If you’ve never spent time in Alaska I can virtually guarantee that you can’t appreciate how vast and how isolated it is.
Many of the “major cities” that you’ve heard of have only a couple of main roads and no connecting roads to other cities. Ketchikan, for example, has no ways out of town except on foot or on a ferry (to a plane).
This is why everyone in Alaska seems to own a helicopter or a plane. But what about those of us who don’t? Or people who want to visit Alaska without spending an arm and a leg?
Well, that’s where the Alaska Marine Highway System (or just the “Alaskan Ferry”) comes in.
Taking the ferry from Seattle to Alaska is a great way to save some money, save some time, and transport your car to Alaska without enduring the 41-hour drive from Seattle to Anchorage.
In addition to being a legitimate means of transportation, the cruise is scenic and enjoyable in and of itself. Depending on your destination it gives you the chance to see several other ports and the incredible beauty of the inner passage.
However, the Alaskan Ferry is probably not quite what to expect. So let me fill you in on exactly what you should know before you reserve a berth.
Washington To Alaska Ferry Routes
The Alaska Ferry System has three main routes, two of which leave from Washington State (Bellingham to be precise):
Southeast Alaska Mainland Route
Bellingham → Ketchikan → Wrangell → Petersburg → Juneau → Haines → Skagway → Sitka
Gulf Of Alaska Mainland Route
Bellingham → Ketchikan → Juneau → Yakutat → Whittier → Chenega Bay → Kodiak → Homer
South Central & Southwest Mainland Route
Homer → Kodiak → Chignik → Sand Point → King Cove → Cold Bay → False Pass → Akutan → Dutch Harbor
Much of the ferry system is actually designed for inter-Alaska travel and it is the preferred method of transportation for most locals. There will be people getting on/off at nearly every stop along the way, most without cars.
If you are in B.C. rather than Washington you can also access the Alaskan Ferry system from Prince Rupert. The ferries sailing from here follow very similar routes to the ones above but you can read more about the routes here.
Bellingham To Alaska Ferry
The Bellingham Cruise Terminal is the only spot in Washington where you can access the Alaskan Ferry.
If you’re just curiously looking for vacation ideas, my recommendation is to take the Bellingham to Ketchikan ferry. It provides you with some great scenery on the way and Ketchikan is a great introduction to the state of Alaska, without being overwhelming.
From Bellingham, you have access to the entire state of Alaska. In addition to Ketchikan, you can stop at 12 other ports reaching all the way to Kodiak and Homer.
From Homer, you can board another ferry that will take you to Dutch Harbor, the very western reaches of the state.
Seattle To Alaska Ferry
Many people are interested in the Seattle to Alaska ferry service. Long story short, there isn’t one.
The Alaskan Marine Highway system docks only in Bellingham. If you’re looking to get to Alaska from Seattle your options are to head to the airport and fly, or get up to Bellingham (via car, bus, etc.) and take the Alaskan Ferry.
There is no ferry system that I know of that services the area from Seattle to Bellingham as it would be faster to just drive anyway.
Things To Know Before You Go
How Much Does The Alaska Ferry Cost?
If you’re looking for a super cheap vacation, take my advice, and don’t go to Alaska. Just stay in the lower PNW and enjoy the historic towns and beaches of Washington & Oregon. Getting to Alaska is expensive and that’s just the start.
Our next ferry trip will be from Bellingham to Ketchikan. Our group includes me, my wife, and our two little girls (who are under 5 and travel for free). We’ll also take our small SUV.
Also, note that the above price is without a sleeping berth. Adding a berth would have cost another $400-900.
The Alaskan ferry used to be called a “poor man’s Alaskan Cruise” but no longer. It is expensive. However, there are ways to do it cheaper.
If you’re just looking to vacation in Alaska and want to save some money, it’s far cheaper to rent a car once you reach your destination. Or, go entirely carless.
You can also avoid renting a cabin on the ferry and sleep in a sleeping bag in the lounge or in a tent on deck (both are allowed and normal). The most in-demand sleeping area is the covered and heated solarium but you’ll need to arrive early and head here first to stake out your spot.
Also, the Alaskan Ferry System utilizes a dynamic pricing system which means that you’ll pay more if there is an event in the port you’re heading to or if you’re booking close to the departure date. For example, if you’re trying to book a ferry that is leaving in 3 days and is 90% full the price will be 160% + $100 of the base price. So you’ll want to experiment with dates.
You can read more about their dynamic pricing here.
I’m just going to throw out that, for the same dates, a 10-day Alaskan cruise out of Seattle for our family was around the same price.
How Long Is The Ferry Ride From Washington To Alaska?
You’re going to be on the ship for a loooong time. If you think of it as a very short cruise with limited amenities you’ll probably be in the right frame of mind to enjoy it.
The length of time you’ll be on the boat depends on your destination (obviously) but 38-80 hours is a fair guess if you’re leaving from Washington and not boarding another ferry in Homer.
The ferry times from Bellingham are (roughly) as follows:
Bellingham to Ketchikan: 38 hours
Bellingham to Wrangell: 44 hours
Bellingham to Petersburg: 47.5 hours
Bellingham to Juneau: 55.5 hours
Bellingham to Haines: 60 hours
Bellingham to Skagway: 61 hours
Bellingham to Sitka: 70 hours
Bellingham to Yakutat: 75 hours
Bellingham to Whittier: 97 hours
Bellingham to Chenega Bay: 101.5 hours
Bellingham to Kodiak: 115.5 hours
Bellingham to Homer: 124.5 hours (that’ll be almost a week on the ferry)
Now, here’s the bad news. The above times are the number of hours underway and do not include the time spent at each port to load/unload. You can find the specific lengths of each journey here if you want to keep track of time or count stops until your destination.
How Far In Advance Do I Need To Book?
There are almost spots available but, the sooner you book, the less you pay.
For peak season you’ll want to book several months in advance for the best rates and times.
You can check out how much of the ferry fleet is running but, at any given time, they seem to only have 3-4 of their 9 ships actually on the water which cramps availability.
When booking, be sure to pay attention to your departure and arrival times in addition to the dates. If you’re taking the ferry in the hopes of enjoying the scenery you won’t want to be making 80% of your trip at night.
Can I Take A Pet On The Alaskan Ferry?
The Alaskan Ferry System is pet friendly. You’ll need to pay a small fee if you’re departing from Washington or B.C. but, once you’re in Alaska pet travel between cities for free.
Your pet cannot be in the berth with you or around on the cruise ship. All pets must remain on the car deck but you are free to visit them while the ship is underway on its longer legs.
When boarding you’ll also need to provide a health certificate and rabies vaccination status for your pets that is dated within the past 30 days.
5 Tips For Making Your Ferry Trip More Enjoyable
1. Bring Drinks and Snacks
The Alaskan Ferries typically have food and drinks available but if you’re going to be underway for several days it can get quite expensive. Not to mention boring.
We actually stashed a cooler full of goodies in our car along with other easily-cookable items such as Cup-a-Noodles. We had free access to a microwave so we were able to snack whenever we wanted.
2. Bring Entertainment
Remember, this is not a cruise ship. There is next to nothing to do on board except stare at the water and passing the coast. Fun, for sure, but you can’t do it for several days straight.
We travel with our kids so we brought a laptop, Cinemood, books, crayons, etc.
3. Bring A Travel Bag
Once you’re underway you won’t have access to your care anytime you want.
You’ll be told specific times that you can access your vehicle so I’d recommend having a bag to move around with, even if you don’t have a berth.
4. Pack Binoculars
Binoculars and a camera are a must if you want to see wildlife from the ferry.
While spotting whales is always a possibility, you’ll have more luck with your binoculars inspecting the shoreline for eagles, deer, and even bears.
5. Wear Layers
In this way, the ferry is a great introduction to Alaska. You never know what the temperature is going to be like. On the one hand, you might get the chilly windy weather you expect. On the other, you might be baking in the sun 20 minutes later.
We wore jackets and carried a blanket around with us (although that was mostly for our kids to cuddle in).
If you’re looking for a unique way to get to Alaska, the ferry system is a viable option. It allows you to see some beautiful areas and travel with your car while still getting some sleep.
While there are cheaper options available, this is probably an experience that we will want to have again. At least, next time we’re up to spending 40 hours on a ferry.
You can reserve a spot (or at least price it out) anytime on the Alaska Marine Highway System website.