An All-American road, on water
Sailing the Alaska Marine Highway System
August 1, 2018
There's no question that Alaska is a place of uniqueness. From people to landscape and everything in between, there's no state like the 49th State, and that includes the mechanics of infrastructure.
The Alaska Marine Highway System is a 3,500-mile route stretching from Bellingham, Washington, to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Chain, with 28 other ports of call in between. Designated a National Scenic Byway in 2002 due to its rich culture and scenery, the Alaska Marine Highway System is a delightful cross between a necessary form of transportation and a treasure trove of Alaska vacation opportunities.
Whether taking a weekend or several weeks to sail around the likes of Prince William Sound, the Gulf of Alaska, or the Inside Passage, Alaska's ferries are an excellent option for independent travelers want to make the journey itself a destination.
Plan ahead, though, especially during the high tourist season between May and September, when popular routes fill up fast. Consider taking advantage of Alaska Marine Highway specials during shoulder season months (April and October), or make reservations up to a year in advance using the Marine Highway online system. Here are a few more tips for comfortable (and memorable) ferry travel:
Know your budget. Whereas the ferry used to be a cheaper mode of transportation for those visiting Alaska, costs have gone up dramatically over the years so that fares are just as expensive (or more) than flying. Ways to mitigate cost include walking aboard (vehicles are charged by the foot, including trailers); traveling during those shoulder seasons; or choosing a less popular route. A complete list of all ferry routes can be found on the AMHS website. http://www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs/where_we_go.shtml
Keep comfort in mind. While some of us in our younger days thought nothing of pitching a tent on the outside decks, four nights of that as an older adult is not my idea of comfort on vacation. My husband and I always book a stateroom, where we're reminded of a bygone era of classic travel, with clean, comfortable bunks and considerate stewards. Some rooms have full baths, others require a shared bathroom space. Ask at the time of booking. http://www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs/fares.shtml
Pack for variable weather and adventure. Ferry travel is about sightseeing as much as it is transportation, so pack like you would for a day cruise. Bring high-quality rain gear, non-slip shoes or boots, and hats and gloves. Don't forget a pair of binoculars and a camera, either; ferry crew love to show off their knowledge and will often slow down to enjoy a pod of whales or other interesting scenery.
Read ahead for services on board. Every ferry does have a small cafeteria on board, and menus feature excellent, hearty fare. That said, after three days of burgers and fries, we were happy to add some fruit, snack vegetables, and beverages we brought on board in a small cooler. Ferry crew are used to passengers utilizing dining areas for picnic meals, and provide hot water, utensils, and ice. Alcohol is no longer available on board Alaska Marine Highway ferries, but those with staterooms can consume their own in that space only.
Be flexible with dates and times. Alaska ferries do not operate with the same efficiency as Swiss trains. Schedules are prone to changes at any time due to weather, mechanical difficulty, or tide shifts, so rarely do vessels arrive between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. If you plan to sail across routes, know that you may have to spend a day or two in a particular community before catching the next ferry, a bonus in my book.
Embrace where you are. One of the most charming reasons to take an Alaska Marine Highway System ferry is to enjoy the people and communities along the way. If the vessel stops for a few hours, walk off and visit the town, have lunch, or explore some of the local attractions. Get to know your fellow passengers; we once sailed with a Russian Orthodox priest on his way to Chignik during one trip; and got to know several military families rotating out of Alaska on another. Consider the moments on board to be as valuable as the moments on shore, and who knows -- you might make some new friends.
For more information about the Alaska Marine Highway System and reservations, visit http://www.ferryalaska.com.
Erin Kirkland is an Alaska author and freelance travel journalist who has sailed every one of the Alaska Marine Highway System routes. She wrote the 2016 guidebook, "Alaska On the Go: Exploring the Alaska Marine Highway System with Children."