Even if you’re not a “cruise person” a cruise to Alaska is pretty special. You’ll visit ports and see things that would be difficult to do if you weren’t on a boat. It’s a great cruising destination for first-time cruisers, but the world of cruising can be pretty confusing.
My mom and I went into trip planning as total cruise neophytes. Luckily the two of us are prolific researchers and planners (where do you think I got it from?) so we spent the months leading up to our cruise reading basically the entire internet.
We did the Inside Passage with Tracy Arm Fjord cruise aboard the Crown Princess (we sailed as guests of Princess Cruises and they graciously covered our entire cruise experience). We were able to find a ton of information online, both on the Princess website and on websites like Cruise Critic. But there was a lot I had to discover on my own, which I’m happy to pass along!
Here are my top tips for enjoying planning a cruise to Alaska:
Picking a Route
Alaskan cruises run a variety of different routes depending on what cruise line you book with. Most of them do some sort of glacier touring, either through Glacier Bay or Kerry Arm (where we went). Some cruises even have an overland component to Denali.
There is a ton of information out there on the pros and cons of various cruise itineraries, so spend some time looking over your options and make sure you’re visiting the stuff you are most interested in seeing when planning a cruise to Alaska.
It’s also important to consider your departure port. Most cruises leave from either Seattle, Vancouver or Anchorage. We chose Seattle because well, I live here and it was convenient. However, this meant a full day at sea on the journey to Alaska and another almost full day at sea (with a brief stop in Victoria) on the way back.
If I were to go again I would probably choose to either leave from Vancouver or to do a one-way cruise. This would maximize sightseeing time and cut down on days at sea.
Splurge on a Balcony Room
Yes, I know balcony rooms are significantly more expensive than the inner staterooms, but I think they are worth the extra money and here is why:
An Alaskan cruise is all about the scenery. Whales swim by your boat at 6 AM, icebergs float along and insane sunsets turn the sky purple in the evening.
Yes, you can see most of these things from out on deck, but there is something completely zen about sitting on your own private balcony, sipping a glass of wine and watching some of the most beautiful scenery in the world float by.
Pack For Every Contingency
Alaskan weather is incredibly unpredictable. In Skagway, it was a sweltering 90 degrees and I wore a tank top. On the morning we took the small boat through Kerry Arm Fjord at 6 am I had on basically every piece of clothing I’d packed and was shivering. Some mornings would start out frigid and then get quite warm, then rain.
That thing about dressing in layers? It is for real here. Add in the fact that you need to look somewhat presentable in the sit-down dining rooms (less so at the buffets) and you will find yourself changing pretty frequently.
One thing I didn’t pack but probably should have? A bathing suit. I assumed nobody would be using the outdoor pools on a chilly cruise like this but I was quite wrong. At the very least it would have been nice to go in one of the many hot tubs. When planning a cruise to Alaska be sure to think about how to pack and what you will be doing.
- A surge protector– those staterooms have shockingly few outlets.
- An alarm clock- most rooms don’t have them. Your phone will work just fine as long as you keep it charged. Be aware of time zone changes from day to day.
- Dramamine– even if you don’t usually get seasick. I felt fine on the large ship but heading out on the smaller boats for whale watching etc was a bit rough.
- A good book- lots of time on the ship without internet means lots of time to relax.
- Sunscreen- the Alaskan sun is pretty bright.
- Your own wine (and a corkscrew)- Check with your cruise line’s regulations. Ours allowed us to bring two bottles on board free of charge. Big savings to be had here.
If you’re not a workaholic like myself, I suggest leaving your laptop at home. The wifi is crazy expensive and only works some of the time.
Know the Food Options
Food is a big part of cruising. Our ship had a mind-boggling array of options that were all included in our ticket price. You could go ultra casual at the buffet, or have a set dinner reservation in the formal dining room. You could visit the bakery, or the tapas and sushi bar, or grab a hamburger by the pool. There was even the option to have high tea at around 3 pm most afternoons.
Our ship had two “specialty restaurants” that cost an extra $25 a person to eat at. One was exceptionally good and the other was actually pretty disappointing.
One thing that did cost extra: beverages. We didn’t buy a beverage package and instead stuck mostly to complimentary water, coffee and tea with the occasional splurge on a martini (or…3). Unless you get some sort of discount or you’re planning to drink a TON I don’t think the open-bar package is worth it. When planning a cruise to Alaska be sure to research the food options on your cruise.
Of course, you can always eat off the ship too and I recommend seeking out the local specialties. One of my tastiest meals all trip was this bagel with the local salmon spread in Ketchikan:
Port Visits and Excursions
Hanging out on the boat is only part of the cruise experience of course. You are here to see Alaska! Spend some time learning about your ship’s itinerary and the port stops.
Princess gave us some cruise credits to use on excursions so we booked through the cruise line, but you can also book your excursions through local vendors. Research what you want to do when planning a cruise to Alaska and be sure to compare prices.
Here’s what we did:
Juneau: Whale Watching & Mendenhall Glacier Photo Safari
We chose this package mainly because it offered a smaller group tour than the regular whale watching excursion. We saw a couple of whales but it paled in comparison to the super-pod of humpbacks that we’d seen off the side of the ship earlier that morning. The hike around Mendenhall Glacier was pretty special though.
Skagway: White Pass Scenic Railway
Skagway is a historical wild west mining town, and the White Pass Railway is the main attraction here. It was definitely worthwhile: a winding train ride up into the mountains and along the historic White Pass Trail where prospectors once hiked on foot in search of gold in the Yukon. Very cool.
Tracy Arm Fjord: Small Boat Exploration
The entire cruise ship sailed into the Fjord, so everyone on board got a good look at the icebergs and Sawyer Glacier. We, however, opted for the catamaran tour which took us deeper into the Fjord and right up to the face of South Sawyer Glacier. It was pretty neat, and my mom’s favorite part of the trip.
We chose to just explore the town of Ketchikan at our own pace, and it ended up being our favorite stop of the trip. We hung out in a local coffee shop and met some locals, visited a yarn store my Mom had been eyeing and walked around the historical area. It was lovely.
Our stop in Victoria was just 3 hours on the last night of our trip, so we chose to stay on board and get drunk at the martini bar instead. What can I say?
Take Advantage of On-Board Programming
In addition to the game shows, art auctions and live music programs the Crown Princess also offered some great local programming. There was a naturalist on board who did a daily program on the wildlife of Alaska and even did some voiceovers for the entire ship when we passed crucial sights. There was a local Alaskan band one afternoon. One evening Libby Riddles, the first woman Iditarod winner gave a talk which was really neat.
The key to planning a cruise to Alaska: Try not to overthink your trip
The whole point of a cruise is to relax and enjoy the immense beauty of Alaska.
Disclosure: As mentioned above, our trip and excursions were provided courtesy of Princess Cruises. All opinions are my own.