Currently, the Washington State Ferries are the most extensive public ferry network in the USA. Each boat has its own features, so what you get on any given day will change slightly with what boat is assigned to a route.
The ferries in the Puget Sound area are a "must see" activity in their own right. This really is the only way to really see Seattle (assuming the weather is clear enough to allow you to see anything) and Puget Sound, as well as the only real valid form of transporation between many locations.
However, as a transportation tip, I will focus this tip primarily on the Bainbridge Island ferry in particular, and especially its features as a practical means of transportation.
The examples in these photos are from the Wenatchee, but most services and features of the boats serving the Bainbridge Island route should be about the same.
Getting to the Ferries in Seattle: see my Washington State Ferries Activity in Seattle tip for a little information and photos, but your best source of information is the Washington State Ferries web site. There is a Main Ferry terminal in downtown Seattle which serves several routes.
Schedule: check the Washington State Ferries web site (below) for schedules. The schedule is fairly strictly followed, and the timetable may change with the day, as during certain days at certain times of the year the boats need to fight strong tides.
Take a Car or Not: It is much easier to be a walk-on passenger rather than try to take your automobile onto the ferry. Some trips can be quite crowded with commuter traffic, and there are only so many spaces. It is possible to make a reservation. For many trips, the Washington State ferries recommends that you arrive an hour or so ahead of time if you wish to actually get on the boat.
Being a walk-on passenger does have its limitations, but the bus service on Bainbridge Island is free of charge, and so it isn't as if walking is your only option once you get to the Island.
Being a walk-on passenger is also much cheaper. Take a look at the fares on the web site as an example, and keep in mind that those fares do not include all of the occupants of your vehicle. It is $6.70 right now for a trip to Bainbridge Island from Seattle, if you are a walk-up passenger. As trips to Seattle are not charged, this comes to $3.35 each direction, which is certainly a bargain when you consider the great views from the ferry.
Auto and truck fares are a bit more expensive ($14.45 right now for a vehicle under 20 feet plus driver, and a vehicle in the 20 to 30 foot range is $43.35, depending on the height), and include the driver as a ticket. Additional auto passengers must pay the walk-up passenger ticket price.
There are two highway vehicle decks for autos and trucks. You will have to carefully follow the instructions of the people directing the traffic, as they must carefully load the ship for balance and to make sure that longer vehicles have enough space. As it is a 35 minute trip (with load and unload time, and dealing with last minute drive-up arrivals, adding some to that), most highway vehicle passengers choose to get out of their vehicles and walk around the ship a little bit, at the very least. Many of the boats used on this route have elevators between some of the decks, but check the web site for specific features of the boat scheduled to make your specific trip. Auto drivers are to return to their vehicles when the announcement is made before landing, as they need to be prepared to leave when the ship docks.
As a general rule, the ferries have several types of seating. This includes plush interior seats, sun deck seats that are open to the air on one side, but have windows that protect the passengers from the sun, rain and wind, and open outdoor benches.
Interior features include restaurant facilities that are similar to that of a fast food restaurant, and there are tables for work or eating or games, including benches with tables along the windows.
The web site below is the official Washington State Ferries web site, and features up to date information on routes, fares and schedules.
If you are wanting to make a round trip just as a recreational trip from Seattle, it is possible to simply get back in line to get on the ship just after getting off. (All passengers must get off at the end of the trip.) The ticket price includes a round trip, and as this is written fares are not collected at the Bainbridge Island end of the trip: they are only collected on the Seattle end of the trip.
Special views available from the Bainbridge Island ferry: on the south side of the ship, you will get to see Mount Rainier if it is a clear day. There is also of course the great views of the Seattle skyline, with lesser Cascades mountains in the background behind the city. There are attractive houses and landscape beside Puget Sound as you approach the Bainbridge Island terminal.
Photo 1: Typical upper deck seating on the ships used on the Bainbridge Island Ferry. Note there are open benches, lots of walking space, as well as benches under cover, but still open to the outside air.
Photo 2: Typical interior deck seating on the ships used for the Bainbridge Island ferry. There are restaurant facilities, rest rooms, food vending machines, and comfortable seats. Some of the seats are bench style seats with a table in the center, similar to what you would find in a restaurant booth.
Photo 3: Bainbridge Island ferry terminal, with Olympic mountains in the background. Sometimes even at this end there can be a long wait for autos entering the ferry. Some trips are recommended at 30 minutes before departure - which at least is not as long as it is on the Seattle end of things. As this is also the area where the ferry ships are maintained, there are aspects of the area around the terminal that are not particularly scenic.
Photo 4: This is a great view of Mount Rainier from the Bainbridge Island ferry.
Photo 5: Bainbridge Island ferry and main Seattle ferry terminal from the Seattle side, as seen from the Columbia Center Skyview. Note the large parking areas for staging cars getting onto the ferries. There are some who may not be able to make it onto the ship.
For a few more photos, see my May 27 Photos of a trip on the Bainbridge Island ferry. I also have a few photos from the ferry in the dark taken on September 20, 2010 on my way to Port Townsend.
When you are on Bainbridge Island, you have a few different options to get back to Seattle, the most popular option is to 'catch the ferry'. (Washington State Ferry) Puget Sound crossing time is approx. 30 minutes from Winslow to downtown Seattle. You can walk on, or drive on and it operates from morning to evening every day. Whether it is day or night you will have a relaxing, scenic trip to Seattle. If it's a clear day, you will easily be able to view Mt Rainier to the south - especially spectacular at sunset.
There are several levels you can enjoy via stair cases (the brand new ferries have elevators - but count on using stairs) You can also sit on the top deck and enjoy the view or walk around. If you can get the timinig right, it's fun to view the Seattle 4th of July or New Years Eve fireworks .
The ferries are big and modern and vending machines have snacks and beverages on board. The cafeteria on board is currently closed due to food service workers strike issues.
Passenger R/T: $5.70
Car & Driver one way: $12.70
(be sure to check WSF web site for current fares and schedule - they are always changing)
Get in line early and as the saying goes "the ferry waits for no one"
Enjoy your ferry trip and take your camera!!