Calving glaciers, miles of untouched wilderness, whales and orcas, and Egyptian-cotton sheets – no wonder an Alaskan cruise is on many a bucket list. Southeast Alaska is where a slew of the state's highlights are concentrated, many of which are inaccessible to automobiles but easily reached by boat. The major cruise lines can access some of the best Alaskan sights, while offering convenience and bang for the buck.
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 (see Cruisecritic.com for a list of cruise ship alcohol policies). 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.
Ready to go?
Dozens of cruise ships ply the Inside Passage every summer. Most go to Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and either Glacier Bay National Park or Tracy Arm Fjord. And many cruises leave from Seattle or Vancouver; the Star Princess goes roundtrip from San Francisco. Americans need to make sure they have an up-to-date passport if the cruise involves Canada. Before booking, do your research (there are quite a few cruise-specific sites like Cruisecritic.com and Cruiseline.com).