Everything You Need to Know About Taking Your RV on the Alaska Ferry
Everything You Need to Know About Taking Your RV on the Alaska Ferry
RVer guide to the Alaska Marine Highway System.
By: Peter & Kathy Holcombes
By all standards, Alaska is a dream destination. Some prefer to tackle the wilds of Alaska via cruise ship while others envision exploring the highways and byways. We say, why choose when you can do both?
This summer, we drove from Washington State through British Columbia via the Cassiar Highway and continued on up the Dalton Highway to the northernmost point that you can drive in North America in Prudhoe Bay, AK. And while that segment was certainly an adventure of epic proportions, our favorite part was exploring Alaska by ferry.
We began our coastal adventures in Homer and spent almost a month hopping ferries along the port towns of Kodiak, Seward, Whittier, Cordova, Haines, Juneau, Gustavus, Pelican, Ketchikan and finally ended our journey in Bellingham, Washington. We thoroughly enjoyed our time spent both on the ferries themselves as well as our time exploring coastal Alaska. Here is what you need to know about both the ferry system and the destinations that we visited.
This video shows more about our experiences on the Alaska Marine Highway System including our trip from Juneau to Bellingham, WA.
Booking Your Alaska Ferry Passage
There are a variety of ways that you can travel on the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS), and it all depends on your taste and budget. The least expensive option is to book a passenger ticket, without a vehicle or a cabin. You can elect to add a bicycle, motorcycle, vehicle, RV, boat, heavy machinery, semi truck, etc., but there will be an additional fee based on the dimensions of your vehicle.
We have traveled with a Winnebago View towing a cargo trailer full of kayaks with a total length of 44’ and have also traveled with a Winnebago Revel with a height of 12’ and both were easily accommodated by the AMHS. However, the cost was substantially more (almost double) for the longer vehicle.
Exploring coastal Alaska is extremely popular and many of the towns are only accessible via boat or plane. So, while you can get lucky and book a same day ticket, it is a good idea to book your passage as early as possible to ensure that you get the sailing date that you want - particularly if you are traveling with a larger vehicle. Here is a link to the AMHS website where you can enter your vehicle information and obtain a quote for your preferred route.
Do I Need a Cabin?
Alaska is vast, and the ports are few and far between, often resulting in sailing times in excess of 12+ hours. On these longer journeys, you may find yourself aboard a ferry overnight. Many of the vessels in the AMHS are equipped with cabins that you can rent for an additional charge.
But do you really need a cabin? We have traveled both ways and have thoroughly enjoyed both experiences. First off, you absolutely do not need a cabin. All of the ferries have common areas where travelers make themselves right at home for the night. All of the ships have interior rooms with comfortable chairs that are protected from the weather outside.
On longer sailings, you will often find people who have laid out blankets and sleeping pads on the floors in between the rows of chairs to sleep during the journey. There is also an outside deck with lounge chairs where people cozy up in sleeping bags for the night. Many ships also have an area on the deck where you can set up a tent and camp out overnight. Many of the ships also have community showers available somewhere aboard. We staked out three lounge chairs on our first passage from Juneau to Bellingham and loved watching the scenery, whales and northern lights drift by.
On the flip side, a cabin is a wonderful luxury that allows you easy and secure access to store everything that you need for a longer sailing as well as bunkbeds to stretch out on. On our last 72-hour passage, we had a cabin with a bathroom and two bunkbeds. It was really convenient and allowed us to safely store our camera equipment when we were not using it. We also loved having a private shower. However, we did find ourselves inside a good bit more on this passage and really missed out on some great scenery.
Will I Get Seasick?
Fortunately, neither Peter nor I are prone to seasickness. And most of the Alaska Ferries travel through the Inside Passage where the waters are mostly calm. But we recently took the ferry to Kodiak Island, which is one of the routes that traverses open water, and we encountered fairly heavy seas (10-foot waves crashing over the bow of the boat).
The violent rocking of the ship for hours began to wear on us, and neither of us felt great. Peter found relief by sitting on one of the lower decks outside where the cool fresh air kept his motion sickness at bay. (Note: The back of the boat experiences less motion than the front.)
I found that if I laid down in one of the booths and closed my eyes, the rocking ship didn’t affect me much at all. With these strategies, neither of us needed to take any medicine and managed to feel okay throughout our nine-hour journey to Kodiak Island. The return trip back to Homer was 16 hours (due to a new stop along the route).
Because of the length of the journey and the rough seas, we booked a cabin and were able to sleep through the rough, open water crossing and neither of us had and trace of nausea. So, if you are prone to motion sickness, definitely consider booking a cabin, particularly if the weather is severe, or if you know you will be crossing notoriously rough seas. And if you don’t have a cabin, make sure you find a good place on the ship to lay down and close your eyes for the duration of the trip.
You can watch our passage on the ferry to Kodiak Island and see the Kodiak Bears here.
How Much Do Ferries in Alaska Cost?
The Southeast Line is a great alternative to the Alaska Highway, particularly if you are running short on time. It took us approximately 65 hours from Juneau to Bellingham, and five hours from Juneau to Haines. (We, of course, spent a few days in Juneau between sailings.)
The total cost for both sailings was $2,363, and the cabin on the longer sailing was an additional $523. This price was based on two passengers and a 21’ Winnebago Revel in September of 2023.
By comparison, it is 1,716 miles to drive the same route. Based on fuel prices during the same window (of $6.50/gallon on average through Canada with an average fuel economy of 14 miles/gallon), the same trip by highway would cost $796 in fuel plus any lodging/campground costs. It is more expensive to travel via ferry, but it is way more relaxing. And you will be able to visit places that you can’t get to any other way.
Meals Aboard the Ship
All of the ferries are equipped with some type of restaurant. Some have a full dining room with waiters and tablecloths and others are more of a cafeteria setup. The food is good and relatively inexpensive compared to eating out in similar restaurants in Alaska. We ate halibut and salmon, salads, burgers and fries, omelets, biscuits and gravy, chicken fingers, ribs, soup, fruit and much, much more.
An average meal was about $10-12, and dinner service in a restaurant was $12-18. There are also vending machines and microwaves available for anyone to use.
Our Favorite Ports on the Alaska Marine Highway
While we haven’t explored the entirety of the Alaska Marine Highway System, we have visited a majority of Southeast Alaska. Currently, there is a shortage of workers at the AMHS, and service is somewhat limited at the moment.
Hopefully this will be resolved soon, and the full sailing schedule will resume in the near future. Basically, there are three mainline routes: Southeast Alaska, Across the Gulf of Alaska, and Southcentral and Southwest Alaska. Here are our favorite ports.
Ketchikan is only accessible by boat or plane, and we spent an afternoon wandering through Ketchikan on a layover with the ferry. We had six hours and enjoyed wandering through the galleries and gift shops.
The bus service from the ferry terminal was easy to navigate and we felt like we had adequate time to see the town. In 2016, we spent a couple of days in Ketchikan and sea kayaked around the surrounding islands. We were able to paddle right next to humpback whales. Whether you have six hours or several days, Ketchikan is worth a stop.
Juneau is only accessible by boat or plane, and we spent almost a week exploring Juneau and its surrounding areas. There are plentiful opportunities for boondocking and a lot to see and do. We loved wandering through the downtown area and eating at local restaurants and checking out the galleries and shops. But we spent a majority of our time out near the Mendenhall Glacier.
We kayaked across Mendenhall Lake to the Glacier and then trekked across the glacier. (We are experienced kayakers and mountaineers, so make sure to book a tour if you are not experienced in these sports.) We also hiked back to Nugget Falls on the other side of the lake. It was a flat smooth trail that ended at a beautiful waterfall. We recommend spending at least a couple of days in Juneau if you have the time.
Gustavus is a wonderful place about an hour ferry ride from Juneau. It is considered the gateway to Glacier Bay National Park. There is a national park boat as well as private tours that will take you into the park. Boondocking here is tricky, so make sure that you reserve a spot at a campground before you arrive. Also, the season in Gustavus is from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Everything shuts down outside of that window, so plan accordingly.
Here is a video of our time in Gustavus. We were there a week after Labor Day and almost everything was closed for the season, but it was still a great place to visit.
Haines is one of our all-time favorite places in Alaska. It is accessible by both ferry and by road. We love it because at the right time of year (when the salmon are running in the late summer/early fall), it is one of the places where you are almost guaranteed to see a grizzly bear in the wild. We have been there twice in September and have spotted sows and their cubs fishing along the Chilkoot River just outside of the state park.
You can camp in Chilkoot State Park and then drive along the river road searching for bears. There are pullouts along the road where you can park and get out and walk to see the bears. The brown bears that live here are wild animals. While they are used to seeing people in their environment, they can be unpredictable and deserve ample space. Be respectful of their habitat and give them plenty of berth as they work their way down the river.
Here is a video about our experiences with brown bears in Haines, AK.
Homer is another favorite of ours that is accessible both by ferry and by land. Homer has world-class hiking, kayaking, and fishing. Be sure you book your fishing charter early as they were completely booked when we visited in August of 2023. You can take a water taxi (we love Makos Water Taxi) across Katchemak Bay to the state park where there is fabulous hiking. We love both the Grace Ridge hike (10 miles with 3400’ of elevation gain) and the Grewingk Glacier hike (12.8 miles and 1797’ of elevation gain). Both are difficult trails but have some of the most extraordinary scenery we’ve ever seen.
Here is a video of our time in Homer and our hike on the Grace Ridge.
Kodiak Island tops the list of favorite places that we visited this year. It was a long and rough ferry ride to get there, but what a place it turned out to be! The boondocking is abundant, the fishing is great, and the largest land predators (Kodiak Brown Bears) on earth frolic in the streams in search of salmon. We also took the ferry to Valdez. Here is a video about our experiences in Valdez.
Hopefully this guide has inspired you to explore coastal Alaska via the ferry and that you have the opportunity to experience these gems firsthand. Until next time … we hope to see you somewhere over the horizon!
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