Alaska ferries allow scenic family roadtrip without the bother of driving

Erin Kirkland
The Alaska Marine Highway ferry Malaspina cruises through Tracy Arm as part of its 50th Anniversary Golden Voyage in 2013. Michael Penn

What if there was a way to embark upon an all-American family road trip without ever driving the car? You can in Alaska, thanks to a lengthy stretch of water that offers all the benefits and few of the stresses associated with traveling from point A to point B with children.

The Alaska Marine Highway System, or AMHS, is the only water-based All-American Roadway designated by the Federal Highway Administration, serving a dual purpose of transportation and tourism for those wishing to connect with the Lower 48 and Canada – or travel between Alaska ports. Snaking through scenic landscape, ferries link communities in Southeast and Southwest Alaska not accessible by road, and offer visitors a truly authentic view of life in the 49th state.

Fondly known as the “blue canoes,” Alaska ferries have been around, at least in theory, since 1948, when Steve Homer and brothers Ray and Gustav Gelotte bought the MV Chilkoot, an ex-U.S. Navy landing craft, with the intention of providing transportation for residents of Alaska’s coastal communities. The Chilkoot Motorship Lines business didn’t last long, though, going bankrupt in 1951, and the three men ended up selling the company to the Territorial Government of Alaska. 

The actual Alaska Marine Highway System was established in 1963. Today, 11 vessels sail the 3,500-mile series of routes all year, in all sorts of weather, to more than 30 terminals. Passengers rely upon AMHS for everything from medical care to soccer matches and family holidays. Without ferries, connections to mainland Alaska and the Lower 48 states would be dramatically more complicated.

My family recently returned from a multi-day trip aboard the ferry, sailing south from Juneau to the AMHS terminus in Bellingham, Washington. For us, the journey became the destination on board the MV Malaspina as she chugged from port to port, picking up and dropping off people and supplies, while supplying a cadre of vacationers a glimpse into life in Southeast Alaska’s smaller towns. Industry, history and culture were showcased by the very nature of the places we visited.

Choosing a route

Most tourists pick the Inside Passage for their vacation, and with good reason. The scenery and range of activities offered mean passengers have a wide range of options for both accommodations and recreation. 

The Inside Passage also happens to be the main route for major cruise lines, so shore excursion opportunities are plentiful in the major ports. Over the course of several trips together, our family has sailed a number of routes around Southeast Alaska, utilizing a helpful AMHS website and its page of sample itineraries and schedules for easier planning.

On our first trip, we settled on a hybrid itinerary that offered a National Scenic Byway water route that included a plethora of kid-pleasing shoreside fun. We biked, hiked, and poked around local museums between Skagway and Juneau, spending anywhere from a few hours to a few days exploring the nooks and crannies of each community. This time, we closed the loop on the Inside Passage by sailing south to Bellingham, just to say we did. 

Life on board

I always feel slightly nostalgic stepping aboard an Alaska ferry, as if I’ve entered the bygone era when steamships sailed Pacific Northwest waterways. It’s a simple way to travel, with people and scenery making the trip, not luxurious meals nor 24-7 entertainment. Our family mingled with vacationing grandparents, played board games with teenagers, and passed binoculars along the deck rail to spot a pair of humpback whales lazily swimming off to port. Accommodations range from four-person staterooms complete with spotless bathrooms and comfortable bunks to spartan plastic lounge chairs on the ferry’s upper deck. Part of the ferry system’s charm is a willingness to allow snoozing in lounges and designated areas outside, and many an Alaska resident has fond memories of bedding down in a tent duct-taped to the gray, steel decking. 

Dining is more than adequate for family mealtime, with some ferries like the Columbia offering a full-service dining room, and others, like the Malaspina, providing a simple cafeteria with three daily meals. Sustenance can also be self-supported. Some passengers bring coolers full of food and beverages and use the ice dispensers and microwave on board. We found it saved our budget too -- while food is plentiful aboard the ferry, it’s not cheap, with a typical burger-and-fries meal costing upwards of $12 per person.

Riding herd on board the ferry, stewards and a purser are available for a variety of customer service needs, ranging from last-minute cabin reservations to calling out wildlife sightings. 

AMHS crew generally go out of their way to make sure the experience is worthwhile for children. A theater shows at least three movies appropriate for children, and a small playroom is available for the youngest passengers. But the main attraction, of course, is the ferry itself. With decks and smokestacks and space to roam, a ferry is a floating motor inn with ever-changing scenery, and our 9-year-old found a great sense of independence in begging a stateroom key and meeting us in our cabin after dinner, gazing out the large window at some new treasure from the deep. Humpback whales, sea lions, oddly-shaped flotsam and jetsam, it all meant something to a curious kid. 

Onshore activities 

Planning a vacation with the ferry serving as a central piece of family entertainment does require a certain level of self-guided awareness for on-shore experiences. Unlike a cruise line that offers trip-planning and shore-excursion information, AMHS is all about transportation. That said, the ferry website is full of destination information, community events, and suggestions for activities. On board, it is the rare crewmember or fellow passenger who doesn’t want to share his or her favorite hiking trail, campsite, or festival. 

That’s part of the AMHS magic. After sharing cups of coffee and swapping stories about past adventures for three solid days, our concept of “family” had evolved to include several other people by the time the Malaspina tied up in Bellingham on a sunny Friday morning.

We emerged from the car deck, lugging bags and boxes, relaxed and ready for our next adventure. You can’t always say that after three days in a mini-van. 

Alaska Marine Highway: If you go

Find route, schedule, and community information at www.ferryalaska.com or by calling 800-642-0066. Schedules vary widely, so be aware children may be asked to show up for a middle-of-the night arrival or departure in some Alaska communities, which can be tough for the unprepared. 

Fares can be complicated to figure out, especially if you bring a vehicle along. The ferry website provides a downloadable fare table to help with calculations. Bicycles are calculated under their own fare schedule. The simplest way to ride the ferry, of course, is to walk aboard, carrying gear in a backpack or rolling duffel for easy transport. Fares for children ages 6-11 are half-price, and kids under 6 are free. 

Pets are allowed on board the ferry, but must remain on the car deck, either in a vehicle or in kennels provided by AMHS. Regular “car deck calls” are announced every four-to-five hours to allow for pet bathroom breaks while at sea (owners are responsible for cleaning up every bit of pet waste). 

Research the communities you’ll visit: Bellingham, Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, Skagway, Haines and Juneau

Erin Kirkland is Alaska’s family travel expert, the author of  “Alaska on the Go: Exploring the 49th state with children”, and publisher of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to family travel. She is based in Anchorage.