Our ferry system is the largest in the United States in terms of fleet size and capacity, and operates in some of the most beautiful waters of the region. Even on routine morning commutes it's possible to see whales, porpoise and other marine life from the decks, and you get unparalleled views of the mountains, Seattle skyline and the water.
On the flip side: the system is big and complex, carrying 22 million people and 10 million cars a year, and it's designed for transportation efficiency more than tourist charm. The system is fragile due to aging boats and terminals that are over their design capacities. You're also operating in a marine environment with unpredictable weather and large tidal swings. That said, it's a bigger tourist attraction than the Space Needle, so, y'know, best we know something about it.
There are four situations where visitors to Seattle might want to use the Washington State Ferries:
- A scenic ride back and forth, walking on to the boat
- An adventurous expedition by bike or foot
- An adventurous touristic jaunt by car
- Actually getting somewhere by a specific time by car
All are perfectly reasonable ways to enjoy the ferry and could use some local color beyond the information you'll find at the official website, http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries/
A Scenic Ride Back And Forth
Most visitors to downtown Seattle who want an alternative to a harbor cruise will choose either the Seattle-Bremerton or Seattle-Bainbridge ferries. Which is best? Depends on the time you have available. Boats run all day, from roughly 5AM to 2AM. Please check the official schedules for details specific to your days of travel. Seating is at a premium on the Bainbridge boat on early morning sailings *to Seattle* and evening sailings *from* Seattle, but there is always enough space for walk-on passengers - in 15 years of heavy ferry use, I've been denied boarding due to capacity only once, on the day of the Super Bowl victory parade (GO HAWKS) - you will always get on board.
is definitely more scenic - the boat winds through a narrow passage between a tree-lined peninsula and an island, and arrives next to a naval base with aircraft carriers and other large ships. The sailing time is right at an hour each way and departures are roughly every 1:15 through the day. I'll cover what your options are for lingering in Bremerton in the "touristic jaunt" section below.
is a quicker hit - approximately 35 minutes each way, open water across the bay, ending in a working harbor with moderate picturesque value. You get the same skyline, mountain and water views, but with a shorter trip you have less chance of seeing marine life.
Both routes sail from Pier 52, which is at the west (water) end of Marion Street. You can approach the terminal from the waterfront level (Alaskan Way & Marion St, best if you're already on Alaskan) or via an elevated walkway from 1st and Marion (best if you're already in downtown).
Sailing schedules are on the website - walk-on passengers need to arrive at the terminal at least 5 minutes before sailing time to purchase a ticket and board.
How to pay and board
: Automated kiosks sell full-price adult tickets by Visa, MasterCard or American Express - for senior or youth fares, or to pay with cash, see a ticket seller at the counter. If you're paying with an ORCA card and need more than one person paid per card, see the seller as well. If everyone is an adult with their own ORCA card, just tap at the turnstile and board.
Round Trip: Both routes require that you and everything you brought on briefly disembark the vessel to allow a security sweep - if your trip is westbound-eastbound, you can just remain in the covered walkway area. If your trip started from the west side and you're now headed back to Bremerton/Bainbridge, you'll need to enter the terminal building and pay, then board through the turnstiles.
$8 for adults, $4 for 6-18 and > 65, free before your sixth birthday. Fares for walk-on passengers are only collected westbound on these routes, so there's no need to ask for a "round trip" ticket and mark yourself as a tourist.
The terminal has decent washrooms, a newsstand, coffee, Subway, burritos and a small bar/bistro. There are no power outlets to charge phones/etc. Seating is somewhat limited and gets crowded just before boat departures.
Onboard, there are individual seats, booth-type seating with and without tables, and open decks with covered and uncovered seating. Power outlets can be found near selected indoor bench seats. There is no smoking on board (even in your car). Washington state's fine legal recreational marijuana is technically not legal on the ferry system, due to conflicts between state law and federal regulations, but there are not regular enforcement activities.
During commute hours until about 8:30 pm, there is a cafeteria serving second-rate hot-case burgers/premade sandwiches and surprisingly delicious clam chowder from Ivar's (legendary local seafood restaurants). There's also local beer and wine available, but you can't (officially) take adult beverages to the open decks for consumption. Vending is also available. It's perfectly fine to bring takeout onto the boat - you could pick up Ivar's fish and chips about a block north of the terminal on Alaskan Way, for example. And who *really* would know what's in your commuter mug? *cough*.
: The boats on these routes are fully ADA compliant. There are elevators in the terminals and onboard. The walk from the street to the boat can be substantial and involve moderate grade (10%) - there are power chairs available from the terminal door to the boat - see any of the uniformed terminal staff for assistance.
: On the Bainbridge boats, there are two small seating salons accessed via stairs or elevators to the sun deck - these are traditionally quiet areas and are a great place to read and watch the scenery, but please be aware of the other passengers.
A bike or foot expedition
Bremerton has a really limited set of things to do for visitors walking or biking onboard (Naval Museum, park next to ferry terminal with water features, Anthony's Restaurant (highly reliable seafood adjacent to the ferry terminal)). My ONE exception to this is provided to fans of prolific romance author Debbie Macomber; Port Orchard is the prototype for Cedar Cove in the books (but not the Hallmark show, which is shot in nearby Gig Harbor). If you simply must experience the magic of Cedar Cove, use the Kitsap Transit Foot Ferry - just follow the signs as you offload the Washington State Ferry. A seven minute ride in an actual floating museum (really) will take you to "Cedar Cove". Don't say I didn't warn you.
Bainbridge Island, however, is a beautiful forest-and-fields island with a downtown village heavy on the charm and upscale boutique shopping, critically-acclaimed restaurants (Hitchcock and Marche being two favorites), excellent cycling routes, a new museum, a Saturday farmer's market, a picturesque small boat harbor - the places is just precious as all hell (I used to live in downtown Winslow - I may be a trifle biased - I now live near "Cedar Cove" and wonder what I was thinking moving, but I digress). It's a short, moderately level walk from the ferry terminal to downtown Winslow and the various activities. The wineries on the island are not really walkable and transit is pretty thin, but there is a tasting room in downtown. A plethora of information about things to do is available at http://visitbainbridge.com/
A new enhancement to getting around Bainbridge is the open-to-anyone BI Ride dial-a-ride service - details at http://www.kitsaptransit.com/how-to-ride/dial-a-ride
- it can get you to the wineries, the magnificent Bloedel Reserve gardens or pretty much anywhere. Hours and space are limited, but it's cheap. Cabs are also available on the island. Find one at the pedestrian exit of the ferry terminal - they are shared minivan service so you may meet a local or two or three!
A bike really opens up Bainbridge Island - http://www.kaidelsportswear.com/page...and-washington
has specific routes and bike-centric information.
Bicycle boarding for the ferries takes place from the Alaskan Way level entrances. The situation is in flux due to construction on the waterfront and adjacent roadways. Follow the signage.
If you are a serious cyclist and would like to explore another island, I would also recommend considering Vashon Island. You can access the island via King County Water Taxi (previous post) but you'll need to get a pretty early start to the day. Alternatively, take Rapid Ride C to the Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal (room for three bikes per bus, buses every 7-10 minutes during the day, about 30 minutes from downtown by bus) and sail to Vashon Island from there. There is extensive information about what you can find on Vashon at http://www.stov.us/activities/bikeMaps.html
. I really can't recommend Vashon by foot/transit though - it's just too rural to make it work well. I also don't recommend Southworth (Kitsap Peninsula) as there is nothing of note within a 15-minute drive of the ferry terminal, and the riding is not great.
A Car Jaunt
I beg you to reconsider if you're just doing an over-and-back or exploring Winslow; please don't drive onto the ferry unless you have severe mobility limitations. The summer season is wildly popular, boats commonly overload for cars during peak hours and we raise the fares 40% for people buying a ride at a time. There's scads of parking available in private garages and some street parking near the ferry terminals, so please, please, please consider walking on. It's HIGHLY UNLIKELY that you would be able to drive off the ferry, get turned around and pay again, and board the boat you just arrived on. It's just unpleasant as hell and sitting in a hot car waiting to load can make even the most cordial traveller lose their sanity.
If you want to explore beyond what foot, bike or shared ride options can reasonable offer, welcome onboard! The options for scenic day or multi-day trips are well beyond what I can provide here, but here is some general guidance:
1) Cars pay both directions. Fares range from $14 to $64 each way depending on the route - most leaving from the greater Seattle area are $15 or so. The walk-on fares apply for everyone else in the car, westbound only.
2) The boats overload. There is information on delays at http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries/schedule/bulletin.aspx
- figure on arriving an hour before departure during commute periods, 20 minutes for mid-day sailings.
3) None of this logic applies on the weekends - the delays are random and can be MUCH WORSE (two to three hours is routine on sunny summer weekends, holiday or otherwise). Pack your patience or have an alternate plan.
Great day trips with the ferries include loops driving south to Tacoma and returning via Vashon Island (Pt Defiance/Talequah and Vashon-Fauntleroy boats), Seattle-Bremerton and then returning via Bainbridge Island or Kingston, or Mukilteo-Clinton to explore Whidbey Island and either return ferry or drive back via spectacular Deception Pass and Anacortes. All of these routes will really show you a side of the natural beauty of life on the water here in our area and let you reach places with interesting shopping, dining, parks, beaches, wineries and more. Vehicle reservations are available for some routes on the official website at http://wsdot.wa.gov/ferries
- if you're pretty sure about your travel plans and a reservation is available, make use of them. Most of the "commuter" routes we've discussed in detail are not reservations routes.
Ferry service to Vancouver Island, BC (Victoria/Sidney) is available, but it's really not suited to a day trip and you'll probably be visiting Victoria when you sail round-trip to Alaska from Seattle. I'd allow at least an overnight. In general, Washington State Ferries is not the best way to go as a foot passenger either (use the Victoria Clipper from Seattle, the Black Ball ferry from Port Angeles or the BC ferries from Tsawwassen/Vancouver).
The area around Pier 52 (Colman Dock, AKA the Seattle terminal) is under construction and will be for the next several years. Please pay close attention to signage for how to approach the ferry terminal by car - GPS is likely to be dead wrong, phone apps a little better. Allow extra time on the Seattle side to get headed the right direction and watch out for pedestrians and construction equipment.
Simply getting from Point A to Point B via car and ferry:
When choosing a ferry to simply get across the water as quickly and efficiently as possible by car, the map and schedule don't tell the whole tale. Aside from the advice above, consider these points for pragmatic trips:
1) Routes across the Sound (excluding the San Juan Islands and BC) are mostly all the same price. Don't think that half the crossing time means half the money. Pick by where you are, where you want to end up, how busy the system is at the moment and your tolerance for delay risk.
2) The longest trip is from Bremerton to Seattle at just over an hour - other routes are 25-45 minute crossing times. The advantages to the Bremerton boat is that you generally face less risk of overload / can arrive closer to sailing time and that you end up smack dab in downtown Seattle.
3) The Bainbridge Island and Kingston boats run most frequently and have shortest crossing times, but are prone to the worst delays, including outside of commute hours.
3) Sometimes you don't want to end up smack in downtown Seattle - if you are touring on the west side of the water and are ending up back at the airport, take either the Southworth-Fauntleroy ferry to West Seattle or drive around via the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and cut out the downtown-to-airport traffic. Conversely, if you want to end up north of downtown, consider Kingston-Edmonds.
4) When the system goes into chaos, and you're not on Whidbey Island (Clinton, Keystone, Oak Harbor, Coupeville, Penn Cove), either drive to a terminal with shorter wait time, or drive around via Hwys 3/16/I-5 and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. This applies to Kingston, Bainbridge Island, Bremerton or Southworth. If you're stuck on Vashon, and can't fend off the neohippies for one more minute, ask the dock personnel if you'd be better off to drive to the other end of the island and use the other ferry.
Drive times from Kingston or Bainbridge Island to downtown Seattle are a predictable 1:30 or less - the airport is a predictable 1:15 or less. Bremerton and Southworth drive times are about :15 shorter. The routes are very well signed and easy to follow. The bridge is a toll bridge ($5 eastbound or so) that takes cash or cards. If you are racing to make a flight, and the line for the tollbooth is long, stay on the main lanes of the highway and the video tolling system will send the rental car company the bill with a "convenience fee". Flights leaving Seattle during high season operate full and missing a flight here can be a major inconvenience, so that that five minutes saved could change the game.
I hope this is helpful.