12 Tips for the Best Alaska Cruise Experience – Part 1

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An Alaska cruise is a trip of a lifetime and should be on everyone’s list of “Things to Do”!  No words or pictures can do Alaska justice – she must be seen and experienced for yourself.  Because for many people a trip to Alaska is a once-in-a-lifetime event, the planning can be daunting.  Of course you want to make sure you have the best experience possible without overspending.  To that end I have put together a comprehensive list of 12 tips to help you save money, see the best Alaska has to offer in each port, and make memories you will cherish forever.

In this Series I will provide links to resources and tour providers that I have personally used and recommend.  I have no financial arrangement with them.

This first part covers planning your trip, getting a great price and things to do on your own pre-cruise.  Part 2 covers getting to your ship, viewing Hubbard Glacier and visits to Juneau and Skagway.  Part 3 covers visits to Icy Strait Point and Ketchikan, sailing the Inside Passage and a day in Vancouver.

Now let’s plan that amazing Alaska Cruise!

Getting There and Booking Your Alaska Cruise

Tip 1 – check out your flight options before choosing your cruise

Choose Which Alaska Cruise is Best for You

Alaska cruises follow three patterns:

  1. Northbound, departing from Vancouver and ending up in Seward.  You will fly back from Anchorage or Fairbanks, depending on any land tour you take.
  2. Southbound, departing from Seward.  You will fly in to Fairbanks or Anchorage depending on your other plans and end up in Vancouver.
  3. Round trip, departing from and returning to Seattle or Vancouver.

While the roundtrip tours are often cheaper, you will see more of Alaska on the “one way” trips.

Where you call home can impact whether you choose the Northbound or Southbound route.  I live on the east coast.  Almost every flight from AK to the east coast is an overnight flight, which I avoid like the plague.  There are more options to return from Vancouver, so I prefer to fly into AK and return from Vancouver.  Check out your flight options first before pricing and choosing your cruise.

Tip 2 – Choose a Guarantee Room and keep checking for price drops after booking

Getting the Best Price on Your Alaska Cruise

It is a misconception that you must book a cruise far in advance to get good rates or the best cabins.  In fact it can be quite the opposite.  If you are traveling in a group or want a very specific cabin, you do need to book in advance.  If you can be flexible with your travel dates or what room you want, booking last minute or simply choosing a “guarantee” room can save you $.

A guarantee room gives you the cabin Category you want (e.g. balcony, oceanview, etc.) but not a specific cabin.  Because you allow the cruiseline to choose your room, guarantee rooms are offered at a significant discount.  If your category of cabin sells out, you receive a free upgrade to the next available category.  You will never be downgraded.  The worst case scenario is that you get the least desirable room in the category you booked.  I choose a Guarantee room whenever I can because we have been upgraded to a nicer cabin, every time I’ve done it.  Sometimes MUCH nicer!

Another way to save on a cruise is to frequently check for sales.  Cruise lines have monthly sales goals for each of their ships.  When sales goals aren’t met, they offer temporary price cuts.  It’s wise to check every week or two even after you have booked your cruise. For a price drop more than 30 or 60 days out you can request the new, lower rate without paying a change fee.  Less than 30 or 60 days out, you may have to pay a change fee.  However, the new rate or a cabin upgrade might be worth it.

If you are doing any land touring on your own and renting a car, the same tip applies.  Keep checking back for price drops and rebook your resis when you find a lower price.

Tip 3 – Do your research on TripAdvisor and CruiseCritic and book your activities yourself

Planning Your Daily Activities

CruiseCritic.com and Tripadvisor.com are your best friends.  CruiseCritic is an extremely helpful resource for all things cruising – thousands of up-to-the-minute user and expert ship and port reviews, forums where you can ask questions or just troll for info, and links to everything else.  Trip Advisor is another great resource for finding the best restaurants, tour operators, activities and lodging all over the world.

Booking Excursions

The cruise lines make it convenient to browse and book your excursions through them, and they offer a number of pre and post cruise tour packages.  However, all that convenience comes at a cost:  the excursions are more expensive than the exact same tours (or better) booked on your own, and you will almost always be in a very large group.

My personal preference is to book all our activities on my own with reputable private tour companies or adventure about on our own.  By booking our own activities we save lots of money and end up on private or nearly private tours that go to places the ship tours don’t.

The cruise lines also push the line that only their tours guarantee to “get you back to the ship on time”.  Supposedly if one of their tours is late, the ship will wait.  Don’t fall for the hype that booking on your own puts you at risk of being left behind.  Reputable tour operators are well versed in getting cruise ship passengers back on time and will guarantee to do so.  Failing to do so will destroy their business.  And the ship only sails without someone as a very last resort!

Now for the Good Stuff – What to Do on Your Alaska Cruise!

Tip 4 – explore the Anchorage area and take the 26 Glacier Tour out of Whittier

Anchorage Area

We spent a few pre-cruise days in the Anchorage area and loved it.  Anchorage has a decent restaurant scene, some museums and lovely parks for walking and relaxing. Hotels can be pricey, so we opted to do our usual thing, which is stay in a Bed & Breakfast.  Prices at nice B&Bs in the area were better than hotels, so that is a plus.  You can search for B&Bs and read lots of reviews (read lots of reviews!!!) at sites such as BBOnline, BedandBreakfast.com, and VRBO.

Flattop Mountain

Flattop is Anchorage’s most popular day hike, and according to Wikipedia the most climbed mountain in Alaska. If you are extremely fit and quite fond of your Stair Master, this 3 mile hike will be right in your wheelhouse. If you are “reasonably mobile” this will be a challenging hike, but doable.  The views all along the way are amazing, so you’ll have plenty of good excuses to stop and catch your breath!

Here are a few snaps from our hike

View of Anchorage from Flattop Mountain Trail

View of Anchorage Alaska from Flattop Mtn

Hiking up Flattop Mountain

Hiking Flattop Mtn, Anchorage AK

Day Trip to Whittier

Another great thing to do in the area is head to Whittier for the amazing 26 Glacier Cruise.  As a bonus, the hour and a half drive to Whittier on AK1 and Portage Glacier Rd is gorgeous – ever-changing views of mountains, glaciers, marshy meadows, lakes, waterfalls and seashore.  Plus, there are numerous opportunities to stop and take a few short hikes to explore the landscape.

Safety warning:  One thing I learned about the beaches in this part of Alaska was to stay off them in low tide.  The “sand” is glacial silt, and at low tide what looks like a walkable beach is really a quicksand-like death trap.  Several locals warned us of the danger by relating sad tales of animals and people alike who get stuck in this quicksand and drown when the tide comes back in.  No thanks!

The only road into Whittier passes thru the 2.5 mile-long Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, which is open to auto traffic only once an hour in each direction.  Plan your travel accordingly so you don’t miss your boat departure!  And be sure to add some time for pulling over on the drive down and doing a little exploring.

One lovely option is to view Portage Glacier and Portage Creek on the Trail of Blue Ice. You can access this trail at either the Willawa Campground or the Begich Boggs Visitor Center, both off Portage Glacier Road.  Or you can make a day of it and hike the 4 mile round-trip Portage Pass Trail accessed near the Whittier end of the tunnel.

There is next to nothing to do/see in Whittier, so no need to plan for extra time there.

Scenes from the drive to Whittier, hiking around Portage Creek and the incredible 26 Glacier Cruise

The drive to Whittier on AK Hwy 1

Mountains and Glaciers on AK Hwy 1 to Whittier

Hiking near Portage Creek

view of Portage Glacier
Hiking trail at Portage Creek AK

Gorgeous scenery from the 26 Glacier Cruise

College Fjord
Glacier view on the 26 Glacier Cruise
Fur Seals basking on ice floe
Mountain view on the 26 Glacier Cruise

The Highlight of the tour – Surprise Glacier

Surprise Glacier on 26 Glacier Tour

Seals and Sea Lions at Surprise Glacier

Seals and Sea Lions at Surprise Glacier

As you can see, Alaska is a breathtaking place.  If you haven’t been yet, I can’t encourage you enough to just book that Alaska cruise already and go!

Be sure to check out Parts Two and Three of this series for more great tips on making your Alaska Cruise the best trip ever!

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