While many independent travellers find the strictures of ‘cruise life’ a bit stifling, there are plenty of reasons to take an Alaskan cruise, namely the two ‘Cs’: comfort and convenience. And in Alaska, a state that could take months, if not years, to thoroughly explore, you get a chance to see many of the top sights in one convenient, all-inclusive package.
Depending on the type of trip you choose, you can get a chance to disembark in port for anywhere from four to eight hours, where you can bop around town, take in a hike or an excursion, or even a longer trip inland. You also get to sit on deck and spot bald eagles hunting, humpback whales breaching and glaciers calving: not bad for a little bit of sight-seeing.
On the smaller lines, you’ll get more wildlife excursions and more stops. Backpackers, independent travellers and thrifty types can always hop on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry. You see the same sights, but you don’t get a casino, heated pool, hot-tub, B-team comedian, all-you-can-eat buffet or cruise director.
Why a Large Cruise Ship?
For the comfort of a floating all-inclusive hotel, you can’t beat a large cruise ship. These resorts on the sea do have their limitations, however. Most large cruises stop only in the major ports of call, and generally start from Vancouver or Seattle. Excursions range from heli-seeing trips and zipline tours to guided hikes, kayaks and day trips to Denali National Park. Cruises cost around $120 a night, but that does not include your flight to the port of embarkation. Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess and Royal Caribbean all offer Alaskan cruise options.
Picking your cruise route
1. Inside Passage
This is a classic route, which sails from Seattle or Vancouver up through the Inside Passage. Most trips will stop in Ketchikan, which has just about as many bars as people and some very fine totem poles. They then continue to the state capital in Juneau, home to a lovely glacier and some nice heli-seeing tours; Skagway, a gold-rush port with some nice hiking not far out of town; and the granddaddy attraction of Alaska cruises, Glacier Bay, where you’ll see 11 tidewater glaciers spilling their icy wears into the sea.
2. Gulf of Alaska
This trip includes the Inside Passage, but then continues to the Gulf of Alaska, with stops in Seward, the Hubbard Glacier and Prince William Sound. While you get a broader picture of coastal Alaska on this one-way cruise, it also comes at a price, as you’ll generally need to arrange for flights from separate ports.
3. Bering Sea
These trips are more expensive and generally focus on natural and cultural history. Folks that enjoy learning on their vacations will like this trip, with stops in the Pribilof Islands, Nome and, on the really expensive cruises, King Island.
These trips give you the chance to get off the boat for about half of your trip. Most begin with the Inside Passage cruise, then head out on a tour bus, with stops in Talkeetna, Denali National Park, Fairbanks, Eagle or the Copper River. Most cruise companies have all-inclusive hotels in these destinations (basically cruise ships without the rocking).
But this isn’t your typical Caribbean or Mediterranean cruise – this is the Last Frontier. Here are the top 10 things you should know before you embark on your first Alaskan cruise.
1. Don’t pack for summer
Summer in Alaska is like summer in San Francisco – unpredictable but mostly chilly. It’s quite windy when the ship is in motion, and about 75% of your clothes should be for fall or winter weather and the rest for the rare sunny day. Definitely pack a raincoat, hat and gloves. Check to see if there are coin-op laundry facilities on your ship. If so, you can pack lighter and wash your clothes on a sea day. Beyond the necessities, also pack a small power strip, travel clock, eye drops, ear plugs and Imodium (just in case).
2. Book a room midship if you get seasick
In general, the lower the room and the closer to the middle of the ship, the less movement you’ll feel. Although cruise ships don’t bounce around much, they do sway, especially when out on the Pacific. Also, if you’re sensitive to noise, check the ship’s floor plan and aim for a room that won’t be directly above or below an ’80s cover band.
3. Prepare to spend a load of money onboard
Don’t be fooled by the term ‘all inclusive.’ Cruise lines will make sure you spend serious money onboard the ship. Photographs, cocktails, spa treatments, yoga classes, wi-fi – there are no deals to be had. Plan on at least US$50 to US$100 per day, including gratuities. Speaking of wi-fi, it’s expensive and can be spotty. Better to unplug for a bit and work on your Cupid Shuffle.
4. Don’t book excursions through the cruise ship
You’ll save a bundle by booking excursions with private companies once you’re in port. All the popular options – float planes, helicopters, ziplines, kayaking tours, wildlife-viewing trips – are available onshore, sometimes at half the price. A few reasons you might choose to book beforehand: if you have mobility issues (they take care of transportation to and from the ship), if you have a large group to coordinate and/or want assurance you will get to go on a specific excursion, or if you’re concerned about the reputability of unknown vendors onshore. For the most part, excursions don’t sell out, even in the high season. For example, train tickets for a family of four on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad in Skagway (highly recommended) are about US$450 through the cruise line, US$360 when you buy at the train station.
Bonus tip: Don’t prioritize Mendenhall Glacier unless you’re flying to the top. You’ll get closer to a glacier onboard the ship in Glacier Bay or Tracy Arm Fjord.
5. You don’t have to book excursions to see wildlife
It’s sometimes possible to spot a bear along the coastline from your cruise ship or during an excursion that takes you out of the main port cities (same goes for bald eagles). Bring good binoculars. But if you’re hell-bent on seeing bears in the wild, you’ll need to pay good money for an inland excursion. Whales, orcas, dolphins and sea lions abound in Alaskan waters, so you’re guaranteed to spot some if you keep an eye out. That said, you’ll get much closer on a small boat excursion. (Whale-watchers, note that humpbacks don’t breach here. You’ll get a photo of a tail if you’re lucky.)
6. Bring wine (and maybe coffee)
Sorry to say it: Alcoholic beverages are not free. Neither is soda on most cruises. Beer is the best deal – weak cocktail can run US$13. There are ‘discount’ drink packages, but it’s hard to avoid a large bar tab. However, you can pack a small amount of wine and/or beer. Don’t think about sneaking on more than the cruise allows; they screen bags. While the free coffee is decent aboard cruise ships, espresso drinks cost extra, so consider bringing a bag of ground coffee and a French press or cone filter, or instant coffee as a backup.
7. Pack some fancy clothes
Most cruises have at least one formal night, when the ship is overtaken by tuxedos and sparkly gowns. You can certainly get away without participating (the buffets are always casual), but it’s fun to take part. Some of the restaurants require that you dress up on those nights. But leave the stilettos at home. You’ll thank us when you’re walking on a swaying boat after a few cocktails.
8. Take your kids
Kids love cruises. All the major cruise-ship lines cater to children, with multiple pools, activities, bunk beds, free ice cream, babysitting services and plenty of G-rated entertainment. Most have heated pools inside. (Note that some ships don’t allow swim diapers; your children must be potty-trained to go in the pool.) Trying to avoid children? Cruise before June or after mid-August, when kids will still be in school, or seek out the adults-only areas.
9. Buy from Alaskan-owned stores
A surprising fact: shopping is at the top of many people’s list on their trip to Alaska. Many of the stores in the port cities are owned by overseas companies. Tourism is very important to the Alaskan economy, so do your part and shop in locally owned stores (many of which display a sign saying ‘Alaska family owned’ or similar).
10. Book early but show up late
Alaskan cruises book up early, so start shopping around a year in advance if possible. Check multiple sources to find the best prices (eg, you might save thousands of dollars booking through Costco Travel). Then, on embarkation day, consider showing up an hour before the ship leaves. Any earlier and you’ll likely stand in line.