One of the most unique aspects of taking a vacation to the San Juan Islands is that you can only get here one of two ways – by air or by sea. With air travel, you book a reservation, show up at the appointed time, and the rest is taken care of. Ferry travel can be a different animal entirely. If you are unfamiliar with it, it can be tricky, especially this time of year on, when the summer high season is upon us and there are about to be more and more visitors making their way to the archipelago.
I’m here to give you some insider tips that we have gathered for you through research and the experience of living on the island. We want you to travel with confidence so your journey here is less stressful and more enjoyable! After all, ferry travel offers the benefit of being able to sit back and enjoy your surroundings. Panoramic views of our stunning scenery are all around you – it’s time to take a deep breath and relax, because you’re on island time now.
The ferry to the islands leaves from a city called Anacortes, about 90 miles from Seattle, or a 1.5-2 hour car trip.
The most important tip I can offer is not to bring your car onto the ferry if you can help it. Some prefer a car if they are coming for a longer stay or want to explore a lot of places around the island that are not within walking distance, but keep in mind there is a shuttle service offered in the summer months that takes you around to all the major spots for cheap – $5 per ride or $15 for a day pass. There are also car rentals available from M&W Auto or mopeds from Susie’s Mopeds. Finally, you can borrow a bike from the inns for free! You may not be planning to leave town while you’re here, in which case a car is completely unnecessary. We are within walking distance of everything in Friday Harbor – just a couple of blocks from the town center. If you drive to Anacortes and walk onto the ferry, there is paid public parking available there so your car will be waiting when you return.
If you do choose to bring a car, we recommend arriving at least 2 hours before your ferry departs in order to ensure a spot in line. Reservations are not available for the Anacortes-San Juan Islands sailing; they are available if you want to take the international crossing to Sidney, B.C. Canada. Tickets for all ferries are available online beforehand or at the ferry dock, but buying a ticket online doesn’t mean a better chance for a spot – everything is first-come, first-serve.
One way to avoid the long wait time is to take an early morning or late night ferry. The midday boats are nearly always full in the high season.
Technology being utilized by the ferry system is also becoming very helpful. Check out these great tools on the Washington State Ferries (WSF) website. Search for “Typical Vehicle Traffic Conditions” for Anacortes-San Juans; the grid shows typical ferry loads by season. The Terminal Conditions Page shows how many spaces are left in real time. Finally, you can download an app for $2.99 to your iPhone or Android device that will keep you updated on the latest ferry schedules – no more searching in your bag for paper schedules!
All ferry fares to the San Juan Islands are round trip, meaning you pay once in Anacortes but not when you return after your trip. Once you are here, travel between the islands without a car is free.
Planning on bringing your dog to your pet-friendly suite at the inns? No problem. They are allowed inside your vehicle or restrained in a crate on the car deck. Only service animals are allowed on the upper passenger decks.
Don’t worry about catching the ferry home after your trip. Since we are so close to the ferry dock, we recommend that you park your car in line for the ferry anytime after the previous ferry has left. You may leave it there, come back to the inn for a good breakfast, and head back to your car just 20 minutes before the ferry leaves with no worries.
The ferry is a wonderful way to both get here and experience the beauty of the San Juans at the same time; you just have to know what you’re in for! We hope to welcome you off a ferry for a visit very soon!