The Inside Passage is a magnificent coastal route weaving past islands along the North American Pacific coast. Especially the Alaskan Inside Passage is probably one of the most popular routes on cruise-loving people’s bucket lists. I don’t actually know, I’m just making an educated guess here. 🙂
Most people spend an awful lot of money to see this amazing part of the world but should you?
5 Reasons to Travel the Inside Passage by ferry
You can either pay a few thousand dollars to be wowed by the stunning scenery along the Inside Passage or plow the waters using the more humble “public transport” system.
We opted for the latter on our Canadian road trip adventure, and took BC Ferries from Port Hardy, Vancouver Island to Prince Rupert. There we switched to the Alaska ferries and travelled all the way to Haines, Alaska.
Based on our pretty fabulous experience, here are 5 reasons why you should travel the Inside Passage by ferry. At the end of the article, I’ve also got some tips to make your Inside Passage experience a little easier.
[Side note: I’m pretty happy to own up that I’m not a big fan of cruise ships and that getting on ferries was a much more palatable idea to me. In fact, I don’t even really like water travel so for me to even consider taking the ferries was a big deal.]
1. Enjoy Overnight Stays at Various Ports or Do some Island Hopping
The large cruise liners do stop at various ports along the Inside Passage.
Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, and others in southeast Alaska can all be visited for the day but like with any cruise, you’ll be pressed for time, are on a fixed itinerary, and remain among the thronging crowds that swarm every port of call.
However, if you jump on the British Columbia Ferries to Prince Rupert or the Alaska Marine Highway ferries, you can organise to get on and off wherever you like, providing the ferry stops there, of course.
That way you can do your own excursions, stay a night or two in one of these remote communities, and zip around the various islands and ports in whatever fashion you wish.
In fact, you’ll get to explore places the cruise ships can’t dock at because they are simply too massive for some of the narrower passages and smaller harbours.
In hindsight, we realised that we didn’t quite research the Inside Passage enough, whether for Canada or southeast Alaska. Because if we had, we would have realised just how picturesque and isolated the fjords and local communities are, how much hiking and glacier sightseeing there is, and how steeped the region is in Indigenous culture and Russian, Norwegian and early trader history.
If I had figured that out beforehand, we would definitely have extended our ferry trip and hopped around the ports for a week or more.
Returning to southeast Alaska and doing some island hopping is now on my bucket list (not that I really have one).
2. Take Your Car or Campervan with You
Unlike the cruise ships, these are car ferries so you can take your car or campervan – or whatever set of wheels you have – with you!
Obviously, people don’t usually want to take their vehicle with them when they do a cruise but if you’re keen to combine the Inside Passage with a road trip around the Yukon like we did, this solves the problem rather neatly.
In fact, taking the ferries solved two problems for us:
- We didn’t have to drive all the way to the Yukon from Vancouver and back again, and ended up doing a fantastic round trip in Western Canada;
- We got to relax, slowly plow north and experience the Inside Passage whilst taking our van with us!
READ MORE: Exploring Canada: Going north
If you want to explore the various ports or island further, you’ve also got your vehicle with you, and don’t have to rely on whatever public transport, car rental or excursions may or may not be available.
Plus it’s quite mind-boggling to watch the logistics of loading and unloading the car deck as the ferries dock at various ports, and cars and trucks need to get on and off without the whole hull being unloaded each time! There’s an intricate system in place as to who goes on when and where, and it’s fascinating to watch.
The one downside to taking your car on the ferry is probably the price. The bigger the vehicle the more money you’re going to have to fork out.
3. Travel Like a Local (and a few Tourists)
Ok, I didn’t think about this one before we left but travelling like a local was an added bonus.
Only tourists ever go on a cruise – just swallow my snobbish opinion here 🙂 – but the ferries were full of locals travelling from one community to another. For many, the ferry system is the only means of transport as most of these communities are only accessible by sea or air. It’s bewildering to think that these places cannot be accessed by road from the mainland, and that they rely entirely on sea or air transport with very limited services during winter.
Of course, you’ll also meet plenty of tourists on the ferries, mostly RVers and backpackers so it’s a nice, low-key opportunity to swap stories, share travel plans, and exchange sightseeing and camping tips.
4. Save Your Hard-Earned Cash
Compared to a cruise, taking the ferries is relatively affordable. What makes the journey somewhat expensive is
- taking your vehicle (depending on the length, that could cost a pretty penny); and
- booking a cabin.
Once upon a time when I was still happy to sleep on the floor and couldn’t have cared too much about getting seasick, I would not have bothered booking a cabin and just slept on the floor. Plenty of locals and backpackers do. They even come armed with sleeping bags, blankets, pillows, tents (!), etc. to make themselves comfortable.
In fact, without a car or cabin, you could travel the Alaskan part for as little as US$180 per person!
We booked a cabin for both legs of our Inside Passage trip so had to cough up the extra dollars for that. We weren’t sure how seasick I may get (I didn’t) but it was definitely worth the extra expense, especially since we had an ensuite and I got to enjoy a nice hot shower!
If you can do without a cabin, your Inside Passage ferry trip will certainly allow you to splurge elsewhere, e.g. by taking a flightseeing tour over Kluane National Park in the Yukon! 🙂
READ MORE: Kluane National Park from above
5. Experience Cruising in 1960′s Style
I’m sure, like me, you’ve always wanted to experience cruising in 1960’s style! 😉
Well, hop aboard the MV Matanuska, built in 1963 with a major refurb completed in the late 1970s.
It’s still going strong as part of the Alaska Marine Highway vessel fleet, and will take you anywhere between Bellingham, Washington, and Skagway, Alaska. If you love the sixties, this ship will most definitely make you feel nostalgic. Or, if you’re like me, you may just wonder how this rattler of a ship could possibly stay afloat and carry you to your destination safely.
The strange thing is that once you’ve got over the ‘oh my gosh, this cabin looks like a prison cell’ shock and have spent a couple of days on board, you come to like this old lady and appreciate her rickety makeup. Just don’t expect to get any sleep if you happen to have a cabin near the engine room…
If, however, you prefer to rely on German engineering and like to enjoy a more cushy journey, book yourself on the swanky Northern Expedition that plows the BC Ferry route from Port Hardy (Vancouver Island) to Prince Rupert during the summer months. Unlike the Alaskan ferry, they even offer some limited gluten-free options in their cafeteria!
The BC Ferries trip cost around CA$1,000 all up (including CA$470 for the campervan and CA$120 for the cabin), while the Alaskan one was comparatively cheaper, given that it was an almost two-day journey, and set us back about US$1,040 (with US$460 spent on the vehicle and US$210 for the cabin).
So for about AU$2,400, we got a three-day Inside Passage “cruise” for two adults including transporting our 16-foot campervan and a 2-berth cabin on each ferry.
5 Tips for Taking the Inside Passage Ferries
If you’re like us and know next to nothing about Canada or southeast Alaska before you travel there, here are some tips for travelling the Inside Passage using “public transport”.
Tip 1: Decide What You Want to See
The Inside Passage has two sections: The American region which covers southeast Alaska and the Canadian part in British Columbia.
We sailed from Port Hardy on Vancouver Island, Canada, with BC Ferries to Prince Rupert, also still Canada. We had a two night stay in Prince Rupert (due to ferry schedules), and then set off on the Alaska Marine Highway with the Alaskan State Ferry System to Haines, Alaska.
You could also just do one part of the passage, e.g. by driving to Prince Rupert and taking the Alaskan ferries north. Or you could do the trip in reverse, travelling down from Alaska to Prince Rupert, Port Hardy or even onto Bellingham, US.
The big question really is: If you only want to travel part of the Inside Passage which section should you do?
Well, muster up the courage to travel on the creaking MV Matanuska and see southeast Alaska! This leg is much more spectacular than the BC part. Ketchikan, Petersburg, Juneau all looked amazing, you’ll enter narrow, winding passages, and once you get closer to Petersburg, the glaciers and icebergs begin.
Seriously breathtaking scenery!
Tip 2: Plan Your Island Hopping Carefully
There are tons of options for hopping on and off the ferries but you’ll need to book separate tickets for each leg. You will need a good mind for arranging the logistics as you’re going to be dealing with two ferry companies and scheduling.
If you’ve got time and aren’t on a fixed itinerary, you could also just book each leg as you get there. Some backpackers did that but they also didn’t have cars so depending on the size of your vehicle, that might make bookings more challenging. That said, the Alaskan ferry was relatively empty and could easily have squeezed a few more vehicles in when we went in late August.
The BC Ferry to Prince Rupert often stops at Bella Bella or Klemtu on the way, both are vibrant First Nations’ communities so you could get off and then continue your journey later. BC Ferries also offer services to the remote islands of Haida Gwaii (on my list!) or to Bella Coola, but either way you’ll be leaving the Inside Passage. The scenery towards Bella Coola is stunning though.
In southeast Alaska, you’ve got even more options: from Ketchikan, Petersburg, Wrangell, Sitka, Juneau or Skagway, you’ve got decisions to make. We would definitely do some hopping around next time and visit coastal towns like Sitka or Juneau for a few days.
Tip 3: Consider whether You Need a Cabin
The trip between Port Hardy and Prince Rupert is a (16-hour) day sailing during summer so you don’t necessarily need a cabin if you travel during that time. There are lots of areas on board where you can relax and hang out.
It’s also nice to have your own space. On the Northern Expedition, the beds are super comfy, the cabin’s spacious, and the shower is divine! The Alaskan ferries are a fair bit older so you’re not going to be quite as comfy. But a cabin still gives you your own ensuite, albeit in a less glamorous state.
Just keep in mind that booking a cabin will seriously add to the cost of your sailing, especially when booking a trip with BC Ferries.
Tip 4: Allow Enough Time for Going through Border Control and Boarding
If you’re travelling with a vehicle, you will usually need to check in about 2 hours before departure.
At Port Hardy (Vancouver Island), check-in was quick and easy, and can be done the night before (which we did) if it’s a day sailing. For CA$20, you can even choose to sleep under the glaring lights in the ferry line-up so you don’t have to worry about getting there late. Not that we chose that option as I didn’t fancy paying $20 for staying a brightly lit glorified carpark.
If you decide to leave from Prince Rupert (Canada) for Alaska, you’ll have to go through US border control and clear customs in Prince Rupert so be prepared for that and check-in early.
We didn’t realise that we needed to go through border control outside the ferry terminal since we had a vehicle (the instructions we got upon check-in inside the terminal were extremely confusing to say the least) so we had to deal with a very, very cranky border control lady once we knew where to go.
We got a big lecture on how late we were, and then she got even crankier when we revealed we had food to declare! Also, remember that you’ll be in a different time zone as soon as you enter the Alaskan ferry terminal.
Tip 5: Declare any Food Items
If you end up travelling from Canada, i.e. Prince Rupert, to Alaska be aware of what food you take on board. Make sure you declare it all on your US customs declaration.
You can actually take quite a lot so don’t throw it all away like we almost did since it turned out ridiculously difficult to find any conclusive information on what is allowed. If you’re used to Australian customs like we are, then you kind of know what to expect…
When we travelled in August 2016, the big no-no’s were tomato, capsicum (pepper), citrus fruit (bye bye, freshly bought mandarins…), plus any fruit or vegetable that’s not from Canada or the US so eat up all those Ecuadorian bananas you bought for the journey! We had no trouble with our dairy, meat or bread products but apparently some soft cheeses or fresh milk can be problematic.
Instead of bringing your own, you can also buy food on the ferries. They don’t exactly have awesomely healthy choices (they were somewhat better on the BC ferry than the Alaskan one) but if you’re dietary-challenged like me, definitely bring your own and don’t rely on the ferry cafeterias for meals.You can keep a lot of the food in your vehicle and access it when ferry is in port as every time it docks, you can go down to the car deck, rummage around your vehicle, walk your dog or leave the ship for a quick look around the town.
Want to explore the Inside Passage by ferry? Pin for later.