Alaska’s extensive ferry system has many potential descriptions: ‘long-distance water bus,' 'poor-person’s cruise liner,' and ‘the world’s most spectacular public-transportation network’ among them. Taking passengers up the Inside Passage from Bellingham, WA, in the lower 48 to Ketchikan and beyond, the unsophisticated but comfortable ferries never stray far from land, meaning you are treated to a real life National Geographic documentary of tumbling glaciers, weeping waterfalls, misty rainforests and crenelated mountains, not to mention the possibility of sighting whales, bald eagles, sea lions and, if you’re very lucky, bears.

Alaska Marine Highway runs ferries equipped with observation decks, food services, lounges and solariums with deck chairs. You can rent a stateroom for overnight trips – these aren’t as ‘stately’ as they may sound, and are downright spartan compared with what you’ll get on a cruise liner – but many travelers head straight for the solarium and unroll their sleeping bags on deck chairs, camping out in the covered, open-air rear deck.

The ferries have cafeterias or snack bars and a few have sit-down restaurants, but budget travelers can save money by bringing their own food (and spirits) and preparing it on board the ship. There are microwaves on every ship. Most ships have onboard naturalists who give a running commentary on the trip. Bring your headphones, warm clothes, some extra snacks and a good book.

Ferry schedules change almost annually, but the routes stretch from Bellingham, WA, to the Aleutian Chain, with possible stops including Prince Rupert, BC, Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, Juneau, Haines and Skagway. From Haines you can drive north and within a couple of hours pick up the Alcan (Alaska-Canada) Hwy. A trip from Bellingham to Juneau takes 2½ to four days, depending on the route.

Nine ships ply the waters of Southeast Alaska and twice a month the MV Kennicott makes a special run from Southeast Alaska across the Gulf of Alaska to Whittier. This links the Southeast routes of the Alaska Marine Highway ferries to the Southcentral portion that includes such ports as Homer, Kodiak, Valdez and Cordova.

Along with the Southeast, the Alaska Marine Highway services Southcentral and Southwest Alaska, with 35 ports in the system. There are ferries nearly daily at the main towns in the Southeast, while routes in Prince William Sound and the Aleutians have limited frequency. Twice a month from May through to September the MV Tustumena makes a special run along the Alaska Peninsula, starting in Homer and terminating in Dutch Harbor on the Aleutian Islands.

If the Alaska Marine Highway ferries are full in Bellingham, head to Port Hardy at the north end of Vancouver Island, where BC Ferries leave for Prince Rupert, BC. From this Canadian city you can transfer to the Alaska Marine Highway and continue to Southeast Alaska on ferries not as heavily in demand as those in Bellingham.

Reservations

The ferries are extremely popular during the peak season (June to August). If boarding in Bellingham, you absolutely need reservations for a cabin or vehicle space, and just to be safe you should probably have one even if you’re just a walk-on passenger.

The summer cruising schedule comes out in December and can be seen online. Stopovers are not free; rather, tickets are priced on a port-to-port basis.

The complete trip (Bellingham to Haines; $454, 3½ days) stops at ports along the way and should be scheduled in advance.

Trips within the Inside Passage include Ketchikan to Petersburg ($72, 11 hours), Sitka to Juneau ($65, five hours) and Juneau to Haines ($47, two hours). Alaska Marine Highway ferries are equipped to handle cars (Bellingham to Haines $1140), but space must be reserved months ahead.