First time visitors to Seattle often contact me with lots of questions. We’re up here in a remote corner of the country, and many people visit only for work or on their way to an Alaska cruise. Fortunately Seattle is a great place to fly to. Sea-Tac is a nice airport with new lounges, inter-terminal trains, and good signs. The light rail connects the airport to downtown, Capitol Hill, and the University of Washington with trains every 10-20 minutes.
Unfortunately, tourism in Seattle is highly seasonal, which creates complications for the hotel industry. In order to take advantage of convenient transit you’ll need to plan early to get a hotel in a central location. The good news is that there’s been lots of new construction in recent years to provide more options. I’ll share some of my tips for visitors after living in Seattle for over 10 years.
Problems with the Seattle Hotel 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
The 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 on the boundary of downtown along 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.
Near Seattle Center you’ll find budget properties like Holiday Inn, Four Points by Sheraton, and Hyatt Place here. A new Hyatt House has also opened right across from the Space Needle but is adjacent to the monorail. 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. 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 something you learn to ignore, so don’t get too hung up on it.
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 was once the nices hotel in the U District, and 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. A new Marriott Residence Inn just opened down the street and may be a better choice. 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. Currently the best strategy is to take a short bus to the University Stadium light rail station, which will take you to Capitol Hill and downtown. Eventually the light rail will open a new station in the heart of the U District.
A second Silver Cloud Inn and a Travelodge are located on the other side of UW, near the University Village shopping mall, but these offer no public transit to the rest of the city.
Can You Stay Far Away and Commute?
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, which discourage an urban environment anywhere but downtown.
Some people will still want to save money by staying far away and commuting to the city. Beware the traffic. It takes 20 minutes to reach Seattle from Bellevue, Lynnwood, or Renton in the dead of night. When the traffic is heavy it can easily become 40 to 60 minutes. Assuming you are visiting during the summer, that will be often. Locals don’t go on vacation in the summer because those are the two or three months that make the rainy months bearable.
Furthermore, the money you save by commuting is not great. Parking in the city is available but not cheap, and your time has value, too. 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 and 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.