With several major cruise lines recently announcing that they won’t be visiting Alaska this year, the best way to reach the 49th state in 2020 could be on one of the regular ferries that ply the so-called Alaska Marine Highway departing from Bellingham in Washington state.

Ferries heading north via the Inside Passage as far as the Alaskan port of Skagway are tentatively scheduled to resume at the beginning of July, subject to inter-state travel rules. 

Traditionally over 1.3 million cruise passengers visit Alaska annually between the months of May and September. These numbers are set to fall considerably this year after three of the largest cruise companies – Princess, Holland America and Carnival – cancelled their entire Alaska operations due to the coronavirus pandemic. Notwithstanding, state-managed ferries are still intending to run, albeit on a more limited schedule and could provide some travel solace for US citizens should inter-state lockdown measures be loosened.

Promising to undertake new cleaning and social distancing protocols on their vessels in response to Covid-19, the Alaska Marine Highway will start taking reservations for July sailings as early as mid-May. Check the website for updates. Though unsophisticated compared to luxury cruise ships, the ferries – often dubbed the ‘poor-person’s cruise liners’ or ‘the world’s most spectacular public transportation network’ – are well-maintained and comfortable. They take passengers through a marvellous montage of tumbling glaciers, misty rainforests and crenelated mountains with abundant possibilities for sighting whales, bald eagles and bears. The ferries carry vehicles and offer sleeping cabins, several of which are wheelchair accessible. 

Camping in the Wonder Lake campground, with a view of Mount. Denali
Two tents at the Wonder Lake campground, with the snow-capped Mount Denali in the background. ©JIA HE/Alamy Stock Photo

Ferry schedules change annually, but the routes stretch from Bellingham in the lower 48 to the Aleutian archipelago, with possible stops in Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, Juneau, Haines and Skagway. A trip from Bellingham to Alaska’s state capital, Juneau takes 2½ to four days, depending on the route.

Alaska has managed relatively well during the Covid-19 crisis registering ten deaths and 39 active cases as of May 12, the second lowest rates of any US state. Most state services, including hotels, and train and bus networks, are gearing up for an early July re-opening. Alaska Tour and Travel is a great portal for up-to-date travel information. The company also maintains a special webpage laying out Alaska’s so-called ‘new normal’ which adheres to US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines.

In order to stay safe and limit the spread of coronavirus, it is important to consult the regularly updated website of the CDC before setting out for Alaska, particularly the pages relating to US travel.

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