Alcatraz is definitely one of the must-see iconic attractions in San Francisco, and is well worth the extra effort that it takes to ensure you have tickets. Do not be mistaken in thinking this is just a "prison tour".  It is far more than that, and I have yet to meet any travellers that have visited the island, who didn't rate it as one of the stand-out highlights of their time in San Francisco.

The island of Alcatraz is a national park, and while there are many cruise companies that sail AROUND Alcatraz, there is only one company that actually has permission to land on the island: ALCATRAZ CRUISES, that leave from Pier 33 near Fisherman’s Wharf.

Alcatraz Cruises also offers an extended tour that visits Angel Island in addition to Alcatraz, but this guide relates only to visiting Alcatraz.

If you do wish to visit Alcatraz while you are in San Francisco, you should arrange your tickets at least  6 weeks – 2 months in advance of your visit.  It is virtually impossible to just turn up and get Alcatraz tickets as they can sell out more than a month in advance. Every day, Alcatraz Cruises turn away hundreds of disappointed tourists who didn’t prearrange tickets.  

Same-day standby tickets are sold on at Pier 33 each morning, but sell out very early.  If you are trying to get a standby ticket, be prepared to queue at 6am in the morning.

Your best advice is to definitely to book and pay online well before you arrive.

The official website for ticket sales is

http://www.alcatrazcruises.com

In 2013/14 ticket prices for for the tour to Alcatraz range between $30-$37 per head for Juniors (12-17 years), Adults (18 years and above), and Seniors. There is negligible difference between the junior, adult, and senior pricing.  Tickets for children from 5-11 years range from $18-$22.  Children under 5 years of age are free.  Minors under the age of 18 are not permitted onto Alcatraz without an accompanying adult.

Family tickets (2 adults, 2 children (age not specified on the website) are $90, but are only available from the ticket window on the pier, and not online.  

If you are a tourist or visitor to San Francisco it is possible to tour Alcatraz as part of the San Francisco City Pass / Go San Francisco Pass / and Wharf Pass Multi tickets, but only if the respective multipass is purchased through Alcatraz Cruises. If you purchase your Pass online, or from any other participating attraction, the pass will only contain a harbour ferry cruise.   However if you purchase the multi Pass from Alcatraz Cruises, at the time of collecting the pass, Alcatraz Cruises will remove the ferry ride voucher and replace it with an Alcatraz tour voucher. The tour itself still needs to be booked in advance however, and it is not possible to purchase the multi pass from Alcatraz Cruises via their website.  If you want to get a multi-pass with the Alcatraz option, you need to telephone Alcatraz Cruises at (415) 981 7625, purchase the multi pass you want over the phone using your credit card, (reserving your tour date at the same time) and then visit the "Will Call" office at Pier 33 on your arrival in San Francisco to uplift the Pass. This is definitely the best deal for the Alcatraz Tour.

Due to the inavailability of same-day tickets, there is quite a trade in scalped tickets and alternative tours that operates around Fisherman's Wharf, Pier 39 and nearby to Pier 33 where the Alcatraz Cruises Ticket office is located.  If you are approached by touts offering same-day Alcatraz Cruises tickets, particularly at far higher prices than the ticket office, they are most likely selling scalped tickets.  Offers of discounted cruises to Alcatraz, or "viewing Alcatraz" by companies other than Alcatraz Cruises, that sail on the same day as you are being offered the tickets probably don’t land on the island.  It pays to ask, or read the small print, as the promotional blurb and photos from alternative ferry and cruise companies often imply that an island landing and visit is included, when it is not.

There are many different sailings during the day, most departing Pier 33 at half hour intervals in the morning. They are all detailed on the Alcatraz Cruises website.  The late afternoon and evening tours are slightly more expensive, and can book out earlier than the day tours. In the evenings some tours may be led by rangers, or able to access areas of the island that are closed during the day. 

San Francisco harbour can be foggy in the morning (adds to the atmosphere on the island, but detracts from the harbour views).  Many tourists find the dusk and evening tours more "atmospheric", and the dusk tours have the added attraction of views of the sun setting over the harbour and Golden Gate bridge to the west.  The lighthouse end of the cellblock on the western side of the island provides a really nice sunset vantage point for that perfect photo opportunity if you time it right.

The island becomes marginally more populated later in the day, however overall numbers are well managed and it is unlikely you will find "crowding" a problem, particularly if you "take the road less traveled" and seperate yourself from the main pack after the arrival orientation.  (More about that further on in this guide.)  The number of tourists on the island is largely dictated by the regular spacing of cruise arrivals.  Visitor numbers are not markedly different in the morning as Alcatraz tours are sold out every cruise - every sailing is full, although naturally there are less people already on the island during the first cruises of the day.  

Before the cruise to the island, all groups of people in the boarding queue on Pier 33are photographed against a backdrop of Alcatraz. The photos are pre-printed for purchase on your return from the island, as you disembark back at the Pier.  The pre-printed photos cost $22 (at the time of writing in 2012) for two identical prints in cardboard slip frames. They are not available individually, however the photograph itself, although staged is still quite an attractive one, albeit expensive. Alcatraz Cruises emphatically do not permit photography of the commercial images on display for purchase.  

Once on the ferry, the trip across to the island is a relatively short one - about 20 minutes, however the harbor can be cold on the warmest of of San Francisco days, and the ferry crossing to the island can be blustery.  The island itself is windswept and exposed so even on sunny days make sure you carry a light jacket that you can layer if the temperature drops.

Food and drink is discouraged on the island, but it is possible to purchase snacks and drinks on the ferry at reasonable prices.

Tours are on the island are self-guided.  You should allow about 3-4 hours (including the return ferry ride).  You will get basic free maps on the various buildings on the island when you arrive.  More comprehensive walking tour maps are also available for a $1 donation.

All visits start on the dock with a brief orientation by a park ranger, who may then lead the group up hill toward the main cellblock..

Included in the ticket price is an excellent free audio audio tour.  The portable audio units and headphones are provided when you enter the lower enrance of the cellblock.  The audio tour walks you on a fixed route through the main cellblock with narration by ex guards and convicts. It is very well done, giving extensive insights into life of both staff and convicts on the island, and also the more infamous escape attempts.  Small children will probably get a bit bored with the island - particularly the length of the audio tour, however suitably prepared children and young teens will very likely quickly become engrossed with it.

Don't rush straight up the hill to the cellblock to begin the audio tour directly after the ranger orientation on the dock. You will just end up in a big queue of people waiting to get audio tours issued.  Issuing of audiotours is very efficient, but you will end up viewing the cellblock amid a throng of other audiotour listeners at the same stage of the tour.  A better option is to first visit the barracks building on the dock, where you can sit and watch a very informative Discovery Channel documentary introducing the island, with lots of additional background and historical information. It really does set the scene for what you will see later on the island. There is also a manned information office and souvenir store in the Barracks building.  After visiting the barracks, then take your time following the approach road up the hill toward the cellblock, taking in the other sights enroute. Some of the island's lower buildings date back to its time as a fort, far preceding its time as a prison.  

There are plenty of things to see outside of the main cellblock – other buildings, barracks and forts, the small morgue, prison staff housing ruins, hillside gardens, seagull nesting sites, etc.  There is also graffiti and signage remaining on the island from the Native American protest occupation of Alcatraz from 1969-71.

If you spend time watching the documentary in the barracks, and time your arrival at the lower entrance to the hilltop cellblock between the clusters of tourists walking up the hill after their orientation, then the queue for the audio tour should have abated. Note that the distribution of the audio tour headsets is from the lower entrance to the hilltop cellblock - not the upper entrance near the lighthouse vantage point at the top of the road.

The audio tour is self guided, but not self paced. You follow the narration around the cellblock - hence the recommendation that you start your audio tour after the main flock of people.   Not only will you get your audio headset faster, but you will have a much better audio tour experience as you won’t be moving in the large crowd, given that very few people tour the cellblock without following the audio tour.  If you are in a family group, all start your tour at the same time so that you visit each audio station of the cellblock together.  It is also possible to pause the audio tour if you do find yourself in a crowd of people that started their tours at the same time, or want to coordinate your tour with friends or family.

The Cellhouse tour itself is flat, although the main entrance to the tour and gift shop at end are on a lower level.  The giftshop has a really imaginative and extensive range of memorabilia.

If you are physically challenged the park has golf carts available to shuttle people with limited mobility from the dock to the hilltop cellblock - but these are in limited supply so let the ranger staff at the dock know as soon as you arrive on the island if you need mobility assistance.

If you don't take public transport to Pier 33, and intend to drive and park prior to taking the Alcatraz cruise, you can use the online parking garage search engine at

http://sanfrancisco.bestparking.com

Input the address of "Pier 33" and the time of day you intend to take the tour, and the search engine will provide you with the relevant prices and addresses of all the parking buildings in the vicinity.  Enroute to your parking garage, keep an eye out for curbside metered car parking which can be significantly less expensive than the parking structures.  On a number of the streets close to Pier 33 you may pay as little as $2 per hour for parking. (for instance - try on Francisco Street between Montgomery and Kearny Street, where there are also a number of parking garages).