A cruise to Alaska can be among the most memorable experiences of a lifetime. Perhaps that is why selecting an itinerary is overwhelming for many passengers. With so much to see in the 49th state, and with so little time to do so, narrowing down the options can be a stressful part of the planning. How do you know if you are making the right decisions?
To assist passengers in their search for the best-fit Alaska cruise, this Examiner developed the following list of questions to use as a guide or checklist when talking with your travel agent
1. Start with a basic question—what type of cruise vessel do you have in mind? There are many choices, ranging from the large cruise ships of the mainstream lines to smaller sightseeing vessels. The latter can reach Alaskan ports and inlets that the large ships cannot while the larger ships offer more of the amenities that many cruisers have come to expect.
2. What time of year can you go? Alaska cruise itineraries run, generally, from mid-May to late September. Not surprisingly, there will be more families onboard during June and July—so, if you are limited to that time frame, book early. The earlier in the season you go, the greater your chances of seeing picturesque blocks of ice among the glaciers. August is a good time to see the running of the salmon. Also note that some itineraries are offered a few times during the season, which will influence your travel dates.
3. How much time do you have for your travels? Alaska itineraries vary in length from seven nights to more than 14 nights. The addition of a land tour (described in the next section) can stretch this out to another three to at least ten nights. And, don’t forget to leave a cushion of at least one full day in the embarkation port in the event of airline delays.
4. Cruise only or land tour? These two terms are used frequently to describe, respectively, a holiday that consists entirely of the cruise (and, perhaps the pre-cruise cushion mentioned above) and one that combines the cruise with a guided, multi-day tour of inland Alaska, British Columbia, or the Yukon. The land portion can last from several days to a couple of weeks and may be taken before or after your cruise.
5. One way or round trip? A typical 7-night round-trip cruise takes you to Juneau, Ketchikan, either Skagway or Sitka, and at least one glacial area. To experience Anchorage or the Alaskan inland requires either a 7-night one-way cruise (either northbound from Seattle or southbound from Seward) or a 14-night round-trip cruise. You can also combine a northbound cruise and a southbound cruise for a round-trip, although you will likely repeat ports in the process. Other than the ports of call, another consideration is the cost and availability of flights, which is discussed in the next section.
6. Ports of embarkation and debarkation. Round-trip Alaska cruises typically start and end in either Vancouver or Seattle. One consideration is the ease of getting to these ports. For example, Vancouver International Airport offers non-stop flights to and from 24 cities in the U.S., versus 75 for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Yet, cruises from Vancouver are far more likely to transit the Inside Passage in both Canada and the U.S. while geography limits those from Seattle to the U.S. portion. One-way cruises will either start or end in Seward and a transfer to Anchorage will be needed to fly in or out.
7. Are there any must-see destinations for you? While the first image that comes to mind when thinking about Alaska cruising is likely a glacier, there are many additional sights to see and adventures to experience. If you’d like to travel on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, look for a cruise that calls on Skagway. Nature lovers might seek out Ketchikan for its rain forest and the serene Misty Fjord. History or architecture buffs might enjoy the Russian-influenced city of Sitka. As for the glaciers, not all are available on every cruise. For example, College Fjord’s proximity to Seward means it is an option only on cruises that go that far north.
8. How much time will you have in each port, and at what time of day? Longer port calls give you the opportunity to make more than one excursion or to venture deeper into the interior. For example, the White Pass Railroad & Yukon Adventure tour from Skagway requires approximately eight hours, so a long port stay is necessary. And, due to the Passenger Services Act, cruises that begin or end in Seattle or San Francisco need to make a stop in a Canadian port of call. Victoria, British Columbia is often used for this purpose, and calls there can be as few as four hours.
9. In addition to the cost of the cruise and transportation to the ship, what is your budget for shore excursions? Sightseeing in Alaska can be expensive, ranging from less than $50 per person for a highlights tour by bus to more than $300 per person for helicopter or floatplane excursions. Still, a balance is possible as many sites are a reasonable distance from the ship or tender dock, including Creek Street in Ketchikan and pretty much everything in Sitka.
10. Don’t forget about the ship! While the main draw of Alaska is the itinerary, selecting the right cruise line and ship can make the trip more enjoyable. This pertains to everything from the behemoths to the small cruising vessels. The usual considerations apply, such as the cabin types, dress code, dining options, size of ship, adventure levels of shore excursions, onboard entertainment, and the demographics of your party. Still, don’t feel bound by a favorite cruise line—it might not offer the itinerary you want, and there may be plenty of similarities between the mainstream cruise lines.
What advice would you give to travelers planning a cruise to Alaska? Please share your ideas in the comment box below.