How to Snag Last-Minute Alcatraz Tickets

Pacific Tradewinds

How to Snag Last-Minute Alcatraz Tickets

You are days away from arriving in San Francisco and, of course, you want to visit the infamous Alcatraz Island.

You check for tickets online but…they’re all sold out.

The island was famous for being impossible to get out of and, ironically, you can’t in.

But don’t worry, there’s no need to panic. It is possible to snag last-minute Alcatraz tickets, but you have to know where to go.

Let’s get you on to the “The Rock” for an experience that you will remember forever.


A quick Alcatraz history lesson

Before we find out how to get last-minute tickets, let's take a quick Alcatraz history lesson and find out why it is so popular with tourists today.

The Rock (as it is also known) is an island sitting in San Francisco Bay, 2km off the mainland. On it sits the world’s most infamous prison.

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary opened as a maximum high-security prison on July 1, 1934.

Until its closure on March 21, 1963, it housed some of the most brutal and terrifying criminals in American history.

Gangsters Al Capone and George "Machine Gun Kelly" Barnes both prowled its corridors, as did murderer Robert Stroud, better known as the Birdman of Alcatraz.

Alcatraz is best known for being inescapable. The freezing waters and wild currents surrounding the island were enough to put most inmates off an escape attempt.

Now, the island attracts tourists from around the world, keen to see and explore The Rock for themselves.


Tour the world-famous Alcatraz prison Credit: Ted/Flickr


What Alcatraz tours are available?

For intrepid explorers ready for an adventure on The Rock, there are a number of different tours to choose from.

Alcatraz Cruises, the official concessioner to the National Park Service, offers three excellent options.

Check out the different types available and pick the one that suits you best.

Alcatraz Day Tour

Take a guided tour around the world’s most famous prison island with expert insight from National Park Service Rangers and Docents.

Your guides will take you through the fascinating history of the island and its prison, telling stories about its famous inmates, escape attempts and much more.

The Alcatraz Day Tour also includes the award-winning Cellhouse Audio Tour. If you’re interested in the inner-workings of the prison then this is the one for you.

The audio tour includes first-hand stories from former inmates and retellings of brutal events including “The Battle of ‘46”, in which five men died.

Overall, you can expect the Day Tour to last between 45 minutes and one hour. You can stay on the island as long as you want, but you should leave at least three hours for the full trip.

Alcatraz Night Tour

The Alcatraz Night Tour starts with a ferry cruise around the island, in which your tour guides will show you the hidden spots used by prisoners for attempted escapes. 

Next, you will dock and be led by a ranger up the hill to explore the enthralling history of the island from pre-Civil War. Finally, you will be free to explore the prison itself.

For those looking to get the full cultural experience, the Cellhouse Audio Tour is also available.

Those lucky enough to take the Night Tour will also be treated to magnificent views from the island over San Francisco as the sun sets.

Alcatraz Behind The Scenes tour

Explore the Alcatraz no-one else gets to see with this “off the beaten path” tour.

The Behind The Scenes tour includes all the activities you get on the Night Tour plus much more.

Additional guided tour opportunities include an exploration of Alcatraz’s hidden rooms, passageways, and underground cells.

Overall, the whole journey (including the boat ride) lasts around four to five hours, so make sure to bring some comfy walking shoes.

Good to know: The weather on Alcatraz is volatile so tours can be changed at the last moment. Routes may also vary depending on safety and accessibility concerns, weather, construction, bird habitat, and group size.


Explore prison life with Alcatraz Cruises Credit: Kent Slade/Flickr

Four ways to get last-minute Alcatraz Tickets

The history of Alcatraz and its prison has made it one of the most popular tourist attractions in San Francisco.

But because of that, tickets are in high-demand. If you’ve not been able to book yours in advance it is still possible to get your hands on some last-minute Alcatraz tickets.

Here are four options you have:

Option one: Wake up early for same-day tickets

The good news is Alcatraz Cruises, the official ticket vendor for the island does same-day tickets.

The bad news is they are very limited and you’ll need to be up at the crack of dawn (probably before) to get your hands on them.

Their booth at Pier 33, where you can buy the tickets, opens at 7.30am — not too bad, we hear you say. Well, people start lining up earlier. Much earlier.

In late June, the first in line typically arrives around 4am, according to the Inside Guide to San Francisco Tourism. Times vary throughout the year but major holidays are the busiest times.

People have been known to take sleeping bags and rest in the line before their big day.

Alcatraz Cruises releases around 100 tickets per day, so if you get there and see 200 people in line, you might as well walk away.

Their passes are sold on a first come, first serve basis and you can only buy one ticket per person.

You will also need a Government-issued photo ID to buy your Alcatraz passes.

While the same-day ticket option might seem like a bit of a pain, it is probably the best chance you have to grab a ticket if you haven’t pre-booked.

You will need resolve, some strong coffee and something to keep you warm, but (as long as you get there early enough) you should be able to get yourself onto Alcatraz.

Option two: Get yourself in the standby line

If waking up at 3am isn’t your thing (and we don’t blame you for that) then you can pick up same-day Night Tour tickets by getting on the standby list.

First, you will need to get a standby ticket. To do this, head to the ticket booth on Pier 33 and get in line before it opens at 7.30am.

Once you’ve got your ticket you will need to get in the standby line before the Night Tour leaves. If a regular ticket holder doesn’t show up then a standby ticket holder can take their place.

Unfortunately, being the holder of standby ticket doesn’t guarantee you entry, you are entirely dependent on people not showing up. Bummer.

There will be a very limited number of standby spaces to Alcatraz available — typically around 10 to 20 — so you will need Lady Luck on your side.

However, if you don’t use your ticket you will be able to get a refund from the ticket office.

To increase your chances of making it on the boat, you should line up for standby tickets early. Entry is granted to those who bought their tickets earliest. So, again, be prepared to wake up early to wait in line.

Option three: Scoop up a cancellation

“There are way too many things to do in San Francisco to be waiting in line!” we hear you say.

And you’re not wrong. With the Golden Gate Bridge, Haight-Ashbury, Union Square and much, much more to do you might not have the time to wait around for Alcatraz tickets.

The good news is Alcatraz Cruises re-adds canceled tickets to their website, updating several times a day.

Your best bet to snaffling a canceled ticket is to regularly hit the refresh button on your keyboard or internet browser.

If you’re lucky you might be able to get your hands on a ticket for the day you want. Obviously, this method is completely luck-based.

If someone cancels on the day you want to go, and you’re on the website at the right time, then you might be able to get your ticket.

Option four: Take one of the many combination tours

Your final option for getting last-minute Alcatraz tickets is to take advantage of the many combo-tours available in San Francisco.

The bonus is you’re going to do something on top of the Alcatraz tour — who doesn’t love an extra trip, right?

The negative is that prices tend to be a fair bit higher. However, there are loads of options to choose from so you might even find something you were going to do anyway.

While this is by no means a complete list, here are some of the fun combination tours on offer:

Alcatraz and Wine Blending Tour: Take a coach over the Golden Gate Bridge (stopping for a photo or two) and then travel to a winery. There you will create your own wine, bottle it and take it home with you. Next, you’ll head to buzzing Fisherman’s Wharf for a spot of lunch. Finally, you’ll take a ferry to Alcatraz to explore the fascinating island.

Silicon Valley and Alcatraz tour: Visit the world’s most famous tech center with a trip to Silicon Valley. Explore the Google Campus, the Computer History Museum and Apple’s new visitor center before heading off to Alcatraz.

Alcatraz and walking craft beer tour: Your morning stop is Alcatraz for a tour of the island and the infamous prison. Then it’s time to go on a guided tour of San Francisco’s best craft beer bars. You’ll get an insider’s view of the city with stops at three bars in Fisherman’s Wharf and North Beach.


Where Alcatraz ferries leave from

If you’re lucky enough to snap up some last-minute Alcatraz tickets then you’ll want to make sure you know where you are leaving from.

Ferries depart and return to Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing, on The Embarcadero (near the intersection of The Embarcadero and Bay Steet).

Getting there on public transport is relatively simple. Two SF Municipal Railway cable cars stop in the Fisherman’s Wharf area, a short walk from the pier. Catch the Powell-Mason cable car to the corner of Bay and Taylor Streets, six blocks from Pier 33.

You also could get the Powell-Hyde cable car, which stops at the corner of Hyde and Beach Streets, 11 blocks from Pier 33.


How to get advance Alcatraz tickets online

If you do find yourself with time to spare before your trip to San Francisco then suggest booking your Alcatraz tickets in advanced.

Doing that is simple. Just head to the Alcatraz Cruises website, choose your tour, your dates and the number of tickets you want.

Remember, to collect your tickets on the day you will need to bring Government-issued ID. E-tickets are also available but the person who bought the tickets will need to bring the credit card used to make the purchase and a valid photo identification.


Bay cruises can be a cheaper alternative to a tour Credit: Bernard Spragg/Flickr


Cheaper alternatives to the Alcatraz tour

If you’re a hostel traveler, then you may not be able to afford the full Alcatraz tour.

However, if just want to see the island, there are plenty of ferry cruises around the bay that can cost much less.

Blue and Gold Fleet run a 90-minute Escape From The Rock cruise. You'll get to see every angle of the island plus sail under the famous Golden Gate Bridge.

Red and White Fleet run a one-hour Golden Gate Bay Cruise. The journey takes you from Fisherman's Wharf past some of San Francisco's most famous sights including Angel Island, the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.

Angel Island Ferry - The Angel Island Ferry goes directly past Alcatraz so you'll get a close (albeit fast) view of the prison grounds and island. Angel Island is a such a fun place to explore, you'll say, "who needs that the dilapidated and overrated prison anyway?".  At the time of this writing, tickets on the Angel Island Ferry are $15 for adults.     

Sausalito Commuter Ferry - For the real frugal backpacker experience, try the commuter ferry to Sausalito.  Again you will get a passing view of Alcatraz and you'll save yourself about 30 bucks. That'll nearly let you stay another night at Pacific Tradewinds Hostel.  As of this writing, tickets on the Sausalito Ferry are $8.  

If you do decide to take a cruise or ferry, make sure to check which pier your boat departs from as these are different for each boat. 


Conclusion: How to snag last-minute Alcatraz tickets

So there you have it. Picking up last-minute Alcatraz tickets is definitely not impossible. With a bit of persistence, you could be able to snag yourself a trip to the world's most famous prison.

However, much of getting those is down to luck. If you’ve got the time, then make sure to book your tickets way in advance — the earlier the better.

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