Contemplating a summer sojourn to the San Juan Islands? Smile. The days of seemingly endless waits for a ferry may be over.
A month into Washington State Ferries’ new Save a Spot reservation system for San Juans ferry runs, a recent ferry-system report indicates a healthy number of early adopters. In the first weeks, 46 percent of vehicles traveling among the islands did so with a reservation.
The ferry route between Anacortes and Friday Harbor, on San Juan Island, had the most use of the new system, with 56 percent of vehicles making a reservation between Jan. 5, when the new system began, and Jan. 28, preliminary figures show.
Previously, ferry travel among the islands was on a first-come, first-served basis, often resulting in major backups and hours-long waits at peak travel times in summer.
The launch hasn’t been flawless. Some backups still happen at the Anacortes ticket booth; even with a reservation travelers are advised to arrive 30 to 90 minutes ahead of the ferry’s departure, but in the first weeks more than 20 percent arrived later. (Not there when the vessel starts loading? You lose your spot.)
Another complication: Scanning reservation bar codes from travelers’ digital devices hasn’t always worked (the screen isn’t bright enough, or the image is too small); it’s best to print out your reservation. On Orcas Island, the ferry system is working to solve pesky problems with its own scanners before the busy Presidents Day weekend.
“I believe, in the end, once some of the kinks are worked out, that islanders will enjoy the certainty of knowing they have a reservation — particularly for doctors appointments and plane reservations, etc.,” Barbara Marrett of the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau, said in an e-mail. “Visitors can leave Seattle knowing what ferry they’ll be on!”
The new system allows travelers to reserve a ferry space at no extra charge, though you must submit a debit- or credit-card number. Other details you should know:
- There is a fee if you don’t show up, but even that is waived if you miss the boat you reserved, or if you catch an earlier boat, as long as you travel the same day from the same terminal and you inform the ticket agent. For a no-show on the San Juan runs, your card will be charged $10 for most cars. What about service disruptions? During a Jan. 26 breakdown of the ferry Yakima, the fee was waived.
- If you need to cancel, you must do so prior to 5 p.m. on the day before the sailing in order to avoid the “no show” fee.
- Frequent ferry travelers may set up an online reservation account, on which you may store credit-card numbers and vehicle information, to ease the process. See this page for detailed instructions on how to set up an account
- If you’re only an occasional ferry user, no account is necessary. You may make reservations online or by phone (call 888-808-7977, 4 a.m.-8:30 p.m. daily). So far, the vast majority of reservations have been made online.
- The earliest you may reserve a trip is one- to two months before the start of a sailing season (spring schedule, or summer schedule, for example). Right now (Feb. 5), you can reserve for any sailing on the winter and spring schedules, through June 13.
- Reservations may be made for 90 percent of spaces on any ferry. To accommodate different types of travelers (long-range planners versus spur-of-the-moment folks, e.g.), spaces are released on a tiered basis, starting up to two months in advance of a sailing season, for all dates in that season. That release will be 30 percent of available spaces. Another 30 percent of space is made available two weeks in advance of a sailing, and the remaining 30 percent two days prior. So if no spaces are available for your desired sailing when first you check, it can pay to check back later.
One bit of collateral damage from the advent of ferry reservations in the islands: Friday Harbor restaurant owners are concerned that without long waits at the ferry dock, visitors won’t leave their cars to grab a bite.
For more details on the new system, see the state ferries website.