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kimberlingray

How do you CHOOSE for Alaska? Help a newbie out!

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So, I'm not new to cruising, but we've only done Caribbean cruises and a Mediterranean cruise and Alaska seems to be so much more complicated for some reason.  I think it's because we will likely only ever do it once (my husband prefers warm weather itineraries) and I want to be sure to see everything in one trip.  If you've done multiple trips or know a lot about Alaska cruises and tours, I would greatly appreciate your insight and suggestions for a once-in-a-lifetime trip for my family.

Here are our specifics:

1.  Myself and husband (in our 40's) and our 2 kids who will be 13 & 16-ish when we travel and possibly my mother would travel with us.  We will want two cabins, one balcony for sure but we wouldn't mind spending a bit more on a suite that fits us all and if it would make sense financially to do that. 
2.  We usually sail Royal Caribbean but have heard that Princess is better for Alaska.  
3.  Likely we'll want to do a land tour first and then southbound Alaska cruise - but could be talked into something different if there's a good reason. 
4.  We prefer not to drive around for the land tour or plan every detail and individual tour out ourselves. I like tours that are pre-planned with guides and/or planned itineraries.  We are active enough to do physical excursions, but not super outdoorsy/hikers. So while we want to see nature and that's the point of the trip, we don't necessarily need the most exhausting physical tours out there.  Likewise, we don't want to be on tours with the older crowd that can't make it up hills. :p   I saw the railway land tours with the glass dome top that RCI offers and REALLY love that idea for part of the trip, maybe.  But there just seem to be so.many.options!!!

5.  Kids like to do activities on the ship and we generally cruise on the larger ships, but I'm assuming we won't necessarily need that many activities onboard because the destinations are more important??  Are the larger ships itineraries not as good as the smaller ships due to the places they can't access in Alaska??

Basically - How do you pick an itinerary and cruise line?  I priced out a 12 night land/sea tour on RCI when we were on board last week in the Bahamas and it was around $15K. :o  That was a bit shocking to me, but I don't know what's average for land/sea Alaska. 

Thank you to anyone who can give me some insight.  I'll continue reading reviews on this forum, but they are only serving to confuse me more at this point. lol

 

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Check out Alaska by Cruiseship by Anne Vipond (book).

 

I was intimidated by Alaska when I was first researching also. I would read reports and learn about the different glaciers and the different ports.

 

The largest cruise ships definitely have a disadvantage in Alaska IMO. They either have less ports, they don't sail some scenic routes that smaller ships sail and they often have to do different approaches to glaciers.

 

I recommend 2 glacier days because there is a decent change that one glacier may not be accessible due to ice, fog or other weather conditions. Glacier Bay seems to be the most accessible (ships rarely miss it). Tracy Arm and Hubbard can easily be missed. Many ships are dropping Tracy Arm and doing Endicott Arm instead because it is easier for ships to access but is less desirable from a viewing stand point.

 

In Alaska - ship activities such as climbing walls are less important because Alaska is about the scenery. I would focus on itinerary, times in port (important), glaciers and what you and your family want to do. For example - if you want to take a helicopter ride and land on a glacier and go dog sledding - they stop operating sometime in August for the season.

 

Lastly - Alaska is expensive. The cruise and the excursions. Plan accordingly (as opposedly to skimp out on excursions). Plan your day out and make sure you can do what you want with your time in port. Several trips are in Juneau from 2 pm -10 pm. People come on this board all the time saying they can't do both excursions they want to do because of the time in port. Know this before you book, not after.

 

Ok - lastly. Weather in Alaska can be unpredictable. Historically May is dry and every month after has more rain with September having the most rain/storms. Again, historically - there are exceptions every year.

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My $0.02...

 

Formulate a reason to visit Alaska...that is, have a goal, have a clear picture of what visiting Alaska means to you...not anyone else. Very seriously, I mean that you make a journal entry that is along the lines of, "For me, visiting Alaska means..." or "If I were to visit Alaska, I definitely would want to see..."

 

I knew that my family would end up seeing AK more than once...so when it worked out for us to go, it was a rather odd instance...and I wrote all about it in my TR which did include my planning...but I hadn't planned on booking a cruise when I did...it was just one of those things when I was looking into ONLY northbound cruises and found a nice deal...nicer than I had ever seen for what I thought would be a great cabin for my family of 3. We booked it with no real forethought and then the planning was all based on..."we want to see glaciers...want to go fishing, hopefully for salmon...and we want to get into the "wilderness"".  These guided all our excursion decisions.

 

I caution you to be careful with the thought of seeing EVERYTHING. I don't think that is possible...but it might be possible to see everything that you really WANT to see. Going back to figuring out what it means to you to visit Alaska and then planning an itinerary that accomplishes that goal.

 

If that is too hard to do from that angle...think about how you will feel AFTER your Alaska trip. What would be disappointing to you to NOT have seen. As in, "I went to Alaska and I can't believe I didn't see..."

 

I understand what you are meaning when you say that your kids like to do activities on the ship...but that may not actually be in sync with an Alaska cruise. Not that there are no activities, it's just that often, the ship itself takes a back seat to the where and when of the itinerary. Usually, itinerary is king...followed by the when...and that will give you choices that narrow it down to choosing the ship.

 

You have a decent start with the idea of wanting to do your land tour first and then do a southbound cruise. Go from there. 

 

I understand not wanting to deal with planning the land tour part...but I would urge you to think out what you really want to see in Alaska and then maybe rethink that. Having a plan will give you a way to evaluate what the planned cruise tours do and whether or not you could just as easily figure out how to do what you really want to do.

 

The biggest thing to be aware of with Alaska...watch out for the FOMO...the fear of missing out. The way to battle this to not look too hard to other people for what to see and do. If you go there...you will begin to be overwhelmed because your guidance isn't coming from yourself...this brings confusion. For sure, gather some general info on what you can see and do...especially if you aren't super familiar with Alaska sites. But, for instance...you may find that if you really want to see glaciers in Alaska...your land tour may be entirely different than what the cruise offers. You may plan to do one or two boat tours out of Seward and/or Whittier. Off the top of my head, I know there is a road side glacier on the way toward Denali that you can hike on. There's Portage glacier? Off a lake and there's boats there. There are helicopter tours to see glaciers from several places around and near the Kenai Peninsula... If you were to start researching glaciers in Alaska, then you could find many different things you could do that go beyond the day of sailing in Glacier Bay and Hubbard, etc., that are on the cruise itineraries. And THAT is what I'm talking about figuring out what you really want to see on your visit to AK.

 

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I’ll just add a few comments to what the others have said.  

 

In response to cruise ship size... the smallest ships tend to attract an older crowd...60+.  Not many families go on the under 1000 person ships.  But the really big ships are limited where they can dock.  

 

Excursions... determine what you REALLY want to do.  If wildlife is high on your list, and you want to see whales and possibly bears, than Icy Strait Point and Juneau have some great excursions. But choose your months appropriately.  Don’t go in mid May if you want to see bears.  

 

Land portion... we just finished a Fairbanks to Seward pre-cruise land trip and we found it exhausting.  Distances are far and we found ourselves sitting in a bus or train an awfully lot of the time.  I was surprised to find that the day in Denali is a day spent on a bus.  We only got off for bathroom breaks. While we did see caribou, bears, and a moose... it was a lot of sitting on an old school bus.  We loved the train ride... especially because we could get up and walk around.  Even though we boarded our ship in Seward, we didn’t spend any time in Kenai Fjords National Park on the precruise tour.  Luckily we had visited that before and the boat tour was fantastic... up close to a glacier and we saw a pod of Orca.  I would think if you can, that would be on your bucket list.  Skagway is great for the train trip.  

 

Basically, you have to first set your priorities, then see when is the best time of year to fulfill them, and then see if you can find a ship that meets the bill.

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You will not be able to see "everything" on one cruise and one land tour.  Unless you plan on a several week trip.  You should do a little research and decide what's important to you and your family.  Then you can decide which cruise-tour best fits the bill.  I think you are cutting yourself short on the land portion by not wanting to drive yourself.  Alaska is very simple to navigate because there are only a few highways.  You can do your own land tour so much cheaper than paying a cruise line. Plus you'll be free to stop wherever you want along the way to your main stops.  The large groups whiz past everything in a large bus...  At a place like Denali (where most land tours visit) you can take a guided tour that particular day or two.  While on the actual cruise you can make your own arrangements for the port excursions and save a significant amount of money - especially with 4-5 people.  Good luck!

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We took a different approach on our first cruise to Alaska. We wanted to keep it as simple and affordable as possible. I felt that if we liked it, then we could return and really go all out. 

 

So we chose a round trip from Seattle (more affordable airfare and nonstop flights) departing on a Saturday (so that it would be easier to take just one week off work). We also wanted to make sure that we visited Glacier Bay since it was recommended by many. We settled for a cruise aboard Holland America’s Westerdam visiting Juneau, Glacier Bay, Skagway, Ketchikan and Victoria. We also took advantage of a kids sail free promotion so the total cost of our cruise in a balcony stateroom for 4 was $2.8K.

 

We did quite a bit of research at each port and managed to steer clear of organized excursions. We visited Mendenhall Glacier, hiked the Sitka National Forest, visited the Alaska Raptor Center, rode the Sea and Land Duck tour in Ketchikan and walked the waterfront in Victoria. We spent a minimal amount of money ashore.

 

Did we miss a lot? Absolutely. But everything that we did was truly wonderful and very enjoyable. Glacier bay was definitely a huge highlight. It was a fantastic and memorable cruise and it gave us enough to decide that we would definitely return and truly splurge on a longer, more comprehensive Alaska vacation. 

 

I know that it can be intimidating at first. I felt that way. But it’s really not as bad as it may seem. The best piece of advice I can give you is that Alaska is all about the destination rather than the ship, so focus on what you’ll see ashore rather than what you’ll do on the ship. No matter what you select, I’m confident that it will be a wonderful and memorable experience for the whole family. Have a great cruise! 

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The large Princess ship (Royal Princess) sailing to Alaska for the first time this summer has been going to the same ports as the smaller ships (Coral Princess and Island Princess). The big difference is that it sails to the west of Vancouver Island. That probably matters more on southbound cruises.

 

All of my Alaskan cruises have been on Princess ships, but I'd consider other lines for the right itinerary. One of these days, for instance, I'd like to go to Sitka. Holland America has a lot of cruises that go there.

 

There are lots of things to do that don't cost a lot of money. I spent $300 on port activities on my back-to-back cruises this summer. Only one thing was an excursion through the cruise line, and that was more than half my budget (but well worth it).

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7 hours ago, geoherb said:

The large Princess ship (Royal Princess) sailing to Alaska for the first time this summer has been going to the same ports as the smaller ships (Coral Princess and Island Princess). The big difference is that it sails to the west of Vancouver Island. That probably matters more on southbound cruises.

 

It also has to approach to Ketchikan in a less scenic way as the Marine Pilots won't let her approach at normal speeds at the normal route. There was a 3rd issue also with the Royal Princess. Additionally, the Royal Princess has significantly less outside viewing areas which is important in Alaska (and more passengers). Most of my friends who have done this ship would not recommend it for Alaska in the future.

 

The larger RCCL and NCL ships have one less port but more time in Victoria. 

 

Most people only go to Alaska once!

Edited by Coral

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I will start by saying we haven't taken our Alaska cruisetour yet, we are going next May. But having a great travel agent is what helped us choose ship & itinerary.

 

We knew we wanted a cruisetour, because for our first trip we didn't want to have to do all the planning and liked the idea of seeing different parts of Alaska without us (meaning me) doing all the research and planning.

 

We actually had a cruisetour booked with a travel agent we used in the past, but we weren't really happy with her in general, and she just booked us based on what we thought we wanted, but she never gave us any guidance. It was REALLY expensive, and I just wasn't feeling like it was the best option for us.

 

So we went to another travel agent who a friend had recommended, and she spent a lot of time on the phone with me talking about what my DH and I like to do, what was really important to us in Alaska, and the kind of vacations we like. I told what we were booked for already and she said it probably wouldn't be the best for us and she made a couple of recommendations. With several phone calls, lots of emails and some guidance from the new TA we are now booked on a less expensive trip that I think we are going to love every minute of.

 

Good luck!

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My extended family (adult siblings and my parents) and my wife and I did an Alaska cruise last Summer.  We did not do a land tour, but instead did roundtrip out of Vancouver (note: several reasons for not doing land tour: cost, time away from work, Dad is 89 and weren't sure how well he would hold up on longer trip, etc. - if it had just been us, we likely would have done the land tour).  This all happened after about 39 billion hours of Internet research (but that's me).   Attached is the "brochure" I put together for our family before it was all said and done...you might get some ideas from it!

 

Enjoy!

Family Alaskan Cruise - v7 - de-identified.docx

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Decide what is more important for your family:  visiting more than one "port" where there is/are glaciers or not.  Juneau and Ketchikan are very interesting ports.  Icy Point Strait is very interesting for a dose of the Tinglit culture.  Sitka is interesting for a dose of its Russian (and Alaska's) heritage.  The shore excursions for all of these ports are nearly overwhelming in number.  Choosing a port based upon what tours your family might enjoy might help you to select an itinerary.

 

I chose Coral Princess's Southbound itinerary because of visits to Hubbard Glacier as well as Glacier Bay.  Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan along with an Inside Passage sail East of Vancouver Island were my priorities.  I'd choose a ship whose deck plan shows lots of exterior deck space for sightseeing.  Coral meets that goal for me.  (Royal Princess, on the other hand, does not.  I have sailed on Royal and I do not believe (as does some others) that she is best suited for the Alaska cruise market.  The ships of Holland America Line has a Crow's Nest Lounge located a deck above the Bridge.  For sightseeing in an interior venue, they cannot be beat.  Coral and Royal lack such a venue, although Coral's Horizon Court faces the bow and is a good interior sightseeing spot.  (Sitting at the tables, though and not dining, takes up space that could be better used by your other guests wishing to dine.)

 

And, maybe my best advice is to use a travel agent in booking your trip who has Alaska knowledge.  Doing so will not cost you any more than if you book the trip yourself.  And, your agent may provide better pricing and some perks, i.e. onboard credit, than if you book directly with the cruise line.

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