Seattle is a great place to fly to. Sea-Tac is a nice airport that’s clean and well-staffed by friendly people . The new LINK light rail connects downtown and Seattle with trains every 10-20 minutes and will eventually extend to the northern reaches of the city. Alaska Airlines has one of the best frequent flyer programs of the entire industry (free refunds on revenue tickets if you fly 40,000 miles a year), plus nonstop service from its Seattle hub and partnerships across more than one alliance.
Seattle Has Some Great Hotels and Great Locations
… But not enough steady demand to create a thriving market.
The hotel situation sucks. There are plenty of properties to handle business nine months out of the year, but for summer, they will sell out months in advance. Six months out from our wedding, the Grand Hyatt and the Olive8 were completely sold out, with rates at the Hyatt Place hovering near $300 a night. The Sheraton is sold out. The W and Westin are over $300. A few non-chains are in the $150-200 range, but you should consider yourself lucky if you can get something under $200 even using Hotwire or Priceline for a nice summer weekend.
Summer is the one time of year tourists really want to visit, and it doesn’t help that the cruise ships unload thousands more. Then you hit winter, and you can find four-star hotels for $100. Maybe they’ll throw in free breakfast, too. But even though the summers are nice, you can still visit all the coffee shops, flea markets, and many other, truly local activities if you visit when it’s cold and rainy.
Check out the map below for a summary of where to stay and where not to stay. Avoid the areas boxed in red. You want to focus on areas in green.
Downtown, Belltown, and South Lake Union
Quality of hotels is generally great downtown and in the adjacent Belltown and South Lake Union areas (the latter two have more budget-friendly properties). I love the Hyatt Olive 8 and had a great experience working with Kimpton’s Alexis Hotel for our wedding. A new Kimpton — the Palladian — just opened in a grungy area on Second Ave, but it’s probably one of the most convenient hotels to Pike Place Market.
You can also find the Fairmont Olympic, the Four Seasons, and a Grand Hyatt and W Hotel. In the summer, you should expect to pay $250-350 for a quality 4-star hotel in downtown Seattle. A 3-star hotel will run you $200-250. Be skeptical of paying less than $200. There is probably a reason why it’s so cheap.
Within downtown, I usually recommend staying north of Madison (Alexis Hotel and Hotel 1000 are on this edge) and south of Olive and Stewart (Westin, Hotel Max, and Hyatt Olive 8 are on this edge). There are a few hotels up 4th and 5th Avenues in Belltown that are also pretty good, like the Hotel 5 and Hotel Andra. If you like good food, Andra is surrounded by Tom Douglas restaurants on all sides, and Lola is in the lobby.
In the area around Seattle Center you’ll find budget properties like Holiday Inn, Four Points by Sheraton, and Hyatt Place here. A new Hyatt House should open soon. The area is somewhat run down but the rates are not much cheaper than in the downtown core because tourist traps still deserve a price premium. You can also try the Silver Cloud Inn, Marriott Residence Inn, and Courtyard by Marriott on the southern edges of Lake Union.
South Lake Union has been under heavy construction and will continue to be for several years. It’s now lost almost all resemblance to its former status as a warehouse district, but it is largely full of office buildings and can be dead at night. Still, it offers some good choices if you don’t mind the commute to other parts of the city. The Pan Pacific at Denny and Westlake is a great property with a central location. Plans have been filed for a new Hilton at Fairview and Mercer, and other hotels may be on the horizon.
Fed up with what seem like unreasonable rates, you might find yourself considering options like Aurora (the name for Highway 99 north of Downtown). In general, Seattle doesn’t have a lot of crime, but it can go from nice to sketchy in the span of two blocks. Two decades ago the economy was collapsing. Now we don’t have enough cranes for all the new construction. So I don’t worry too much. Seattle’s bark is worse than its bite.
Still, if I convince you of anything, don’t stay on Aurora. That’s where I’d go if I ever wanted drugs or a hooker. Seattle Weekly once ran an interesting story about the seedy backgrounds of every motel on a two-mile stretch.
Actually, there is a surprising amount of smut throughout this city. Deja Vu is still located directly across from the main entrance to Pike Place Market, and another strip club down the street closed only after the new Four Seasons opened next door. It’s still for sale if anyone is interested in forming a joint venture with me. (Having fun with puns, marijuana is now legal here, too.) A former comedy club in the University District, named Giggles, tried to reopen as “Jiggles.” It made a good effort, but it was also directly across the street from an elementary school. People will only tolerate so much.
Speaking of the U District, it offers one pretty much the only reasonable compromise between price and convenience. It can still be grungy, and in the summer it gets overrun by packs of young homeless kids with their unleashed dogs. (Seriously. Packs of obnoxious kids with dogs. They leave in the winter.) But it is not so bad that I recommend against staying here. You can usually find hotels from $150-200 a night.
The Watertown is the nicest hotel in the U District, but the adjacent University Inn is next door and also good. They’re both part of the Pineapple Hospitality group, which runs the Maxwell Hotel and Hotel Five. Do not confuse the University Inn with the College Inn, which is a hostel located above one of my favorite bars. Hotel Deca is okay, but the rooms are terribly small. Another Silver Cloud Inn on the other side of UW, near the University Village shopping mall, offers no public transit to the rest of the city.
A new Marriott is opening soon on NE 45th Street. However, the neighborhood has such bad traffic that I recommend staying here only if you plan to commute by public transit or actually want to visit the university area.
Can You Stay Far Away and Commute In?
In most cities you can find several cheap properties, especially airport and suburban hotels, to rack up mattress runs for easy elite status. The area around Sea-Tac is pretty grim, and once you reach Seattle proper, there are not many options outside the downtown core. The causes are the elongated geography and the small neighborhoods I mentioned yesterday, which discourage an urban environment anywhere but downtown. This isn’t like the Dallas Galleria or Tysons Corner, where a large shopping mall can support several office towers and adjacent hotels.
Some people will still want to go farther afield and try to commute in to enjoy the city. Beware the traffic. It takes 20 minutes to reach Seattle from Bellevue, Lynnwood, or Renton in the dead of night. When the weather is good, it can easily become 40 to 60 minutes. A reader commented yesterday that locals don’t go on vacatio in the summer because those are the two or three months that make the rest of the year worth enduring. It was not uncommon for my boss to come into lab on a nice afternoon and tell us to go home. Huge traffic jams result. And the money you save is not so great. I think you would still have trouble finding a hotel that charges less than $125. I you do it anyway, here’s my advice.
Renton is your best bet. There are cheaper motels with quick access to the light rail. Take it into the city and don’t drive. You won’t find anything fancy, but it will fit the bill. I haven’t stayed at either, but the DoubleTree and Marriott look like the nicest options.
Lynnwood is just as far from Seattle as Renton is, but north of the city instead of south. The hotels aren’t any nicer, or any cheaper, and there’s less public transit if you want to avoid driving. You will likely spend your vacation on I-5.
Bellevue is a good alternative if you have higher standards and want to stay in a Hyatt or Westin. I think the Eastside is boring, and there’s really nothing to see there except the shopping malls. I understand living in Bellevue, but you don’t want to vacation in Bellevue. Hotel rates tend to be $100 less than what you’d find in Seattle.
Making the Best of a Difficult Situation
The hotel situation is improving. A new Hilton is going up near Mercer and Fairview, a Marriott is nearly done in the University District, much of Aurora is being razed and redeveloped. There’s even a super fancy hotel tower under construction downtown — which has been on the books for years.
But as I said at the beginning, you should make more of an effort to experience Seattle as the locals do. You can visit in the winter to save money. Or if you come in the summer, try renting a house on AirBnb. Realize that you are paying to visit a very popular destination during the summer because that is the only time most people want to come. If you are willing to wear a jacket, come in spring or fall. We have very pretty leaves and flowers, too.