Affordable Escapes


“Summer vacation.” Together, those two words are almost guaranteed to make mouth corners turn upward. On the other hand, strained budgets are certainly nothing to smile about, and in many cases, summer vacations have become yet another casualty of our grim economy. While a far-flung escape might be out of the question this summer, a scaled down budget doesn’t mean big fun has to be crossed entirely off the calendar, especially here in the Evergreen State, where it’s possible to get out of town and have a great time without breaking the bank.

Cruise On The Cheap

Some passengers stand on deck, the wind whipping through their hair as the huge vessel cuts through blue waters amidst beautiful scenery. Others enjoy the view from the comfort of a spacious booth while eating a fabulous picnic lunch they’ve brought on board. This happens every day – and quite affordably – on the Washington State Ferries (WSF) system.

WSF is the largest ferry system in the nation, and the third largest ferry system in the world. While commuters account for a significant percentage of WSF riders, plenty of passengers are pleasure cruisers.

The WSF southernmost port of call is Point Defiance, about six miles northwest of Interstate 5 in Tacoma. There, you can drive or walk onto the ferry to Tahlequah, on the south end of Vashon Island. Then drive, bike or hike about 13 miles to the north end of the island, where you can catch a ferry to Seattle, Bainbridge Island or Bremerton.

If you want to explore the San Juan Islands, catch a WSF ride in Anacortes (about 85 miles from Seattle, and some 16 miles west of Interstate 5 at Mt. Vernon). Ports in the San Juans service area include Lopez, Shaw, Orcas and Friday Harbor.

If you crave international travel but you’re on a budget, you might like to know it’s just $16 for an adult walk-on passenger to ride a ferry from Anacortes to Sidney, B.C. on Vancouver Island, approximately 17 miles north of Victoria. (A reminder for international travelers: Citizens of the United States and Canada will need to present a passport, a trusted traveler program card (NEXUS, SENTRI and FAST), or an enhanced driver’s license when entering or departing the United States by sea.

Check with the Washington State Department of Licensing,, for more information.

Rates to ride WSF vary by route, passenger age and whether you’re a walk-on, bike on, or drive-on rider. Children 5 and under are free, and there are reduced rates for seniors (age 65 and older), disabled passengers and for youth ages 6 to 18. You can plan your ferry travels and buy tickets online at For information, call 888-808-7977.

Riding the Rails

Your destination shouldn’t be the only consideration when gauging a getaway’s fun factor. What if, instead of drudgery, the travel to and fro was actually fun, and it didn’t cost an arm and a leg?

Take a train out of town for a change of pace. From the historic Amtrak depot in downtown Vancouver, you can catch the daily Empire Builder eastbound. Rolling along the rails, you can relax and enjoy the stunning scenery through the Columbia River Gorge.

You could ride all the way to Chicago or Minneapolis, but if you’re on a budget, perhaps your easternmost stop will be Spokane, where there are 206 days of sun each year and 76 glistening lakes. The Spokane Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau (888-SPO-KANE) has created a special Summer in Spokane Web site ( full of ideas for visitors, including many money saving offers.

A round-trip Amtrak ticket to Spokane should only set you back around $100 – not a whole lot more than it would cost you for gas but you get the fun factor the train provides, plus you don’t have the hassle of driving or the wear and tear on your car.

For schedule and fare information, call 800-USA-RAIL (800-872-7245) or visit (On their Web site, make sure you click on the “Hot Deals” tab, where you’ll find weekly and advertised specials, details about available discounts, and a vacation planner.)

Green Gem

It might be the Evergreen State’s most overlooked treasure and partaking costs only a pittance.

A playground of nearly one million acres awaits in the Olympic National Park on the Olympic Peninsula. Rainforest valleys, alpine meadows and 60 miles of wilderness coastline are all in the mix and a single visit pass, good for up to seven consecutive days at any Olympic National Park entrance fee area, is just $15 per vehicle. For individuals on foot, bicycle or motorcycle, the fee is $5, and children 15 years or younger are admitted free.

An Olympic National Park highlight is the Hoh Rain Forest. Among the few protected temperate rain forests in the Northern Hemisphere, the Hoh Rain Forest receives between 12 and 14 feet of rain each year. The precipitation helps create a stunning canopy of coniferous and deciduous trees, many of which are blanketed in moss.

There are trails to explore, including the Hall of Mosses Trail, .8 picturesque miles through old growth, and the Hoh River Trail, just over 17 miles, leading to Glacier Meadows on the shoulder of Mount Olympus.

The Hoh Rain Forest has a year-round campground with 88 campsites located in the old growth forest along the river. The nightly fee for camping in one of the park’s established campgrounds ranges from $10-$18, depending on location and season.

To learn more about visiting the Olympic Peninsula destinations, check with the National Parks Service (800-833-6388, and the Olympic Peninsula Visitor Bureau (800-942-4042,

(Fun fact: Under an hour from Forks, Wash., the Hoh Rain Forest is part of the backdrop for the wildly popular “Twilight” series of books.)

Take Them Out to the Ball Game

Usually an outing involving a major professional sports team is a wallet drainer. For example, the average price of a ticket for a National Basketball Association game is now nearly $50, and the average price of a National Football League game is $72.20.

Meanwhile, Major League Baseball tickets’ average price is a relatively affordable $25.40. And you can see the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field for as little as $7 per seat, the going rate for centerfield bleacher seats bought before game day (or pay a buck more for on the day of play). (Ticket buying tip: If you buy tickets at the box office, you don’t have to pay all of the “handling” fees, which can nearly double the price of a $7 ticket.)

The beauty of Safeco Field is that once you have a ticket to get in, you’ve got a pass to watch the game from any number of excellent spots. You can party on the patio in centerfield with the largely college crowd. You can stand on the concourse behind home plate and have a great view of the strike zone. If you’re early enough, you can snag a seat in the Hit it Here Café and watch the game while you’re waited on at your table. There’s also a great bar hidden away behind the hand operated scoreboard where you have a great view from left field, plus dozens of other spots dotting the stadium where your $7 ticket gets you a great vantage point.

Be warned: Concession prices inside the stadium are astronomical – you’ll pay around $5 for a hot dog and quadruple or more the grocery store prices for peanuts, Cracker Jack and other snacks. Though you can’t bring drinks in, you are allowed to pack in outside food, so if you plan ahead, you can save a ton of money and snack well for nine innings strong.

A ticket to a ballgame includes free admission to Baseball Museum of the Pacific Northwest at Safeco Field. On the main concourse on the third base side, the museum traces the history of baseball in the region, hosts the Mariners Hall of Fame and includes interactive displays like You Make the Call (a chance to try your broadcasting chops) and a replica of Safeco Field’s outfield wall is a backdrop for a photo opp.

Also, during your trip to Safeco, enjoy Art in the Park, one of the most comprehensive art programs of any Major League ballpark. Public and private works by Northwest artists are in and around Safeco Field. All baseball-inspired, highlights include The Tempest, a dramatic chandelier of 1,000 translucent bats illuminated with flickering incandescent lights that hangs inside the Home Plate entrance, and The MITT, a 9- by 12-foot cast bronze sculpture of the abstract form of an old baseball glove, standing outside Left Field Gate.

Kids will dig a free visit with the Mariners Moose in his den on the main concourse in right centerfield, and there’s a free, fun play park in straightaway center.

For more information, visit the Seattle Mariners Web site ( When there, be sure to check out the Promotional Schedule, as sometimes a $7 ticket can include a game day giveaway like a t-shirt or bobblehead doll. Also explore the Web site’s “Fan Value Corner” for discounts on tickets, concessions, and more.