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 (usually 100 high season (summer) and sometimes more, but only 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 June of 2016 were starting to line up by 4:15 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 available for the earlier departures, usually the 8:45 a.m. first trip of the day, but sometimes other morning times as well.
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:
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 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.
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 and they will give you a refund that night.
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 that includes the night tour and adds a 2-hour guided walking 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 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.
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. This is a long shot with most companies, however; they are often sold out as well.
Viator has 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 the Wine Country, or a number of other San Francisco activities. You can check out their selection here.
Here's an example of how the same-day system worked on a busy holiday weekend recently.
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 last summer (July, 2015) 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.
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. See San Francisco Bay Cruises for details and tips about the various cruise options.