Getting to Nanaimo
Nanaimo Airport (YCD) is beside the Island Highway, 18 kilometers south of downtown Nanaimo and five kilometers north of Ladysmith. Air Canada Jazz has seven flights a day from Vancouver International Airport and one from Calgary. Westjet Encore arrives from Calgary twice daily and Edmonton once a day. Island Express Air (tel. 1-888-856-6260 or 604-856-6260) has flights from Victoria and Abbotsford to Nanaimo four times a day.
There is no regular bus service to or from the airport. The Nanaimo Airporter (tel. 888-758-2133) charges $26 for one or two persons, then $5 per additional passenger, to the same address in downtown Nanaimo. Transportation to addresses outside downtown costs more. This service should be booked in advance as they aren't always there. Greyhound buses plying between Victoria and Nanaimo drop off and pick up passengers at the airport terminal once a day ($14). For pickup times call the Nanaimo Greyhound Terminal (tel. 250-753-4371). A taxi to Nanaimo will cost around $40 for the car.
It's quite easy to hitchhike north or south from the traffic lights on the highway a short walk from the airport terminal. Cars rented through Hertz, Budget, and National can be picked up at the airport. Airport parking is $1 an hour or $10 a day. For the airport answering machine, call tel. 250-245-2157.
Arriving in Nanaimo Harbour by seaplane is a lot more convenient and fun than landing at the airport on a fixed wing aircraft. Both West Coast Air/Harbour Air and Sunshine Coast Air use wharves near their offices on the Waterfront Promenade downtown, while Seair Seaplanes has a base off Zorkin Road near the Departure Bay Ferry Terminal, about three kilometers north of downtown.
At Vancouver International Airport, the seaplane terminal is on the Fraser River, a couple of kilometers from the main airport passenger terminals. The companies may claim to offer a free shuttle between the terminals but the vans carry only six passengers and seats are sometimes unavailable. Ask about this when booking as a taxi will cost over $20. Airport regulations prohibit these companies from picking up passengers at the main airport so the shuttle is one way only.
All seaplane flights operate during daylight hours only. Pay attention to the baggage limits when booking. West Coast Air/Harbour Air Seaplanes allow 23 kilos from Vancouver International Airport but only 11.5 kilos from downtown Vancouver. Seair Seaplanes allows just under 16 kilos on all flights. Both checked and carry-on luggage is included in this allowance. Overweight baggage is about $2 a kilo, if available, and may not travel on the same flight. Ask about free parking at the terminals, if required.
BC Ferries has three routes to Nanaimo:
All ferries operate every couple of hours daily yearround, with the last sailing from Horseshoe Bay at 9:30 pm (7 pm in winter) and from Tsawwassen at 10:45 pm (3:15 pm on Saturdays in winter). Foot passengers arriving at the terminal after ticket sales for the last ferry have closed must leave BC Ferries property and return the next morning as the terminals close for the night. Walk-on passengers pay around $17 one way to/from Vancouver and reservations are not required.
Cars are carried on all routes and the vehicle decks do fill up in summer and on holidays. It's possible to reserve vehicle space for an additional fee. The crossing takes just under two hours and the Horseshoe Bay to Departure Bay route is by far the more scenic.
Downtown Vancouver is connected to the Horseshoe Bay Ferry Terminal by frequent transit buses numbers 250 and 257. Transit buses also serve the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal, which is closer to Vancouver International Airport (YVR). However, walk-on passengers should avoid the Tsawwassen to Duke Point route. The Departure Bay Ferry Terminal is only three kilometers north of downtown Nanaimo via the pleasant Harbourfront Walkway whereas Duke Point is 12 kilometers from Nanaimo along a freeway with no bus service. Nanaimo city bus No 2 stops in front of the Departure Bay Ferry Terminal once or twice an hour, heading south into town or north to the Woodgrove Centre.
The Nanaimo Airporter (tel. 888-758-2133) drops off/picks up at Duke Point, costing $26 for two persons, plus $5 per additional passenger, to the same address in downtown Nanaimo. This service must be booked in advance by phone. Some car rental companies also pick up at Duke Point, upon prior arrangement. Taxis are also available at around $42 to downtown Nanaimo.
The historic Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway first reached Nanaimo over the Malahat Pass from Victoria in 1886. In past VIA Rail Canada has operated a railcar from Victoria to Nanaimo and Courtenay once a day, leaving Victoria in the morning and Courtenay in the afternoon.
In March 2011 passenger service on the E&N Railway was suspended over to safety concerns. The federal and provincial governments have agreed to spend $15 million on much needed track upgrades but passenger service remains suspended due to a reluctance by VIA Rail Canada to serve this route.
Nanaimo's Bus Terminal (tel. 250-753-4371) is at the Departure Bay Ferry Terminal. Greyhound Canada has buses to Nanaimo from Victoria ($28) four times a day, from Campbell River ($36) twice a day, from Port Hardy ($73) once a day, and from Vancouver ($21) via Horseshoe Bay three times a day. Be aware that on the Vancouver-Nanaimo route the BC Ferries ticket is not included and must be purchased separately at the ferry terminal. The Greyhound bus does not go on the ferry and passengers must carry their own luggage aboard ship and load it onto a connecting bus on the other side. From Vancouver it is cheaper and more convenient to use transit bus 250 or 257 to/from the ferry terminal.
The Tofino Bus (tel. 866-986-3466) arrives at Departure Bay, Nanaimo, from Port Alberni ($25), Tofino ($46), and Ucluelet ($46) two or three times a day. Ten percent discounts are offered to students, seniors, and Hostelling International members when booking through a ticket agent (but not a driver). Tofino Bus tickets can be purchased at any Greyhound ticket office but some discounted Greyhound fares are not valid for Tofino. In summer reservations are recommended on Tofino Bus routes. Eating and drinking anything other than water is prohibited on all buses.
Several times a day IslandLink Bus Services Ltd offers scheduled van service to Nanaimo's Departure Bay Ferry Terminal from Campbell River and Victoria. Weekends from mid-May to mid-September the service extends to Port Hardy. Prices are cheaper if you book a seat at least a day in advance by opening an account on their website rather than paying a standby cash fare to the driver. Telephone bookings are not available. Oversize baggage is limited to one snowboard, pair of skis, golf bag, large musical instrument, or boxed bicycle per trip. Children under the age of nine, pets, and unboxed bicycles are not accepted on IslandLink Bus Services.
Backpackers should be aware that hitchhiking is not allowed on the Nanaimo Parkway or large portions of the Island Highway between Victoria and Campbell River. It is allowed on the access ramps and is often possible at traffic lights. Coming from Victoria or Duncan, don't accept a ride headed for the Duke Point Ferry Terminal unless that's where you want to go as you'll be dropped on a highspeed section of highway far from anything.
To hitchhike north out of Nanaimo, take any Regional Transit System bus to the Woodgrove Centre and wait on Island Highway North a bit beyond the shopping centre. If you're headed for Tofino, try to get a ride going at least as far as Coombs or Qualicum Beach as the Parksville cars may drop you in a no-hitchhiking zone. Intercity bus No. 90 runs from the Woodgrove Centre to Parksville and Qualicum Beach every couple of hours weekdays only for the regular fare of $2.50. Southbound, take Nanaimo city bus No. 7 to the South Parkway Plaza (also known as the Southgate Shopping Centre) and walk a bit south toward the lights. Hitching beyond the overpass is prohibited.
Updated: 9 January 2016