Monday, March 3, 2014

Tips for travel on the Alaska Marine Highway

Now that we have taken the Alaska Marine Highway through the Southeast going both north and south, in both summer and winter, all within an 8-month time period, we have accumulated quite a few tips and tricks. Since I am finding myself sharing them many times with others who will be making the same journey, I thought it best to round them all up here. Have more to add? Please comment below!

Booking your travel:

  • Book as far in advance as possible. Summer trips fill up very early, and so does space in staterooms and the car deck.
  • If your travel will be longer than 12 hours (or an overnight trip), book a stateroom! This is especially important if you are traveling with children. There are not enough bunks for every passenger on board, and you will find people camping in tents on the outside deck (yes, really!) and sleeping in reclining chairs in the lounges. If you are on military orders, your stateroom cost will be covered by the military. 
  • About staterooms: "with facilities" means that the cabin has a restroom with toilet, sink, and shower. "Without facilities" means that you will share community restrooms and showers onboard. A stateroom with a "sitting room" is fabulous if you can get one. There are only a handful on each ship. They include bunks, restroom, and an extra area with a table and chairs to give you room to spread out. Your military orders will cover any type of cabin you reserve.

Before you board:

  • Stock up on microwaveable, non-perishable meals. There is a community microwave onboard, located in the cafeteria. Also bring bread, PB&J, and plenty of snacks. We even brought hot dogs. If you have a cooler, you can purchase ice onboard for a quarter. Meals purchased from the cafeteria or dining room can get pricey, depending on your family size and length of travel. We learned on our summer trip south that it is unrealistic to try to eat a can of soup for every meal. On our trip back north, we found a nice balance: bagels, instant oatmeal, toast, and cereal for breakfast, microwave something or make a sandwich for lunch, and purchase dinner onboard. If the kids didn't like what was served, they had a sandwich and a huge $4 fresh fruit bowl from the cafeteria. Some people will even bring a slow cooker and make their dinners that way. I am not one of those people. 
  • Bring your favorite instant coffee, tea, cocoa, etc.  The cafeteria isn't always open when you want something warm to drink, but you can access hot water or the microwave all the time. 
  • You can also bring alcoholic beverages, if you consume them in yr stateroom. Don't forget a wine bottle opener and something to close an unfinished bottle with! 
  • Keep in mind that everything you haul onboard, you must also haul back off.  If you are bringing your vehicle, unpacking stuff, bringing it up at least one deck and to your stateroom, and then doing the reverse when your journey is done, it can be quite cumbersome if you try to bring too much. 

Traveling with a vehicle

  • When you check in at the ferry terminal, you will be given a lane number based on your destination. You are asked to get into your lane 2 or 3 hours in advance of departure time, but it can take an hour or two of waiting in your vehicle before you are directed to drive onto the ship. If you have bored kids, one parent can walk onboard with them and get settled in, but you need to ask to do so when you check in. Your tickets will need to be printed separately so that the driver also has a ticket. 
  • The car deck can be a crazy place! Follow directions exactly, as it is very close quarters. Don't forget to set your parking break. 
  • Pay attention to announcements onboard when arriving into every port. Sometimes vehicle owners are asked to rearrange their vehicles. 

Traveling with pets

  • Make sure you make a reservation for your pets. Dogs are $25 each, and military orders do not pay this fee. 
  • Arrive with a valid health certificate. This is especially important when traveling to Alaska, as you will be asked for the certificate before you are allowed to board. 
  • Pets remain in vehicles, on the car deck. Yes, they have to do their business on the deck. And you have to clean it up. The ferry only provides paper towels for cleaning, so bring your own plastic bags. Some pets just won't go on the ferry. They will be okay! There is only one stretch, between Bellingham and Ketchikan, that is extra long. It takes over a day. 
  • There will be car deck calls 3-4 times per day when you can go down to feed and walk your pet. You will be surprised at how many dogs are onboard the ferry! 
  • When you pull into a port, you can get off  and walk your dog. Get off every chance you get! 
  • If your pet may wander around or destroy the inside of your vehicle, put it in a kennel.  On our last trip, a couple of dogs climbed into the driver's seat of a vehicle and turned on the flashers. Four times. In the middle of the night. Don't be that guy!

While onboard
  • After settling in, explore the ship.  Each vessel is different.  Learn where the purser is located, find the movie theater, the cafeteria (and dining room if there is one), and the kids play area.
  • Don't spend all of your time in your room!  The forward observation lounge is a great place to spend time.  Bring the kids, books, board games, electronic gadgets (with headphones), and binoculars.  People spend thousands of dollars to cruise these waterways on vacation, with good reason!  
  • There are power outlets onboard.  There is no wifi.  Bring a laptop or DVD player and some new movies.
  • Turn off your cell phone until you are in Alaskan ports or Bellingham to avoid connecting to Canadian towers.  That can be costly.
  • If you have forgotten something, the only port with businesses nearby the ferry terminal is Ketchikan.  There is a grocery store, hotel with restaurant, and coffee stand right across the street.  Ketchikan is typically a long port call, so you have time to walk a bit.
  • DO NOT miss seeing the passage through the Wrangell Narrows.  It's a narrow waterway between Petersburg and Wrangell.  Even if it's the middle of the night, get up! We missed it over the summer since it was 3am and we were tired.  This last time, I stayed up late to watch, and I got a whole new appreciation for buoys and channel markers.  In the dark, it's like Christmas with endless flashing red and green lights.  When we were going through, it was dark, snowing, and windy.  Two crew members were on the bow, making sure we didn't hit anything.  Every so often, a spotlight shone down from the bridge onto a channel marker.  We came so close that I felt like I could reach out and touch the markers at times.
  • In our opinion, the passage from Juneau to Sitka is the most beautiful.  It includes Chatham Strait and Peril Strait.  
  • Talk to fellow passengers!  On the ferry, people are likely to be Alaskans or military members.  Everyone loves to give tips on favorite spots to eat, fish, shop, drive, etc.  Chances are, at least one other person is going the same place as you.
  • The day before you are set to arrive at your destination, start taking extras from your stateroom back to your vehicle during car deck calls or port calls.  When you finally arrive and take your vehicle off the ferry, you don't have much time at all to load up and go.  You don't want to hold up everyone behind you waiting to get off.
I'm sure there is more.  I'll add as I think of things!