If you're looking for a casual alternative to a luxury cruise, travel as Alaskans do, aboard the ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway System. These vessels may not have the same facilities as the big cruise ships, but they do meander through some beautiful regions.
Most long-haul ferries have cabins with private bathrooms. You'll need to reserve these accommodations in advance or settle for a reclining seat on the aft deck. Most ships also have cheap or free showers as well as spaces where you can roll out sleeping bags or even pitch tents. You’re welcome to bring picnics and coolers, and all long-haul ferries have cafeterias with hot meal service (not included in the fare), along with vending machines.
Reservations and Fares
You can make reservations by phone or online. Book as far in advance as possible for summertime travel, especially if you have a vehicle. You can pay for ferry travel with credit card (Discover, MasterCard, or Visa), cashier's check, or money order.
You should also book ahead for the Bellingham–Ketchikan journey. The Bellingham–Ketchikan route costs roughly $320 one-way in summer. Shorter trips cost anywhere from $30 to $190 one-way. Note that there are additional charges for vehicles including motorcycles, bicycles, and kayaks. Renting cabins also increases the fare.
Alaska Marine Highway. Alaska. 907/465–3941; 800/642–0066; www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs.
Inter-Island Ferry Authority. Alaska. 907/225–4848; 907/530–4848; 866/308–4848; www.interislandferry.com.
The Inside Passage route, which stretches from Bellingham, Washington (or Prince Rupert, British Columbia), all the way up to Skagway and Haines, is the most popular route, mimicking that of most major cruise lines. The Bellingham–Ketchikan trip, the longest leg, takes roughly 37 hours. (The trip from Prince Rupert to Ketchikan takes six hours.) Other trips along the Inside Passage take from three to eight hours.
Sporadic summer service across the Gulf of Alaska from either Prince Rupert, Ketchikan, or Juneau links Southeast with Southcentral Alaska destinations (trips usually end in Whittier, about 60 miles south of Anchorage). There's further service to limited ports in Southcentral Alaska as well as connecting service to Southwest Alaska from Whittier and Homer to Kodiak and Port Lions, respectively. Southwest ferries can take you all the way to Dutch Harbor.
Two high-speed catamarans can cut travel time in half. The MV Fairweather is based in Juneau and primarily serves Sitka. In summer the MV Chenega, based in Cordova, serves Prince William Sound, with stops in Valdez and Cordova.
Note that although major ports like Juneau and Ketchikan will likely have daily departures, service to smaller towns is much more sporadic—one departure per week in some cases.