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How to Use the Alaska Marine Highway! Cruising on the MV Columbia

Do you like to cruise?  I’ll bet you’ve always dreamed of cruising to Alaska, but it’s just too expensive! We’ve got the best way for you to enjoy a ship to Alaska for a fraction of the cost and a lot more fun!


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First let me say, Alaska is amazing, with stunning views, an abundance of wildlife, and vistas that will blow you away; check out Denali National Park, the time I got kicked off a seaplane in Akutan, or driving and camping along the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay. Yes! Go to Alaska. However, if a cruise just seems a bit out of your budget or you like to be more in charge, I have the solution for you. Take the Alaska Marine Highway!

In this article:

What is the Alaska Marine Highway?
How Long Does it Take from Bellingham to Skagway?
Taking Your Car on the Ferry
Comfort on the Alaska Ferry – Eating, Sleeping, Entertainment
Wildlife seen from the Ferry
Tips for Taking the Alaska Marine Highway

The MV Columbia leaves port.

What is the Alaska Marine Highway? – An Adventure Cruise

Longer than Alaska has even been a state, the Alaska Marine Highway started back in 1948, and we’ve taken it many times. It never ceases to be less than breathtaking.

From the Lower 48, the continental United States, the ferry leaves from Bellingham, Washington. It travels up through the Alaska Inside Passage, in fact taking the exact route as all of the cruise ships so you are seeing the exact same scenery.

Myth Buster: The Alaska Highway system does not originate in Seattle, it starts in Bellingham and the endpoint is Skagway, Alaska.

Departures of the Marine Highway leave from the Bellingham Cruise Terminal in Washington.
All Alaska ferries going to Haines and Skagway depart from the Bellingham Cruise Terminal.

How Long Does it Take to Get From Bellingham to Skagway?

It takes the Alaska Marine Highway ferries about four days to travel from Washington to Skagway, the end of the line, but there are stops in some of the southeastern Alaskan towns like Ketchikan, where you can get off and wander or take a tour for a few hours at a time. This breaks up the monotony of that pesky beauty that is constantly surrounding you.

The back and view from the MV Columbia, an Alaska ferry to Skagway and Haines.
And we’re off! The view from the back of the ferry.

Taking Your Car on the Ferry

Being a ferry system, each time we’ve sailed, we’ve taken our vehicle on board. This, for me, is one of significant improvements to just taking a regular cruise. On a cruise, you have no transportation when you arrive in Alaska, so you have to rely on tours or renting a car.

Granted there are not that many communities to stop in from either Haines or Skagway to Anchorage, but there are views, gorgeous views, as well as signs posted at spots telling you the history of the state and the Alaska Highway, and you can stop wherever or whenever you want.

Taking your own car or truck also allows people to bring their pets, which is something that you definitely cannot do otherwise. The animals must stay in your car, but a number of times a day, you are allowed to go down into the hold to take care of them, as well as leash them up and walk them while the ship is in port. You would be surprised at how many people do this.

A free space for sleeping on board the MV Columbia is here on the solarium.
The solarium, at the top of the ship, is first-come, first-serve free sleeping area. Just lay your gear down on one of the lounge chairs and it’s all yours for the duration of the trip.

Comfort on Board the Alaska Ferry MV Colombia

The thing to remember here, is that the Alaska ferries are a service not a tour company. They are definitely not luxury, but if you are going to Alaska, you are looking for a little adventure, are you not? I don’t think age or mobility is a factor at all, riding the ferry is truly for everyone!

View of the sleeping chairs and floor of the solarium on board the MV Columbia.
Some people will even bring tents and sleep in them on board. It’s free and private, but they of course are not under the sun lamps, so could be a bit chillier.

Sleeping on the Alaska Ferry

The first time we took the ferry, we went ahead and got a stateroom because the girls were with us and they were quite young. The staterooms are functional and comfortable, but they are not luxurious.

There are two different staterooms, one with four bunks and a bathroom, and one with two bunks and a bathroom. It was nice having our own hygiene facilities, but certainly not necessary since there are plenty of communal facilities on board.

The majority of times we’ve taken the ferry up to Alaska, we rush to the top of the ship to the Solarium. There we scope out a good spot, snag a lawn chair, and set up our sleeping bags. Once claimed, no one bothers your stuff, and we just sleep under the heat lamps very comfortably.

Jim and Corinne Vail sleeping on the solarium of the MV Columbia.
As you can see, Jim is fast asleep. There’s no better rest than Alaska fresh air!

Some people put up tents on the top two decks, and that gives them a little more privacy, but we’ve always been happy with the deck chairs. There is something magical about sleeping on the deck of a boat with the fresh air, and in the Alaskan summer the sun rarely sinks for too long, so you have some gorgeous views and sunsets.

Even though it can get a little chilly, there are heat lamps in the ceiling and it keeps the chair area nice and toasty. If the weather gets too bad, though, you can always go inside and sleep in the chairs. This is really a last resort, because you can’t stretch out.

The bar serves Alaskan Beer straight out of Juneau.
The bar serves the best Alaskan beers.

Eating on Board the Alaska Marine Highway

There is a full-service restaurant on board serving three meals per day, but for a cheaper option, there is also a cafeteria-style eatery. If you don’t want to eat in the restaurants, passengers are also allowed to bring their own food on board which you can heat up in the cafeteria microwave. 

During a four-day journey, we’ve used a combination of all of these to break up the monotony. It’s easy to bring snacks and cereal boxes, so all you have to buy is a pint of milk at the cafeteria or some oatmeal for breakfast.

Then we would eat snacks like peanut butter sandwiches or cheese and crackers and have one paid meal a day at the restaurant. This really keeps the food costs to a minimum, yet you still get a lot of choice.

We probably ate most often at the cafeteria since it’s easy food, food kids like, and it’s extremely casual. We also would take advantage of being in port and either go to a restaurant or to a shop and buy some different snacks.

A small lighthouse in Canadian waters.
The views during the sailing are spectacular! Like this little lighthouse in Canadian waters.

Other Amenities

  • There are plenty of restrooms, some complete with showers and laundry facilities on board.
  • Unfortunately there is no wifi, but maybe for the few days you’re sailing, it’s a good opportunity to get away from those screens. You might be able to pick up some signals while docked, especially if you go into town.
View of a Tlingit Meeting House seen from the ferry.
A Tlingit Meeting House.

Fun Things to Do On Board

The Alaska Marine Highway has provided many on board activities to keep you happy while you are under way. My favorite is that there is a park ranger who holds various talks about Alaska. We didn’t go to all of them, but we did find out about whales, the salmon industry, and the gold rush history of the state. The ranger talks are informative and fun.

There is also a bar, a cinema which plays movies (usually for kids), and a play area for children. To be honest, with sitting on deck armed with our binoculars waiting for some whales to appear, and the other few things, we never got tired or bored.

Alaska Marine Highway ship MV Columbia.

Wildlife Seen from the Alaska Ferry

The Alaska Marine Highway system is well aware that most people go to Alaska to see the wildlife, and as well as having the park rangers teach you about them, they make sure to alert you if there is something spectacular to see. Every time a whale is near, they make an announcement over the PA system so that everyone can go to the rails and see it.

On every voyage we’ve been on, we’ve seen a variety of animals and birds;  eagles, porpoises, whales, and sea lions. On one trip, we were stopping in the small port of Petersburg. We didn’t have enough time to get off the ship, but we didn’t need to.

In the harbor was a pod of killer whales. We were enthralled with their huge dorsal fins and their striking colors. They put on a show for us for the whole time we were in port; we certainly didn’t want to leave.

Passengers showing off their MV Columbia flags.

The Passengers

One of the very best things about ferrying to Alaska is meeting the other passengers. The Alaska Marine Highway system allows local Alaskans to go down to the Lower 48 and buy a car or a special pet. It allows them to move their entire households to Alaska. In fact, the very first time we took the ferry, we were moving to Alaska and our van was packed full of everything we needed until the rest of our household goods arrived.

Some of the passengers we met were families moving to Alaska with the military, a dad and daughter motorcycle team, and we had a blast with a bunch of Coast Guard sailors as well.

On a previous voyage, we met some other great characters, and one story, in particular sticks with me, and I think it really demonstrates how well you get to know people.

There was a single woman with two children who walked on board. She had not had a wonderful couple of years. Her husband had left her, she’d lost her job, and things were just not going well. As she was struggling, she started corresponding with an old high school sweetheart, who had moved to Alaska to live off of the land.

He kept inviting her to come, but she was reticent. Did she really want to move away from everything she knew, pack up her kids, and move to Alaska? It sounded risky, but after she’d lost her job, she figured why not?

She and the children were in the Solarium, and were reduced to eating cereal. She had spent her last dollars on her passage. None of them complained, and even though the kids ran around a little, they were pretty well behaved.

We arrived in Juneau, and we had three hours in port. However, the ferry dock is 18 miles from town, so there really wasn’t much to do, except order a pizza. This we did, and then we ate it sitting in the waiting room with about 30 other passengers. The woman and her children were there, and they were also waiting. They were waiting to be picked up by this man, her savior.

After fifteen minutes, the pizza was all gone but we just sat there and waited and waited. No one came. It was getting close to the time that we were supposed to be back on the ferry, and still no one came. The woman, trying not to let her worries show, tried calling on the pay phone again and again.

All of us were getting so anxious. We didn’t want to leave this woman and her two children to an unknown future. We were all sitting there; no one talked; we just kept hoping and willing this man to come.

With about five minutes left before we had to get back on the ship, in walks this huge mountain man, complete in leather duster and wild hair down past his shoulders. He strides in; she runs to him. He picks her up and twirls her around. He looks at the waiting room and apologizes for his lateness. We all breathed a sigh of relief, loaded the boat and departed for our next destination.

View from the back of the Alaska ferry as it leaves a port.
Leaving port on the MV Columbia.

Tips for Riding the Alaska Marine Highway

Best Time to Go

Believe it or not, the Alaska ferry system sails all year long. In fact, the first time we took it was right at the beginning of the winter season in October. We still saw tons of wildlife, but it was a bit colder so we spent more time in the lounges than we did in later passages where we were hard-pressed to go inside at all.

Of course summer in Alaska is amazing, with the midnight sun never really setting, you get plenty of time to be out on deck enjoying the views.

A Canadian village along the way of the Alaska Ferry.
More amazing views…how can you ever get bored?

Best Way to Book

You can book your passage, your car, your berths for the Alaska Marine Highway system right online on their website. Make sure to have everyone’s name as well as the make, model, and length of your vehicle.

You can also bring along bikes and kayaks. Summer sailings book up between six months and a year beforehand, so if you are interested in taking the ferry, plan early.

What to Bring on the Alaska Ferry

  • A good camera, extra batteries, and if you can a long lens.
  • Binoculars are a must. I suggest one pair per person. You don’t want to be fighting for that one pair between you when the whales are out.
  • Warm clothes. Even in the middle of summer, bring a good jacket with a hood, for rain. Also, light gloves and sturdy shoes will be welcome.
The MV Columbia leaves port.

Other Alaska Marine Highway Tips

  • You are allowed to disembark when the ferry pulls into port, so get off and explore. Alaskan towns are rather small, so they’re really easy to navigate. The hardest one is Juneau because the port is so far from town, but it’s still worth it.
  • At all of the ports there will be tour companies waiting for you, and the day tours are great. You get to hear all the local history, maybe with a little gossip thrown in as well.
  • Try some food at the local restaurants, like reindeer sausage. It’s yummy.

Conclusion

Taking the Alaska Marine Highway is not just a form of transportation to the Last Frontier. It’s a chance to have yet another Alaskan adventure. Take your own car or camper, and enjoy the simple ship amenities as you gawk in wonder at the majestic beauty and wildlife that you will come across on your journey. Trust me, you will want to do it again and again. I know, because I do.

Author Bio: Corinne Vail is a travel photographer, food lover, and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 14 years. For many years she lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands teaching the children of the US. military. She’s visited over 90 countries, and she’s not stopping anytime soon.

Pin the Alaska Marine Highway for later.

How to Use the Alaska Marine Highway.
The Best Way to Cruise the Inside Passage!
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anna

Saturday 23rd of February 2019

Thank you for all this amazing information. What is your favorite part of alaska marine highway. It is pretty expensive so I doubt I could do all the route, but I love glacier and wild life, what part would you recommend ? Thank you very much. Anna

Corinne Vail

Sunday 24th of February 2019

There are so many different parts. If you are already in Alaska, I would take it to Cordoba or Kodiak. I love the part around Ketchikan. Really, I just love being on the water to see the wildlife.

Lisa

Tuesday 13th of March 2018

Best memories ever! Awesome post!

Corinne Vail

Wednesday 14th of March 2018

Lisa, Didn't you love staying up on the Solarium? I can't wait to go again.

Carmen Baguio

Wednesday 14th of December 2016

I loved the sweet story about the woman going to meet the mountain man. I'm so glad he showed up! Pinned this!

Corinne Vail

Wednesday 14th of December 2016

Carmen, We all are! Thanks

Stephanie Fox

Wednesday 14th of December 2016

this looks an amazing way to travel. your photos are beautiful!

Corinne Vail

Wednesday 14th of December 2016

Stephanie, Thank you. We had a blast on the ferry.

Kellyn

Wednesday 14th of December 2016

Awesome post. I've always wanted to visit Alaska and do some whale watching. I've looked at several major cruise companies, but the prices are usually out of control. Thanks for posting this. I will certainly do some more research on heading out there.

Corinne Vail

Wednesday 14th of December 2016

Kellyn, If you want to go by water, I highly recommend it.