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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.
Before we get into the Seattle to Whistler road trip, here are our other posts in this series on skiing in Whistler.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you have any questions about flying into Seattle to head to Whistler, I’ll do my best to get you some answers!
Editorial Note: The opinions expressed here are mine and not provided, reviewed, by any bank, card issuer, or other company unless otherwise stated.