It’s an island that’s been used for many reasons – military fortification, lighthouse, military prison, site of Native American occupation but most notably as a federal prison. This place is known to the world as Alcatraz Island and no visit to San Francisco is complete without visiting it.
The island’s legend as the “most notorious federal penitentiary [America] has ever known” is what draws thousands of people to ‘The Rock’ every year. Perhaps you too are keen to visit this landmark but forgot to book your tickets before you arrived and now Alcatraz Cruises say they’re fully booked. Don’t let it deter you, I’ve found a way for you to get tickets to Alcatraz when they’re sold out!
How to get tickets to Alcatraz when they’re sold out
Set your alarm because it’s going to be an early start! Each day Alcatraz Cruises – the only company who is allowed to run tours of the island – have a limited number of tickets to sell to the public for their day and night tours if Alcatraz tickets sold out.
I was told there are 150 tickets each day for three of the morning cruises (that’s 50 for each of the cruises) though in the winter months – that’s November through to March – there are only 50 tickets available for walk-up purchase and they are all for the 9:10am boat.
Let me be straight with you: if you line up you are not guaranteed a ticket.
My friend and I lined up at 7:10am in July and the line already snaked around the waiting area with more than 70 people in front of us. The people at the front of the line told my friend that they’d been there since just after 5am. FIVE AM!!! Some people who lined up after us left the queue and were determined to try again the next day. We stuck it out and were granted two Standby Tickets for the night cruise – score!
If you miss out on the day cruises, there may be 10 to 20 Standby Tickets available for the night cruise. Standby Tickets are just as the name implies – you may or may not end up going to Alcatraz. If you aren’t able to board that night, a full refund for the ticket price will be provided.
The night cruises sell out weeks, if not months, in advance so I was pretty stoked to have a Standby Ticket in my hand. If you have a Standby Ticket, you’ll need to come back around 5:30pm and see if there’s room available. Don’t worry about getting there too early as each Standby Ticket is numbered, so if there are 12 tickets available the people who bought the first twelve tickets that morning will be given a boarding pass. If they don’t turn up then the next people in line will be given a ticket up until the second ferry leaves at 6:30pm.
Tickets to Alcatraz Island are in demand and it’s worth the wait if you want to visit The Rock (and trust me, you do!), so set your alarm, get your coffee, and get down to Pier 33 to line up!
Don’t want to wait in line?
There are other ways to get tickets to Alcatraz when they’re sold out! You could buy a ticket to Alcatraz that is part of a tour package or through a trusted third-party, such as your hotel concierge.
I recommend checking out Viator. They show all available options for tours and include options with bigger companies like Urban Adventures and Big Bus as well as turning your Alcatraz adventure into a combo package with activities like a Segway Tour or a trip to Muir Woods.
On a previous trip, I bought my ticket as part of the San Francisco CityPASS. As part of the CityPASS, you can upgrade to include the Alcatraz Island Day Tour in the pass, instead of the 1-hour Bay Cruise.
Essential Info for people travelling to Alcatraz
If you want to book direct there is an official website
You can buy a maximum number of four tickets but each ticket holder needs to be physically present.
When you pick them up you’ll need your passport or a government issued ID to purchase and/or pick-up tickets. You can book tickets to Alcatraz up to 90 days out.
To get a ticket same-day ticket, it’s likely you’ll be waiting around for at least an hour. Bring a book or something to sit on. Even better, bring food and coffee because it’s chilly by the waterfront!
What to wear on Alcatraz Island
It gets pretty chilly on Alcatraz Island, especially during the evening tour! Be sure to bring a warm jacket (my favourite is this North Face Condor Triclimate) and some long pants, even on the balmiest of San Francisco days.
I’d also suggest wearing comfortable shoes because there’ll be lots of walking up hills (if you have a medical condition, are elderly or can’t walk long distances there is a shuttle service up-and-down the hill) and when the path is slick it becomes pretty slippery. I wore my Converse Chuck Taylor All Star‘s which I love travelling with because they’re light and go with pretty much all my clothes.
Where to stay in San Francisco
During my stay in San Franciso, I stayed at the InterContinental San Francisco which is about a 10-minute walk from Union Square. This 5* hotel has large, modern rooms with beds you sink into and beautiful views across the city.
My friend chose the hotel as it was a block from his conference at the aging but still grand Mariott Marquis, but I liked it because it was easy to walk to many of the cities sights, hop in a cab or get to public transportation. It also doesn’t feel as touristy as hotels on Union Square or along Fisherman’s Wharf.
Virgin Hotels San Francisco has recently opened in town. (Yes, the Virgin owned by Sir Richard Branson!) Their posh boutique hotels are certain to leave a memory.
This hotel would probably best suit culture vultures. It’s located just a short walk from the Museum of Modern Art and not far from the iconic historic concert venue, The Fillmore.
With hotel prices being quite expensive in San Francisco, I recommend checking airbnb too. I loved the rolling hills and neighbourhood vibes of Potrero Hill and would love to stay there on my next trip. Click here for $30 credit towards your airbnb stay!
Now it’s over to you
Have you been to Alcatraz Island?
Let me know in the comments below!