Tammy Ohrmund displays a bacon sausage hot dog that is sold on the ferries. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Tammy Ohrmund displays a bacon sausage hot dog that is sold on the ferries. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

A cruising guide to sailing aboard a Washington state ferry

Here are 10 ways to make the most of an affordable day on the iconic white-and-green boats.

Eat, drink, get married, be buried.

You can do all that and more on a Washington state ferry.

Those white and green boats are part of our Pacific Northwest culture and one of the state’s most popular tourist attractions.

A ferry excursion is perfect for a family outing or to show visitors why we love it here.

Why stop at one ride?

Washington has the largest ferry system in the U.S., with 10 routes on the marine highway from Tacoma to Sidney, British Columbia. Snohomish County has two ferry terminals, in Mukilteo and Edmonds.

Ferries are a cheap way to spend time at sea, with fares as low as $5 for a round-trip passenger ride and half price for seniors and youth. Hence the term “poor man’s cruise ship.” Pets are allowed and ride free.

Ferry ridership topped 24.4 million commuters, tourists and travelers in 2017.

That’s a lot of people.

It’s OK to chat up a stranger. This isn’t like a bus or plane where everyone sits quietly. There are no assigned seats on a ferry, though people who ride it daily for work get set in their ways. If you get a sideways glance, it just might be because you sat in the usual seat of a commuter. Maybe they’ll sit down with you and you’ll make a new friend.

Be patient. Ferries are well-oiled machines yet complicated beasts. They break down, get delayed by any number of factors and are at the mercy of not only the elements but also people who lock their keys in their car or drop them overboard.

Dress for the ride. It’s cooler at sea. Bring a scarf or jacket, even if it’s warm on land.

It’s also windy. Don’t wear a skirt unless you’ve got leggings or shorts underneath. Trust us on that one.

Try this

For a short 15-minute jaunt across Possession Sound, walk on the Mukilteo-Whidbey Island boat. The round-trip adult fare is $5.05 (senior and youth, $2.50). Buses are free to ride around the island.

For about double the sea time and a few dollars more, hop on the cruise from Edmonds to Kingston, then walk a short block into town for a crepe or a milkshake.

Make a day of it. Take the 35-minute ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island. For $8.35 (senior and youth, $4.15), you get to see the spectacular Space Needle skyline and stroll the island’s waterfront galleries, cafes and shops.

At the Bainbridge marina there are lots of pretty boats to admire. Relax and enjoy the whimsical art to enjoy to take your mind off the fact you don’t own one of those yachts and you never will.

Weddings, birthdays and funerals

Weddings: Ferry captains are not allowed to legally perform weddings, so couples have to bring their own officiant.

There are no private changing rooms or separate event spaces on the ferry, so small wedding parties during non-commuter sailings are recommended.

Birthdays: Passengers can bring cake and food aboard, but not their own booze. Lighting candles is not allowed.

Memorials: Allowed on these routes: Seattle-Bainbridge, Edmonds-Kingston, Anacortes-Friday Harbor, Mukilteo-Clinton and Port Townsend-Coupeville (summer only).

Things to do on a ferry

We asked people via social media what they like to do on the ferry and added a few of our favorite things.

1. Hug and smooch

What is more romantic than gazing at the open sea, the wind blowing in your face and snuggling with the person you love (or at least the one handy at the moment)? Or maybe you should just hop in the back seat.

“Make out in the car.”

— Carrie Radcliff, Snohomish

2. Eat and drink

“It’s always 5 o’clock somewhere” applies to ferries, where you can buy craft beer, ciders and Washington wines. But why wait until 5 p.m. when you can have a glass of wine at noon?

Hungry? Find more than chips and soda. Centerplate, the same food service that handles the eats at Safeco Field, now feeds ferry passengers in renovated galley spaces. Local specialties offered include Ivar’s clam chowder, Cafe Vita coffee, Beecher’s mac & cheese, Uli’s sausages, CB’s nuts, Sound kombucha and Seahawks cookies by Schwartz Brothers Bakery.

It’s like a floating food court with Washington favorites.

“I like to grab a beer and a bite to eat. Sometimes I like to play cards … but I never remember to pack them.”

— Andrew Gobin, Tulalip

“Feed seagulls popcorn as they fly by the rail. They take it right out of your hand.”

— Heather Verhey, Royal City

3. Explore

There are many nooks and crannies on a ferry. Learn about all the great adventures around the Sound from the brochure wall. Count the fire safety red axes behind glass.

“Our little family just had an outing on the Mukilteo-Clinton ferry today. We parked and walked on. Our toddler really enjoyed riding the ‘big boat with all the autos.’ We took her on the forward-facing deck, and she asked where her jacket was then said it was too windy. When we arrived in Clinton, we used our time waiting for the very next ferry to play in the park and fly a kite. On the return trip, we stood on the back deck watching the ferry terminal as it got smaller in the distance. It was the perfect and quick family outing for about $12 with parking.”

— Lea Bowers, Everett

“I love walking around the ferry to get some steps in, take photos and read about the history they have posted on the ferry in various places.”

— Sharon Ade, Mukilteo

4. Daydream

Relax. Let your mind drift in the open sea.

“A good cup of coffee, with the wind in my face, the smell of the salty sea air, and the view of snow-capped mountains on the Edmonds-Kingston route.”

— Grant Kendall, Marysville

“I like to test out the difference of the front and back. One blows wind in my face until I can’t take it anymore more. Then I go to the back for a completely different experience.”

— Rudy Giecek, Smokey Point

“For me it’s a way to decompress and unplug from all things and prepare to spend some time in a quiet, restorative spot.”

— Sharon Salyer, Seattle

5. Observe

The ferry is prime spot for people watching. It is also a front-row view to ocean life.

“No distractions, it’s all about the scenery. After more than 40 years living in the Puget Sound area, I spend all my time on deck, as weather permits. Otherwise just inside or glued to a window.”

— Christine Bickle, Snohomish

“I sit by the window and watch for wildlife. My tally this summer: one gray whale, one seal, innumerable gulls.”

— Chris Winters, Shoreline

“I have commuted to work the same route (Mukilteo-Clinton) for 10 years and it’s never the same. Combinations of sunsets, mountain ranges, water currents, weather, wildlife, shadows and light paint a unique portrait every day.”

— Margi Hartnett, Clinton

6. Play

Remember to bring a deck of cards. Take funny Snapchat photos. Try your hand at one of the communal jigsaw puzzles.

“Reenact the Titanic scene on the bow.”

— Cheol Kang, Mukilteo

“I play on my phone. Pokémon Go to be precise because the spawns in the Sound are actually pretty good.”

— Mattias Lewis, Lake Stevens

“My hubby and I go straight to the puzzles on the tables on the Anacortes to Friday Harbor ferry. It makes the ferry ride super fast. We are sad when we get there.”

— Brenda Heckathorn, Redmond

“I don’t know if anyone else has ever done this, but back when I was a teenager (late ’70s) I would fly kites off of the back of the Seattle-Bremerton run.”

— Geoff Thorp, Everett

7. Read

“I read a LOT of books. We take the ferry to either Kingston or Whidbey Island on a regular basis to get away.”

— Kathy Arnold, Snohomish

“As a Friday Harbor resident, between wait time and the ride to and from Anacortes round trip, it’s at least four hours with my book. I carry along a backup book in case I finish my current read.”

— Barbara White Sharp, Friday Harbor

8. Sleep

“I catch some Z’s usually.”

— Christopher Herrera, Marysville

9. Sing

Belt out some tunes on the deck. Hum as you walk laps.

“Me and my boys sit in the car and sing songs and record ourselves for Instagram/Facebook. We sit in our car and start singing and dancing. We don’t get out. Karpool karaoke or a Carcert.”

— Jacqueray Smith, Lake Stevens

10. Work

No, don’t work! You can do that anywhere.

Talk to us

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