May 15, 2024 - News

Avoiding Washington state ferry hell

Illustration of a devilish face spray-painted onto the window of a ferry, with Seattle reflected behind.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

You may think you know ferry hell, but even with all the breakdowns, slowdowns and delayed and canceled trips we're used to, peak tourist season adds a further level of purgatory.

Why it matters: May marks the start of the summer season, when ferries routinely carry up to twice as many passengers per month as during winter, Washington State Ferries spokesperson Ian Sterling told Axios.

Friction points: The post-pandemic rebound in tourism is a bright spot for Seattle businesses, per the Downtown Seattle Association, but something of a bummer for daily commuters and people who hate crowds and congestion.

  • Ferry waiting times in the summer can exceed two hours for those who bring vehicles.
  • Cutting in ferry lines goes up dramatically in summer, bringing some to such a boiling point that guns have been drawn and police called, Sterling said.

What they're saying: "Line cutting is the most infuriating thing," he said, "but for the most part, people aren't doing it on purpose." They're visitors or novices and they willingly move to the end of the line once told, he said.

  • But there are those who cut intentionally and don't care if people get mad, he said.
  • "They're the folks you like to see get a ticket."

Yes, and: While walk-on passengers and bike riders may not have to wait in long lines to board, they can still see the irritation when calloused veterans recline on a full bench while others can't find seats or commuters elbow tourists from the front of the line to deboard.

State of play: Over the last few years, the state Legislature has voted to shore up funding for the ferries, bolster hiring and training programs and build five new hybrid electric car ferries, Sterling said.

  • But after a decade without new boats and years of delayed maintenance, the cure won't be fast, he said.
  • Last week, KUOW reported, 38 local elected leaders sent a letter to federal lawmakers, calling on them "to make robust investments in federal ferry programs to ensure Washington State Ferries (WSF) has needed resources to urgently restore full ferry system service."

In the meantime, here are some tips on how to make your ferry sailings smoother.

What to try: If you have the luxury of choosing when to travel, avoid peak commuter times — generally on boats that are Seattle-bound between 5 and 9am and those leaving the city between 2 and 6pm.

  • On weekends, steer clear of ferries heading west from 2–6pm on Friday and east from 1–6pm on Sunday. On three-day weekends, the race out of town will start earlier.
  • Make reservations on the routes that accept them, but be aware of weather, tide and cancellation alerts.
  • Pack for a three-hour wait, just in case: food, drinks, window shades for your car, phone chargers, books, etc.
  • If you can walk on or ride a bike, do so.

Editor's note: This story was corrected to reflect that the ferries to avoid 2-6pm Friday are those heading west (not east) and those heading east (not west) 1-6pm Sunday.

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