Take a Cruise on an Alaska Marine Highway Ferry

The Alaska Marine Highway offers an informal, "do your own thing" type of vacation. Take your vehicle with you and cruise the inside passage to Alaska. The AMHS ferry system is operated by the Alaska Department of Highways. Ferries leave Bellingham, Washington, and stop at ports along the way. We traveled on the ferry in 2007 from Bellingham to Haines, Alaska.

Log onto their websites: www.akferry.org or www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs for information on ferry schedules, reservations and payment. The website has been updated and is user friendly. Reservations should be made as soon as possible in January.

Vehicles: Vehicles are charged by length. Check the website for charges for motorcycles, bicycles, or kayaks. Travelers need to arrive three hours ahead of the scheduled departure.

Cabins or "staterooms" are 2 or 4 berths, inside or outside, with or without bath facilities. They're comfortable, even though small. Don't expect a luxury liner, but the bunks are comfortable. You won't spend much time there anyway; it's nicer on the lounge decks with a 180 degree view of the coastline. There is no daily room service, but the beds were made up when we started and fresh linens are available on request. Towels and soap are provided. We didn't know what to expect, but had everything we needed.

Some travelers brought tents, pitched them on the deck and taped them down with duct tape. Tenters can weather it out inside if it rains. Travelers can also sleep on lounge chairs or on the deck with sleeping bags. Cabins are optional. There are public showers and also coin-operated lockers if you don't have a room.

There were only two times when the ferry was in open water, with no coast on the west (port) side. There was some pitching then. If you are susceptible to sea sickness bring Dramamine or just lay down for a couple hours.

Pets: Pets can stay in your vehicle or in an animal carrier, but must remain on the car deck. At least three times a day passengers can visit and exercise their pets. Pet owners are responsible for cleaning up after their pet and supplies are available for that. There is a small charge per animal, but no charge for service animals.

Meals: On the Malaspina hot meals, snacks, and beverages were served cafeteria style. Some vessels have full-service dining rooms. There are vending machines for food and beverages. The cafeteria food was tasty and cooked to order. Salmon, fish and chips, salads, hamburgers, and soups were all good and attractively served. Make arrangements ahead of time for special dietary needs. A microwave is available in the dining room if you want to bring your own food. The types of food to bring are limited because there is no available refrigeration for passengers. The staff in the dining area was very helpful to passengers with walkers or other needs. I was impressed with their courteous manner. A prominent sign declared "No tipping allowed."

Alcohol is served on some ferries, but can only be consumed in the dining area or in private rooms. Announcements were made that any liquor found outside the accepted areas would be put off at the next port . . . along with the passenger. The ferry personnel were serious about this and our vessel turned around in a narrow channel with great difficulty to put off a passenger who was drunk and rude.

Smoking is allowed on the outside deck. The outside deck was also popular for walking. Watch for orca whales. If the captain spotted an orca, he would announce over the loudspeaker: "There's an orca breaching on the port side." Also look for porpoises and seals.

Entertainment: The ferry system doesn't provide very much entertainment, but a Forest Service ranger traveled with us to answer questions and hand out information about local animals and plants. A large map showed our progress through the inside passage. Ranger Brett gave talks throughout the day about the areas we were passing through, especially the Tongass National Forest. A small movie room (maybe 30 people capacity) showed documentary movies about Alaska and two movies: Wild Hogs and Little Miss Sunshine. Take things to do such as books, magazines, and crafts. The Malaspina had a small toddler play area, a video game arcade, computer room, gift shop and movies for children. Wireless is available.

The AMHS is dedicated to providing services to persons with disabilities. There were some wheelchair accessible rooms, an elevator, and helpful ferry personnel. In Sitka the ferry had a van with a wheelchair lift to help passengers out for an optional bus tour.

We had a longer stop in Ketchikan. Take the bus out to Totem Bight and then back to town. The buses run often and we had plenty of time to get back to the ferry. There are taxis, but the bus is cheaper and easy to use.

Passports: The AMHS only travels between US ports, so proof of birth place is all that is needed. You will need a passport if you are leaving the ferry and planning to travel through Canada. Refer to the AMHS website for the latest information. It is updated regularly on passport information, schedules and details of what is available on each ferry.