For long-term travelers, booking plane tickets can leave a serious dent in one’s pocket. Over the course of eight months, I’ve already taken seven plane rides. That’s about one ride every month!
Since I needed to leave Canada by March 13th (end of validity of visa) and I’d watch Taylor Swift’s concert in Seattle in May, I decided I’d postpone Mexico until after Seattle. Instead of flying from Vancouver to Seattle, I looked for cheaper alternatives to go to the US. I found out that I could cross the US-Canada land border by taking a bus or train from Vancouver to cities in Washington, Oregon, and California.
I stumbled upon Amtrak, which has trains that service the Vancouver-Seattle route daily for about $40. How fortunate! I could actually take a train and cross into Washington very cheaply. 🙂 In my last week with my host family, I impulsively rebooked my trip from the 3rd to the 10th of March. It was a full week, because I felt too attached to Vancouver, I wasn’t ready to leave just yet.
This post’s featured image shows the facade of Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station where bus and train services are available. I arrived in downtown Vancouver in the evening of March 9th, though my trip was not until 6 AM the following morning. The SkyTrain wouldn’t operate until 6 AM on Saturday, and taking a cab from Surrey to downtown Vancouver would be horrendously expensive. So where did I kill time? In McDonald’s, of course! 😀
I arrived at Pacific Central Station at 5 AM, which was more than a hour before my trip. There were documents to fill out such as the customs declaration form. I was first in line so, when the seats were assigned, I got the best seat that afforded views of the coastal Pacific Northwest. I was surprised to know that Canada doesn’t have border controls when exiting, so nobody would call you out if you had overstayed.
Another surprise was that US immigration and customs clearance were both done right at Pacific Central Station in Vancouver, even before you board the train! In spite of the astonishment when I saw the immigration officers, I was able to clear immigration quickly. After all the preparation I’d done, I expected a more terrifying immigration experience. Instead, I was asked only three questions:
- Where are you going? I’m going to Mukilteo, Washington to visit friends.
- How long will you be there? Just two months.
- When was the last time you visited the US? I spent 2007-2008 as an exchange student in North Dakota.
Then the immigration officer stamped my passport. That was it? Yeah, it had to be my second fastest immigration experience. I could stay in the US for six months. After that, I was asked to pay $6 for my I-94 record. This form had to be paid by everyone entering the US via land border. I was unaware of it, and neither did the Amtrak website inform travelers about such requirement.
Okay, fine, it was just $6. But the real problem was that I didn’t have US dollars in cash. Since I was expecting to get off the train at a train station in the US, I was convinced I didn’t need US dollars yet. After all, ATMs are all over the place once I’m at the city center. Anyway, I tried to pay in Canadian dollars but the officer would refuse to take it. Fine, I still had my Visa card…except that my bank was undergoing maintenance that time and my card was totally dysfunctional. “Shoot! Misfortune chose to meet me here. Will this officer decide to take back the stamp if I can’t produce the money?”
Then another woman entered the office and was asked to pay $6, too. I mustered the courage to borrow money from her. How embarrassing!
Me: Hey, sorry, I don’t have US dollars right now. Would you mind lending me $6? I’ll pay you when we get off the train.
Woman: Sorry? My English is not good.
Me: Where are you from?
Me: (Oh, she’s Japanese!)
(Then I started conversing with her in Japanese.)
Me: I’m Ryan from the Philippines. I’m a traveler, and I speak Japanese. I didn’t bring US dollars, but I have to pay $6 now for my I-94. May I borrow $6 from you? I promise I’ll repay you later when we get off the train.
W: Wow, your Japanese is perfect. Yeah, yeah. No problem.
Me: Thank you very much!!!
W: Are you going to Seattle, too?
Me: Yes, I’ll get off at King Street Station. There should be ATMs there.
In the end, she refused to let me pay her back. She said she gave it to me as a gift and that she hoped I’d continue learning Japanese. 🙂
The train’s interior was really splendid. I’ve taken trains a couple of times, but this was my most luxurious to date (if you’d call it luxurious). The seats were clean and there was enough legroom. Complimentary magazines were available, too. Though the washroom was basic, at least it didn’t stink. The food service area was located in one of the coaches, but I didn’t bother going there because I packed my own sandwiches and fruits. It was just a 4.5-hour drive. It was painless to avoid overpriced train food.
I was seated with an American studying in Canada. She’s been traveling around the US, too, but has never met a Filipino traveler in either the US or Canada. She, too, was on her way to Seattle, but hers was for a different reason. She just had excess money from her part-time job, and she thought it’d be cool to eat pizza and sample beers in Seattle. How extravagant, I thought. 😀
We reached the US border after just an hour. We saw cars lining up outside, but Amtrak passengers didn’t have to move outside. The US Customs officers hopped on our train and collected our customs declaration form. It was a breezy inspection and took merely 10 minutes for the whole train.
In the remaining three hours of train travel, we were treated to impressive views of the Pacific Northwest’s oceans. Snow-capped mountains graced the background like pure spectacle. Like wide-eyed children, the passengers marveled at the occasional eagles, kayaks, and yachts that dotted the scenery. Sleepy though I was, I couldn’t spend even one minute sleeping for fear that I’d miss something on our way.
I read that this train ride is one of the most spectacular routes in the world, and I was convinced that it is. For $40, I gained far more than I paid for. Flying may be faster by a few hours, and I could stay in the airport (instead of McDonald’s) while waiting for my flight. But, I would also miss the beautiful oceans and mountains and the convenience of not having to pay for checked luggage. Besides, people seemed more cheerful on the train that I took than in an airplane. So if you’re in British Columbia and would like to see the Pacific Northwest, I urge you to take Amtrak instead of flying. I swear it’s worth it!
Before we knew it, we were already in Seattle. I took my belongings and got off the train. I didn’t have to worry about waiting for my checked luggage. It was a sunny morning, and the skyscrapers looked majestic and victorious. Am I really in the US already? Is this Washington? Yes, I am. Yes, it is. And it’ll be your home for the next two months before you see Taylor Swift. 🙂