There are seven public transit operators in the Seattle area, and even more when you start to include some of the connecting services, such as Intercity Transit in the Olympia area. This doesn't even begin to count all the private operators of airport shuttles and cruise ship shuttle vans, private intercity buses, and the like. It also does not include Amtrak's intercity passenger trains nor the Washington State Ferries. If you are a tourist in Seattle, however, the public transit agencies you are most likely to need are:
+ King County Metro operates the largest local bus service, covering the city of Seattle and many outlying areas. This agency also operates bus route 99 (the Waterfront loop that was once free) and the South Lake Union Streetcar, and provides funding for operation of the King County Water Taxi, though the actual boat operation is done by a contract operator - and the boat operator issues a King County Transit transfer to Water Taxi passengers for use on any King County Metro bus route. This is why "Public Transit in Seattle 101" must start with King County Metro: if you want to get by using public transit in Seattle, you will wind up using King County Metro in some way, shape or form.
For many years there was "Ride Free Area" in downtown Seattle, but this was suspended in September of 2012 due to budget limits.
To get to other areas, it may also be necessary for you to use:
+ SoundTransit: operates regional buses from Tacoma in the south to Everett in the north, rail transit from downtown Seattle to the SeaTac airport (see my Central LINK tip), and Sounder commuter trains from Tacoma to Everett in the north, and other transit routes of regional importance.
NOTE: King County Metro and SoundTransit do not have common fares unless you have purchased a regional fare card. SO, if you buy a trip from the airport to downtown Seattle on the transit train, you will also need to purchase a King County Metro bus fare to get to your final destination if you need one of those buses - your SoundTransit ticket can NOT be used on King County Metro.
+ Seattle Monorail: while significantly a tourist attraction, the monorail runs from Westlake Center (a significant transit hub and a shopping center) to Seattle Center (another significant transit hub and tourist center) without stopping, and therefore does have some use as a public transit service. It does not interchange fares or paper transfers with any of the transit services, however.
+ Washington State Ferries: service from downtown Seattle to Bremerton and Bainbridge Island, plus Edmonds to Kingston north of downtown Seattle, plus Fauntleroy - Vashon - Southworth southwest of downtown Seattle, plus others. While useful transportation links, they are also a "thing to do" as the view from the ferry is quite good, and passenger only fare is quite a bit less expensive than you will find on the narrated tours that are also available.
+ King County Water Taxi is also a useful form of transportation that is also a good recreational service. Routes run from downtown Seattle to West Seattle, and from downtown Seattle to Vashon Island.
Some of the services you are less likely to need:
+ Community Transit: operates bus service on a number of routes, oriented around serving suburban communities to the north of Seattle.
+ Pierce County Transit: operates transit in the Tacoma area. If you visit Tacoma or Olympia from Seattle, you may be needing their services.
+ Everett Transit operates local bus services in and around the Everett area.
+ Kitsap Transit operates transit routes on the other side of Puget Sound from Seattle, including at the opposite ends of the two largest ferry routes out of downtown Seattle.
+ Intercity Transit serves the Olympia area with some connections to other cities and other systems.
Most of the transit agencies in the region have switched to a magnetic fare card for those using the system frequently. This is currently the only type of fare that is exchanged between the systems. You can not, for example, pay a cash fare on a SoundTransit bus and have the fare accepted on King County Metro, or vice versa. King County Metro, however, does issue paper transfers for use within its own system.
There are also no day tickets issued for the region. King county Metro does offer a day ticket that is only usable on weekend days.
A number of transit routes serve Seattle by using the transit tunnel under Seattle. This includes several King County Metro bus routes, several SoundTransit bus routes, and the SoundTransit LINK light rail line.
As stated above, King County Metro is the largest local transit service in Seattle proper, and therefore other than mentioning the above other services this tip focuses primarily on what will get you from place to place inside Seattle proper: King County Metro. You will find that I have written other tips on the other transit services.
There is no real good web site for all of these transit agencies combined, though they do operate a joint trip planner that can be accessed on any of their web sites.
Puget Sound is reasonably well known for the Orca Whales that have made it their permanent home. Therefore, it should not be too surprising that when proposals for producing a region-wide public transit fare card were put forth, it would be called ORCA, for One Regional Card for All.
This is a whole lot more convenient payment method than having to carry a bunch of cash, but for tourists it doesn't make a lot of sense to use an ORCA card unless you are a frequent visitor to Seattle or live nearby and have the potential to need the card in the future. This is because the card costs $5 to purchase without actually putting any fare payments onto the card.
You can't use the ORCA card on taxis or on Amtrak trains. However, all public transit buses serving Seattle and the surrounding areas accept the ORCA card, as well as the Washington State Ferry, the Sounder Commuter Trains, SoundTransit Link light rail trains, and the South Lake Union Streetcar. Outside Seattle, the Washington State Ferries, Kitsap Transit, Community Transit, King County Metro, Pierce County Transit, Everett Transit, and other transit agencies all accept the ORCA card, so it is possible to travel to a huge variety of locations using public transit with a single fare card, and not have to carry cash or deal with putting the money into the farebox.
The cards may be loaded with a cash balance, monthly pass, or various other payment plans.
It is possible to order them by mail through the ORCA card web site, and since I only live about 200 miles from Seattle that is how I obtained my card (this photo of my card, by the way, has had the number altered in the photograph so that the serial number on the card in the photo isn't a valid number at all). For me it also made sense to obtain a card because until February of 2010, the card did not have a $5 purchase fee. Therefore, there was no reason not to obtain a card.
When you use the card the first time the system debits a cash fare out of the cash balance on the card (unless the card has a monthy pass or similar payment method loaded on it). You then have two hours to use the card anywhere else, and it records the use of the card as a transfer. If you are using a service where a connecting transfer would normally be accepted, then no additional fees are deducted from the card when you use it during that time. If you change to a different service a transfer fee between the two services is deducted. For example, If you start on a service that charges $1.50 to ride the bus, and then transfer to a service where the cash fare price is $4.00, then a transfer credit of a certain amount will be credited towards the $4 fare on the second service will be deducted from the ORCA card, but not the entire cash fee for using the other service.
Using the card is fairly easy:
1. When getting on a bus, simply tap the card on an electronic scanner as you enter (or as you leave, depending on the transit agency policy and direction of travel). It is possible to use the card to pay for two or more passengers, but you need to let the driver know that is what you are doing. (see photo 2)
2. When getting on one of the trains (SoundTransit Link or Sounder, or King County South Lake Union Streetcar), you tap the card as you enter and as you leave the train on a station-side card machine. If you do not tap the card as you exit the train, the card system assumes you have traveled the entire distance on the train, and therefore will deduct a full fare from your ORCA card. However, if you tap as you exit, the portion of your trip not used will be credited back to your card.
3. On a ferry, you could either tap the card on a turnstyle, or hand the card to a person with a hand-held card reader. It depends on the type of ferry boarding terminal.
It is possible to use the ORCA card web site to check the card balance, see each transaction that was debited from the card, and add credits to the card. The transaction record on the web site is deleted after a certain amount of time.
The card contains a small antenna and microchip, and if the card is bent, broken, cut, punched or otherwise damaged, the antenna and chip will not communicate with the card readers. With the $5 replacement card cost, it pays to take care of your card.
This tip has been inspired by the large number of requests every year for information about getting to cruise ships in the Seattle area. I am no expert in the area of cruise ships, but I have seen enough of the cruise ship activity in Seattle to know a little bit.
Please understand that cruise ships leave from two locations in Seattle. One is directly downtown (Pier 66, called the "Bell Street Pier") and serves some cruise ship companies. There is another terminal northwest of downtown in the Magnolia area (Pier 91, called "Elliott Bay Terminal") which serves other cruise ship companies. See the web site below for the best set of information from the Port of Seattle directly.
As there are two completely different locations, I have created one tip about each of these, as the specifics are quite a bit different for each. The tip you are reading deals mostly with the Bell Street Pier in downtown Seattle, with most of the specifics on the Elliott Bay Terminal is covered at my Elliott Bay Terminal tip at at
Even as recently as a few months ago, I have run into tourist maps of Seattle that showed a pier 30 south of downtown Seattle for cruise ships. This terminal is no longer in service for passenger ships, and in fact is now a container terminal. If you run into this terminal number in association with cruise ships, start questioning your source of information.
If you do not know where your ship is departing from, please see the web page at the bottom of this tip, which is from the Port of Seattle. Among the pile of useful information, it will tell you a little bit about what cruise ship lines wind up at which terminal. The "Bell Street Pier" is very close to Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle. The "Pier 91" location is in Magnolia, which is several miles outside downtown Seattle.
There are quite a number of different options available to get to the two cruise ship terminals. There are taxis, shuttle buses, and free services operated by the various cruise ship companies. If you are looking for airport to cruise ship vanpool services, type "SeaTac Airport Transport" into Google or any other search engine and you will find a host of companies offering their services between the airport and the cruise ship terminal. However, I highly suggest contacting your cruise ship company, as they may have a service already in place that is included with your cruise package. The Port of Seattle also has some information on shuttle services.
If you decide to get a taxi, make sure you know which pier number you will be needing to get to, as that will help the taxi driver. With the two locations for these ships, you can't just tell the driver you need to go to your cruise ship.
The Bell Street Pier in downtown is served by a free transit bus (bus route 99) that also interchanges with a number of other transit routes and goes about 1/2 block away from the Amtrak station. It also goes right by SoundTransit's station, which features connections to a wide assortment of transportation options, including the LINK train service to the SeaTac Airport.
If you are coming into Seattle on Amtrak: The Amtrak station in Seattle is on the south side of downtown, and it is a very quick trip to get from that station to your ship. It is maybe 15 minutes to 20 minutes (depending on traffic) if your ship is in Magnolia, and about 5 minutes if your ship is at the downtown location. There are always a large number of taxis at the Amtrak station whenever a train is due to arrive. If your ship is at the Bell Street Pier, it is a matter of about 15 blocks, and is a fast trip by taxi, and can be made by using the free Route 99 bus, but that bus route has very limited service and will be difficult to handle with a lot of luggage.
If you are coming by plane, then keep in mind that the airport is quite some distance south of downtown. While it is possible to get from the airport to downtown Seattle by taxi, it is expensive. Airport shuttle services can be in the $70 range. Public transit is available, but it is not going to be very useful if you have a large amount of luggage, and the transit train between the airport and downtown doesn't serve anywhere with huge numbers of taxis waiting for your arrival, unlike the Amtrak station does.
There are some local van shuttle services that are contracted by the cruise ship companies to transport their passengers, so you might also want to contact your cruise ship company to see what they suggest in terms of options. You will find that there are usually some free of charge options that are included with your cruise package, based on what the Port of Seattle and several cruise company web sites say abou the matter.
If you go to the web site at the bottom of the page, select the "Parking and Transportation" item from the list at the left side of the page. This will give you a number of options, including shuttle information and various other details.
As you can see in Photo 4:, coming from the south you can not see the huge cruise ship terminal sign on the Bell Street Pier building. Instead, what you see is a huge sign indicating this is the Bell Harbor Conference Center. The entrance to the cruise ship terminal is on the other side of the building. The stairs and elevator you see lead to a pedestrian walkway that connects the Bell Street Pier to downtown Seattle near the north end of Pike Place Market, and provides a convenient point to cross Alaskan Way.
Don't expect there to be much at the cruise ship location in Magnolia, if you are leaving from Magnolia. While it has all the passenger services most people probably expect at the terminal, in terms of nearby restaurants or hotels, there are several restaurants and no hotels that are within usual walking distance of that location (If you don't mind a bit of exercise, it is less than three miles to downtown Seattle, and Elliott Bay Park has a bike path connecting this area with the Seattle Waterfront, but you won't want to do this with luggage.)
Be that as it may, please see may Pier 91 Cruise Ship Terminal tip for a little more information and photos specifically related to that location.
What the Photos Show:
Photo 1: Celebrity Cruises Infinity at Bell Street Terminal, as seen from Seattle to Vashon Island ferry
Photo 2: The Magnolia cruise ship terminal. In the background it is possible to see what looks like a small ship in downtown Seattle. That is the Celebrity Cruises Infinity from the above photo, which should give you some idea as to how far it is between downtown Seattle and the Magnolia cruise ship terminal. See my Magnoliacruise ship tip for more information.
Photo 3: This is the entrance to the Bell Street Pier cruise ship terminal, but you can not see this from the south. This is only how it looks from the north.
Photo 4: From the south, the Bell Street Pier looks something like this, as part of the building is also the Bell Harbor Conference Center. There is little indication from the south this building is the home of a cruise ship terminal. The sign in the previous photo is only visible from the north.
Photo 5: The ship side part of the Bell Street Pier looks like this when there isn't a cruise ship there. Note that in the distance there is a high level walkway going from one of the upper levels of the building to connect to one of the upper decks of the cruise ships.
Many people ask about being right on the waterfront and within walking distance of the cruise ship terminals. If you are departing from pier 66, then you have several options.
The only true waterfront hotel in Seattle is right next door to Pier 66, and that is the Edgewater Hotel located right on Pier 67. It may be a bit of a walk with luggage, but in reality the walking distance between the two is a shorter distance than you face within many airports.
Some Other Photos that May Help:
Here is a ship at the downtown location, as seen from the Columbia Center Skyview:
In the center right side of the photo, you can sort of see some tiny white blobs. Those are cruise ships at the Magnolia dock.
You can see them a little better in this photo, though the telephoto lens distorts the size of everything a little bit:
Slightly to the right of the exact center of the photo, you may notice a road bridge. This bridge has the nearest bus service to the cruise ships that are out there.
Here is another zoomed-in view of the cruise ships at Magnolia:
Please remember that the details of your cruise may include many of the shore side transportation details, so always ask your cruise ship company first.
For those going intermediate distances between Seattle and the suburban areas around Seattle and the smaller cities surrounding Puget Sound well outside Seattle, there is SoundTransit, which operates long distance transit services (mostly bus, but also commuter train, and suburban train) between downtown Seattle north to Everett, south to Tacoma and DuPont, west as far as Gig Harbor, and east as far as Issaquah.
As these services are fairly long commuter routes, the seats on the buses are more comfortable than what are normally on Seattle area bus routes. Many of the buses feature seats that recline slightly and are padded, and many of the buses also feature WiFi internet service.
If you are seeking a scenic and somewhat low cost afternoon trip, I highly recommend taking one of the afternoon Sounder train departures from King Street Station to Everett. You will have to take the bus back, however, as the train only operates going one direction. However, this trip operates along Puget Sound for the entire distance, and is quite scenic, especially on a clear day.
SoundTransit bus routes operate on several downtown streets as well as some routes in the transit tunnel under Seattle, and certain routes only operate in the tunnel at certain times of day, so check the route map and timetable. They share stops with King County Metro bus routes at certain locations. To pay for your bus fare, pay cash as you enter if headed towards downtown Seattle, or if you are headed away from downtown Seattle exit the front of the bus and pay as you leave (just as you would with King County Metro). It is also possible to use an ORCA card.
To get to SoundTransit's suburban train service, you will need to descend to the transit tunnel in downtown Seattle (there are several stations with entries along 3rd and other downtown streets). Here, you need to pay before you board the train, or use the ORCA card to obtain a train receipt, or swipe the card upon entering the system and once again upon leaving the system. Generally, in the transit tunnel, the payment machines and farecard swipe machines are located one level above the platform, which is somewhat inconvenient.
To get to the commuter railroad train, it is necessary to go to King Street Station. SoundTransit's trains do NOT depart from the Amtrak side of the station. Instead, you will need to descend to the station platform from the staircase on the north side of Jackson Street just west of 4th Avenue South. There is another set of staircases and elevators from the Weller Street Pedestrian Bridge. Here again, you will need to obtain a ticket from a machine before boarding.
SoundTransit bus services operates over longer distances and as an express service, so the prices may be higher than paralleling transit agencies, in those locations where a transit agency operates a parallel service. There are many other instances where the SoundTransit price may be less, however.
SoundTransit services are part of the database contained in the trip planner at King County Metro ( http://tripplanner.kingcounty.gov/ ), so it may be desirable to plan your transit trips using that web site, rather than SoundTransit, as King County Metro will tell you of connecting local services.
I got some Metro passes onlne before I went to Seattle. They are all day passes for $5 that are good for unlimited daily use on the Waterfront streetcar, the bus & the Water taxi. A great deal for getting all over and to avoid climbing the hills. I didn't end up using them much b/c I loved the walking, but som other traveling companions found them well worth it & a great way to see some sights. Go to: www.metrokc.gov to purchase them.
By plane: Sea-Tac Airport about 15 miles south of downtown
By train: Amtrak/King Street Station near Safeco Field and Pioneer Square
By car: the intersection of I-5 and I-90
I would recommend taking the bus (Metro Transit) or walking up and down the many hills of Seattle. There is a ride free zone in downtown extending from north of the Pike Place Market to just north of Pioneer Square.
Cars are OK, but expect to pay about $10-$20 to park in the downtown core. If you do drive and want to park, I would suggest parking east of 6th Avenue where the rates decrease signifcantly .
So many ways... drive in from the south, north, or east. Take a ferry in from almost anywhere in the area. Fly into SEA-TAC (Seattle-Tacoma Int'l) Airport. Or take Amtrak all the way from Seattle... I heard it was a nice, albeit long, journey.
Well, the monorail just has a start and a beginning, so not really a great method of going anyplace other than those two. Use your feet or drive. That's about it.... I think there's also a trolley system and a free bus area by the waterfront.
For most visitors, Seattle Tacoma International Airport is where they arrive. If one is flying from a U.S. city to Seattle, one may consider one of the newer low cost airlines, such as Southwest, JetBlue, or ATA-American Trans. Alaska Airlines has a good
reputation and flies to Alaska, California, and the Pacific Northwest to Seattle. Recently, it has begun service to Boston, Washington, and Denver from Seattle.
Once you arrive, you can take the 175 bus ($1.75 to downtown Seattle, the bus stops on the lower level -
walk in the direction of car traffic and the bus stop is about 100m / 100 yards past the end of the building). I saw Grey Line buses to downtown Seattle hotels advertised for $8.50. One can also rent a car from the several companies located in the parking garage or from off-airport companies.
Seattle is long and narrow in shape. This adds to traffic jams. On the other hand, a car is
necessary unless one is visiting downtown, Belltown, the Seattle Center, or International District. For these areas, parking is difficult to find or is expensive. Bus service is reasonably good between downtown and the centers of most neighborhoods. The bus company for Everett is Community Transit. They probably have a website. The bus company website for Seattle is supposed to be http://transit.metrokc.gov but I have not visited that website
By Air- Sea-Tac airport(15miles south of towm)
By Train- station is in the south end of downtown(pioneer square)
By Car-Interstate 5 runs north&south through downtown(litteraly under the convention center) and Interstate 90 runs east(if you take it from the east keep going until it ends and your here)
Ferry-leaves from downtown to Bremerton,Bainbridge Island,west seattle& Victoria B.C.
The travel arrangements should be flying into Sea-Tac Intl.
A charming alternative if you enjoy train sight seeing is to take the Coastal route Amtrak train.
Definitely rent a car to avail yourself of all the day tripping adventures you will do. Shopping and sightseeing are great, parking presents no major problem. Do take a ferry to view the Puget Sound.
When arriving by airport, you can take a cheap shuttle into town, or perhaps rent a car so you can see more of the city at your leisure, and outside the city.
Seattle has city busses that offer free service in the core downtown area during the day. Makes it easy to travel as far north as Belltown, and as far south as Pioneer Square. The shopping areas of downtown can easily be seen on foot, and within close distance to major hotels and the youth hostel.
I was looking for parking at the SeaTac Airport and found a new self parking lot called MPark. Its ran by MasterPark, who is one of the parking garages that offers valet parking. It was very easy parking there and the shuttles that take you to the airport from the lot were very quick and helpful too. I will be using this lot in the future. It was perfect!
Seattle-Tacoma International airport is located just south of Seattle. Very convenient to Tacoma, Bellevue, Seattle & surrounding areas. Taxi's & shuttle services will take you to most Seattle & Bellevue hotels. Best to rent a car for other surrounding locations.
You can walk most anywhere downtown Seattle proper. Lots of hills. The monorail will transport you from downtown to the Seattle Center area (Queen Anne) in minutes. The bus system is good to most outlying larger cities.
The PugetPass is a great value and easy to use way of travelling around Seattle. Provided you buy the correct ticket type, you can use it on ferries, buses, and even trains around the city. Even if you don't want to do a lot of travel around the city, the simple bus tickets are fantastic. When you buy a bus ticket in Seattle, it has a marked time limit for use. This means you can use the ticket as many times as you like to travel on buses in the particular zone the fare covers. It's a great system that I wish my city had. It can be a little confusing at first, but the bus drivers are very friendly and helpful. The ticketing system in Seattle makes bus travel really cheap and easy.
FLy up there, rent a car..Or drive up there
If you are in the city it is easier to forget the car and walk...traffic is horrible at times and parking is expensive. The monorail is always fun...The buses are reliable and run frequently.