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
To assist passengers in their search for the best-fit Alaska cruise, I 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.
Right: Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, August 2008
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 selected 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.
Above left: Steam Clock, Vancouver
Above right: Space Needle, Seattle
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 visit the Yukon, look
for a ship that calls on Skagway (and that offers such a tour). 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.
Above left: Johns Hopkins Glacier, Glacier Bay
Above right: Emerald Lake, British Columbia, en route to the Yukon
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.
This article was originally published by the author on Examiner.com.