If you're looking for a casual alternative to a luxury cruise, travel as Alaskans do, aboard the ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway System. These vessels may not have the same facilities as the big cruise ships, but they do meander through some beautiful regions. In summer you won't be completely without entertainment. Forest Service naturalists ride larger ferries, providing a running commentary on sights, and select routes also have an Arts-on-Board Program, which presents educators and entertainers.
Most long-haul ferries have cabins with private bathrooms. You'll need to reserve these accommodations in advance or settle for a reclining seat on the aft deck. Most ships also have cheap or free showers as well as spaces where you can roll out sleeping bags or even pitch tents. You’re welcome to bring picnics and coolers, and all long-haul ferries have cafeterias with hot meal service (not included in the fare), along with concession stands and vending machines. Some larger boats even have cocktail lounges.
You can make reservations by phone or online and have tickets mailed to you or arrange to pick them up from the ferry office at your starting point. Book as far in advance as possible for summertime travel, especially if you have a vehicle. You can pay for ferry travel with credit card (American Express, Discover, MasterCard, or Visa), cashier's check, or money order.
You should also book ahead for the Bellingham–Ketchikan journey. The Bellingham–Ketchikan route costs roughly $240 one way in summer. Shorter trips cost anywhere from $30 to $190 one way. Note that there are surcharges for vehicles (including motorcycles), bicycles, and kayaks. Renting cabins will also increase the fare significantly.
The AlaskaPass offers rental-car usage and unlimited travel on ferry and rail lines in Alaska, along with rental-car usage and ferry travel in British Columbia and the Yukon. Passes are available for 15 consecutive days of travel ($879), as well as for 8 days of travel in a 12-day period ($749) or 12 days of travel in a 21-day period ($899). There's an $85 booking fee. Most travelers book their entire itinerary in advance; if you don't have a car, there's usually room on ferries for those without prebookings.
Alaska Marine Highway (907/465–3941 or 800/642–0066. www.ferryalaska.com.)
Inter-Island Ferry Authority (907/225–4848 Ketchikan Terminal; 907/530–4848 Hollis Terminal; 866/308–4848. www.interislandferry.com.)
The Inside Passage route, which stretches from Bellingham, Washington (or Prince Rupert, British Columbia), all the way up to Skagway and Haines, is the most popular route, mimicking that of most major cruise lines. The Bellingham–Ketchikan trip, the longest leg, takes roughly 37 hours. (The trip from Prince Rupert to Ketchikan takes six hours; BC Ferries provide service from Vancouver to Prince Rupert.) Other trips along the Inside Passage take from three to eight hours.
Sporadic summer service across the Gulf of Alaska from either Prince Rupert, Ketchikan, or Juneau links Southeast with South Central Alaska destinations (trips usually end in Whittier, about 60 miles south of Anchorage). There's further service to limited ports in South Central Alaska as well as connecting service to the Southwest from Whittier and Homer to Kodiak and Port Lions, respectively. Southwest ferries can take you all the way to Dutch Harbor.
Two high-speed catamarans can cut travel time in half. The MV Fairweather is based in Juneau and serves Petersburg and Sitka. In summer the MV Chenega, based in Cordova, serves Prince William Sound, with stops in Valdez and Whittier. In fall and winter its route changes, serving either the same route as the Fairweather or Ketchikan to Juneau via Wrangell and Petersburg.
The Inter-Island Ferry Authority connects Southeast Alaska's Prince of Wales Island with the towns of Ketchikan, Wrangell, and Petersburg.
Note that although major ports like Juneau and Ketchikan will likely have daily departures, service to smaller towns is much more sporadic—one departure per week in some cases.