Because I surf, paddle and hike regularly on the Olympic Peninsula and live in North Seattle, I take the ferries often. Use this Washington State Ferries Travel Tips guide to find out best times to travel so you avoid long waits, especially in peak seasons.
These tips are a result of years of missing boats at the last minute, being the last car on – or last car on the dock. We’ve been backed off ferries due to their miscount, have seen road rage in the lines and had to turn around or get a hotel after missing the late ferry.
Note: I’m most familiar with Puget Sound ferries and am open to tips for ferries in other parts of the state.
Escaping Downtown Seattle on a Friday
There’s nothing worse than getting off work in Seattle at 5 or 6pm on a sunny Friday in summer at the start of a three day weekend. You know traffic will be a mess and ferry lines will be long.
Some say “just drive around!” But last summer Seattle friends did so and ended up adding more hours of traffic in Tacoma due to rush hour and weekend traffic plus construction delays. They finally got to our SUP surf camp at Neah Bay by dark. It took them 7+ hours – normally it’s only 5 hours.
If you live near Tacoma, then driving around makes more sense.
The Friday at 5pm Seattle Solution? Take the Bremerton Ferry.
The Bremerton ferry rarely has a long line on either side, and while it’s an hour ride, the view through Rich Passage is worth it. Get a beer, sit back, enjoy the view. Use the WSDOT app to monitor ferry lots etc.
In Bremerton, you get on Highway 3 and drive to the Hood Canal Bridge.
If you took the more frequent and 35min Bainbridge ferry, lines are always longer and on the other side you have to drive up the island, then through the winding traffic light heavy Poulsbo to Highway 3, then Hood Canal Bridge.
Leaving in the AM
If you can leave Seattle before noon, I recommend taking the 6 and 7am ferries, especially on 3 day weekends.
Once you get into 9-10am runs, traffic will start stacking up.
With more folks in the Puget Sound area in recent years, I’ve seen ferry traffic waiting all the way up to the Edmonds PCC/QFC intersection!
Use the WSDOT cameras on their app to check lot views.
Coming Back Sunday Night (or Monday on a Holiday)
I offer a SUP surf camp at Neah Bay a few times during the year. On Sunday, some students like to leave early to start the 5 hour drive back. I always recommend against that as they’ll hit the bulk of the Sunday summer ferry traffic on the money. Peak ferry wait times are 3 – 7pm.
Instead, we surf all day or go for a hike and sometimes take our time driving back exploring new or favorite spots on the Olympic Peninsula. Then take the later ferries from 8pm and on.
At those times, ferry lines are minimal and often we drive right on.
The Sunday Kingston Ferry Alternative Plan
If you get to Kingston and the ferry line is backed up outside of town or throughout Kingston, then backtrack and look for the Miller Bay Road.
Take Miller Bay Road south 25 minutes to the Bainbridge Island ferry.
Kingston can be a bottleneck as it gets the Canadian traffic, those who live north of Seattle and often east siders.
Those in Tacoma or Olympia drive around, thus Bainbridge gets less Sunday night traffic.
Or take the Bremerton ferry.
Sunday Tip: Don’t believe the hype. The large LED signs along Highway 101 with ferry wait warnings are often wrong. We’ve seen “2 hour waits” to find out there was no line – or the opposite.
What About the Southworth or Port Townsend Ferries?
Southworth can work if you get there in the early AM or late PM. There are no reservations. Read the signs to make sure you don’t end up on Vashon.
Port Townsend does take reservations. But it’s the most cancelled ferry in the region due to high/low tides, high wind/waves etc.
And when you get to Keystone (Whidbey Island), the quickest way back to Seattle is 2+ hours through Oak Harbor – Mt Vernon. Southbound I-5 Sunday traffic to Seattle will stop or be very slow in Marysville and Everett.
The Hood Canal Bridge Bottleneck
Whatever ferry you take, you’ll have to cross the Hood Canal Bridge. The bridge often closes for Navy subs, construction, accidents and maintenance. Use your WSDOT app to watch for bridge alerts.
I’ve been stuck in late night traffic miles from the bridge for hours due to accidents. Once in 2018, I ended up staying the night in PT due to a fatal accident closure. Just think, once this was a ferry crossing!
Washington State Ferries Travel Tips Summary
- Friday 5pm from Seattle – Take the Bremerton Ferry
- Friday AM Escape – Take the 6-8am ferries (Bainbridge, Bremerton, Southworth, Kingston)
- If you live near Tacoma – Drive around
- Sunday Night (or 3 day weekend Monday) – Take the Bainbridge or Bremerton ferries.
- Use your WSDOT app cameras to monitor lots and ferry / bridge alerts.
- Ferries do allow dogs on the upper outdoor decks.
- 3 Day Weekend Locals Tip – Leave on Thurs, come back on Tuesday.
- Get a float plane or boat to avoid all this hoopla!
- Go to Oahu, it’s a shorter flight than a summer ferry and drive to the WA coast.
- WSDOT app (or website)
- Waze – Great for Seattle and travel timing, but traffic tips don’t work in Port Angeles and beyond.
- Google Maps – Use to monitor traffic and route finding
- Got no service on your phone? Use a (paper) map. I keep my trusty Washington Gazetteer in the car.
- Stuck in traffic? Go paddle. Use my book “Kayaking Puget Sound” and the San Juans” or “Kayaking Washington” as a guide to wait out traffic.
More Pacific Northwest Adventure Travel Tips
Rob Casey is the owner of Salmon Bay Paddle, a Seattle based SUP school. He is also the author of “Kayaking Puget Sound and the San Juans, 60 Trips” and “Stand Up Paddling Flat Water to Surf and Rivers” both by Mountaineers Books. Originally a photographer, Rob still shoots applying his focus to the Pacific Northwest travel and outdoors.