Don't Cruise Alaska... Ferry Alaska!

Nov 19, 2005 (Updated Mar 16, 2006)

The Bottom Line If you're out to experience Alaska, there's no better way than to hitch a ride on the Alaska Marine Highway.

Comparing cruise ships to the Alaska ferry system is like comparing genetically-modified tomatoes to organic potatoes. The tomatoes are colourful and robust and can be eaten without doing any work. Hell, the right tomato might even qualify as a fruit. However, they lack the natural goodness of something organic and can be so juicy that they drown out everything else on the plate. Yuck. The potatoes, on the other hand, are as dull as it gets and aren’t something a sober person would eat without at least cooking them. Even so, the potatoes give you what you need without taking anything away from anything that’s around it.

Cruise ships make you look inward and gloss over everything you pass by, but there’s no arguing that they keep things simple and attractive. Ferries make you want to look outward and truly experience everything you pass by, but that whole process can get complicated and occasionally insipid. So, which is better in Alaska?

If simplicity is your game and money isn’t tight, cruise ships are your way to go. In all of one or two hours you can have a week-long trip planned for the entire family. The ferry system requires much more time, where you’ll be looking for the right dates and times, the right options, and then comes finding places to stay and things to do at all of the places that you visit along the way. However, it’s ultimately cheaper and more authentic than what you’ll get with the typical cruise. Personally, I wouldn’t ever want to cruise through Alaska when it has such a great ferry system.

What’s the AMHS?
The Alaska Marine Highway System operates all around the coastal areas of the state, where roads simply cannot exist. From the Aleutian Islands to Bellingham, Washington, the AMHS is the lifeblood of many communities and a really great way of getting to know locals and see some of Alaska’s best scenery. The fares are generally reasonable, as the AMHS is a government-subsidized fleet that tries to bring the cost of using the ferries to what it’d be to travel if real roads existed in their place. The ferry system operates year-round, but it’s logically the summer months when it gets booked up and when the number of sailings increases.

What You’ll See
You’ll probably see more than you would on a typical cruise ship. The ferries are smaller, and therefore can get into smaller places and closer to land. There will often be times when you can spot deer, bears, eagles and other animals on the shore, while if you look out to the deeper depths of the ocean you’re bound to see clouds of mist from humpback whales. If you’re lucky, you may see other types of whales as well, including killer whales. Regardless of whether you’re on the ferry, on a cruise, or even just on a small little boat, you will see whales sooner or later. The older and slower ferries have been known to attract Dall’s porpoises, which play in the wake of the vessel.

Most of my trips aboard the ferries were in cruddy weather, which limited visibility and made it hard to appreciate the landscape (which, in general, gets better the further north you go along the coast). However, on the one clear crossing from Juneau to Sitka, you could see all the way up to Glacier Bay National Park, with its jagged snow-capped peaks, which was a rare treat.

Some of the ferries have an onboard USFS ranger from Tongass National Forest that gives a commentary and points out areas of interest and wildlife sightings. They’re also willing to answer any questions that arise. It’s all fairly generic information that they give, so children should have no trouble comprehending it, but I found it got a little repetitive at times. However, there’s no set out speech and there are different rangers doing it, so you’ll never have the exact same commentary. Overall, it’s a nice touch to have.

The Flavour of a Potato
Make no mistake, the ferries are bland. If you want pools and shops and numerous restaurants and things to keep you busy while you’re at sea, quit reading this now and go with a real cruise ship. The ferries are transportation and not much more. Some have a tiny gift shop, small theatre rooms, and almost all have a cafeteria, but they’re very much like a plane ride, only much less cramped. A book, binoculars, and a camera are definitely things to bring with you.

The older & larger ferries have various-sized cabins available for longer trips. Many books and travel guides will mention that it’s common for people to just grab a spot in the solarium where they can sleep in their sleeping bag - and many people do. However, after spending a month and a half sleeping in nothing but a tent or in the cargo area of my 4Runner, I figured it was worth spending the extra money and having a real bed with a complete bathroom at my disposal for one night. And it was. The rooms are basic with two to four bunks, some with windows, and some with bathrooms. I booked far enough in advance that I got a room with a window, a bathroom, and two bunks. It also had a table you could pull down, an old chair, and a garbage bin, plus a place to hang coats. They’re as utilitarian as it gets, but on my one 19-hour journey, paying the $90 and having some privacy was worth it.

If you have an overnight journey and are scheduled to arrive early, the crew of the ship walks around about 45 minutes before arrival and hammers on your door to wake you up. There are also announcements made on the PA, but they’re easier to sleep through. Clocks are useless, because the AMHS is never right on schedule.

One of the best things about the ferries are the free showers (although there aren’t any showers on the new fast ferries). Most of the ferries have a bunch of private shower rooms, although the slow and small MV LeConte only has a very non-private shower in the male and female bathrooms. With that, it’s quite possible to walk into the bathroom and see a naked person standing in the middle of it. The cabins with bathrooms have towels, but you’ll need to bring your own if you’re using one of the public showers (or I believe you can borrow one from the purser for a small fee).

Except for the fast ferries, the ships all have cafeterias that offer your typical American food. They have a bunch of staples on the menu like hamburgers, chicken, hot dogs, soup, salad, and what have you, but they also have daily meals that are only served at various hours of the day. Some of the ships carry in the neighborhood of 700 people, and with only one cafeteria, it is very busy when they start dishing out the daily meals (and if you’re late, you may be out of luck and not get it at all). If you just want something basic like a hamburger, wait for a half hour or so and then that way you won’t have to ply your way through the crowd (even though it is an efficient process). There are also a few vending machines on the ships, should you just be in the mood for a light snack. Some of the ships also have lounges where you can grab an alcoholic beverage for when you realize you have another 10 hours stuck on the boat.

The fast ferries have an area where you can buy meals to heat up in the microwave or get a drink, but they’re pretty lame and you are better off grabbing something from a grocery store before boarding.

Gift Shops & Theatres
AMHS needs to take a lesson from BCFerries on what a gift store should be. The stores on the AMHS ships are tiny and really don’t have anything unique or interesting. Most of the ships have sections with a big screen where they play old movies that nobody has ever heard of or wants to watch.

The Alaska Marine Highway System is great for the budget traveler, providing an affordable way of getting from town to town. Had I gone as just a passenger from Haines to Prince Rupert without a cabin, it would have cost $225 ($319 with the cabin from Petersburg to Prince Rupert). That may not seem that cheap, but compare it to the thousands of dollars that a cruise can cost, and it’s hard to complain. Even the food isn’t grossly overpriced, with about $10 covering a decent-enough meal for one.

The AMHS loses its price appeal once you add a vehicle to your journey. Bringing a typical vehicle with you will, at the very least, double the cost, and perhaps bring it close to tripling the cost. In my case, it brought the price up to $832. Once you get to something larger than your typical vehicle (over 19’ long) the price keeps shooting up, which means you won’t see too many RVs utilizing the ferries. Even though it would have been cheaper for me to drive both to and from Alaska in my 4Runner, I have no regrets about spending the cash and taking the ferry back south – it’s far more interesting than the inland route. It also helped save on wear and tear.

If you think you want to save money by sleeping in your RV, think again. Access to the car deck is strictly prohibited unless escorted by a crew member, and the only time you’re freely allowed down there is when the ships are in port. If you have pets, you’ll need to make special arrangements for visiting them. Stories I had heard about the car deck doubling as a pet lavatory were completely unfounded.

For nearly every route, reservations are required well in advance if you plan on taking a vehicle with you. I reserved in February for August sailings, and had no problem getting what I wanted. The cabins are limited and fill up quickly. If you plan on taking one of the mega-popular routes, such as the Cross-Gulf trip or the one to/from Bellingham then you’d best play it safe and reserve shortly after the summer schedule is announced (mid-December). If you’re just a passenger and have no more than a bicycle or a kayak, reservations aren’t nearly as vital and you can probably get by without any, although you’re still likely going to have trouble with the mega-popular routes and need to be flexible.

The best way to make reservations is to use the Alaska Marine Highway System’s own website,, where they have the schedules, fares, and basically all the information you could need. I spent a few hours looking at different ways to set up my itinerary, which the website easily lets you do with their online reservation system (that oddly has a different layout than the rest of the AMHS website). If you want to book by phone, you can also do that. I had to make a call to them when I hadn’t received my tickets in the mail like I had requested, and there was no wait time and the customer service was top notch, with everything being sorted out in all of three minutes. There are also a few travel agencies out there that will book your trips and help you figure it all out, which isn’t a bad option if you don’t have the time to figure out exactly what you want.

When making reservations, make sure you allow a day or two (or longer) in the ports along the way, and then just catch the next ferry that comes by. Making numerous stops has almost no impact on the total price of your ticket compared to going direct and passing by everything. For instance, my itinerary from Haines to Prince Rupert with stops was $832, while if I had taken out all the stops it would have been $820. Furthermore, if you were to just stay on the ferry and keep on truckin’, you’ll get bored quickly. You can still get off, but the ferry stopovers last no more than three hours, which is not enough time to explore the towns, especially since the ferry terminals are generally away from anything of interest.

Tomato or Potato?
I’m a potato man. I want it cheap and I want it basic, and the Alaska Marine Highway System is precisely that. Any independent traveler is destined to prefer the ferries over a cruise ship, as you get a nice mix of locals and like-minded individuals that don’t want to hurry from town to town and get fed whatever the cruise companies will dish up. You’ll come across a wide array of people that have done all sorts of things and seen all sorts of neat little places. I will admit that the ferries could do with a bit of the glitz and glamour that cruise ships have and nobody would complain, but even so, the ferry system is a great way to get around the coastal areas of Alaska. It is no cruise, and that’s what’s great about it.

Planning a trip to Alaska?
Click here to read my overview of the state of Alaska, which includes links to other reviews just like this one.

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