Getting there is truly half the fun on the Washington ferries. If you're planning a trip to Seattle, Whidbey Island, the San Juan Islands, Victoria B.C. or other parts of the Puget Sound, then taking a ferry is often your most direct route.
Ferries are fun for families because they are a novel experience for most of us, and there is plenty of space to explore and beautiful things to see. Look for orcas or other wildlife!
We've used the Washington ferries lots of times when visiting family on Whidbey Island and Seattle, but we still ran into a few snags when we planned a trip to the gorgeous San Juan Islands in Washington and Victoria, British Columbia last summer. So, I'm sharing my rookie mistakes and other tips to help you get it right the first time.
Here's what NOT to do on the Washington ferries:
Plan your itinerary without checking the ferry schedule
When we added Victoria, British Columbia to our San Juan Islands itinerary, we assumed that Washington ferries traveled between Friday Harbor and Sidney, British Columbia several times each day.
After we had already made hotel arrangements and got excited about Victoria, we learned that there was only one ferry, early in the morning. That left us with only only 12 overnight hours to enjoy the beach house we had booked at the North Beach Inn on Orcas Island.
Had we consulted the ferry schedule before we planned our itinerary, we would have done things differently. By the time we checked, it was too late to extend our stay at North Beach Inn because it was already booked.
Washington ferries are not the only ferries that travel to the vicinity of Victoria, British Columbia. There is a private ferry from Port Angeles, Washington. British Columbia has its own ferry system. Washington ferries are the only way to get to the San Juan Islands with your own car.
Check ferry schedules at the official Washington State Ferries site: www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries/
Don't make reservations
You can and should make reservations online whenever possible. This will ensure that you are not left behind on the less frequent routes. Reservations are currently available for the Port Townsend/Coupeville, Anacortes/San Juans and international service to Sidney B.C. I found it easy to make and change our reservations.
You can make your reservation up to two months in advance, when 30% of the reserved space becomes available. We missed that window, but jumped in as soon as the next 30% opened two weeks before our trip. We had no trouble getting in. The last reserved spaces open two days prior to departure.
Arrive at the last minute
If you arrive at just before the ferry is scheduled to depart, you probably will not get on – especially if you are driving on. Even if you have a reservation, you must arrive well in advance. At some ferry terminals, the next ferry will be along soon. At others, it could be a long wait.
Ferries fill quickly on summer weekends. At Mukilteo and other busy terminals, the line can back up on the highway for miles. Until you reach the pay station, there is nothing to do and nowhere to go. I recommend arriving 1-2 hours in advance and avoiding peak times of the day or week.
Once you've paid and been assigned a lane, you can get out and explore on foot if the ferry hasn't arrived yet. At Mukilteo, our children collected shells while we waited. At Anacortes, we found a picnic table and ate our lunch with a great view of the water and Mt. Baker. The terminal at Sidney B.C. has a playground and museum. The Friday Harbor ferry terminal is surrounded by shops and restaurants.
Default to drive-on
Do you really need a car at the other end of your ferry trip? You'll save a lot of money if you can leave it behind. We decided it was worth the cost and enjoyed having our van in the San Juan Islands and British Columbia, but explore all your options before you decide to drive on the ferry.
Many top attractions, restaurants and lodging in Friday Harbor are located within an easy walk of the ferry terminal. The San Juan Islands are bicycle-friendly and rentals are available in Friday Harbor. We did not need our vehicle for our whale watching or kayak tours on San Juan Island.
Forget your passport
This isn't a big deal if you will not be traveling between Canada and the U.S. on the Washington ferries. Since we did, we needed appropriate documentation for each member of our family and spent extra time getting through customs in both directions.
Adult U.S. citizens will need passports. Children under age 16 can use a birth certificate if traveling by boat or car but double check current requirements before you leave home.
Get more information and helpful State Department links in this post: Does Your Child Need a Passport?