Alaska State Ferries: Deal or No Deal?

Ever since I moved to Seattle in 1983, people have been telling me that the Alaska state ferries are an economical way to see Alaska from the water. I recently decided to investigate and see exactly how economical they are.

“Travel on the cheap,” was the way a New York Times writer described it in a 2013 article. Based on my research, it is neither upmarket travel nor is it particularly “cheap.” And depending on how many creature comforts you insist upon, it may not be your cup of tea at all.

MV Malaspina and Mendenhall Glacier
Photo © John Hyde

The ferries are part of the 3,500-mile Alaska Marine Highway system, which has its southern terminus in Bellingham, about 90 miles north of downtown Seattle, where it moved from the Seattle waterfront in 1989. The system connects numerous cities, towns and villages in Alaska and extends to Dutch Harbor at the western end of the Aleutian Island chain. Many of the settlements served can only be reached by water or float plane, so the system provides some valuable services.

Comfortable leisure travel, however, may not be among them.

For the purposes of my research, I decided to look into a sailing from Bellingham to Sitka, a town I’d like to visit and explore.

What I found

Purchasing passage on the Alaska ferries can be like ordering from an “a la carte” menu.

The passenger fare pays for basic passage, which entitles one to ride from the point of departure to their destination and sleep in a deck chair, unroll a sleeping bag on the deck, or pitch a tent and secure it to the deck with duct tape to keep it in place. No, I’m not kidding; that is a very popular thing to do among certain elements of our society whose sanity is, in my opinion, at least questionable.

Tent camping on the stern
Photo © Chris Arend

If you want to sleep in a cabin – and possibly in a bed – there’s an additional charge, though the charge is per cabin, not per passenger. But cabins sell out quickly, many websites warn, so without careful planning, you could find yourself wandering the decks for 36 hours or more.

If you bring your vehicle, that’s another fare and, unlike many other ferries that ply the waters of the U.S. Pacific Northwest and Canadian Southwest, the vehicle fare does not include its driver.

Neither do the fares include meals, though food is available for purchase on board.

“Hot and cold items, which include Alaska seafood, salads, sandwiches and beverage service are served throughout the day in self-service dining areas,” according to the ferry system’s web site. “Vending machines are available on each vessel for access to quick snacks.”

For those who choose to bring their own provisions, the website advises that “Refrigeration is not available but mainline vessels do provide coin operated (emphasis added) ice machines and all vessels provide access to microwaves.”

A luxury cruise this isn’t. And I didn't think it particularly economical, either.

For my example trip, the on-line booking tool for a trip from Bellingham to Sitka in early June returned fares for one-way travel for two adults with a standard passenger car of $2,362. One way.

An outside cabin with two single beds that cannot be moved together to form a single queen-sized bed, but with “complete facilities” (bathroom with shower, sink area and all linens) is $471 of that all-in fare. Cabins with three and four berths are available at a higher cost, while inside cabins and rooms without facilities may also available and bring the cost down a bit. However, even though it is only March, cabins were already sold out for many of the sailings on my example trip in June.

"You only have access you your vehicle while the ship is in port or during a pet call," the ferries' website says. "[N]o one is allowed on the car deck once the ship is underway so sleeping in your car is not an option." Sorry 'bout that.

Bottom line: if a couple drove their vehicle and chose to stay in a two-berth cabin with their own bathroom, round-trip passage not including food or beverage for the three-night cruise would be over $4,700. Not bringing a vehicle would reduce that to approximately $3,000, but then you’d have to add the cost of parking your vehicle in Bellingham for the duration of your trip, or add the cost of getting from your home to the ferry terminal and back again.

For comparison, I looked for a cruise that would call on Sitka, and opted for an outside cabin without a verandah to make it as fair a comparison as possible. Norwegian Cruise Line’s (NASDAQ:NCLH) May 26 sailing from Seattle aboard the Norwegian Jewel calls on Sitka as part of a nine-night voyage.

An ocean view room can be booked for approximately $1,100 per person, or $2,200 for a couple, including meals, other amenities, and visits to Ketchican, Juneau, Skagway and Victoria, B.C., in addition to Sitka.

If one simply wanted to visit Sitka (SIT), Alaska Airlines (NYSE:ALK) flies from Seattle (SEA). At this writing, a round-trip fare with a two-week advance purchase will set you back about $603 per person, or $1,206 per couple. Compared to the cost of taking the Alaska State ferry, that leaves at least $1,400 to spend on eating, drinking, seeing and staying in Sitka.

If you have to get to or from some of the remote places in Alaska that aren’t accessible by any other means, the Alaska State ferries probably fill that need nicely. But for leisure travel, they simply don’t strike me as an attractive or economical option.

Unless you find sleeping in a tent duct-taped to the deck appealing.

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Photo published courtesy Alaska Marine Highway System
Click on photo to view larger image

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