Choosing To Do An Alaska Cruise In The Summer
Alaska is a very popular destination in the summer. Some people head to the national parks like Denali and explore the interior. Many people choose to head up the west coast on an Alaska cruise. We took a one week Alaska cruise. We thought we would share a few tips if you are planning an Alaska cruise.
Choose A Cruise Itinerary That Fits Your Needs
There are many things to consider when you are planning an Alaska cruise. The first thing we start with is the itinerary. Our initial plan was to fly to Juneau, Alaska and spend some time there – and then take a very small boat cruise for a week or more. We felt this might let us explore out of the way places. We ultimately decided that we would take a more traditional cruise as a taste test. And if we really loved Alaska, consider a much longer trip that would include the interior.
We looked at cruise ship routes and ports. Most of the cruises went up the west coast into Alaska and then back. A very few of them actually went one way. Many were 7 days and others were more. The longer cruises will get you one or two additional ports.
The next thing we looked at was start and end points. We could start the Alaska cruise in British Columbia in Canada or Seattle in Washington State. Ultimately we decided to start and end in Seattle. We had to fly to the west coast from Toronto. It turned out that it was significantly cheaper to fly in and out of Seattle than Vancouver – with the same Canadian airline! Imagine that!
We enjoyed a visit to Seattle at the start of the cruise. At the end, we did a short hop to Vancouver from Seattle to visit family for a few days. In retrospect, we probably should have booked an Alaska cruise that started in Seattle and ended in Vancouver. Or vice versa!
The final itinerary decision when planning an Alaska cruise is the ship size. I start with size because this often eliminates brands. Are you cruising as a couple or a family? You may want a big ship with lots of family activities. Or a much smaller ship? There is a lot of choice since all of the major cruise ship lines cruise to Alaska in the summer.
Plan Your Shore Excursions Well In Advance
The ports you visit may vary by cruise line or by length of cruise. If you start in Seattle, you may get a stop in the south of British Columbia in Canada. Victoria or Vancouver are popular cruise ship stops. You will get two or more ports in the Panhandle of Alaska. And you may get a stop in Prince Rupert at the far north end of British Columbia. On our 7 day cruise we stopped in Sitka and Ketchikan in Alaska and in Prince Rupert.
When planning an Alaska cruise, think about the excursions you want to do on your port days. The cruise ship will offer a variety of different kinds of tours. You may do your research ahead of time and book your own tours. In every port we stopped, there were a large number of tours available right on the dock. If you made no plans in advance, you may be able to just decide when you arrive. Or you can just plan to wander on your own!
We booked our tours on this trip with the cruise company. Because we booked the cruise a little late, when we looked for tours to book on our own, many had little availability. Make sure to plan your excursions early. When we arrived in Ketchikan, we were the 4th cruise ship in. It was no wonder that all of the tours were already gone!
Be Prepared For Your Shore Excursions
In July it was rainy in Alaska every day we were there. Consider the weather when planning an Alaska cruise. And be prepared for the weather when you pack! We took light weight hiking boots, waterproof coats and rain ponchos with us. Umbrellas were often useless on boats and in any kind of wind. We were amazed when we saw someone walking in the rainforest in Ketchikan in suede deck shoes with no socks!
Pick the excursions that are right for your physical abilities. Many of the tours in Alaska went by boat. We explored the outer islands in Sitka in a small boat. A ladder was used to land you on the rock beach. Anyone with a physical limitation would have been challenged to get off that boat.
Float plane tours are very popular in Alaska. They let you get to further distances and sometimes get you closer to the things to see. Weather is an issue. Be prepared with a backup plan if the weather grounds your plane. Also be prepared that the planes have weight limits. This may result in your group being split up or in extra weight charges. Read the details when you book.
We found Sitka to be a great town to just walk in. We had an afternoon tour booked and spent the morning just wandering in the town. Many of the things to do were a short walk from the downtown area and did not really need an organized tour.
Enjoy The Scenery As You Cruise
On any Alaska cruise there will likely be at least two days at sea as you cruise up and then back down the west coast. You may also have a day when you are just cruising along the Alaska shore. One of our most enjoyable days was cruising along the Tracy Arm Fjord to the Sawyer Glacier. The fjord was beautiful and the blue glacier stunning. We spent most of that day watching the wonders as we floated by.
I found the Alaska cruise to be a bit more like a river cruise. Unlike many cruises, on this trip you are often not far from shore. Find a spot to enjoy the view.
Our cruise ship had a large lounge on the upper deck at the front of the ship. Early in the morning, people would stake out their spot and settle in for the day. Many people bundled up and pointed their lounge chair out at the view. It was one of the times that taking a balcony really paid off. We could sit and watch the great scenery go by.
There is a lot of wildlife in the waters in the summer as you cruise to Alaska. But if you are not watching, you won’t see it. Many people who spent their days inside the ship wondered why they never saw the whales or dolphins many of us saw.
When planning an Alaska cruise, come prepared to watch the wildlife. Many people had binoculars. We had a camera with a great zoom lens. We also got lucky to have a guest lecturer on board. He helped with wildlife spotting and provided great additional information.
Set Your Wildlife Expectations Properly
I can’t stress enough how important it is to set the right expectations for yourself when planning an Alaska cruise. Having unrealistic expectations will ensure that you do not appreciate all you will see on your cruise.
Like most people, we went to Alaska in the summer for the whales. We have gone whale watching from Vancouver and we saw whales from Monterey. On our Alaska cruise, we saw a lot of whales spouting on the horizon. But only twice did we ever see a whale really close. A few times we saw dolphin pods swimming with the ship. On one port excursion, we got lucky to see a couple of whales. But we did not get the awesome breeching whales of our dreams!
We took two boat excursions. The tour descriptions for both tours suggested we would see lots of sea life during the boat trip. We saw one group of sea otters floating together and one sea lion in the marina.
The one exception was our excursion in Prince Rupert when we saw grizzly bears and more. We were so excited when we saw a number of grizzly bears from our boat. The rain did not deter us from watching the bears for hours.
We did manage to see a large number of eagles on our excursions. Seeing a lone eagle was interesting. But seeing a large group of eagles descend to our boat was magical.
I know that our wildlife sightings and pictures might not temper your expectations about wildlife sightings. But I will note that we booked expensive excursions that were targeted at wildlife encounters. We did not see as much wildlife as we thought we would from reading the tour descriptions. And we know from other wildlife excursions that sometimes the wildlife just doesn’t come out.
You Are Not Going To The Frozen North
Most Alaska cruises go to the southern point of Alaska. In the summer, the snow is gone from most of this southern point. Much of the land is covered in rainforest. It reminded me very much of British Columbia. You will see lots of beautiful forests. Islands are covered with trees and kelp. And it probably will be wet!
You may see mountains off in the distance. These may be snow covered. If you do the cruise along the Tracy Arm Fjord, you will see icebergs and glaciers. But these will be surrounded by bare rock or green forests.
You may do an excursion that takes you to a glacier and you will get to go out on the ice. But if you want to see a winter wonderland, you need to go much further north or not visit in the summer.
Some Helpful Tips For Planning An Alaska Cruise
Planning an Alaska cruise for the summer is a lot of fun. The weather is less challenging for most people. There is lots to see and do. Make sure you are prepared and plan ahead. The weather may be rainy and you need to dress to be out in the weather. There is a lot of wildlife around but you may not always see it. You will see more trees than snowbanks!
If you are planning an Alaska cruise, we hope these tips will make it the most memorable trip ever! It was a great taste test for us. The next time we visit Alaska we will head further north. We will plan to spend more time exploring the wilder side of Alaska.
Do you have other tips for planning an Alaska cruise? Any other tips for visiting Alaska?
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