Alaska by Boat
By Jane Teague
November 2, 2011
Alaska By Boat
Whether you plan to push off in a kayak from a small ship, or dress for dinner with the captain of a luxurious hotel on water, Alaska is a cruise destination that will leave you spellbound and longing to return.
More than 44 ships operated by 12 cruise lines ply Alaska’s waters, and the choices can be confusing. This guide will explain the types of ships available, detail some of the best itineraries, and offer tips from travel experts. An Alaska cruise is an outstanding journey, and taking the time to choose the one that suits you will ensure that your days upon the icy straits are just what you imagined.
Although it is not necessary to use a travel agent to book an Alaska cruise, more than 90 percent of travelers do. Enter “Alaska cruise” into any Internet browser, and an array of links pop up. The options are so varied that it can be hard to know where to start. A travel agent with extensive knowledge of Alaska, the best itineraries, and ways to save money and maximize onshore experiences can be a great help.
“Talk to us about your dream of Alaska, your ideas and thoughts and, of course, your budget, and we can make it a reality,” said Rebecca Brice Henderson, owner of the Fairbanks-based travel agency Santa’s Vagabond Travel.
Her agency helps Alaskans who want to bring their extended families to the state for a cruise, as well as travelers from elsewhere who want to talk to a professional who understands Alaska.
If you know which cruise line you’d like to use, call its reservation specialists or examine its website before booking to make sure you know what you’re getting and that you’re getting the most for your dollar. Next, ask yourself a series of questions to determine which cruise is best for you.
What size ship?
According to the Alaska Cruise Line Agency, 722,700 people traveled to Alaska by cruise ship in 2010 and many of them arrived on large ships—essentially floating hotels that carry more than 2,000 passengers. They are a good choice on a tight budget because, with careful planning, a large ship can be a cost-effective way to see Alaska. Do you love people and people watching? A large ship would give you endless opportunities to do so. Do you enjoy a variety of activities and entertainment? Then a large ship would be a great choice, with crafts and cooking demonstrations, cabaret performances, piano players at cocktail hour, and hairy leg competitions by the pool.
The amenities of a large cruise ship are also an attraction. Large ships offer a variety of restaurants, cafes, lounges and bars, casinos, pools, solariums, indoor golf simulators, rock-climbing walls, day care and youth clubs, racquet courts, convenience stores, spas and fitness centers among other choices. A wide choice of pre-organized onshore activities and tours, from dog sledding and bear viewing to zip-lining and Native dance exhibits, is also a big pull for many travelers. If you love to dress up, enjoy gambling at a casino and fine dining, a large ship is right for you. And if you are traveling with children or grandchildren, large ships are often good choices because they offer young ones new experiences while ensuring some familiar comforts, such as pizza and macaroni and cheese—along with a pool to keep them entertained.
Medium-size cruise ships, with 500 to 1,900 passengers, may not offer such a wide array of onboard and onshore amenities. But the more intimate feel that comes with fewer fellow travelers, a smaller traveler-to-staff ratio and the opportunity to visit some communities whose harbors cannot accommodate large ships may be a more attractive.
There are also a number of small-ship cruises available in Alaska. Those ships, which carry between 12 and 100 passengers, offer a different style of Alaska cruising with less focus on amenities and luxuries and more focus on first-hand experience and activities.
“Large ships have more opportunities for passengers to look inward, with what is available on the ship; small ship cruises in Alaska have an outward focus,” said Todd Smith, the owner, founder and director of Adventuresmith Explorations, which helped pioneer Alaska small-ship cruises.
While small ships may not have the amenities and luxuries a large or medium ship can offer, they can provide an intimacy that large ships cannot, such as a chance to work one on one with a photography instructor, discuss writing with an Alaska author, watch glaciers calve, help the chef prepare fresh-caught seafood, or discuss the lifecycle of sea otters with the researcher in the next kayak.
“Our passengers love traveling with an expedition team of naturalists, scientists, adventurers and authors,” said Marc Cappelletti, the director of expedition development for Lindblad Expeditions, which has partnered with National Geographic since 2004.
These cruises do cost more than those on larger ships, so they may not be a possibility on a tight budget. But, if you would like to throw your cell phone away for a week and spend hours scanning the water for otters, harbor seals and whales, or if you think an evening spent reading an Alaska wildflower guide after a hike in the woods sounds like a wonderful night, then a small ship cruise is for you.
For those with well-lined pockets, there are more-exclusive cruises. Private charters for two to eight passengers include a captain and crew and a flexible itinerary that maximizes your Alaska experience. Charters tend to operate within the Inside Passage or Prince William Sound and usually focus on wildlife viewing and fishing.
Where to go, what to see?
With much of Alaska inaccessible by road, a cruise is an ideal way to visit the cities and small towns and see the natural wonders of the state. It is important to research the ports of call you’d like to visit and the experiences you want to have in order to get the most out of your cruise.
The most popular route is one from Vancouver or Seattle to the panhandle of Alaska, through the Inside Passage. These cruises typically call at Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Skagway and a few other towns. They usually include cruising time in Tracy Arm and Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve and will show you the charming communities and stunning scenery most visitors associate with Alaska. These cruises can be one way or round trip, but airfares are generally cheaper if you embark and disembark at the same port.
The next popular itinerary is through Prince William Sound or the Gulf of Alaska beginning or ending in Seward or Whittier, the closest ports to Anchorage. While there are fewer ports of call, whales, glaciers and sea otters are abundant. Some cruises add this section to an Inside Passage trip for a one-way tour, while smaller boats may offer a five- to nine-day itinerary beginning and ending in the same port.
Bering Sea cruises start in Whittier or Seward and visit Homer, Kodiak, Katmai National Park and Preserve and Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, and some head north to the Pribilof Islands and Nome. This trip will show you parts of Alaska that are off the typical tourist path, and while you won’t have the calving glaciers and towering mountaintops of Southeast, there is an untamed beauty unique to southwestern Alaska as well. Cruise travelers can connect to Anchorage via rail for flights in and out of Alaska.
How active are you?
Alaska attracts people of all ages, and many multigenerational groups travel to Alaska on a family cruise. Regardless of your level of fitness and mobility, there are options to make the most of your time in Alaska. It’s important, however, to assess the needs and preferences of your group before choosing a cruise to make sure no one is endangered on the trip—or bored.
Large ships are better able to cater to the needs of wheelchair users and can recommend suitable onshore excursions for passengers with disabilities, but they also can offer more strenuous activities, both onshore and off, for those looking to get their heart rates up; so they can make more sense for a group of mixed ages or ability levels. The less-active members of a party could take a cooking class, listen to a guest speaker or ride a tram up to a viewpoint or walk a boardwalk to watch bears fishing in a stream. Meanwhile, more-active travelers could opt for a dog-sled ride, a helicopter flight to a walk on a glacier, a hike to a historical site or a salsa dance class in the ballroom.
Medium- and small-size ships tend to have fewer accessible areas and activities, and the smallest ships usually require cruisers to climb steep stairs to sleeping cabins and are not recommended for people with mobility difficulties. People of all ages who enjoy physical activity can find fun and challenges on a small ship, however, so if no one in your party has limited mobility, a small cruise can be a great family bonding experience. The activities can range from easy options, such as naturalist-led hikes in the intertidal zone, a ride in a skiff launched from the back of the boat or a stroll through a tiny Inside Passage community, to more strenuous options, such as a kayak trip through the brash ice at the foot of a glacier, an energetic hike to a waterfall through temperate rainforest, or a daylong trek through the woods to a secluded bear-viewing spot.
How big is your budget?
It is possible to find a cruise to Alaska for just about any vacation budget.
If your travel budget is small, your dollar will go a long way on a large cruise ship, where meals and transfers are usually included in the quoted price, but be mindful of hidden costs, such as port charges, drinks onboard the ship and fuel surcharges.
Big-ship cruises can cost as little as $600 per week for an interior room, and you may be able to trim that by booking nine months in advance, booking at the last minute or having more than two people in your stateroom. Choosing a round-trip cruise from a Lower-48 port will ensure lower airfare.
A tight budget will mean some of the onshore activities will be out of your reach, but each Alaska port has lots of free activities. Many museums are free, window-shopping is always cheap, and hikes are never any charge. Fairbanks travel agent Brice Henderson’s top tip for a cruise to Alaska is to stretch your budget and upgrade to a cabin with a balcony deck. With continually changing scenery and the opportunity to view wildlife, a private balcony can turn a good trip into a great trip.
A medium-range budget could mean an upgrade to a stateroom with a veranda on a large- or medium-size ship starting from $900 a week. Mid-price onshore activities start from about $80 per person. A medium budget may also get you a shoulder-season cruise—in May or September when the weather is cooler and rain may be more likely—on a small ship for about $1,500. Small ships are all inclusive, and you can often bring your own beer, wine or liquor if it isn’t provided, just speak to the captain or booking agent.
If you are investing in an experience of a lifetime, then a large budget will allow you to enjoy a deluxe veranda suite on a large- or medium-size ship for a week from about $1,800. You also could consider a luxurious cruise with an all-inclusive fare, such as one offered by Regent Seven Seas Cruise line, that offers spa treatments and fine dining in addition to the usual cruise ship choices, or an expedition-style cruise on a small ship, with fares ranging from $3,000 to $5,000.
Pricier onshore choices include helicopter tours, glacier flightseeing adventures, sport fishing and brown-bear viewing. Expect to pay between $300 and $500 per person for these experiences.
Finally, if seeing Alaska means no budget restrictions will interfere with the experience, try a private charter. A luxurious small ship can cost anywhere from $32,000 to $200,000 for a week depending on whether you deem it necessary to have your own helicopter.
What to pack
When packing for an Alaska cruise, remember to include lots of layers (undershirt and thermal underwear, T-shirt, long-sleeve shirt, vest or lightweight sweater, heavier fleece or sweater, waterproof jacket) to help hold warm air next to your body and make it easier to adjust your clothing for comfort if the weather warms up or cools off unexpectedly. Southeast Alaska receives a lot of rain, and it can rain in Alaska almost any day, so a rain jacket with a hood is essential.
A warm fleece or wool sweater is important, too, because the temperature can drop substantially near the face of a glacier or on excursions to higher elevations. A winter jacket is not likely to be necessary, unless you plan to be in Nome in May.
Casual sportswear is well suited at sea and onshore. Light gloves to protect from the wind, and polarized sunglasses to help with both bright and gloomy days also are recommended.
Bring a wool or fleece hat along if you will be walking or hiking in the woods, kayaking, going out in a skiff or going anywhere windy. Comfortable walking shoes will make shore expeditions much easier, and if you expect to be doing any long walks or hiking, bring waterproof, lace-up ankle boots or rainboots.
Many of the large- and medium-size ships observe formal nights and resort-casual nights. Resort casual is similar to what you would wear at home if you were dining at a nice restaurant. Formal attire for the Captain’s Gala for instance, is a dark suit or dinner jacket and tie for men, and a cocktail dress or gown for women. Many cruise ships have a dress code for the dining areas and items such as cutoff T-shirts, halter-tops and torn jeans may not be permitted.
The small-ship cruises are much more casual, with passengers wearing outdoor and active clothing for most of the cruise.
A thermal underwear layer—especially one that wicks away sweat—can be a useful addition for damp hikes and long kayaking trips. While most small ships will offer rain gear and boots for loan, consider bringing warm socks for hikes and a good windproof raincoat with a hood.
Cruising with kids
Most of the large ships have interactive children’s programs, onboard activities that are designed for the whole family to enjoy and thoughtful family-orientated onshore excursions. With a confusing array of options for families, consider asking these questions to narrow your Alaska cruise choice:
• What is the ratio of kids to counselors in the onboard programs?
• Are pagers available to ensure a parent can be found if needed quickly?
• How much time are children in the programs allowed to watch TV and how are restrictions placed on video games?
• What are the activities we can do as a family?
• If there is a teen program, what level of supervision is offered?
• Does the cruise line allow or help arrange for babysitting in your private cabin?
• Are their quick meal alternatives available for toddlers who will struggle to sit through a dinner service on a larger ship, and will a small ship be able to accommodate my child’s tastes?
• What equipment and baby products will the cruise line offer/loan?
• What safety features are there on small ships to keep little ones from danger?
• Are my children self-sufficient, unplugged and outdoorsy enough to enjoy a small-ship cruise, or do they need the distractions of a larger ship to ensure they are not bored?
How Alaskans get away from it all
Winter is a perfect time for Alaskans to take a cruise. With a range of reasonably priced destinations that link seamlessly to flights directly from Alaska, it’s easy to find yourself aboard a luxurious ship.
The first step is to evaluate your vacation style and where you want to go. Whether your interests include architecture and history, sunbathing, photographing wildlife, or a fireside luau on a Hawaiian island, we have put together some tips for the leading cruise destinations for Alaskans. There is sure to be one that suits your budget and holiday style.
Where to go and what to see?
Look to Hawaii for sandy white beaches, lush forests, surfing and world-class fishing. One advantage of this cruise destination is the direct flights on Alaska Airlines to Kona, Kahului and Honolulu. Norwegian Cruise Line offers a seven-day cruise that embarks and disembarks in Honolulu. This popular cruise visits four islands in seven days with port calls at Maui, Hilo, Kona and Kauai. Equally accessible via Alaska Airlines are cruises embarking from Los Angeles or San Diego for Hawaii. They are typically 12 to 15 days and fulfill the foreign port requirement for longer cruises by including a stop in either Ensenada, Mexico, or on Fanning Island in the Republic of Kiribati.
Cruising through some of the picturesque ports of Europe offers the Alaska traveler a unique perspective on charming cities and historic buildings. Popular cruise destinations include Croatia, Estonia, Turkey, Greece, Italy and Spain.
Leaving Alaska in late fall to join these cruises has many advantages. Main attractions, such as cathedrals, museums and art galleries, will be open and often at discounted prices. Smaller crowds also mean more opportunities to photograph some of the stunning architecture with room to move. The weather in Greece and Turkey will be pleasantly mild, and it will be easier to explore ruins and seaside ports without the intense heat of summer.
If you are prepared to fly farther for your winter break, then consider the world’s leading cruise destination: the Caribbean. Many ships alternate between the east and west itineraries each week, creating opportunities for back-to-back sailings if you have the time.
Most eastern Caribbean cruises depart from Fort Lauderdale or Miami, Fla. An eastern itinerary usually includes San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Island ports of St. Thomas and St. Maarten. With ports of call so close together, there are plenty of opportunities for shopping, lying on the beach or exploring rainforests. With such fantastic beaches available, the shore excursions tend to focus on beach and water activities.
Departing from many Gulf Coast ports, such as New Orleans, Tampa or southern Florida, western Caribbean itineraries call on such ports as Cancun and Cozumel in Mexico. The ships will then head to the waters of Grand Cayman before a visit to Jamaica. With a greater distance between ports of call, there is plenty of time to enjoy sailing and the onboard amenities. Onshore activities are more varied, ranging from snorkeling and scuba diving off Grand Cayman, exploring Mayan ruins in Mexico and climbing a waterfall in Jamaica.
Slightly less crowded, southern Caribbean cruises offer exotic islands with unspoiled beaches. Most of these itineraries depart from Puerto Rico or Barbados because the islands are too far to reach from the U.S mainland on a seven-day cruise. These cruises visit Grenada, Barbados, Bequia, Dominica, Antigua and St Barts. Onshore, enjoy water sports, dazzling azure waters with white sands and visits to spice plantations.
Want to see unique habitats for wildlife around the globe? Look for the small-ship cruises that offer active adventure, wildlife viewing opportunities and onboard naturalists. Companies, such as Lindblad Expeditions and Adventuresmith Explorations, have expedition cruises to the Galapagos, Antarctica, Australia, Asia and New Zealand. Alaskans considering an adventurous cruise will need a larger budget for the flights, cruises and additional vacation time.
When should you go?
One great advantage of a winter escape from Alaska is the possibility of finding cruises at a discount, great deals for families and good-value onshore accommodations. Travel agents and cruise-line reservation specialists are adept at creating packages that will fill cruise ships and give travelers a good value for their vacation dollar.
Hawaii offers great cruising deals from Thanksgiving through mid-December, which is considered the low season. The high prices associated with Christmas recede by the end of January, making Hawaii a wonderful winter escape from Alaska’s extended winter. Look for fares for a seven-night cruise starting at $1,000 and the longer itineraries from $1,300.
A trip to Europe in September, October or November can be a great time for a deal, with 10-day European itineraries starting at $1,000.
Most cruise lines offer fares for a seven-day cruise starting as low as $500 per passenger during the winter months. Look for deals within the hurricane season, from mid-July to November (late season hurricanes are rare but not unprecedented). This is a great time to cruise, because the cruise lines have developed strategies to avoid the worst threat of storms. If a storm does intrude on your cruise, you may visit different ports of call or idle in a secluded bay to wait for calmer weather. Unfortunately there will be no compensation for this, so read the fine print on your ticket for statements about changes to itineraries.
If the deep dark of winter is not your favorite time for a vacation, consider another opportunity. Cruise lines must reposition their ships from Alaska to the warmer waters of the Caribbean or Hawaii in the fall and move them back to Alaska in the late spring. Rather than sail without passengers, cruise lines discount these repositioning cruises to attract passengers. These cruises are usually longer than a week and give passengers a relaxing cruise vacation without frantic days in port. A repositioning cruise from Alaska is a cost effective way to enjoy Hawaii, see the western coast of the Americas or the Panama Canal. Be mindful that longer days at sea means that cruisers tend to spend more in the casino, shops or bars. Travel agents and reservation specialists will easily assist travelers with finding a repositioning cruise that links to a destination of choice.