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6 Most Common questions when planning for an Alaskan Cruise Tour

Alaska . 2012 . Sep 15-25

It used to be said that cruising to Alaska is a once in a lifetime experience. This is probably due to the perception of high prices for the great icy trip – one that you could afford only once in a lifetime. We’ll show you that with good planning and some research, you can still travel to Alaska without making a significant dent in your pocket. In this article, we shall share with you how we went about planning for the trip of a lifetime.


1.    Do your research – Look at Cruise Research Websites

For starters, Cruise Critic is an excellent website to gain some useful insights on your options. It includes more than 90,000 Cruise Reviews (from both the editorial as well as the fellow travellers) and a forum for fellow cruisers to share their cruising experiences. For those who are interested in the facilities offered by the cruise lines, there is also a section which reviews the cruise in detail with accompanying photos and videos.   All these gives you a better idea of the itinerary offered and what to expect of our Alaska trip.

2.    Selecting a Cruiseline – Pricing / Ports of Call / Itinerary

There are many Cruise Lines that sails to Alaska.  The list is as follows:

Book the cheapest Alaska Cruise @ Cruisedirect.com

Given the wide choices available, which cruise line should you choose? Well, the decision will boil down to the pricing, the ports of call and your preferred itinerary (either one way North/ South Bound Gulf of Alaska or Round Trip Inside Passage).

North Bound Gulf of Alaska (Source: Princess Cruises Website)
South Bound Gulf of Alaska (Source: Princess Cruises Website)
Round Trip Inside Passage with Tracy Arm Fjord (Source: Princess Cruises Website)

The one way Gulf of Alaska route would typically sail from Seattle or Vancouver, passing Glacier Bay National Park, College Fjord, Hubbert Glacier en-route to Whittier or Seward depending on the cruise line you take while the round trip inside passage route goes to Tracy Arm from either Seattle or Vancouver. A typical Alaska cruise is 7 days for both the inside passage or Gulf of Alaska route. If you have more time to spare, you might want to do the back to back cruise for 14 days where you could sail north bound from Seattle/ Vancouver to Seaward/ Whittier then back south bound to Seattle / Vancouver on the same ship.
Note that only Princess Cruises, Holland America Line and Norwegian Cruise Lines are allowed to cruise into Glacier Bay National Park. This is because there have been several incidents when cruise ships actually killed humpback whales when they bumped into them in the park vacinity.
Check out this map from US National Park Service for a typical Cruise Ship route.


It helps if you could decide early in the planning stage whether you want a return cruise or a one way cruise.  This will narrow down your options considerably.  We opted for a One Way 7 Days North Bound Cruise from Vancouver to Whittier followed by a 3-day land tour to Denali National Park and Fairbanks. With that, it narrows down our options to either the Princess Cruises or Royal Caribbean International, because these are the only cruise lines offering such an itinerary.  Regent Seven Seas Cruises also plies a similar route but we did not consider this as their prices are a bit on the high side as they are more of a premium cruise with its 33,000-ton, 490-passenger Seven Seas Navigator which is an all-suite vessel with 245 ocean-view suites with 90% offering private balconies.


North Bound Princess Cruises docks at the towns of Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, and cruises by Glacier Bay National Park and College Fjord before disembarkation at Whittier. South bound Princess cruises swap College Fjord for Hubbard Glacier while the others ports of call remain the same. For North bound Royal Caribbean cruises, it has an additional port of call at the Icy Straits and disembarkment is at Seward.

10D Denali Explorer - Tour BA3 for Sep 14, 2013 (Source: Princess Cruises Website)
More details of the itinerary can be found at the Princess website here.

We liked the itineraries of both Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean Cruises. We eventually selected Princess for our trip to Alaska mainly because of the lower pricing at the time of booking compared to Royal Caribbean. We booked our cruise trip directly through email with Pacific Arena, the International Sales Agent for Princess Cruises, Cunard Line & P&O Cruises in Singapore and Malaysia, which was able to give us cheaper rates than what the local travel agencies were offering.
Another deciding factor – Princess Cruises get to go to Glacier Bay, a designated protected zone with limited entries of 2 ships per day, while the Royal Caribbean cruise does not have this privilege.

3.    North Bound or South bound Cruise Tour?

Travellers who have decided not to take a round or return trip on the cruise may opt to cruise either from Seattle/Vancouver to Seaward/ Whittier (North bound) or vice versa (South Bound).  They can also choose to top off their cruise with a land tour before or after the cruise.

For our trip to Alaska, we have taken the 3 night land tour (cruise lines typically called them cruise tours as they combine the cruise with the land tour) after our cruise. The Cruise tour portion for the trip can be taken either before the cruise or after the cruise. For a north bound trip, the cruise tour will start after your disembark from your ship at Whittier / Seward while a south bound trip requires you to explore the Alaska main land first before embarking the ship for your cruise.


There are pros and cons for both options.  Supporters for the North Bound trip would argue that the wild life scenery gets better as the ship sails from the city port at Vancouver towards the wilderness passing towns of Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway, finally cumulating in a land tour at Denali National Park. On the other hand, if you have selected the South Bound trip, you would have spent days embarking on a land tour exploring the natural beauty of Alaska main land (sometimes by foot) before proceeding to a more comfortable surroundings of the cruise ship. As the ship sail towards the city of Vancouver, you can then slowly adjust back to your normal city life again.  Again, there is no right or wrong, it just depends on the individual’s preferences.

We had no preference on either the North bound or South bound itinerary but have decided on the North bound trip as the pricing is normally cheaper for the North Bound itinerary than the South Bound one.

4.    Balcony or Inside Cabin?

If you are deliberating between a balcony and an inside cabin, we say, take the balcony cabin if this is your first cruise to Alaska. The determining factor for us was the fact that the journey to the various ports of call is mainly scenic. In addition, our chosen cruise line – Princess Cruises spends a day cruising and staying at Glacier Bay National Park and another day at College Fjord.  Having the privilege of speaking from our experience, we found the decks of the ship to be full of passengers vying for space during these two days and it was almost impossible to take a good picture of the beautiful scenery without having someone in your photo.

We were relieved to have the option to retreat to the privacy and warmth of our own private balcony.   We were also blessed with ample wildlife making its appearance as we cruised along the inside passage of Alaska, something that is difficult and too cold to observe unless you decide to chill out constantly at the very cold decks.

This is also the reason why cabins with balconies are always sold out, despite their obvious price premium over the inside cabins. For our North-bound trip to Alaska in September 2012, the price for our balcony cabin was USD$1299 per pax, a significant price difference from the USD$499 for the lowest priced inside cabin (usually low floor without even a porthole).

Book the cheapest Alaska Cruise @ Cruisedirect.com


5.    Which Side of the Ship? Starboard or Port side?

Port and Starboard are nautical terms which refer to the left and right sides, respectively, of a ship or as perceived by a person on board facing the bow (front).  The scenery-conscious traveller may want to choose a starboard side cabin if travelling north as the cabin would face the scenic landscape of Alaska while the port side would face the ocean. Conversely, port side is preferred if you travel south.

6.    Which Month to take the Alaskan Cruise? 

Cruising season for Alaska typically starts from early May every year with the last sailing in around end September. For some cruise lines, their last sailings may end in early September (especially for the Gulf of Alaska cruise).

Peak Season for Alaska sailings are from June to August where temperatures are at their warmest (12 to 20 degree Celsius).  Wildlife are also more abundant during these months. The disadvantage, however, is that prices for the cruises are highest during the peak period, obviously due to higher demand.  As an example, we paid USD$1000 lower for our cruise in September 2012 as compared to an identical cruise itinerary that sails in August.  Another factor to consider is that during peak months, most cruise ships will be fully packed with travellers, and you would have to share facilities such as restaurants, the pool and gym with a lot others.  Similarly, with the large numbers of cruise lines plying the lucrative Alaska route during the peak period and docking at the same ports of call, the amount of people crowding the smaller ports could be a concern.
If you would still like to travel during the peak period, you might want to consider Holland America's Wednesday departures and Carnival Cruise Lines' Tuesday departures.  Most other cruise lines depart during the weekend, and you could avoid the crowd at the ports by departing on a weekday instead.  You might also want to choose the north bound route as compared to the south bound one as they tend to be cheaper.
May and September are the low shoulder seasons for Alaska sailings. You can thus expect smaller crowds and cheaper prices as temperatures tend to be lower with highs at 15 degrees Celsius and the possibility of more rainy days while sailing.  Rainfall is lower for May sailings, and the scenery is arguably more beautiful with more snow-capped mountains; September cruisers like us though can benefit from end-of-season souvenir bargains on board and at the ports of call, and a possibility of catching the Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis. 

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Summary


This sums up our initial planning and selection of our upcoming Alaska cruise. We will be sharing our more detailed planning (flight arrangements, excursions selection, cabin selection, dining preference) in upcoming articles.  Do stay tuned at this space!



Book the cheapest Alaska Cruise @ Cruisedirect.com


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