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Alaskan Cruise

Hello,

We were invited to go on an Alaskan cruise (Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan) in August and will be first-time cruisers. We are in our early 30s. Was hoping others might be able to share their expertise in the following areas:

1) Looks like there are long lists of excursions available to book through the cruise line. It's hard to know where to start because there are so many options. Are there a few that are considered to be popular highlights of an Alaskan cruise? We're not much into helicopters/small planes, so will probably pass on the "flight-seeing", but are planning to take the scenic railway trip. We're also considering the dogsled excursion (will be wheeled cart on bare ground since it's summer) and some sort of trip to the Mendenhall glacier (not sure which of the many options). We are from the Pacific Northwest, so things like whale watching and such aren't complete novelties to us, but we'd like to make sure we pick a few good excursions to make the most of our time in Alaska. I know that some of it comes down to personal preference, but if there are any "don't miss" ones that everyone does on an Alaskan cruise, we'd love to know about those.

2) On a related note, is it a good idea to try to arrange excursions not affiliated with the cruise line? The cruise line ones are very pricey, but of course you have the guarantee of departing/arriving on time so you don't miss the boat. It's easier just to do the ones offered by the boat, but if it's common for cruisers to arrange private excursions so they don't have to pay an arm and a leg, then that's something we'll probably look into.

3) Does anybody have experience with the gold panning excursions? Could see it going either way - either a fun novelty or a tourist trap.

4) When a cruise line describes an excursion as "kid friendly" does this just mean that the excursion doesn't include things that would be inappropriate for kids (like sea kayaking), or does it mean that the excursion is geared towards the kids?

5) Does anybody have experience arranging public or private transportation (not through the cruise line) to Mendenhall glacier? The one people we know that did almost missed their bus back to the boat, but I'm wondering if this is a common issue or if it was just them.

Thanks a bunch!

Posted by
1368 posts

Comimila, ask these questions on cruisecritic.com. You will get great answers there. They also have forums to connect with passengers on the same sailing and many may try and do private tours you could sign up for.

Posted by
11450 posts

I totally agree with Diana... we have cruised 6 times.. but we mostly travel independently land trips.. so I love travel forums. This forum( as most non cruise specific forums) is not great for cruising info.. definitely check out cruisecritics.com

Posted by
3500 posts

First, cruisecritic.com will have loads of information for you. Not the easiest site to navigate, but lots of experienced posters.

With regard to your specific questions: In Skagway we went into the Yukon via a bus to a place named Carcross and rode the White Pass Railway back. Spectacular scenery and highly recommend it. In Juneau we did a combination whale watching trip and a trip to Mendenhall Glacier and they we both very good excursions.

You are correct when you say the cruise line excursions are expensive. You are also correct about the ship waiting for you if a ship excursion is late returning -- not so with people who opt for private excursions. On several occasions we have seen people left on the dock in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.

Considering the cost of getting yourself to the next port in that part of the world, opting to go very far afield on your own might cause more stress than justified by the cost savings. On the other hand, if you are going to be staying close to the ship and can easily get back, and can give yourself plenty of "elbow room" for unexpected contingences, then it might be ok. Just something you'll have to decided based on the circumstances.

Posted by
5016 posts

Cruise critic website is wonderful, in fact you can find a roll call for your specific cruise. Frequently, there are others organizing private tours that a far cheaper than the ship's excursions.

We had a great NCL Sun cruise in September of last year. We wanted to do the White Pass rail, with a hike in the wonderful rain forrest (out of Skagway). We had to take the ship's excursion to get the White Pass rail, which was great.

Many people like Harv and Marc for tours. There are more and we did the Ketchikan Taxi tour there.

Also, Viator has tours as an option.

I would opine that a gold panning tour would be disappointing. From others, I have heard that tours where you meet the sled dogs are a bit disappointing.

We did a Viator tour that included the Mendenhal glacier and whale watching. It was good and cheaper than the ship's.

Here is my review of our trip and cruise. Hope your cruise goes to Glacier Bay, it was wonderful.
http://www.cruisecritic.com/memberreviews/memberreview.cfm?EntryID=547125&et_cid=2764671&et_rid=17221689&et_referrer=Boards

Posted by
1893 posts

The don't-miss shore excursion that we remember from about 20 years ago (it was THAT special) was a trip by helicopter to the top of a glacier, meeting the sled dogs at a camp, then having the opportunity to take dog sleds around the top of the glacier (in the snow, so more genuine than the wheeled version on dry ground). But, that involved a helicopter trip, which you mention you are "not much into." If you would be "okay" with such a flight, this excursion really is wonderful, if your cruise line offers it.

Our second-favorite don't-miss excursion was a small salmon fishing adventure (very small group of maybe 8), flying by float plane to a remote location....guide had a gun (which was not needed) to ward off bear, which we only saw from afar. But, again, that involved a small flight :)

I've never done the gold panning, but I've not heard much gushing from those who have.

For Mendenhall Glacier, I'd stick with a ship-arranged journey.

I guess the big question is: What are your personal interests? What would you like to see/do in Alaska? Your answers to those two questions will guide you in selecting your on-shore experiences.

Safe travels.

Posted by
11275 posts

Here are some direct links for Cruise Critic (as everyone else said, it's got a lot of information but is hard to navigate as it's loaded with so much distraction and advertising).

First, click here, then scroll down. https://www.cruisecritic.com/ports/area.cfm?area=1 You'll see tabs for Cruises, Planning, Ports, Reviews, and Forums. Click Ports to learn more about the ports (written by Cruise Critic staff). Click Planning to see articles written for the site by staff, about various aspects of Alaska cruising. Click Reviews to see user's reviews of their trips.

For the Alaska Ports Forum, go here: http://boards.cruisecritic.com/forumdisplay.php?f=55

To join a Roll Call and meet others on your sailing, go here: http://boards.cruisecritic.com/forumdisplay.php?f=34

Posted by
327 posts

IMHO, the highlights of our 7-day Alaska cruise were the scenic, historical and cultural attractions:

-White Pass & Yukon Route railway excursion - very popular so book early! - and walking around Skagway

-Scenic cruising in Glacier Bay

  • Bald Eagles in abundance in either Sitka or Ketchikan

  • Juneau - you can take a 30-minute shuttle ride to Mendenhall Galcier but be sure to allow enough time for return to the ship!

Personal preference, but I'd skip gold-panning and the dogsled excursion (unless you have kids). We were not into outdoor adventure activities, and we did see whales and wildlife while cruising (and bears on the WP&YR). Take binoculars if you have them.

Posted by
120 posts

Hi! I just returned from an Alaskan cruise tour on Saturday. It was a great experience and I'm sure you'll have a blast regardless of what you decide to do. I used cruisecritic a TON for research and information about this trip, as the RS forum isn't the best source of cruise info. I definitely echo the earlier suggestions to check it out. There you'll be able to find specific info based on the ports you'll visit, which cruise line/ship you're on, etc.

That said, I'm not a fan of cruises in general simply because I tend to feel "trapped" under the umbrella of the cruise line; you travel on their boat, you eat their food (and then they keep trying to get you to buy specialty food and drinks for more $$) you stop at ports and they tell you where to shop, you take their excursions...you get the idea. Don't get me wrong, the cruise was a great way to see Alaska because even just sailing past it, it's beautiful, but it's not my first choice of ways to travel.

My point with that is that I booked most of our excursions separately and I was very glad I did because I felt like it got my family out from under the thumb of the cruise line. Plus it saved us money on every tour. In one instance we ended up being on the exact same zip lining tour as a bunch of people from the cruise, but because I booked it directly through the zip line company I saved us $10 each. In another instance I got us a private kayak tour with our own guide for less than the cost of a big kayak tour through the cruise line. It was so great to spend a few hours in each port not feeling like I was being nickel and dimed by the cruise line. All of the excursions I booked offered a written guarantee that they would refund my money if, for some reason, our ship didn't make port in time and they also had a guarantee that they would get us back in time for our departure.

If you want simplicity and don't mind paying a little more, you can book through the cruise line and have a great time. If you want to save a few bucks and you don't mind doing a little research and fending for yourself a bit more then you can book your own excursions and also have a great time. It's really up to you.

Posted by
11275 posts

"In one instance we ended up being on the exact same zip lining tour as a bunch of people from the cruise, but because I booked it directly through the zip line company I saved us $10 each."

That's something that I had read about too. In Alaskan cruises, the towns involved are small, so there's only so many tour operators. When you book independently, you often end up on the exact same tour as the people who booked through the cruise line - but for less money, since the cruise line isn't taking their cut.

Posted by
12568 posts

I have never done a cruise, but I am quite familiar with Alaska as I used to live there, and have been back as a tourist 3 times in the past five years. In addition to CruiseCritic, I would highly recommend the Tripadvisor Alaska forum for cruise information. The forum is very friendly and helpful, and there are several people there who are particularly knowledgeable about cruises ( some of them cruise every year and can compare things for you).

They will want to know whether you are doing a one-way cruise or a roundtrip. If the latter, do you go from Seattle or Vancouver? Which ship? These will all make a difference in the answers.

Regarding independent versus cruise ship tours ashore, it depends which one. The cruise tours do cost more and tend to be larger groups, but have the benefit of a guarantee that you won't miss your ship's departure. OTOH, independent tours can be customized to your wishes, and generally but not always include smaller groups. For example, I have seen Harv and Marv's whale-watching tours out of Juneau come highly recommended by many. They have small-boat (6-passenger) tours that last three hours. They work extensively with cruise passengers, know the schedules, and are committed to keeping you on schedule. For Mendenhall Glacier, OTOH, your friends' experience with public transport may be all too common. For a group of four, you might do better renting a car for the day and driving yourselves.

Southeast Alaska is very scenic, but if by chance you are doing a one-way cruise I highly recommend visiting Denali National Park in the interior as well. Rent a car in Anchorage and drive yourselves, spending 2-3 nights near the park entrance and booking the shuttle into the park to see wildlife and spectacular scenery, as well as take a few short hikes. I wil not say more, because from theporch you mention it appears you are cruising roundtrip. But this suggestion may be of interest to others who are thinking of an Alaskan cruise.

Posted by
601 posts

We loved this trip! From Skagway I highly recommend the Yukon day trip with Chilkoot Charters. Https://chilkootcharters.com/package/yukon-rail-bus/ This was the highlight of our whole cruise! Unbelievable scenery, and much cheaper than the same one offered by the cruise. Many of the non cruise tours offer a guarantee that they will get you to your next port if you were to miss the boat, so you don't need to worry. They do this all the time so they are pretty good at timing things.
For Juneau we took a shuttle bus to the glacier, you can just buy tickets at the port and it was super easy. We walked around there on our own and it was easy without a tour. In Ketchikan we took a hike in the woods outside town and then enjoyed walking around all the little shops there. We saw plenty of wildlife from the deck of the ship, so we never felt the need to take a specific sightseeing tour for that. This is such a great trip! You'll love it! We are not "cruise people," but I'd do this again in a heartbeat!

Posted by
195 posts

Thanks so much for your advice, everyone. We are typically more "Rick Steves Europe" style vacationers than cruisers, so we appreciate the tips. Will work on getting some info from the Cruise Critic website, though I agree...it is a bit overwhelming compared to this forum! We're in a bit of a strange spot in that we were invited on this round-trip cruise as a guest with another family and haven't invested much time researching it...but now our departure date is rapidly approaching and we want to make sure we don't squander the opportunity! At this point we don't have time to spend hours and hours reading through the Cruise Critic website, but would like to at least make sure we hit the main highlights of an Alaskan cruise.

In case anybody else sees this and feels like responding on this forum, a few follow-up questions I'd have would be:
- How to we catch this shuttle to Mendenhall glacier that you guys are mentioning - sounds like we will have an easy time finding tickets at the port? Does it just drop us off nearby and we get to walk around the glacier?
- Can we expect to see lots of whales on the cruise ship already (meaning that we don't necessarily need to go on a special whale watching tour)?
- Still looking for recommendations on favorite excursions and thoughts on the dog sledding/gold panning.

Thanks again!

Posted by
5016 posts

We didn't see whales until we did the whale watching tour in Juneau.
Our cruise was in early September, which is not the best time of the year for whales.

Posted by
3500 posts

We had the same experience as Geovagriffin in that we did not see lot of whales on the cruise ship at sea but did see many on the whale watching tour in Juneau. And our cruise was in May.

Posted by
4903 posts

You can't count on seeing whales -- whether orcas or the bigger ones -- from the cruise ship. You probably can on a whale-watch excursion. We've done three Alaska cruises and saw whales (humpbacks I believe) twice from the ship, both times earlier in the season than you're going. For orcas, I'd suggest a trip closer to home, like the San Juan Islands.

Mendenhall Glacier is fine but has receded so far back that I was disappointed on the second visit decades after the first. Chances are that your ship will spend part of a day, or maybe a whole day, in Glacier Bay or Tracy Arm or Endicott Arm where you can get close to a big glacier and see the ice calving into the water. For Juneau, instead of Mendenhall, consider the Mount Roberts Tramway. It's close to where the ships dock, reasonably priced without having to pay through the cruise line, close enough that your risk of missing the departure is minimal, and offers a great view over the city and nearby mountains and water. If the weather's too cloudy or wet you can skip it without having already paid onboard.

I think Skagway is overrated but I've been there several times, it's fun for one visit. Probably the best excursion is the White Pass & Yukon Railroad, which I'd recommend arranging through the ship for convenience.

I haven't experienced gold panning but I share your skepticism. Likewise the sled dog ride.

Posted by
2198 posts

We just returned from our Alaskan cruise and it was fabulous!!!!! We had only one day of rain in Ketchikan. We were 24 family/friends on Celebrity in and out of Seattle.

In Juneau My daughter/ SIL did the dogsledding and it was on snow, she said nothing will be able to top it. A few did the sea float plane and wilderness lunch (saw bears) and a few did the helicopter ride.

In Ketchican Some did the Bearing Sea Crab fishing excursion - loved it too. I did the duck tour cause I had my two young grandsons. A few dollars more but they were right at the bottom of the gang plank.

In Skagway we did the White Pass railroad through the ship. A few just got off and in town booked a bus tour($38) up the mountain on the opposite side. 4 of us did the Good Times Girls Red Onion Saloon walking tour. It was fabulous. We had so much fun I highly recommend it. We did the 8:30 am tour and the streets of the town were empty. By the way, it was $9 more through the ship and we were pick up at the pier.

In Juneau you can do the tram up the mountain yourself ($33 for an all day pass) but go first thing the line gets really long.

In Victoria, a few people went whale watching and saw many whales. We just walked into town and went to the TI and booked a city walking tour for $15. It was an hour and half. Victoria is a pretty city to just walk around the inner harbor and have a drink. They had a shuttle bus which was $10 r/t. We took a taxi back from the TI and it was only $10 for 4 of us.

We saw whales off the side of the ship twice but nothing is ever guaranteed. You will see many bald eagles though.

As a side note, my brother used Harv and Marv in Juneau for whale watching. He always recommends them.