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All about Alaska cruising

Greater Sydney...
Level Contributor
21,293 posts
113 reviews
All about Alaska cruising

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.

OTHER ALTERNATIVES

At both the beginning and end of the cruise season the ships must relocate, and usually do so via San Francisco and Los Angeles. These sometimes offer a few extra days cruising for little extra cost.

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:

http://www.cruisealaska.com/

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.

SEASICKNESS

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:

virtualtourist.com/travel/North_America/Unit…

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.

WEATHER CONDITIONS

This question has already been anticipated and a “Top Question” answer is posted here:

tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g28923-i349-k34032…

CLOTHING TO BRING

This question has also already been anticipated and there is a “Top Question” answer for that here:

tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g28923-i349-k34036…

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:

http://www.cruisewest.com/

http://www.lindbladalaska.com/

americansafaricruises.com/destinations/alaska

http://www.smallalaskaship.com/index.php

http://www.alaska-charter-yachts.com/

http://discoveryvoyages.com/

http://www.theboatcompany.com/

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…..?:

smallshipcruises.com/destinations/alaska.sht…

OTHER SOURCES OF INFORMATION.

http://cruisecritic.com/

http://www.cruisemates.com/#axzz0uycIg78Y

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.

Frommy

Manitoba, Canada
Level Contributor
6,894 posts
1. Re: All about Alaska cruising

Wonderful post, Frommy!! I’m sure many people will benefit from the wealth of information you provided!

Hopefully folks will find the following info helpful as well. There are many websites and books devoted to discussing cruises, so this will just touch on a few common questions and provide links to further information for those who are interested. Note that there is a vast amount of information on the various websites mentioned below (and other sites too, I’m sure), so do peruse them if you have the time.

GENERAL TIPS for cruising to Alaska (when to go, passport requirements, Customs and duty-free merchandise, etc.): http://www.cruisealaska.com/tips/#itinerary

CRUISE MISCONCEPTIONS (will get seasick, will be bored, all cruisers are old): www.cruisemates.com/articles/before/myths.cfm

FIRST-TIME CRUISERS (disembarking, alcohol policies, dining, internet, cruiseship courtesies, etc.): cruisemates.com/articles/…axzz0uTPydWC0

LIST OF SHIPS CRUSING TO ALASKA: www.alaskacruisingreport.com/current.html

CHOOSING A CRUISE LINE: www.cruisecritic.com/ftc/tier2.cfm?ID=4 However, for Alaska, we generally advise people to decide which ports & glaciers they’d like to visit, then choose the ship that gets them there. Some of us consider cruiseships to be little more than floating hotels to get us to various ports. NOTE: if you’re doing a one-way northbound or southbound to/from Whittier/Seward, we highly recommend you try to add at least a couple of days to see some of Southcentral and/or Interior Alaska (the Inside Passage cruise is Southeast Alaska). Many people enjoy adding Denali and/or Fairbanks to their trip; others prefer a Kenai Fjords day cruise, fishing, a bear-viewing tour, hiking (including on glaciers), visiting the Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, etc.

CHOOSING A CABIN:

www.cruisecritic.com/articles.cfm?ID=77 and

cruisevacationsguide.com/cruise-cabin.html and

…about.com/od/…choosing_cabin.htm

BALCONY or no balcony?

I’ve had posters tell me (on another forum) that I should not go to Alaska unless I could afford a balcony. That’s just silly. I’ve been quite happy with my outside cabins (and would have no problem with an inside room). First, I’m not rich and prefer to spend my money on excursions. Second, I don’t spend much time in my cabin anyway, so why pay a lot of money for it? And third, on glacier-viewing days, the captain will turn the ship frequently so that both sides will have equal viewing time…which means people sitting on their balconies get to see the glacier only half the time. Those of us out on deck or in a viewing lounge just toddle over to the other side and keep watching 100% of the time.

There are some people who claim a balcony is a necessity in order to enjoy scenery or wildlife, apparently under the misapprehension that everywhere else on the ship, people are blindfolded. The fact is that balcony-dwellers are the ones missing at least half the action! Now, if they’re content with that, fine, but the best place to watch for wildlife is on the front deck (if your ship allows access to that, though be warned it can be rather windy and chilly there), or in the forward observation lounge. You can see everything as it comes, long before people on their balconies can see it as it passes by (and they can’t see it at all if it’s on the other side of the ship). Plus, having more eyes scanning the horizon means less chance of missing something.

I’m certainly not advising against having a balcony. If you can comfortably afford it, by all means get one--after all, nothing is stopping you from going to the better viewing areas from time to time too. However, if paying extra for a balcony means you have to cut back on shore excursions that you would have liked to include (and in Alaska, those excursions tend to be costly), it’s not worth it.

WHICH SIDE OF THE SHIP for your cabin: On an Alaskan cruise, sides don’t matter much on the roundtrips, though you might want to compare the times you will be going by various places (can’t see much in the dark, lol). On the one-ways, much of the time there is enough scenery on both sides to make most people happy; however, you do see more toward the east unless you prefer viewing sunsets. The Alaskans have a saying: travel “POSH”: Port (left) Outbound, Starboard Homebound. That goes for cruises as well as planes. Of course, that is reversed if you start your cruise from Vancouver. Keep in mind, though, that even if your cabin is on the far side, you can always stroll over to the other side of the ship occasionally to view from there.

PACKING for a cruise to Alaska: http://www.alaskacruises.com/what_to_pack.asp . To this I would add our standard advice: the key to Alaska is dressing in layers. You might need a jacket in the morning and short sleeves in the afternoon. Be sure to bring a waterproof (not just water resistant) jacket--don’t forget that most of coastal Alaska is temperate rainforest so you might encounter drizzle or rain. And it’s a good idea to waterproof your walking shoes to keep your feet comfy and dry. Also be aware that on your glacier-viewing day(s), it can be really chilly near the glacier, so dress warmly including a hat and gloves so you can stay out on deck to hear the incredible sounds the glacier makes as it moves! For a more detailed discussion, see the thread about clothes in the Top Questions at the top of the page.

YOUTH PROGRAMS on various cruiselines to keep those kids busy and content: cruisemates.com/articles/…axzz0uT8QUUrf

CRUISING WITH INFANTS/TODDLERS: http://www.fodors.com/news/story_2733.html and cruisemates.com/articles/…axzz0uTOav55N

POPULAR EXCURSIONS in the most common ports: cruisemates.com/articles/…axzz0v6YGQ8J4

FAMILY-FRIENDLY ports and excursions: cruisemates.com/articles/…axzz0uT7hllUd

DISABLED CRUISING: www.cruisecritic.com/cruisestyles/area.cfm…

EXCELLENT VIDEO SNIPPETS on various places/activities in Alaska to give you a general idea of what to expect: http://alaska.org/videos.htm . Note that prices and times might not be current.

FOR THOSE WHO WOULD LIKE TO PLAN THEIR OWN LANDTOUR either before or after their cruise (as opposed to taking a basically inflexible cruisetour through the cruiseline), here are some general ideas: alaska.org/driving/magnificent-drives.htm . For more specifics, feel free to start your own thread in the appropriate forum (use the general “Alaska” forum if you’re not sure). We have a great bunch of knowledgeable regulars on these forums, and we love helping people plan and personalize their trips! If you don’t already have a general idea of what you’d like to do, check the Top Question about Trip Reports (top right side of the page), and read through a few of those to see what might interest you.

Manitoba, Canada
Level Contributor
6,894 posts
2. Re: All about Alaska cruising

And here is some info on cruise transfers:

CRUISE TRANSFERS between Anchorage and Whittier:

A transfer (train or bus) arranged through your cruiseline

Rental car from Avis (the only car rental outlet in Whittier. Note there will be a hefty “drop-off” fee for leaving it in another city)

A taxi from Anchorage

Alaska railroad ( alaskarailroad.com/Schedules/…Default.aspx ). Note that if you take the regular (10 a.m.) train, you will have time to do an afternoon glacier cruise or a short kayaking trip prior to boarding your cruiseship.

Park Connection Bus (cruiseship turnaround days ONLY): http://www.alaskacoach.com/schedule.html

Alaskan Leopard ( alaskanleopard.com/Tours/…whittier )

Flights are not available between Whittier and Anchorage except by private, expensive charter.

More ideas: http://www.anchorage.net/1571.cfm (see note** below)

* * * * * * * * * * * *

CRUISE TRANSFERS between Anchorage and Seward:

A transfer arranged through your cruiseline (train or bus)

Rental car from Hertz (the only car rental outlet in Seward. Note there will be a hefty “drop-off” fee for leaving it in another city)

A taxi from Seward or Anchorage

Alaska railroad ( alaskarailroad.com/Schedules/…Default.aspx Note that the regular (6 pm) train will give you time to fit in the popular Kenai Fjords cruise or other activities (SeaLife Center, Exit Glacier, sled dog tour) in Seward prior to heading up to Anchorage.

Park Connection Bus: http://www.alaskacoach.com/schedule.html

Seward Bus: http://www.sewardbuslines.net/

Homer bus (note the limited schedule): http://thestageline.net/

Alaskan Leopard (http://www.alaskanleopard.com/Tours/seward.htm )

Flights are not available between Seward and Anchorage except by private, expensive charter.

More ideas: http://www.exploreanchorage.net/1570.cfm (see note** below)

**NOTE** Be sure to check out whichever company you choose with the Better Business Bureau ( www.bbb.org ), because there is at least one company on that list that has a TERRIBLE rating, which has also received numerous complaints here on the forums from travelers who were abandoned or inconvenienced.

Edited: 31 July 2010, 09:13
Greater Sydney...
Level Contributor
21,293 posts
113 reviews
3. Re: All about Alaska cruising

M_M,

Good point about a balcony, or verandah, cabin. Apart from my disgusting smoking habit we never used this facility, even though we had been upgraded to a luxury verandah cabin. We also found that seeing what was coming, and the ability to view from either side of the ship from either the forward viewing area, or deck, was far more pleasurable.

Edited: 31 July 2010, 09:55
USA
Level Contributor
9,465 posts
44 reviews
4. Re: All about Alaska cruising

Wow, U2! What a wealth of information! I have linked this to a Top Question.

Thanks so much for all your hard work.

Dania Florida
Level Contributor
127 posts
7 reviews
5. Re: All about Alaska cruising

Frommy and Manitoba_maple, you two missed your calling. What terrific posts for the readers who plan to travel. They will save them from spending a lot of time researching these areas.

Keep up the wonderful work.

Marilyn

Lake Tahoe...
Level Contributor
9,264 posts
63 reviews
6. Re: All about Alaska cruising

After using a balcony (Princess) you get spoiled. Most of our cruises have been balcony. In some cases we did have an inside cabin and don't care for them, mainly can't tell the time of day. However, there are some cruisers where a balcony is not in their budget, and should not forego taking an Alaska cruise because they can't afford a balcony. All the other benefits are equal. As our cruises with Princess has us now Elite we have seen many in the same status using inside cabin.

Michigan
Destination Expert
for Alaska
Level Contributor
3,208 posts
265 reviews
7. Re: All about Alaska cruising

Excellent reporting Frommy and MM. You two are a great resource for travellers to Alaska.

One comment about sailing out of Seattle. Some cruises do sail to the East of Vancouver Island in one direction of the itinerary. Key is to check it out if it is of importance to you.

Once again, thanks for a great report. I am sure we will all be using it to link newcomers to this very comprehensive summary.

Queensland...
Level Contributor
254 posts
5 reviews
8. Re: All about Alaska cruising

Frommy and Manitoba Maple what great information, no brochure or travel agent could give as many 'true' details as you have both compiled. Deserves to be up there with the "Top Questions" .

As you have covered so many cruising topics I am sure every cruiser to Alaska will benefit from this topic. Job well done !

Greater Sydney...
Level Contributor
21,293 posts
113 reviews
9. Re: All about Alaska cruising

Dear denalicat,

Thank you for linking this as a Top Question.

Thanks also to others for their kind words and HappyTrav for the added point regarding some Seattle based cruises sailing east of VI.

k2, we had a clock.

Ann Arbor, MI
Destination Expert
for Michigan, Ann Arbor
Level Contributor
2,187 posts
177 reviews
10. Re: All about Alaska cruising

A note about balconies--our one and only cruise was when our daughter was quite young. We were happy to have a balcony because she needed her sleep. We could sit out on the balcony in the evening after she went to bed, in the morning before she awakened, or in the afternoon during naps. It was a pleasant place to pass the time while giving her the toddler allotment of sleep. Without it, we would have been very cooped up in a small room with a sleeping kiddo.

Otherwise, I totally agree that you only see 1/2 of the view from a balcony. I wouldn't book a balcony now that daughter is older and has the same sleep pattern as us.