YOU’RE ALL SET with your cabin, inn, glamping or camping for your summer weekend in the lushly forested, heavenly quiet San Juan Islands. Maybe you’ve booked a dinner someplace special, like Hogstone’s Wood Oven on Orcas Island. So that Friday, you’ll just drive to Anacortes and onto one of the Washington State Ferries’ adorable green-and-white boats, making getting there half the extremely picturesque fun … right?
Not so fast (literally). As the islands’ charms dawn on the booming Seattle area and the world beyond — last year, Oprah bought a place on Orcas (!) — the ferry situation has gotten increasingly nutty. In 2008, 1,679,120 riders took an Anacortes-San Juans ferry, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT); by last year, that number had reached 2,046,940. Service has not expanded apace. The system overall suffers an aging fleet with a limited budget at the mercy of governmental forces, and the long-range plan includes only “modest increases to capacity on the system’s most congested routes … [that] will not fully meet the demand for ferry service that is projected.”
So you can just head to Anacortes in your car, but first you might want to check WSDOT’s real-time online tracker for what the lines are like … and on a summer Friday, you’d better leave at the crack of dawn and/or be prepared to wait all day long. Then you’ll probably make it. Since a reservation system was put in place in 2014 for Anacortes-San Juan routes — meant to ameliorate what had become absurdly long lines of waiting cars — only 10% of the ferries’ vehicular capacity is saved for drive-up, day-of passengers.
So you’ll just make a reservation … right? Alas, that’s far more complicated than it seems. Car reservations are released in three confusing tiers: 30% of space becomes available two months before a sailing season starts (for this summer, that was back in April), then 30% more two weeks before each specific sailing day, then 30% two days before each specific day, all at precisely 7 a.m. Pacific Time. The number of Anacortes-San Juans reservations made in 2015 was 235,848; by last year, it’d jumped to 758,348. So everybody and their mother gets up and gets on the Washington State Ferries’ website, waiting for the stroke of 7 o’clock.
Attempting to get reservations for a summertime Friday at the two-weeks-in-advance mark recently, a friend snoozed until 7:07, at which point, only the 5:30 a.m. boat had availability — a hell of a way to start a fun weekend. I was online at seven on the dot at the two-day-out mark: It looked like I was scoring a 3:30 p.m. reservation, but upon clicking through, it had disappeared. By 7:02 a.m., every boat was sold out online except the 5:30 a.m. and the 10:30 p.m. sailings. Two minutes later, those were gone.
“Folks really are champing at the bit to get on there,” acknowledges Marqise Allen, customer-communications manager/ferry guru at WSDOT. “If you wait even just a few minutes” — or, I’d submit, even if you don’t wait at all — “those really popular sailings are gone,” he says. Getting a reservation, he admits euphemistically, “is going to be a challenge sometimes.” Allen shared his reservation-getting tips on the WSDOT blog. Reservation-seekers should study it, but may notice that on certain points his guide is a bit opaque. He and I talked some things through — here’s my version of his …
5 tips for making a San Juan Islands car reservation during the ferries’ busiest time of the year
1. Be smart and have more fun: Maybe don’t plan to head to the San Juans on a summertime Friday and return on a Sunday like everyone else — reservations should be a lot easier to score on other days of the week. Take a little vacation!
2. Be ready for the 7 a.m. online-reservation madness: Whether you’re informed (and organized) enough to reserve two months prior to the start of the season, or you’re desperately trying two weeks or two days before the date you want to sail, be caffeinated, limber-fingered and on the reservations site at 7 a.m. on the dot. Pro tip here: Make an account beforehand, log in and add something to your cart (which you’ll then take out) — the site has one of those “type these letters/numbers” thingies to prove you’re not a robot, and it will slow you down if you’re trying to reserve as a guest (it happened to me).
3. Get everyone and your mother online: The WSDOT tips kinda-sorta explain this tactic, but they don’t want to officially endorse it: The more people you have playing the online-reservation game, the better your odds are, so if your traveling companions/mom/dog are capable of being alert and online at 7 a.m., deploy them. If you end up with multiple reservations (lucky!), be sure to cancel the extras to return them to the reservation pool for others (and avoid a $10 no-show fee).
4. Make an actual phone call: The official tips advise calling on the morning of a scheduled release because “We might have some additional information about that sailing you’re interested in.” Mysterious! What this means: If you call 1-888-808-7977 before 7 a.m. (while you’re simultaneously working the online ferry-reservation system), you’ll be put in a queue to be connected with an actual human being. That human can then see when others are dumping their extra reservations back into the system and may be able to grab one for you. Downside: Now that everyone knows this, it may not work (sorry!).
5. Try online the afternoon before your desired ferry date: Those pros who score extra reservations know that they have to cancel by 5 p.m. the day prior to avoid the no-show fee, so next-day reservations tend to show up between 3 and 5 p.m. If you want to make a part-time job of it, WSDOT’s Allen says you can also check online at intervals in the days leading up to see if anything’s opened up.
BUT WHAT IF YOU (like me) don’t manage to get a reservation, and you (like me) have a room and/or a dinner booked that you’re going to be penalized for not making it to when your car (like mine) won’t start when you’re trying to leave for Anacortes and etc. etc. etc.? Don’t panic!
3 tips for what to do if you don’t get a San Juan Islands ferry car reservation
1. Leave really early to get yourself and your car in line for the boat: Check the real-time count of spaces left in line for your desired ferry on the WSDOT website and get going! Leave extra time for your car needing a jump-start because someone (not me) left the dome light on. Bring stuff to read/do/eat while you wait in the ferry line.
2. Ditch the car and walk on: When all else fails (as it did for me), you can always walk on, no reservations required. The Anacortes ferry terminal has four parking lots, currently costing $12 a day. The ferries website has a hard-to-find-on-your-own PDF with more info. Parking is promised to be “plentiful” except for major summer holidays.
Pro tip: Check the schedule for a ferry that’ll arrive before your hoped-for departure, lurk in the closest-up A and B parking lots, and wait for parking spots becoming available as debarking passengers climb in their cars and leave. Info about the exact location of the lots seems elusive, so: Lot C is off to the right as you approach the ferry terminal, while the closer Lots B and A are to the left of the toll booths/lines; Lot A has a drop-off zone at the walk-on ticket office for your extra people/luggage. Lot D is way up the hill from the entrance to Lot B.
Important: Be sure to investigate/arrange your transport on-island before you go. I learned while standing in the sun at the ferry terminal on Orcas with an eagle circling overhead that the island has three taxis total. San Juan Transit also serves some islands, some of the time — my ride on an aging minibus was mildewy-smelling but only cost $5. Car, moped and bike rentals may also be available.