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Access to a car is almost a necessity if you want to explore the residential neighborhoods beyond their commercial centers. If side trips to the Eastside (besides downtown Bellevue, which is easily reached by bus), neighborhoods north of the Lake Washington Ship Canal, Mt. Rainier, the San Juan Islands, or pretty much any sight or city outside the Seattle limits (with the exception of Portland, Oregon, which is easily reached by train) are on your agenda, you will definitely need a car. Before you book a car for city-only driving, keep in mind that many high-end hotels offer complimentary town-car service around Downtown and the immediate areas.
The best advice about driving in Seattle is to avoid driving during rush hour whenever possible. The worst tangles are on I–5 and I–90, and any street Downtown that has a major on- or off-ramp to I–5. The Fremont Bridge and the 15th Avenue Bridge also get tied up. Aurora Avenue/99 gets very busy but often moves quickly enough. Other than that, you should find driving around Seattle a lot less anxiety-inducing than driving around many other major cities. Though you'll come across the occasional road-rager or oblivious driver who assumes driving an SUV makes one invincible, drivers in Seattle are generally courteous and safety-conscious—though you'll want to pay extra attention in the student-heavy areas of Capitol Hill and the U-District.
Parking is a headache and a half in many parts of Seattle, but not anywhere as bad as most major cities. Street parking is only guaranteed in the least dense residential areas—even leafy parts of Capitol Hill are crammed full of cars all hours of the day. The north end typically has enough parking, but the central core of Ballard and Fremont can get a little hairy come evenings and weekends. The city has a good share of pay lots and garages in the central core of the city, but even the pay lots can fill up on weekend nights, particularly in Belltown and Capitol Hill. Metered street parking exists in Downtown Seattle and the commercial stretches of Capitol Hill, but consider yourself lucky if you manage to snag a spot. Meter rates and restrictions vary by neighborhood, and cost between $1 and $4 per hour. Downtown only offers short-term parking, but many areas of the city allow long-term parking up to 10 hours in some neighborhoods. Although there are a few old-style coin-only meters left here and there (if you find one that's broken, don't park there or you could face a ticket), most pay stations are electronic and take either coins or debit and credit cards (all major cards except Discover). You get a printed sticker noting the time your parking is up, which you affix to the curbside passenger window. Pay stations are clearly marked by signs with big white Ps in blue circles; there is usually one machine per block of parking spaces. Parking is free on Sundays, some holidays, and after 6 pm or 8 pm (depending on the area) weekdays and Saturdays. The maximum meter time is two hours in some areas, and four hours in others, even within the same general neighborhood, so check signs carefully. If you plan to be somewhere for a while and won't be nearby to refill the meter, find a parking lot or garage. Make sure you check the signs around your pay station for any additional restrictions—some areas Downtown don't allow street parking during the rush hours of 6 to 9 am and 3 to 6 pm. You could park and pay and come back to find your car towed.
Street-level pay lots are the next price tier up, though those Downtown are often just as expensive as (or more expensive than) garages. Rates vary greatly, but expect to pay at least $5 to $7 before tax for a few hours in Capitol Hill, Downtown, or Belltown, with a cap of around $25 for 24 hours. If a rate looks lower, it might not include tax, so read the fine print if you're on a strict budget. Some pay lots have electronic pay stations similar to metered parking—use bills or a debit or credit card to pay at the station and place the printed ticket on the driver's-side dashboard—but some lots still use old-fashioned pay boxes where you shove folded-up bills into a tiny slot with the same number as the space in which you parked. So make sure you have some cash on you if you're trolling for pay-lot parking. Very few pay lots have attendants, and most lots don't have in-and-out privileges. Some street-level pay lots do double duty as parking for a neighboring store or restaurant, so make sure you're not in a spot designated for customers or you could be towed—which could be a $500 mistake. When in doubt, skip the street lots and opt for a garage or metered parking.
Most Downtown malls and high-rises have garages. Lot and garage rates begin at $5 an hour and cap off at $25 to $30 for the day. Park before 9 am in most lots (as early as 8 am in some and up to 10 am in others) to take advantage of early-bird specials, which typically run $11 to $15 for up to 10 hours of parking. One of the best garages is the one at Pacific Place: rates are reasonable, spaces are plentiful, a valet parking service costs only a few dollars more, and many merchants in the mall, as well as other local businesses, offer parking validation. Most garages take credit and debit cards.
Evening and weekend parking rates are usually cheaper than those on weekdays, around $10 for parking between 6 (or as early as 4 pm at some lots) and midnight and $5–$12 for parking all day on weekends. Be aware that these lowered rates can go out the window if there are popular events happening near the lots—for example, any lots near Seattle Center will be dramatically higher during a big concert or happening, like Bumbershoot. After 5 pm, it's just $6 to park at Pacific Place for up to four hours. Late night revelers should head to The Public Market Parking Garage at Pike Place, where parking is just $5 if you enter after 5 pm and leave by 2 am. Some of the Market's restaurants, including Le Pichet, offer free parking after 5 pm for patrons.
Important: No matter where you park, always lock your car and never leave valuables in your vehicle. The city has plenty of problems with break-ins. Don't be fooled by the laid-back suburban feel of some of the residential areas—they all experience waves of car theft and vandalism.
Lastly, you may be tempted to park in large private lots like those belonging to supermarkets. You're really rolling the dice: you may get away with it at small businesses and banks after business hours when no one's around to enforce the rules, but large businesses like grocery stores tend to have someone patrolling the lot. If you end up getting a ticket, you'll pay $35, far more money than you'll pay at a garage or pay lot.
Rates in Seattle vary wildly, beginning at $13 a day (if you snag your deal from an Internet discounter like Hotwire.com or Priceline.com) and up to $150 a day. This does not include the car-rental tax of 18.5%. Hunt around for deals online for the best prices—sometimes you'll get to pick up your car at the airport, or you might have to snag your vehicle from a city lot. Try to avoid renting a car from the airport, where rental fees, surcharges, and taxes are higher. Most major rental agencies have offices Downtown or along the waterfront, within easy reach of the main hotel area. Of the major agencies at the airport, Thrifty often has the lowest rates because it does not have a counter in the terminals.
Booking in advance usually ensures the best rates—and is a must on holiday weekends when Seattleites flee the city. Another option that offers flexibility is car-sharing. If you're a member of Zipcar in your own city, you can borrow any Zipcar in Seattle for quick trips around town and not have to worry about the hassles of car rentals or parking. At $70 to $80 a day, this isn't the best option for multi-day use, but for a couple hours here or there, it could end up being a bargain.
Almost no popular hiking trips require special vehicles—the road to Mt. Rainier, for example, is paved the whole way—but if driving 20 miles down a bumpy Forest Service dirt road to reach a remote trailhead sounds like something you want to try, you might want to make sure the vehicle you rent can handle it.
Unless you're hauling around kayaks, rent the smallest car possible, especially if you plan to do a lot of city driving. The smaller the car, the easier it'll be to find a parking space.
In Washington State you must be 21 and hold a major credit card (many agencies accept debit cards with the MasterCard or Visa logo) to rent a car. Rates may be higher if you're under 25. You'll pay about $9 to $12 per day per child seat for children under age 4 or 40 pounds, or per booster seat for children ages 4 to 6 or under 60 pounds, both of which are compulsory in Washington State.
When you reserve a car, ask about cancellation penalties, taxes, drop-off charges (if you're planning to pick up the car in one city and leave it in another), and surcharges (for being under or over a certain age, for additional drivers, or for driving across state or country borders or beyond a specific distance from your point of rental). All these things can add substantially to your costs. Request car seats and extras such as GPS when you book.
Make sure that a confirmed reservation guarantees you a car. Agencies sometimes overbook, particularly for busy weekends and holiday periods.