Water is a way of life in the Pacific Northwest. From the vast Pacific Ocean to the resource-rich Salish Sea, our world is cleansed with the daily tides that bring in life and wash away the rest. In the early days, before roads dissected the lands around Washington State, hundreds of small boats known as “Mosquito Fleet” dotted the salty waterways, transporting people and goods to and from their rugged settlements. Hotels even sprung up, like the Tokeland Hotel on Willapa Bay, to serve weary travelers working their way between the largest cities of the day. Today, there is a smaller footprint of public boat transport for regular citizens, but still just as vital to the success of Washington State and it’s easy to navigate the ferries traversing the Puget Sound.
This article outlines the Washington State ferry system and how to plan ahead for a fantastic voyage.
The ferries run year-round from 20 (Sidney in BC not currently running due to COVID-19 pandemic) ports in the Puget Sound area. There are other non-state-run entities that also serve smaller, more specific markets, like King County Ferries, and resources for these options are listed at the bottom of this article. I’ll focus on the Washington State Ferry System, which is technically part of the Department of Transportation Highway System and covers most of the popular routes and destinations.
Get the lay of the land — where do the Washington State ferries run?
Aside from a few terminals like Seattle and Anacortes that run multiple destinations, most of the ferry routes are isolated back and forth, so some other form of transportation is required to get between two locations. For example, the Whidbey Island ferries utilize Clinton and Coupeville to get to Mukilteo and Port Townsend, respectively, but are located 26 miles apart on the long narrow island. The ferries that circle through the San Juan Islands offer milk run type loops connecting the main islands as well as a few direct options to Orcas and San Juan Island.
The official WSDOT ferry map below outlines the vertical nature of the Salish Sea and can help to offer a better perspective on the area and planning. Below three distance sections are divided out for a closer, more regional perspective.
Ferry from Anacortes to San Juan Islands
Anacortes is the gateway to the San Juan Islands and normally offers a ferry option to Sidney, which is on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. At the time of this writing there are no ferries offered between the US and Canada due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whidbey Island ferries and Olympic Peninsula
Although Whidbey Island is reachable by bridge on the north end (via dramatic Deception Pass,) the short boat between Mukilteo and Clinton saves a lot of time when traveling to the more southern parts of the island. Coupeville to Port Townsend is a nice option to either create a loop or head onward to the Olympic Peninsula.
Seattle ferries to Olympic Peninsula and Vashon Island ferries
The Seattle ferry terminal is right downtown, which is convenient for people using public transportation. The Seattle ferries offer some of the best views of the Emerald City from the water. Bainbridge Island is always a good bet for onward travel to the Olympic Peninsula and Bremerton, great for reaching Hood Canal. Both locations can also be reached by driving over the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, but the time savings depends on traffic. Vashon is truly an island with no options but ferry, kayak or swimming.
How much do Washington State Ferries cost?
The cost of course depends on many things, such as the distance of trip and mode of transportation — walking on, biking, motorcycle, car or Semi-truck. In most cases, bicycle riders pay the passenger fare plus $1 bike surcharge (see below for San Juan Islands.) Except Coupeville to Port Townsend, foot passengers pay round-trip for entry on the mainland side of the route (Seattle, Fauntleroy, Anacortes) and then freely board without paying on the return. Vehicle travel to San Juan Islands and Vashon Island pay a round-trip fare on the mainland port. For up-to-date and specific fare information, check out the official WSDOT site. The ORCA card system also works for ferries departing Seattle.
The San Juan Islands are very popular in the Summer, or peak season, which runs from May 1 – September 30 and prices are adjusted upward accordingly. Fares are sold in round-trip bundles from Anacortes so return trips are straightforward, with no ticket transactions. The bike surcharge is $2 in regular season and $4 peak. Foot passenger traffic is $13.75 to all islands (round-trip) and free when traveling between the islands.
Here are a few sample fares that are accurate as of the time of this writing.
- Seattle to Bainbridge, adult passenger (walk-on, round-trip): $9.05
- Seattle to Bainbridge, standard car (round-trip): $40.05
- Vashon Island to either Point Defiance or Fauntleroy, standard car (round-trip): $25.95
- Anacortes to Orcas Island (San Juans), standard car (round-trip): $41.95 (peak $56.55)
Save time at the ticket booth and minimize contact by purchasing online at Wave2Go Online Ticket Purchasing. Also, for frequent visits to the San Juan Islands, a 5-pack bundle is available for Anacortes sailings that equates to $33 per trip. Other high-frequency products are available for commuters, usually sold in 20 trip bundles.
Navigate reservations on Washington State ferries
As mentioned above, the San Juan Islands are a slice of heaven in the Summer season and the world has figured this out. Demand is strong year-round but extremely high in the summer, to the point that most ferries are full (for vehicle traffic.) In the past, it was grueling to wait in line only to not get on the ferry for sometimes days, so the system was adjusted to allow reservations ahead of time. Still, the demand is such that ferries sell out well in advance, so be warned this is a gamble to show up at the last minute. About 10% of the sailing space is held for standby traffic, so although risky, there is a chance to sail last minute. Passenger or bike only is still fairly flexible because each boat can hold several hundred people.
Reservations are available on three routes: Anacortes to the San Juan Islands, San Juan Islands to Sidney BC (currently not sailing due to the COVID-19 pandemic), and Coupeville to Port Townsend, which is very popular in the Summer months for Olympic Peninsula loop traffic. 2020 has been an unusual year for sailing schedules and therefore the reservation inventory is released closer to the dates of travel. Normally, however, inventory is released about two months before the start of the sailing season.
Note that while reservations guarantee space on a particular ferry, you must be through the gate at least 30 minutes before sailing time or space is forfeited to standby traffic. Keep in mind that on busy days the queue can back up well before the ticket booth, so it’s usually suggested to arrive around 45-60 minutes in advance, just to be sure. While the reservation fee is paid in advance, remember that the actual sailing fare is collected at the ferry terminal.
For last-minute travel it might be helpful to try securing a reservation around 5 pm the day before sailing since those holding reservations must cancel by this deadline to receive money back.
Here are the general steps to making a reservation:
- Head to the Washington State Ferries Vehicle Reservation site.
- Complete the three areas of required information — the route, the date, the vehicle information. Select “Show Availability.”
- Section #4, “Select a sailing”, will offer the available options. “Full/Standby Only” means reservations are not available but it might be possible to get on the sailing via standby on the day of departure. “More Information” normally means additional space may be released closer to the sailing date, but hover over the words to get the particular message. “Space available” indicates that the sailing can be reserved.
- Select a sailing, if available. The no show fee (usually between $8 – $20) is charged at the time of reservation and does not include the sailing fare. See below for information on cancellation.
- Click through the confirmation to prove not to be a robot and “Add to Cart.” At this point there is an option to also book the return trip, or continue with the one way.
- Click “Checkout” which will allow you to purchase as guest, create an account or use an existing account. Changes are easier to make if you create an account.
- Continue through the checkout process, which includes the disclaimer agreements and payment information.
- Consider purchasing the sailing fare ahead of time with Wave2Go Online Ticket Purchasing.
Changing Your Reservation
Reservations on the Anacortes/San Juan Islands; Anacortes/Sidney, B.C.; and Port Townsend/Coupeville routes cannot be changed less than two hours before the reserved sailing time.
Reservations on all routes can be changed only one time after 5 p.m. the day before departure. Once a reservation is changed after 5 p.m. on the day before departure, the reservation cannot be changed again and will incur a No-Show fee if cancelled.
Cancelling Your Reservation
Reservations must be cancelled by 5 p.m. on the day before the reserved sailing; cancellations made after 5 p.m. on the day before the reserved sailing will result in a No-Show fee.
What to expect on a Washignton State ferry experience
The ferry system runs very efficiently in terms of getting passengers and vehicles on and off quickly. Purchasing the sailing fare ahead of time can make the process run more smoothly but the ticket booth agents are friendly and have a contactless system of projecting the credit card reader out to the vehicle with a selfie stick type contraption. I always confirm the sailing time just in case there are delays. Once payment is made, they’ll instruct which lane or lanes to enter in order to line up. Park in the instructed queue and turn off the vehicle. It’s okay to leave the car but keep ears turned on for boarding announcements, or try to be back to the vehicle when the ferry pulls into the dock, usually within 10 minutes of sailing time.
Car drivers — be sure to disarm the vehicle alarm if planning to go up on deck. Nothing annoys other passengers and crew more than a cacophony of sirens bellowing through the steel walls during an otherwise peaceful sailing.
Seattle Coleman Dock
This busy wharf area is under massive construction at the time of this writing, and traffic directions change. Be sure to pay attention to the instructions given at the ticket booth because there are ferries running to both Bainbridge Island and Bremerton. Also verify with the cashier the sailing time and/or delays. The new passenger terminal is very nice and efficient and can be reached either by the ground level on Alaskan Way or by the Marion Street Ferry Walkway that starts at Marion and 1st Avenue (near a Starbucks.). Note for foot passengers that Kitsap and King County ferries depart from a different section of the Coleman Dock and during construction read wayfinding signs carefully.
Ferry line etiquette
Many of the larger ferry terminals offer plenty of space for cars to queue up after the ticket booth on normal days. However, during peak times it’s possible to wait for a ferry or two, usually in a line that forms on the shoulder of the roadway leading to the dock. Don’t cut in line and be sure to read the markings on the pavement that read, “Do not block,” to prevent boxing in neighbors or emergency equipment.
Services and amenities
Most of the ferry docks could be considered to have limited to no food and beverage amenities within earshot of the boat, so be prepared. Vashon feels the most limited and many others have at least bathrooms and a coffee stand. Seattle is downtown around many options and I like Bremerton’s waterfront walk with an Anthony’s seafood restaurant and a few other amenities. Kingston offers coffee and ice cream and a cute Main Street just before the ticket booths. Coupeville is very simple and Port Townsend is near the center of town and close enough to a few things. Anacortes is a great little town but the ferry terminal is rather sparse. The San Juan Islands are very simple stations, but I love the little market/sandwich shop just at the entrance to Orcas Island dock. With a long wait, Bainbridge is close to a lovely waterfront walk that leads to a Main Street with lots of activity, and Edmonds offers a similar feel.
Navigate the Washington State Ferry sailing
The sailing is the best part — the heavy hum of the engines just as the feeling of disconnect from the dock slightly rocks away. In pre-COVID times, most ferries had well run canteens with a variety of warm and cold options, including wine and beer. Today they are mostly closed and taped off from passenger use. All the vessels have in-service restrooms and cell service is usually very strong on most sailings around the Seattle area (the San Juan sailings are hit and miss.) Except strictly outlined service animals, other pets are not allowed off the car decks. Protective masks are required when not in the vehicle.
The best views of Seattle and much more
Climb to the higher decks and run outside to the wild free salty air as the ferry chugs along. The skyline of Seattle is spectacular in any weather condition, and on a clear day, sailings to Vashon, Bainbridge and Bremerton reveal majestic Mt. Rainier hovering over the water. Coupeville to Port Townsend opens up the heavens of the Olympic Mountains and the cruise amongst the San Juan Islands is soul cleansing.
Navigate other ferry services in the Puget Sound area
Following is a guide to sites that provide information for the other entities that operate ferry services in and around the Salish Sea, including to Alaska and British Columbia. At the time of this writing, services between the United States and Canada are suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ll include them as knowledge for future dates. The listings are in order of south to north and might not be exhaustive.
I hope this article was helpful to navigate the Washington State Ferry system — may you have an outstanding adventure. If you’re interested in other information about the area visit The Pacific Northwest page, with more ideas to explore this beautiful area.
Rent a Tesla for a day trip around Washington State
Are you Tesla-curious but have no way to try out this electric ride? Take Michael’s Tesla-S for a trip on the ferry. The rental is handled completely through the Turo.com website, which is similar to Airbnb for cars. This is a great way to explore the innovation of an amazing vehicle. Click the tile below to jump to the full listing and all the information.
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