Smooth Sailings | How to ride the Washington State Ferries

Smooth Sailings | How to ride the Washington State Ferries

Editor’s note: This is an updated article that was originally printed in Springtide, the Journal’s annual travel guide to the San Juan Islands. Corrections were made to the fare prices under “Arrive at least 30 minutes before departure time.”

You’ve booked a hotel, planned a whale watch trip and scouted the best hiking trails for your island getaway. Now it’s time to catch the ferry. Here’s a step-by-step guide for smooth sailings on a Washington State Ferries vessel to the San Juan Islands.

1) Read the schedule

Hard copies of Washington State Ferries schedules can be found at terminals, tollbooths and onboard vessels, but for far-away travelers, visit for the online version.

Make sure to read the correct schedule for planned island vacations. The spring schedule runs from April 1 to June 23 and the summer schedule runs from June 24 to Sept. 28. Also, ensure the schedule is for the Anacortes / San Juan Islands / Sidney B.C. route.

Ferry passengers will leave the Washington mainland in the city of Anacortes to the island of their choice. The Anacortes ferry terminal is located at 2100 Ferry Terminal Rd., Anacortes, Washington 98221. The ferry only serves San Juan, Orcas, Lopez and Shaw Islands in the San Juans, but the route also goes to Victoria, British Columbia.

On the schedule, the “Westbound” listings show when vessels move west from the route’s furthest eastern location, which is Anacortes, and sail towards the route’s furthest western location, which is British Columbia. Stops for the San Juans are in between. The “Eastbound” listings display the route in the opposite direction. Note that every sailing does not hit every location, as indicated by dashes. Only sailings with times under the locations make those stops.

Catch a vessel from any of the route’s locations to island hop throughout a trip.

2) Make a reservation

The best practice for summer WSF trips with vehicles is to make reservations. Reservations are not needed for walk-on passengers or cyclists, but are the best bet for cars, trucks, motorcycles and other engine-run vehicles.

Make reservations at or call 206-464-6400 or toll-free at 1-888-808-7977 from 7 5:30 p.m., PST, daily. The cost of the trip is not collected during the reservation, but if drivers don’t use their reservation, they are charged a $10 no-show fee. Fare is collected on the day of travel.

To ensure you arrive and leave the islands on time, visitors should make roundtrip reservations, keeping in mind other travel times, such as driving to the terminal and flight landings. Driving from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle to Anacortes takes almost two hours.

3) Arrive at least 30 minutes before departure time

Reservation confirmations will remind drivers to arrive to the ferry terminals at least 30 minutes before vessel departure times. In the summer, it is recommended to arrive 45 minutes to an hour before departure time, just to be safe. Walk-on passengers are advised to be onboard at least five minutes before departure time, but can load until two minutes before the boats leave. Bicyclists are recommended to arrive 20 minutes in advance.

The employee at the first ferry landing booth in Anacortes will ask drivers for the fare. The employee at the next booth will ask drivers where they are headed and designate a lane for them to park in before the ferry is loaded. From May 1- Sept. 30, it costs $65.60 for a standard-sized vehicle driver to take the ferry and then $13.50 per adult passenger. Walk-on passengers and bicyclists pay $13.50. Bicyclists also pay an additional $4 from May 1-Sept. 30. Ferry passengers only pay when arriving to the islands, but not leaving. Visit for more details on prices.

4) Enjoy the ride

Piece together a puzzle at one of the booths, stand on the deck to search for orcas or grab ice cream and even beer in the galley. Vacation officially starts in about an hour, but you should get a head start.