10 tips for using ferries for Northwest travel with kids

If you travel extensively throughout the coastal northwest, your route will eventually necessitate using Washington State (WSDOT) ferries or BC Ferries. Both are well-run ferry transportation options, but can seem intimidating to the occasional Northwest traveler. My family and I learned the ropes (at least, most of them) the fun way on a 10 day trip throughout coastal BC and Washington islands. What we found families need to know before traveling by ferry with kids in the Pacific Northwest:

10 tips for using ferries:

tips for using ferries


1. Know which ferry passages can be reserved in advance.

Most BC Ferry routes can be reserved ahead of time (though not all…more on that below), whereas most Washington State ferries cannot. If you’re traveling during peak tourist season (summer), reservations are at very least helpful, and sometimes crucial. BC Ferry schedules are listed clearly, and travelers can create an account on the BC Ferry website to make reservations for most routes. Reserving ahead of time is helpful not only because it ensures your passage, but also because it allows you to use the website to receive email alerts for any schedule changes to your route. Smaller routes, such as the ‘most scenic short-cut in the Northwest’ from Mill Bay, BC to Brentwood Bay, BC, are not reservable, but the heavily traveled routes, such as Vancouver to Nanaimo, always are.

Schedule your ferry passages at the time you plan your travel itinerary.

Ferry passages (and their schedules) just might change your plans. For instance, I was surprised to find out that my preferred route of travel from the San Juan Islands straight to Seattle was not possible, despite being geographically close by, nautically-speaking. Neither was my plan to traverse from Victoria to Friday Harbor. No worries: once I’d seen where offered ferries do travel, I was happy to adjust my plans. After all, there’s really no bad place to be along the Pacific Northwest coast.

bc ferries

3. Be on time.

And by on time, I mean at least 1 hour early, if you’re driving a car onto the ferry. Yes, even if you have a reservation. And yes, even on the small ferry routes. This seems inconvenient, but on our recent trip throughout Vancouver Island, Washington, and Vancouver BC, we didn’t mind. Once you’ve queued, you’re free to turn off your engine and get out of your car. At every ferry terminal we encountered, restrooms were available at minimum. At maximum, we enjoyed restaurants, scenic views, gift shops, and more.

4. Consider purchasing a Waves2Go or Experience Card if you’ll be using ferries for an extended time (or numerous passages).

Waves2Go is WSDOT’s monthly pass, and the Experience Card is BC Ferries convenient swipe card that can be preloaded with fare (at a discount).

bc ferries

5. Budget in the cost of bringing your car along for the ride.

The most expensive passenger on any ferry ride is your car. On our BC Ferry passage from Horseshoe Bay (Vancouver) to Nanaimo, our car cost us $75, and our Washington ferry ride from Sidney BC to Friday Harbor, WA cost us $45 in car fare. (Passengers are typically around $15 on longer passages, and as low as $7.50 on shorter passages.

6. Consider your ferry passage as both transportation and a scenic tour.

Northwest ferry passages are downright beautiful, and often wildlife can be spotted. (We saw jelly fish swimming on our shorter passage, and harbor seals in the San Juans.) In poor weather, most viewing decks have covered areas; go outside rain or shine!

bc ferries

7. Get out of your car as soon as you’re given the go-ahead by ferry personnel.

We quickly learned that there’s precious real estate on every ferry: window seats. The sooner you’re up from the car decks, the better your chances of snagging some. A few seats do have outlets, so don’t forget to bring any devices that need charging from the car. The ‘get out of the car early’ rule goes double on large BC Ferries if you’re planning to purchase a meal (at mealtime) onboard. Lines at breakfast and lunch go long.

bc ferries

8. Entertainment on board a Northwest ferry varies.

On large BC Ferries, you can expect gift shops, child play spaces (similar to what you’d find in airports) and even small arcades. Inter-island and Anacortes ferries in Washington will have snack shops and viewing decks, but little else. Tip: look for partially completed jigsaw puzzles on random ferry tables…they’ve been left for the next passengers. See how many pieces you can contribute before disembarking.

9. Remember to convert your money before leaving BC for Washington, or vice versa.

Washington ferries no longer take Canadian currency for on-board purchases, and shops and restaurants on the Sidney, BC side will not take American as a rule.

10. Don’t forget your passports.

Crossing the border by sea requires the same documentation and immigration process as crossing by land. All adults will need a passport, and kids will need a passport or birth certificate. If you’re traveling without one custodial parent, a letter of consent is required. (We didn’t have one from my husband, who was not with us, and we were allowed to enter Canada anyway, but the officer let us know it is needed.)