This travelogue is one family's experience in the inland passage in Alaska. To see a photo in a larger size, just click on it.
I started the Yellowstonecaz.com website because I didn't find any good sites on the Net that really gave me practical info on how to plan my first trip to Yellowstone. There were a ton of sites developed by vendors, but very few by travelers. The same held true for my trip to Alaska, so this is my attempt to give you some advice on planning a trip to Alaska.
Cruising: The first issue is should you take a cruise or just fly to where you want to go? While there's obviously a certain amount of personal preference in making such a decision, my advice is that cruising is a great way to go to Alaska, especially if it's your first time. The main benefit of cruising is that you get to see multiple cities in a cost-effective and entertaining way. The main negative is that you only spend a small amount of time in each city you visit. While I would have enjoyed spending more time in each city, the cruise we took was a great way to get the flavor of Alaska's Inland Passage, and I can heartily recommend it to anyone who wants to go on a terrific vacation. Basically, my wife and I paid about $285 per day, which included all transportation, lodging, and meals. It should be mentioned, however, that we stayed in an ocean view cabin with a blocked view for about $1,100 per person. You could easily have doubled that and more by staying in a balcony cabin or a suite.
Just how cost effective is a cruise? Let's compare it to staying in one of Vegas' elegant hotels like the Bellagio, Wynn, or Venetian, which are equivalent to the Oosterdam. These days you can get rooms for about $175 per day average across a seven day stay on one of their deals, but then you have to pay for eating three great meals a day and for going to an entertaining show, which are all included in the $285 that Teresa and I paid on the Oosterdam. At any of these hotels, breakfast would be about $40, lunch $60, and dinner about $100. An equivalent Vegas show for two would also be at least $100. In short, the total cost would be about $475.
The bottom line is that cruising can be highly cost effective. Of course, that price would have gone up significantly with a balcony room that would have added an additional $260 to the cost per day, but then a fancier room in Vegas also would have been more expensive as well.
Excursions and Cabin Choice: One of the hidden costs of cruising is the excursions. Every time you land in a port, there are a smorgasbord of choices. My advice on the Alaska cruise is to put your money into the excursions, not into the place you stay on the boat if your budget counts. Of course, if you can afford both, why not? Alaska's scenery is absolutely spectacular, but the cost to get there and see it can be expensive. For example, if you have to make a choice between a balcony cabin versus the more expensive excursions, go on the excursions. You won't regret it.
Instead of booking a balcony cabin at about $2,000 per person, we booked the least expensive ocean view cabin with a view blocked by the life boats. It was about $900 less per person, which we then put into our excursions - at least a big chunk of it. In Juneau, I went to the Tracy Arm fjord for $160, while Teresa went on a hike to the Mendenhall Glacier for about $180. In Sitka, we went on the Sea Otter Quest and Alaska Raptor Center tour for about $140 each, and in Ketchikan we took an air tour of the Misty fjord for $220 each.
The bottom line is that you'll have a lot better time if you get out of the cities into Alaska's countryside, which is spectacular. It can, however, get really pricy for the high-end excursions, such as traveling by helicopter to one of the glaciers for a hike or, even better yet, for a dog sled ride. Both of these are between $450 to $600. Are these high end excursions worth it? You have to ask yourself if the once-in-a-lifetime experience is worth it. Glaciers are really unique and the chance to walk on one or take a dog sled ride on the ice field that feeds the glaciers doesn't happen often.
So, you might ask, why didn't we take them if they're so cool? The answer is that Teresa is a hiker who wanted to hike to the Mendenhall Glacier instead of ride on a helicopter, while I wanted to go to the Tracy Arm fjord instead of the glacier, which turned into the highlight of my trip. Otherwise, we probably would have taken one of the excursions.
The Cruise Ship's Excursions versus Third-Party Excursions: The cruise ship, of course, wants you to take their excursions, while independent excursion operators claim that they deliver the same or even better experiences for less money. Should you go on your ship's excursions or consider independent excursions? It's a great question. Here's my take.
Neither your ship nor the independents have a monopoly on great excursions. As such, you shoud be open to both. A good place to start is Trip Advisor, which rates excursions based upon user feedback. To find the excursion ratings, use the search field and type in "excursions to X" where X is the city you're visiting.
One of the bogus issues about excursions is that the ship's excursions are safer because the boat will always wait for you if you're late, but it won't if you're on an independent excursion. Whether it's true or not is almost irrelevant. The chances of being late on an independent excursion is very remote, so you should only consider it in extreme cases, such as an excursion that really cuts it close time-wise.
In my observation, the main difference is that the independent excursions will likely be smaller, less structured, and less consistent. In particular, customer service will vary a lot more on independent excursions. Given that cruise ships have fine-tuned the art of customer service, you can expect a high level of service on any excursion offered by the ship.
Since independent excursions are often offered by some of Alaska's rugged individualists, such as great bush pilots, small ship captains, hikers, kayakers, or naturalist guides, you're not likely to get the same level of kid-glove service, although you'll likely be treated hospitably. You will also get to meet some really interesting people, like Dave Rocke, the pilot who owns Family Air Tours and took us into the Misty fjord, and Steve Weber, who owns Adventure Bound Alaska and has spent the last 25 years taking people on tours of the Tracy Arm fjord. Since the ship tours are a lot larger, don't expect to meet the tour owners or spend a lot of time with the excursion boat captains or the pilots of the small planes.
Teresa and I took independent excursions in Juneau and Ketchikan and we went on the ship's excursions in Sitka and Victoria. Before signing up for the excursions, we did a lot of research on the Net and tailored the ones we chose to our needs. For example, we chose the ship's Sea Otter Quest in Sitka because Teresa is prone to sea sickness and I'm a serious photographer. As such, we chose the tour boat run by the ship's excursion provider, Allen Marine, which was larger and more stable than the small boats used by the independents. Nevertheless, I can see why someone might prefer to be on a small boat with six to eight passengers versus the boat we were on with 60 or so people. Incidentally, the smaller boats don't get closer to the animals. They all have to stay a certain distance away.
Basically, the bottom line is to do your own research on the excurions and sculpt them to your own needs.