Walk on ferry riders...
I use the ferry system regularly. Although I have been on every route, I am generally coming from Kitsap County to Seattle for the day. I have always purchased my tickets in advance because I tend to lose track of time and need to board the ferry immediately so I don't have to wait for the next one and risk a parking ticket for not making it back to the lot on time to remove my vehicle.
Many people use the ferry system to get to/from work. Larger crowds and longer lines should be expected during sports events and festivals. The ferry workers are efficient but, if you are averse to standing in line use a ticket kiosk in the lobby or purchase your ticket(s) online.
Multiple tickets can be purchased this way and the tickets are good for 90 days so if you will be using the ferry often during your visit this can save time.
One additional note - only standard adult tickets can be purchased this way. If you need discounted tickets you will have to use the ticket window since the discounts require proof.
More information, schedules, and routes can be found at the ferry website.
There is heavy construction going on around the Seattle waterfront at the ferry terminal. As of this writing it isn't even possible for me to photograph the extent of the mess as you can't even get outside the ferry terminal other than the walkway from 1st and Marion, or by taking a bicycle taxi through Alaskan Way street traffic.
Walking to the ferry terminal from the waterfront has become impossible. If you want to access anything south of Miner's Landing by foot you are essentially out of luck, except for being able to access the ferry terminal from the walkway at 1st and Marion.
It should not surprise anyone that the Washington State Ferry system is the most extensive in the USA. Just look at a map of the Puget Sound region! Seattle sits on an isthmus between Lake Washington and Puget Sound, and Puget Sound separates the mainland from the Olympic Peninsula, the Key Peninsula, the Kitsap Peninsula, and various islands.
The Washington State Ferries are useful transportation and heavily used during commuter hours.
However, they are also a great recreational form of transportation, and the cheapest way to see Seattle and Puget Sound from the water - other than the King County Water Taxi to West Seattle. Also, since the ferries go all the way to the other side of the water, you get to see the Cascade Mountains behind Seattle from the longer distance ferries, but not the tour boats and water taxi routes that stay close to downtown.
In this tip I concentrate more on the recreational aspects of taking a trip on the ferries. The transportation aspects really need to be disucced as specific transportation links between Seattle and specific cities, and so there are separate tips for those transportation links under those cities.
From downtown Seattle, there are two primary routes available from the Main Ferry Terminal (Colman Dock) on the Seattle Waterfront:
Seattle - Bainbridge Island (see my Bainbridge Island Ferry tip for specific information and photos of this route). This is approximately 35 minutes (not counting waiting time - walk on passengers don't need to worry too much, but auto passengers spend a lot of time waiting in the staging area), and gives you the basic view of Seattle from the water, plus a bit of a view of parts of Bainbridge Island. The small community at the other end on Bainbridge Island is named Winslow, and has several restaurants and small stores within walking distance of the ferry terminal.
Seattle - Bremerton (see my Bremerton Ferry tip for specific information and photos). This is an approximate 60 minute trip (not counting waiting time - walk on passengers don't need to worry too much, but auto passengers spend a lot of time waiting in the staging area), and in addition to seeing Seattle from the water, you get to see the Bremerton Naval Yard, and travel down Sinclair Inlet and around the far southern edge of Bainbridge Island.
Other ferry services from downtown Seattle are walk-on only ("foot ferry" or "water taxi" for locals). These are the passenger only ferry to Vashion Island and another route to West Seattle from Pier 50, which is just south of the Main Ferry Terminal. These are known as the "King County Water Taxi" and and operated by contract operators. As these are not operated by the Washington State Ferries they are covered in separate tips.
On the big boats of the Washington State Ferries, food service is available at the Main Terminal in downtown Seattle and on board the larger ferries used to get to Bainbridge Island and to Bremerton.
For recreational travel (that is, sight-seeing only) I definitely suggest NOT taking your automobile with you. Auto space on the ferries is quite limited, and if you are traveleing on a route that allows reservations I highly suggest making them, particularly during busy commuter times and peak tourist season weekends. Bainbridge Island and Bremerton at this time do not allow automobile reservations, however. Walk-on passenger traffic is far more open, as there are hundreds of seats available on the larger ferries. Furthermore, you do not have to arrive far in advance if you are a walk-on passenger.
If you must take your auto with you, because of travel you would like to do at the other end of the ferry route, pay close attention to the Washington State Ferries web site instructions. There, you will find instructions on how far ahead you need to show up (some routes require you drive up 60 minutes beforehand) and various other vital information that can change from time to time. There are also webcams that show the current crowding level at the auto staging area.
If you are driving onto either the Bremerton or Bainbridge Island ferry, you must enter the ferry terminal at the intersection of Yesler Way and Alaskan Way. The toll booth for collecting the money is just after you drive into the lot. You will be told where you need to go from there. The Bremerton Ferry vehicle staging area is on the south side of the building, and Bainbridge Island is on the north side of the building.
For walk-in passengers, you simply walk into the ferry terminal building, and purchase a ticket from the ticket seller at the window or from the self-service machine. The ticket has a bar code on it, and that is slipped through a turnstyle much like a subway turnstyle. The ticket is good for 90 days after purchase, so you dont' have to use it that day on that particular sailing. Walk-on passengers are advised to arrive 15 minutes before the sailing time listed.
You will want to check the timetables for the ferries on the web site, as exact times change with the weather and date and tide.
You will want to bring some warm clothes. The wind comes out of the west a lot of times, and passes over the Olympic mountains (snow capped!) before hitting the sound, and that means the wind on the open decks of the ferries may be as much as 15 to 20 degrees F (12 to 17 degrees C) colder than what you will see in downtown Seattle. Sure, you could move inside, and out of the wind, but then you won't see as much and the environment is much different inside the temperature controlled space than it is outside.
Indoors? Yes! There are several different types of spaces available: the auto space (you don't need to leave your auto if you don't want to - but most people do as it is usually more comfortable) on the lowest deck. There is the passenger deck with restaurant space (see photo 2 of my Bainbridge Island Ferry tip) and lounge seating, tables, and a very plush interior. Above the enclosed passenger deck is an open passenger deck (see the main photo of my Bainbridge Island Ferry tip). This has benches around the outside that are open to the wind and weather, while nearer the center of the ship there are benches that are enclosed under glass windows, but not temperature controlled. Just keeping out of the wind makes the temperature seem much warmer.
Tickets must be purchased for trips departing from Seattle, but for walk-on passengers, the tickets are not collected for trips going to Seattle from the west side of the water. This means that if your primary goal is a recreational trip on the water, all you have to do when you get to the other end is just turn around and get back on the same ferry that just brought you here (or, explore the towns a little bit before departing).
This also means that the $8.00 (the November 2014 price for a walk-on passenger only trip to Bremerton or Bainbridge Island) is one of the best deals in Seattle for seeing Seattle from the water, as that works as a round-trip fare.
There are multiple ways of walking into the main ferry terminal, but if you go up the main ramp from Alaskan Way, you will see a variety of historic photos, and a time line of the operation of the ferries on Puget Sound.
An additional feature of the Washington State Ferries web site is the detailed instructions on how to get to the ferry terminals, from all directions using all forms of transportation. Select the particular ferry terminal you are interested in from the "Find Your Terminal" list and you will see a list of all the different features of the particular terminal, as well as very detailed instructions on parking, auto routes to the staging area for cars boarding the ships, and how to get to the terminal using various forms of transportation.
A word of warning: you will find that the sidewalk out front of the main ferry building in downtown Seattle are sometimes crowded with agressively competitive taxi drivers.
Photo 1: Seattle Main Ferry Terminal on Seattle waterfront, as seen from the Columbia Center Skyview observation deck
Photo 2: Entry to the passenger only section of the Seattle Main ferry terminal. Inside these sliding doors is a fairly steep ramp leading up to the waiting room, which is where you will find a ticket booth, the food vendors, and a fair amount of seating for the walk-on passengers. There are also several restroom facilities. Most of the guys you see on the sidewalk are taxi drivers waiting to pounce on passengers coming out of the building.
Photo 3: both sides of the entrance ramp are decorated with photos and a time line of the Washington State Ferries, and the facilities such as this terminal that serve them.
Photo 4: This is the waiting room and ticket booth area of the main ferry terminal. The ticket windows are straight ahead. Food vendors of various types are to the right and left of the photo. Turn styles leading to the boarding ramps are beyond the ticket booth.
Photo 5: A view of the Seattle skyline as the Bainbridge Island ferry approaches the Bainbridge Island end of the route. Really, for $7.85 this is the way to see Seattle and Puget Sound!
For more photos, see my Bainbridge Island Ferry tip as well as Photos from May 27, 2009 on the Bainbridge Island Ferry, and Photos from the Bremerton Ferry on a reasonably clear day.
Riding the Washington State Ferry is a great idea to get some rest and good views after walking all day. The shortest ride is a 30 min (one-way) ride to Bainbridge Island. If you are just going to ride the ferry to the island and back to Seattle, it costs $6-$7.
You can really tell the tourists from the locals on the ferry. The tourists are the ones outside on the rails admiring the views and taking pictures. The locals are inside protected from the wind and elements; and some, ok alot, are even taking advantange of the free wireless internet access.
Take any of the ferries around Puget Sound for great views and a nice way to spend time. The San Juan Islands are great. For a nice view of the city, just take a downtown ferry to Bainbridge Island and walk around before you come back.
Head to Bainbridge island to "get away from it all". This trip only takes 30 minutes, but it provides some insight into how many locals commute to Seattle everyday from various islands.