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Traveling by B.C. Ferries with a pet dog

Over the past week, we’ve taken several ferry rides on B.C. Ferries, ranging from a quick hop on the tiny Skeena Queen (connecting Fulford Harbor, on Salt Spring Island, with Swartz Bay) to a long chug on the Spirit of Vancouver Island (one of the massive ferries connecting Swartz Bay and Tsawwassen). Pet dogs are allowed on board, though not above the car decks. The B.C. Ferries web site is austerely brief on the topic: “Pets must remain on vehicle decks for the duration of a voyage.” When you’re on board, that message is reinforced by signs:

I was profoundly interested, therefore, when my husband returned to the car from a foraging expedition and reported that he’d seen a “Pets Area” on our deck. I couldn’t find any reference to pet areas on the B.C. Ferries web site, but here’s proof that they exist:

The "pets area" on the Spirit of Vancouver Island, a boat so huge that I simply don't know which car deck we were on — I suggest asking an employee (they wear bright safety vests) for the location

The “pets area” on the Spirit of Vancouver Island, a boat so huge that I simply don’t know which car deck we were on — I suggest asking an employee (they wear bright safety vests) for the location

The room is very basic, as you can see. To my left were a couple of long benches (not pictures, because I didn't want to invade the privacy of the three pet owners installed on them)

The room is very basic, as you can see. To my left were a couple of long benches (not pictured, because I didn’t want to invade the privacy of the three pet owners installed on them)

I called the main number for B.C. Ferries and the customer service rep I spoke to told me that the facilities for foot passengers traveling with pets vary by boat. The two big Spirit boats (the Vancouver Island that we traveled on and the Spirit of British Columbia) have “lightly-heated” rooms like this one, as do the three Coastal behemoths (Coastal Celebration, Coastal Inspiration, Coastal Renaissance).

At the other end of the scale, small vessels like the Mayne Queen and the Queen of Cumberland (and the Skeena Queen) have no facilities, or perhaps only a bench. Stacking chairs are on order for the Mayne Queen, I’m told.

How about the mid-sized vessels, like the Queen of Surrey, or the Queen of Nanaimo? Again, the facilities vary by vessel. The Nanaimo currently just has “benches” for travelers with dogs, but the Surrey has a “segregated pet area” (which sounds like something less than a room and more like an open area in the middle of a car deck) with “padded benches” and a heater. The thing to do is ask an employee as you get on board if there’s a place for you and your pup that’s out of the wind (my customer service rep told me that the staff typically volunteers the info, when they see someone walking on board with a dog). Also, be sure to equip yourself and your pup with warm clothing and/or a blanket, so you’re prepared for a just-a-bench situation (or for a heater that’s gone on the fritz).

The room I visited was fairly small, but it had lots of windows (the views were of the car deck, granted, but that’s still better than no windows at all). It was equipped with poop bags, trash can, basic cleaning supplies, and a water bowl. There were two benches running the length of the room and facing each other (I failed to notice whether they were padded or not). The three owners I met had, between them, four large dogs. One owner was reading, a couple were chatting, and the dogs all seemed content.

Drivers with a pet dog, like us, will be more comfortable in their cars. Here’s Chloe, snoozing her way to Salt Spring Island from Tsawwassen:

Be sure to pack some throw blankets (it can get cold on the ferry, even in warm weather) and pillows

Remember to pack some throw blankets (even in a closed car, and even in warm weather, it can get cold on the ferry) and pillows

Be warned: On that particular ferry, there was no way to see out from the car deck. For someone accustomed to the open-sided boats of the Washington state ferry system, this view was a grim surprise:

It was bad enough not be be able to see out the sides, and then they closed doors across the fore and aft opening too….

It was bad enough not be be able to see out the sides, and then they closed doors across the fore and aft openings too….

Bring a Kindle or other backlit e-reader (there’s not enough light to read a regular book or do crafts, alas), watch a movie, or take a nap, and hope that your subsequent boats will have views more like this:

The little ferry from Salt Spring Island to Swartz Bay. The pictured pup and his owner walked up the stairs to the right and spent the trip on a outdoor bench on a kind of mezzanine deck above the car deck.

We’re parked on the open deck of the little ferry from Salt Spring Island to Swartz Bay. The pictured pup and his owner walked up the stairs to the right and spent the trip on an outdoor bench, I think, on a kind of mezzanine deck above the car deck.

I was relieved to find that the Spirit of Vancouver Island, which took us from Swartz Bay back to Tsawwassen, had open sides, so the quality of the car deck experience must also vary by boat. There is wifi in five of the B.C. Ferries terminals (I can report that the Swartz Bay wifi does not reach as far as the parking lot), and on some “select” vessels accessing those terminals (none of our boats was sufficiently select, or perhaps it’s the case that the wifi signal doesn’t reach the car decks).

4 comments

  • Meg

    Mary-Alice,

    Thanks for sharing your experience on the BC Ferries.
    Did you run into issues letting Chloe relieve herself on the ferry? What is the protocol?
    I’m hoping to do a BC trip with my pup, but I’m concerned about the logistics of long and overnight ferry rides. She’ll need to stretch her legs and go to the bathroom.
    What did you do in this situation? Please help.

    Thanks for sharing your adventures.

  • Hello, Meg — So far, we’ve only taken brief trips with Chloe on the BC Ferries system — short enough that she didn’t need a bathroom break. It’s my impression that the rudimentary pet area you see pictured in this post is what’s offered on the larger vessels, and that pets need to remain on the car deck(s). Given how long it’s taken me to respond to you (argh! I’m so sorry!), you may well have already taken the trip you were planning, in which case I’d love to hear what your experience was like.

  • Cindy

    When ever I travel with my GSD on the ferry – we just ask a car deck attendant for “dog deck” area. Normally an open deck on upper car decks. You can usually sit out of the wind if you bring a lawn chair or stool.

  • David Scott

    Horrible experience. Recently took my dog over to Victoria on the long weekend and have to say that I am very disappointed. Fantastic weather, great trip, except for the ferry ride. With temps between 27-32 degrees, the upper car deck was an stifling hot, even with the breeze coming in. The tiny little segregated pet area? Even worse….if I saw I dog in there alone and the door was locked, I’d smash the window. You’re aloud to walk your dog on the car deck they say…..well, there’s maybe a foot and a half between vehicles and limited stretches areas that are big enough for a dog to stretch their legs. Then there’s the constant car alarms going off ALL the time that does little to settle a dog, plus the lovely smell of exhaust and diesel that is ever lingering in the air. Options? Sit in your vehicle, if you have one, or endure the raucous of noise and smells below. When you consider all the price increases on fair rates and ridiculous new services offered on the upper decks, it’s extremely unfair to people travelling with pets to get the complete and utter shaft. End rant.

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