Most RVers who travel to Alaska drive to and from the Lower 48 through British Columbia and the Yukon. But there is another way to get there, and that is on the Alaska Marine Highway, better known as the Alaska ferry. If you are traveling with a pet, however, there are certain considerations that you must take into account. Even if you are not traveling with pets, this post may help you with the general planning process.
The ferry, or Alaska Marine Highway System, is operated by the Alaska Department of Transportation and serves mostly communities that cannot be reached by road. The Alaska Marine Highway is 3,500 miles in length and stretches from Washington State to the Aleutian Islands. The highway has the distinction of being the only marine route designated as both a National Scenic Byway and an All-American Road.
|The Alaska Marine Highway is a Scenic Byway|
Most RVers limit their ferry travel to Southeast Alaska and the Inside Passage. Travel by ferry allows you to see this part of Alaska, which is entirely different than the rest of the state. Most of the communities along the Inside Passage are accessible only by boat or plane. It’s an incredibly beautiful part of the state. If you travel this route, you will end up in either Haines or Skagway, where roads connect to the interior. From there you can continue your journey into the interior on the Alaska Highway.
Planning a trip on the ferry is not as easy as planning a driving trip. It’s a lot more complicated, and a lot of pieces have to fall into place to pull it off. Don’t plan on trying to put together a ferry trip over a single weekend. It will likely take a little longer than that. Starting the planning process six months in advance is not too soon.
If you are considering the idea of taking your pet on the ferry, it’s a good idea to get advice from your veterinarian, and possibly your own therapist, before making a final decision. We are thoroughly enjoying this means of travel, and our cat is getting along just fine. Some RVers, however, may decide that ferry travel and certain pets just don’t go together.
There are two departure ports, Bellingham, Washington, and Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Most people with pets select Prince Rupert, but I’ll mention some of the advantages and disadvantages of each port for those who are pet-less.
|The Ferry Route through the Inside Passage|
Bellingham is closer to most places in the United States, and the ferry route from here will get you to Alaska much sooner. It’s a 38-hour ride to Ketchikan, the first port of call, so you will be on the ship for a long time. This is also the most expensive option, especially if you book a cabin, which would certainly make the voyage more comfortable. Part of the route is in open water, so the seas could be quite a bit rougher than those in the Inside Passage. If your time is limited, however, this route would be a great option.
|The M/V Columbia Sails from Bellingham|
Departing from Prince Rupert requires a rather long, but beautiful, drive through British Columbia. The cost is about half that of the Bellingham route, and you arrive in Ketchikan in just over five hours.
We selected Prince Rupert for several reasons, only one of which was the cost. Pets are not permitted to join you on the ferry deck and must remain in your RV or vehicle while the ferry is in motion. On longer sailings, ferry personnel will escort you to the car deck for brief walks or feedings several times a day. However, we felt that 37 hours was just too long to leave our cat alone in the RV. I think most RVers with pets, especially dogs, would tend to agree.
|"Why Do I Have to Stay Behind?"|
If you cannot (or do not) want to leave your pet alone in your RV for a minimum of eight hours, do not even consider traveling to Alaska by ferry. At least one leg of your journey will be that long. If you do decide to take your pet, you will want to closely plan your itinerary and take note of how long each leg of the journey will take. Although we wanted to visit as many ports as possible, a secondary reason for planning so many stops was to limit the amount of time our cat would be by herself in the RV.
By starting in Prince Rupert and then stopping in Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg and Juneau, our longest ferry ride was eight hours. From Juneau, we then could catch a fast ferry to and from Sitka, returning to Juneau for a day or two before the final leg to Haines. If you decide to skip one of these towns, and settle for a much longer ride, you can retrieve your pet while the ferry is docked and get off for a walk. However, be advised that stops are often no more than an hour or so, so that’s not much of a break for your furry friend.
|The M/V Matanuska Sails from Prince Rupert|
Even if you are not traveling with a pet, I highly recommend scheduling a stop at as many ports as possible, as well as staying awhile. Every town is different, and there are lots of things to do and see, especially after the cruise ships depart in the afternoon. If you simply remain on the ferry from Bellingham or Prince Rupert to Juneau, you will not really experience what the Inside Passage is all about.
When you decide to travel will also have a bearing on the number of days you can spend in each port. Early in the season the ferry schedule is more limited, and ships call at some ports only twice a week. When we looked at schedules for a mid-May departure, we discovered that our choice was to stop for just an hour or two, or three or four days, in each port. If you only want to spend a day in each town, like the cruise ships do, that may not be possible on a ferry. A cruise may actually be a better option for you. As the summer progresses, the frequency of sailings does tend to increase, and there are more frequent offerings from large ports like Juneau.
|We Actually Made Our Own Spreadsheet to Help Us Figure Out the Schedules|
If you decide that ferry travel is the way to go, it is important to make reservations early, sometimes as soon as the booking window opens. This is especially true for the most popular routes and for travel to and from Bellingham. You must also book a cabin early, as these tend to fill quickly. We made our reservations in January for a May departure and had no problems getting our preferred dates.
Although it is possible to pitch a tent on the ferry deck, or stretch out on one of the lounge chairs, we were very happy that we had reserved a cabin when we boarded the ferry at 3:15 am in Ketchikan. Just remember to dress warmly. Our cabin was freezing that night.
Even if you are not the type of traveler that typically makes campground reservations, you may want to think about reserving a site after you make your ferry reservation. There are very few campgrounds in the small towns, and even fewer with hookups. Most campgrounds are very small and tend to fill up quickly. We were happy that we had reservations, especially when our ferry pulled in at 10:15 in the evening. That’s not when you want to start looking for a place to stay for the night.
With all of that said, you must also be flexible with your schedule. Ferry schedules do change, and you may have to leave a day earlier than planned or stay longer. You will be at the mercy of weather and mechanical breakdowns, as well as state budget cuts, as many people are finding out this summer. As of July 1, one ferry will be taken out of service, and the schedule from Prince Rupert will be cut in half.
|Schedule Changes Happen Frequently|
|The FVF Chenega Is a Fast Ferry, But Is Grounded Today by Mechanical Issues|
Ferry schedules are complicated. Although you can book your entire trip online, even the Alaska Marine Highway folks suggest calling and speaking with one of their very helpful representatives. Keep in mind that most legs are on slow ferries, but see if there are other options. For example, we are taking a fast-ferry to Sitka from Juneau, saving us five hours.
Travel by ferry is expensive, but remember that it does save wear and tear on your RV, as well as offer savings on fuel. Ferry pricing is also a bit complicated. RVs are charged by the foot. Each passenger is ticketed separately. There is also a pet charge from Bellingham and Prince Rupert (but not between Alaska ports). Just like airline travel, each port-to-port leg is charged a separate fee, so if you are making five stops you will have five tickets with five different fees.
One last thing to remember if you are planning to bring your pet on the ferry. The State of Alaska requires that pets boarding the ferry in Bellingham or Prince Rupert have a current health certificate, not just a current rabies certificate. The real kicker is this health certificate cannot be more than 30 days old at the time of departure. That can be a real issue if your vet is in Florida or Texas, or any place more than a 30-day journey to your departure city.
We solved that problem by selecting Petsmart for our vet needs. Most Petsmart locations house a Banfield Pet Hospital, and records are available at any location. Our cat had her annual exam and shots while we were in Colorado, and we then visited another Banfield while we were in Oregon. If you have one of the wellness plans, the second visit is covered at no charge. The vet in Oregon looked at her exam results from Colorado, gave her a quick check and signed off on her health certificate. I would not get the certificate too soon, however, just in case there are changes to the ferry schedule. You don’t want the certificate to expire the day before boarding a delayed ferry. Two to three weeks before departure should be fine. If you don’t use a pet hospital with a national presence, I’m sure you could make an appointment with a vet near the Canadian border and bring copies of your pet’s records.
Although this post focuses on taking the ferry northbound (since that’s what we’re doing right now), you may prefer to end your Alaska adventure with a southbound voyage. There are advantages to both. If you travel north, you can often leave earlier in May and not be too worried about snow. May and June are the driest months in Southeast Alaska, and there are fewer people early in the season. Traveling northward is a more relaxing way to begin your journey, and by the time you reach the Alaska Highway, the roads in the Yukon and interior Alaska may have been repaired (we’ll let you know if that’s true!).
There are also advantages to taking the ferry south. You can stay in the interior later in the season and not be too concerned about snow on your return to the Lower 48. After a long summer of driving, you won’t have another long drive home. If you wait until the end of the summer, there will be fewer people. Even if you think you will be too tired, however, don’t make the mistake of skipping the ports. You’ll regret it if you do.
Whichever way you choose, I don’t think you will regret an adventure on the ferry.