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First Time Alaska Cruiser— had no idea how complicated all this planning was... any help?...


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In way over my head..... planned quick - thinking this would be a great vacation- but instead I have no idea where to begin and if I’m getting bad deal. Booked last June princess sapphire to Alaska - that canceled and got put on grand Princess Bermuden to Alaska this summer. Wasn’t happy with the change but so complicated.  First, I’m fine with princess - was recommended- but I can’t figure out what all these ships mean- like princess / grand princess- bermuden- sapphire- what..???? I try to google these names and I can’t figure out.  I’ll see parts of each name- what gives. 

  Then the excursions- omg - would take a year to figure these out. I have been frozen with even how to begin. I should have paid for a travel agent.  

  Cruise critic may be a wealth of info but again, so much info I can’t even figure out - But can anyone give me the lowdown on what to do and how to maneuver? Just want to know how to get info on if I’m on a good ship or not- how to pick excursions- 5 of us- mom dad 3 kids (12, 5, 16 year old).

 Also trying to figure out cruising with covid precautions- th better not be packing these ships so we are all like sardines with no space to see the balcony.

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As a veteran of over 60 cruises and 15 different cruise lines my first piece of advice is to RELAX...and take a deep breath because things are not as complicated as you think.
 
Princess is a good cruise line and has an excellent reputation for its Alaskan cruises.
Princess has a very good website where you can find all kinds of information. I’m in the UK so I access it through www.Princess.com but I’m not sure if it is the same in the US and Canada.
If you open the website and look at the top of the page you will find a section that says 'on board our ships'. The cruise line has 14 ships in service and 2 to be launched soon. Each ship has its own name (Grand Princess, Sapphire Princess, Sky Princess etc.) and the ships vary a little in size and age but, generally speaking, the product is very similar and is basically a good quality floating hotel.
In the 'on board our ships' section you can click on the name of your ship and it will bring up a wealth of information about the day to day practicalities of cruising on that ship.
If you register where it says 'sign in/register' on the top line then you will be able to see the details of your booking and you will have access to the excursions that are provided by the cruise line.
Firstly, let me say that you do not need to do any excursions as you can use the ship just like a hotel and get on and off at will during a port stay.
 I’m guessing that your itinerary has a stop in Skagway, Ketchikan and Juneau. These ports are small and very easy to walk round. However, Alaska has some fabulous sights which require going out of town so, if you decide to go on excursions, I would suggest that you decide with all your family what their interests are.....do they want to see bears, whales and wildlife or do they enjoy hiking through forests or fishing for salmon? Do they want to walk on a glacier or ride on the White Horse Pass train?
Once you have a wish list then have a look at the trips that Princess organise and see which match your criteria.
There is a very good forum on Cruise Critic called 'ports of call' which has a section dedicated to Alaska. It is further down the page from this forum. You will find very good advice on there.
You don’t say whether you are sailing from Seattle, Vancouver or Whittier but, whichever port it is, I would suggest that you consider arriving the day before you sail so that you don’t have a problem with delayed transport.
Just two more things.....Alaskan weather is notoriously changeable so take clothes that can be layered and good shoes that withstand wet conditions.
Sadly, no one knows how things on the ship will be organised once  cruising restarts after COVID but these ships are huge and rarely seem crowded.
My very last piece of advice is to say that you have chosen an excellent first cruising adventure so enjoy every minute and understand that cruising can be addictive!!
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You are considering an excellent first cruise destination:  Alaska.  You are considering an excellent cruise line that has experience in sailing to Alaska:  Princess.

 

You need a travel agent that is experienced with Alaskan cruises and with Princess Cruises to assist you.  Their services will cost you nothing more than you would ordinarily pay.  They may also be able to provide additional discounts, perks, amenities, etc. that you would not be able to obtain by booking directly with the cruise line.  If problems develop with your booking, your travel agent will be your ombudsman who will be in a better position to resolve the issues than you are.

 

Once a firm booking is made, access your booking via the method the previous poster suggested, find the shore excursion listing for your cruise, and take your time to enjoy reading all the options and opportunities that are available.  Yes, it's difficult to choose.  Just take your time during your search.  Maybe dealing with one port at a time so that it does not become overwhelming.  

 

If you have questions about one or more specific tours in a given port, raise those questions on CC on the Alaska Message Board.  You will likely receive input.  Then, you will need to filter that information and decide what would be the best "fit" for your family.  

 

Try to follow part of the old Cunard Line advertising slogan of "Getting There is Half the Fun".  For me, the other "half of the Fun"  is the planning to get there.  My best wishes for you to enjoy doing so!

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Once you have chosen your ship and itinerary for Alaska, you don't need a travel agent.  You need to visit the Alaska board here:  https://boards.cruisecritic.com/forum/33-alaska/.  There are lots of experts there - those that live there, and others who cruise there frequently.

There is also a board here for Princess, where people can help you out with questions about the ship and cruise line:  https://boards.cruisecritic.com/forum/119-princess-cruises/

Third, there is a forum here for ROLL CALLS, where people sailing on the same ship/date can 'meet' before sailing and discuss their plans/excursions.  https://boards.cruisecritic.com/forum/214-grand-princess-roll-calls/

 

There are travel books about Alaska, some that deal specifically with cruising.  Here is one that is often recommended:  https://www.amazon.com/Alaska-Cruise-Ship-Complete-Cruising/dp/1927747155/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=Anne+Vipond&qid=1610979054&s=books&sr=1-1

 

There are websites that will help in planning:  http://www.cruiseportinsider.com/index.html

 

Google each of the Alaska ports.  They all have their own websites and will help you decided what to do there.  Happy planning!  EM

Edited by Essiesmom
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Princess does a fantastic job in Alaska. As others have suggested, please arrive at least one day prior to departure. Too much stress the day of, what if your flight is late and you miss the ship?

 

You didn’t mention if you start in Whittier or Vancouver. If you are starting in Whittier, I highly suggest a half day transfer from Anchorage that stops at the Wildlife Conservation Center. 
 

The Alaska board has a lot of suggestions plus the trip reports are very helpful. 
 

right now there is a lot of uncertainty on when cruises will resume and what they will look like. No official word on if you need to take an excursion to leave the ship or not. Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan are all easy to walk around in, as the ship docks right in town, if it is allowed. You can book excursions once on board. Is there something that you really want to do as a family? 

 

Princess has fantastic kids clubs. My kids absolutely love them. 

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While I am the trip planner for different folks that we travel with, I have to agree with the OP that Alaska is, to say the least, overwhelming.  There is so much to do across a mammoth state, that it is hard to figure out where to start.

 

What we ended up doing was a cruisetour.  We took a tour for six or seven days, and then got on a ship and did the cruise part.  First of all, do the tour part first, so you can relax afterwards on the ship. 

 

I agree with one of the previous posters about Princess but would include Holland America as well.  They are both the same company, and have extensive experience in Alaska.  They have their own cruisetour packages, and you can pick the number of days you are willing to spend, and they will likely have a tour package that will fit.  Grayline also does a lot of tours in Alaska.  The number of days will limit your selection, and you can just pick from that.  I will say that some of the things we were to do in Fairbanks (where we started) seemed a bit hokey, but frankly turned out to be a lot of fun.

 

We then took a cruise from Seward (near Anchorage) down to Vancouver.  I would suggest a one-way cruise, rather than one that simply loops back, but you can decide that based on what you are looking at.

 

Use the Ports of Call section to go through the various cruise ports to figure out what to do.  I read them extensively, not relying on one or two comments one way or the other.  As a result of some time reading there, we found fantastic private tour operators and have a great time.

 

Of the things that really stand out, I would definitely spend a full day at Denali, which means getting there one evening, spending the whole day in Denali, and then leaving that evening or the next morning.  The Tundra Wilderness Tour, which goes 52 miles into Denali N.P. was phenomenal.  In Seward, after an early morning bus trip from our last tour stop in Anchorage, we took the Kenai Fjords boat trip, which spent about six or so hours touring the bay and seeing lots of wildlife, and getting up close to a glacier on a small boat.  Your cruise ship will stand off about a mile, but when you get within 1/2 mile or less, you can a) hear the noises the glacier makes, and they are not quiet, and you can really see calving.  Denali and the Kenai Fjords tour were the two best parts, IMHO, but the entire trip is unforgettable.

 

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My family and I did an Alaskan cruise in 2013.  We cruised on Celebrity, but much of what I did will apply to anyone.

 

First - research. Get guide books from the library or if you really want to mark up the book, from Barnes and Noble.  Don't stick to the ones that are just for cruising.  I got guidebooks for land based vacationing.  In doing so, I got ideas for hotels for us to stay at as well as excursion ideas that the cruise ships may not offer.  Also check out the Alaska boards here on CC.  BudgetQueen posts on the Alaska boards frequently and is a WEALTH of information.

 

Second - decide whether you want a round trip cruise or a one way.  If you want longer times in port, a one way is the way to go.  I actually did a spreadsheet on which ports were visited by the ships I was interested in and how long the port time was and the dates they were there.  Do you want to add on a cruisetour or do your own cruisetour (cheaper and you get to decide the whens, whats and wheres)?  We opted to do one week on land prior to our cruise mainly because I wanted to see Denali National Park.  Are there some things I would change? Yep - I would not schedule a Midnight ATV ride the night before our tour in to Denali only because we didn't get back to our hotel until 2am and then had to be at Denali at 6am for our shuttle to Wonder Lake.

 

Third - ok now you have an idea about what you want to do and maybe already have things booked.  Now just take it one day at a time.  One thing I will recommend is that you get the Alaska TourSaver coupon book and there is another coupon book that I can't remember.  You can look online at the coupons available before you buy the books.  I was able to use those coupons (had to purchase 2 of each for my family of 5) to save enough money to pay for the books plus!  I knew I was going to DIY everything, so as a starting point, I printed off the excursions the ship offered and had my family go through and mark the ones they were interested in (color coded).  Luckily, our tastes often "gelled" so choosing an excursion was easy - otherwise it was majority rules or we just split up.  Then I researched on here for independent operators that were able to do those things we wanted to do.  Worked like a charm!  We were able to do whitewater rafting (with a coupon), Midnight ATV ride (with a coupon), go to Wonder Lake in Denali (although next time I might only go as far as the Eielson Visitor Center and then go hiking around that area before catching another shuttle back), trekking on a glacier (with a coupon), took the Alaska Railroad (with a coupon) to Seward, took a Kenai Fjords tour (with a coupon) and then the day of boarding, we toured the Sea Life Center in Seward and had a behind the scenes tour of the sea lions (with a coupon).  On the cruise, we took it a little easy.  In Juneau, we took the tram to the top on Mt. Roberts (it was a sunny day and we had a, yep, coupon) where we enjoyed lunch and the eagle sanctuary and we walked around town.  In Skagway, we took the White Pass railroad up into the Yukon (independent of the cruise line with a coupon which made it cheaper and we also had a smaller bus when we got to Canada that we were able to go places the big cruiseline buses weren't able to).  In Ketchikan, we took a flight seeing tour of the Misty Fjords National Monument (taking off and landing on the water is soooooooooooooo cool!) and we walked around town.  We also stopped in Icy Strait Point where we did a whale watching tour through a couple that own their own boat and only can take up to 6 people, so we had the boat to ourselves and could almost customize the trip.  We were the only boat around watching a baby whale practice his breaches until his momma called him home - probably 20 minutes worth!  SO AMAZING!  Prior to that, the only whales were saw were the tails and there were about 4 cruiseline boats, with 50-75 people on them, sharing the same area.  In Vancouver, we took a Hop On Hop Off bus tour (with a coupon) and while we never got off (because my youngest son had broken his foot a week and a half prior to the trip) it was interesting and I'd love to do it again.  We then took Amtrak to Seattle, where we spent 2 nights before flying home.  It was cheaper for us that way since we were flying free and fees from Canada on a "free" ticket were outrageous! 

 

Enjoy the planning!  Spreadsheets are your friend!  And just remember, one day at a time.  And book early if you are DIYing as things book up fast.  Enjoy Alaska!

 

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On 1/25/2021 at 7:05 PM, bbwex said:

Denali and the Kenai Fjords tour were the two best parts, IMHO, but the entire trip is unforgettable.

 

My last Alaska visit included both of these for the first time in the visits that I have had to Alaska.  (Why have I waited so long to visit these sites!?)  

 

 

On 1/25/2021 at 7:05 PM, bbwex said:

I would definitely spend a full day at Denali, which means getting there one evening, spending the whole day in Denali, and then leaving that evening or the next morning. 

 

This is what I did and I also recommend it as well.  One gets a bit "different flavor" of Alaska by staying near the Park and having dinner/breakfast at restaurants that are more patronized by the local citizens than just tourists.  

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On 1/17/2021 at 12:25 PM, Beachandcity said:

In way over my head..... planned quick - thinking this would be a great vacation- but instead I have no idea where to begin and if I’m getting bad deal. Booked last June princess sapphire to Alaska - that canceled and got put on grand Princess Bermuden to Alaska this summer. Wasn’t happy with the change but so complicated.  First, I’m fine with princess - was recommended- but I can’t figure out what all these ships mean- like princess / grand princess- bermuden- sapphire- what..???? I try to google these names and I can’t figure out.  I’ll see parts of each name- what gives. 

  Then the excursions- omg - would take a year to figure these out. I have been frozen with even how to begin. I should have paid for a travel agent.  

  Cruise critic may be a wealth of info but again, so much info I can’t even figure out - But can anyone give me the lowdown on what to do and how to maneuver? Just want to know how to get info on if I’m on a good ship or not- how to pick excursions- 5 of us- mom dad 3 kids (12, 5, 16 year old).

 Also trying to figure out cruising with covid precautions- th better not be packing these ships so we are all like sardines with no space to see the balcony.

 

It probably doesn't matter because there won't be any Alaska cruises for the foreseeable future.  An Alaska cruise needs to have a stop in a Canadian port, and Canada will not currently allow that and has given no indication of when they will resume allowing it.

And in the world of cruising, you don't pay a travel agent.  You get discounts and perks from a travel agent.  The travel agents get paid by the cruiselines.  When you book directly with the cruiselines you are just saving the cruiselines the commission they would have paid your travel agent.  None of that savings gets passed on to you.

When/if you DO get a cruise booked that will sail, if you use a travel agent they may not be much help on excursions.  IMO the best source for excursion information and recommendations is right here on Cruise Critic.  If you go to the "Boards" page you will see a section called "Ports of Call".  If you click on Alaska you will enter a forum like this where you can read past postings to get up to speed about what the options are, and ask your own specific question.  Folks are generally very helpful on these ports boards.

As to cruising in a post-vaccination COVID world, the reality is that no one knows what it will be like.

Hope this helps.  Unfortunately this is a lousy time to be dipping your toe in the cruise world.

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