Ferry trips: How to spot the good deals

A ferry nice journey

Love the idea of a scenic cruise but it’s not in your budget? Try an extended ferry ride and enjoy spectacular scenery for less

Jessica Payne; Courtesy of Hurtigruten

Jessica Payne; Courtesy of Hurtigruten

You’re on deck snapping selfies with saw-tooth peaks, tree-fringed shorelines and an emerging ocean sunset streaked with tangerine hues. It’s the kind of visual spa treatment that underlines why you love cruising British Columbia’s spectacular Inside Passage.

Except this isn’t a cruise — it’s the BC Ferries (www.bcferries.com) service from Vancouver Island’s Port Hardy to mainland Prince Rupert, a day-long odyssey through a dramatic real-life diorama that’s so alluring, the cruise ship companies have been plying the route for years.

But while there are few cruise-like extras on this boat—where are the shiny malls and endless restaurants?—the camera-loving scenery is the same no matter what you pay. And alongside the ferry’s shop, cafeteria and buffet options, basic cabins can even be booked if you fancy a nap.

One-way fares start at $116 per person (cabins from $85 more), compared with cruise line tickets that can top $2,000 per couple—although of course the cruises are longer, their amenities deluxe and they typically take you to Alaska and back.

But that’s not the point. Rather than floating resorts, such extended ferry services—one of several tempting options around the world—are about the journey, the unfolding scenery and the locals taking the boat with you. And instead of excursions to onshore tourist haunts, you can typically bring a car, which is ideal for extended regional explorations.

That’s a major hook on the Spirit of Tasmania run between Melbourne and Australia’s favourite island (www.spiritoftasmania.com.au). From $200 return for two, you can slide into reclining, armchair-style seats for the crossing, add $400 for a private cabin or bring a vehicle (from $90 extra).

Onboard, you’ll have plenty of time to plan your Tasmania driving route, while checking out the ship’s bars, restaurants and cinema. Peruse the company’s website before you choose your travel dates—its Package For Two specials can save you a bundle.

Rates are even more appealing—around $435 per person, bed and meals included—in Chile, where Navimag Ferries (www.navimag.com) offers three-night sailings along the Patagonian coastline between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales. Conserve your camera battery for the mammoth Brüggen Glacier, the continent’s largest.

Cabins are neat and functional (bunk beds and small private showers), and you’ll be expected to share your quarters unless you pay extra. But you won’t be spending much time in your room anyway.

Breathtaking fjord-studded views aside, onboard pastimes include parties, lectures and—from September to April—bilingual guides. There’s also a bar, with a tasty Chilean wine bias.

Fjords also star in a Northern Hemisphere favourite. Norway’s Hurtigruten (www.hurtigruten.com), a shipping company that’s been linking wave-licked communities with Bergen since 1893, has increasingly focused on tourism in recent years, upgrading its boats in the process.

Excellent bars and restaurants are part of the onboard mix and many cabins have a mid-range hotel feel. But while you can roll out a sleeping bag in the lounge for routes that run up to 11 days, you should book ahead if you want a room, especially in summer.

Alternatively, sail off-peak. Like most ferry operators, Hurtigruten operates year-round, which means good shoulder-season deals. Their website recently listed six-day winter packages—meals and cabin included—for around $1,000. The bonus? You might see the Northern Lights.

Or, try further south. Among Superfast Ferries’ (www.superfast.com) sun-dappled routes, its Adriatic jaunt from Patras in Greece to Ancona in central Italy offers two ways to avoid sleeping in your seat: book a cabin or, if you’re smart enough to tour Europe by camper van, you can sleep in it onboard. Facilities include bars, pools and casinos and rates start from $340 return for aircraft-style seats for two. Go to their website for the best deals.

Back on BC Ferries, you might be jealous about the cruise ships sailing past Prince Rupert to Alaska. But don’t end your trip just yet. Instead, explore Rupert—North Pacific Cannery museum recommended—then hop the next Alaska Marine Highway ferry (www.ferryalaska.com) northwards.

Not as fancy as their BC Ferries counterparts, you’ll still have wider access to Alaska’s many ice-framed communities than the cruise ships provide: the 25-hour Ketchikan to Haines ($146 per person) stretch is particularly popular. And as you point your camera at the marine life alongside, you’ll realize that what’s outside the boat is what cruising should be all about.