I'm posting this in case others need help with ferry travel. I planned a trip with my folks for this Summer. The first tip is to pull up the SE General schedule and copy and paste the days out that you have for travel. If possible, do your ferry schedule before you buy flights- we moved our schedule back a day and were able to make things work a lot easier.
Once you've copied and pasted the north and south bound schedules, you can see what towns it's possible to make it to. Be a bit careful with the schedules- I found that the colored schedule was different than the pdf one (and called to point that out, so they may have it fixed soon), but they also told me that the times you get when you actually make up the itinerary are the best (and those were slightly different from both the colored schedule and the pdf).
I worked out about four different options and then we made our decisions based on that. We had towns we wanted to go to more than others, but we were interested in about a half dozen. We'll be able to make it to four of them (including Juneau).
If you want to go to Ketchikan but then still spend more than a day in at least three other places, it might be a good idea to fly into there rather than Juneau. It was a town I was contemplating early on, but getting there and back just wasn't feasible since we wanted to spend a decent chunk of time in other places.
Amount of time spent in each place:
Juneau - 2 days
Petersburg - 3.5 days
Haines - 1 day
Sitka - 1.5 days
With the ferry, a lot of your 'days' will be half days. When you are deciding on how much time to spend in each place, figure out which places you want to do full day trips from, then figure out how to make those fit your schedule first. Sitka was easiest for us to spend two half days in because none of what we wanted to do there is a full day tour.
We leave Juneau at 5:45 on Thursday the 24th and arrive in Petersburg at 2am that night/Friday morning. I was told that all but the fast ferries are often a bit early into port, so that's good to know. Since we're all night owls, we didn't get a berth for this ferry.
We are then staying in Petersburg Fri, Sat, Sun and Monday until noon. We were lucky enough to get in with Grant and Lila at Das Hagedorn Haus. They have a nice looking daylight basement apartment with a bed in the bedroom and a futon as well for incredibly reasonable rates. Not many places have more than one bed per room in Petersburg, so we were looking at having to rent two rooms which would have been double what we are paying now. I called about ten days ago and they were booked, then they called back ten minutes later. They'd just looked at their e-mail and my dates had opened up due to another customer re-scheduling. As I've been talking to them, I'm more and more happy about that. They are incredibly helpful, personable and really have already gone out of their way for us. If they are half as fantastic when we actually get there, it's going to be a great few days.
We are going fishing and whale watching while we are there. We also could have gotten on a boat coming from Wrangell to head out to Anan for bear viewing, but we're hoping to see some in Haines and the chance to see whales bubble net feeding trumped the bears.
Note- there aren't many place in town that do fishing and whale watching day tours. Not sure how Hanging with friends- will chat later Petersburg gets with tourists, but if you want to go there, book early. A few places do multi day fishing trips, and a couple others rent boats, but I believe there are only two or three outfits that do fishing and whale watching and they do it from small, 6 person boats.
We leave Petersburg on Monday the 28th and head to Sitka. It's a 12+ hour trip, so we grabbed a berth for this one.
Nearly a full day in Sitka if we can get up at a decent hour and then we head out to Juneau on the fast ferry at noon on Wednesday. We're staying at the Super 8 at Sitka. The two B&Bs I liked most were booked and a third was a bit high in price. I found that the Super 8 has one room with three queens in it. The rest of the rooms had either one queen or two doubles in them.
We spend the afternoon and night in Juneau and then head to Haines on Thursday, arriving a bit after noon. Staying at the Best Western Country Inn both nights we are in Juneau. The prices for the B&Bs were way higher than the rest of the SE towns and more than anywhere else I've been in Alaska. The Best Western we are in is only $180/night with taxes and that includes a shuttle that runs to the ferry, to the airport and to downtown, so on top of saving money on the lodging, we'll save money on cabs as well.
We're staying at the Chilkoot River Lodge in Haines and will be renting a car to get around. They have three rooms that each have two queen beds and their rate is just $150/night. Looks really nice, but is outside town, so might not work for folks without a vehicle. I'm hoping we'll be closer to the bears this way. Mombear, let me know if I've got that wrong. We can always drive to better viewing places, too.
We'll be in Haines until about 4pm Friday, then back to Juneau.
Staying all day Saturday in Juneau to see things without needing to rush and then we fly back to Anchorage that evening.
I'll definitely post a trip report, especially for Petersburg since it doesn't seem like many people go there (one of the reasons I was eager to choose it). I just wanted to toss some things out there in case anyone else was wanting to plan a ferry trip. I've seen others do it, but seems like most of those people stayed on the same ferry. Unfortunately, that doesn't leave you a good amount of time in the towns. We go back to Juneau in between once since most ferries start or end there, but working your schedule to grab the next ferry headed south works, too. You just have to pick towns that the ferry gets to more than once a week, or plan on staying a while somewhere.
Mombear, correct me if I'm off-base on anything. I'm sure you have a lot more experience than I do with ferry travel. Can't wait to see Haines and the rest of your southeast soon! :)