When Alcatraz is sold out...
What do you do if the Alcatraz tour tickets are sold out for the dates you want to go?
There are basically three ways to get tickets for sold-out days.
Works better off-season, and not very well during the Christmas holidays:
Alcatraz Cruises, the official seller of the tickets, and the ones who operate the ticket office at Pier 33, sets aside a bunch of same-day tickets that are sold daily on a first come, first served basis when the ticket office opens at 7:30 a.m.
Alcatraz Cruises doesn't mention these on their website, primarily to avoid the problem of too many people showing up and being disappointed. And the employees answering the phones will tell you that they are no longer offering the same-day tickets when Alcatraz is sold out. Not true.
I get the details by going down to Pier 33 and talking to the ticket agents at Alcatraz Landing. A limited number of tickets (between 50 and 100 in high season, summer, but only around 50 tickets the rest of the year) are available every morning at the pier; the office starts selling the tickets at 7:30 a.m. People in late June of 2017 were starting to line up by 4:00 a.m.
An August 2016 visitor reported she arrived around 6:00 a.m. and was #130 in line, but was still able to get tickets on the 10:30 boat, so it's unpredictable.
The ticket agent emphasized that everyone who plans on using the tickets also has to be present at this ungodly hour, one ticket per person. There is a limit of four people per group. Also, anyone wanting a ticket has to be present in line the whole time; if someone leaves the line for any reason (other than a bathroom break), they have to go to the back of the line when they return. This is enforced by the ticket personnel at the pier.
During the Christmas holiday season, it can be especially difficult to get tickets this way, due to the number of people who show up.
Times: the same-day Alcatraz tour tickets are usually for one or more of the morning tours.
So, if you're an early bird, or truly desperate to get out to Alcatraz, this is one possible approach. Some people have been known to bring sleeping bags. Unfortunately, there's no way to predict how many folks will show up any particular day, so it's not a sure thing. Sometimes hundreds will be lined up by 5:00 a.m. during the busiest seasons.
Alcatraz Cruises has a sign at the ticket booth that mentions it:
By the end of June (2017), people were already starting to line up for same-day tickets at 4:00 a.m., according to the staff at the ticket booth.
For example: on June 28, 2017, they had around 65 same-day tickets available. The first people showed up at the ticket booth around 4 am, and the next group arrived around 6:30 am. So it's hard to predict the turnout for any particular day, but earlier is better.
I've had two reports in August 2017 so far of the ticket office having around 200 tickets available for morning walk-ups; that's a new development, very nice for visitors. I don't know if it's typical, or if it will continue, but it's great while it lasts.
To give you an idea, on August 9, there were around 150 people in line by 7 am, and about 75 people in line by 5:20 am.
About 15 minutes before the ticket office opens at 7:30, they hand out ticket vouchers to the people in line, one per person, so you know then if you'll be able to get a ticket.
Here's an example of how the same-day system worked on a busy holiday weekend.
A visitor wrote to tell me her experience trying to get tickets to Alcatraz on Memorial Day in May. (For our visitors from outside the U.S., this is one of our busiest holidays, a three-day weekend when the kids are out of school.)
The tickets were sold out for that day, and she really wanted to see Alcatraz, so she decided to try the get-there-early approach. She was in line at 6:15 a.m., and by that time she was number 27. There were 51 tickets available that day, and by 7:00 a.m., all the tickets were taken.
The first group of people in line had gotten there around 5:00 a.m., and the third group was there by 5:30.
The ticket office opened at 7:30 a.m. and everything went smoothly. She was able to get her tickets and went out to see Alcatraz that day.
A visitor in July reported that they got to the pier at 4:15 a.m. and there were already 3 groups in line ahead of them. The ticket personnel were enforcing the no leaving the line rule. She also reminded people to dress warmly; it's pretty cold that time of the morning in San Francisco, even in the summer.
The night tours usually sell out faster than the day tours, but there is also a system for getting same-day tickets for the two night tours (5:55 and 6:30 p.m.). The night tours are smaller, but more extensive. (see Alcatraz Night Tours for more tour details.)
Night Tour standby tickets go on sale when the ticket office opens at 7:30 a.m. They are good for either of the two night tours. Just before the first tour leaves at 5:55, holders of the standby tickets are allowed on if there are any spaces available due to no shows. The tickets are honored in the order they were purchased, earliest first.
There is only one ticket line in the morning before the office opens, so you will be in line with all the people wanting tickets for the day tours.
Only around 10 to 20 standby tickets are available each day and are only good for that night's tours. If you don't get on the 5:55 tour, you can try again for the 6:30 one.
As you would guess, this is hit or miss, depending on the number of spaces that open up. If you aren't able to use your ticket, go back to the ticket booth that night, and they will give you a refund.
Summer 2017 night tour update: according to the staff at Alcatraz Landing, they usually have about 20 night tour standby tickets available each morning when the ticket booth opens at 7:30 am. Good news: the folks with night tour standby tickets almost always get on the boat that night! If not on the 5:55 pm sailing, then on the next one at 6:30 pm.
I was down there around 6 pm on June 29, 2017. There were about 12 people in the standby line, and they all made it onto the 5:55 pm boat.
Tip: if you don't mind a more strenuous, 4.5 hour tour of Alcatraz, you can also do the night tour on their newest addition, the Behind the Scenes tour. This tour $ and adds a 2-hour guided walking tour of Alcatraz before you join the regular night tour. These tours are more expensive but don't sell out as fast. See behind the scenes tour for more info.
The official website for Alcatraz tour tickets, alcatrazcruises.com, adds back the canceled tickets to their online ticket sales. The customer service rep told me they update these several times a day, so keep checking for the days you want.
In high season, the summer months, the tickets are often sold out a month or two in advance, but I've seen tickets pop up for a date one week in advance, in July, so it is possible if your timing is good.
An easy way to do it: stay on the window with the day you want and just keep hitting "refresh".
There are also many other companies that sell tickets to Alcatraz, usually in combination with their other tours. If you don't mind paying more and just not doing the other tour, or if it's OK to do the other tour(s) as well, it's worth looking into some of the combination tours for availability.
There's a great variety of well-liked, Alcatraz combo tours. You can pair Alcatraz with a city tour, or a trip to Muir Woods, Sausalito, or a bay cruise, or a number of other San Francisco activities.
Here are some popular combination tours to check out, though they are often sold out when Alcatraz is:
Alcatraz combined with Muir Woods and Sausalito for $79. Experience the magical, ancient redwood forest near SF and check out the shops and galleries of the cute village of Sausalito.
This one is a handy combination of Alcatraz with a 3-day pass on the Hop On, Hop Off Bus. It gives you an extensive city tour, plus transportation for three days, plus a Sausalito tour, plus a night tour - a good deal for $114.99. See Alcatraz plus City Bus Tour for info and booking.
Short on time? See Alcatraz and two wineries in the charming, less-visited Sonoma Valley, all in one day, for $159. Wine tastings are included (good deal; they usually run around $15-20 each).
On the Jail and Sail Tour, Alcatraz is paired with a two hour sunset cruise all around San Francisco Bay and under both bridges, with live music, tasty treats and a glass of wine or beer. Very nice! $103.
All four of these tours have been very popular with visitors.
There are tons of Alcatraz combination tours available. You can check out the long list of them here.
Do you have to show up for the other tour to get the Alcatraz tickets? No, not necessary.
For the tours booked through City Sightseeing, you pick up your Alcatraz tickets at their office on Fisherman's Wharf (1331 Columbus Avenue) the day of the Alcatraz tour (all the instructions are included with your vouchers).
For the tours booked through Viator, they suggest that after you make the tour reservations, you call them at 1-888-651-9785 with your booking number, and they will let you know how you to get your Alcatraz tickets. If the menu choices don't apply, hit "0" to get a customer service rep.
If none of these options works, there are bay cruises that sail around Alcatraz, but don't stop at the island. You get a great view of Alcatraz, and a trip out under the Golden Gate Bridge, which is a treat in itself.
There's a nice, one-hour ferry cruise from Pier 39 that circles Alcatraz and also takes you out under the Golden Gate. See bay cruise for more info and booking ($3 off to book online).
For more cruise options, see my page on San Francisco Bay Cruises for details and tips about the various bay tours.