Don and Heidi Bucolo | May 4, 2015 11:00 PM ET
Picking the Perfect Alaskan Cruise Ship
As one of the most popular cruise regions in the world, there are a variety of different cruise ships to choose from when planning your Alaskan cruise. Even if you have cruised before, you may feel a bit overwhelmed trying to decide which ship is right for you and your family.
To make the task of selecting a cruise ship easier for you, here are several factors you should consider when finding the perfect Alaskan cruise ship for your next vacation.
Just like any vacation, first you should establish a general budget.
Alaskan cruise fares tend to be a bit more expensive than other regions of the world, so if you have cruised before, do not be surprised by the sticker price. Shore excursions can also be expensive in this region; but, one of the reasons you are deciding to cruise to Alaska is to experience the nature and wildlife, so you want to make sure you allocate enough to do and see everything you want to while at your ports of call.
Cruises are priced per person, and typically, cruisers reserve about 75 percent of their budget for cruise fares. The remaining funds are used for add-ons that include tours/shore excursions at the ports of call, onboard activities, specialty dining, souvenirs, and other miscellaneous expenses.
If you are flying or need transportation to and from the embarkation and disembarkation ports, then you need to factor in the costs of flights, parking, and potential pre-cruise or post-cruise hotel stays that might be necessary.
In our experience, we budgeted roughly 50 percent more for our Alaskan cruise then our typical Caribbean cruise. In either case, know how much you can reasonably spend and make sure to account for all of the additional costs besides the cruise fare when examining different cruise ships.
In general, there are two options you have when planning your Alaskan cruise.
You can do a roundtrip, Inside Passage route, which usually departs from either Seattle, WA or Vancouver, British Colombia. Most of the ships running these cruises will take you to popular stops including Sawyer Glacier or Glacier Bay, Skagway, and Juneau.
For more diversity, you can do a “one-way” cruise meaning you begin and end at different ports of call.
Many of these southbound cruises leave from Seward or Whittier (Anchorage), Alaska and travel by multiple glaciers, stopping at ports including the Icy Straits, as well as other well-known towns like Ketchikan and Juneau. You can also head in the opposite direction, taking a northbound cruise which usually departs from Vancouver, BC and ends at either Whittier or Seward. By heading in one direction, your ship can navigate more of the fjords and Alaskan coast line, giving you more opportunity to see wildlife.
Most of the cruise lines sailing in Alaska have ships that do either just roundtrip sailings or just one-way sailings. There is a great deal of overlap between routes on many of the itineraries, so you will want to find the right combination of ship and ports of call for your ultimate Alaskan adventure.
Even though sailing through the Inside Passage, as well as the fjords and Gulf of Alaska, does not allow for some of the world’s largest ships to call in Alaska, you will be surprised at the number of ships you have to choose from, varying in size and amenities.
You will find at least a handful of large cruise ships, those weighing over 100,000 gross tons and carrying somewhere around 3,000 passengers. Large ships offer more onboard amenities, options for dining, and may be a nice transition for travelers who have never sailed before and fear motion sickness. Although, most large ships tend to just do roundtrip cruises from Seattle.
The most popular sized cruise ships for Alaskan sailings are midsized ships, with about a dozen or so of these ships to choose from, carrying around 2,000-2,500 passengers. Offering both roundtrip and one-way cruises, you will have plenty of selections. While a bit smaller, these ships still have a range of activities, dining options, and entertainment, making sure that all members of your family will never be bored.
Some of the smaller ships sailing in Alaska, carrying less than 2,000 passengers, come from both major cruise lines as well as specialty and luxury brands. What these ships lack in gross tonnage, they make up for with enhanced features which include better dining, more enrichment programs and nature talks, and a more sophisticated feel.
It is sometimes difficult to tease apart cruise ship size from cruise line, as they tend to be intertwined. However, some brands do offer choices in Alaska, so understanding what certain cruise lines are known for can help you decide on a brand that matches your travel preferences.
Smaller cruise ships tend to come from luxury cruise lines which often cater towards couples or those traveling without children. Such cruise lines like Silversea, Crystal Cruises, and Regent Seven Seas provide high-end perks such as included alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. Some include shore excursions and five-star service. Luxury lines tend to have fewer organized activities and entertainment offerings, so they may not appeal to those looking for more upbeat nightlife on the ship.
Holland America Line does have several small and midsized ships to choose from, with the company offering a traditional style of cruising, complete with afternoon tea. You can have a more refined feel on these ships, at a lower price point, as well as some unique itineraries. It is child friendly, but the cruise line does attract a slightly older crowd.
Princess Cruise Lines also has several ships of different sizes sailing in Alaska. Offering you all of the glitz and glamour of a typical cruise with Broadway style shows and lounges and bars, it is sure to provide you with plenty of onboard entertainment; although, it might be a bit too much for those seeking a more subdued atmosphere.
Premier brand Celebrity Cruises currently has the largest cruise ship in Alaska, the Celebrity Solstice, along with two other mid-sized ships doing one-way sailings. Known for their service, excellent dining and unique bars and lounges, the ships offer fewer entertainment options than some other cruise lines and have limited family and children’s activities. We are thirty-somethings who sailed on Celebrity Solstice in 2014 for our anniversary and found the ship to be the perfect choice for us!
The world’s largest cruise company, Carnival Cruise Lines, has just one ship, the Carnival Legend, sailing in Alaska. With plenty of family-friendly activities, bars and lounges, as well as competitively priced fares, the roundtrip itineraries from Seattle might fit many families’ budgets. If you are looking to avoid families during your trip, you may want to consider another vessel.
Disney Wonder can also be found doing roundtrip Alaska sailings. With highly rated children’s programs, and some adult-only venues too, this might be the perfect cruise line for families with young children who also want to see Alaska. While in the higher price ranges, Disney Cruise Lines is routinely voted one of the best family cruise lines, so it may be worth the high price tag if you are traveling with little ones.
Royal Caribbean International has a few ships sailing in Alaska and offers amenities to appeal to cruisers of all ages. With some of their ships offering signature attractions such as rock climbing walls, mini-golf, and floor-to-ceiling glass allowing for panoramic views, not to mention several upscale and casual dining options, these ships might be the right choice for travelers cruising with extended family or families that have children of various ages.
Known for their “freestyle approach” to cruising, Norwegian Cruise Line brings this laid-back and more carefree approach to cruising to Alaska with three ships. Featuring trendy décor, several different restaurants, and even bowling, these ships will attract younger travelers, as well as those who are less interested in planning every moment of their trip. Do you want a schedule-free vacation? If so, then NCL might be perfect for you.
Selecting the Best Ship
Once you have considered your budget, itinerary, the size of ship, and your style of cruising, you should choose two or three different options and examine them more closely to make sure they offer something for everyone in your travel party.
Once you have done that, it is time to decide on a sailing date. Keep in mind that cruises to Alaska run from May to mid-September, and you can often get the best deals at the beginning and end of the season if you are willing to take a chance on weather. Although temperatures tend to be the best in July and August, you can have a great Alaskan adventure at any time during the cruise season. We did…in September!
If you still need a bit more help, you might want to consider working with a travel agent who is familiar with Alaskan cruises, they will be able to help you narrow down all of the options until you find the perfect Alaskan cruise ship.
The only thing left to do is actually book that reservation and prepare for a journey of a lifetime, way up north to Alaska! Be sure to have your cameras and binoculars ready because you will want to capture every moment of this experience.
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