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Alaska Cruises: Insider’s Guide

Tom Baker | November 30, 2016

The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for cruises: Tom Baker of Cruise Center.

Trusted Travel Expert
Tom Baker

Tom Baker has sailed on more than 250 ships in nearly 50 years. From Alaska to French Polynesia to the Panama Canal, from the Douro to the Rhine to the Danube, if an ocean or river ship docks there, chances are he’s been—more than once!  First Tom helps each traveler pinpoint the right ship, cabin, and itinerary (his encyclopedic knowledge of the pros and cons of different cabin types on different vessels will astound you). Then he advises on which private guides, group shore excursions, and flights will best suit your needs.  He has particular clout with river lines AmaWaterways, Crystal River Cruises, Uniworld, and Viking, and with ocean lines Celebrity, Celestyal, Crystal, Holland America, MSC, Norwegian, Oceania, Royal Caribbean, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, and Windstar. Tom was also included in Perrin’s People, Wendy’s award-winning list of top travel specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2000 to 2013.

Travel arrangements start at $300 per day for two travelers. This is the minimum you should expect to pay.
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Ships and Cabins

Best-value ship
The Norwegian Jewel and Norwegian Pearl, which set sail from downtown Seattle every Saturday and Sunday from May through September, and the Norwegian Sun, which cruises between Vancouver and Seward (a port for Anchorage) on what’s often called the Route of the Glaciers. Fares on these ships can be up to 25 percent less than on Holland America, Princess, and Celebrity. These ships are especially suited to families with young kids: The onboard atmosphere is casual—there’s no dress code—and the ships have well-managed kids’ clubs and a wide variety of entertainment options.

Silver Whisper Medallion Suite

Silver Whisper Medallion Suite. Photo courtesy Silversea Cruises.

Best ship for a splurge
Crystal Cruises has re-entered the Alaskan cruise market with its 1,050-passenger Crystal Serenity, a ship that is consistently rated number one in the world. Serenity offers a lovely country-club-chic atmosphere, sophisticated dining, a lecture series and enrichment program, plus award-winning entertainment. Rates start around $450 per traveler per day, which includes all beverages, meals, and gratuities.

Best large ship
The 2,800-passenger Celebrity Solstice. It’s a stylish ship, with wide-open spaces and glass skylights that fill the public areas with light. While the food in the main dining room is average, several of the ship’s smaller specialty restaurants turn out great meals for a modest fee. Starting in 2015, travelers in the top-category suites will get access to their own private restaurant, sundeck, and indoor lounge, and all beverages will be included in the cabin fare.

Best small ship
Two 62-passenger expedition vessels—the National Geographic Sea Bird and the National Geographic Sea Lion—sail between Sitka and Juneau, visiting many more ports than most big ships can manage. First-rate naturalists give lectures onboard between ports, and when the ship is docked, passengers board zodiacs, canoes, and kayaks to explore their natural surroundings up close. Neither vessel is plush, and the food is more home-style than gourmet, but the service is good, and you learn a ton. These Alaska cruises are pricey—nearly $1,000 per person per day—because of the unique itinerary and shipboard expertise, but they sell out quickly nonetheless, so book a year in advance.

Best ship for families
Norwegian Cruise Line and Holland America often run promotions where kids under 18 sail free or at a fare of $99 to $199 per person. These sales are limited-time and capacity-controlled, but watch for them, because they can be the best-value sailings in Alaska. Keep in mind that Norwegian’s shipboard atmosphere is much more casual than Holland America’s; the latter is more traditional and has a dress code on some nights.

Best ship for a solo traveler
There are no bargains for solo travelers on an Alaska cruise: Fares for singles are based on double occupancy and thus are typically twice the usual price. Sometimes luxury lines such as Regent and Silversea may charge solo travelers just 30 percent to 40 percent more than the usual per-person price.

Best ship for independent travelers
The small-ship expedition vessels operated by Un-Cruise Adventures and by Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic offer knowledgeable onboard naturalists, zodiac landings, kayaking in Glacier Bay, guided hikes, and more. They cater to adventure seekers who would never be caught dead on a tour bus. Of course, the smaller the ship, the heftier the price tag. Rates start at $6,290 per person for a seven-day Alaska cruise.

Best ship for foodies
Crystal Serenity’s elegant main dining room offers two menus: one with traditional cruise fare, another with more modern options. There’s also the Asian-inspired Silk Road by Nobu, Prego for gourmet Italian fare, and Tastes for an innovative approach to tapas. You can dine at each venue once for free, and additional dinner reservations can be made for $30.

Best-value cabins
Many people think they want a balconied cabin on an Alaska cruise, but the truth is that with cooler temps and plentiful rain and wind, passengers rarely use those balconies. Among my favorite cabins are Holland America’s large oceanview staterooms. At 200 square feet, with big picture windows, three to four closets, and relatively large bathrooms that come with a tub, these cabins accommodate three to four passengers comfortably and work especially well for families. AquaClass cabins on Celebrity Cruises’ Solstice are about the same size as the ship’s oceanview staterooms (195 square feet) but come with a balcony plus access to the spa’s private steam rooms and lounge, a dedicated concierge, and Blu, an intimate shipboard restaurant. The mini-suites on the Norwegian Jewel and Norwegian Pearl are 285 square feet (compared to 160 for a standard oceanview cabin) and sleep up to four people. They’re priced significantly lower than similar staterooms on competing ships and often cost only an extra $100 per person above the price of a balconied cabin.

Cabin worth the splurge
The 5,750-square-foot Garden Villas on the Norwegian Pearl and the Norwegian Jewel. They each have with three bedrooms, three bathrooms, floor-to-ceiling windows, multi-tiered balconies, and an outdoor hot tub. Oh, and there’s a butler too, on hand to help you unpack, make reservations for restaurants and shore excursions, or plan the party you could easily host on your huge private sundeck. All the Garden Villas are in the VIP Haven section, which has its own pool, gym, and restaurant. While there are more luxurious ships sailing in Alaska, Norwegian has gone all out with its Garden Villas. They’re easily the largest family staterooms at sea—they can comfortably accommodate up to eight—and are outfitted with the same amenities you’d expect to find at a five-star hotel. In fact, these rooms are so private and so luxurious that many Hollywood and music-industry celebrities, and even one royal family, have booked them. Not surprisingly, luxury like this doesn’t come cheap: The suites run about $25,000 per week, but occasionally you can snag them for thousands less.

Best cabins for families
The two-bedroom suites (Category SC Penthouse or Haven S4) on the Norwegian Jewel and Norwegian Pearl, both of which sail on seven-day cruises from Seattle. The suites are 540 square feet, which is more than three times the size of a standard oceanview cabin, and have a king-size bed and sea-facing en-suite bathroom in the master bedroom. The second bedroom also has its own private bathroom, and there’s a living area and a dining room too. Both suite types offer concierge, butler, and VIP services. They can sleep up to six passengers (there’s a pullout sofa in the living room). Second best are the standard balcony cabins on the Celebrity Solstice. The ship has 121 connecting cabins in category SD-1A where Mom and Dad can have their own stateroom that connects to another stateroom accommodating up to four kids. Each cabin is at least 195 square feet, not including the balcony space, where the privacy partitions can also be opened.

Where to Cruise

Mount McKinley

Mount Denali viewed from the road into Denali National Park and Preserve. Photo courtesy State of Alaska/HagePhoto.

Best itinerary
One that encompasses both the Inside Passage (an archipelago of 10,000 islands in the Alaska Panhandle near British Columbia) and the Gulf of Alaska (the coastline farther north that gives you access to Alaska’s interior). Sailings that include the gulf enable you to continue inland to Denali National Park, home of the tallest mountain in North America and the Big Five of Alaskan wildlife, including grizzly bears. These sailings are usually one-way between Vancouver and Anchorage—you fly into one city and back from the other—which makes them more expensive than solely Inside Passage cruises, which tend to be round-trip out of Seattle or Vancouver. Round-trip airline tickets to Seattle are most affordable, and thus many people find round-trip Inside Passage cruises out of Seattle to be the most budget-friendly and convenient; just be warned you’re missing Alaska’s backcountry.

Best short cruise
In May 2015 Princess Cruises will begin four- and five-day sailings round-trip out of Vancouver to Ketchikan (the salmon capital) and Juneau (the state capital and home to Mendenhall Glacier). Prices start at only $449 per person. The route is limited to the Inside Passage, but that’s good if you suffer from motion sickness, since the water there is calmer than in the Gulf of Alaska.

Don’t-miss port
Juneau, the state capital. It’s where you can heli-hike to Mendenhall Glacier; visit a salmon hatchery; take a guided rain-forest walk; or go river rafting, whale watching, or even golfing. Or you can sample an Alaskan-made microbrew and a halibut burger at the Red Dog Saloon, then take an aerial tram ride up Mount Roberts for panoramic views.

Port most worth the trek
Again, Skagway. It’s where the Klondike Gold Rush began in 1898, and the city still retains its historic character. One of the more interesting (and fun!) shore excursions is to take the narrow-gauge train along the jaw-dropping cliffs, while local guides spin yarns about the miners living in the area during the height of the Gold Rush.

Hidden-gem port
Sitka. It’s a historically rich and colorful little fishing town that was once the capital of the Russian fur-trading empire. In fact, it was here that the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. Today the shops, architecture, and even a local dance company hark back to the motherland. Sitka is also a base for water sports such as sea kayaking and diving.

Best Time to Go

This depends on your specific interest or motivation. If you’re interested in saving money, the shoulder seasons of May and September are the best times to go. Spring is a great time to see the wildflowers in full bloom, and Alaska’s fall foliage is gorgeous as well. Your warmest and longest days will be in June and July, when you’ll also see active, calving glaciers. If you are traveling with children, you may be limited to mid-June through mid-August.

Worst Time to Go

There is no worst time, as the ships are only in Alaska from May through September, when the weather is good. (That is not to say that the seas are always calm, but that part is up to Mother Nature!)

Best Photo Op

The entry into Skagway (the Inside Passage port that’s farthest inland) via the scenic Lynn Canal. This narrow passageway is flanked by mountains and hanging glaciers, and the water takes on a strange green hue due to the tidewater glaciers melting and leaving behind their sandy and icy residue. You need to rise early to see it, but it’s worth the wake-up call.

Best Shipboard Activity

The lectures, dance performances, and crafts workshops led by the Tlingit aboard the Holland America ships. Native to southern Alaska, the Tlingit share their unique traditions and history with passengers throughout each cruise.

Best Month to Book

To make sure you get the best dining time and shore excursions, you should book at least a year in advance. Don’t be too concerned about the price dropping or missing out on a last-minute deal. All cruise lines will reimburse you if your fare falls before you send in your final payment, as long as you didn’t buy a nonrefundable rate and as long as you bring the price discrepancy to their attention. (A good cruise agent will watch for fare drops.) The cruise lines don’t typically reimburse you after your final payment has been made, but if that should happen, your cruise agent might be able to negotiate a cabin upgrade, shipboard credit, or some other perk to keep you happy.

Best Shore Excursion

A small expedition boat ride to Mendenhall Glacier, where visitors can walk on 10,000-year-old moving rivers of ice, followed by whale watching around the fjords outside Juneau. All the cruise ships offer the excursion, though they’re operated by conservationists and include onboard naturalists who will identify humpback, killer, and sperm whales by name and by their markings. If you’re lucky, your expedition boat will be visited by a whale that might use the side of the vessel to scratch barnacles off its back and might even spray you with its blowhole, shooting out a fine salty mist. The boats are covered with large glass windows and equipped with binoculars for all the passengers.

 

Worst Shore Excursion

A city tour in any Alaskan port is a waste of time and money. You sit on a 40-seat bus that meanders the streets of small fishing towns, while guides rattle off stories (many made up) and stretch out a tour just to take up time, for $40 to $60 per passenger. You’re better off touring on your own by foot. All you need is a good city map, which the cruise line or local tourism office ashore can easily provide.

Reviews

A better price

Terri Hartman | April 13, 2017

Hassle-free experience

Scott Laird | November 30, 2016

When things go south

Susan Crandell | November 6, 2016
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