Gettin' around the San Juan Islands
May 17, 2022 12:57 AM   Subscribe

I understand I need — or it is a good idea to have — a ferry reservation to go from Anacortes to the San Juan Islands via car. My question is about what my options are once I am on one or another island: Can I drive off at one island, hop back on, and go to another island, without needing an additional reservation?

As an example: I leave Anacortes at 5:30am, get off at Friday Harbor, have breakfast/brunch and explore a bit, then hop back on the ferry to go to Orcas Island, where I am staying at a campsite that doesn't let me check in until the late afternoon.

As another example: I am on Orcas Island and I drive onto the ferry to go to Lopez Island.

I do have bicycles, and we will use them, but for reasons my question is specifically about travelling to various islands via car on the ferry, without returning to Anacortes.

Thanks for any information you may have!
posted by They sucked his brains out! to Travel & Transportation (6 answers total)
Best answer: From the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau:
How do I get from island to island on the ferry?

Take the Interisland ferry! The Washing [sic] State Ferries Vehicle Reservations Page doesn't show any interisland connections or provide the option to book travel between islands. This is because interisland reservations are not available on the interisland ferry. There are, however interisland ferries that run between the islands on a daily basis. Interisland ferries are loaded on a first-come basis for vehicles.
The inter-island ferries are the ones highlighted in grey on this timetable; there appear to be 4–5 sailings each day in each direction. The top link above also has a few more tips on how early to arrive and how fares work on these ferries.
posted by Johnny Assay at 4:25 AM on May 17, 2022

Best answer: Inter-island ferry travel with a car is easy, all you need is the ferry schedule linked above. Those ferry schedules may seem daunting at first but are beautifully concise once you get used to reading them. You should find small paper copies on the ferries and at the terminals.

No reservations, just show up and get your car in line, then hang out and wait for the boat to load. All the locals are deeply familiar with the ferry system, so if you're worried about how busy a specific island's ferry terminal is on a particular day/time, just ask.

You'll come to rely on the ferry schedule—and get comfortable with it—pretty quickly. Have fun!
posted by cyclopticgaze at 5:00 AM on May 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hello from Anacortes! Once you're out in the islands, you can island-hop all you want, but returning to Anacortes sort of ends your ferry trip, and you'll need to buy another ticket to get back out there. While it's not required by ordinance or anything, pretty much assume you will not be leaving Anacortes on time without a reservation. Capacity is down, and 1-2 sailing waits are common if you don't have a reservation. You can book a reservation online, but note that the reservation is not your ticket. You can also buy your ticket online via a link from that page or right here. Book the reservation first, then buy the ticket once your spot is confirmed.

Even with your reservation, plan to arrive at the Anacortes terminal 45-60 minutes ahead of your scheduled sailing time. This is so they can route cars into the proper lane and keep them in a rough order. You'll show your reservation and your ticket receipt at the toll booth, and they'll direct you to a lane.

This catches some visitors by surprise, but please be aware that in very high winds and rough seas, your car could get a healthy dose of seawater, and possibly get shoved around a bit, so be aware of that if you are concerned about your car. This is unusual, but it happens.
posted by xedrik at 7:42 AM on May 17, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You do not need to return to Anacortes to island hop, but I add a very strong emphasis on the lower frequency of ferries right now and possibility of cancellations (aka stuck where you don’t want to be) due to crew availability. You can use this for updates. No reservations for inter-island ferries - Plan to line up at least 30 minutes before your intended inter-island ferry. No wait required for walk or bike on.
posted by gryphonlover at 9:17 AM on May 17, 2022

Response by poster: The inter-island lines are perfect and exactly what I was hoping would be available (I did not want to return to Anacortes, just yet, as nice as it is). This will let us start our trip to grab a bite on one island before heading to a campsite on another island, as well as explore things a bit more easily over the week. I am grateful also for the wait-time advice; I was wondering how far ahead to wait in line for the island hop.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 9:43 AM on May 17, 2022

Best answer: Welcome to the San Juans! Good advice above. I would only add that the schedules can be very confusing at times, and there can be last minute changes due to staffing shortages, delays and so on. I still make mistakes and I've been taking these ferries my whole life.

If you're at all worried, just call the Anacortes terminal and ask them for help. They'll know what the situation is on the day and be able to walk you through what you need to do.

Also, there are plenty of places to eat and hang out near the Friday Harbor and Orcas terminals, so if you end up with an hour to spare it's definitely not the worst thing!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 1:12 PM on May 17, 2022

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