The Alaska Marine Highway System runs along Alaska's Pacific coast. Nine vessels sail the 3,500-mile route from Bellingham, Wash., through the famous Inside Passage to Unalaska at the end of the Aleutian Islands chain. Most routes operate year-round.

Because it is a means of public transportation designed for Alaskans who live in cities and towns unconnected by roads, everyone officially associated with the system will disavow any comparisons to a cruise line. Still, it is a comfortable, affordable and uncrowded way to see coastal Alaska.

And sometimes, as Capt. George Capacci, general manager of the Marine Highway, noted, "Transportation is a destination."

What to know: Sleeping cabins are available on most vessels, but it is acceptable to bring your sleeping bag and unroll it in one of the lounges. (If you don't have one, you can rent a blanket and pillow.) Pitching small, freestanding tents (no stakes, please!) is permissible in areas of the upper decks. Most vessels have public showers; all have food and beverage service.

Cost: As a public transportation system, the Marine Highway is partially subsidized by the state. That means fares are reasonable. For example, we paid about $65 each for the passage from Valdez to Seward and an additional $120 for toting our minivan. Fares vary according to destination; the charge for a vehicle depends on its size. (A 25-foot RV would have cost us $275.)

While reservations usually aren't needed if you are a walk-on passenger, they are if you have a vehicle. Also, those with vehicles must check in from one to three hours before departure, depending on the port.

More information: The Marine Highway has an excellent and extensive Web site at www.state.ak.us/ferry. The site includes information on schedules, fares, vessels, routes, ports and special events. You also can make reservations online or by calling 1-800-642-0066.