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Traveling by Washington State Ferries with a dog

Photo by stevevoght

Photo by stevevoght

We take the ferry from Anacortes to the San Juan Islands frequently (and sometimes on to Sidney, B.C.), but the Washington State Ferries also go from Seattle to Bainbridge Island, Seattle to Bremerton, Seattle to Vashon Island, Edmonds to Kingston, Mukilteo to Clinton (on Whidbey Island), and Keystone (on Whidbey Island) to Port Townsend. There are also ferries from Fauntleroy (in West Seattle) to Vashon Island and on to Southworth (on the Kitsap Peninsula), and from Vashon Island to Point Defiance (in Tacoma).

You may either walk or drive on to all of these ferries. Old hands will often stay in their cars and snooze during the crossing, but all of the trips are gorgeous and worth seeing from the upper levels of the ferry. There is an elevator, if you have a bunch of luggage or don’t want to face the stairs.

Some ferries have a small café, and all of them have vending machines. It is perfectly acceptable to stretch out on the benches and snooze (unless the ferry is crowded and it would be cruel to take up a whole bench). Stroll on the decks, but be prepared: even during the summer you’ll need a jacket. People bring cards and board games to entertain themselves, they read, and a couple of times we’ve been within earshot of a really good guitar player.

Dogs are allowed on board, on the following terms: “Pets in carriers are allowed in interior passenger areas on vessels. Uncaged, unrestrained pets are not allowed to remain in interior passenger areas for the duration of a voyage. In some cases, described below, leashed pets may transit though interior areas in order to access exterior passenger areas.”

Read the FAQ I’ve given you the link to for details, but put briefly, if your pup is leashed, you don’t have to stay down on the car deck (that used to be the case, but WSDOT has kindly recognized that “it is impractical to require walk on passengers and their leashed pets to remain on the auto deck for the duration of a voyage”). Now — but only if your dog is leashed — you’re allowed to walk briskly through the passenger cabin to access sheltered exterior passenger areas like “shelter decks, promenade decks and/or sun decks.” (This is a pretty generous policy, considering that BC Ferries, the neighboring system to the north, requires pets to “remain on vehicle decks for the duration of a voyage.”)

That doesn’t apply if you drive on with your pet, even if you have a leash with you in the car: “The policy allowing walk on passengers with pets to access exterior passenger spaces on upper decks does not apply to animals boarding in vehicles that can serve as shelter to drivers and their pets.”

Be aware that if you walk on with your dog, you will have to remain outside with her for the crossing, and while the exterior passenger spaces you can access with her will give you a better view than the car deck does, they will be windy and can be frigid.


  • Alanna Clare

    We have been allowed to take our dog (Australian Shepherd, not small) up to the upper outside decks on several of the Washington State ferries this summer. One time we took an elevator directly to the upper deck, another time we had to go up stairs and actually walk through the cabin, but we were told by more than one worker that we could do so if we moved quickly through and outside. It never hurts to ask – and it’s always nice if the dog is very well-behaved when you are doing the asking. (And if they say no, stay on the car deck and no arguing!!)

  • Thanks so much for the comment, Alanna! That’s excellent information. So often there is a bit of wiggle room in practice — and you’re right, it’s SUCH a help if your dog is looking polite while you’re inquiring!

  • Alanna Clare

    I posted a picture of him on the ferry on the Friday Travel page, but while the small image is visible, the larger one may not be (Facebook privacy). I was very cold, so on one ferry we stretched the rules a tiny bit and sat inside the shelter on the upper deck; it was a smaller boat and the shelter was connected to the cabin rather than free-standing. One of the workers came over and we were about to get up, apologize, and move back outside when she asked if she could pet him; she made quite a fuss over him. So it really does help if you and your dog are polite – and the dog is incredibly cute!

  • Jaime

    My dog rides the ferries regularly. Officially, they are not supposed to be in the passenger cabin, but in practice, the WSF staff will look the other way for a well-behaved dog. Many of us are walk-on passengers without a car and can’t reasonably be expected to sit on the open car deck in foul weather. Only one time did ferry worker tell me to bring my 5 lb puppy to the car deck, but when a WSF engineer saw me there, told me to take my pup upstairs and use his name if I had any problems. There are also passenger-only ferries, but for such a public transit-oriented place, I’m guessing you wouldn’t have a problem there, either…as long as the dog is well-behaved!

    All in all, I think of it as a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, i.e. if you ask permission, they might be forced to say “no” because of official policy. So, just do it!

  • Melissa

    So if you take the ferry, the dogs have to remain in cars generally speaking. Can you see the sights from the car deck? Or would you have to leave the dogs and the car to see the views?

  • Thank you for the kick in the pants, Melissa! WA State Ferries’ pet policy has changed a bit since I first write this post, and I’ve been dawdling with my update. Now it’s fixed.

    So — now if you walk on and have a leash, you can take your dog up to a sheltered exterior space on an upper deck and enjoy the views (wrap up warmly, though, even in the summer). If you drive on, your pup needs to stay in the car. If your car ends up loaded on the outside (and there’s no way to predict where you’ll end up), you get a bit of a view. If not, it’s obstructed by the row of cars to your left or right (depending).

    If you’re traveling with a companion, you could take turns stretching your legs and visiting the upper regions, or you could crack the window and leave your pup for a short while. Your pup won’t be stolen on the ferry, and she likely wouldn’t get hot, but she may get cold in the fall/winter/early spring.

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