You’d think with all of the cold weather sweeping across North America that cruisers’ thoughts would be on any place but Alaska. Nonetheless, we’ve had a slew of emails asking us for advice about cruising The Great Land.
Surely, Alaska is a destination that needs to go on everyone’s bucket list. If you’re planning on reaching into that bucket this year, take heart — it’s not too late. The 2014 cruise season does begin soon, however, so it’s time to get serious if you want to be on a ship in Alaska this coming season.
In fact, you could be on a ship as early as May, and that is a great month to visit Alaska. So is September. One reader wrote to ask if we preferred May over September for cruising Alaska. That’s a tough call. I’ve only cruised Alaska in September, and I loved being there for the fall foliage and crisp air (in fact, I took the photo at the top of this post from a glass-domed rail car en route to Anchorage in September). Others prefer the month of May. To determine which month may best suit you, check out Shoulder Season Can Be Sweet, Top Reasons To Cruise Alaska Off-Peak.
Another reader asked how we would rate Holland America Line’s Oosterdam for an Alaska cruise. There was a catch, however. The party in question will be traveling with a family of six, including children ages 10-14.
Is Oosterdam a kid-friendly ship? My take? Yes. Sure, Holland America Line is no Disney, or even Carnival, which carries millions of kids each year. But Holland America does have a good kids’ program. In fact, I took my two children on sister-ship Westerdam, cruising the Baltic back in 2005. The kids were ages 8 and 9 at the time, and they loved the kids’ programming on Westerdam. Just as important, we loved the adult sophistication of Holland America, being able to dine lavishly in the Pinnacle Grill, for example. Of course, the same could be said of Princess and Celebrity. All are great choices for cruising Alaska.
If you are cruising Alaska with kids, check out ‘Awesome’ Alaska: The Great Land Through The Eyes Of A Kid.
Another reader wanted to know if we’d recommend cruising the Inside Passage. You’ll find the answer by reading Alluring Alaska and Avid Cruiser Voyages: Alaska’s Inside Passage. If you can’t wait or don’t want to click to read those post, the short answer is, yes, cruise the Inside Passage. It is teeming with wildlife and beautiful scenery, and it may just be what you’re looking for as part of your Alaska cruise. (Incidentally, a writer new to our sister site, Gail Jessen, will be doing her first Live Voyage Report for us when she sails Star Princess, May 23, 2014, from San Francisco, up the Inside Passage and into Tracy Arm Fjord. I hope you’ll join her on Live Voyage Reports.)
Are there any must-dos and don’t misses, another read asked? Yes, don’t miss the glaciers. If you need convincing, see Avid Cruiser Voyages: Alaska’s Glaciers. Another don’t miss comes before or after the cruise, the cruisetour. You won’t get that photograph from the train car on a cruise. You have to do a cruisetour to get into interior Alaska. See In-Depth Alaska: Cruise + Tour = Cruisetour
So that’s some of the reader questions answered. To further help you plan your cruise to the Great Land, my colleague Aaron Saunders and I have put together an Alaska cruise guide highlighting this year’s sailings.
Preparing to Cruise Alaska
If you’ve never cruise to Alaska, you may think the destination sounds pretty straightforward: Fly to the U.S. West Coast, board the ship and go. Right?
The reality is that Alaska offers some of the most varied and diverse options for cruisers. There are multiple ports of embarkation and disembarkation; itineraries that include stops at two glaciers and others that never even visit one glacier. Plus, there is a myriad of pre-and-post cruise land extensions that could overwhelm even the most experienced travelers.
Complicating matters further, for the 2014 season there are even more itineraries, lines, ships and ports to choose from than there have been in the last decade.
So how do you decide on an Alaska cruise for 2014? Here is a step-by-step guide to ensuring your trip to America’s Great Land pans out as you had imagined.
Choose Your Voyage – Not Your Embarkation Port
There are essentially four types of Alaska cruises:
- Those that depart roundtrip from Vancouver, Canada.
- Those that sail one-way (also called “Northbound” and “Southbound”) between Vancouver and Alaska.
- Those that operate roundtrip out of Seattle.
- And those that sail longer voyages from ports farther away, such as San Francisco.
To pick an Alaska cruise, it helps to know what you want out of it. Do you want to sail the fabled Inside Passage? If so, you can scratch the port of Seattle off of your list; voyages departing from Washington state’s largest city swing out into the open waters of the Pacific Ocean and avoid the passage entirely. On the other hand, cruising from Seattle often offers stops in Victoria,the gorgeous, English-styled capital of British Columbia.
Cruises from Vancouver routinely include one day, and sometimes two, of scenic cruising through the breathtaking Inside Passage, where you will see towering mountain ranges, narrow passages and wildlife at every turn.
If you want to spend time ashore in Alaska pre-or-post cruise, take one of the Northbound or Southbound voyages that sail between Alaska and British Columbia. Nearly every cruise line offers overland packages that can include stays in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Denali National Park – a must-see for any visitor to Alaska. A few, like those offered by Holland America Line, even include a trip to Barrow, Alaska; the northernmost city in the United States.
Some travelers may appreciate taking a weeklong Northbound cruise and booking the Southbound journey to create a 14-night voyage that departs roundtrip from Vancouver. You can even stay a few days in Alaska and catch a different ship back, on an entirely different line for a varied cruising experience on two cruise lines.
Go For The Glaciers
Not every itinerary includes a stop at one of Alaska’s numerous glaciers, and that’s a shame. For us, it just isn’t Alaska if there isn’t a glacier. For glacier experiences, choose an itinerary that includes a day of scenic cruising in Glacier Bay National Park. With its emerald-green waters and snow-capped peaks, Glacier Bay National Park is one of Alaska’s most awe-inspiring and frequently photographed sites, and literally changes with every visit as the glaciers advance and retreat.
Not every ship can call on Glacier Bay: Only a select number of permits are available, and these tend to go to the lines that have been operating in the region the longest. Holland America Line and Princess Cruises lead the pack here, though Norwegian Cruise Line offers a number of sailings that include Glacier Bay aboard Norwegian Pearl and Norwegian Sun. Carnival Cruise Lines also offers select Glacier Bay itineraries in 2014.
Hubbard Glacier, located farther north, is a popular alternative to Glacier Bay. Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean routinely call on Hubbard, which is one of the few glaciers in Alaska that is actually advancing instead of retreating.
You may see itineraries that include Tracy Arm Fjord and the Sawyer Glaciers, situated at the end of Tracy Arm Fjord. While Tracy Arm is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, your chances of seeing the North and South Sawyer Glaciers aboard the large cruise ships are slim-to-none. Thick ice chokes the narrowest part of Tracy Arm fjord in all but the warmest summer months, leaving cruise ships to spin around using their thrusters to retrace their path out of the fjord.
Choose Your Line and Your Ship
Once you’ve figured out roughly where you’d like to go, and how long you’d like to be gone for, you can then go about choosing your cruise line and ship. We recommend picking up some brochures and flipping through the itineraries and deck plans to be sure you know exactly what you are getting.
Of course, sometimes your favorite ship might be sailing from a different port of call, and that may be enough for you to rethink your entire Alaskan itinerary. In general, however, when booking an Alaska cruise, it is a good idea to start with the itinerary and work down to the cruise line and ship of your choice.
There are some exciting newcomers to Alaska next year, and some redeployments of existing vessels to different ports of call. Cruise lines typically send the same vessels to Alaska each year, particularly if they have proven to be a hit with passengers. So when one line shuffles the deck, the rest follow suit.
Notable new ships for Vancouver include Holland America Line’s Oosterdam, which comes up from Seattle for her first full-season operating out of British Columbia, alongside sister-ship Zuiderdam. Disney Cruise Line brings its Disney Wonder back for another season, while Princess Cruises sends the 2006 Crown Princess to Vancouver and Alaska for the first time.
Seattle remains much as it was in 2013, but with the addition of Oosterdam. Oceania is sending its sleek Regatta on a handful of ex-Seattle departures, and Celebrity Cruises once again deploys its popular Celebrity Solstice on weeklong trips to Alaska from Puget Sound.
From San Francisco, Princess Cruises has the Grand-class Star Princess operating 11-day voyages that sail roundtrip to Alaska for cruisers looking for a longer voyage up the coast.
Do As the Locals Do
One important thing to know about Alaska – particularly with regard to the mainstay ports of Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway – is that as in the Caribbean, these ports have been overrun with trinket shops and stores hawking precious gems of every size, shape and color.
Still, even in these ports, authentic Alaskan experiences can be had. Pop into the local bar (there’s always one) to listen to some salty characters spinning tall tales of the sea. Engage the local shopkeepers. And if you insist on authentic, be sure to flip over everything you intend to buy to see where it’s made. That “authentic” Alaskan Salmon could come from somewhere other than Alaska.
You should also budget more money for shore excursions in Alaska than you would for many other destinations. Excursions here aren’t cheap, and sourcing them locally doesn’t cut the costs much. Expect to pay around US$100 per person for many simple, half-day tours, and know you’ll have to dig deep if you want to do something more exclusive, like landing atop a glacier. If you haven’t yet seen a US$600 per person excursion, you will in Alaska. For a family of four, that can get expensive, very quickly.
Embrace the Rain
Finally, know this: It is going to rain. Sure, some sailings will be so hot and sunny that you may need to run out and buy extra t-shirts and sunscreen, but those sailings are few and far between. You can take some solace in the fact that for many travelers, Alaska can be prettier in the rain than in sunshine.
The most important tip we can give? Go. Many cruisers wait so long before experiencing Alaska for the first time, and they all have the same thing to say after: “I can’t believe we didn’t do this sooner.”