approaching the border crossings we saw a sign that said the wait for the Peace Arch crossing into Canada was over TWO AND A HALF HOURS! At about that same time it was starting to snow hard and with any real delay at border crossing, we would not make it to Whistler before nightfall, which was our goal given the road conditions. The plan was starting to look like a bad decision, but then we checked the border wait crossings online and found that while the Peach Arch crossing was a staggering 186 minutes, the very nearby Pacific Highway Crossing had just under an hour wait.

An hour in line is still a long time, but not nearly as bad as 2.5x that amount of time! As an added bonus at the Pacific Highway crossing, there is a Burger King that I was able to run into while Josh drove the car the few feet that the line moved while I was away. We also stopped and ate there immediately after re-entering the country on the return.

Emergency Burger King pit stop

If you are doing a border crossing on your drive from Seattle to Vancouver, you absolutely want to check border crossing wait times before you get too close so you can choose the best one for your situation as the waits can vary dramatically with Peace Arch being the busiest of the area border crossing locations in my experience.

A word about snow tire requirements in Canada

One potential issue with flying into Seattle and driving to Whistler is the snow tire requirements in British Columbia. I called several Seattle rental car companies asking about cars equipped with snow tires and I might as well have been asking for a flying spaceship as they could not accommodate that request. However, in British Columbia during the winter, a legal winter tire must have at least 3.5 mm of tread depth and be labeled with either the letters M and S (mud + snow/all season tires) or the 3-peaked mountain and snowflake symbol. 

 

 

This is no longer just a good idea for safety during the winter season, but it is actually a legal requirement. They can and do set up checkpoints and fine or turn away drivers who don’t meet the tire requirements. After talking to some Canadian friends, they didn’t expect checkpoints that far south in the province, but it is an issue to be aware of when renting in the US and driving in Canada. My understanding is that some rental cars in Vancouver are fitted with snow tires, though even when renting in British Columbia actual snow tires aren’t on all of their cars.

Enjoying the drive from Seattle to Whistler

Admittedly the best part of the drive to Whistler, the Sea to Sky Highway, is something you get to enjoy regardless of whether you fly into Seattle or Vancouver, but really the entire drive was relatively enjoyable outside of the border crossing waits.

Would we do the drive again?

Thankfully the girls were fantastic in the car, and I think if the price differential and/or travel logistics pointed to Seattle being the best arrival city for our next trip to Whistler, I would do it again. Obviously, I would check flights to Vancouver as that puts us several hours closer to Whistler, but Seattle is a reasonable arrival city as long as you avoid Seattle traffic and check border crossing waits to avoid the longest lines.

Happy road trippin’ family

If you have any questions about flying into Seattle to head to Whistler, I’ll do my best to get you some answers!

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Editorial Note: The opinions expressed here are mine and not provided, reviewed, by any bank, card issuer, or other company unless otherwise stated.

Comments

  1. So, just a comment because I’ve seen you post “fly into Seattle instead of Vancouver to save $$” a handful of times now…if you happen to be booking your flight using AMEX points and you have a Business Platinum card, you should SERIOUSLY look at the cash price options for flying out of Vancouver. Example: my wife and I will be going to Whistler in just 10 days (SOO EXCITED!!). We’re flying in/out of YVR, but I too, noticed the high taxes out of YVR (Canadian International taxes). My solution was to use Singapore Airlines miles to fly on Air Canada from DEN-YVR (only paying 40K miles + $22.40 to fly direct in Business First). On the return, instead of paying some $240 in taxes on top of those 40k miles, I elected to use my AMEX Business Platinum pay with points benefit to fly YVR-DEN on the return. A significant portion of the cash price was taxes, and that got scooped up into the pay with points…and more importantly the POINTS REIBURSEMENT on the Amex Business Platinum. So, I got 2 one way tickets in Business First from Vancouver to Denver for a grand total of 35,800 AMEX MR points instead of 40k Singapore Krisflyer Miles + $240 in taxes. Quite the cheaper difference, IMO. I would assume one could save a significant amount of $$ in Coach as well by applying this method to fly into YVR. Plus, you get the added bonus of not having to add 3+ hours to your drive to Whistler with a border crossing. Oh, and added bonus that there’s a shuttle from YVR to Whistler for $110 round trip. The $$ you’ll save on parking alone makes the shuttle worth it (let alone not having to pay for a car as well). I’m looking forward to enjoying the scenery as a passenger instead of taking peeks here and there while driving.

    • One might argue that I should have used the MR points to fly DEN to YVR as well, but I had a stash of Krisflyer Miles that will be expiring by year’s end, and they needed to get used ASAP (94k more to go! Beware of transferring a bunch of MR points to Singapore if you don’t have immediate plans to use them!)

  2. Flew into Bellingham last year then drove up to Whistler. 20 miles south of the border and cheaper than Seattle and Vancouver and the airport is small, so no waits for rental cars or security on the way back.

  3. Thanks for the post. I’m flying in to Vancouver on Tuesday in First Class on Cathay Pacific from JFK thanks to BA Avios miles (or you can use Alaska miles). So, I’m renting a mid-size SUV from Dollar for my ride to Whistler. Do you know what I should say if my tires aren’t regulation snow tires? I guess the rental counters should know about this law??? Not sure if I want to deal with the hassle of going back in the rental line if the tires don’t comply, but at the same time, certainly don’t want to get stopped on my trip.

    • Also, if you absolutely insist on renting a car…know this. The odds of anybody actually stopping you on that road are incredibly low. Usually, any precip is rain, even as high as whistler’s base, and definitely at sea level which is 2/3 of the drive. And on the small part you might actually encounter snow, if you live in New York / the Northeast, I’m sure you’ll be able to handle it just fine. At least you probably know how to drive in snow, unlike a lot of ski tourists (which pisess me off to no end when I’m heading to the resorts along I-70 in colorado). But personally, I don’t see any point to renting a vehicle.

      • I think the shuttle buses can be great, but there is no one size fits all. We had nine bags, four people, potty breaks, diaper breaks, car seat issues, etc. and renting was just a far superior decision to a bus for our group. However, if it was just me or just adults or similar then bus could be a great choice. So yes, consider a bus, but it isn’t always best.
        In terms of tires, I think that in Vancouver they do a better job of at least offering M & S tires, but online reports are still sketchy as the law is relatively new. That said, my Canadian friends weren’t worried about being stopped as far south as Whistler. We did drive in snow the entire way there from just south of the border crossing to Whistler, but our rental did just fine.

        • “Do you know what I should say if my tires aren’t regulation snow tires? I guess the rental counters should know about this law???”

          Your tires will be fine. I have lived in the Seattle area for 28 total years and have driven to Whistler 2-3x/year for 10+ of those years. The “all-season” tires commonly sold and mounted on cars in the Pacific Northwest and in BC will have the M&S designation on them. Also, the only checkpoints I have ever seen have been for tire chain controls in very severe winter storms (2-3x/winter).

          Most people in the region (including I would imagine the rental car agency clerks at SEA), when you say “snow tires,” think “studded tires,” which are just as they sound: tires with steel or aluminum studs embedded in them for better grip on ice and compacted snow. There are also the dedicated non-studded winter tires such as Bridgestone’s Blizzak or Michelin’s X-Ice lines, with aggressive tread and softer rubber. You won’t get either of those on a rental car, but those are above and beyond the legal requirements for “snow tires.”

          The tires that do not qualify are low-profile summer-only racing-type tires, that prioritize road grip and cornering over wet and snow traction. So don’t try to drive the Miata you take to the autocross track to Whistler in the winter, and you’ll be fine.

          • Yeah I thought the tires were probably fine, but I couldn’t find any specific M & S designation on them, though perhaps I don’t know where to look. I tried to be specific that we were worried about Canadian regulations and such and they had no clue what I was talking about. May not be a big deal in practice, but I just didn’t want any problems.

      • I wouldn’t say that the odds of anyone stopping you are small. They usually put up a road check if terrible weather (10+ cm snow) is predicted on the highway. I think this is pro-active work to keep accidents from happening. If that is the case, then you’d need snow tires. A coach won’t help you anyway; they probably won’t be running if the highway is in rough conditions.

        This usually only happens 3-5 times a winter season.

        • If by “coach” you mean the Whistler Shuttle, uh…yeah…it’s running. Just like CME (Colorado Mountain Express) those vans get snow tires installed on them because the business can’t afford to be down. Will it be slower that usual? Sure. But not running? Wrong. It’s never the shuttle services that have me concerned on snowy days. It’s road closures and tourist drivers that might ever concern me. I’m a powder chaser who’s done this for YEARS in many different states quite frequently, and follow snow conditions religiously this time of year. Toddler parent is actually most likely correct that the All Season tires on most YVR rentals will probably have the M+S designation on them (not the mountain with a snowflake).

    • Indeed, but at far less than I bet you are imaging thanks to Zulily, MasterPass promos, and other discounts. Based on experiences with the first daughter, they last two winters since they start out a little big.

  4. Love your mini-series on Whistler. I would recommend considering Amtrak from Vancouver Pacific Central station (or Whistler) to Seattle southbound next time (this avoids the high airport tax). You would fly from the US to YVR on an award ticket and only pay $5 in airport taxes (inbound to YVR), take a bus up to whistler (there are many), and then Amtrak has a bus to train connector from Whistler to Seattle. From there you can take the direct light rail train to SEA-TAC. The bus picks up and drops off right at Whistler village.

    This would avoid immigration lines, and the train ride is much more relaxing than driving! Also note that if you are Non-US/non-Canadian, if you drive southbound there is a US immigration fee to enter the US.

    • I thought about that and will absolutely consider it in the future when everyone is older, but it just seemed like way too many steps and transitions given little kids, lots of bags, car seats, etc. Thanks!

      • When your girls are older, the train from Vancouver (and, I’m guessing, Seattle) to Whistler is a WONDERFUL trip! Best part is no one has to miss the scenery because (s)he’s driving.

  5. Next time if you’re driving up without Nexus for everyone, consider the Lynden/Aldergrove crossing. Just get off I-5 at Meridian Street in Bellingham and follow Meridian north. Once across the border you’ll quickly be on the Trans-Canada.

    With Nexus, the Pacific crossing is our usual. It’s also a straight shot to the Trans-Canada after crossing the border, though it gets a bit more traffic than the Aldergrove area.

    Also, if you need to schedule a Nexus interview, there is a Blaine enrollment center just off I-5 about 6 miles south of the border that often has short waits.

    • Good advice – on our next trip up north we need to get NEXUS for the littlest and I think all of ours will need redoing by that point anyway.

  6. Honestly, this seems like a WAY too ambitious drive with two small children. It’s a long ride and, as you note, there are serious border crossing delays. If the YVR flights didn’t make economic sense (and, believe me, I know how family flights to Canada are often not economical) why not pick a different ski destination? As a points guru, did you not consider flying directly into a ski resort town in the Rockies? I’ve flown into places like Jackson Hole, and you can be on the slopes in less than an hour from the airport. And the whole experience is completely mellow.

    • Oh I can assure you in the weeks leading up to the trip I wondered why I didn’t do just that as we usually do, but I decided it would all be fine, and it was. Thankfully the kids were amazing in the car – being tired each direction helped. To answer your question, we do usually take our ski trips as you describe and have one just like that booked for next month, but we just love Whistler and wanted to get back. It honestly wasn’t bad at all, but that is partly because our youngest was just old enough to do well and then largely we simply had the right mindset and the little things or delays didn’t bother us.

      • I’m glad it worked out for you. I like Whistler, too, but I don’t like getting there. Your kids are still too young, but when they get a bit older, I think Jackson Hole is the best winter family destination in the USA. At least if you can get a do-it-yourself snowmobile permit for Yellowstone in the NPS “lottery.” Then you have great skiing, great snowmobiling, and even snowshoeing in the Tetons. And it’s all small-town Rocky Mountain friendly.

        • I love Jackson Hole, but have never been in the winter. Will have to try that one year for sure! Whistler is a PITA to get to, but I think that is part of what makes it feel special when you go. It won’t be an every year sort of place for us though for sure.

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