Things to Know before Cruising Alaska
People have been asking what cruise line to take to Alaska, and which ports to visit. We have now been to Alaska on four different cruise lines — Princess, Celebrity, Norwegian (twice), and Holland America. There’s no way we can tell you which cruise line is best, because we don’t know what your priorities are when you travel. But we’ve broken the cruise experience down to several categories and rated the cruise lines according to our experience on each.
If you’ve never been on a cruise before and are serious about doing so, one option is to invest $15 or so to purchase a book that ranks the cruises, and study it before your trip. We’ve purchased most brands, and have found that the best one is Fielding’s Worldwide Cruises. It gives a letter grade to each ship on the ocean, and is pretty detailed in specifying why a cruise ship is superior — or why it doesn’t measure up. Different cruise lines have different personalities (for example, Carnival has a reputation as a “party” cruise line), so you need to pick the one(s) with the correct focus for you. Also, it will rate the various ports of call, so you can determine which ports you want to visit.
There’s an even cheaper option for people on a budget. If you go to www.cruisecritic.com, you can find many of the same amenities that you’d get with the $15 book — and you don’t have to pay a cent. Cruise Critic has reviews of every ship that are done by cruisers as well as by the professional Cruise Critic staff. Instead of getting one review of a ship, as you’d get with the hardcover book, you may get two dozen or more reviews of that ship, and they could be as current as last week’s cruise. If you’ll look on the boards you can read about individual cruise lines or destinations, and this is a great way to decide before you go somewhere what you’re going to do when you get there. What’s more, opinions are updated daily as enthusiastic passengers return from their trips.
We now use Cruise Critic exclusively, and we’ve found some great suggestions there. But you need to take the member reviews of the ships with a grain of salt because some people are chronic complainers who don’t find good in anything. We read horrible things from dozens of people about the Norwegian Wind, for example, only after we’d booked a cruise on that ship. We were filled with trepidation before the cruise, but the ship was delightful. So much for Cruise Critic.
The Ship (Accommodations)
The first ship we took, the Fair Princess of the Princess cruise line, was so old that it was retired shortly after we sailed on it. It was the first ship we’d taken, however, so we didn’t know how bad the ship was in comparison until after we’d taken our Celebrity cruise.
Now that we’ve been on a bunch of cruises, we’d rely on reviews at www.cruisecritic.com for ship reviews. We generally choose the cruise line rather than the ship itself. We’ve found that Princess doesn’t do quite as good a job as RCCL or Norwegian (although the Grand Princess has to be one of the prettiest ships on the ocean), and that Holland America and Celebrity are better than the others. But that’s only our preference. The only cruise line we wouldn’t use would be Carnival, and that’s because we’re not party people.
One thing you may want to consider is that some of the lines (NCL and Princess come to mind) are experimenting with “freestyle cruising,” where you do not have to dress up for formal nights and can go to dinner whenever you want but you do not have the same waiter or table all the time. The big plus with freestyle cruising, at least in Alaska, is that you’re already going to be packing your winter coats and it’s great not to also have to pack a formal or suit and all the paraphernalia that goes with them. The downside is that you really don’t get the service when you do freestyle cruising that you would if you had a waiter the whole cruise whose tips depended on keeping you happy. We enjoy freestyle cruising and regular cruising, and usually our preference is the style of cruise we’re taking at that particular moment. But the packing is a major consideration if you’re going to Alaska.
One thing that was a real turn-off about Princess was the piped-in music in many public areas of the ship. Even the decks weren’t free from piped-in music. The music was somewhat better than elevator music, but you can only hear Frank Sinatra sing “My Way” so many times during the course of a week before you want to find the speakers and rip out the wires. The other cruise lines have some piped-in music, but on Princess (and on RCCL) you can’t escape it. It’s enough to drive a person crazy.
The other intrusive thing about Princess was that every time we sat down on a chair or a lounger or even on the deck, we were accosted by ship employees who asked if we wanted to purchase a cocktail. If we said no, we’d be asked again and again by different employees until we finally left the area. This was extremely annoying. The cost of a cruise is inclusive except for shore excursions, souvenirs, and bar tabs. On the two Princess cruises we’ve taken, the cruise line raked in a whole lot of money selling mixed drinks and beer and even soft drinks. On Holland America, the crew assumed that people knew where to buy drinks if they wanted them, and left the passengers alone. The only time we were ever approached on deck was when we sailed among the glaciers and were offered hot chocolate or pea soup, free of charge.
On Princess and Holland America and, to a lesser extent, NCL, travelers are bothered several times a day by photographers who want to take a picture that can later be purchased in the photo studio. No matter which cruise line you take you’re going to have a few pictures taken of you during the course of the week, but you’re not accosted on deck or ashore as you are by Princess and HAL.
Most cruise lines have instituted a tipping policy where the tip can be added to your bill. The downside of doing this is that you always pay the “suggested amount” rather than being able to give more or less based on service. Because of their “freestyle cruising” concept, NCL has a tipping policy where the tip is AUTOMATICALLY added to your bill, making it the most aggressive of the cruise lines we’ve sailed in that regard. On other lines, you get little envelopes on the last night, plus “suggested” tip amounts. You can insert cash, or (if you’ve chosen to add the tips to your bill), you insert a voucher that can be cashed in to get the tips. By the end of the week you’ll definitely want to tip the cabin steward, the waiter, and the assistant waiter, but you don’t have to tip the others.
The food is good on Celebrity, but it used to be lots better. These days, NCL and RCCL have food that’s just about as good as Celebrity’s food. Holland America’s food comes close (it’s a Dutch line, and some of the Dutch food is not exactly memorable). The food on Princess is not as good as the food on the other lines. It’s edible, but it isn’t stellar. Princess has an Italian registry and leans more toward pasta than the other cruise lines, but as of our second sailing with them at least they’d gotten rid of the pasta course.
Celebrity’s breads are all made on the premises. Even the ice cream is made daily. The bread on Holland America was always just a little stale. The ice cream wasn’t much of a treat on Holland America, either. The worst is NCL, which offers Haagen-Dazs ice cream and then charges you for it. This is annoying. RCCL offers Ben and Jerry’s for a premium, but there is also free ice cream for the taking if you know where to get it.
If you don’t want to sit with strangers, you can ask for a table for two (or whatever your party size is) when you book the cruise. Sometimes you will get the smaller table, and sometimes you won’t. With freestyle cruising, you can still specify a table for two, and the two of you may be sat all by yourselves at a table for six or eight.
If you don’t want the pressure of dining companions but can’t get a table for two, a travel agent we consulted said to bypass the tables for four or eight and request a table for six. That way you don’t feel forced to converse one-on-one with strangers, but the group is still intimate enough that you won’t have to shout if you do decide to make a comment. We sat a table for six on a Princess cruise and an RCCL cruise and found the seating accommodations quite comfortable. If you REALLY don’t like your dining companions or the table location, you can ask to be moved to a different table for the duration of the cruise.
The best thing that can be said about the entertainment on Princess cruises is that it’s well-intentioned. It’s also boisterous. By and large, Princess has the bottom rung of entertainment, with Celebrity at the top. But it all depends on which entertainers get booked for which cruise. Every cruise line has its own personality, but that personality can change every time the cruise director changes.
There is also entertainment during daylight hours, whether or not the ship is in port. Celebrity has great seminar speakers. The craft classes, like the entertainment, depend on the person who is doing the crafts on that particular cruise. Holland America does it all by formula, so if you’ve done the crafts on one HAL cruise, you’ve done the crafts on all of them. Princess featured all sorts of contests, which were administered in a haphazard way and which generally resulted in a haphazard good time.
Ports of Call
There are 12 different ports of call that may be part of your Alaska itinerary (there are others if you take a combination land/sea trip, but all you need the first time around is the cruise). We’ve been to all these ports except Valdez, which from all accounts is a place no human being would want to visit. Here’s a recap of the others, going from south to north.
Seattle, Washington. When we first started cruising to Alaska, most of the cruises went from North-to-South or South-to-North. This means that you would start in Vancouver or Seattle and end in Seward (or vice-versa). Recently, a new option has been added than you can cruise round trip from Seattle or from Vancouver. The advantages of Seattle are that the travel costs to get to the port are less (you are buying a round-trip airline ticket to Seattle), and you don’t have to hassle with Canadian Customs. The disadvantage is that you have less time in Alaska, because you have to return to the same port. This means that the cruise will probably have fewer port stops, and you will not get to see as many Alaskan cities. You have to choose between convenience and cost, versus the number of different places you will see.
The port is right in downtown Seattle, but the airport is a few miles out. This means that you can stay in a hotel close to the airport and then take a shuttle into town to catch the cruise, or you can take the shuttle into town when you arrive, stay at a hotel in town, and then take just a short cab ride to the pier. The first option is probably cheaper (hotels cost less in the suburbs), but staying in town allows you to see more of the city.
If you have some spare time before or after the cruise, there are several Seattle tours that are worth taking.
Vancouver, British Columbia. Your cruise may either start or end here (or both!), and it’s one of the highlights of the trip. It’s unquestionably one of the most beautiful cities (if not the most beautiful city) in North America. Allow enough time to spend at least whole day here, and perhaps an additional day in neighboring Victoria. Victoria is as British as you’re going to get outside of London — and some cruise lines are starting to stop there on the Alaska route. Vancouver is clearly Canadian, so the two cities are entirely different.
Two things to see in Vancouver are the Gastown district, which is within walking distance of the cruise terminal, and the Capilano Suspension Bridge, which is far outside of town. We’ve taken a combination ferry/narrow-gauge railroad trip to the tiny town of Whistler, and that was nice. However, if you’ve only got one spare day and have never been there, Victoria should be a higher priority.
Prince Rupert, British Columbia. It is a little known fact that all Alaska cruises must stop in some non-US port at some point in the cruise (something about avoiding certain US regulations if the cruise includes a foreign stop). For Alaska cruises that don’t start or stop in Canada, the cruise lines used to satisfy this rule by stopping for a few minutes at Prince Rupert in the middle of the night. Most passengers never even knew about the unadvertised port stop. But Prince Rupert has been trying to establish itself as a real port stop (think tourist dollars), and some of the cruise lines have begun to make it a formal port stop.
The town is quite charming, with several shops that have interesting merchandise. The shore excursions are not as exciting there (we took a train ride), but it is still worth the stop. We expect this will improve as more ships stop there and more tourist cash is applied to the local economy.
Ketchikan, Alaska. This city is the farthest south on the Alaska tourist route. It’s in the middle of a rainforest (as is much of southeastern Alaska), so prepare for rain — hard rain. If you’re one of those people whose day can be ruined by rain, pick a route that doesn’t stop in Ketchikan. (And if you really hate rain, perhaps Alaska isn’t the place for you.) But the rainforest is beautiful, and the city is well worth the trip.
One of the highlights of Ketchikan is the totem pole park. (There are two of them.) If you believe that if you’ve seen one totem pole, you’ve seen ’em all, this is the place to change your opinion. Another highlight of Ketchikan is Creek Street, which is an old red-light district. There’s a terrific art gallery that specializes in Alaskan art here (Scanlon Gallery), as well as other good souvenir shops. But be advised that the farther north you go, the cheaper the souvenirs are. If you buy a lot of souvenirs, it’s almost worthwhile to start the cruise in Anchorage and work your way south. The other option is to cruise in September, when the cruises are ending for the year and everything is on sale.
Juneau, Alaska. Juneau, the capital city of Alaska, recently built a tram that allows tourists to go from the dock up the side of a mountain. The other big attractions here are the Mendenhall Glacier and a large salmon hatchery. By the time you leave Alaska, you’re going to know more about salmon than you ever wanted to know, but the Juneau hatchery is the best place to learn. (If you want to see the salmon climb the ladders, travel in August.) The Mendenhall Glacier is the only glacier on the trip that can be reached (or pretty close to it!) by foot. It’s worth a visit, and there are lots of eagles on the way, which you can find by looking for “golf balls” in the treetops.
The best t-shirts in Alaska can be found at Gallaskins, which is on the main drag. There are also several good art galleries in Juneau, also on the main drag. The best place for Russia souvenirs is here, rather than in the Russian town of Sitka. It (like everything else) is on the main drag; you can’t miss it. Juneau has the best nightlife on the trip, if you’re into that sort of thing. The Red Dog Saloon is an historical landmark, and it’s right near the pier. And if you want an inexpensive Alaska souvenir you can’t get anywhere else, there’s an artist named William Spear (http://wmspear.com/) who does great enamel pins and zipper pulls. Some of them hark to his Harley/marijuana days, but most of them are delightful. He has a shop on the main drag, as well as his internet site.
Sitka, Alaska. When Alaska was a Russian territory, this was its capital. But it’s also a center of Tlingit culture, so you can have completely different experiences on different trips, based on which culture you explore. This is a good place to walk through a rainforest, if you didn’t do it in Ketchikan. The only places you’re likely to see puffins in Alaska are here (if you take the boat tour to see them) and in Seward (same thing). Sitka is a small town, but it’s multi-faceted. There’s something here for everyone.
There are several programs held at the cultural center, which is near where the tenders drop off cruise passengers. The most intriguing is the performance by the New Archangel Dancers. Most of it is standard dancing (pretty ho-hum unless that sort of thing melts your butter), but the climax of the program is a dance where the women move in a way that defies description. It’s as though they’re rolling rather than walking, but it’s noiseless. We’d kill to know how they do it. If anyone figures it out, please let us know.
Sitka has the worst souvenir shopping on the trip. Spend your time there seeing the area rather than shopping. There is a shop across the street from the onion-domed church that sells the most incredible caramel apples. Otherwise, shopping in Sitka is a waste of time.
Skagway, Alaska. If Ketchikan is the rainforest town and Juneau is the state capital and Sitka is the Russian village, Skagway is a tribute to the Old West. It’s a gold rush town with a fascinating history. It also has some of the best shopping on the trip (it emphasizes tourist stuff and duty-free jewelry), so it’s fortunate that the ships spend a lot of time there. The town has the same flavor as Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Downtown Skagway is only eight blocks long. The first thing you see is the National Park Service headquarters. There’s a fascinating movie (slide show, maybe?) about the Alaskan gold rush. This is well worth an hour of your time. The privations suffered by the gold miners have to be seen to be believed. Depending on your point of view, it’s either an amazing tribute to the human spirit, or a chilling testament to the depth of human greed. After you see this presentation, you’ll look at gold in a different way.
There’s a narrow-gauge railroad trip that passes some beautiful scenery. There is also a ferry that will take you to the little town of Haines. There’s no shopping in Haines to speak of, but it’s a scenic ferry trip, and there are tours and trips you can take once you get there. The Tlingit tribal dances performed here were somewhat more enthusiastic than they were in Sitka, and a lot of the tours end with a salmon bake. There’s also a great wildlife tour. The only time we’ve seen bears in Alaska was on that wildlife tour. We also took a bus tour up to the Canadian Yukon, which we really enjoyed, and where we also saw a bear. The air smelled like a million of those little pine trees that you hang over your rearview mirror.
Glacier Bay, Alaska. Glacier Bay is always visited at the expense of one of the towns on the trip. It’s a national park that can only be visited by boat; and the exclusivity of it is just about all you can say for it. Yes, there are lots of glaciers. Yes, the glaciers are beautiful. But the trip is no more beautiful than College Fjord or Tracy Arm or other places you can go without sacrificing one of the ports of call. By and large, if you have a choice of Glacier Bay or just about anywhere else, choose the “anywhere else.”
Valdez, Alaska. This is absolutely the only port of call that is universally hated. Not many trips stop there. We’ve never been there, but from what we’ve read on the cruise bulletin boards, there’s absolutely nothing to do except stare at the oil pipeline, which gets old after about five minutes. Most of the cruise lines have stopped going to Valdez, but if you see an itinerary with Valdez on it, do not choose that itinerary unless you have a fetish for oil pipelines.
Seward, Alaska. Your cruise may either begin or end in Seward (unless you have a round-trip itinerary out of Vancouver or Seattle). Unfortunately, you won’t see anything of the town unless you’ve scheduled a shore excursion before you arrived. There are supposedly some nice little trips that can be taken out of Seward (one concentrates on marine wildlife, including puffins, and the other one features dog-sledding), but we’ve never planned far enough ahead to do either. The town itself was washed away in the Alaska Earthquake, and the buildings that are there now are of recent vintage.
Midway between Seward and Anchorage is an animal park that can be viewed for not much of an expense of time or money. This is worth it if you’re interested in wildlife and just have to see a moose, even if it’s behind bars. Actually, it’s nicer than it sounds — but you’re almost certain to be taking a bus between Anchorage and Seward (or Seward and Anchorage), so you’re at the mercy of the bus driver as to whether you’ll stop for a few minutes and see it. If you’re going from Anchorage to start your trip in Seward, schedule one of the day’s earliest buses in order to have a better chance of seeing the park. You can’t get on the ship until a certain time, so the bus drivers sometimes stall by stopping at the animal park. We were lucky enough to experience that once, and Clark was charged by a musk ox. The fence between them almost didn’t survive the encounter.
Anchorage, Alaska. This isn’t one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It’s surrounded by mountains, but the mountains are far away. The architecture is uninspired, so the city isn’t interesting from that standpoint. And there’s not much to do here, unless you want to get the best price on souvenirs.
The area outside Anchorage is more interesting than Anchorage is. Once we rented a car and spent a day driving north, ending up at a musk ox farm and a wonderful Inuit cemetery where tiny houses are built above-ground to house the dead. Once you get away from the city, the scenery is lovely. And we did see a moose on that trip, live and in person and right out on the road.
The other intriguing thing about the area is the drive from Seward to Anchorage. The Kenai Peninsula is beautiful, and if you have a good bus driver he’ll show you how the land is still scarred from the tidal wave that accompanied the Alaska Earthquake. (They were still called tidal waves back in those days.) He may point out the Dall sheep on the mountainsides, too.
The most striking thing about the city of Anchorage is the profusion of flowers. The Midnight Sun (which is a pain in the neck if you spend a night there near the end of June) provides enough sunshine that the flowers are magnificent. Nevertheless, if you have a couple of days to spend before or after the cruise and don’t know what city to pick, choose Vancouver over Anchorage. You won’t regret it.
Shore excursions are among the highlights of a cruise. You don’t have to spend a lot of money for shore excursions; often, you can have just as much fun on the cheap tours. But if you try to explore Alaska’s towns on your own, without benefit of shore excursions, you’ll be missing a lot of what Alaska has to offer.
Holland America is the premier cruise line for shore excursions, although Princess is trying hard to narrow the gap. Tours you book through either cruise line should be well worth your time.
Because we were left to our own devices by Celebrity, we decided we could book our own shore excursions ashore, without going through the cruise line. We found this pretty easy to do in most ports, although we couldn’t get a single tour of any kind in Ketchikan. The problem was that it was raining in Ketchikan, so everyone who got off the ship grabbed a guide and there was nobody left for us. On that trip Ketchikan, which had previously been our favorite port, was such a miserable experience that we wondered what we’d ever seen in the town. Thus we learned that shore excursions make a big difference in a person’s enjoyment of a city. Study the brochures and attend the shore excursion presentations, so you’ll find shore excursions that meet your particular needs. This is one area where the tour books will give you some excellent guidance, especially if you’re careful to weigh your own interests against the biases of the person who did the research.
One warning if you want to take the tours that involve helicopters (and sometimes planes) is that if you weigh more than 250 pounds, you’ll be charged an extra amount — maybe as much as double. Even people who aren’t that much overweight have said they were embarrassed by the way people were sorted by body weight. Apparently it’s done without any decorum whatsoever, so that by the time you get on the plane, everyone who signed up for the flightseeing tours knows exactly what you weigh. If you’re sensitive about your weight, you may want to stay off the helicopters and planes. You can have a fine trip without ever taking a flightseeing tour.
Ships’ directors will warn you that if you book a shore excursion on your own, you’re on your own if the shore excursion doesn’t make it back to the ship by sailing time. We can’t imagine that any proprietor of a tour would be so neglectful as to get a tour back after that deadline, but there’s always the possibility, however slight, that mechanical trouble could delay your return. If that happened, you would be responsible for getting to the next port and meeting the ship there. Of course, in Alaska the ports of call are sometimes only 20 miles apart, so this is less of a problem than it would be elsewhere.
Also, booking your own tours once on shore will probably be cheaper than booking the tours associated with the cruise line. But you do run the risk that the tour you want may not be available, or that the quality will not be as good as the ones connected with the cruise line. We did this when we were traveling on Celebrity, generally saved about 50%, and were satisfied with the tours (the only exception being Ketchikan, where all the tours were already booked). But then, we’d been to Alaska before. A first-time visitor to Alaska may want to be on the safe side and book the shore excursions from the ship.
As long as you remember that souvenirs are cheaper the farther north you go, you should be fine. There are lots of coupons in the books you’ll find in your cabin and at the cruise terminal, and they’ll help you choose the stores you want to visit. But there are some things you may not want to buy in Alaska — salmon being chief among them. If you want a slab of smoked salmon, it’s much cheaper to wait for Christmastime at Costco, where a smoked salmon can be had for about $12. You’ll pay three times that amount in Alaska, and you’ll usually get a pink or silver instead of the prime sockeye salmon.
If you like jewelry, there are lots of duty-free shops in the ports of call. The prices will be the same in any city you visit, being exempt from the north-is-cheaper rule of thumb. Vancouver has some terrific amethyst for amazingly cheap prices, but the shops along the Inside Passage have all the popular stones (including the exotics), at much cheaper prices than you could get in jewelry stores in the States. If you’re used to shopping on eBay, however, you will never be impressed with any of the prices the jewelry stores have to offer.
Shopping on the ship is an interesting experience. Just remember that you don’t pay cash and will be using your ship card for all purchases. Fortunately, cruise lines are going in the direction of letting traveling companions in the same cabin sign up with different credit cards. That way the wives can spend their own money without having to endure the raised eyebrows of their spousal units.
1. Buying a cruise. Don’t ever pay full price for a cruise. You should be able to get a cabin for about half the rate that is posted in the cruise brochures. Look for a discount cruise broker on the internet. Shop around to get the best price. You will get the best prices if you book early or at the last minute. Use an internet search engine to find words such as “Alaska AND Cruise AND Discount AND Holland AND America” (this assumes you have made a decision about the cruse line you want), or “discount cruise Alaska.” This should find you lots of travel agencies that offer discount prices. Make sure to select an agency that is affiliated with CLIA, or other national groups so that you won’t be cheated. Some cruise lines even have their own web sites (http://www.hollandamerica.com). While you won’t get the best prices here, you can get information about the cruises that are available. Call several agencies, or go to www.cruisecompare.com and get the best prices.
2. When to go. We’ve heard the mosquitoes are bad in June, but we didn’t have a problem with them when we went in June. If you want to go in June, you may want to take daily B-100 vitamins starting about a week before the cruise and lasting until the end of it. The smell of the vitamins on your skin is a great mosquito repellant.
If you’re big on the Fourth of July, don’t be in Alaska then. We thought it would be great to watch the fireworks from the ship, but we didn’t take into account that it doesn’t get dark in Alaska until long after most people’s bedtimes. Fireworks displays in Alaska are singularly unimpressive. Also, on the Holland America lines, the only concession the crew made for the 4th of July was that red, white and blue balloons were hung in the dining room for dinner. We could hardly contain ourselves from the excitement.
August seems to be a good time to go, because the salmon are running then. We did that once and quite enjoyed it. Also, if you like to watch the stars, it might be spiffy to be on the ship during the meteor shower of August 12th-14th. We’ve never done that, having done the 4th of July thing twice, but next time we go to Alaska, going during the meteor shower is a definite option. However, we’d want to be at the southern end of the trip during the meteor shower so it would be darker at night.
As we previously mentioned, September is a great time to go because there are fewer cruise ships, and the souvenirs are on sale. Oddly, the warmest Alaska cruise we ever had was at the end of September. We don’t know if this was a fluke (we’ve done it twice and it was warmer both times), or if it’s always that way.
3. Clothes. Take fewer clothes than you think you’ll need, but be sure to take a heavy coat if you want to spend time on deck. Virtually every cruise book says all you need is a heavy sweater or two. Don’t believe it. We took heavy coats all five times, and on every cruise we had people tell us how they wished they’d done the same thing. Take gloves and a hat or muffler, too. When you’re sailing among the glaciers, the temperatures reflect the frozen air that’s being blown in your direction from all the ice. Add that to the wind generated by the moving ship, and it makes for a cold experience.
4. Weather. If you can’t deal with chilly temperatures or rain, go to the Caribbean. Dress warmly, carry an umbrella, and make an adventure out of it. Nobody wants to be around people who can’t stop whining about the weather. Remember that most of Alaska is a rainforest, and it rains a lot.
5. Soft drinks on board. Unless you have money to burn, drink water on the ship or bring your own soft drinks (you van buy them in port). Those nice soft drinks and bottled water that are in your cabin (Celebrity or Holland America) when you board are not free. Pick up a six-pack of soft drinks at your first port of call, or do without. This is one of the most puzzling aspects of cruising. Surely it would be cheaper for the cruise line to offer free soft drinks to fill up the passengers so they’d eat less of the food that’s far more expensive. But none of the cruise lines seem to understand that, so they’ll offer unlimited free food and make you pay for anything from the bar, including soft drinks. A soft drink card that offers unlimited soft drinks can cost $65 for the duration a seven-day cruise, once you add the gratuity.
6. Eating. The standard cruise passenger gains a pound per day. You don’t want to do that, do you? Determine before the cruise that you’ll eat no more than three meals per day, no matter how tempting the midnight buffets may be. You’re also better off in the dining room where portions are controlled than you are at the buffets. You can eat for up to 24 straight hours on a cruise ship. Resist the temptation, or you’ll sorely regret it.
5. Seasickness. The Inside Passage shouldn’t cause much problem with seasickness, especially if you take a newer ship. If you’re susceptible, however, be sure to take the Bonine or Dramamine (or whatever) before you get to the rough water. Once you start feeling seasick, it’s too late to take medication for it. The only advice we have here is that if you’re prone to seasickness, it’s better to take a cruise that goes round-trip out of Vancouver or Seattle. If you go from Vancouver, that will eliminate the chance of rough water. The only rough water on the trip is between Seward and Ketchikan, and to a lesser degree between Seattle and the Inside Passage, and you won’t go through that water if you take a round trip out of Vancouver.
6. Binoculars. Take ’em. Don’t just take one pair; take a pair for every member of your party. You can get nice, compact binoculars for around $30 these days. Taking binoculars makes the difference between thinking of eagles as “those golf balls in the trees” and being able to see the nests and their faces and their individual feathers. Ditto for the whales. We had fun in Alaska without binoculars, but when we took the binoculars there was a dramatic difference in how much we were able to see and appreciate.