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News / Clark County News

Plane, train or automobiles? Columbian competition has staffers seeing who can get from Vancouver to Seattle the fastest

By William Seekamp, Columbian staff writer,
Craig Brown, Columbian Editor,
Sarah Wolf, Columbian staff writer, and
Taylor Balkom, Columbian photographer
Published: February 24, 2024, 6:05am
17 Photos
What is the fastest way to get from Vancouver to Seattle? Car, plane, bus or train?
What is the fastest way to get from Vancouver to Seattle? Car, plane, bus or train? (The Columbian photos) Photo Gallery

What’s the best way to get from Vancouver to Seattle?

Sure, flying is the fastest, but it only takes you as far as Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and you have to worry about the cost of a ticket and transportation to and from the airports. Driving is the most direct, but you have to be actively focused on the road the entire time, and traffic and parking can be hellish in Seattle.

Amtrak has a station in Vancouver and roomy seats, but we’ve all heard — or experienced — horror stories of Amtrak delays. The bus has similar upsides to driving and it has Wi-Fi, but it boards in Portland.

We at The Columbian decided there was only one way to settle this question. So on Feb. 7, four Columbian news staffers raced from the Pioneer Mother statue in Esther Short Park in downtown Vancouver to the Space Needle in Seattle. Sarah Wolf took FlixBus. William Seekamp drove his car. Craig Brown flew. And Taylor Balkom rode a train.

7:15 a.m. And we’re off!

Sarah hails a Lyft from Esther Short Park to Union Station in Portland, the closest FlixBus stop.

Craig hops in his car and drives to Portland International Airport.

William and Taylor fuel up at Kafiex Roasters Coffee Lab before heading to the office to fiddle with the GoPro that will be used for the time lapse of William’s drive.

7:33 a.m. Craig arrives at PDX after encountering traffic on the Interstate 205 Bridge.

7:40 a.m. Sarah arrives at the FlixBus stop in Portland. The bus arrives five minutes later.

8 a.m. Sarah’s bus leaves on time.

Craig makes it to Gate C11. Although the lobby was busy, no one was ahead of him at the security checkpoint.

8:07 a.m. Taylor arrives at the Vancouver Amtrak station after driving from The Columbian office.

8:15 a.m. Sarah’s bus passes downtown Vancouver, one hour after she departed for downtown Portland, which puts Sarah the closest to Seattle, although still within Vancouver city limits.

Taylor and William are roughly in the same spot as when they started. Craig is farther away from Seattle than when he started.

• Order: bus, train, car, plane.

8:30 a.m. Craig walks on the jet bridge and waits to board after witnessing a polite gate agent tell an elderly man with a walker that, no, this is not the flight to Miami.

8:37 a.m. The final two racers depart for Seattle. Taylor’s train arrives one minute ahead of schedule. With lots of open seats, he picks a window seat on the left side of the train for the best views.

William departs from The Columbian. His Toyota Prius’ gas tank is about 80 percent full with approximately 80 miles logged since it was last filled.

8:50 a.m. Shortly after passing the Toutle River north of Castle Rock, the alarm on Sarah’s bus starts blaring. The driver pulls over and inspects it, ultimately deciding it is nothing.

9 a.m. Craig’s flight takes off. Shortly after, the flight attendant informs the passengers there are no Biscoff Cookies or drinks due to the flight’s short duration.

9:15 a.m. Passing through Kalama, William glances to his left and sees the Seattle-bound Amtrak. Shortly after, the conductor on Taylor’s train announces it’s running 10 minutes behind schedule due to track maintenance.

The pilot on Craig’s flight announces the plane is beginning its descent into Sea-Tac.

Two hours in, Craig is the closest to Seattle. Sarah is in second somewhere between Centralia and Olympia with the bus making solid time. William and Taylor both just passed through Kalama, but Taylor is slightly ahead.

• Order: plane, bus, train, car.

9:35 a.m. From his seat in 22F, Craig snaps an aerial photo of the Space Needle.

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9:50 a.m. Craig’s flight arrives at Sea-Tac.

William passes the Uncle Sam billboard south of Chehalis. It says something about Ukraine, vaccines and World War II.

Sarah’s bus passes through Olympia. The alarm that caused the driver to pull over and investigate is still beeping periodically, but the driver seems unfazed.

10:05 a.m. William takes his first stop at the Scatter Creek Safety Rest Area, north of the Great Wolf Lodge and Grand Mound. He is back on the road after about five minutes.

10:20 a.m. Craig hops on a Sound Transit light rail train from Sea-Tac toward Westlake Station.

Sarah’s bus makes its first official layover in Tacoma. A few people depart the bus and a few board, with about 20 passengers continuing north.

Taylor’s train departs the Olympia station.

Three hours in, Craig is the closest at Sea-Tac. Sarah isn’t too far behind in Tacoma, stopped.

William and Taylor are still neck-and-neck in Olympia.

• Order: plane, bus, train, car.

10:45 a.m. William arrives in Tacoma a few minutes ahead of Taylor’s train.

11 a.m. Craig arrives at Westlake Station and heads to the monorail station but just misses it.

Taylor’s train hits its second track maintenance delay. Sarah’s bus arrives at Sea-Tac on time for its second layover.

11:15 a.m. Four hours in, Craig arrives at Seattle Center, just steps away from the Space Needle.

William sees his first glimpse of the Space Needle on the Seattle skyline as he drives through Tukwila. Shortly after, he hits stop-and-go traffic at the south end of Seattle by the sports fields.

11:20 a.m. Sarah passes by Boeing Field and sees the Space Needle shortly after.

Taylor’s train makes it to Tukwila, the last stop before King Street Station in Seattle.

Four hours into the race, Craig reaches the Space Needle. William pulled ahead of Taylor and Sarah in the past hour and is now in second place, but he is stuck in traffic at the south end of Seattle. Sarah is in third near Boeing Field, and Taylor is in Tukwila.

• Order: plane, car, bus, train.

11:30 a.m. Sarah spots Taylor’s train through the bus window.

11:40 a.m. William arrives at the Space Needle, finding public parking less than a block away.

Sarah arrives at the Seattle bus station. She hopes to avoid coming in last by hailing another Lyft rather than navigating public transit.

Taylor’s train arrives at the King Street Station a few minutes ahead of its scheduled 11:45 a.m. arrival time. He heads to the light rail station.

11:56 a.m. Sarah arrives at the Space Needle.

12:03 p.m. Taylor reaches Westlake Station and scurries up four flights of stairs to the monorail.

12:09 p.m. Taylor arrives at the Space Needle.

And the winner is…

Final order of arrival at the Space Needle:

First place: Craig on the airplane. Total travel time: 4 hours.
Second place:
William in his car. Total travel time: 3 hours.
Third place:
Sarah on the bus.Total travel time: 4:41.
Fourth place: Taylor on the train. Total travel time: 3:32.

William: Driving is hard to beat

There are great drives in America — the Pacific Coast Highway, Road to Hana and Route 66 come to mind — but Interstate 5 between Vancouver and Seattle is not one of them. For me, it is a means to an end and not something I particularly enjoy.

Aside from minor traffic at the south end of Seattle, the ride was smooth and seamless. My Prius hovered around 45 miles per gallon for most of the trip. When I filled up the tank, gas cost $26.

Driving proved to be speediest, but because I had to set up the GoPro for time-lapse photos and send out some emails before the race, I ended up finishing second behind Craig.

The drive is easy, if a bit mindless. I’ve found parking in Seattle can be hellish, but I lucked out and found a prime spot next to the Space Needle.

Driving was the fastest, cheapest and most direct option. It’s hard to beat, which is why most times I visit Seattle, I drive. Still, I don’t particularly enjoy it.

Cost breakdown: Gas $26; Parking $4.25 Total $30.25

Taylor: Take in the sights by train

I never thought I would like public transit. Why depend on someone else’s schedule to get where I need to go when I can just drive my car?

It turns out once you live in a place that actually has reliable public transit infrastructure — unlike my home state of Louisiana — you begin to fall for it.

Getting to Seattle by train was as close to effortless as I could have imagined. I didn’t have to deal with security screenings and cram myself into a tiny seat on an airplane, nor did I have to grit my teeth as a lifted pickup tailgated me on Interstate 5. Instead, I got on the train, sat in my large seat and watched the countryside roll by as I was whisked to my destination. There is a luxury to be found in going by train.

Sure, I technically lost the race to the Space Needle. But I’ll happily lose again and again if it means not having to deal with the travel part of traveling.

— Taylor Balkom

Cost breakdown: Amtrak ticket $29; Light rail $2.50; Seattle Monorail $3.50; TOTAL $35

Craig: Flying was more fun

I won the race, but I later found out William spent some time in the office before he hit the road. His total travel time was shorter. I had more fun, though.

The flight to Seattle was fast and easy, the Portland airport wasn’t busy and I beat feet out of overcrowded, under-construction Sea-Tac ASAP. Though I’d taken Sound Transit light rail once or twice before, I didn’t know the location of the airport station. Signs showed me the way. It is a bit of a hike from the terminal, but the route is under cover.

The light rail to downtown’s Westlake Station took 40 minutes, almost as long as the flight, but as a tourist, I enjoyed it. The train wasn’t full, and I had a comfortable seat where I could watch people. I’ve heard and read plenty about Seattle’s urban problems, but I saw only one small homeless encampment, and there were no unusual incidents on the train. I saw security both on the train and at Westlake Station.

I rather liked the idea of finishing up my trip with the short monorail ride. It wasn’t busy, so I got to sit up front. I remember riding the monorail and visiting Seattle Center back in the 1960s and ’70s. For a kid from Moses Lake, a vacation to Seattle was quite a thrill. The only thing missing was the Bubbleator, the fun elevator that was once found in the Armory Building.

Until next time, Seattle!

— Craig Brown

Cost breakdown: Airfare $233.10; Parking at PDX long-term garage $24; Light rail $3; Monorail $3.50; TOTAL $263.60

Sarah: ‘Still, I wouldn’t take the bus again’

I may have arrived third at the Space Needle, but, really, I came in last because my travel time was more than 4½ hours in total.

The FlixBus was new and clean. There was a restroom and Wi-Fi (albeit not great Wi-Fi).

The experience wasn’t off-putting, other than the sporadically sounding emergency alarm that didn’t seem to affect the drive. With very little traffic anywhere along our route, we arrived at every destination within minutes of the scheduled time.

No more than 20 people were on the bus at any time. While most of the ride was silent, at the beginning, a woman shared her snacks with some young, starving basketball players who had just flown in from Florida.

Still, I wouldn’t take the bus again. Backtracking through Portland during rush hour added an extra hour to my time, which annoyed me most of the drive. Besides that, the price — which included an extra $4 fee to reserve a seat — was more than my co-worker’s train ticket. And he didn’t have to go to Portland to board his train.

—Sarah Wolf

Cost breakdown: FlixBus base ticket $26.49; FlixBus seat reservation fee $4.39; Lyft ride from Esther Short Park to FlixBus bus stop in Portland, including tip $53.99; Lyft ride from Seattle bus station to Space Needle, including tip $30.54; Total $115.41

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.