The Alaskan Maritime Highway - Cruising Alaska on a Budget

Introduction

The Alaskan Maritime Highway (AMH) is a system of ferries that connects 14 coastal towns on the Alaskan Panhandle (SE Alaska) with each other and the rest of the US via the port of Bellingham just north of Seattle, Washington. The ferries carry cars and pedestrian passengers.

We wanted to see this part of Alaska and decided to use the AMH ferries to get around. These are cheaper than cruises and they run all year around, while the cruises don’t. We did the trip in March 2017. If you want to see the route we took there is a map at the end of this post.

Juneau

 mendenhall glacier

mendenhall glacier

We started the trip in the Alaskan capital, Juneau. There are some interesting historical buildings in the city.

 downtown juneau

downtown juneau

And the new Alaskan State Museum is well worth a couple of hours.

 native alaskan mask - ALASKAN STATE MUSEUM

native alaskan mask - ALASKAN STATE MUSEUM

But the real attraction is the Mendenhall Glacier.

 walking across frozen mendenhall lake to the glacier

walking across frozen mendenhall lake to the glacier

In summer, it carves icebergs into the Mendenhall Lake, but when we visited, the lake was frozen so we walked across it to the glacier. Pretty amazing.

Just beyond the lake shore is an ice cave.

The blues are staggering. No need to tweak these photos.

Juneau to Haines on MV LeConte

 cruising up the fjord to haines

cruising up the fjord to haines

The first leg of our AMH cruise was the 4.5-hour trip from Juneau north to Haines up the fjord.

The trip was through classic Alaskan mountain and sea scenery.

 the view from the coast at haines

the view from the coast at haines

Haines sits on the Chilkoot Inlet in a quite spectacular landscape.

 officers' buildings - fort seward

officers' buildings - fort seward

It was once the home of Fort Seward, which during World Wars I and II was a major US army base. The troops are long gone but many of the fort’s buildings are still there and you can do a self-guided historic walking tour of the large site.

 battery point trail

battery point trail

We spent several nights in Haines and did some lowland walks, with the Chilkat State Park and Battery Point Trail being a highlight.

Haines to Ketchikan on MV Malaspina

 another great vista in haines - note sea ice

another great vista in haines - note sea ice

The next leg was the 39 hour trip from Haines to Ketchikan. We left at around 11.00pm so had two nights on-board.

 our digs

our digs

While the sleeping quarters weren’t luxurious they were comfortable enough, and included our own bathroom.

The direct route to Ketchikan does not take this long but we went via the island town of Sitka which was a half day diversion. The trip to Sitka and back was a real highlight as it traversed some very narrow passages where the big cruise ships can’t go.

At times you get very close to the shore.

And yes, we did see whales – orcas and humpbacks – but no great wildlife photos unfortunately.

 yes, that's a whale

yes, that's a whale

The Malaspina was continuing all the way to Bellingham but we wanted to break up the trip with an overnight stop at Ketchikan.

 sea ice

sea ice

One of the real advantages of the AMH is that you can design your own itinerary and stay as long as you want in a town. It’s only restricted by the schedule of the ferries.

 creek street,  ketchikan

creek street,  ketchikan

Ketchikan is an interesting town with some colourful history. The much-photographed Creek Street was the red-light district for the town at the turn of the 20th century.

Ketchikan to Bellingham on MV Kennicott

 mv kennicott

mv kennicott

The final leg was from Ketchikan to Bellingham on the MV Kennicott. This vessel is larger than the Malaspina and considered more stable if the seas get rough (so we were told by the purser).

 ketchikan is renowned for its native alaskan totems

ketchikan is renowned for its native alaskan totems

As luck would have it the Kennicott had been in dock for some months being readied for the summer season and this was its first voyage. The trip we were on was not it’s normal scheduled run and consequently there were very few passengers. In fact, there were only 7, with a crew of 51!

We’d booked a basic cabin with no bathroom, but all passengers were upgraded to very comfortable staterooms.

Finding a good seat in the observation lounge was not a problem.

And options for dinner tables were plentiful.

The weather got a little squally and wet. But, like the earlier legs, much of the trip is in protected waters in what is known as the inside passage (between islands and the mainland), with only a few small sections in open ocean.

This leg was the longest taking 41 hours with two nights spent at sea before finally arriving at the city of Bellingham, Washington.

Costs and Conclusion

We did some quick calculations comparing our costs for transport, meals, and accommodation against a 7-day equivalent cruise to the same destinations.  Even looking at a sale priced cruise we saved a minimum of $AUS1000/$US700 combined for the same trip, plus we had longer in ports and more control over our time and could stay for as long as we wanted in a port, whereas the cruise ships generally only stay for a few hours. We also were able to self cater at some of our accommodations which saved money.

 mendenhall lake

mendenhall lake

With all costs added a standard 7 day cruise is around $AUS1500/ $US1100 per person. Our costs were around $AUS1000 per person. These calculations also don’t allow for the additional costs incurred by cruise passengers for day trips, whereas we caught local transport to the various attractions so the real savings are much more. So, overall, our estimated savings are likely to be conservative.

 haines

haines

The proof of what savings can made are best calculated by oneself by researching a preferred itinerary and making a comparison of AMH prices along with some hypothetical hotels versus cruise ship prices for similar.

The AMH website looks a little daunting at first until you do the research and come to terms with the geography and names of the towns and other sights.

Check it out for yourself at http://www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs/pubs/

So, having done the trip this way, we are sold on the AMH. Definitely a great way to travel the coast of the vast and spectacular state of Alaska.

Ken