It’s a ferry, not a cruise

It’s a ferry, not a cruise. After an interesting 3 days of interacting with the Alaska Marine Highway System, I find it prudent to write a proper synopsis in hopes of informing other travelers of our experience.

When I first sat down to write this, it was a very detailed account and I realized that it was a rant that was coming across as snobbish rather than helpful. As a result, I’m going to provide a slightly more objective, less subjective account and let people decide for themselves. I wish I had read an account like ours prior to boarding. It would not have changed anything about our plans, but life is about expectation management, or at least my life is, so being front-loaded with some personal experiences would have been appreciated.

It’s a ferry; it’s not a cruise. Due to the high cost of our tickets, we had to keep reminding ourselves that it’s a ferry, not a cruise. When Jon had the desire to take the ferry up to Alaska, rather than drive, I thought it would be a cool way to get up there. I’ve flown in before but you can’t fly the van up there. The ferry trip was a bucket list item and as a result we splurged on getting a room with a window and a private shower. The pricey ticket was well paid for by the time we boarded in Bellingham, WA. The vehicle cost alone was half the price of the entire ticket (Note…you get charged by the foot after 18’). Everything about this ferry adventure from doing research online to booking to boarding to life aboard the vessel to pet management has been fine, just fine, but it was lacking. If Jon and I had not been seasoned travelers I think it would have been wildly confusing. We got to our ports on time, we departed on time, the weather was stellar and we arrived safely. However, everything in-between from the customer service to the cleanliness to the food to the vibe was sub par.


Searching and booking the ferry online is confusing at best. At the end of the day and completely by accident, we ended up booking through a travel agent. This lead to some communication breakdown and I wish we could have booked directly with the company…The STATE OF ALASKA DOT but that was proving to be impossible. We learned from other passengers that they also were blind sided by a third party during booking. Traveller be ware and ask questions.



Because we had a vehicle, we had to be in line 3 hours prior to departure. We followed signs to “vehicle check in”, which was obvious. What was less than obvious was the passenger check-in that was also required. No one in the vehicle boarding area told us about this step and that added to the confusion once we got aboard and were getting our cabin assignment.

The day before we left we realized we had listed and paid for the van as 20’ instead of 19’. So I called my contact and asked her to look in to the refund price since the rig was measuring shorter and we paid by the foot. The answer was, yes there was a refund but because we were “cancelling” that extra foot that we paid for in vehicle length within 24 hours of departure, we would have to pay a penalty. All in all, it would cost us $20 to pay for the proper length vehicle. Forget it.

It was also at this time that I confirmed bed linens, shower towels and bar soap would be provided. Meals would be available for purchase on the ship.

Furthermore, my contact asked me if anyone had told us about the ship change.

What was that now????

We had specifically booked our trip on the Columbia because of its reputation as being a nice ship with good food options, including a seafood buffet on Sunday evenings. I informed her no one had told us and she mentioned that she was afraid that might be the case. It turns out that our trip got longer by 5 hours and included a mid voyage ship change, which means driving the van on and off, in Ketchikan. If I had not called when would we have learned this information? When we got the van lined up in Bellingham, we asked the women in the booth about the logistics of the ship change and she said she had no idea. We would learn later that no one on the ship new of the logistics until 30 min before we were at port.

Of note, however, it was during vehicle check in that we had to present Penny’s Health Certificate. The state of Alaska doesn’t require it but the ferry does. Good to know because I had been curious and wasn’t sure if we needed that certificate for land crossings (which are not required, only need rabies certificate).

When it was nearing 6pm, we drove on to the ship and learned that it was hot on the car deck. Like 90 degrees and I started to panic knowing that we were leaving Penny down below in the van. I asked one of the employees if it would get any cooler on the car deck. She informed me that it might cool down by the following morning, but the car deck is fairly closed off from air. I’ve never been happier to have our cooling systems in place (See previous post about How Penny Love Keeps Her Cool). We were worried about running out of power to keep the vent fan running without solar for 38 hours, but we knew Ellie was equipped to handle it and we had a battery fan for back up. We had plenty of battery left when we got in to Ketchikan. In hindsight, tons of other dogs did totally fine with simply cracked windows, but I felt better knowing we were keeping it extra comfortable in the van for Penny. One of my fears was that this ferry ride would sour Penny on living in the van and that’s probably what stressed me more than anything else. Again, in hindsight, she was fine and she still likes the van and all is well in the world.

I also asked someone where our dogs could do their business once we were allowed to see them. It was then, once we were on board, that I found out they were invited to “go” on the car deck, on concrete, amongst other cars, with tons of other dogs. And it’s up to the owners to use the provided spray and bags to clean up after the dog. WTF?! Prior to this trip I asked a ton of people about where Penny would be allowed to go to the bathroom and everyone told me there would be a spot. My fault for assuming the “spot” would be more dog friendly and less barbaric. Thankfully we had worked with her vet prior to this trip and had found a light sedation, which just made her groggy but didn’t upset her belly. So we jammed that down her throat and we were off to find our room. I was sweating and anxious for the first time in many months. This was turning out to be a taxing travel day and thus far on the trip we’d been spoiled.


Life Aboard The Mighty Malaspina (i.e. NOT The Columbia)

The rooms were fine. Metal bunk beds against metal walls. We had a cabin in the stern of the boat and it rattled, badly. I think it’s properly called steerage. We were also right next to the kid room, which, thankfully, closed at 9pm. The food was expensive and fairly gross. I’m glad we brought a lot of our own. The shower was warm. The overall fixtures, carpet, seats aboard the Malispina were dated, dirty and unappealing. The staff was uniformed and sloppy. They were nice enough but no one knew the answers to our questions. A common answer was “I don’t know” and was never followed by “but I’ll find out who does”. Good and bad things in life usually happen based on good or bad communication. Clearly the ferry system has some issues internally which is translating to their staff and the customer service delivery is poor at best.

Pet Care

There are car deck calls at set times and they are posted by purser’s office, along with other information you might to know, like time due in a port, weather, how many laps around the deck make a mile (8 by the way).  We went down to visit Penny and it was so sad. Honestly, she was totally fine but it was just a sad sight seeing all these humans trying to convince their pups that it was ok to pee on concrete. It simply wasn’t happening. In 38 hours Penny peed one marathon pee one time. I tried to get her to go again and even went to far as to massage her bladder a little, but it didn’t work. She did pee in the van and it breaks my heart. She got it all on the mats by the driver door as if she was trying to get out, best place if you ask me, and it happened moments before we got to her at our first port call in Ketchikan. I was so worried about dehydration, organ failure or a bladder infection due to lack of voiding that we gave her water in between visits, which, in hindsight, was a poor choice for lots of reasons. She hit her tipping point. Poor thing. At that point I was thankful that we had to unload the van from the ferry so we could go to a carwash and wash everything. Really it all worked out. It ended up not being a big deal at all. She pooped 5 times on land, FIVE! After the initial 38 hours was over, we had 4 ports in 24 hours and at each one we were allowed to get off with our dogs. Much better.

Life Aboard The Columbia

When we first got on the new ship in Ketchikan I was gitty with excitement. It was updated, cleaner, and brighter. There was a fancy dining room with linens (the location of the alleged seafood buffet) and the deck had a lovely area with heat lamps for those folks sleeping outside. It was simply nicer and I was happy. We got our room assignment without a problem and we settled in to our new home for the next 24 hours. It became clear within the first one hour of the voyage that the steerage in this room was 10x worse than the other ship. Jon and I had to yell to hear each other.  Thankfully, the purser was able to switch our room quickly. We got moved to an empty handicap room, which was, once again; across from the kids play room and a common hang out area. Having not slept the night before due to noise, late car deck calls, early port, I had to ask people at 10:30pm to move away from our door. That allowed me some sleep before overhead announcements started at 6 am.

Jon’s 39th birthday was on our last day at sea and we had planned on the much talked about seafood buffet the night prior to our arrival. Jon clarified with an employee that the seafood buffet was indeed going to happen. However, that employee was incorrect. There was no seafood buffet. Determined to have a good meal we continued with plans to eat in the dining room, rather than the snack bar, and waited over 90 minutes for our dinner to be served. During that time we had a port call so I went to get Penny while Jon waited to get our food delivered and then packed to go. It turns out the entire dining room staff was new and the credit card machine was down. It took about 20 minutes to pay our bill, which was about twice as much as it should have been, but I couldn’t even argue.


The last bit worth mentioning comes down to safety. When getting on an off at port, the crew was supposed to scan you off the ship and then back on. This way they could account for your body in their head count. We had four ports of call in the last stretch of the trip and sometimes they scanned us on, sometimes they did not. Sometimes they took our boarding passes and gave them back. Sometimes they did not. At our last stop in Haines we held out our personal, vehicle and pet boarding passes and the attendant said, “Forget it. We are not even bothering”. I heard him tell another agent that they had no idea of the head count on the ship because the scanners were not working.

Again, overall it was fine. But for quite a bit of cash, I felt that the customer service, communication and overall state of the staff were sub par and that made for a less than delightful experience. In my onion the state of Alaska has an opportunity to promote the state and tourism on the ferry, but they do not. Instead the staff presents as a jaded, uninterested and uninformed group of state employees who could care less about their customer’s feedback or initial thoughts about their great state.

Our plan has always been to drive the Alcan back down to the lower 48. Would this experience deter me from taking the ferry again? No, although I don’t want to get back on it tomorrow. Do I wish we had not done it? No. It’s functional and punctual, but just know that the only thing that comes with the cost is a place to park and a less than average place to lay your head. Know that if you’re bringing a dog, they are going to be fine, but times are going to be rough on both of you at first.



5 thoughts on “It’s a ferry, not a cruise

  1. Peter Robbins

    Another well done.

    Sent from my iPhone



  2. So sorry to read that the ferry trip was a bit of a drag.
    Hopefully it will be smooth sailing from now on.


  3. Katie Schroeter

    I am really enjoying reading your blog. I love the comments about Penny, the toileting on the ferry would break my heart too! She sounds like a wonderful dog. Hope the rest of the trip is enjoyable & safe.


  4. Limping Dog Farm

    We are just getting ready to retire and looking to purchase a sprinter passenger van, to haul 2 touring bikes and sleep in 1-2 nights per week. We plan on taking a few 6-8 week road trips over the course of the year. Is an exhaust fan necessary for sleeping in. Just came across your site-really enjoy it.


    • Pamela Robichaud

      Good for you! No, an extra exhaust is not necessary for sleeping. We did install a Webasto heater but we barely ever use it and never sleep with it. We do have a carbon monoxide detector tho. Otherwise we usually sleep w vented Windows and ceiling vent open but that’s because it’s not winter and we like it cool. It has nothing to do w air quality. Air quality inside is totally fine. Let us know if you have other questions. Have FUN!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s