Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Cruising Alaska Part I - Planning Your Cruise

Alaska is one those places that is on most people's bucket lists and if it's not, it should be! About this time last year, we did an Alaskan cruise with my parents. We wanted to do one more big trip before we started talking kids and it was also my dad's 60th birthday, so we went for it. I didn't have a blog last year, so I only really posted photos on Facebook. But now that I have a blog, I thought it would be fun to do a couple of posts on our cruise!

My dad snapped this amazing shot of another cruise ship in Yakutat Bay. 

An Alaskan cruise is not like a regular cruise, at least from what I have heard. We hadn't actually cruised before this trip, so I have nothing to compare it to. But I can share what we experienced, what we loved (and didn't) and what we learned! I'm going to split this into two posts - Planning Your Cruise and Our Favorite Experiences.

Once we decided that we were actually going through with this cruise idea, I did a lot of research. I'd never cruised before and Alaska is big! I wanted to make sure that I knew all that I could. Pinterest was amazing and full of great information.  What I'm telling you probably isn't anything new, just what worked for us and how and why we planned our vacation the way we did.

Choosing Your Cruise Line
Choosing your line and your route can be done interchangeably, depending on what your major concern is (route vs. ship). Your main cruise line choices for Alaska are going to be Carnival, Holland America, Norwegian, Celebrity and Princess.  The ships are smaller to fit through the Inside Passage.  One blogger wrote, and it has stuck with me, that you go to Alaska for Alaska, not for what you can do on the boat. And it's so, so true. Your Caribbean boats have more attractions, more food, more...everything. But on an Alaskan cruise,you're up pretty early to visit the towns and most of the cruising is scenic, so you're up most of the day. There isn't a ton of nightlife and, honestly, when you have from 7 am to 11 am in a town, you really don't want to be up super late the night before.

Our ship!
We chose Holland America because my parents had cruised with them before and had a really good experience. They were also right in line with Norwegian on their pricing. We had decided before that we weren't interested in Carnival for this cruise and wanted a nicer line.

  • Smaller ship, so getting off and on the boat didn't take forever. 
  • Food was good (pro), but was also what I call hoity-toity food. A meat and potatoes dude like my dad would not be happy (con)
  • Staff were super nice and attentive. Mom did have some words with one of the ladies taking reservations for dinner, but no issues after that! 
  • Smaller ship so there wasn't as much to do. There was a library with games and books, which we utilized at night. There was also a casino, which Aaron utilized, some shopping, and entertainment lounge.
  • Smaller ship so there weren't many food options. There were options, but not as many as I would have liked. I have heard people say that you can eat and eat and eat on a cruise and by God, I wanted that! But I didn't get it. They had a coffee bar, a few restaurants (reservation and one cafeteria style), but that was about it. Not many choices.  
  • Food options were limited. Let's say my goal was to mostly NOT eat on the boat. It's also Alaska and I love seafood, so that played a factor, too.
Sarah's Tips
  • Talk to others that have cruised to see what line they did and what they enjoyed. We actually met a couple at breakfast one morning that had cruised Alaska multiple times (apparently, this is normal) and said that Holland America was the best and had the best food. I don't know that was our experience, but it was definitely good information. 
  • Look at the decks for each ship. See what ship you're going to be on for your dates/route and what kind of food and entertainment options there are.  
Choosing Your Route
Alaska cruises for the Inside Passage have a standard route that they do: leave either Seattle or Vancouver, Juneau, Glacier Bay or Hubbard Glacier, Ketchikan, Sitka or Skagway, Victoria or Prince Charles and then back to Seattle or Vancouver. Your ports that you stop at in Alaska generally depend on your line.  Holland America always goes to Sitka and Norwegian and Carnival mostly goes to Skagway. Almost all lines go to Ketchikan and Juneau. 

Edge of the Hubbard Glacier in Yakutat Bay next to a mountain. 
Our route was Seattle, Juneau, Hubbard Glacier, Sitka, Ketchikan, Victoria B.C., and Seattle.  We chose this route because we really wanted to visit Seattle. When we scheduled our flights, we made sure to have extra time on the front and back end of the trip to explore Seattle. I'm so glad we did, it was amazing!  Sitka was one of our favorite towns and where we did one of our two big excursions.  More about that tomorrow!

Sarah's Tips
  • Figure out the cities you know you want to visit. If you've been to Seattle, maybe port out of Vancouver. If you've been to Glacier Bay, choose the route with Hubbard Glacier.
  • Check out the excursions that you can do in each town on a route. Juneau and Sitka had the most of the towns we visited. The others were great for just kicking around town. 
  • The month that you decide to travel will also help determine your route. June-July is the mid-season for Alaska cruises and when most of the excursions are available!

Choosing Your Room
I've heard that for Caribbean cruises, you don't really need a window. Most of your time is not spent in your room.  On an Alaskan cruise, that's about half true.

When I was doing my research, there were a lot of people that said that balcony was the only way. We did a window and were really pleased with it. Most of the time, we were out on the deck, especially during scenic cruising, or we watched from many of the restaurants and lounge areas.  I did enjoy the window for the days when we were feeling lazy and laid on the bed and watched the towns disappear into the distance. On our line, your room level also determined certain perks like if you had standing reservations or not.

The view from our cabin!
Sarah's Tips
  • Check your budget. Do you have enough budget to upgrade to room with a window or balcony? Does it mean cutting doing something else fun, like a big excursion? If so, don't do it. Always go for the big excursion. If you budget allows for it, go for it!

Ya'll, there are so, so, SO many posts about what to pack for Alaska. What not to pack for Alaska. Here's the down and dirty: lots of layers, nothing really fancy, casual.

Other than your fancy dinner nights, you won't need a dress or dress pants. Yoga and athletic pants are totally acceptable, even welcomed, for most activities. Alaska is an outdoor playground. You'll be whale watching, bird watching, hanging out with puppies and fisherman, and all that doesn't really require fancy clothes. In fact, they'll be in the way. One of our tour guides told us that everyone in Alaska lives off the land in some way. Remember that and you'll be good!

Let's be honest - this is what we looked like most of the time!
Formal night! Dress is from Rent the Runway.
What We Wore/Was Useful
  • Jackets - You only need one or two. It gets really windy and chilly on deck and in Ketchikan it's pretty much always raining. So a jacket with a hood is great.  If you have one that has a lining that zips in and out, that's the best. Otherwise, I would have a light, waterproof jacket and a warmer jacket. Focus on hood and waterproof.
  • Shoes - Tennis shoes. I brought others and lived in my tennis shoes and Toms.  The only time I wore fancy shoes was for our dressy dinners and I wore the same pair each night. 
  • Tops - 3/4 length tops, short sleeve tops and cardigans are your friend! Weather changes all the time and it can be hot and sunny one minute and wet and cool the next. Temperatures were pretty much around the 60s. A couple of nicer tops are good for when you might be going to one of the ship restaurants and want to look a little nicer. 
  • Pants - Jeans and athletic pants. We wore jeans a lot for days in town and the day we did wildlife watching in Sitka, we wore athletic pants (yoga pants for me). Comfortable pants are a plus!
  • Dresses/Fancy clothes - We had these for 2 nights and used them. Ladies, I highly recommend using Rent the Runway for this!
  • Binoculars - These are great for whale and other wildlife watching. We got some really lightweight 8x40 binoculars at REI for about $90 and they worked great.
  • Small bag/backpack - Instead of dragging your huge purse with you, a simple cross-body bag or light backpack is great for carrying what you need (wallet and ID, phone or camera, binoculars). You'll have it most of the day, so you don't want it too big.
  • Mini surge protector - cruise cabins have one outlet in them. I bought this plug in on Amazon for $10 and it allowed us to charge our phones and my ipad at the same time. 
  • Dramamine/Motion sickness medication - I got seasick the first day. Thankfully we were at sea for the first day so we didn't miss anything, but it was pretty horrible. I now know that ginger ale and granny smith apples are your friends when you're nauseous!
What We Didn't Use
  • Heavy coats - you don't need really heavy coats or big shoes for glaciers, they provide all that for you.
  • Camelback - I borrowed a larger daypack from my friend and ended up not using it. I just stuck to my crossbody bag.
  • More than one pair of fancy shoes! I say this for the ladies, especially ones like me that love shoes! You really don't need them. 
Sarah's Tips
  • Figure out what excursions you're going to do and plan for them (wildlife watching = binoculars, hiking = hiking boots)
  • For ladies, I recommend using Rent the Runway for fancy nights. I actually did the unlimited plan for a month so I was able to keep 2 dresses for as long as I wanted. 
  • Fancy shoes - As a shoe lover, I always bring a ton of shoes. I literally wore three, maybe four pairs, the entire time: Toms, tennis shoes, heels for my dresses, and flip flops around the ship. 
Costs - What You Should Expect
This was a really expensive cruise for us. We budgeted for about $5,500 for this trip. We wanted to be able to do everything we wanted to do and not have any regrets. I'm not a huge fan of doing the same trip over and over, so I try and wring everything out of a big trip.

When all the smoke cleared, we spent about $7,000. Our cabin and flights were about $4,800. The flight to Seattle wasn't bad, but still not cheap, and we had a room with a window.  Plus, all the extra expenses the ship tacked on (drinks, cleaning fees, etc).  We did two big excursions which was another $1,500 and the rest was spent on other stuff (spending, souvenirs, adventures in town, etc).  It adds up rather quickly. It was a lot of money, but I can honestly say that neither of us felt like we missed out on anything.  If you do an Alaskan cruise, be prepared to spend some money!

Sarah's Tips
  • Buy drinks and bring them on board. We were first time cruisers and didn't know that you can bring on a bottle of wine and sodas, otherwise we would have. This will definitely help cut down on some costs!
  • Look into drink packages. We looked into these and they didn't really make sense for us, but if you're a big drinker, they are definitely the way to go!
  • Be prepared to drop some money on this. There are ways to save, but you also don't want to skimp on your excursions and fun stuff! 

Guys, we stood on a glacier. That ain't cheap, but knowing that I've stood on a glacier? That memory is priceless!

Tomorrow I'll be talking about our favorite adventures in Seattle, Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan! Have you cruised before? What was your favorite trip?

1 comment:

  1. So fun! We've been on cruises, but never an Alaskan cruise! We actually have family in Alaska, so it's on our travel list one of these days!