cruise or ferry system

Old Apr 30th, 2019, 05:54 PM
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cruise or ferry system

Hi, I'm hoping to go to Alaska in August and am looking for recommendations for the best small cruise ships. The prices and itineraries seem very similar. Any advice about which is best? Is using the ferry system a viable option to taking a formal cruise when it comes to being cheaper but yet still seeing wildlife and glaciers? Thanks in advance for any thoughts/help.
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Old May 1st, 2019, 01:37 AM
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We combined the ferry with a visit to the Anchorage area but since our son was moving to AK, his jeep went along on the ferry. We departed in Skagway. We needed to have reservations for both his vehicle and a cabin. Our ship was the Columbia. Food was mediocre and the 4 bunk cabin we had was very small but efficient. Many people choose to sleep or tent on the fan deck so there is a rush to get spots when people board. I enjoyed every lecture given on board, I think there were several each day but you also have a lot of free time. The ferry is much smaller than a cruise boat so it goes up the Passage where larger boats can't travel. I think we saw one orca and no glaciers but there was some interesting scenery along the way. The best way to see sea wildlife and glaciers is to take a small day trip out of Seward or Whittier. Since we were basically traveling through we did not have very much time at any ports to look around. Some people plan their trip to depart at certain ports and then catch another ferry another day. This takes planning. Despite planning months ahead, we had to stay in Skagway an extra night so we could go on the train trip. All the tickets for the first day had been bought up by cruise ship passengers.
Our experience in Skagway was interesting. There were thousands of people wandering the streets while the cruise ship was in port but they all disappeared at the end of the day so my fears of crowded restaurants was unfounded.
Although the ferry was a great experience traveling with "locals", I much preferred another trip which was land/air. We traveled by car where and when we wanted, this time based in Kenai but traveling north for an event in Palmer and then further north to Talkeetna then back south to enjoy Seward and Homer. It was late June thru the first week of July. A mother moose and calf visited nearby. Eagles in Homer were magnificent. I loved the Forest Faire in Girdwood and the Kenai 4th of July parade. There was a noticeable change in traffic on the Seward Highway when the salmon run started on the Russian River. If you like independent travel you can wander at will and possibly enjoy meeting local people. A net fisherman in Kenai enjoyed chatting with us and gave us a salmon to take home for supper.
If you took the ferry you could spend some time in Juneau and take tours there to see glaciers, etc. If you do a land trip you'll need to figure in the cost of car rental which was very expensive. Or you could do something like spend time in Juneau then fly to Anchorage.
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Old May 1st, 2019, 05:49 AM
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First, welcome to Fodor's!

Apples and oranges. The ferry system is primarily the "Greyhound bus" for SE Alaska although the fares (which are point-to-point, by the way, not hop-on-hop-off) are closer to airline prices on many "main line" routes. While it's a terrific experience, it's really nothing like an organized cruise. For example, the ferry docks at all hours; Petersburg is a very pleasant little town, but not so much at 2:15 AM. The ferry terminal in Juneau is at Auke Bay, 12 miles north of the city center and a fairly expensive cab ride.

Now the scenery from the ferry is often terrific, but the ferries don't do "drive-bys" of places like Glacier Bay, or travel into uninhabited inlets for the sake of the scenery. The ferries are smaller, so they can navigate some channels that the cruise ships can't, most notably the Wrangell Narrows, but the Wrangell Narrows at night don't feel all that special.

On a per-person-per-day basis, the ferry is usually a lot more expensive than the main cruise lines, since everything - passage, cabin, food - is a la carte rather than inclusive. Accommodations are clean but small, food is meh. The company can be fun, but it is everywhere in Alaska, including on cruise ships.

And finally, if your trip is planned for this August, you're almost certainly already out of luck if you want a cabin; these tend to sell out very early.

Yes, there are a number of "small ship" cruises that stick around SE Alaska and are quite wildlife- and scenery-intensive. These tend to be very expensive on a PPPD basis, but many cruisers feel they get their money's worth. But I feel obliged to say that if your aim is to see great scenery and a lot of wildlife, a day's cruise into Kenai Fjords National Park from Seward, where many of the one-way (big ship) cruises from Vancouver end, will likely fill the bill and then some, with a total cost considerably less than either the small ship cruise or the ferry + excursions.

Another option is to fly from Seattle to someplace like Juneau or, my preference, Sitka, and do some excursions from there. You could, for example, take some of the small "feeder" ferry routes to picturesque places like Tenakee Springs, or up to Gustavus for access to Glacier Bay. In the major cruise ship ports of call (Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway) there are numerous shore-based excursions available for all comers, not just cruise passengers, so if you want to go whale watching or hike on a glacier, etc., you can just join those tours.

I know this can be quite confusing to the first timer, but whatever you choose, you're going to be planning your return trip before you've left your first port of call. So maybe this turns into a "scoping" trip for more "in-depth" visits later.

Again, welcome!
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Old May 3rd, 2019, 12:15 PM
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Thanks so much. Very helpful information.
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