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The Many Kinds of Alcatraz Tickets
If you start searching online for tickets to Alcatraz you’ll see a confusing array of ads and articles. This page will help you sort through the options so you have the most possible fun on your trip. Scroll down for Insider Tips below on how to not get overcharged or ripped off when you buy tickets.
Type 1: Tickets to Alcatraz where you ride a ferry to the island and then walk around, and where you can go inside the old prison
Since Alcatraz is a national park, this ferry service is run by just one service, Alcatraz Cruises. under a government contract. Their web page is here. The cost of a ticket covers both the ferry ride from Pier 33 and entrance to the park. Tickets are for a specific sailing to the island on a set day and time, but you can return to San Francisco on any return trip so you can stay for a short or long visit to the island.
Insiders Tip: These tickets usually sell out far in advance. Click here for our page on what to do when those tickets are sold out.
Type 2: Tickets to sail around Alcatraz where you ride a ferry that circles the island and offers a dramatic narration and guide to the old prison
On this tour you never disembark and walk on the island, but you get to see parts of the old prison that aren’t visible except from the water. Blue and Gold Fleet offers their “Escape from the Rock” cruise (see video above), and the recorded information and sound effects make it extra fun for many visitors. Our page about the options for sailing around Alcatraz is here.
Type 3: Tickets to sail around Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge
This new option departs from the Angel Island Ferry Pier in Tiburon, It sails around Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge and gives you a close-up look at each spot. More information and links are on our Bay cruises around Alcatraz page.
In addition to this specific service, other companies offer Bay tours that include Alcatraz. Click here for our guide to these options.
Type 4: Combination Tours that include Tickets to Alcatraz
Many tour companies offer combined tickets that offer either the walk-around or cruise-around Alcatraz tours described above. They may be linked with tours of Muir Woods or other local sites.
Type 5: Ferry Tickets that sail close to Alcatraz
If you don’t have time to visit the island itself but are exploring San Francisco, taking the ferry to Sausalito will take you fairly close to Alcatraz, albeit not as close as dedicated tours.
Avoiding Hidden Charges on Alcatraz Island Tix
Note: This section only applies to the “walk around the island” tickets, and is relevant when you are buying tickets well in advance and not when they’re sold out and you’re scrambling.
Insiders Tip: If you’re buying well in advance note our warnings about sites that overcharge for your visit with extra “Service Charges” and “Handling Fees” that the Alcatraz Cruises site does not charge. We have no business relationship with any of the Alcatraz tour operators.
If you click on an “Official Alcatraz Tours” page and it doesn’t say “www.alcatrazcruises.com” at the top then they’re not the ones the Park Service picked to be the only company allowed to offer tours walking around the island, and the website may charge you more than the regular price or tack on lots of charges and fees. There are several such over-charging “official” sites on the front page of any search for Alcatraz tickets! On our last check they added $6.00 to $8.00 plus processing fees to the cost of any ticket, but they had the same dates marked as unavailable as the Alcatraz Cruises website.
Our readers often ask why there is only one ferry service that is allowed to bring visitors to Alcatraz, the service called Alcatraz Cruises. Our best guess is that the Park Service did this to better control access to the park and to control traffic at the (small) piers for safety reasons, since having competitors’ ferries jockeying for position would be unsafe and untenable.
As of 2018 the Parks Service is taking applications from competitors who want to take over serving this route, and there are lots of stories around town that for the next contract they will choose a different company. For now, however, Alcatraz Cruises is the only permitted way to visit Alcatraz.
8 Keys to Buying the Right Tour Tickets at the Right Price
1. Buy your tickets well before your trip to San Francisco — buying two or three months ahead during the summer ensures you’ll get there on the day you want.
2. Make sure you pick the kind of Alcatraz ferry ride you want. Ask the provider, “Do I walk around the island on this tour, or just sail around it? This page is about buying a ticket to take a ferry and walk around on Alcatraz. You get to take a self-paced audio tour, explore the prison, walk through the gardens. Double check your tour’s itinerary to avoid confusion and disappointment. You can find our page about the tour that sails around Alcatraz here.
3. Alcatraz is a National Park and the Ferries are a National Parks Service monopoly. Only one company, Alcatraz Cruises (links below) has the right to bring you to Alcatraz island and the park. They only sail from the Pier 33 Alcatraz Ferry Terminal. Other companies will sell you the same tickets and charge a $10 handling fee without telling you that you’re at the wrong website. There are no free tours of Alcatraz and no “end run” around paying for the ferry ride to visit the island, even if you own your own boat!
4. Reputable tour companies do sell multi-location tours. We’re trying to warn you about operators who over-charge for Alcatraz visits as a single destination. A number of reputable tour operators will sell you a tour that (for example) visits Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito, Muir Woods etc. for a single price. Their Alcatraz segment may be the “walk on the island” or the “cruise around the island” option, or both. These trips are considered more convenient by some travelers and if the package price seems right there’s no reason not to use these tour services. Because they buy from special quotas in advance they can still sell you a tour on sold out days.
5. When you buy a ticket to Alcatraz, part of the huge National Park called the GGNRA, you’re really getting two tickets combined into one:
- Entry to the National Park facilities on Alcatraz (part of the GGNRA), and optional guided tours of the island and the old prison. A self-guided cellhouse audio tour is included in the ticket price, and is available in English and (in alphabetical order) Chinese (Mandarin), Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese and Spanish. Blind visitors may also request Braille materials in English.
You can’t buy either half of the ticket (the ferry ride or the Alcatraz visit), by itself — it’s a package deal. Private boats may not moor at the island so you can’y use one to get there, and local sailboats and yachts can only sail around it.
6. You can choose a daytime visit or a more expensive nighttime tour with extra content.
7. Kids under 18 have to be with an adult at all times when you’re on the island. This is an old prison on an island that was previously a 19th century fortress built atop rocky cliffs, and it’s a good idea in any case to supervise kids while you’re here.
8. You don’t have to buy the Cellhouse Audio Tour on the Daytime Visits, although it is included by default in the price. We think it’s cool and brings the place to life, but I have a friend who hates all audio tours, and you may feel the same way. How to opt out: When you enter the cellhouse tell the supervisor there that you’d like a refund for the audio tour and you’ll get a voucher for an $8.00 refund (for adults) or $5.50 (for children 5-11). The refunds are not available for the night tours, where many visitors are deliberately seeking the creepy feeling of listening to the voices inside the prison at night.