Canada's highway system is excellent. It includes the Trans-Canada Highway, or Highway 1, the longest highway in the world—running about 8,000 km (5,000 miles) from Victoria, British Columbia, to St. John's, Newfoundland, using ferries to bridge coastal waters at each end. The second-longest Canadian highway, the Yellowhead Highway (Highway 16), follows a route from the Pacific Coast and over the Rockies to the prairies. North of the population centers, roads become fewer and less developed.
The Sea-to-Sky Highway between Vancouver and Whistler is full of twists and turns, and although it was upgraded and widened prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics, drivers should still exercise caution. Landslides occasionally occur along this highway, also noted for its spectacular scenery along Howe Sound.
Within British Columbia, the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1), Highway 3, and the Coquihalla Highway (Highway 5) offer easy access to the Okanagan. Speed limits range from 50 kph (30 mph) in cities to a maximum of 100 kph (60 mph) on highways.
From the United States
Drivers must carry owner registration and proof-of-insurance coverage, which is compulsory in Canada. The Canadian Non-Resident Inter-Provincial Motor Vehicle Liability Insurance Card, available from any U.S. insurance company, is accepted as evidence of financial responsibility in Canada. If you're driving a car that is not registered in your name, carry a letter from the owner that authorizes your use of the vehicle.
The main entry point into British Columbia from the United States by car is on Interstate 5 at Blaine, Washington, 48 km (30 miles) south of Vancouver. Three highways enter British Columbia from the east: Highway 1, or the Trans-Canada Highway; Highway 3, or the Crowsnest Highway, which crosses southern British Columbia; and Highway 16, the Yellowhead Highway, which runs through northern British Columbia from the Rocky Mountains to Prince Rupert. From Alaska and the Yukon, take the Alaska Highway (from Fairbanks) or the Klondike Highway (from Skagway or Dawson City).
Border-crossing procedures are usually quick and simple. Most British Columbia land-border crossings are open 24 hours; exceptions are the crossing at Aldergrove and smaller border posts in eastern British Columbia, which are typically open 8 am to midnight. The Interstate 5 border crossing at Blaine, Washington, also known as the Douglas, or Peace Arch, border crossing, is one of the busiest border crossings between the United States and Canada. Weekend and holiday traffic tends to be heaviest; listen to local radio traffic reports for information about wait times, which can sometimes be as much as three hours. The Canada Border Services Agency posts estimated wait times on its website.
Canada Border Services Agency. 204/983–3500; 800/461–9999; www.cbsa-asfc.gc.ca.
Insurance Corporation of British Columbia. British Columbia. 604/661–2800; 800/663–3015; www.icbc.com.
When you reserve a car, ask about taxes, cancellation penalties, drop-off charges (if you're planning to pick up the car in one city and leave it in another), and surcharges (for being under or over a certain age, for additional drivers, or for driving across state or country borders). All these things can add substantially to your costs. Request car seats and extras such as GPS when you book.
Rates are sometimes—but not always—better if you book in advance or reserve through a rental agency's website. There are other reasons to book ahead, though: for popular destinations, during busy times of the year, or to ensure that you get certain types of cars (vans, SUVs, exotic sports cars).
Make sure that a confirmed reservation guarantees you a car. Agencies sometimes overbook, particularly for busy weekends and holiday periods.
Renting a car is a good option if you're getting out of the cities, but if you plan to spend most or all your time in downtown Vancouver, you won't need a car: parking can be difficult to secure and most attractions are within walking distance or a short cab or bus ride away. Downtown Victoria is even more compact. Rates in Vancouver begin at about C$40 a day or C$230 a week, usually including unlimited mileage. Car rentals in BC also incur a 7% Provincial Sales Tax (PST), a federal 5% Goods and Services Tax (GST), a Provincial Vehicle Road Tax (PVRT) of C$1.50/day, and a vehicle-licensing fee of about C$1.99 per day. In Vancouver, an additional 17% Concession Recovery Fee (also known as a premium location fee), an extra fee charged by the airport authority for retail space in the terminal, is levied at airport locations (11.3% in Victoria). Some companies located near Vancouver International Airport offer free customer pickup and drop-off at the airport, enabling you to avoid the latter fee. Some companies also tack on other fees, such as an Energy Recovery Fee, or a Vehicle Maintenance Fee, of about C$1 per day. If you prefer a manual-transmission car, check whether the rental agency of your choice offers stick shifts; some companies don't in Canada.
Car-rental rates vary by supply and demand, so it pays to shop around and to reserve well in advance. Vancouver's airport and downtown locations usually have the best selection. When comparing costs, take into account any mileage charges: an arrangement with unlimited mileage is usually the best deal if you plan to tour the province. You'll find the usual car rental agencies, such as Alamo, Avis, Budget, Hertz, and National Car Rental. The local Lo-Cost Rent-A-Car is also a good option.
Additional drivers are charged about C$12 per day. Child seats and booster seats, which are required for children up to age nine, also cost about C$12 per day, so if you need one for more than a few days, it's worth bringing your own or buying one locally.
Car Rental Resources
Lo-Cost Rent-A-Car. 888/556–2678; www.locostrentacar.com.
Alamo. 844/351--8648; www.alamo.ca.
Avis. 800/230–4898; www.avis.ca.
Budget. 800/268–8900; www.budget.ca.
Hertz. 800/654–3131; www.hertz.ca.
National Car Rental. 844/307–8014 ; www.nationalcar.ca.
Gasoline prices vary significantly from neighborhood to neighborhood in British Columbia. Expect to pay at least C$1.24 per liter (1 gallon = 3.78 liters), with prices slightly higher in Vancouver. In BC, the price includes federal and provincial taxes, a gradually increasing carbon emissions tax, and in the Greater Vancouver region, 17 cents per liter of local transit tax. The combined taxes on every liter is more than 42 cents (not including the 5% GST).
Most gas stations are self-serve and most are automated, so you can pay at the pump using a credit card; major credit cards are widely accepted. A British Columbia law requires customers to pay for the gas before it's dispensed, so if you want to pay cash you'll have to estimate how much you'll need. It's not customary to tip attendants.
More than 300 parking lots (above- and belowground) are available in Vancouver. Underground parking prices downtown typically run C$5 to C$8 per hour, depending on location. Parking meters are in effect 9 am to 10 pm daily and are strictly monitored. On-street parking can be hard to find downtown, especially during workdays and on weekends. Read signs carefully to avoid being towed or fined; be aware that some spots must be vacated by the time rush hour begins at 3 pm. Fines run between C$35 and C$100, plus the cost of the tow truck.
Snow tires are recommended when traveling the Sea-to-Sky Highway between Vancouver and Whistler or driving on the Coquihalla or Trans-Canada highways during the winter.
In case of emergency anywhere in BC, call 911; if you are not connected immediately, dial "0" and ask for the operator. The British Columbia Automobile Association (BCAA) provides 24-hour roadside assistance to AAA and CAA members.
British Columbia Automobile Association. 888/268–2222; www.bcaa.com.
Rules of the Road
In Canada your own driver's license is acceptable. By law, you're required to wear seat belts and to use infant seats. In BC, babies under the age of one and under 20 pounds must travel in a rear-facing infant seat and not in a front seat with an active air bag; children over one year old and between 20 and 40 pounds need to be secured in child seats, while kids up to age nine or four-foot-nine inches tall (whichever comes first) must use booster seats. Motorcycle and bicycle helmets are mandatory. Unless otherwise specified, right turns are permitted on red signals. Speed limits, given in kilometers, are usually within the 50–100 kph (30–60 mph) range outside the cities.
In coastal areas, the mild damp climate means that roadways are frequently wet. Winter snowfalls are not common (generally only once or twice a year), but when snow does fall, traffic grinds to a halt and the roadways become treacherous and stay that way until the snow melts. Beware of icy roads, especially east of Vancouver.
Tire chains, studs, or snow tires are essential equipment for winter travel in the north and in mountain areas such as Whistler. If you're planning to drive into high elevations, be sure to check the weather forecast beforehand. Even the main-highway mountain passes can be forced to close because of snow conditions. The Ministry of Transportation website has up-to-date road reports.
BC Ministry of Transportation. 800/550–4997; www.drivebc.ca.