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The Alaska Ferry is the coolest way to travel in Alaska (pun intended). This Alaska Ferry travel guide will help you with everything you need to know to travel on the Alaska Marine Highway. When I found out about the Alaska Ferry I knew I had to try it for myself. I love unique forms of transportation and will just about always pick a train or a boat over getting on a plane. Traveling through Alaska by ferry you get to see so much more of this beautiful state than you would if you were flying.
What is the Alaska Marine Highway?
The Alaska Marine Highway aka the Alaska Ferry is public transportation. It is a ferry system that is run by the state of Alaska. These ferries connect communities all over Alaska, many of which cannot be accessed by car or large commercial airlines.
Where Does the Alaska Marine Highway Go?
This ferry system covers 3,500 miles of coastline and 35 communities that stretch from Bellingham, WA to Dutch Harbor, AK. That’s right, you can get on the ferry in Washington and ride it up to Alaska! The ferry also has a stop in Prince Rupert, BC.
The ferry is a great way to access parts of Alaska that are off the regular tourist route. You can visit small towns and communities that most tourists may never get to.
The Poor Man’s Alaska Cruise
The ferry is also known by the nickname, “The Poor Man’s Alaska Cruise” because it is a more budget friendly option compared to traditional cruises. While it may not have all the amenities that your typical Alaskan cruise has, it is still a great option for getting around and you are still stopping in the exact same ports that the fancy cruise ships stop at.
In addition to being budget friendly, your itinerary can be flexible. With traditional cruising you have to get a prepackaged itinerary and you don’t have the flexibility to pick how long you stay in one place. With the Alaska Marine Highway you get to pick your own route and timeline.
Buying a Ticket for the Alaska Ferry
The price of a ticket for the Alaska Ferry depends on a few factors. The first being where you are going. Longer trips will cost more money. The next factors are how full the ship already is. The larger percent of capacity booked, the higher the fare becomes. And finally, the closer you get to the sailing date the more expensive the ticket becomes.
HOT TIP: Book early for the best price!
In addition to the regular ticket there are a few additions you can make that will increase the price of your ticket. These include bringing a vehicle, a pet, or a smaller item like a bicycle or kayak. The length and type of these items will also impact the cost to bring them on the ferry.
Booking a Cabin on the Alaska Ferry
There are cabins on the Alaska Ferry that you can book. Cabins can hold between two and four people and they are all bunk bed style. The cost of these cabins depends on occupancy, interior vs. exterior (has a window), and duration of booking.
While I was on the Alaska Ferry from Ketchikan to Juneau, which was an 18 hour journey, I did not book a cabin. I will get into places to sleep when you don’t have a cabin, later in this post.
Another thing to keep in mind when you are booking a cabin is if you will need to have “facilities” aka toilet, shower, sink. For a shorter journey, this might not be important to you but on a longer journey you may want to have a shower. Make sure you read the cabin descriptions before you book.
Camping on the Alaska Ferry
Yes, you read that right, you can bring a tent and camp on the deck of the ferry. This is super common and probably one of the neatest things I’ve seen. Each ship is different so the location of where you can set up your tent can vary.
While I was on the MV Matanuska, tents were set up next to the solarium. The solarium is an outside space on the ship that has heat lamps. There are also reclining lawn chairs. If you don’t have your own tent but do have a sleeping bag, you can claim one of the lawn chairs as your sleeping space. You could also just sleep right on the deck if you wanted to.
Sleeping on the Alaska Ferry
As I said before, when I took the Alaska Ferry for an 18 hour ride from Ketchikan to Juneau, I did not book a cabin. This is for a couple of reasons. One, it was out of my budget and two, I knew it wasn’t something I needed to have because there are many options of places to curl up and get a nap in on the ship.
You can pretty much sleep anywhere on the ship. There are multiple lounges to choose from. The MV Matanuska had a recliner lounge, a forward lounge, and a mid-ship lounge. Now, there are a few rules. Certain lounges you cannot bring sleeping bags or your luggage into. This was the case with the forward lounge. You can’t sleep in places like the dining room, the hallway, places marked “Authorized Personnel” – you get it.
The two places I got some shut eye in were the recliner lounge and the mid-ship lounge. They weren’t the most comfortable, but they did the trick and were still way more comfortable than trying to sleep upright on a plane.
Photo Tour of the MV Matanuska
Here is a quick photo tour of what the ferry that I took, the MV Matanuska, looks like.
This is the car deck. If you are bringing a vehicle with you on your ferry journey this is where it will ride. Pets can ride on the ferry but they are not allowed on the passenger decks (unless they are a service animal). Your pet will stay on the car deck, either in your vehicle or in a crate. Some things to keep in mind, the car deck cannot be accessed while the ship is moving (unless there is a posted time during long stretches between ports). That means that you won’t be able to get to your pet except when the ferry is in port or during a posted access time.
This is the lounge that overlooks the front of the ship. There is plenty of seating and even some large tables which are perfect for playing card games or getting some work done. You can nap here but you cannot bring in your sleeping bag or large luggage. There is also a midship lounge that I did not get a photo of because it is the perfect nap room and it was being utilized by a few people for this purpose.
This lounge is lined with rows of reclining chairs. They are not very comfortable. They are the type of chair that only reclines on body weight, it does not lock into place. I found it hard to keep enough force on the chair to keep it reclined. I did manage to take a midday snooze in one of the recliners even with this issue. Some people forgo the recliners all together and set up their sleeping bags on the floor.
One of the best parts of taking the Alaska Ferry is sitting out on the deck and enjoying the view. There aren’t many chairs, so I grabbed a spot to hang out on one of the lifejacket boxes. Not the most comfortable but who cares when the views are epic. You can also walk laps around the deck. There is a sign posted saying how many laps you need to complete to make a mile.
This is the dining room and true to its name, this is where you get your meals.
Camping happens on the deck shared with the solarium on the MV Matanuska. Usually, the solarium is heated. When I was taking the ferry, the heat lamps were not working.
There are showers available on the Matanuska. Some ferries also have coin operated laundry machines.
The Purser Desk
This is basically the information desk for the ferry. You check in and out of your cabin here, you can ask questions, lost and found, and it is also where first aid is located.
Food and Drinks on the Alaska Ferry
Let’s get to the important part, the food! I will be honest, I did not have high hopes for the food situation on the Alaska Ferry. I am happy to report that the quality and selection of the food on board surpassed my expectations.
Not only is there a fairly large menu on board but there are also daily specials and a bunch of items that aren’t on either menu. Here are some examples of the menus on board the Alaska Ferry:
Here is what I decided to order for the three meals I had on board:
Breakfast: Biscuits and gravy
Lunch: Fish and chips with apple cider and a lemon bar for dessert.
Dinner: Turkey dumplings with coffee and a cucumber salad.
I did eat a lot of comfort food, I blame the cold weather!
I am impressed by the variety of condiments on in the dining room. Sounds like an odd compliment, but there is pretty much anything you could want to go with your meal.
You can bring alcohol on board, it is not sold in the dining room, but you can only drink in the privacy of your own cabin. I did see a few people not following this rule, I guess a good rule of thumb is to be discrete and not over indulge.
HOT TIP: Credit cards are accepted.
You can also bring your own food aboard if you would like. Many travelers like to bring instant noodles, there is a hot water tap in the dining room for you to use for free. There are also microwaves but no refrigeration.
Something else to keep in mind is that not all ships have the same dining set up. All vessels, with the exception of the MV Lituya, offer food and beverage service. Vending machines are available on each vessel for access to snacks.
Dealing with Luggage on the Alaska Ferry
How to handle my luggage was something that confused me when I was planning my trip. Here is how it works. For your large luggage that you don’t want to drag around on the ship with you, there is a luggage cart. The luggage cart is the first vehicle off the ship and the last on. You can put your large luggage on the cart and it will stay on the car deck.
Some things to keep in mind, the car deck cannot be accessed while the ship is moving (unless there is a posted time during long stretches between ports). This means you cannot get into your luggage.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the luggage cart leaves the ship each time it is in port. Your bag will be along for the ride even if it’s not your final destination.
Now, I did ask one of the workers on the MV Matanuska if there had ever been any issues with someone grabbing the wrong bag (read in between the lines – stealing) he said that in the 20 years he had been working on the Alaska Marine Highway there had never been an incident where someone took a bag that didn’t belong to them on purpose. He said there have been issues where someone grabbed a bag that looked like theirs unintentionally.
HOT TIP: If you have a common bag, make sure you have something on it to distinguish it from the crowd.
If you book a cabin, you can keep your luggage with you.
If you have smaller items that you don’t want to leave on the luggage car but also don’t want to drag around with you there are coin lockers. I did this with my done. I didn’t want to carry it with me and I certainly didn’t want to leave it on the luggage cart. For 50 cents I locked it up when I first got on the ship and retrieved it when it was time to disembark.
HOT TIP: Bring change with you if you plan on using a coin locker.
Safety on the Alaska Ferry
As a solo female traveler, I felt completely safe on the Alaska Ferry. There are many types of people who take the ferry. Alaskan locals, solo travelers, families, couples, etc! I enjoyed talking with other passengers, chatting about Alaska and traveling. Everyone is friendly, including the staff! At no point was I worried about my stuff and in fact I did misplace an item of camera gear and it was immediately taken to the Purser desk for lost and found. I found my experience on the Alaska Ferry to be delightful and I recommend it for solo travelers.
The WiFi Situation on the Alaska Ferry
There isn’t any. Yup, this is an unplugged experience. There is, occasionally, cell service when the ship is near a town or in a port. With this information, be sure you bring whatever you need to survive. Perhaps a good book or a card game. But, embrace it! This is the perfect time to kick back, relax, and disconnect.
Arriving at Port
The ship may stop at multiple ports on the way to your destination. You can check the schedule and times at the Purser desk. Each stop is announced over the loudspeaker as well as how much time the ship will be stopping. You can get off the ship even if the port is not your final destination. This is when people with dogs will get them off the ferry for a potty break. The amount of time spent in each port can vary, make sure you keep an eye on the clock and an ear open for when the ship blows its horn singling it’s about to leave, you don’t want to get left behind!
What to Bring on an Alaska Ferry
Here are a few items you should bring with you when you ride the Alaska Ferry. These things will help you have a smooth experience.
You will want to have one on had so that you don’t have to keep going back to the dining room every time you need a drink.
My favorite cold weather accessory are hot hands. These are my secret to staying in the cold longer and not freezing off my fingers when I’m taking photos without gloves. Just pop one into each of your pockets and your hands will stay nice and warm. Pair with some toasty toes warmers and your extremities will thank you.
Pop-Up Camp Chair
If you are going to be on the ferry for an extended period of time and if your luggage allows, I recommend bringing a small camp chair. There are not many chairs on the outside deck and having your own camp chair will be much more comfortable than sitting on a storage box.
Nobody likes cold feet so protect yours from any chills by bringing nice, thick, warm socks. You will thank me later for this.
If you aren’t planning on getting a cabin but are going to snooze, I recommend getting a small travel pillow. It will make a huge difference on the stiff couches or floor.
You will want to dress for comfort. Here are some outfit ideas and if you want more, check out my full clothing packing list for Alaska.
Eye Mask and Ear Plugs
Having a good eye mask and a pair of ear plugs will make it easier to catch some shut eye.
While the dining room does have reasonable prices, there are limited service hours. Having a few snacks on hand to get you through the day is crucial.
There you have it! Everything you need to know to have the best experience on the Alaska Marine Highway.