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  • Carol McKee

7 Tips for Cruising Alaska


You are wearing your warmest coat up on deck despite the fact that it is August. It's probably raining lightly while the wind slices through your hair and the icy rain stings your cheeks. Rugged coastline slides by and is filled with pine trees and some waterfalls that are starting to freeze as you get little glimpses into coves that you wish you could explore. Dolphins play in the wake of the ship and while you are a bit chilly you don't want to go inside and miss anything. This trip is definitely bucket list. This is Alaska. So many people want to go to Alaska and cruise it's waters. This is a bucket list item that consistently makes the top ten when ever travelers are polled on where they want to go. But it's important to know that cruising Alaska is a vastly different experience depending on both what cruise line you choose and what itinerary you pick. So here are some key points to consider before booking an Alaskan cruise and my thoughts on answers. Glacier Bay ? - Choosing an Itinerary Most people think that cruising Alaska means sailing through the waters of the Gulf of Alaska and the inside passage. And indeed this is true for all itineraries that you can consider. Glacier Bay National Park is often high on the list for anyone considering this trip. However only some cruise lines are allowed into Glacier Bay the place which is considered by many to be the highlight of visiting Alaska. Choose the wrong itinerary and you simply will not see this important sight. Not only are there a restricted list of cruise lines allowed in the park, but also only a limited number of vessels is allowed to enter each day during the summer months. This is restricted to: two cruise ships, three tour boats, six charter vessels, and 25 private vessels. There is a lot to see here and most ships usually spend the majority of the day cruising the park. The evolution of the bay's geology has taken about 250 years with what was once a single, large tidewater glacier covered all of Glacier Bay. But by 1750 the glacier began to retreat and has now retreated 60 miles to the head of the bay. Still there is currently glacier covering 2,055 square miles which is 27 percent of the park. At last count there were 1,045 glaciers in the park with over 50 named glaciers, seven of which are active tidewater glaciers that calve icebergs into the sea. The park's glaciers are huge, with heights from 8,000 to 15,000 feet. The largest glaciers are the Grand Pacific, Brady, and Carroll glaciers which cover areas in of more than 200 square miles each. But the glaciers in the park have been thinning and receding over the last several decades making this a see now bucket list item as the park is changing at a rapid rate. The glaciers and icebergs floating around are breath taking and if you are lucky, you can sometimes even see the Humpback whales who spend their summer in Glacier Bay and swim to Hawaii for the winter. Other destinations worth considering when choosing an itinerary: Hubbard Glacier for many people is equally spectacular to Glacier Bay. Hubbard is 76 miles long, 7 miles wide and 600 feet tall with 350 feet of the glacier exposed above the waterline and 250 feet below the waterline. The largest glacier that you can see on a cruise, Hubbard has all the characteristics of what you have in your minds eye when you think about Alaska and glaciers. College Fjord is another less visited bay which is similar to Glacier bay with multiple glaciers coming in from all directions. This stop is only possible on some lines itineraries and is a relatively new stop for many cruise lines. This is not a national park and therefore has less restrictions on visitors. Tracy’s Arm is a glacially carved valley, 26 miles long with 4,000 foot cliffs, on the narrow passage down the Tracy's Arm Fjord. Sailing this area feels like you are in a hidden Norwegian fjord and as if you can almost touch the landscape as you slide by. The prize at the end of the nearly 30 mile trip is a beautiful glacier that you will likely have all to yourself. The twin Sawyer Glaciers, North Sawyer and South Sawyer, are located at the end of Tracy Arm. The Yukon in Canada is a pre or post cruise option that one cruise line offers and it is truly worth considering. If you are a fan of history and the last great Klondike gold rush in particular than this is a must do land extension on your Alaska trip. The Canadian province is a huge territory a visit is usually done in conjunction with a trip to Denali and then on to the Yukon. Pay attention to the method of transpiration being offered between these two places because if you travel to the Yukon by bus then you could be driving there and back for a couple of days. A better option is an itinerary that offers a charter flight to the Yukon which saves you time and gives you more of a chance to see the sights. Visiting Dawson City is of particular interest as it is still a working gold mining town and not as much of a tourist destination. Here you might even have a chance to board a paddle wheel ship and follow the Klondike gold miners down the Yukon river. Return from the Yukon to Alaska by train is one option. You can even follow the gold rush trail all the way down to Skagway on the White Pass train. This scenic railway was built because of the gold rush and it’s 120 years old still operates today. One Way or Round trip What you want to see when you travel to Alaska is crucial to what kind of cruise you want to take. Only certain lines are allowed in Glacier bay and this is a key factor in determining things, but also know that if you wish to include this in your itinerary you are most likely choosing a one way cruise. Typically one way cruises start in Vancouver and end on the Kenai peninsula in either Whittier or Seward - or they go in reverse. When you choose to do one of these itineraries you are likely flying open jaw with Vancouver and Anchorage on your ticket. Some line will alter their itinerary when sailing either north or south and so you should look carefully at these differences before you commit to a cruise. Those who wish to sail round trip from Seattle will find some important differences in what they will see from those that sail one way. Glacier bay is not typically an option here, especially on a 7 day sailing. These Seattle round trip cruises mostly sail the inside passage with a few stops in Canada and spend more time at sea than those that go one way. There is not typically an option with a round trip cruise to add a land extension to see interior Alaska. Still for some folks this is the right answer depending on what is important to you. Small Ship, Medium Ship or HUGE? When you are cruising Alaska ship size matters a lot. There is no one right answer to what ship size is best. It depends on what you are looking for during your time in the waters of Alaska. Let's start small. When you cruise on a smaller ships it means getting closer to glaciers, going deeper into sounds, and less people to jockey with on the deck when you are tying to see wildlife or any of the beautiful sights along the way. Some very small ships carry roughly 100 people or less. This size may mean more personal interactions with guides, zodiac tours of glaciers and icebergs, and generally a much more intimate trip. But it also means that there is little to do at night besides eat dinner and go to bed. So if a lot of action on the ship is very important to you then you must consider that before booking on a very small ship. Also on a very small ship you are looking at paying a premium price for your cruise. Cabins are basic rather than luxurious and the experience is much more personal. These are all factors in making a decision about which cruise line and itinerary is best for you. From the small ships we go to mid-size ships although the jump in passenger count is more than you might expect. A medium size ship might have 1,200 to 2,000 passengers on board. Still these ships offer a good compromise between small and huge ships. There are more people yes, but there are also more features on the ship to make your trip enjoyable. Multiple dining venues, bars, activities for kids and teens as well as some different evening entertainment venues are all options. These ships are still small enough to get closer to glaciers and go deep into the the sounds off the Inside Passage. Some of these ships and cruise lines emphasize food quality and service and are more aimed at adults that kids and teens. This is a good choice if that describes you and pricing is often more reasonable than the really small ships. The largest ships to sail Alaskan waters have as many as 5,500 guests on board and crew members numbering in the thousands. What these ships offer is non stop action, which might include Broadway style shows, teen activities, go carts, zip lining, scores of bars and restaurants and more. These ships are really like a mini floating city. If you want a cruise that feels like you escaped to a resort that happened to be floating by some cool scenery than this is for you. Many people with families including small children and teens opt for this because they want to keep the kids busy and engaged while they enjoy some adult time. Land Extension Can you do Alaska in just a week? Sure if that is all the time you have to spend. But you would miss a LOT if you don't try to go for longer. Really try to go for as long as you can! Extending your time in Alaska to include a pre or post cruise land extension will give you a much deeper understanding of the state and the beauty that it holds. Most cruise lines offer at the least a land extension to visit Denali National park. This 6 million acre park is in the center of the state and is the home of the largest mountain in North America. Denali is the native people's name for the mountain formerly known as Mount McKinley. Be aware that only 30% of visitors even see the famous mountain when they visit the park. This is because the mountain is so massive that it has it's own weather system and that often generates cloud cover which shrouds the mountain in mist and mystery. Denali National Park has a lot to see beside the mountain it's named after. Those that hope to see the Alaska big five - Brown Bears, Dall Sheep, Moose, Wolves, Caribou - have their best chance of spotting all of these in the park. Some cruise lines offer a deeper tour of the park than others on their land extensions. This should be an important factor when choosing which line to travel with and is one key reason why I recommend one line in particular (read on for that recommendation). Early, Peak or Late Summer There are a couple of things to consider when choosing a time to travel. Of course if you are restrained to the peak months - June and July - then there is not much you can do about it. But if not you should take into consideration both the spring and the fall shoulder seasons. Here are a few things to consider: Spring:

  • More daylight to see the sights

  • Colder Temperatures

  • Less People traveling in April with more coming in May

  • The later into the summer you go the more people will be traveling with you

  • Prices are generally best at the beginning of the season

Fall:

  • The second half of August into September Alaska season is winding down

  • Much less daylight compared to spring

  • Colder and often rainy

  • Seas a bit rougher

  • Fewer people especially after Labor Day

  • Very lowest pricing late September

To me the clear winner is Spring. More daylight, less people and lower prices than peak season make early spring a winner even though the weather could be quite cool.

Book Far Ahead or Last Minute Years ago there were a lot of great last minute deals for travel. But those have faded over time even before people found themselves stuck at home due to a pandemic. This wait to book thinking is no longer a good bet. That is true especially now as pent up demand for travel is causing bookings for 2021 and beyond to soar. Cruise lines which have been unable to sail for months now are offering good deals right now to get people to commit to sailing when cruising returns. Certainly smart travelers are taking advantage of these deals and availability is already getting tight. Best Cruise Line for Alaska This one has no right answer. Much depends on your thoughts on the above questions. Part of my job as a travel advisor is to help people sort out what they really want and filter down the choices to maximize the experience. However I do prefer one line over others for Alaska: Holland America. This is an especially good choice if you want to get deep into Alaska and even visit the Yukon. For those that are not seeking to entertain children on board with endless distractions but rather want a more adult experience I believe Holland is the clear winner, especially if you want to see Glacier Bay. And as a Virtuoso Travel Advisor I can often get you more perks when booking a cruise than you can get on your own. Certainly the most important factor when I work with a client is to find out what really matters to them on a trip. Those thoughts can mean that I recommend a different cruise line for Alaska once we find out what their priorities are. This is one of the reasons that I love my work in travel. Helping people understand what matters to them most and then matching them to the right trip is deeply satisfying and I love helping people get the most out of their vacation time. If you are considering a trip to Alaska it would be my honor to help you too. Feel free to shoot me an email at carol.mckee@mckeetravel.com so that we can set up a time to talk.

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