BC Ferries to start accepting debit cards on some sailings

Swartz Bay ferry terminal | Adrian Lam, Times Colonist

BC Ferries is accepting debit cards on its Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen vessels.

The corporation has started a two-month test of debit cards, beginning with the Spirit of British Columbia on Wednesday and expanding today to all vessels serving BC Ferries’ busiest route.

Despite the widespread use of debit cards, BC Ferries has been accepting cash and credit cards only for purchases of food and merchandise on its vessels.

“Customers have been asking about this [debit cards] as a payment option so it is really about customer service,” said Darin Guenette, BC Ferries spokesman.

BC Ferries has not been able to accept debit cards because its ships did not have a cellular system that provided a constant, reliable connection. That’s needed with debit cards so that account balances can be checked to make sure there’s enough money to cover a purchase.

A new system has been installed that maintains a connection 99 to 100 per cent of the time while the ships are moving. “We never had the assurance that we would have near-perfect connectivity and that’s what you need for debit. You need real-time connectivity all the time,” Guenette said.

The corporation has also been installing terminals to allow customers to tap cards or type in PINs. In the past, employees would take the cards and swipe them through a terminal.

“When we installed PIN pads, we were able to essentially work on this connectivity improvement at the same time,” Guenette said.

If successful, debit cards will likely expand to routes out of Duke Point and Departure Bay in Nanaimo, he said.

Most foot-passenger terminals do not accept debit. That will be a logical area for debit if the trial succeeds, Guenette said.

But there are no plans to accept debit cards at vehicle booths because $100 is the highest amount that can be tapped, and vehicle and occupant fares are often above that amount, Guenette said. Drivers would have to use a PIN pad to authorize amounts above $100, and that takes too much time. Cash and credit cards can be used to pay at vehicle booths; credit cards are swiped by the ticket agent.

“What we don’t want is anything that slows down, even by seconds, the thousands of cars that are going through ticket booths,” Guenette said.

It’s unlikely debit will be rolled out on all ferries because some are so small they have only vending machines.

Times Colonist