The previous section, Getting to Tsawwaasen, details how to reach the ferry with or without a bike.
The infrequency of ferry service to the Gulf Islands means special attention must be paid to logistics. The tweak-meisters at both the ferry corporation and TransLink are notorious for making bizarre, ill-thought out changes to scheduling so verify the schedule wherever possible before setting out. Published schedules tend to be fraught with caveats and exceptions and inconsistencies so pay close attention to footnotes. Expect a travel time of approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes between boarding SkyTrain in downtown Vancouver and boarding the ferry.
The bus schedule is optimized for reaching Swartz Bay [Victoria] on Vancouver Island more or less efficiently and the Gulf Islands routing suffers as a consequence. In many cases, the bus arrives within moments of the smaller ferry sailing. BC Ferries has instituted a policy of closing the ticket gate 10 minutes prior to any sailing making an assured departure impossible.
Use online trip planning tools to generate an optimized schedule for your circumstances. Start off with a target departure time from the BC Ferries website. Then work backwards using the scheduling applets at TransLink.
If departing from downtown Vancouver then you'll be taking the Canada Line from Vancouver City Centre station right to the end at Bridgeport Station. Pick up the #620 bus, Tsawwaasen Via Ladner Exchange, from Bay 12.
If you happen to miss a ferry, despair not. A simple if somewhat time-consuming work-around exists. Instead of taking the direct ferry to the Gulf Islands it is possible to take the much more frequent Swartz Bay-bound ferry and, after arriving, turn right around and hop on a ferry to the Gulf Island of your choice. If you you are short of time skip buying a ticket at the distant entry gate and purchase one from the purser onboard instead. This routing is ideal for reaching the southern end of Saltspring Island in a timely fashion. Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay ferries run hourly in the summer high season and every other hour on the odd hour in the low season starting at 7:00 AM with the final sailing each day at 9:00 PM.
One other approach requires ample time to cycle first to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island then south to Crofton where a small commuter ferry frequently connects with Saltspring Island. From Ladysmith onward you'll leave the Island Highway behind, opting for the more scenic highway 1A instead. Be sure to get acquainted with the scenic community of Chemainus en route.
When BC Car-Free was written, there wasn't a SmartPhone in sight. There were a lot of dumb ones, mostly landlines [how quaint!] and the odd – very odd – handheld "mobile" that looked more like a refrigerator than a phone. Consequently, we included a great deal of information in the original print version that would be redundant, and soon dated, if we tried to repeat that in this redux. For more precise scheduling options any of the following will work.
Translink Website: In Vancouver, follow the link on PC or mobile to plot the best routing between your current location and your destination. Surprisingly, there isn't an app for that.
Next Bus: Also a service of Translink, Next Bus provides real-time info on that bus that was supposed to have arrived 10 minutes ago. Input the the bus route or bus stop number from the top of the bus marquee for more current schedule information.
Google Maps: Also provides routing and scheduling of transit options just about anywhere in the world on any platform. It works well in BC, less so in exotic overseas locales. Google Maps has the added benefit of allowing you to input start and end coordinates visually when the precise address is unknown.
Transit App: Available for Android or iOS, Transit also has a more or less global reach.
Transit DB: Another popular dedicated app that at present is only available for Android.