Away from the coasts, folks might think of ferry boats as antiquated or obsolete. But in the watery parts of the continent, public ferries are still a crucial part of the transportation infrastructure. They connect coastal (or lakeside, or riverfront) communities, and take commuters and students to and from their homes. For visitors, they offer inexpensive cruising through some otherwise spendy waters. These four will take you out on the high seas (or, you know, lake) for pennies.
The Best Cheap Boat Trips: Staten Island
It’s a short ride, but the five-mile hop from the tip of lower Manhattan over to Staten Island, the fifth and often-forgotten borough, packs in some big views. The ferry cruises by the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and also offers a look back at the most famous city skyline in the world. Best of all, it’s free.
Board on the Manhattan side at the Whitehall (or South Ferry) terminal, and on the Staten Island side, you can disembark, circle around, and climb on board again. The round trip takes about an hour.
The Best Cheap Boat Trips: The Inside Passage
This is the big one. The Alaska Marine Highway System runs a ferry the length of the passage, starting in Bellingham, Washington, and winding up in Juneau after a three-day voyage through gloomy, beautiful islands and ethereal fog. Leave your car behind and ditch the cabin reservation. Instead, bring a tent and some groceries and camp out with the masses on the deck – the no-frills version of the trip will run you just $326.
Alaskan ferries also travel throughout the communities of the Southeast – the rides from Juneau to Sitka or Haines are lovely – and across the Gulf of Alaska to the Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak Island, and all the way out west to the Aleutian chain.
The Best Cheap Boat Trips: Seattle to the Olympic Peninsula
Washington State Ferries runs a handful of routes from the Seattle area across Puget Sound: Edmonds to Kingston, Seattle to Bainbridge Island and Bremerton, West Seattle to Southworth. On a clear day, all of them come with horizon-wide views of the Olympic Range. Even when it’s socked in, there’s something wonderful about leaving the big city, incubating on a foggy ferry boat, and then emerging on the doorstep of Olympic National Park.
The Best Cheap Boat Trips: MS Chi-Cheemaun
On Lake Huron, the Chi-Cheemaun runs from the small Ontario community of Tobermory, on the tip of the Bruce Peninsula, across to Manitoulin, the largest lake island in the world. It’s a scenic trip: The water around Tobermory is shockingly clear, and loaded with wrecks and strange rock formations. Part of the area is protected by Fathom Five National Marine Park.
There are a handful of other remaining Great Lakes ferries, too, mainly clustered around Wisconsin and Michigan. Coastal snobs might roll their eyes, but the size of the lakes is staggering, and the best way to see them is from the deck of a boat.
The Best Cheap Boat Trips: Runners-Up
Can't make any of these boats? There are plenty of other great ferry trips scattered across North America. BC Ferries runs a handful of routes, including a run through a portion of the Inside Passage and a trip out to Haida Gwaii. For skyline-lovers, the San Francisco-Sausalito ferry delivers. And the long ride from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, out to the far-flung province of Newfoundland, can be wild— particularly if you go, like I did, during hurricane season.