Seattle, Portland and Vancouver are the principal hubs for flights to outlying Pacific Northwest cities, which include (but are not limited to) Oregon's Klamath Falls, Eugene, Medford and Salem and Washington's Yakima, Walla Walla, Spokane, Bellingham and Wenatchee. There are also flights from Seattle to Washington's San Juan Islands and Victoria, BC.
Cycling is a very popular recreational activity in the Pacific Northwest, and an interesting, inexpensive and environmentally friendly way to travel. Roads are good, shoulders are usually wide, and there are many decent routes for bikes. Summer is best; during other seasons, changeable weather can be a drawback, especially at high altitudes where thunderstorms are frequent. In some areas, the wind can slow your progress to a crawl (traveling west to east and north to south is generally easier than the opposite), and water sources can be far apart. Spare parts are widely available and repair shops are numerous, but it's still important to know some basic mechanical things, such as how to fix a flat tire.
Seattle, Portland and Vancouver all have great bike paths, and many streets have bike lanes. Some local buses in these cities provide bike racks, and you can also take your bike on light-rail systems, trains and ferries. On the road, cyclists are generally treated courteously by motorists. Bicycles are prohibited on interstate highways if there is a frontage road; however, where a suitable frontage road or other alternative is lacking, cyclists are permitted on some interstates.
Seattle, Portland and Vancouver are all considering implementing bike-share programs. Stay tuned.
Bicycles can be transported by air, usually in a bike bag or box, although airlines often charge an additional fee. Check this with the airline in advance, preferably before you pay for your ticket. You can hire bikes in most cities for reasonable prices. Buying a bicycle is another option, and the Pacific Northwest has lots of bike shops with a wide range of choices. For used bikes check www.craigslist.com, but beware of stolen bikes.
In Oregon, it's state law that children under 16 years old must wear helmets. In Washington mandatory helmet use varies, but most major cities or counties require them for all ages. In BC all cyclists are required to wear a helmet. In any case, helmets are easy to wear and reduce the risk of head injury.
Wearing highly reflective clothing makes you much more visible to cars, as do nightlights, which are required by law throughout most of the Pacific Northwest. Also, using the best lock you can get (usually a U-lock) is a must, as bike theft is fairly common; consider using two kinds of lock at the same time. Adding stickers and painting over expensive brand names to make your bike less desirable is another option.
Bike Rentals & Co-Ops in the Big Cities
If you are thinking of buying a bicycle, consider patronizing bike cooperatives (co-ops) – worker-owned, nonprofit organizations that repair bikes and/or take in donated bikes and refurbish them for sale. They often encourage cycling by renting bikes, supporting community biking events and organizing work-for-trade programs.
Bike Kitchen Student-run, full-service co-op that sells and rents refurbished bikes in Vancouver.
Community Cycling Center Helps cyclists – especially youths – through educational bike programs and services; in Portland.
Washington and BC have two of the largest state-owned ferry systems in the world, and these ferries access some of the most rewarding destinations in the Pacific Northwest. Some boats are passenger only, while others take both vehicles and passengers. Be aware that some summertime ferry routes can have long waits if you're in a car. Bring snacks, as ferry offerings are limited and expensive.
BC Ferries Operates most of the ferries in BC. Primary links are between Tsawwassen (south of Vancouver) and Swartz Bay (on Vancouver Island), and to Nanaimo from Tsawwassen and Horseshoe Bay. BC Ferries services also link the Gulf Islands to Tsawwassen.
Black Ball Transport Privately operated; connects Victoria, BC, with Washington's Port Angeles (on the Olympic Peninsula).
Clipper Navigation Privately operated; operates the Victoria Clipper, a passenger ferry that connects Seattle with Victoria, BC. Stops at the San Juan Islands mid-May through September, and also has whale-watching trips.
Washington State Ferries Routes, prices and schedules available on the website; fares depend on destination, vehicle size and trip duration, and are collected either for round-trip or one-way travel depending on the departure terminal. Reserve, as bookings are becoming almost mandatory for some destinations (ie the San Juan Islands).
North to Alaska
Waaay at the northwest tip of North America lies the USA's 49th state, Alaska. It's the biggest state by far, and home to stupendous mountains, massive glaciers and amazing wildlife. Mt McKinley (the continent's highest peak) is here, as are huge numbers of humpback whales and bald eagles.
Thinking of stopping in? There are daily flights to Juneau, and you could always drive (and drive and drive) – but the best way to reach Alaska is probably by ferry. Think of it like taking a cruise ship through the inside passage, but cheaper and more interesting. The trip from Bellingham to Juneau takes nearly three days, but other routes are available. For more information see www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs.
Greyhound service is relatively good but infrequent, especially in more remote areas. Greyhound buses largely stick to the interstate-freeway system, while regional carriers provide service to outlying areas. In almost all cases, these smaller bus lines share depots and information services with Greyhound.
Generally, buses are clean, comfortable and reliable. Amenities include on-board lavatories, air-conditioning and slightly reclining seats. Smoking is not permitted. Buses break for meals every three to four hours, usually at fast-food restaurants or cafeteria-style truck stops. When you buy tickets a week in advance, discounts apply.
Bus stations are often dreary places. In small towns, where there is no station, buses stop in front of a specific business; in these cases, be prepared to pay the driver with exact change.
Car & Motorcycle
Unless you're traveling between major cities, car travel is practically a must in the Pacific Northwest. Getting to all those outdoor destinations is often impossible without your own wheels, especially if you're camping. Also, gasoline is relatively inexpensive. Use of seat belts is mandatory in the USA and Canada.
For tips and rules on driving in the USA, get an Oregon or Washington Driver Handbook at any Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office, or check online at www.dol.wa.gov/driverslicense/docs/driverguide-en.pdf (Washington) and www.odot.state.or.us/forms/dmv/37.pdf (Oregon). For tips on driving in Canada, see www.driving-in.com/canada.
Keep in mind that Oregon law prohibits you from pumping your own gasoline (except on some Indian reservations) – all stations are full service, so just sit back and enjoy it.
The American Automobile Association and Canadian Automobile Association provide useful information, free maps, travel discounts and routine road services such as tire repair and towing (free within a limited radius) for their members. Similar benefits or discounts are extended to the members of foreign affiliates, such as the Automobile Association in the UK; bring your membership card from your country of origin.
It's highly recommended that foreigners driving in the Pacific Northwest get an International Driving Permit (IDP) to supplement their national or state driver's license. Note that the IDP is only valid if issued in the same country as your driver's license. Local traffic police are more likely to accept an IDP than an unfamiliar foreign license as valid identification. Your national automobile association can provide one for a small fee, and they're usually valid for one year.
Auto insurance is obligatory for car owners in the Pacific Northwest. Rates fluctuate widely, depending on where the car is registered; it's usually cheaper if registered at an address in the suburbs or in a rural area, rather than in a central city. Male drivers under the age of 25 will pay astronomical rates. Collision coverage has become very expensive, with high deductibles, and is generally not worthwhile unless the car is somewhat valuable.
Obtaining insurance, however, is not as simple as walking into an agency, filling out a form and paying for it. Many agencies refuse to insure drivers who have no car insurance – a classic catch-22. Those agencies that will do so often charge much higher rates because they presume a higher risk. The minimum term for a policy is usually six months, but some insurance companies will refund the difference on a prorated basis if the car is sold and the policy voluntarily terminated. Shop around. If you're planning to drive in both the USA and Canada, make sure your insurance is valid on both sides of the border.
Motorcycles & Scooters
With its beautiful coastline, national parks and backcountry deserts, there are some great opportunities for motorcycling in the Pacific Northwest. For foreigners, an IDP endorsed for motorcycles will simplify the rental process.
You can read motorcycle manuals at www.dol.wa.gov/driverslicense/docs/motomanual.pdf (Washington) and www.odot.state.or.us/forms/dmv/6367.pdf (Oregon). For Vancouver, check out www.icbc.com/driver-licensing/types-licences/Pages/Get-your-motorcycle-licence.aspx. Note that helmets are mandatory for both drivers and passengers.
Rentals are not cheap – motorcycles start at about $140 per day and scooters at about $75 per day. Insurance is mandatory and extra.
Cycle BC Rentals Rents motorcycles and scooters; also in Victoria.
Mountain to Sound Motorcycle Adventures Rentals and tours.
Northwest Motorcycle Adventures Rentals and tours.
If you're spending a few months in the USA and Canada, a car may be a good investment. Keep in mind, however, that purchasing can be complicated and requires plenty of research.
It is possible to purchase a viable used car for less than $2000, but it might eventually need repair work that could cost several hundred dollars or more. It doesn't hurt to spend more to get a quality vehicle – you can sometimes sell it for close to what you paid. It's also worth having a mechanic check over the vehicle for problems; AAA has diagnostic centers that can do this for members.
Check the official value of a used car by looking it up in the Kelley Blue Book (www.kbb.com), which is a listing of cars by make, model and year that gives the average resale price. Local public libraries have copies.
Recreational Vehicles (RVs)
You can drive, eat and sleep in a recreational vehicle (RV). It's easy to find campgrounds with hookups for electricity and water, but in big cities RVs are a nuisance, since there are few places to park or plug them in. They're cumbersome to navigate and they burn fuel at an alarming rate, but they solve transportation, accommodations and cooking needs in one fell swoop.
For RV rentals, check www.rvra.org. For sales, service and supplies, try www.campingworld.com. KOA (www.koa.com) offers generally excellent RV-oriented campgrounds, while a good source for general RV-travel tips is www.rvtravel.com.
Major international rental agencies have offices throughout the Pacific Northwest. To rent a car, you must have a valid driver's license, (usually) be at least 21 years of age and present a major credit card or a large cash deposit. Drivers under 25 often pay a surcharge over the regular rental.
Agencies often have bargain rates for weekend or week-long rentals, especially outside the peak seasons or in conjunction with airline tickets. Prices vary greatly depending on the type or size of car, pick-up and drop-off locations, number of drivers etc. In general, expect to pay from $30 to $60 per day for a midsize car, more in peak seasons. Rates usually include unlimited mileage, but not taxes or insurance.
You may get better rates by prebooking from your home country. If you get a fly-drive package, local taxes may be an extra charge when you collect the car. Several online travel-reservation networks have up-to-the-minute information on car-rental rates at all the main airports. Compare their rates with any fly-drive package you're considering.
Basic liability insurance covers damage you may cause to another vehicle. Rental companies are required by law to provide the minimum level set by each state, but it usually isn't enough in the event of a serious accident. Many Americans already have enough insurance coverage under their personal car-insurance policies; check your own policy carefully. Foreign visitors should check their travel-insurance policies to see if they cover foreign rental cars. Rental companies charge about $15 per day for this extra coverage.
Insurance against damage or loss to the car itself, called Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) or Loss Damage Waiver (LDW), can cost $10 to $20 per day (and may have a deductible). The CDW may be voided if you cause an accident while breaking the law, however. Again, check your own coverage to see if you have comprehensive collision insurance.
Some credit cards cover CDW for rentals up to 15 days, provided you charge the entire cost of the rental to the card. Check with your credit-card company to determine the extent of coverage.
Most of the big international rental companies have desks at airports, in all major cities and in some smaller towns.
For rates and reservations, check the internet or call toll-free:
A few backcountry roads of the Pacific Northwest region are in open-range country where cattle forage along the highway. Deer and smaller wildlife are more of a road hazard on roads all around the region, however. Pay attention to the roadside, especially at night.
During winter months – especially at the higher elevations – there will be times when tire chains are required on snowy or icy roads. Sometimes such roads will be closed to cars without chains or 4WD, so it's a good idea to keep a set of chains in the trunk. Make sure they fit your tires, and practice putting them on before you're out there next to the busy highway in the cold and dirty snow. Also note that many car-rental companies specifically prohibit the use of chains on their vehicles. Roadside services might be available to attach chains to your tires for a fee.
In the US, for distance use feet, yards and miles; for weight use ounces, pounds and tons. Canada officially uses the metric system.
Amtrak (USA) and VIA Rail (Canada) trains provide an attractive, if costly, alternative to buses for travel between major points. Amtrak's Cascades train links Vancouver, BC, to Eugene, OR – via Seattle, Portland and Salem, OR. This connects with Amtrak Thruway buses (a regional bus line under contract with Amtrak) to reach other destinations such as the Oregon coast.
A branch of Amtrak's daily Empire Builder leaves Portland and crosses to Vancouver, BC, before making its scenic run up the northern side of the Columbia River Gorge to meet the other eastbound half of the train in Spokane, WA. The Seattle branch of the Empire Builder heads north to Everett, WA, before winding east to Spokane. Note that the westbound Empire Builder divides in Spokane for Portland and Seattle: make sure you're sitting in the correct portion of the train!
One thing to know about these trains: delays can be very frequent, so don't plan on getting anywhere exactly on time.
Local Public Transport
Though local bus networks are minimally developed in the hinterlands, the bigger cities have extensive services; with some planning, you can usually get wherever you want by bus. Because these systems are aimed at the commuting workforce rather than tourists, outside of peak commuting hours service may be sparse.
Portland boasts one of the country's best public-transportation systems, with a good light-rail system, bus service and downtown streetcars. Seattle also has an excellent transit system, with light rail, a monorail and ferries. And Vancouver's no slouch, either, with great bus, train and some ferry services. All three cities have direct public-transportation connections from their city centers to their airports.