Where else can you enjoy the splendors of America's most rugged wilderness without ever roughing it? The cruise ships that navigate the channels and straits of Alaska's Inside Passage are immense floating luxury hotels, offering every imaginable convenience from dry cleaning to beauty salons.
And the views! With a glass of wine in hand, you might watch a pair of Alaskan brown bears gambol on the tidal flats. Or perhaps you might see a breaching humpback whale break the quiet waters with sudden violence, or a roly-poly sea otter float by on its back.
Our author, Michael Parfit, and his wife, Suzanne Chisholm, made their voyage on Holland America's MS Volendam, but some 600 other cruise ships make port calls in Alaska every year. Choice is the order of the day: prices range from $600 to $6,000; cruises leave from three different cities; tours last from 3 to 12 days; and eight major cruise companies and half a dozen smaller companies vie for your vacation dollars with slick promotional material. As a result, it's a good idea to get cruise wise before embarking on a journey to America's Last Frontier.
Our selection of cruising guidebooks should get you started, but with so many choices—from ship size and onboard atmosphere to amenities such as cooking classes, wine tastings, even salsa dance lessons—a good travel agent is worth his or her weight in gold. An experienced agent will be able to find a cruise that meets your budget and lets you travel with people of similar interests. Cruise Lines International Association (212-921-0066) offers a Cruise Expert Locator to find one of its specially trained travel agents. Also, check out the on-line booking service at cruiseweb.com (1-800-377-9383). Cruise through our travel tips this month for advice on everything from what to wear to what to tip.
A Flexible Cruiser Gets the Deals
Veteran cruisers say that if you are retired or have a flexible schedule, you should think about making your reservations close to the sailing date. Cruise ships are often fully booked, but when they aren't, the last rooms are frequently sold at very low prices.
Beggars Just Might Get Choice Digs
If you are willing to take what's called a "guarantee" cabin, which is usually of lower quality (no outside window, for instance), you can save quite a lot of money, and you are often upgraded to higher quality cabins at no extra cost.
Cruisers of a Feather Should Stick Together
Pick the right cruise for your temperament. Travel agents have a pretty good handle on this, but in general the more expensive cruises tend to cater to a middle-aged or older clientele. On these ships there may be more elegant food, and fewer party animals. Others are more relaxed, with more families—and thus more kids' activities, group activities, and energetic parties. So be sure to check out the cruise line profiles detailed in any good travel guide.
Dressing for "Seward's Icebox"
When William Henry Seward arranged for the purchase of Alaska in 1867, critics derisively called it an icebox. With temperatures dropping below freezing even in the summer months, especially on the waters in Glacier Bay, don't leave home without a warm jacket, a scarf and gloves. Pack rain gear, for legs and feet, too, so you can be on deck in all kinds of weather. Alaska's ferocious mosquitoes shouldn't bother you too much on board, but carry insect repellent for port calls.
You Don't Have to Dance the Hokey Pokey
Don't worry about being strapped into an activity regimen on a cruise ship. More and more cruise lines are providing "freestyle" cruising. On these cruises, there is no particular agenda. Dining can be highly flexible, for instance. You have say over hours of dining, places to eat and table selection. Be aware, however, that this kind of flexibility often comes at a higher cost; on a few liners eating at the more elegant restaurants incurs an extra fee.
Cruising with a Conscience
There is some controversy over the way crews from poor countries are treated on the ships. If that concerns you, find a cruise line that has an agreement with the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF). This is a mainstream organization that represents about 600,000 seafarers worldwide and has agreements with about 60 percent of the cruise lines. These agreements cover minimum pay scales, working hours and other important items, such as medical coverage if an injured crew member has to leave the ship. Some major cruise lines do not have such agreements, so if you want to feel better about the living conditions of the cabin stewards, waiters and other workers on whom your cruise happiness depends, ask your travel agent to make sure they do.