Questions remain as ferry reservation program nears launch date

The big payoff isn’t expected until the summer sailing season, when demand is at its peak, lines are long and it’s pretty much anyone’s guess how early one should show up to catch a ferry headed to or leaving the San Juan Islands.

The big payoff isn’t expected until the summer sailing season, when demand is at its peak, lines are long and it’s pretty much anyone’s guess how early one should show up to catch a ferry headed to or leaving the San Juan Islands.

In the meantime, islanders, along with everyone else, will have back-to-back sailing schedules – winter and spring – with which to experiment following the debut of Washington State Ferries’ new and expanded, and San Juans-customized, reservation system. Beginning Dec. 2, along with release of the wintertime lineup of sailings, the light turns green on making travel plans in what is undoubtedly the slowest of sailing seasons.

Still, if the Port Townsend-Keystone run is of any measure, WSF’s Reservations Manager Dwight Hutchinson believes that the ability to secure travel space ahead of time should prove a blessing rather than a burden for islanders and visitors alike once the much busier sailing seasons roll around. Ridership is up, he said, while congestion is down at the ferry terminals in Port Townsend and Keystone (Whidbey Island), where a reservation system somewhat similar to the San Juans went into effect two years ago.

“One of the amazing things that’s happened at the Keystone-Port Townsend run is that ridership is up, but the line is way down,” Hutchinson said at an informational forum Saturday, Nov. 15, in Friday Harbor. “People aren’t showing up way ahead of time hoping that they’re early enough to get on a boat.”

The mechanics of making a reservation are fairly straight forward, and the state ferry system has invested in getting the word out, in staffing and hardware as well, like a new telephone system, all in effort to make reservations as user-friendly as possible. More on the that in a moment; a little history first.

The driving force behind the reservation system rests not with the state ferry system itself, but rather with the legislature. Ferries was given marching orders in 2009 to investigate and then develop a reservation system largely as a means to avoid or delay large-scale investment in building new boats and expanding terminals, parking lots and roadways to accommodate rising demand. Reservations are, in effect, viewed as a way to better utilize the resources WSF has on the ground today by creating incentive for riders to arrive for and travel on sailings that historically have been in less demand.

A reservation system has been in operation for commercial customers in the San Juans for nearly two decades, and more recently on the international run as well. Back to the mechanics. Reservations are not required to travel in the San Juans, but they may prove strategic. That’s because 90 percent of a boat’s auto-deck will be available for reservations up to two days prior to any sailing. Thirty percent becomes available with release of a new schedule, another 30 percent is available two weeks before a sailing and 30 percent more becomes available two days prior to any sailing. It’s a 30-30-30 staggered release. The final 10 percent is held for priority travelers, mainly medical emergencies, and for stand-bys or drive-ups.

Reservations can be made online or over the telephone. An online account can be created for sake of speed and convenience. A credit card, debit card or prepaid credit gift card is required as a safeguard against no-shows; a $10 no-show fee is applied if a reservation is not redeemed for travel at anytime on the day of a reservation (detailed info is at

Hutchinson said the no-show rate on the Port Townsend-Keystone run dropped from 39 percent to 14 percent after a no-show was implemented and that “overload” sailings have decreased by 18 percent since the reservation went into effect even though ridership has risen overall on that route. The reservation system for Port Townsend-Keystone differs from the San Juans in that 90 percent of auto space becomes available when a new schedule is released, as opposed to the San Juans’ staggered release, he added.

Ticket payment is done separately from reservations. Which is one reason why reservations can be made for a sailing that departs either from Friday Harbor or Orcas Island (reservations for departures from Lopez and Shaw are not available at this time). Reservations can be made for all sailings leaving Anacortes.

Perhaps the biggest key for WSF to achieve one of its stated goals, reducing congestion, lies in travelers’ confidence in the system itself. Riders will be advised to arrive at a terminal no less than 30 minutes and no more than 90 minutes prior to departure. In that way, WSF hopes that those infamous lines that snake back all the way back to the Anacortes Safeway will truly become a historical footnote.

“One of the reasons to have reservations is to get rid of that line,” said WSF consultant Fauna Larkin, hired to help WSF get the word out about the reservation system. “With reservations, cars can arrive at different times so the lines should be reduced. We have to have that happen.”

For more info, visit and click on “vehicle reservations” or call 1-888-808-7977.

Orcas meeting

WSF  will hold a community outreach meeting about the new reservations system at 12:30 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. at the Eastsound Fire Hall. Each session includes a 15-minute presentation followed by a Q&A.