Travel | Family Fun | Outings + Activities

San Juan Islands on a Shoestring, With Kids in Tow

kid at camp orkila on orcas island
Great time on Orcas Island | Photo by Mike (dierken) on flickr CC

Have you given up on the San Juan Islands because of ferry lines and skyrocketing overnight rates? Not so fast. If you haven’t visited in a while, let me assure you: Lopez Island has not suddenly transformed into Nantucket.

Our gorgeous San Juans are as laid-back and charming as ever, especially if you know when to go and where to find the best deals.

My budget-conscious family boards a ferry to the San Juans about once a year, a pilgrimage to emerald isles that immerses our young son in Northwest nature and gently nudges him to slow down to the pace of “island time.” Even the one-hour ferry crossing is an adventure for kids, as sightings of many different types of sea life are possible, from bald eagles to orca whales and harbor seals. Once on the islands, pebbly beaches invite our son to indulge in one of his favorite pastimes, skipping rocks. And clear, dark skies are perfect for stargazing at night.

A few general tips for saving on a San Juans trip:

  • The ferry crossing is expensive, so consider options that allow you to leave your car behind (passenger-only fares are much cheaper). If you are taking a car, take advantage of the new Washington State Ferries San Juan Islands reservation system. Reserved spots are now available on all westbound sailings from Anacortes, and eastbound sailings from Friday Harbor and Orcas Island. Snag your spot up to two months in advance, and as late as two days prior to your trip.

  • If you are going to stop at multiple islands, go west first to San Juan Island, then stop at Orcas and Lopez on the return trip (you’re only charged when you go west).

  • July and August weekends are the most expensive and busiest times to visit, so avoid these if possible.

  • Book accommodations that have a kitchen so that you can cook you own meals (with fresh, local ingredients!)
    picnic table on Mt Constitution on Orcas Island
    Picnic spot on Mt. Constitution viewpoint | Photo by Chelsea Nesvig (ozmafan) on flickr CC

  • Pack fixing for picnics to stretch your dollars  – dine with a view on an ocean bluff.

  • Wait for the off-season (October–April) for incredible deals on lodging.

  • Travel with another family and rent a vacation house.

  • If you are staying at the same place for three or more nights, ask for a discount.

  • And of course, the cheapest sleep is your camping tent. 

Handy links for visiting the San Juan Islands: Ferry schedule, Tide table, San Juan Islands Visitor’s Bureau, Visitor's Bureau family activities finder, Northwest TripFinder

Here are five pocket guides to the San Juan Islands for families on a budget:

Lopez Island

Orcas Island

San Juan Island

Guemes Island

Lummi Island

Read Next