I can't say enough about the Alaska Marine Highway System. The employees are professional, kind, knowledgeable, and have a terrific sense of humor. The customer service with Alaska Marine is terrific; friendly, warm, and very helpful and patient. The anticipation of driving a large rig onto the ferry can be a bit intimidating but there is really nothing at all to be nervous about. The men on car deck are the best at their jobs and will guide you every step of the way. They have seen and worked with every situation imaginable. Leave it to the experts, listen to their directions, and enjoy the trip. The scenery along your journey will be amazing.
Coming from the south you have two options for departure; Bellingham and Prince Rupert. I typically choose Rupert for three reasons: (1) The price - you can search for yourself with your own specs but you will save about 80% by sailing out of Rupert. (2) The duration on board is shorter. I love the ships, both the Kennicott and the Matanuska, but 2 days surrounded by strangers is a little too much for my wheelhouse, when I know there's a viable alternative. (3) There are more sailings out of Rupert which translates to more flexible travel plans. The Columbia is typically booked well in advance of the tourist season and only sails north on Friday.
The updated reservation page is easy to navigate. Most vehicles are listed for reservation of your toad and a motorhome up to 30 feet in length. If you have a longer RV you will need to call to make arrangements. Call the Juneau number for helpful customer service (907-465-3941). If along the way you wish to change your plans - maybe you want to stay longer at a location - drop in at the local terminal and they can make the arrangements for you. It has never been a problem for me. In some cases they've charged me $10 to make the change.
Before booking the ferry you will need to measure your RV. Record your measurements, in feet, from the front of your rig to the furthermost point to include the tow bar (unless you can easily dismount it for travel). AMH charges by the foot, so a rig that measures 39'11" will of course be 40 feet. Now measure the width and the height. For the toad you need simply to tell give the year, make, and model. If you have bicycles on the toad or the motorhome that change the dimensions and can easily be stowed inside the vehicle consider that option so as to cut down on the overall vehicle expense.
You will disconnect the toad from the motorhome and drive each onto the ferry separately. This not only saves you money on the 4 feet of tower, but it will also provide maneuverability while on the ferry. You will have to back into lanes on the car deck and you might even have to back out of the deck onto the ramp. Not a problem at all. Remember you have helpful deck hands to guide you.
If you have an overnight trip you might want to consider booking a stateroom. Cabins come in different sizes depending on the ship; two, three, or four berth; and either inside or outside stateroom. For myself, I will generally choose an inside two berth which will include a full bath. If I have two traveling in my party I will get a 4 berth so neither of us has to climb to the top bunk, just for convenience. And if I'm on my favorite ship I will choose my very favorite room at the Purser's Desk, but I'm not telling anyone about that secret room. The cost of the stateroom is from arrival to departure. It is not priced on a nightly basis.
AMH makes very good meals at a fair price. Every night on board there are generally 3 homemade, dinner specials in addition to the cheeseburgers and sandwiches. They also offer a selection of salads and desserts. There are daily breakfast specials made fresh every morning with omelettes, eggs, and pancakes made to order. Fresh halibut, corned beef and cabbage dinner, and roast beef are all likely dinner options made fresh on board.
You are free to walk around the ship, indoor and out. There are several lounge areas, a movie theater, and a game room. Each ship is a little different from the next but you should find there is space on all to read, do a puzzle, or use your computer. The upper deck has a heated solarium where a large number of tents have been anchored with duct tape and rope. You are welcome to do the same, or you can throw a sleeping bag on one of the solarium lounge chairs.
Ferries that travel throughout the southeast arrive and depart several times throughout the week depending on the port. The Cross Gulf ferry do so only once every two weeks. The Columbia travels on Fridays out of Bellingham north to Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, and Juneau, before heading south for the reverse trip to arrive back at Bellingham on Friday.
On your way you may dock in towns to let off other passengers. You can generally disembark at any of these locations. Remember to take your ticket stub and ID with you. Ketchikan and Juneau are the towns where the crews change shifts so the ferry is in port for a longer time than say Wrangell or Petersburg, where the ship will stay most times for about an hour, or if the captain is trying to make up some lost time, for only as long as it takes to load and unload. If you stop in Sitka you may experience a longer stay due to the tide schedule, in which case you might have enough time to take a cab into town. In Yakutat, you could walk up the hill to Grandma's for a snack. Just prior to arrival check with the Purser's Desk. They will gladly give you the most accurate information about the amount of time you're working with.
Many of us travel with pets. AMH is pet friendly as far as allowing easy travel with pets. All pets must stay in your vehicle while on board the vessel. Certified Service Animals are welcome on the passenger decks. Upon hearing this for the first time many passengers come close to tears with the thought of not being with "Little Buttons" for an extended period of time. Having traveled with several pets I can tell you, they will be fine. No ferry ride is ever that long so as to cause any issues. At every port you are able to disembark to take "Little Buttons" for a walk. On longer trips the ship will stop to allow pet owners to go below to walk their pet and provide a potty break. Yes, that's right. Right there on the car deck, so please make sure to clean up after "Little Buttons." The ship provides the paper towels and trash cans. Once the ship is underway no one is allowed below deck.
When pulling into a port where you will be disembarking you will be notified well in advance over the PA system. If you have a stateroom, you will hear a knock on your door about a half hour prior to arrival if you are disembarking. Make certain to take everything with you when leaving your stateroom, leave your door open for the cleaning crew, and return your key to the Purser's Desk. You need to be quick about getting to your vehicle and loading your baggage. Once you arrive in port you will be escorted off the deck in record time. It takes much longer to load a deck than to unload.
Depending on your length of stay on the ship there are certain things that will make your stay more comfortable. If staying over night you might want your own pillow and your computer so you can watch a movie in your room, and maybe have a glass of wine. Feel free to bring a cooler on board for drinks and snacks. The dining room also has microwaves for guest use, which means that if you stop in Sitka and take a cab to town, you might want to pick up some Chinese food for dinner. Just a thought. And before I forget I always bring an extension cord with me. Depending on the room, it's a stretch to reach a receptacle.
General Rules for Ferry Travel
- Get a room. Yes, you can sleep on the deck. You can sleep on the lounge chairs in the heated solarium. You can roll out your sleeping bag in any lounge, but do you really want to do that? Staterooms are inexpensive. Give yourself permission to splurge.
- If you're traveling with kids, keep them under watch, and help them to be respectful of the other passengers. Ferries are relatively small vessels and noise travels inside lounges. There are, depending on the ferry, several activities your children will enjoy; movie lounge, play area, video game area. There are also peaceful areas for them to work on projects they have brought with them. Other passengers should not be disturbed by the actions or loud voices of your children. Make certain to bring snack for them in a cooler that is readily available. And no running on board the ship, inside the ship or on deck where it can be very slippery. This is not a Carnival cruise ship, this is a highway system for local Alaskans.
- No, the doors to the deck are not locked. You just have to (a) push really hard or (b) try pulling.
- Up until recent times there was a full service bar on every ship. Bar service was taken away, however I'm told the area previously designated as a bar is still reserved for those 21 and older. You can bring alcohol on board ship, but you must consume it in your stateroom. Bring a cooler with snacks, sandwiches, drinks, and a bottle of wine. For long trips I've even taken my coffee pot and fixings, just because I don't want to walk up to the dining room for a cup of coffee in the morning.
- If you're going to have conversations in the lounge areas, try to keep your voice low enough so as not to disturb other passengers. You will meet many people on board who are anxious to share their travel stories. There is also the one man on every ship who I'm certain feels he's the expert on Alaskan travel. And the reason I know this is because he makes himself heard from bow to stern. You can recognize him right away because even if there is no one around him, you will spot him talking to himself. Many people in the lounges who are reading, working on the computer, or maybe just trying to sleep. Be considerate.
- When the ferry docks in any port you can disembark. If by chance you take this opportunity make certain you are back on ship in time. You do not want to miss the boat. The Captain will not wait for you. Remember he's on a tide schedule.
- When you disembark, please don't ask the folks in town "So, what's the elevation here." If not immediately, the reason for this will appear obvious in a few minutes.
- No, there is not WiFi on board the ship. No, you will not have cell service unless you are very close to port, and even that isn't true for every port, such as Sitka. In the past there has been an issue with Verizon service using cell towers in BC instead of the most immediate town. You will be charged huge fees if you have not changed your cell plan to include Canada. For instance, while in Ketchikan you may receive a signal from a BC tower instead of a Ketchikan tower. Even if you're not making calls, you will be charged for texts that you receive.
When tourists come up to Alaska for the first time they are pretty high strung. Relax. Be a visitor, not a tourist. Alaska is nothing like the Lower 48. There are places to be enjoyed and people to meet. If by chance you find yourself in a jam, don't worry. For every problem there's a solution and there will always be someone to help you solve it. Alaskans are very well mannered, considerate, and willing to help just about everyone, with the exception being the guy in the $150 Blood and Guts convertible pants.