Ferries readies to roll out full-scale reservation system with winter sailing schedule | Guest Column

All travelers sailing in the San Juans, not just commercial customers, will be able to make a reservation on Washington State Ferries beginning with the 2014-15 winter schedule, if all goes according to plan.  - Journal file photo
All travelers sailing in the San Juans, not just commercial customers, will be able to make a reservation on Washington State Ferries beginning with the 2014-15 winter schedule, if all goes according to plan.
— image credit: Journal file photo

By Jim Corenman

Special to the Journal

Washington State Ferries is on track to offer reservations for most San Juan Islands routes starting with the 2015 winter schedule, which begins Dec. 28, 2014.

The planning process started in late 2012 with the formation of a Reservations Partnership Group to work with WSF and 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 who work with WSF management, and project leaders and designers. Members of WSF’s seven ferry advisory committees are also part of the group.

The goal is to make better use of available ferry resources, and to make traveling to and from the islands less frustrating and more predictable for everyone—locals and visitors alike. 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 for the next boat.

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, at least then you will have something to plan your day around. There is a reason that every other sizeable ferry system in the world offers reservations.

But the San Juan Islands present some challenges. The group has looked at a number of issues, starting with who can make reservations and when.

Reservations for popular sailings will fill up for the same reason that 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 (Anacortes bound) would be provided only from Friday Harbor and Orcas, due to the greatest need and limited terminal space on 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 planning a trip a chance to book well 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 for each release, 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.

Which 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 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 the ferries web page (www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries), click on “Reservations” (on the left), and click “Make a reservation” in the upper-right. Check it out.

And folks without internet service can make a reservation via telephone, and customer service is being expanded.

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, that 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, 11:30 a.m. at San Juan Island Yacht Club. The public is welcome but there is only limited time for public comment, so please send comments via email to: fac@sanjuanco.com

— Editor's note: Jim Corenman is chairman of the San Juan Ferry Advisory Committee


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