Best Way to Cruise Alaska? with the Alaska Marine Highway!

Do you like to cruise?  I’ll bet that one you’ve always wanted to do is Alaska! I’m right, aren’t I?  After living in Alaska and calling it home for eight years, people ask me about cruising to Alaska all the time. 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 for example. Yes! Go to Alaska. However, if a cruise just seems a bit out of your budget, I have the solution for you. Take the Alaska Marine Highway!

Best Way to Cruise Alaska? with the Alaska Marine Highway!

One of the many views traveling on the Alaska Marine Highway between Bellingham and Haines or Skagway.

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The Alaskan Marine Highway is really a ferry with some amazing views off of the back deck.

The Alaska Ferry – The Best Alaskan 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. It takes 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. This breaks up the monotony of that pesky beauty that you are constantly surrounded by.

A stunning road view of the Alaska Hwy.

Isolated and beautiful, when taking your own car you can stop and capture the views whenever you want on the Alaska Highway. This photo was taken between Haines and Tok.

Planning a trip to Alaska, pin one of these so you can come back to the Alaska Marine Highway.

Have you always wanted to cruise to Alaska but it's just too expensive! Don't worry the Alaska Marine Highway is the way to go! If a trip to Alaska filled with romance and adventure is your dream, take the Alaska Marine Highway!

Taking My Car

Being a ferry system, each time we’ve taken our vehicle  on board, which is one major advantage this mode of travel has over cruising. On a cruise, you have no transportation when you arrive in Alaska. Instead you have to rely on buses or tour companies. 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 spots telling you the history of the state and the Alaska Highway.

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 at each stop folks go down to take care of them, leash them up and walk them by the port. You would be surprised at how many people do this.

People camping out on the deck of the Alaska ferry.

Weather on a deck chair or popping a tent on deck, it can be the cheapest way to travel from Bellinham, WA to Alaska.

Comfort on Board the MV Colombia

Sleeping

The first time we took the ferry, we went ahead and got a stateroom because the girls were with us and they were young. The staterooms are functional and comfortable, but of course 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 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 there comfortably. 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.

Eating

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. Passengers are also allowed to bring their own food on board which you can heat up in the cafeteria microwave.

Other Amenities

  • There are plenty of restrooms, some complete with showers and laundry facilities on board.
  • Unfortunately there is no wifi, but for the few days it’s a good opportunity to get away from those screens.

Ferry boat to Alaska via the Inside Passage.

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.

An eagle peers at the water, probably hunting.

Eagles, bears, and whales…oh my! Wildlife viewing is one of the many activities aboard Alaskan ferries.

Wildlife!

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 didn’t want to leave.

Whale watching off the boat! Orcas!

Whale watching off the boat! Orcas!

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.

Additional Reading: We love taking ferries all over the world. Here are a few other ferry articles you might be interested in:
One Day in Helsinki
New York by Water
A Day Trip to Ibiza (Spain)
The Best Iceland Itinerary (Driving)

The wake and views of the Alaska ferry.

There was a single woman with two children who walked on board. She had not had a wonderful couple of years, and 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?

Jim and me getting ready to sleep on deck.

Surprisingly comfortable, we’ve slept on deck numerous times, saving money thanks to the Alaska Marine Highway.

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. 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.

One of the many stunning views you can see while ferrying the Alaska Marine Highway. Click here to find out more.

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 to get 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 left for our next destination.

Jim and me having a great time on deck of the Alaska ferry.

Practical Information and Tips for Riding the Alaska Marine Highway

Best Time to Go

Believe it or not, the Alaska ferry system goes 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 in later passages.

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.

How to Book and When

You can book your passage, your car, your berths 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 as well. 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

  • 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.

Other Tips

  • You are allowed to disembark when the ferry pulls into port, get off and explore. Alaskan towns are rather small. The hardest one is Juneau, but it’s still worth it.
  • Tour companies will be 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.

Would you ferry to Alaska?

 

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Pin the Alaska Marine Highway for later.

Cruise to Alaska on the cheap! Click here to find out how!

 

48 Comments

  1. That’s really interesting! I have always fancied the Alaska cruise – except for it being a cruise 😉 which I think I would hate. This sounds a great alternative – though I would definitely book a cabin.

    1. Anabel, It is really a fantastic way to go. You will love it. If you go, try to go in May or in September. I think these would be the best times for you. The two-berth cabin is still stacked one on top of the other, I believe. I hope you go!

  2. I tell everyone I meet who is interested in traveling to Alaska about the ferry system. I’ve only done it once but it was incredible. We based ourselves in Juneau – and traveled to Haines, Skagway and Sitka. It worked out perfectly and one of the ferry agents helped us plan it when we booked. Like you, we met some incredibly interesting people and saw some breathtaking scenery, including a whale breaching. Thanks for sharing and bringing back some great memories for me!

    1. Jill, For me the Alaska ferries rank up there as some of the best traveling I’ve done. It’s great to hear someone else who has experienced it and feels the same way!

  3. We spent a week on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship and a week on land and a whole separate trip we spent 3 weeks on land. I’m not a huge cruise fan, but loved it in Alaska since it got us to places that would otherwise be hard to get to. Sounds like Marine Highway is a great cruise line!

  4. I have been to Alaska and it is so beautiful. I no idea about the ferries, though. Definitely, something to consider in the future. I loved your story about the woman and her children and was so glad the man showed up!

  5. This. Looks. Awesome. I want to pitch our tent on a ferry to Alaska! I lived up there years ago and didn’t even know this was possible. Driving the Alaska Highway is already on our bucket list, and now this is too. Love your photos too!

  6. Absolutely I would! It looks stunning. Not sure about the sleeping arrangements in the Solarium as I’m an atrocious sleeper, but yes, I would just hit the deck chairs with a good blanket and soak up the night and the changing light; the ambiance. Sweet story about the big mountain fella arriving and twirling his lady around 🙂

  7. I have been trying to find the best way for me to travel Alaska with my car next summer and still see the coast so this post was JUST what I needed! It looks like a fun-yet cold!- time camping on the ferry but something I definitely want to try! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Jessica, A couple of things. 1. Book now. Summer sailings, especially with cars book up fast. 2. It’s not that cold in the Solarium because they have heat lamps. I say, do it!

  8. This is so funny. I used to live in Bellingham and I’d go to the docks and have ice cream and watch the ferry load people up and ride off. I never knew people “camped” and slept outside on the ferry. Not really my thing, but, I REALLY loved hearing an insider’s guide to what the ferry is like, after seeing it come and go frequently when I lived there. Thanks for sharing (even though a luxury cruise is more my vibe!). So interesting!

  9. I’ve heard of the Alaska Marine Highway and although it seems like an interesting way to travel, it’s not my favorite one. I would have probably enjoyed this voyage 40 years ago, but now I need a comfortable bed and some privacy.

  10. David and I took the Alaska Marine Highway from Bellingham to Juneau and then on to Sitka and finally Haines a couple of years ago. It was a fantastic experience. We loved every minute of it. We didn’t see any whales, except in the distance but everything else was just the way you describe it. It is on our list of things to do again one day.

  11. 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.

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