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.
The Early Bird Cruiser Gets the Worm
Whatever time the cruise line tells you to get there for embarkation, get there sooner. As cruise ships refine their onboard operations, standing in line for anything has become less frequent, but you will stand in line to get on the ship. Arriving early may mean that you'll sit around the boarding lounge for a few extra minutes, but it'll pay off because you'll get on board more quickly.
Patience Is a Virtue
Likewise, with disembarkation, you may have to wait because you will probably be coming home through customs, and that often takes a while. Cruise lines will try to make it easier on you by sorting your disembarkation order by numbers, usually arranged according to the time of your airline flight out of the port of entry, but it will take several hours for all the passengers to get off, so don't fret. Find a pleasant place to sit and wait for your number to be called, and take the time to enjoy the memories you have just been making.
Remember You Are on a Ship
On every cruise, there's a few minutes when you will have to stand around feeling foolish, with flotation gear hanging around your neck, and listen to a ship officer tell you about dire emergencies. Lifeboat drills are mandatory and will be enforced. It's better to feel foolish up on deck with a bunch of other people than to feel really stupid when the room steward flushes you out of your stateroom like a naughty child. Anyway, the lifeboat drill offers a good opportunity to make friends.
It Won't Cost You, If You're Careful
A cruise is sold as a package, and that includes all the food you can eat, whenever you want it. But once you're on board, cruise lines make a lot of effort to get you to spend more money. So if you limit your alcohol consumption, don't gamble and keep your shopping costs down, it's possible to stay on budget.
You Don't Have to Take a Tux
Even if the cruise itinerary says there are formal nights, usually "formal" means a business suit is fine. If taking a vacation means you refuse to see a tie or cocktail dress in your closet, there are almost always alternative dining spots that won't require much more than a bathing suit.
You're on Vacation, but They Aren't
Include tipping in your travel budget. Figure on spending at least $10 per day per person for all your tips. On some cruise lines, tipping is the only way your cabin steward or waiter makes any significant money. On others, tipping is described as voluntary, but remember that the wages for the people who wait on you for up to 14 hours a day are still pretty low.
A Stateroom the Size of Texas?
Don't expect spaciousness. It's a ship. Many rooms are not much more than 150 to 185 square feet. Amazing things are done to make the rooms seem bigger, such as the ample use of mirrors, artwork and windows, but most of them are just plain small. Pack accordingly, and plan to be out on deck a lot. It's great up there.
Wal-mart, K-Mart Sell It for Less
Your pre-trip checklist will include several things that you can buy on the ship but will pay more for there. Bring along your binoculars, camera, film, batteries and walking shoes. If you need a hair dryer, bring one; only about half of the ships have hair dryers in the rooms.
Even though your cruise will often be international, you may not need a passport. For many destinations, a birth certificate is all that's required. Check with your travel agent or cruise line.
Who You Gonna Call
Eight of the large cruise companies offer Alaska vacations that include sea voyages through the Inside Passage. We found another six companies offering smaller ship experiences, including a family adventure this July sponsored by the Smithsonian Study Tours aboard the 74-passenger Wilderness Adventurer.
The Big Guys
Carnival Cruise Lines
3655 NW 87th Avenue, Miami, Florida 33178-2428; Telephone: 305-599-2600, 1-800-438-6744; Fax: 305-599-8630
1050 Caribbean Way, Miami, Florida 33132-2096; Telephone: 305-539-6000, 1-800-646-1456; Fax: 1-800-437-5111
2049 Century Park East, Suite 1400, Los Angeles, CA 90067; Telephone: 310-785-9300; Fax: 310-785-3891
Holland America Line
300 Elliott Avenue West, Seattle, WA 98119; Telephone: 206- 281-3535, 877-SAIL-HAL, 1-800-628-4855; Fax: 206-281-7110
Norwegian Cruise Line
7665 Corporate Center Drive, Miami, Florida 33126; Telephone: 305-436-4000, 1-800-327-7030; Fax: 305-436-4120
10100 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90067; Telephone: 310-553-1770, 1-800-774-6237 (1-800-Princess); Fax: 310-277-6175
Radisson Seven Seas Cruises
600 Corporate Drive, Suite 410, Fort Lauderdale, Florida 33334; Telephone: 954-776-6123, 1-800-477-7500, 1-800-285-1835; Fax: 954-772-3763
Royal Caribbean International
1050 Caribbean Way, Miami, Florida 33132; Telephone: 305-539-6000, 1-800-659-7225; Fax: 1-800-722-5329
The Smaller Ships
Alaska's Glacier Bay Tours and Cruises
226 2nd Avenue West, Seattle, WA 98119; Telephone: 206-623-7110, 1-800-451-5952; Fax: 206-623-7809
American Safari Cruises
1901 36th Avenue W #201, Lynwood, WA 98036; Telephone: 888-862-8881, 425-776-4700; Fax: 425-776-8889
2401 Fourth Avenue, Suite 700, Seattle, WA 98121; Telephone: 1-206-441-8687, 1-800-888-9378; Fax: 206-441-4757
World Explorer Cruises
555 Montgomery Street, Suite 1400, San Francisco, CA 94111-2544; Telephone 415-820-9200, 1-800-854-3835; Fax: 415-820-9292
Clipper Cruise Line
7718 Bonhomme Avenue, St. Louis, MO 63105; Telephone 314-727-2929, 1-800-325-0010; Fax: 314-727-6576
720 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010; Telephone: 212-765-7740, 1-800-397-3348; Fax: 212-265-3770
Smithsonian Study Tours (1-877-338-8687)