Alaska Ferry Travel Tips: What to bring, what to leave at home

Travel. With the family. Notes required.

Please, somebody tell me I am not the only traveler who pulls out a pad of paper mid-trip and starts writing down a list of stuff if “ever I do this again”. Yeah, so maybe I am. Regardless, my trip tips have become legendary in my family, as I am usually the one who has forgotten some item or another in the first place. The lists make me feel better, at least.

Baggin' and taggin' for AKontheGO's Alaska ferry trip.

Our recent trip aboard the Alaska ferry system was an excellent education in road tripping par excellence….the perfect opportunity to pack for a road trip, then possess the ability to unpack it for a four-day excursion along the only water-based Scenic Byway in the United States. The most un-road trip road trip I’ve ever taken, the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS, ‘blue canoes, Alaska ferry – take your pick) provides families with transportation, shelter, and a place to feed the kids. It just takes a bit of preparation.

if you are considering a family vacation, or find yourself relocating to or from Alaska via the ferry, take heed of our “should-haves” and note the “could have done withouts”, paying close attention to things like refrigeration and the number of available arms in your group for schlepping gear. That said, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything, even a free plane ticket south.

"Deckside" accommodations on the MV Malispina.

A real bathroom in an Alaska ferry stateroom.

ACCOMMODATIONS: Yes, yes, I know. Camping on the deck of an Alaska ferry is an awesome experience. Fresh air, gorgeous views and all that. Here’s the deal, though. I am 45 years old. My kid is nine, and has a propensity for not sleeping real well when said outside deck is full of all-night chatterers, hackey-sack players, and noisy engines, not to mention the wind. If I was 25, maybe. If he was 16, definitely. But not right now. We secured a stateroom with comfy bunks, real sheets, and a bathroom and shower. Another bonus? AK Dad and I could indulge in an evening glass of wine in our stateroom, gazing out on the luscious scenery outside. Staterooms range from two to four-person; some come with shower, some share communal showers down the hall. Either way, they are spotless, comfortable, and a great place for kids to beat a retreat for nap or bedtime, or simply to relax from the excitement of travel. Find more information HERE.

Alaska Marine Highway cafeterias are roomy, clean, and ready to serve passengers.

Breakfast of Silverbow bagels from Juneau made our mornings better.

EATING: For kids, a huge part of travel is dining out. On the Alaska ferry, families choose between a restaurant experience and picknicking, and just about everything in between. Whether you’re driving or walking aboard (like we did), consider bringing a cooler for snacks, drinks, and even ready-to-eat meals. No car? No worries, we have a soft-sided cooler we found at Trader Joe’s in the Lower 48. The Alaska ferry has great food, but it can be pricey to feed a family of four, for four days solid. Ice is available on board, as is a microwave oven and toaster.

Adventure Appetites' curried tuna wrap was delish. Even AK Kid tried it.

"Good soup, dad."

We took advantage of Adventure Appetites’ ready-to-cook, pre-packaged meals for a number of lunches and dinners on board the ferry. From a Curried Tuna Wrap to the delicious Chipotle Chicken Enchilada, choices were hearty and satisfied our parental palates very well.

Have mugs, will travel.

A tip for food, however: Bring plastic plates, bowls, any sort of container you might need to cook using a microwave. Utensils are within easy reach, but we found mixing some of the ingredients of our meals to go smoother after AK Dad ran ashore in Wrangell and picked up some microwavable bowls with lids.

We spied many people making their own coffee with little sachets from Starbucks, and some who had camping filters that fit right over a coffee cup. The Alaska ferry provides one free refill of coffee daily, but for serious caffeinators, it might be cheaper to go a different route.

Give a kid a camera and watch his world open up.

AK Kid peruses a list of Bellingham activities aboard the MV Malispina.

ONBOARD ACTIVITIES: The journey from Juneau to Bellingham took three solid days and nights of sailing, and thus, required a heavy stock of kid-friendly amusements. Card games, board games, coloring and activity books, and a collection of DVDs helped keep AK Kid busy, and without too much difficulty, since the ferry itself is pretty awesome. The purser’s counter had a small library of books, and with at least 20 other children on board of various ages, our son managed to have a pretty good time without worrying about boredom. The Alaska Ferry crew also stepped in a number of times, with thrice-daily movies and an opportunity for a bridge tour (you must sign up with the purser ahead of time and provide photo ID for all adults).

LEAVE BEHIND: Fancy clothing, food that requires a real stove, and suitcases too large to fit in a tiny elevator. If driving, consider a small overnight bag that can be refilled if necessary during daily “car calls”, when folks can go down to the car deck and care for pets and gear.

An AKontheGO'er provided us with this delightful treat from Baranof Brewing Company. Alaska ferry travelers may enjoy adult beverages in their staterooms.

CONSIDER: Rain gear, warm hats, gloves, the camera, and sunscreen. AK Kid really appreciated having a camera of his own for this trip, and it assisted greatly in promoting his independence. Don’t forget medication and a water bottle, either. Port calls are generally pretty short, and the boat leaves when the boat is scheduled to leave!

Watching Alaska life roll on from the deck of a ferry can be an amazing experience for kids. Heck, for adults, too.

Ready to book? Check out the Alaska ferry website for all the important details. If your family enjoys indie travel, and are willing to put forth some effort to prepare, the ferry was made for you.


Posted in Alaska Marine Highway, Alaska Road Trips and tagged , , , , , .


  1. Thank you SO much for this information. This is exactly what I needed for my trip from Bellingham to Petersburg. The info on the website is scarce. This is perfect!

  2. This was a well considered article, I’m happy I chanced upon it and I’ll certainly be back to see what others have to say regards the subject. Again, thank you, appreciated it.

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