Aye, Matey, the Alaska Marine Highway is Perfect For Families

Heading into Sitka, an AMHS ferry shows off stunning views of Alaska.

We have boats on our mind this week as AK Fam prepares to depart for Alaskan ports unknown. Well, maybe not unknown, exactly, but unknown to us other than a quick stopovers on a cruise in 2009. After that fabulous but all-too short trip aboard a luxurious Holland America vessel, we were adamant about returning to the Inside Passage and staying a while on our next family vacation. (photo above courtesy AMHS).

Did we cruise again, this time making our own shore excursion arrangements? Hmmm, nice, but we wanted to explore more on our own, and skip the fancy dinners that, while lovely opportunities for date night, were still out of our comfort zone. Thus began our interest in the Alaska Marine Highway System, or AMHS. Here’s what we found out:

BACKGROUND: AMHS helps both visitor and resident to navigate a bit more of the 656,425 square miles of Alaskan wilderness; many communities in southeast Alaska (commonly called simply “southeast”) are not accessible by land-based road systems, and the ferry provides a vital transportation link. It’s lovely, too, and is designated an “All American Road” as a highway system, and indeed is the only byway of its kind. AMHS serves 3,500 miles of coastline from Bellingham, WA, to Prince Rupert, B.C., and on up the Inside Passage. From there, AMHS service continues another 1,000 miles out the Aleutian Chain and the Bering Sea. All told, that’s 32 routes covering thousands of miles for sea-worthy explorers to plant their family flag. Plus, AMHS offers special summer routes for furthering one’s thirst for adventure through day trips or more remote ports.

Waiting to depart Whittier aboard the fast ferry, Chenega.

EMBARKING ON ADVENTURE: Catching an AMHS vessel is surprisingly easy, considering this is Alaska and transportation can, at times, be anything but. A popular route begins in Bellingham, and takes passengers on a beautiful trip across the waters of the U.S. and Canada (Prince Rupert to be exact), before entering the famed Inside Passage. Amtrak provides rail service from SEA-TAC airport, and a shuttle bus also transports passengers the 90 miles from the airport in Seattle to the terminal in Bellingham. A word of caution about Amtrak; they are often delayed, so be sure to schedule your connections carefully. (1-800-USA-RAIL).

Other flights from Seattle or Anchorage can deliver potential ferry riders to Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan, or Wrangell aboard Alaska Airlines, the only  major carrier to provide air service to these communities. We used our miles for free tickets.

Driving? From the Lower 48, one may catch a ferry in Bellingham (car decks fill up fast!), or Prince Rupert. From Anchorage, it’s two days of hard road-tripping to Haines or Skagway (with a Canadian border crossing, too), or catch the boat in nearby Whittier. It’s also a lovely drive to Valdez along Prince William Sound.

AK Kid relaxing and taking in the view of Prince William Sound last summer.

COST: The basic ticket price for a ferry trip in Alaska is rather complicated to go through it all here, but I can mention that it ranges from around $20 for a short trip (adult), all the way to the hundreds of dollars for an adult with a stateroom and vehicle. The AMHS website breaks it all down by size and type of vehicle, trailers/boats, pets, people, and various amounts of flotsam and jetsom.

Kids under six are FREE, kids 6-12 are half-price, and disabled travelers receive a discount, as well. A number of seasonal specials exist, including the See Alaska Pass for walk-on passengers, whereby one can make three stops, choosing from Ketchikan, Wrangel, Petersburg, Sitka, Juneau, or Haines, and taking time to explore those choices, all for a lovely $160 (adult) price. That’s 25% off, and a great deal.

Another special takes the Driver FREE on a round-trip itinerary,  handy when transporting vehicles is involved.

Many passengers choose to rough it on the top decks. Don't forget the duct tape! (photo courtesy AMHS)

AMENITIES: It’s not a cruise ship, you can bet your bottom shilling on that, but AMHS travel is clean, safe, and quite comfortable. Many walk-on passengers choose to go the roughing-it route, pitching tents on the top decks (securing them with duct tape) or bunking in the recliner lounges on board. AMHS also has a number of staterooms on board select vessels, offering beds, linens, and a base camp for families to relax at the end of a fabulous day of sightseeing from the top decks. Reserve staterooms promptly for main line travel; they sell out incredibly fast.

All boats offer some form of food service, with the larger Columbia and Tustemena offering full-service restaurants. Passengers are welcome to bring coolers, but keep in mind there exists no refrigerator for passengers, but coin-operated ice machines may help.

Shop at the little gift stores for souveniers of Alaska, or ply the Forest Service staff with questions about the scenery outside. Enjoy a reading room and card/game room, or allow the kiddos to watch a show in the movie lounge area (not the greatest, but kids don’t seem to mind). The movie lounge also shows periodic movies about a particular area the boat is passing through, a nice touch.

Fast ferry Chenga powers across Prince William Sound on the way to Valdez.

THE BOATS: AMHS vessels range from the mighty Malaspina, that, at 408 feet,has  transported her nearly 500 passengers faithfully and safely for years; down to the Fairweather and/or Chenega, fast ferries that shoot across the water at 40 knots toward Juneau/Skagway, or Whittier/Valdez/Cordova, respectively. They’re all fun, they’re all powerful, and each has unique characteristics that kids can explore with the help of fabulous crew. Hey, kids can even check in with the Purser once on board and ask for a personal bridge tour. We’re told captains love to show off their boats!

IMPORTANT INFO: Check the AMHS website for the most comprehensive info about trips; some runs sell out so fast your head will spin, so making reservations on the phone or via the website way, way early is wise.

As of 2009, passengers entering Canada (unless you are already on board a vessel) are required to have a valid passport. See the AMHS note regarding this absolutely crucial aspect of travel in Alaska to/from Canada.

Just like the airport, all passengers will be screened upon arriving at a terminal for boarding. And, just like the airport, plan to arrive 1.5-2 hours early, depending upon the run. Be patient, be organized, and prep the kids.

Once on board, do not leave belongings unattended. Do not. This may be one happy family on board a ship for three days, but if you do not have a stateroom, your stuff is just as vulnerable as if it were parked on a street corner, sadly. Keep your valuables on your person at all times.

Have propane, bear spray, or other potentially explosive materials (Hey, this is Alaska)? Check in those things with the Purser immediately upon boarding, and they’ll tag it and give it back at the end of the trip.

North, South, East, or West; Alaska ferries are the best!

AK Fam is preparing, packing, and planning for this adventure aboard AMHS boats. It is, quite frankly, the trip of a lifetime, and we’re ready to make the most of it.

Don’t miss the Alaska Travelgram Show tomorrow as guest Danielle Adkins, Marketing Director for AMHS, shows us how to make the most of an Alaskan ferry experience. 2-3 p.m. KOAN 95.5 FM or streamed live RIGHT HERE.

Anchors Aweigh!

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