What to do when Alcatraz is sold out...
How do you get last minute Alcatraz tickets if Alcatraz is sold out for the dates you want to go?
COVID situation: Alcatraz Island is opening as of Monday, August 17, 2020. But only the outdoor areas of the island will be accessible at the moment, and only the day tours are available.
Day tours are scheduled at 11 am, 12 pm, 1 pm, 2 pm and 3 pm daily.
They are selling tickets through December, 2020, which is unusual, because they normally only sell tickets 90 days in advance.
No tickets are being sold currently for the Night Tour, Behind the Scenes Tour or Alcatraz/Angel Island Tour.
There are now basically three ways to get Alcatraz tickets for sold-out days:
For years, visitors could line up super early at the ticket office to get a ticket for one of that day's Day Tours. It was a little desperate, but a great way to get a ticket when Alcatraz was sold out for weeks or months in advance.
Starting in early 2019, they ended that practice. There used to be lines forming by 3 or 4 am every day during the summer! But you could almost certainly score a ticket that way if you were determined.
A new booking system went into effect in 2019 and the extra tickets (from cancellations) that used to be sold early that morning are now fed back into the online booking system.
So hopefully, there will be more tickets available for people checking for last-minute cancellations.
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.
A number of people have told me they've had success getting tickets this way.
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 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.
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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.
If you're looking for some good combo tours farther in the future and don't need tickets for sold-out days, here are some combination tours that have been popular with lots of visitors.
Even though the same-day tickets for sold-out Day Tours are a thing of the past, you still have a chance at getting out to the Rock on a Night Tour (which I think is even better than the Day Tour).
During the high season, when they are running two evening sailings out to the island, they have about 20 standby tickets for sale (and around 10 tickets during the winter when there is only one evening tour).
How the standby tickets work. Each day that the Night Tour runs (Tuesdays through Sundays), they will have standby tickets for that evening's tours for sale at the ticket office at Pier 33.
The number sold is limited, so it's first come, first served. The ticket office opens at 7:30 am. If you get a standby ticket, you have two chances to get on the Night Tour for that evening (one in winter). After they board the passengers for that sailing, they allow the standbys on if there is room (no-shows or cancellations).
If you don't get on that evening, you go back to ticket office that night and get a refund. They are open till 7 pm.
What are your chances? According to staff members at the pier, there's no guarantee of getting on with a standby ticket, of course, but there's a very good chance that you'll get out to Alcatraz that night. Hurray!
Tip: if you just want to get out to Alcatraz and can't get day-tour tickets, booking the Alcatraz/Angel Island tour is one way to do it.
If you take the earlier of the two sailings for this tour, the 9:30 am one, you will go directly to Alcatraz; the next part of the tour, the boat to Angel Island, leaves around 12:00 pm, but it's optional.
You can skip Angel Island and stay on Alcatraz, and take any of the boats back to SF when you're done. The second sailing at 9:40 am goes to Angel Island first.
Note: Need tickets within the next four days? The tour companies that book the combination tours have to give Alcatraz Cruises the names of visitors at least four days before the scheduled tour.
As a result, if you need tickets sooner than four days, the only way to get Alcatraz tickets is watching their website for cancellations or scoring a Night Tour standby ticket.
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 costs $92.30 for adults 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. Visitors for this tour must be at least 12 years old and able to climb stairs and hills.
This is a great tour; I went on it recently and really enjoyed it. You get to see areas not open to the public, like the underground tunnels and the creepy dungeon cells, plus it's a much smaller group. The rangers have some interesting stories to tell (and it's not that strenuous).
See Behind the Scenes tour for more info.
If Lady Luck is smiling upon you, you just might get a same-day ticket at the ticket booth.
Normally, there aren't any tickets available for the same day, even in winter, but it's possible someone is trying to sell an extra ticket they can't use and the ticket taker will let you know.
One time I was going on a Behind the Scenes tour with my son, and he decided not to go. I let the staff at the ticket booth know I had an extra ticket (the tour was leaving within the hour), and a short time later they found a taker.
We agreed on a price and the staff issued him a new ticket in his name. (Alcatraz tickets have to be in your name, hence the recommendation not to buy directly from someone offering you a ticket at the pier.)
So you never know; it's worth checking in at the ticket booth on Pier 33.
The hardest time to get Alcatraz tickets is during the summer tourist season: June, July and August. The Day Tours are usually booked up two months in advance, and the Night Tour and Behind the Scenes Tour are booked up even farther out. It's crucial to book the Alcatraz tours well in advance if you want to visit in summer.
But even heading into the summer season in May, and towards the end of the season in September, tickets are booked up far ahead.
Alcatraz tours are also very popular during many of the year's holidays, and they tend to sell out well in advance during those times as well.
During the Christmas Holiday season, it tends to be especially tough to get tickets.
However, after the holiday season is over, by the second week of January, things tend to get back to the winter pattern of ticket sales when it's much easier to get tickets.
Memorial Day Weekend (May 23-25 in 2020) is usually very busy, booking up far in advance, and Easter Week (from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday, April 5-12, 2020) also tends to book up fast.
Tickets for the four-day Thanksgiving Holiday (November 26-29, 2020) are hard to get as well.
The same pattern holds for the 3-day Labor Day Weekend, September 5-7, 2020.
The first week of October every year is Fleet Week in SF and there's a surge in the demand for Alcatraz tickets for that week.
The only time it's "easy" to get Alcatraz tickets is in winter, and that's only the Day Tour tickets: in November (but not over the Thanksgiving Holiday), and in January & February, after new year's and before spring.
In winter, you may get same-day tickets online or in person, depending on how early you start trying, but you can usually get tickets for most or all of the day tours for the next day, including the coveted Early Bird tour.
March is iffy; later in March it starts to get booked up again, especially if it's close to Easter break (it's the first weekend in April for 2020).
Even in winter, there's still a wait to get tickets for the night tours and the Behind the Scenes tours. The Night Tours tend to be sold out about 6 weeks in advance even in the slow season, and the Behind the Scenes tours about 2 weeks in advance.
Something cool for Bay Area residents. Residents get a good deal on Alcatraz tickets during the slow season in January and February every year.
The Buy One Get One Free sale is available for select Day Tours during those two months. Check with alcatrazcruises.com for the list of eligible Bay Area counties, booking and more info.
What if you've missed your boat that day? Refunds aren't available, but you do get one more shot at it. You can wait by the standby line sign when a ship is boarding, and if there are any no-shows, they will let people on after the ticketed passengers have boarded.
On a very busy day at the end of December, I saw 8 people waiting in the standby line for the 12:30 pm boat, and all 8 got on.
This is now the only "standby" boarding allowed for Alcatraz Day Tours. (The Night Tour standbys also wait here for their tours.)
You may run into people offering to sell you their tickets at the dock at steep prices. This is risky for a couple of reasons. First, selling scalped tickets is a misdemeanor in California, not something one would want to be involved in, and second, there's a good chance the tickets won't be usable.
But since people can print their own tickets from their own computers, dates and times could be easily altered, and when the ticket bar codes are scanned getting on the boat, they may not be for the right day or time (or the printout may be a duplicate already sold to someone else!).
Also, at the departure gate they may check to see if the name on the ticket matches yours. The tickets have to be in your name; they can't be transferred after purchase, to avoid scalping. Oops. Best not to take the chance.
The exception: if someone has tickets they can't use, they can take them to the ticket booth at Alcatraz Landing and let them know. Then the staff will let people trying to purchase tickets know about the available tickets and issue them the tickets if they want to buy them. But that is doing it through Alcatraz Cruises and with their approval.
What about Stub Hub tickets? The problem with buying "second hand" tickets for Alcatraz is that the tickets are officially not transferable; they are issued in the name of the person who purchased the tickets. If they check names at boarding, the tickets won't be honored unless the purchaser is present, though they usually don't check. And those tickets are usually quite expensive.
There are the four varieties of Alcatraz prison tours.
For more information on what the various Alcatraz tours are like, see:
If none of the above 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.
Bay Cruise. There's a nice, one-hour ferry cruise from Pier 39 that circles Alcatraz and also takes you out under the Golden Gate. $28.99, $4 off to book online. See bay cruise for more info and booking.
Catamaran Cruise. There is also a popular, 90-minute sailing tour on a catamaran that goes out under the Golden Gate, as well as sailing around Alcatraz Island. Gorgeous views of the bay, bridge and city, plus wine, beer and snacks on board. $90. Leaves from Pier 39. See Adventure Cat cruise for more info and booking.
Money-saving tip: goldstar.com often has half-priced tickets for these bay cruises. Go to goldstar.com to see what they have available. It's free to sign up.
For more cruise options, see my page on San Francisco Bay Cruises for details and tips about the various bay tours.