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The state-run Alaska Marine Highway System (tel. 800/642-0066 or 907/465-3941; www.ferryalaska.com) is a subsidized fleet of big, blue-hulled ferries connecting many of Alaska's roadless coastal towns. The system mostly serves Southeast Alaska, though it does cover most of coastal Alaska, with a sailing or two a month (the Kennicott) connecting Southeast Alaska with the Southcentral region near Anchorage. The smaller Southcentral ferries link communities all the way out to the Aleutian chain.

In the Southeast, the large, mainline ferries serve the Inside Passage. Some begin their run in British Columbia's Prince Rupert and travel about 30 hours north to Haines and Skagway. Less frequent sailings start in Bellingham, Washington, travel 37 hours nonstop to Ketchikan, then continue up to Skagway and Haines. In the summer, the large ships stop approximately daily (although sometimes in the middle of the night) in Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau, Sitka, Gustavus, Haines, and Skagway.

The Alaska Marine Highway (www.ferryalaska.com) has an easy online booking system; just be sure to make vehicle and cabin reservations as early as possible. Vehicle space frequently sells out on popular routes and is expensive, so consider renting a car at your destination. If you need to talk to a real person for advice or to change reservations, the system has a toll-free number (tel. 800/642-0066); the reservation center operates Monday through Friday 7am to 5pm. If you find yourself waiting on the state's reservation system, one way around it is to call Viking Travel, in Petersburg (tel. 800/327-2571 or 907/772-3818; www.alaskaferry.com), which will accept your booking before the official reservation system opens, then reserve it the first day the system becomes available; likewise, if your preferred date is booked, they'll monitor the system for cancellations to get a spot for you. They can also take care of all your air and tour connections, lodgings, activities, travel insurance, and so on.

Ferry travel is relatively comfortable. Amenities vary by boat, but each of the mainline ferries has staterooms, a cafeteria, bar, gift shop, solarium, observation lounge, and (often) a children's play area, game room, or movie theater. Passengers without cabins bring sleeping bags and enjoy the lounge chairs on the covered outdoor solarium on the top deck or the comfy chairs in the recliner lounge, or simply crash on the floors in a quiet corner of the ship. Blankets and pillows are available for rent from the purser, and the spacious common bathrooms have showers.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.