New reservations website

When Ballard resident Michael Murray visited Orcas Island with his wife this March, they almost missed their ferry home.


Sounder contributor

When Ballard resident Michael Murray visited Orcas Island with his wife this March, they almost missed their ferry home.

“I didn’t realize there was a reservation system, and there was a really small amount of drive-up space available,” said Murray, an entrepreneur with a background in energy conservation and software development. “We just got lucky.” He tried using his smartphone to book a spot, but it was too close to the sailing time and the reservation was not allowed.

“I thought, this is going to hit a lot of people off-guard,” he said.

Later, as he browsed the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) ferry reservations website, Murray saw room for improvement.

“This is a great example of services that come from government agencies that are really lacking in some respects,” he said. Murray thought it would be “fun” to create his own user-friendly gateway website designed to automate some functions and to take some of the frustration out of the reservations experience.

“The expectations that people have of websites today are so incredibly high,” he explains. “Companies like Amazon and Netflix have literally tens of millions a year that go into website usability. We know for a fact that WSDOT does not have those kinds of resources, so there is this increasing gap between user experience and expectations, so that’s a gap I like to play in.”

Murray’s new site, aptly named FlexFerry, is designed to soften some of the rigidity structured into the state reservations portal.

Currently WSDOT makes 90 percent of all vehicle spaces on ferry sailings reservable. Thirty percent of available normal-height vehicle space on each ferry is released two months prior, another 30 percent at two weeks prior and the last 30 percent two days prior. Since there is no waiting list, ferry riders’ best chance at nabbing a certain sailing is to lurk online at 7 a.m. on the exact release day. All over-height vehicle space is released during the initial wave, causing additional difficulties for business owners needing those spaces with less advance notice. And there is no provision made for islanders on non-urgent medical waitlists for off-island doctors who are suddenly alerted to an available appointment, but cannot take it because they can’t get a ferry reservation.

WSDOT also charges a no-show fee of $10 to $20 per standard reservation if a guest does not sail as reserved ( Oversize vehicle charges can be much higher.

Yet there is not much grace for the inevitable life events that affect islanders’ and visitors’ schedules. The site does not allow reservation cancellations after 5 p.m. the day prior to sailing. After that time, just one schedule change is permitted – after that, “any cancellations will result in a no-show fee.” No changes can be made within three hours of a reserved scheduled sailing. And while ferry representatives have urged the community to call them directly with unavoidable difficulties like medical issues, there are many life events or business needs that may not merit a compassionate fee reversal.

Enter FlexFerry. When users request reservations, the site will automatically put their request in a first-come, first-served queue for the next reservation that becomes available.

“It intelligently keeps trying for you based on a probability of cancellations,” explains Murray.

FlexFerry will also run calculations to give users information on how likely they are to get their requested sailing.

The site will also offer a reservation exchange feature in the near future. If someone has an urgent need to ride on a particular ferry that is fully booked, the site will send out a text request to users who already have a reservation on the needed boat, asking if they might be enticed to give up their reservation (sometimes for monetary compensation). Murray’s system is designed to keep users from receiving a plethora of pleas: users can rate their willingness to be flexible before ever receiving a request. Those who say their schedules are set in stone will not be asked to give up their spot.

One possibly controversial site feature is that FlexFerry will facilitate credit card transfers between users who wish to buy or sell their reservations to others.

“If you want to give your reservation to someone else, you can do that, but if you want to sell your reservation, you can do that too,” says Murray, adding, “It’s not the same thing as scalping, which is booking a reservation with the intent to sell.” The idea is not to have everyone have to pay for something, but rather that the person needing the reservation might be willing to offer a few bucks to get that reservation.”

The feature gives riders in need the freedom to swap a financial incentive for the ferry sailing they really want.

Murray notes with concern that the WASHDOT site has no safeguards in place right now to prevent either excessive (and unused) reservation purchasing; or reservations scalping during peak travel times. There are currently no restrictions on the number of reservations one user can make during a single day in one direction, or even on a single sailing. He says FlexFerry will have some commonsense restrictions built in to help discourage these practices, such as a limitation of two reservations per day per user.

And to reduce human error and ensure that users reserve for the correct vehicle height, Murray has programmed into the site over 45,000 common vehicle makes and models.

Murray adds that he is eager to hear from the community about features people would like to see offered on FlexFerry. He has been attending Ferry Advisory Committee meetings in order to understand the needs of the community, and says he expects the site to continue to be dynamic and continue to offer new features. Murray plans to monetize his investment in the site through advertiser support as well as small, $2-3 transaction fees on credit card transfers. There will be no charge to use the site for reservations.

The beta version of FlexFerry was launched this week. To sign up as a beta user, visit

Additional resource for islanders

An online reservations swap option is available now for islanders in need: a Facebook page called Ferry Reservation Exchange started by Orcas Island business owner Justin Paulsen. Intended to help ferry riders easily swap reservations and avoid no-show fees, the site currently has 1,017 members and is free to use. Ferry Reservation Exchange does not allow the sale of reservations.

The site is also a source of useful tips, rider anecdotes and key Washington State Ferries contact information.

Paulsen says his group has observed that many recent sailings noted as full by the WSDOT reservations site are not, in fact, full at the time of sailing.

“Under the current reservation system, WSDOT treats a Ford Excursion (18.3 feet long) the same as a Prius (13.1 feet long),” said Paulsen. “Because of this, a fully reserved boat can vary wildly in terms of the actual deck space being consumed. Since each space is booked at 22’ or under, a boat with a large number of small vehicles can have massive amounts of unreserved space on board; based on standard vehicle sizes, this number can be as much as 30 percent of the boat.”

Paulsen believes many islanders don’t try to drive on standby when the WSDOT site says the ferry is entirely booked, saying, “The net result is that in reality, many boats indicated as full are sailing with many spaces available on the deck.”

He also said he knows several Orcas community members who have chosen to move off the island because of the added difficulties of getting needed medical care under the current reservations system.

Paulsen and others have repeatedly urged WSDOT to reduce the number of reservable vehicle spots from 90 to 75 percent, allowing more room for drive-ups. No change is currently expected.