Cruising to Alaska - what should we know?
March 11, 2012 12:07 PM   Subscribe

We're thinking about going on a cruise to Alaska in late August/early September and we have no experience with cruising or Alaska. What do we need to know? How do we work within our budget? Two adults, no kids.

First of all, is late August/early September a good time to go?

What are good websites to look for deals on cruises? I definitely want a cabin with an outside view - are the more expensive ones really that much better? I don't anticipate spending a lot of time in the room outside of sleeping.

What's the difference between cruise lines and their boats? Is bigger necessarily better?

Is food included? I couldn't find anything on Royal Caribbean's site about this. What expenses will we incur that we might not expect?

Is $3000 an unrealistic budget including MKE to SEA airfare?

What should we not miss in Alaska? He really, really wants to do some kayaking. I would like to do a helicopter tour. On the boat, he likes active stuff, I like chilling out.

We're American citizens and we don't have passports - will we need one if we disembark in Canada?
posted by desjardins to Travel & Transportation around Alaska (10 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I went a cruise along the Alaska coast about 20 years ago. My recollection is that the larger cruise ships cannot go into the fjords, which is where the calving glaciers are. You want to see a calving glacier, trust me.

So, my recommendation would be either: choose a cruise ship that is smaller, or else choose a large cruise ship that has some way of getting its passengers into the fjords (via catamarans, etc.)
posted by dfriedman at 12:31 PM on March 11, 2012

Actually, I'm not sure that a catamaran is the correct type of boat, but that's the general concept--a smaller boat that launches from a cruise ship too large to navigate the fjords.
posted by dfriedman at 12:35 PM on March 11, 2012

Food is included, lord is it included, drinks (besides water, and maybe ice tea and coffee) are not. Most cruise lines offer a $40 or so sticker for your cruise card for unlimited soft drinks. Recommended if you drink more than several a day.

$3000 seems a bit tight, including airfare. Especially if you want an outside room. Which will be really nice for an Alaskan cruise, since the main interesting sight on such a cruise is looking out the window at nature. The cheaper rooms are very very small. As in enough space for a bed, two tiny night tables, and a tiny desk, plus a bathroom. However, they are also usually at the bottom part of the ship, which shifts much less than the top if the ocean gets choppy.

They'll probably have a kayaking shore excursion, but it will cost extra. Looking here, it's a hundred bucks a person.

Late August/Early September is a bit late. The closer to the end of the season, the harder time they have getting to the glaciers.

Different cruise lines cater to different demographics. Celebrity is fancy and skews old, Carnival skews for much younger and cheaper. For example, the dining room meals on the celebrity ship require formal dress, and the ones on carnival are casual.

You'll probably need a passport to disembark. I thought you needed one just to get on the boat, but I didn't look into it too much, I already had mine.

The biggest extra expense they don't list anywhere is gratuity, which can be $10-20 a day. Sometimes at the discretion of the person, other times mandatory.
posted by zabuni at 1:02 PM on March 11, 2012

The advantage to late august/early September is that if the cruise lines are running, it will be cheaper; that's "shoulder season", not high season.

The disadvantage is that September 15 is getting on towards the beginning of winter. For example, the state park in town (Fairbanks ) closes up for the winter on September 15, and as I recall, September 15 is when you're allowed to start using studded winter tires.

It will be chilly in late August/early September. Think late fall in the lower 48. On the other hand, you might get to see some nice colors on the trees.

Bring lots of layers.

Go see Denali state park, if you can. (but it really will be chilly. We went last summer the first week of August with my parents, and I wanted gloves. I was comfortable with my fall/spring coat, which is good to about 20 degrees, but it wasn't warm. And it was windy. )

Are you planning to do a cruise and then spend a couple weeks exploring? Because Alaska is really big. As in, it's a solid day's drive between Anchorage and Fairbanks.

You might look at the Maclaren River Lodge, on the Denali Highway, if you want more of an Alaska adventure. The Denali Highway is not paved, though, and it's a ways from anywhere. But beautiful. We went there in mid-August and the river is lovely, there's hiking you can do, possibly kayaking ( I imagine, but I don't know anything about kayaking), that time of year there's berry picking, ptarmigan hunting if that's your thing (but out of state licenses might be expensive)...the folks that run it are very nice.

But I really think you'd be happier a little earlier in the season. Late August is definitely ... Late. It will be chilly. It might snow in Denali.

My folks did a flightseeing tour last summer up to the arctic circle (starting in Fairbanks) which flew them up to Coldfoot and then they were driven back in a bus. They said it was worth doing.

Come to Fairbanks!
posted by leahwrenn at 1:24 PM on March 11, 2012

Last year I was in Alaska the last two weeks of August and the weather was beautiful - when I say Alaska I mean a tour that started in Anchorage and covered the Kenai peninsula, Wrangell St Elias and Denali, not a cruise and when I say the weather was beautiful I mean sunny and dry for all but one day and we were camping. So based on that experience I'd say it was a great time to go and the colours was just turning so it was even more stunning.

But the season was definitely winding down, it was not exactly warm. At night I could see my breath and was wearing all my layers, a hat and scarf to sit by the camp fire. During the day I was wearing layers, a windproof jacket, a scarf and sun glasses as well as taking a hat and gloves in my bag at all times and sun get the idea. So even if you plan on being in a warm cruise ship I would strongly recommend you take clothes that are suitable for late autumn weather because you will be miserable on excursions if you're always cold as soon as you set foot outside. Be sure to take binoculars and a decent camera, too :)
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:48 PM on March 11, 2012

I think that it's the shore excursions that may break that budget, so you should definitely make sure you plan those out and prioritize before you go.

That said, if you get a chance to sea kayak in the Inside Passage anywhere, you should probably do it, it's ridiculously spectacular. Same for whale-watching in the same area if you're not into kayaking- if you haven't seen humpbacks bubble feed, you haven't lived, and it's hard to take in those sorts of things from a giant cruise ship. Or bear-watching in Katmai, or around Admiralty Island/Pack Creek in the southeast. And taking a flight-seeing tour around Denali on a perfect bright day is indeed mind-blowing...but again, plan on any of these things running the two of you $300-$500, probably, for you to go together, which eats up that $3000 budget quickly.

Late August/early September is a little late particularly if you are planning on going anywhere in the Interior (like Denali, where I've been in a blizzard in early September before), but will probably be okay. It should be fine for coastal areas, but fine at that time of year means lots of layers and fleece and rain gear and hats and gloves on hand just in case, because there is really nothing worse than 40 degrees and raining.
posted by charmedimsure at 3:55 PM on March 11, 2012

Nthing others who say that late August/early September will be somewhat cool --- all those cruising advertisements showing some bikini-clad babe sunning on deck as she cruises past the glaciers? Yeah, that's not gonna happen, unless she wants hypothermia.....

Food is very much included in cruises of all kinds; last cruise I was on, there were NINE "meals" daily, plus grazing opportunities; most cruise ships also have a variety of restaurants onboard.

You will definately need a passport to enter Canada, no matter if you do it by cruise ship or driving across the border; but it's surprisingly easy to get one --- I recently got my first passport, they promised delivery within 4-6 weeks, I received the thing in 12 days. You can apply at certain post offices (go online at to find one that does it near you); mine even took the required photograph. Just remember to take your birth certificate and your driver's license when you go.
posted by easily confused at 6:09 PM on March 11, 2012

From what little I remember of our family cruise (summer season, like 10 years ago), most of the guests on the ship were really old. I saw maybe 15 other kids and that's it. Food was included. Black tie dinner every day, and at the end you had to give your server a gigantic tip. I'm sure all these details change depending on which line you use. I recall our ship having a scandinavian name but I don't remember what it was exactly.

Alaska was ridiculously beautiful though. Insane how pristine everything was. Definitely chilly. That cruise was wasted on my youth, I was too busy sulking to fully appreciate it in the moment.
posted by hellomina at 10:28 PM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Look into taking the ferry and limiting your trip to SE Alaska. Alaska is HUGE, you are better off imho picking one area and enjoying it than frantically driving hither and yon. You can take the ferry and get off at a bunch of towns along the way and stay wherever you want and do all the trips you want and it'll be much cheaper than a cruise. You will be responsible for feeding yourselves but that is not big deal, most of the hauls are short. In August stuff will be winding down so you might get some good deals on kayaking etc. In Sept everything will be closed to try to go in august.

I'd suggest flying to SeaTac, taking the bus to Bellingham and ferrying as far as Haines or Skagway over 10 days. If you have more time go to Seward, take the train to Anchorage and fly out of there. Waste no time in Anchorage! Spend a day in Ketchikan, one in Petersburg, Haines or Skagway, two in Wrangell so you can go to Anan Bear Observatory (amazing!) and a couple in Juneau so you can go to Mendenhall Glacier. Spend additional days places you want to be. Book the ferry, bear viewing and hostels ahead, everything else you can just show up. If you are at all into camping it's super easy and will save you tons of $$.

Most all day trips like kayaking or the bear viewing are going to cost about $100/person. Just plan on that. Helicopter rides are more like $350/person. In Juneau you can take a helicopter up to the glacier and go dog mushing for about the same price which is a total win.
posted by fshgrl at 11:52 PM on March 11, 2012

I think late August to early September is a fine time to visit on a cruise. August is still a pretty busy month, but by September a lot of the crowds will have thinned down. At the same time, if you want to partake in any shore excursions/touristic adventures they'll still be available.

Most cruises spend the majority of their time in Southeast Alaska. It's a rainy area, doesn't really matter if it's July or August. Temperatures will be lower (50s), so you'll want a reasonably warm jacket (and rain coat). That said, this is Alaska, not the mediterranean.

Most cruise lines are pretty similar. I will say that Alaska cruises tend to attract an older crowd. Especially Holland America.

I'm assuming $3000 a person. The cheapest Alaska cruises I've seen tend to be about $1000 a person. You'll save money on airfare if you do a r/t cruise from Seattle. However, more of your time will be spent on the water, as opposed to in port. If you're going N/W to Whittier, expect to spend a few hundred more on a ticket that flies out of Anchorage.

Finally, as far as shore excusions go, you can often save money by booking directly (not through the cruise ship). Search google for Temsco and ERA are some of the main helicopter companies. You can seriously save like 30% if you book directly.

The only downside is that they don't have an agreement with your cruise ship. probably not worth a lot.
posted by timelord at 11:17 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

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