Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Tuesdays Travels goes International: Vancouver, BC, Canada

Tuesdays Travels goes International today as I tell you about Vancouver, BC, Canada.
Vancouver has become well known over the past few months as it was the location of the Winter Olympics in February.  It is a beautiful place that I will never forget going to (and I went before the Olympics).  How do you like the picture above?! I took it from our hotel room! It is of Canada Place and the cruise shop dock!

For a year, our family lived in Spokane, Washington, and we found out too late in our time there that to go up into Canada it is now required for all people to have a Passport (it did not used to be so).  So, since we were lacking a few passports, we never made it up to Canada when we lived in the Pacific Northwest.

Well, when we moved back to Omaha, Wes submitted a proposal for a poster to a medical conference that was accepted and as it urned out, the conference was to be held in Vancouver, BC, Canada on our anniversary last year. By the time we realized it was on our anniversary, Wes was already committed to going, so rather than be apart on our anniversary, we chose to drop the kids off with grandparents in Utah and take our first vacation without kids in 7 year.  That was last May and it was great!

Now, when we went to Vancouver, basically everything except my flight and our activities was paid for by Wes's work, so I was not trying to be very frugal, and honestly Vancouver was pretty expensive.  But, I am sure I could have done it less expensively, and following are some of the things I would do to make it a fun and more frugal adventure!

Please note that I found Vancouver to be VERY family-friendly and thought over and over about how much my kids would love it-so I recommend it as a great family travel destination!!

***One MAJOR tip I want to throw out right away-do not charge things on your credit or debit cards when traveling internationally (even just in Canada).  Bring traveler's checks or something but do not use your cards. We had to use the cards to get reimbursed on our trip, and EACH charge was charged an international fee-it was a complete nightmare. I called and asked them about that before we went and was told there was no international fee, but as we found out later,  there was another fee it had that we did not know about and that is the "international fee" we got charged.  So, make SURE to check on all your cards policies before you go if you choose to use them, or be safe and get Travelers Checks.

As always, I use the following categories for this Vancouver post as part of my Tuesdays Travels series:

  • General Information
  • Getting there 
  • Accommodations 
  • Transportation 
  • Food
  • Attractions and activities
  • Shopping
General Information

Vancouver is a coastal city located in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, Canada. It is the largest metropolitan area in Western Canada, Vancouver and ranks third largest in the country. It is a stunning Coastal city, with Whistler, famous for Skiing nearby, and Vancouver Island just off the coast.  It is located just North of Seattle, and in fact, on our Whale Watching excursion, we actually went into US waters and nearly all the way to Seattle to see the Whales.

Getting There

If you are living in the Pacific Northwest, driving to Vancouver is certainly an option to consider. You may also look into flying, and I recommend reading my Tuesdays Travels: Overview post for info on how I search for best flight prices and options.

What I want to discuss here is Passports! You need to get one! But how long does that take?! I will tell you this-International Travel is not something you can do on the spur on the moment (unless you have a passport already).  The other question is how much does this cost?! The answer is too much! Just know you cannot be really frugal on this part on your trip. But there are things you can do to make it less expensive-like plan ahead and know it will take time to get done (you can save money by not having to expedite it).

When we found out that we were going to Vancouver, we found out that Wes's Passport was missing-as in GONE! So, we had to get a new one. This, as you can imagine was a huge hassle to report a missing/stolen one, get a new one, and all in a short amount of time! We had to pay all kinds of extra money to expedite each step of the way and ended up getting the Passport JUST in time (the day before we left!).

So, plan ahead and make sure to familiarize yourself with the requirements to get a Passport. They very depending on your age, whether it is a first passport, etc.  You will need a passport picture, you will have to fill out forms, you may have to go in person to the office to get it. It all depends. Since I cannot possibly cover all possibilities in this post, let me refer you to the Travel.state.gov passport website to read about what you will need to do to get your passport!

Accommodations

We did not have an option on the hotel we stayed at in Vancouver. It was the fanciest, most expensive option (well one of the 2 anyway) available. It was one of the 2 hotel options for the conference. I will not mention what hotel chain it was (if you email me and want to know, I will tell you in an email), but I will tell you-one of the worst experience of my life as far as accommodations go. EVERYTHING cost extra-wifi, gym use, pool access, EVERYTHING! And when we had a problem arise (ie my dad's laptop that I borrowed was broken in the room while we were gone for the day) they not only refused to help us at all, but they called me a liar. Seriously.

I do have to say that is did have a gorgeous view from our hotel room.  And the other hotel option for the conference was a great hotel and everyone that stayed there had good experiences (versus the people that stayed where we did).  However, I would not recommend either of these hotels if I was looking for a frugal place to stay.

When I go back to Vancouver (which I will with the whole family some day), I will simply do what I always do and start by looking up hotel deals on the following websites: Expedia, Hotwire, Travelocity, and Cheap Tickets. You could also try to make an offer at Priceline, but I only try one offer there, then if I do not get it, I go somewhere else that works with me better than they do.

Also, I recommend reading This fantastic article about Vancouver budget Hotels with a back story.

Transportation

When we went to Vancouver, we walked almost everywhere. The attractions that are further out generally have some sort of bus you can take to them, or you could take a cab or rent a car for a day.  I found that a car was really unnecessary for us though and was glad we chose not to get one (especially since parking it would have cost an arm and a leg).

So, I recommend NOT renting a car. There are a lot of transportation options in and around Vancouver: Buses, SeaBus, Skytrain, Transit system, cabs, ferries, biking, walking.  After you figure out where you are staying, and after you have planned which activities and attractions you want to do, then look at the public transportation options, and contact your hotel to see how to most easily get from place to place.  No reason to limit yourself with all the options available there. We mostly walked, but also rode bikes, buses, and cabs.

There are some areas of town NOT safe to walk through!  I learned this from experience. Here is what happened: Wes and I wanted to go to Chinatown. On the map we could see it was not too far from our hotel and we felt we could walk there. It was only a couple blocks from Gastown where the steam clock was. The guidebooks said not to go there on foot cause it was a bad neighborhood between Gastown and Chinatown. It was literally only 2 blocks and Wes and I thought "eh, how bad could it be." Especially since this was the middle of the day. Well, I will tell you-it can be pretty bad...In the 2 blocks to Chinatown we met drug dealers and prostitutes of both sexes...Wes had many offers...it was bad, but we made it.

After seeing Chinatown, we were walking back, and I didn't want to walk on that same street that was so bad, so I suggested a different route back-worse idea. There was one block I thought we would not get out of alive. People were scoping us out, following us. It was as busy as Times Square on New Years, but all the people on the street were drug dealers and prostitutes and one other very lost British couple. It was NUTS!!! The bellman and the guidebook warned us, but I didn't believe...I am now a believer.

So, please trust the guide books and trust your hotel if they tell you not to walk in certain places! It is worth the money of the cab to stay safe-I literally feel like we were lucky to make it through there without any incident.

Food

One thing I want to mention about Vancouver's food options is that they really vary in price, but are a bit more expensive. Remember when you look at the prices of any thing there it is in Canadian dollars. Remember that as you eat and as you shop or pay for anything.  If you plan to use cash, make sure you exchange your money before you shop or eat!

There is a great website I found here that has discount coupons to Vancouver restaurants. That is a good place to look. Also, as you are walking around the city, do not be afraid to ask locals what their favorite, less expensive places to eat are.  There are many, many food options and you can find just about any type of food in any price range.

Also, when you are planning to go to Vancouver, start checking out Groupon's Vancouver site daily to see what deals you can snag there. (If you do join Groupon, I would really appreciate if you do so under my referral link here.)

Attractions and Activities

There are literally thousands to choose from. Since I have no clue what you will be interested in, can I recommend that you check out a travel guide (you can often find these at local libraries), go through it and pick the things you really want to do. One of my favorite travel books for Vancouver is the Vancouver and Victoria (Eyewitness Top Ten Travel Guides) and the Frommer's Vancouver and Victoria 2010 (Frommer's Complete).  

Remember, you cannot so it all! Pick your favorites, then start looking for discounts. Here are a few lists from me (there is way more to do that I am listing!):

Choose from these "Must see/do" for first timers
  • Stanley Park
  • Canada Place
  • Olympic Venues (of course these were just being built when I was there)
  • One of the Museums (UBC Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver Art World,  The Royal British Columbia Museum, or Science World)
  • Capilano Suspension Bridge
  • Whistler
  • Gastown/Steam Clock
  • Vancouver Aquarium in Stanley Park
How to get discounts on some on the attractions that cost:

  • Before you go, start checking Groupon's Vancouver site daily to see what deals you can snag there. (If you do join Groupon, I would really appreciate if you do so under my referral link here.)
  • Look for discounts online
  • Look in the travel books
  • Ask at the hotel for discounted deals-they often have discounts available if you ask.
  • Ask locals when you get there!
Free Attractions (My FAVORITE!!)
  • Stanley Park Many of the activities in the park are free, and I am thoroughly convinced that I could happily spend an entire week of vacation exploring Stanley Park and doing free things there and still have more to discover! It is incredible!
  • Gastown Steam Clock
  • Correction sent by reader Craig: The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is not free. The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park,  (with no tours, no authentic Chinese material, no interior spaces, and built my the Park Board instead of artisans visiting from Suzhou, China) is free
  • Canada Place
  • Play disc golf at Queen Elizabeth Park (my husband will be so sad to see this exists and we missed it!)
  • Tourism Vancouver has a list of 25 Free things to do in Vancouver here and a shorter list of Free or Almost Free things they recommend doing here.
Shopping

Check out some of the following fun and interesting shopping destinations:
  • Gastown
  • China Town
  • Robson Street
  • Granville Island
  • Pacific Centre

Conclusion

These are just the things I have learned in my Vancouver travel and research and my opinions on traveling to Vancouver. I am not the definitive Vancouver expert by any means. Please feel free to add your own tips and tricks to this and feel free to ask me any questions you might have.

Can I just show you a few pictures from my Vancouver trip to entice you further?!

Here we are in front of the famous Canada Place sails.

Lighthouse in Stanley Park

Canada Place view taken from my hotel room

Siwash Rock in Stanley Park (look it up-interesting story there)
Notice how big it is-that is my 6'1" husband on the bottom right in this picture.

Coolest tree I have ever seen (in Stanley park)

Gastown Steam Clock

Wes at the tide pools in Stanley Park
Now, don't you want to go to Vancouver?! I know I want to got back with the kids!!



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1 comments:

Craig said...

The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is not free. The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park, with no tours, no authentic Chinese material, no interior spaces, and built my the Park Board instead of artisans visiting from Suzhou, China, is free.