WHICH CRUISE OPTION?
The first thing you need to decide is whether you want to do a round trip to/from the same port, or a one-way between Vancouver and either Whittier or Seward, up near Anchorage. Both types of cruises are for seven days duration. The first option is great to see the highlights of Southeast Alaska and return to the same port, and the second option is great if you have some extra time available to spend on the land in south central and/or interior Alaska (such as Seward, Homer, Fairbanks, Denali, etc.), but will then require flying to/from Anchorage (or sometimes Fairbanks). Both types of cruises, R/T and O/W, mainly hit the same most popular scenic areas of SE Alaska (aka Inside Passage).
The cruises nearly all call at Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan, with some rarer alternatives for Haines, Icy Strait Point (Hoonah) and/or Sitka. Seattle based round trip cruises also have a compulsory docking in a Canadian port, and usually do so in Victoria, at nearly useless hours to enable much to be done/seen. There are also different options for cruising in glacier areas with some (Holland America and Princess) having access to Glacier Bay National Park, some going to Hubbard Glacier, some going to Tracy Arm.
The second decision should be which cruise itinerary best meets your needs regarding glacier viewing and preferred ports of call, having regard to your individual objectives and what you might like to do in each area. The duration of docking at individual ports varies between cruise lines and should be considered.
ROUND TRIP OPTION. (Commonly referred to as Inside Passage Cruise)
Once that decision is made, and if in favour of a round trip, your next decision is whether to sail from Seattle or Vancouver. The former takes an open sea route to the west of Vancouver Island and joins the Inside Passage south of Ketchikan, and has the obligatory docking in Victoria mentioned above, while the Vancouver cruise is quite superior, sailing between Vancouver Island and the mainland in sheltered waters with a bit of scenic viewing along the way. For a US resident it is often found that it is cheaper to fly to Seattle than it is to Vancouver, and that is one of several reasons that many of the Alaska cruises now emanate from there. However a scenic rail trip from Seattle to Vancouver and cruise from there would give a better overall trip.
For 2010 and 2011 Holland America operate a 14 day cruise round trip from Seattle which, as well as including the usual Inside Passage ports, also dock in Anchorage itself, Homer, Kodiak and Sitka.
ONE WAY TRIP OPTION.
The one-way trips, nearly all depart from Vancouver at one end, and Seward or Whittier at the other end. These also involve a day of sailing in open water through the Gulf of Alaska. Also offered are cruise tours covering the land portion, however this part of the trip can be easily organized by the traveler themselves to produce a more satisfying experience. The TA Alaska forums are an excellent resource for assistance to do that.
WHICH CRUISE LINE?
The various cruise line options available to choose from may be seen here from the cruise calendar tab to the left of the page:
From many previous reviews posted both here, and on http://www.cruisecritic.com/ (TripAdvisor’s “sister” site), there appears to be very little difference overall between the actual cruise lines on the Alaska circuit, although Holland America ships are generally about half the size of the ships used by other lines and can get into tighter places near glaciers. The demographic make up of passengers varies little between the lines, although when Disney commence sailing in 2011 it could be anticipated that cruisers with young families may prefer that line.
These are not pleasure cruises like in the Caribbean, and the cruise is often regarded as a very comfortable floating hotel taking a person to the great scenic locations in SE Alaska with lots of things to do/see while there. Many cruisers do not worry about on-board entertainment, with Alaska providing the entertainment they are seeking, though of course the ship activities are available for those who enjoy them. Some lines may have better children’s programs than others, dining options, whether freestyle or occasional formal nights, but, if doing the cruise for the sake of a cruise, you should be aware that there are really only two days of actual cruising in a seven day itinerary, whether O/W or R/T, with exception of cruising near the glaciers. The ships usually sail between the various ports at night.
Each individual has their own level of tolerance to motion sickness, so this is very hard to advise for. The Vancouver R/T cruises sail in very protected waters, only sailing in open water for a stretch between the north of Vancouver Island before entering the Inside Passage proper, while, as previously mentioned, the Seattle R/T cruises are in open water all the way before entering the Inside Passage. O/W cruises sail in open water across the Gulf of Alaska.
Cruise ships have extremely efficient stabilization systems so most passengers would not have a problem with some rough weather. If in doubt, discuss this with your medical practitioner before you travel and arrange appropriate medication.
WHICH PORT EXCURSIONS?
How long is a piece of string? This depends on what your interests are, and your budget. There are very many options available in each port from as simple as walking tours and hiking, to whale watching, Mendenhall Glacier (Juneau), White Pass & Yukon Rail (Skagway), Misty Fjord float plane, totem pole village (Ketchikan), float plane for bear viewing in remote regions, and, at the top of the budget scale, heli-flight with glacier landing and sled dog ride (several ports), and lots of things in between.
To see the available options you should download the excursions options from the cruise line, or go to the forums for each of the individual ports and read previous posts there as well as looking under the tab on the left of the screen for “Things to do”. When preferred options are decided upon, please then post on the forum for further information if necessary.
Please also be aware that ship-booked excursion options are quite frequently able to be booked independently of the ship, and in most instances give a much more personal trip/experience with much smaller groups. In some cases they might also be slightly less expensive. It is sometimes mentioned if anything went wrong with a private excursion the ship would sail without the passengers, but not so if booked through the ship. However, on Alaska cruises, no person has ever posted that this has happened to themselves or others to their knowledge, on either this forum, nor CruiseCritic to the knowledge of long time regular posters on either forum at the time of writing, and this is generally regarded as a scare tactic utilized by the cruise lines to ensure they get their cut. The local excursion operators are quite attuned to the ship schedules, and are very aware that their reputations depend upon meeting those schedules.
WHAT IS THE SHOPPING LIKE IN PORTS?
Be aware, be very aware. If tempted to buy a “genuine” item from Alaska, and if bought from some of the many shops dockside from the cruise docks, it will be genuine as BOUGHT in Alaska, but that may probably be as far as it goes. Read the advice here:
If gold, it probably comes from Western Australia or South Africa, and is manufactured in China. The jewellery shops in port are generally promoted heavily on the cruises, and it is often mentioned on forums that these are owned or affiliated with the cruise lines although no proof of that has ever been presented. These traders move into the ports with the first of the cruise ships, and close down when the last one has left. They have driven rental prices up in some ports for prime dockside locations to the extent that many local traders have been pushed back a street or two. When on the Alaska forum page, go to the search box near the top of the page and search “jewellery” and “jewelry” and read the results of each search.
If looking for genuine Alaska goods you will need to seek some local advice as a simple internet search for the various ports will not easily deliver that information. Ketchikan in particular has some very good advisors here on TA for such questions. However, in general walk deeper into the port towns/cities, away from the main streets near the docks, and your search may be very rewarding.
This question has already been anticipated and a “Top Question” answer is posted here:
CLOTHING TO BRING
This question has also already been anticipated and there is a “Top Question” answer for that here:
SMALL SHIP INSIDE PASSAGE CRUISES
These are usually confined to localised areas within the Inside Passage in SE Alaska, sailing from some of the local ports. They provide a very much up close and personal view of SE Alaska, but also at a premium price. This writer has no experience of these cruises, but has seen many glowing posts from others regarding the experience from some such cruises, as well as posts from others for some not so nice experiences. Some options found are:
There are more options out there for small ship cruises, and if anyone would like to add further to the list please feel free to do post details. The list provided on this website is quite long, but as to how current it is…..?:
OTHER SOURCES OF INFORMATION.
The above sites contain detailed information on everything from general cruise articles, to reviews of individual cruise ships, and discussions about excursions available at ports of call.
Hoping that the above may have provided some insight into cruising Alaska, which is a fantastic experience as Alaska is so stunning.