- What is the best time to go on an Alaskan Cruise?
Alaskan cruises run from May to September of each year. It’s too cold during the other months for a pleasant cruise. July and August are the warmest months and the demand and the cruise prices are highest for those two months. You can usually find cheaper prices for cruises that depart in May and in September and to a lesser degree for those departing in June. In general, however, any time from May through early September is a great time to visit Alaska.
- What on-board activities are offered on cruise ships?
A wide variety of activities are available on all the larger cruise lines. Everything from Broadway-style musicals and reviews to movies to lectures by naturalists. Sports are also offered, including basketball, putting greens, volleyball, swimming, and golf simulators. Other activities can include arts and crafts lessons, wine tasting, casino gambling, dancing, comedians, bands, singers, and onboard versions of popular game shows like American Idol. You’ll never be bored while on your cruise – in fact, there simply isn’t time to do it all.
- What should I take with me on my cruise?
First of all, you should take binoculars and pack layers of clothing, especially remembering a waterproof windbreaker or raincoat of some sort. Also remember to pack sun block – those glaciers reflect a lot of the sun’s rays. And don’t forget your still camera and video camera, along with loads of tape and film (or memory cards). There is simply so much to photograph along the cruise route and film, video tapes, and especially memory cards are very expensive onboard or even in port stores.
- On our Alaskan cruise, what would be included in the cruise price, and what should we expect to pay out of pocket?
Included in your cruise price are all meals and non-alcoholic drinks (though soda pop is often offered at a surcharge), most onboard entertainment, and, of course, your cabin. You should expect to pay for shore excursions, alcoholic drinks, and off-ship snacks and meals out of pocket.
- What are the main differences between Alaskan cruises offered by various cruise lines? Which one should I choose?
Most of the large cruise lines offer wonderful onboard activities and excellent cruising experience. While there might be some differences in options that various cruise ships provide, overall the experience is fairly similar. One somewhat major difference among various cruise lines is that Norwegian Cruise Line offers what is called a “freestyle cruising”, which means that there are no fixed dinner times, tables and the overall atmosphere is more free-wheeling and casual. If you know you’re definitely looking for that kind of experience, you can choose the NCL.
- What is the age/demographic of people on Alaskan cruise ships?
While in the past Alaska cruise passengers tended to skew somewhat older (55 and up), today cruise ships cater to people of all ages, so you will see everyone from families with kids to seniors on your cruise. In fact, a full 25% of cruise passengers are now families with children.
- What about tipping onboard the ship? How does that work? How much do I tip the steward? How often?
Usually you will find general tipping guidelines left in your cabin. But as a general rule, leave at least $3 per day for your steward and the waiter in the dining room (paid at the end of your trip). You generally also leave about half that amount for your busser. Of course, if you receive exceptional service, you can always tip more.
- What are good side trips/land excursions for various ports?
Alaskan cruises usually offer a large variety of side trips/ land excursions. For example, in Ketchikan, a great shore excursion is the float plane trip to Misty Fjords National Monument, which is simply breathtaking. In Juneau, an excellent choice is the helicopter dog sled tour, which gives you an amazing aerial tour of glaciers, followed by a real Alaskan dog sled ride atop one of the glaciers. In Sitka, a really interesting underwater tour on Alaska’s only semi-submersible ship is offered by Sealife Discovery Tours. Finally, in Skagway, a trip on the White Pass Railroad into Canada’s Yukon Territory is a no-miss, with truly beautiful scenery along a track that dates back to the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. Of course, these are just some of the available options and a wonderful array of excursions is available in every Alaskan port.
- Are there any discounts available for seniors?
Most cruise lines do offer senior discounts for people 55 and over (or 60 and over on some lines). Senior or AARP discounts are also available for some (but not all) shore excursions, so be sure to ask about them when booking.
- Is there a cell phone reception while the ship is in the sea?
Very rarely. Often there is no reception even at the ports where the ship stops. Some people might get reception and/or digital roaming service at some points in their journey, but overall you shouldn’t count on using your cell phone while enjoying your Alaskan cruise trip. If this is critical for you, you can check your cell phone provider’s coverage map to see if any or all of the ports have coverage on your plan, but be careful about the roaming charges.
- Is there Internet access on the ships?
Usually there is, but it can be somewhat expensive (say $10 per 30 minutes). Most people either don’t use the Internet or just use it briefly to check their email. Some ships offer Wifi in the common areas or wired connections in the cabins, but the speed tends to be pretty slow, in addition to being pricey. If you are addicted to email, your best bet is to check for free or low-cost Wifi in each of the ports. It’s easiest to find in Juneau, but it’s available in Skagway and Ketchikan as well. In Skagway, look for the Skagway Bazaar on 6th and Broadway (hard to miss, it’s a small town!) and in Ketchikan at the Best Western (free) and in McDonalds (for a fee).
- What is the temperature on an Alaska cruise? Is it quite cold, given the glaciers and icebergs?
Actually, the temperature along Alaska’s coastline averages around 60 degrees Fahrenheit all summer long, so while it isn’t exactly hot, it is very pleasant, especially on sunny days. Of course, the region is very wet, with the Inside Passage considered a temperate rainforest and receiving over 180 inches of rain in some spots. (The exact amount of rainfall varies greatly from port to port.) Inland, it can get quite a bit warmer, up to 80 degrees or more in Fairbanks (yes, that’s right, even though it is much further north., Fairbanks is warmer than the coast in the summer, due to the moderating effects of the chilly waters). So if you are planning an inland tour before or after your cruise, you might want to throw in a pair of shorts (and some bug spray!)
- What will I need to wear on an Alaska cruise? Will I need to pack my winter clothes and a cold weather jacket?
The key to staying comfortable on an Alaska cruise is dressing in layers. Wear something like a thin, long sleeved shirt (or even a short sleeved shirt) under a sweatshirt or sweater, and bring a waterproof windbreaker or raincoat to wear over everything. Gloves and a ski cap can be good to have too, in case you are outside on a cool, damp day. It can be quite chilly and even rainy in the fjords where you view the glaciers, but the sun can break through the clouds with little warning, warming things up a bit, thus the need for the layers.
- Are there casinos on Alaska cruises?
Yes, there are full casinos on most Alaska cruise ships, including card games and slots. There are also many lounges, bars, and nightclubs onboard the ships, so there is plenty to do at night.
- For an Alaskan cruise, would it be better to leave from Seattle or Vancouver? Why?
Both ports have their advantages (and disadvantages). Vancouver has perhaps the most spectacular setting of any city in North America (arguably even more beautiful than San Francisco’s location). Seattle is also a beautiful city set against the backdrop of snow-capped Mt. Rainier, but for people flying from American cities, Seattle’s chief advantage is that you can avoid going through customs at the airport. While Vancouver’s airport is beautiful and state-of –the-art, the lines at customs can be somewhat long. For anyone flying in from Canada, however, it would probably make more sense to fly in or out of Vancouver for the same reason – to avoid American customs at Seattle. Of course, a fairly large number of Alaska cruises travel using one-way north or southbound itineraries, so your trip will most likely include a flight in or out of Anchorage too.
- Can I order flowers or gifts to be delivered to a cabin before the ship sails?
Yes, most cruise lines allow you to order “bon voyage” gifts and flowers for delivery to your cabin before you set sail. Frequently, such gifts can be ordered online through the cruise line’s website or through your travel agent.
- I am interested in getting a balcony room. Which is the better side of the ship for getting a room?
In general, cruise ships tend to turn about when viewing glaciers so that both sides of the boat get excellent views. But while neither side of the ship will have a “bad” view, there may be a slight advantage to take the left (port) side of the ship on southbound cruises and the right (starboard) side of the ship on northbound cruises. The reason is that during the portion of the cruise where you are at sea in the Gulf of Alaska, these sides of the ship have views of the mainland, which can be spectacular on clear days (with snow capped peaks rising up over 20,000 feet just miles from shore). This certainly isn’t a make or break proposition, but if you have the choice, a view of the shore might be more appealing for some people than the view of the open ocean.
- One of my family members has a drunken driving experience. I heard that he/she might have a problem going to Canada for a cruise from Vancouver. Is that true?
Unfortunately, this is indeed true. In addition to DUI convictions, convictions for such minor offenses as unauthorized possession of a firearm, shoplifting, and drug possession can cause people to be banned from entering Canada. If a member or your party has been convicted of any of these or other offenses, you would be wise to consider sailing to or from Seattle. You will also want to avoid planning cruise excursions at any Canadian ports, such as Victoria (or an excursion into the Yukon from the Alaskan port of Skagway). The majority of ports and excursions are in Alaska, so you will still have plenty to see and do on your cruise!
- Are there any discounts available for children?
Discounts are offered by most cruise lines for the third and fourth passengers in a cabin, whether they are adults or children. However, Holland America lines in particular sometimes offers an additional discount off this lower third and fourth person rate for children.
- When is the best time to view the Northern Lights?
While the Northern Lights (aurora borealis) occur most frequently from December to March, the time you are most likely to see them during the Alaska cruise season is in September. They also occur with more frequency the farther north you go, so if you really want to see the Northern Lights (and they are simply amazing), then you might want to consider a pre or post cruise tour to Fairbanks, where they can be seen most of the year.
- We plan to spend our honeymoon on an Alaskan cruise. Do ships offer any discounts for that? Are there any accommodations and/or excursions you’d recommend for the newlyweds?
While some cruise lines may offer honeymoon discounts, they aren’t yet the norm on Alaskan routes. However, often you can get the best deals simply by booking your cruise in May or September, if that is possible. As far as accommodations are concerned, a suite with a balcony is definitely the way to go on your honeymoon – if one is within your budget.
- We are planning to bring our 2 children on our cruise. Will there be many other children on cruise ship? What can we do to make the trip enjoyable for our kids?
There do tend to be a decent number of families with kids on Alaska cruises. In fact, more and more families are booking Alaska cruises for their summer vacations. Most of the larger cruise ships offer special programs and activities for children and teens, and babysitting services are also often available on board for an extra charge. Some cruise lines, notably Holland America, also offer specific shore excursions exclusively for kids. In addition, all lines will provide you with a list of excursions that are age-appropriate for your kids and teens, so there is no reason you can’t all go on excursions as a family – just make sure to plan them well in advance of your trip to make sure you find excursions that will please everyone, young and old. Make sure you bring sun block for the kids, as you can get burned in Alaska, and you will be spending lots of time outdoors.
- We’ll be traveling with 4 friends and want to book one room for all 4 of us. Are the 3-rd and the 4-th beds comfortable? Where are they located? Will it be too cramped?
The location of the 3rd and 4th beds varies, depending on cabin size. In suites, they can be full size beds, whereas in small cabins, especially those on the interior, they can be bunk beds that fold down at night. Overall, they’re pretty comfortable and unless you’re very sensitive about your sleeping accommodations, you should be fine. Seniors and anyone with a disability might have difficulty climbing into the bunks, so you’ll want to double check your accommodations when booking your cruise.
- I am interested in some souvenir shopping. What are the good ports in Alaska for that?
You can find great souvenirs in pretty much all the ports, though Ketchikan has arguably the best assortment of gift shops easily accessible to the cruise ship docks. While in Ketchikan, make sure not to miss shopping along Creek Street, a historic district filled with cool shops and galleries, with buildings constructed on stilts over a pristine creek that is filled with Salmon in late summer – an amazing site that’s definitely worth seeing.
- Which cruise line is best if I enjoy a more traditional cruising experience, including assigned seating at dinner and large, formal dining rooms?
Holland America line is known as the most traditional or old-school of the major lines, with less diverse dining options, instead concentrating on large, more formal dining rooms. So if you are looking for a more traditional cruise experience, Holland America is the way to go. Of course, almost all the large cruise ships offer traditional-style dining (with assigned seating ) in one of their dining rooms, so if this type of cruising appeals to you, make sure to request a traditional dining plan when booking your cruise. Norwegian Cruise Line offers the least traditional and free-wheeling cruising experience.
- I sometimes suffer from sea sickness. Will this be a problem on an Alaskan cruise?
Modern cruise ships have very advanced computerized stabilization systems that prevent them from swaying too much, even in heavy seas. Because of this, absolute majority of cruise goers do not have sea sickness problems. However, if you believe you may experience sea sickness, you should take Dramamine with you, just in case. Also, consider booking an outside cabin as being able to look out of window or balcony might help greatly.
- What sort of pre and post cruise tours are available in Anchorage?
There are many great inland Alaska tours out of Anchorage, including motor coach and rail tours to Denali National Park (Mt. McKinley), a truly spectacular place. From base to summit, Mt. McKinley is actually the largest mountain on any continent, (Everest is taller, but rises from a much higher plateau, whereas McKinley rises from a relatively low plain). Another great tour heads farther north to Fairbanks, where you have the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights, even in summer. Finally, a tour of the breathtaking Kenai Peninsula is another wonderful option out of Anchorage.
- What is the best pre or post cruise tour out of Vancouver?
One of the most popular inland tours from Vancouver is the Canadian Rockies tour, including stops at the amazing Lake Louise and Banff National Park. If any landscape in North America rivals that of Alaska, it is the landscape of the Canadian Rockies. The beautiful color of the lakes there defies description, and the peaks are about the most picturesque of anywhere outside of the Alps.
- Where is the best place to view bald eagles in Alaska?
One of the things that you may be surprised is how many bald eagles you’ll see throughout the entire cruise route. You can literally spot them in most any port. But the very best place to spot large numbers of bald eagles is out of Skagway, on the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve rafting trip. Here you can see the eagles in their pristine natural environment, feeding in the clear river waters, perched in trees, or soaring high above. They are a truly majestic sight you will never forget.
- Where is the best place to view bears on other wildlife in Alaska?
Again, bears and other wildlife are amazingly abundant along the Alaska cruise route. You are bound to see a black or brown (grizzly) bear feeding of salmon or other fish in a stream on any of a number of port excursions. The best place to spot Dall sheep is actually along the route between the airport in Anchorage and the port of Seward (or Whittier). Watch for them on the slopes that rise up on the opposite side of the road from the Turnagain Arm inlet. The long, narrow Turnagain Arm is also a great place to spot beluga whales, so look for them as your bus or train heads along the side of this inlet.
- Will I see any Eskimos (Inuit) in Alaska?
Most likely not. The Inuit people (once referred to as Eskimos) live in the far northern artic regions of Alaska. The many native peoples that live along the southern coast are very different from the Inuit, as they reside in a much more moderate, coastal climate where winters are far milder.
- What native cultural exhibits and sites are open to visitors along the cruise route?
There are many fascinating native cultural exhibitions and historic sites in southern Alaska. A couple of the best are the Saxman Totem Park in Ketchikan and the Sitka National Historic Park.
- What are the best gifts or souvenirs to buy in Alaska?
While each of the ports sports your typical array of tourist items, from tee-shirts to baseball caps and everything else, by far the most popular items are the salmon products – smoked salmon, canned salmon, and everything that can be made out of salmon. In addition, unique local crafts and artwork can be purchased in a variety of small galleries along the route, especially in Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway.
- I don’t have much extra in my budget for shore excursions (and some run over $300 per person!) What are some fun yet inexpensive things to do while in port?
You don’t have to spend much at all to have a great time in each port. In Ketchikan, you can visit the stores along Creek Street for free, and you can stop by the Totem Heritage Center, which is about 15 minute walk from the docks. Admission is only $1 as of this writing. In Juneau, for about $10, you can catch a round trip bus trip to the visitor center at the base of the Mendenhall Glacier, where you can hike, view bears, and see the massive glacier up close. Then, in Skagway, stop by any of the many wonderful historical buildings in town, all just minutes from the dock. The Klondike Gold Rush history in this town is fascinating, and there is plenty to see and do on foot in the small but quaint town.
- Where is the best place to go on a fishing charter along the cruise route?
If your ship stops in Sitka, this would be a great place to book a charter, particularly for king and coho salmon, rockfish, and the challenging halibu. But there is fantastic salmon fishing in Ketchikan, Juneau, and even Skagway too.
- Is it true that not all cruise ships stop in Glacier Bay National Park? I heard that this was one of the most beautiful spots in Alaska and want to see it.
Yes, it is true that the U.S. Park Service has limited large cruise ship traffic in the park’s waters to two a day. This has led many cruise lines to seek alternate locations for glacier viewing along the Inside Passage, including Tracy Arm and Misty Fjords National Monument. Princess and Norwegian currently have the most ships allowed to enter the park, so if you really want to see Glacier Bay, then check out the itineraries for these two cruise lines.
- My favorite cruise line does not stop in glacier Bay. What is a good alternative destination?
The two most popular alternatives to Glacier Bay National Park are Tracy Arm and Misty Fjords. Both of them are amazingly beautiful and you will not be disappointed if your ship stops in either of those places.
- What about icebergs? Aren’t they dangerous? Will we see any?
Indeed, you will see many, many icebergs in the narrow fjords, as huge chunks of ice break off or “calve” from the glaciers. However, thanks to modern sonar and excellent piloting skills, the ships navigate safely through these icy waters. The ships go very slowly through the icy sections of the fjords, and it is actually quite safe.
- Will my kids enjoy an Alaskan cruise or will they be bored?
There really is a tremendous amount to do both onboard the ship and at each of the ports, from kids clubs and teen activities to movies, simulated game shows, arts, crafts, sports, and swimming. So your kids should always have plenty to do (even if they are not yet that excited by the amazing scenery).
- What about passports? Should I bring one? What if I am not flying into Canada?
Yes, you definitely should bring your passport, for a variety of reasons. For much of your trip, you will be hugging the coastline just miles from Canada, and many excursions head into Canada, especially those from Skagway. Most cruise lines also now recommend or require passports for all passengers, regardless of whether you ever enter a Canadian port or Canadian territory on your trip, for you will still head through Canadian waters for the first day or two. So do yourself a favor and get your passport – and don’t forget to bring it!