All you can eat buffets, shuffleboard, formal dining, air-conditioned driving tour; though nice indulgences, multi-thousand passenger cruise ships are hardly known as an adventurous experience. But at the same time, what better is there to get a taste for the vastness of Alaska than cruising from port to port, sailing through the famous inside passage and into the heart of the iconic Glacier Bay?
Alaska has always been on my dream list. In fact, I’ve been so enthralled with the photos and tales that I often joked a visit would be a one-way trip (managed to find my way back this time but it was a close call!). Still, when my family suggested a cruise, I must admit, I was uncertain… for about 5 minutes. I mean the chance to get a crash course in Alaska? There was no way I could say no.
There’s no denying both the incredible experience an Alaska Cruise offers nor the, how do I put this politely, relaxed demeanor of those who tend to partake. But for every slow moment, every instance when I wished for more adventure, I must say that the views more than made up for it.
The Right Ship, Route & Timing Make or Break the Experience
My trip took place on Holland America’s Ms Zaandam, a comparatively smaller ship holding just over 1,400 passengers (my review of the ship will be coming shortly) which led to a closer, more intimate but also less expansive experience. Of course, at each port we were joined at the dock by a few other ships giving me the chance to learn about the experience across Celebrity, Princess, and Disney Cruise Lines.
Itineraries differ between lines, ships and specific cruise routes so there’s a lot to consider both in what you want out of the onboard experience and the stops & sights along the way but essentially Alaskan cruises are all about the views and the ports. That’s not to say you’ll be trapped inside idly passing the time on sea days, to the contrary, the boats are quite incredible, but rather that the draw really is what you can see so consider your route as much as your ship!
This is most evident with Glacier Bay. While many ships sail the Alaskan coast, not all of them venture into the bay (and conversely those that do may not venture somewhere else.) Even though our cruise had less than perfect weather just about every day, the view of the glaciers would have made up for 6 days in the rain, dark, and cold – and I’ve seen more than a few glaciers in my travels!
Still, it’s vital to consider the onboard amenities too as you will have plenty of time where you want to stick inside whether do to the weather (this is Alaska afterall), the time of day, and just being amused on the longer sea days. Timing also plays a role here as you contrast between long, often rather nice days in mid-summer to shorter, more fluid ones near the edges of the season though perhaps at a better price!
Larger boats naturally come with more offerings up to climbing walls and waterslides if you get big enough. But that also means thousands upon thousands of people and pretty much any ship is going to be a vacation all on its own with nightly shows, fine dining, swimming pools, movie theaters, and more.
Being on a smaller boat like it brought us closer to the action along the way and it certainly avoided any overwhelming sense of crowds but that also came at the expense of a more dated and limited set of amenities. Talking to some frequent cruisers, it seems that the smaller boats draw in an older crowd than some of the larger ships though I wouldn’t say I other boats were full of avid adventurers or flooding the streets with kids either — it all seemed pretty balanced out.
Bottom line: for groups, families with kids, and the more active types there is likely a win in scaling up a bit while those wanting less of the above and less people, it may be wise to scale right on down.
7 All-Inclusive Nights Is Cheaper Than Your DIY Hotel Stay
I won’t dwell on this part much but I do think it’s worth calling out how efficient a cruise can be for your wallet. No, it’s not competitive with hostels, tents, and car camping it an all-inclusive cruise can actually net out cheaper than a self-managed, hotel level stay.
For example, looking forward to 2018, list rates start at about $800 per person for a 7-day cruise. Multiply that by two to a room, add in mandatory fees and you’re well under 2 grand for the week. That’s hardly cheap traveling but a 3-star hotel in Anchorage or Juneau will run you at least a grand and probably more. Throw in food, basic entertainment and the likes and the cruise route comes out ahead, especially if you want to hit more than a few stops.
That said, there’s plenty else you may find yourself paying more for on a ship like booze. Holland America’s drink prices weren’t bad (call it mid-level bar) and even had some all-inclusive packages for heavier drinkers but that’s a lot more than picking up a few bottles at Costco the first day. And if you’re a sucker for shopping, gambling, or spas, budget a good chunk more in to cover those as well.
The Sights, Sounds & Stops of the Alaska Cruise
An Alaska Cruise really is all about getting to see, well, Alaska and while I was clearly not sold on the pace of the entire experience, in this regard, it delivered big time.
Sailing up from Vancouver or Seattle along the coast of Canada and Alaska is simply stunning at nearly every turn. The lighthouses and port towns early on, the coast and mountains views as the boat makes its way further north, and that’s not even considering the wild life or small town stops along the way. If I could change anything about my cruise, it would have been to suck up the heat and tour in summer to get every possible moment of daylight for views I could.
Like the cruise ships, the ports are one part incredible, two parts commercialized and often cater to the same slower pace on the ships. That is of course because in peak season several cruise lines dock each day creating one heck of a recurring business (note: in the off season, much of this business shuts down making for a much different experience and pace should you choose to visit yourself.) Though typically long days, port visits are also limited which impacts just how far you can get into the local wonders.
Combined, this made for both an exciting and frustrating experience for me. On one hand, the cruise made it easy to get a taste for places like Juneau, Ketchikan, and Skagway that would otherwise require their own flights or long drives to reach. On the other hand, having less than a day in each made it hard to get to the good stuff I knew was around and of course afforded no flexibility for adjusting to weather. Still, it let me make a visit, get a feel, and now I can decide where to return in full.
I’ll be writing guides for each of the ports I made it to with thoughts on what you may want to do or book but for now, here’s what my cruise included:
- Inside Passage (At Sea)
- Glacier Bay National Park (At Sea)
- Anchorage (Visited Further After the Cruise)
Tour Operators and Activities in Port
Right along with the commercialism of the port cities is the development of the operators working in them who can be very spendy especially when booked directly through the ship. Similarly, catering to the time constraints and typical boat crowds makes for a pretty cookie cutter list of options.
The ships sell the benefits of ease (totally true) and availability which seemed to be a lot less of an issue than it was made out as, at least cruising later in the season. If you’re willing to gamble a bit, you can save a lot and open up your options as well as being able to respond to the actual weather conditions by simply booking adventures as you go.
For the most part, you’ll find many great operators right at the docks or nearby and of course, for bigger treks like air tours, you can just arrange things directly a day or two ahead of time online as there’s plenty of cell signal and wifi options at each port town.
Even being flexible and fairly adventurous taking on cabs and off-beat routes, the options were still pretty limited given the limited time at each port and our desire to move rather than spend long days traveling to get to a short excursion. That’s not to say the port experience was in any way bad but simply that there was a lot we couldn’t get to.
Along the way, we
hiked walked uphill to the Mendenhall Glacier, rafted down rivers, wandered through historical towns, rode trams up thousands of feet above cities, and had the option for everything from kayaking to snorkeling to glacial walks and flights. The cruise offered a taste but a focused trip really is required to dive on in.
Glacier Bay: The Stop I’ll Never Forget
If you’re just starting your research on an Alaska Cruise, you’ll find that there are a tremendous number of offerings but I would argue that you can throw many of them out with one simple test: do they get to Glacier Bay or not.
I’ve climbed several glaciers, see many more from a near distance, and still more in Alaska after my cruise ended but to look at the towering walls of ice in the edge of Glacier Bay’s waters and to watch them calving was something else. There are no words to describe it and I’m not sure the photos above can quite convey the scale of this stop (ok, this tour, you don’t actually get off the boat.)
Not only are the sights incredible but they are oh so limited and exclusive. As a National Park, only a few cruise lines get to venture into the waters each day and see the sights up close.
Rangers come aboard, National Park Passport Book stamps are provided, it’s a full and very close experience. Sadly it’s also one that’s changing far too quickly as many of the glaciers continue to recede back making this adventure all the more important to get to and soon.
So, unless you have plans for another way into Glacier Bay after your sailing (in which case, go you for the truly up-close tour), make this a requirement and then get yourself as big a camera as you’re willing to take I promise you’ll want to remember this part forever. So worth it!!
The Bottom Line: Slow Paced but Worth It.
Just Be Sure to Book Some Self-Exploring Days at the End
The pace of an Alaska Cruise is many times slower than any other trip I’ve been on in years and even with all the incredible ports stops, the experience constantly left me wanting to just stretch my legs and get out to explore on my own terms. But for all that, it was a truly remarkable experience on so many levels and while I know I need to return to many of the stops to experience them in full, cruising by everything was a great way to start, to check a few that I’m sure I won’t make it back to off, and to see parts of Alaska that no single visit would have otherwise got me to.
As for the cruise, a lot of great meals, a relaxed pace for a couple days, and the comparatively good price of it all (no, it’s not a tent, ramen, and snicker’s bar level cheap but that’s ok) and ya, I’d say the cruise was a good once-in-a-lifetime call. Then again, having a few days in Denali and then on my own after it to properly explore helped leave me with a taste of real adventure to balance out the relaxed views and luxury pace.
Next up: Visiting Denali National Park on your Alaska Cruise