Traveling aboard an Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) – the ferry network that connects Alaska's coastal communities – offers the same views as the cruise ships, but without the fluff.

Passengers see glimpses of glaciers, wildlife, lush forests, but also meet the residents that rely upon ferries to get them to and from other places. To really understand what it’s like to live in rural Alaska and see amazing places without the huge price tag, this is the way to travel. 

Ferry travel requires advance planning and execution, as the Alaska Marine Highway System is a designated All-American Road, the first waterway to be named such, and its 3500-mile scenic byway is popular with independent travelers and their cars, RVs, bicycles and motorcycles.

A colorful row of shop fronts raised on a pier above a small dock
The ferries of the AMHS are a vital transport service for the coastal communities of Alaska © sorincolac / Getty Images

What is the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS)?

Known fondly as the "blue canoes" by residents, the state-owned and operated ferries of the AMHS are integral to basic living and commerce for coastal communities of the state. Moving among three coastal regions, Southeast, Southcentral, and Southwest, the Alaska Marine Highway’s fleet of vessels transport people and goods over a 30-route system that also provides visitors with a unique experience that truly emulates the Alaska lifestyle.

First launched in 1948 as a small marine transport founded by two brothers who saw a need to help get residents and products between the small towns of Haines, Skagway, and Tee Harbor in Southeast Alaska, the ferry system of today didn’t become a state entity until 1963. Then, the newly launched MV Malaspina arrived in Ketchikan to much fanfare because, as one resident said, “We could finally go somewhere!”

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Which are the best routes on the AMHS?

Alaska Marine Highway routes vary in distance and length, from a few hours to several days, depending upon the communities served. Looking for a snapshot of Alaska’s coastal regions with plenty of activities and stunning scenery? The following itineraries are a great trip to tack on to land-based travel, or as a full vacation in themselves.

Kayakers in a bay surrounded by icebergs
Look for kayakers on the Whittier to Valdez route as they paddle among icebergs © Joel Rogers / Getty Images

Route 1: Whittier to Valdez (Southcentral) 

The fishing industry is one of Alaska’s top economic engines, so traveling Prince William Sound during the summer months means a front-row seat to the vessels and people working nets and lines. This five-hour trip sails among the placid bays and craggy coves of the sound, with the stunning Chugach National Forest as a backdrop. Popular because of its sail-drive connection via the Richardson and Glenn Highways between Anchorage, Whittier, and Fairbanks, this a wonderful route for those looking for a round-trip journey. Watch for fishing boats, kayakers camping on the shoreline, and "bergy bits" from massive Columbia Glacier as you get closer to Valdez, then stay overnight in town before hitting the road north or west.

Once you arrive in Valdez, make sure to stop at the Valdez Museum for a dive into area history, including events like a 9.2 earthquake in 1964 and the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Old Town Valdez is the former downtown district prior to the 1964 quake, when a tsunami destroyed nearly every building and the entire community relocated to its current site. A few miles out of town, Solomon Gulch Hatchery is a great place to watch sea lions and the occasional brown or black bear fishing for pink salmon returning to the hatchery. A glacier and wildlife cruise departing from the Valdez harbor can provide up close views of these rivers of ice, and whales cavorting in Prince William Sound.

Route 2: Juneau to Haines (Southeast) 

Departing from Auke Bay a short distance from downtown Juneau, the sail to Haines is just under four hours and is a frequently traveled route by residents going back and forth for shopping, appointments or sports contests. Look for whales, seals and eagles as you move along the Inside Passage’s most northern section before turning into scenic Lynn Canal. Haines itself is a quaint little town that happens to be located a mere 45 miles from the Canadian border, and is one of few Southeast Alaska communities that is accessible by road, water and air. Unlike neighboring Skagway (just 20 more miles up Chilkoot Inlet from Haines), Haines has resisted the tourist trappings of a cruise ship port city, and visitors wanting to hike, paddle or experience museums and cultural centers without heavy crowds will enjoy this destination. 

Haines is also a great jumping-off city for road tripping into Canada's Yukon Territory and then back into Alaska via the famous Alaska Highway (or AlCan). Note that a passport is required for the multiple border crossings.

Two people walk in the coastline, their shadows dwarfed by the mountains stretching above them
An overnight HMHS ferry goes from the small town of Homer to the Kodiak Islands © Nathaniel / Lonely Planet

Route 3: Homer to Dutch Harbor (Southwest) 

This is the route for serious adventurers who want to explore remote coastal Alaska. The unique Southwest route begins in the small town of Homer at the end of Southcentral Alaska's Kenai Peninsula. Located just over 200 miles south of Anchorage (about a five-hour drive), Homer is known for its thriving halibut fishing and access to a plethora of hiking and camping across scenic Kachemak Bay.

Typically, the ferry departs in the evening for an overnight Gulf of Alaska crossing, arriving in Kodiak city on Kodiak Island early the following morning. From Kodiak, the ferry proceeds across Shelikof Strait toward the Alaska Peninsula before reaching the Aleutian Islands. Often, travelers can see steam rising from one of the many active volcanoes in the region, and the occasional whale spouting off in the distance. 

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How do I book a ferry trip?

The easiest way to book an Alaska Marine Highway trip is online. The website is run by the State of Alaska and has its kinks, but reservation agents are very helpful on the phone (1-800-642-0066). If you choose a multiday sailing, like to Dutch Harbor, a stateroom is much desired over sleeping in the main common areas or on deck. Reserve these as far in advance as possible, however, as they sell out quickly. 

If the idea of sleeping al fresco on deck sounds like an Alaska-themed must-do adventure, pay attention to posted placards letting passengers know where they may and may not sleep outside. Small tents are permitted to be pitched on some decks, but it is imperative they be secured with duct tape to keep them from blowing away during the trip. Deck lounge chairs under heat lamps in the solarium spaces may be accessible to overnighters as well, but not every ferry has them. Use lockers inside common areas for stashing valuables, as gear will be open to both the elements and other people otherwise. 

A large ferry leaving a port backed by mountains covered with cloud
AMHS routes serve 30 different ports in Alaska © dhughes9 / Getty Images

When do tickets become available? 

The Alaska Marine Highway System releases its summer schedule in early spring each year, and tickets for popular Southeast and Southwest routes are at a premium. A good strategy is to follow the AMHS on social media channels and check the website frequently. Be as flexible with travel dates as possible as well, since long weekends and holidays are extremely busy.

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What do I pack? What can I bring on board?

  • Personal food and non-alcoholic beverages are permitted in the cafeteria area. Bring a cooler for perishable items. Alcohol is permitted only in staterooms.
  • Bring warm clothing and rain gear to spend ample time outdoors on deck. Non-slip shoes are a must for wet surfaces.
  • Pack binoculars to spot whales and other wildlife. Ferry crew usually announce when animals or birds are seen. 
  • Do not forget government-issued ID, charging cords, and cash or credit cards to purchase food and other items on board. 

What's it like on board? 

The Alaska Marine Highway System ferries are very busy in the summer months, with passengers staking claims in all common areas for the duration of a trip. If you do not reserve a stateroom, bring coins for lockers to secure valuables and jump into the spirit of independent travel. 

Make time to dine in the vessel’s cafeteria and meet other travelers, for this is an excellent opportunity to become acquainted with life in coastal Alaska. Consider bringing your own water bottle, mug for coffee or tea, and snacks/camp-style meals if you are on a multiday itinerary. 

The Alaska Marine Highway System has a complete list of things to know and travel policies on its website.

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