Reservations coming to San Juan Islands’ routes

Advisory Committee Chairman

Washington State Ferries is on track to offer reservations for most of the San Juan Islands routes beginning with the Winter 2015 schedule, starting December 28, 2014. The planning process started in late 2012 with the formation of a Reservations Partnership Group to work with Washington State Ferries to develop a reservations program that might work for the San Juan Islands. The group consists of about 25 members who represent all four ferry-served islands as well as various user groups, and works with WSF management and project leaders and designers. The seven Ferry Advisory Committee members are also part of the partnership group.

The goal is to make better use of  ferry resources, and to make traveling to and from the islands less frustrating and more predictable for everyone. Currently the only way to be sure of getting onto a boat during the busiest periods is to show up at the terminal hours early. That gets tiresome, as does getting to the terminal at what you think is a reasonable time, and then having to wait three or four hours. This is not a situation that makes a lot of folks happy. Imagine being able to reserve a spot, and even if you can’t get your first choice then at least you will have something to plan your day around. There is a reason why other sizeable ferry systems provide reservations. But the San Juans present some challenges.

The group has looked at a number of issues starting with who can make reservations and when. Reservations for the popular sailings will fill up for the same reason that the boats overload now, because folks prefer the 8 a.m. sailing over the 5:50 a.m. redeye, and getting home (or to your hotel) at midnight isn’t as nice as getting there before supper. And we would all like to have priority, but, since the ferries are run by the state, there are some limitations.

One of the first decisions was that eastbound reservations would be provided only from Friday Harbor and Orcas due to the greatest need and limited terminal space at Lopez and Shaw. Westbound reservations will be provided to all islands. A key concept is a staggered release of space. Looking forward to next year, reservations for summer 2015 will become available in March, but only for part of the available space. This gives folks who are planning a trip a chance to book ahead. Then one to two weeks prior another block of space becomes available, and then possibly more space a day or two ahead. The details of how much space and how early are not yet final.

There will be no additional charge for reservations, but there will be a “no-show” fee. Changes can be freely made until the day of sailing (subject to space available), and one change is allowed on the day of sailing up until three hours prior without any penalty.

These points brings us to two more important considerations: How much of the boat can be reserved and how to manage traffic at the Anacortes terminal. The initial thinking was to leave lots of space unreserved for drive-ups, but that practice doesn’t change anything – folks without reservations would still need to show up hours early to get on the boat. The better answer is to make it easy to book a reservation, and that  should also solve the traffic problem: If 300 cars aren’t showing up to get onto a 144-car ferry, then the terminal will be able to handle the traffic.

The good news is that the basic reservation system is already in place for the Coupville/Port Townsend and Sidney routes. Go to, click on “Reservations” (on the left), and click “Make a reservation” in the upper-right. And folks without internet service can make a reservation via telephone,.

A related element is getting information to ferry riders. From the ferries home page, click “Terminal Conditions” on the right and then “Anacortes.” This shows how much space is available on upcoming sailings, right now, today. Now go back and select Coupeville or Port Townsend. These terminals have reservations available and you can see how much space is available, to be reserved and how much remaining space is available for drive-up travelers without reservations. Signage will also be needed, which is still on ferries’ to-do list.

The motto of the Partnership Group has become “The devil is in the details”. The concepts look workable so far, but many details still need to be sorted and your FAC would very much like feedback and suggestions. The next partnership meeting is May 28, 11:30am at the Yacht Club. The public is welcome but there is only limited time for public comment, so please send comments via email to:


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