Vancouver Visitor Guide – Do I need a Rental Car?

Living so close to Vancouver (a four hour drive is “just down the road” by Canadian standards) Travis and I try to visit the epicenter of BC at least a few times each year. There are almost always a couple good concerts and events to check out each summer, and if not, a weekend spent shopping and eating is always a good enough reason to pack up the car and book a couple nights in a hotel.

Vancouver Visitor Guide

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For us, making the most of a visit to Vancouver comes down to a few key factors; the accommodation we choose, the means by which we get around the city, and striking the right balance between sightseeing and down time. Vancouver is a bustling city and it will run you ragged if you’re not careful. Therefore we’ve created our Vancouver Visitor Guide series to impart all the wisdom and information we’ve picked up, sometimes the hard way, from the dozens of visits we’ve made to the city over the last decade. We’ve also sourced some great information from friends and family fortunate enough to call this beautiful city home, all with the hopes of making your visit easier and more enjoyable.

Today we are going to tackle all your vehicle related queries about visiting Vancouver – a popular question on Trip Advisor message boards for the city and rightfully so. Canada and the province of BC are so vast, especially compared to other parts of the world, that renting a car seem necessary. Here is our take on having a car in Vancouver.

Do I need a car to see Vancouver?

Travis and I always travel to Vancouver in our personal vehicle. Living so close it’s the cheapest option for us. However as soon as we reach our destination, be it a hotel or friend’s house, we try to park the car and leave it for the duration of our visit – the reason being that Vancouver, like most major urban centres, is not particularly car friendly.

With over twenty bridges, numerous construction projects going on at any one time, and thousands of commuters hitting the road each morning and afternoon, driving in Vancouver can be a hassle. It only takes one stalled vehicle or minor accident along a main artery to completely shut down the city’s roads and back up traffic for hours. In addition to these traffic woes, the price of gasoline in Vancouver is ridiculously expensive, even compared to the hefty prices paid in the rest of the province. And don’t even get us started on parking.

I feel stressed out just looking at this picture (via)

I feel stressed out just looking at this picture (via)

The light at the end of Vancouver’s traffic-jammed tunnel is that the city is very walkable. During my last visit three weeks ago I managed to crisscross a large portion of the downtown core in just a few hours. From Yaletown to the main shopping district around Granville and Robson Street, to Canada Place on the waterfront – walking is definitely the best way to explore Vancouver.

Bicycling is another excellent way to explore the city as there are dedicated lanes to protect cyclists from traffic as well as cycling and walking paths that follow the waterfront and circumvent the world-renowned Stanley Park.

For those looking for a less strenuous way to get around Vancouver, the sky train metro system is fast and efficient, although it’s pretty crowded during rush hour. While it’s not exactly cheap, a single 1 zone fare will run you $2.75 at the moment, riding the Sky Train eliminates the stress of driving and can actually be quite fun. The new(ish) Canada Line even stops at the Vancouver International Airport.

Vancouver is very walkable, with many pedestrian pathways along the waterfront as well as downtown

Vancouver is very walkable, with many pedestrian pathways along the waterfront as well as downtown

Therefore, if you find yourself without a car in Vancouver don’t panic. For exploring the downtown core a vehicle is an unnecessary expense and a stress that you can do without.

What happens if you DO find yourself in Vancouver with a car?

For Travis and I this is a common problem. When booking our accommodations in Vancouver, we always look for hotels that offer free and secure parking. Sadly this is a rarity, however if you do enough searching far enough in advance, you can sometimes find good deals online that include parking. We’ve also found some hotels that offer affordable parking rates (think $8-10 per night).

Booking a hotel in Vancouver that doesn’t offer guest parking (paid or not) when you plan to travel with a vehicle is utter madness. It’s also a near guarantee that your first few hours in the city will be spent searching for parking and paying through the teeth instead of sipping a cold pint on a sunny restaurant patio with your feet up.

Parking garage in downtown Vancouver (via)

Hard to find but beautiful to photograph? Parking garage in downtown Vancouver  (via)

If you find yourself in Vancouver with a rental vehicle I’m going to flat out recommend returning the car immediately. While you will definitely need a rental if you plan on exploring other parts of the province – notably Victoria and Vancouver Island to the west or Jasper, Banff, and the Canadian Rockies to the east – you do not need a car in downtown Vancouver. Even some of the surrounding neighbourhoods of Greater Vancouver including New Westminster, Burnaby, and Surrey can be accessed by the Sky Train and public bus. Save yourself some money and only pick up your rental car after exploring Vancouver for a few days. Or, if Vancouver marks the end of your trip, return the rental before exploring the city.

What are some money saving tips for driving in Vancouver?

As I mentioned above, driving in Vancouver can be costly. From parking prices to inflated gas prices to fees for crossing toll bridges, costs can add up pretty quickly. While not having a car in Vancouver is the best way to save money, here are a few tricks Travis and I use to pinch pennies while visiting the city.

Fill up with gasoline before reaching Vancouver. From past experience, gas prices in Abbotsford and Chilliwack, towns to the east of Vancouver in the Fraser Valley are much cheaper than those in Greater Vancouver. If you are driving to Vancouver, always fill up before reaching the city. A full tank will get you in and back out of Vancouver and you can avoid paying a premium to fill up in the city. To ensure you’re really getting the best price per liter download an app like Gas Buddy. It will display all the gas prices in a geographical area ensuring you are paying the lowest price.

Vancouver's gas prices are reportedly the highest in Canada

Vancouver’s gas prices are reportedly the highest in Canada (via)

When it comes to saving money on parking, finding a hotel with free parking is the best. However if that isn’t possible and you’re willing to walk a few blocks, look for free street parking in residential neighbourhoods. It isn’t secure and there is normally a time limit for how long you can park in one spot, meaning you’ll have to play musical chairs with parking spots, but it sure beats the $19/day for parking I saw advertised at the  Canada Place convention centre downtown. Another great spot for parking is at the River Rock Casino in Richmond – the Casino is attached to Bridgeport Sky Train Station and costs just $2.50 per day!! This is a great option if you are just heading into downtown for a daytrip or for a concert.

Finally, write down any directions you will need ahead of time or bring along a GPS if needed. Getting lost in Vancouver is stressful and annoying as well as expensive as you’ll waste gas driving around in circles or crisscrossing toll bridges accidentally. Don’t be afraid to stop and ask for directions – Canadians are notoriously helpful and eventually someone will get you pointed in the right direction.


These streets can be confusing but a GPS will get you through it

Hopefully this information will come in handy during your next (or first!) visit to Vancouver. We’ve got more information on travel in BC here, and will be back throughout the summer with more Vancouver Visitor Guides.

Have any tips for driving in Vancouver? If so please share in the comments below!

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