Sometimes Portland feels so close—a mere 175 miles down a major freeway, a waterfront city with an active vibe. It's the next best thing we have to a city twin. But oof, getting there can be rough. We explored all the options for travel from Seattle to Portland, but are still holding our breath for a fast ferry.
It should be easy: Get on I-5 south, drive a bunch, and exit when you see a mass of bridges. But the interstate route between Seattle and Portland is fraught. The drive takes about two and a half hours with no traffic, though finding the freeway in that state is like spotting Sasquatch—even if you say you've seen it, no one believes you. Budget four hours during rush hour.
But improvements may be at hand. HOV lanes opened near Joint Base Lewis-McChord last year, and the southbound section through Fife, north of Tacoma, just debuted a new six-lane bridge over the Puyallup River. And the Washington State Department of Transportation has asked for feedback on widening I-5 through Olympia. The one thing that doesn't change: The view of the Uncle Sam billboard.
Does I-5 feel more manageable if you don't have to drive it yourself? Flixbus service runs four times a day, with pickups at the University of Washington, downtown, and Sea-Tac Airport. Prices start around $18 but vary with advance purchase and ticket availability. Buses include wifi, charging outlets, and bathrooms, plus an entertainment portal for movie watching. Like flying, but a little better—the first checked bag is free. Flixbus plans for about four hours and 15 minutes from UW, or a little over three from Sea-Tac—but of course transit time depends on traffic.
Remember Greyhound? Flixbus acquired the legacy bus system in 2021, though the offerings on the Greyhound site vary—and includes a 2:15am departure for a kind of Seattle-to-Portland red-eye.
First, the bad news: Though WSDOT is studying the feasibility of ultra-high-speed ground transportation, aka a super fast train for the PNW, it remains a hazy dream. (Wake us when hyper loop is a real thing.) But regular trains on Amtrak's Cascades and Coast Starlight routes service the two cities, with about five departures a day. At just over three hours, it's hardly a trip at hyper speed, but coach tickets are under $30 when bought far in advance. About four years after a deadly derailment occurred on the route, Amtrak trains are back to using the new Point Defiance bypass.
With more than 20 departures a day from Sea-Tac Airport to PDX, mostly on Alaska and Delta Airlines, plus two a day from Paine Field, a flight trip is certainly feasible. It takes less than an hour—in the air, that is. Thanks to travel times to and from the airport and those pesky TSA lines, a flight isn't always faster than a drive. But given the price of gas, it might be cheaper—prices start around $70 each way.