Plenty has been written about cruises to Alaska. Alaskan cruises are, after all, one of the most popular cruise vacations available, and all of the major cruise lines (and many of the smaller ones) offer them throughout the year. But these types of cruises – the ones offered by cruise lines that most people mean by the words “Alaskan cruises” – are leisure cruises, taken almost exclusively for vacations. However, there is another type of cruise in Alaska (if it can even be called a cruise) that is run by the Alaska Marine Highway System, operated by the government of the state of Alaska. Being a governmental service, the Alaska Marine Highway System serves a utilitarian function – they do not offer cruises for pleasure, but rather cruises for pure transportation purposes. It’s a highly unique system that really only makes sense in a state like Alaska, and since it is so unique, we thought our readers (cruise enthusiasts that they are) would like to know a bit about it. So, that said, what is the Alaska Marine Highway System?
The Alaska Marine Highway System did not begin in 1948 as a governmental operation of the state, but it became one shortly thereafter, in 1951. However, there are two anachronisms in this last sentence: Alaska wasn’t even a state in 1951 – that happened in 1959 – so at first it was run by the territorial government, and the service began as the Alaska Marine Highway, with “Service” being added in 1963. A few years later, in 1967, the “highway” was extended to the south to include terminals in Prince Rupert, British Colombia and Seattle, Washington. The Seattle terminal remained the southernmost terminal for 22 years, but in 1989, it was replaced by a terminal in Bellingham, Washington (so there is no longer an AMHS terminal at all in Seattle). The terminals in Prince Rupert, British Colombia and Bellingham, Washington are the only stops along the AMHS that are outside of Alaska.
Since 1963, the AMHS has served essentially the same function: to transport people, goods, and vehicles. Since the vast majority of terminals are located in Alaska, the service is primarily aimed at providing transportation between Alaskan communities (there are 33 attached to the system), although its connection to Canada and the contiguous United States broadens its service objectives. The service, which as part of the National Highway Service receives federal funding, is necessary to provide transportation to parts of Alaska that have no road access. A look at the AMHS map, and a close examinations of the towns it serves, shows just how remote and isolated some of the communities along the AMHS are. Obviously, as stated above, this clearly distinguishes a trip on an AMHS vessel (of which there are 11) from any traditional cruises offered by a cruise line. However, there are some basic similarities because AMHS trips can take several days. Consequently, there are cafeterias and cabins for sleeping on board, although these cost extra.
Given that these amenities are available on board, you might wonder, reasonably enough, if you could take one of these trips and treat it as a pleasure cruise. The answer can only be “yes,” as the possibility of taking an AMHS trip as a cruise vacation will basically only depend on one’s attitude toward the journey. Although the AMHS serves the practical functions outlined above, it is widely used for recreational purposes, and indeed such uses are prominently advertised on the AMHS website. You could take one of these cruises for sightseeing – they offer excellent views of Alaska – and you could get on and off them to participate in the various activities that Alaska has to offer (fishing, hiking, camping etc.).
As far as how prices compare between AMHS trips and cruise vacations, it’s hard to draw meaningful comparisons because the two serve different functions. A cruise vacation generally leaves from some port in the contiguous US, sails around Alaska for a week or so, and then returns to the same port. On this vacation, your accommodation will be covered, and in many cases your food will be as well. AMHS journeys are often quite short (there are many day trips), and even if they last multiple days, you end up in a different place than where you began – that’s kind of the point (although round-trip journeys are of course possible). This means that the prices vary wildly for AMHS trips. A short trip could cost only 20-30 dollars (or even less), whereas long trips (between, say, the Bellingham and Skagway terminals) cost over 400 dollars per person. If you add a room, this could add several hundred dollars to the total (depending on what type of room you need). In general, AMHS prices seem reasonable, but you can also get some extremely good deals through the major cruise lines, so it’s hard to say which one is cheaper in ultimate terms. It totally depends on what you are trying to accomplish (and what kind of deals the cruise lines are offering).
In short, the Alaska Marine Highway System is exactly as its name implies: it is part of the highway system of Alaska, but it operates on water instead of land. This makes AMHS’s function highly practical – as practical as any other highway, really – although a trip on one of the service’s vessels is a lot like a regular Alaskan cruise.