In my introduction to this series, I talked a lot about why cruising appeals to me despite not being particularly into the culture of a cruise ship. It’s all about the ports. A cruise allows you to visit lots of different places on a single trip and do so easily, without worrying about finding accommodations or what to do with your luggage. It’s an imperfect system that, especially for more far flung cruises like Asia and Europe, barely gives you a taste of each location. But it’s the perfect way to test out a new area of the world. And for Alaska, it’s the best approach.
No single port in Alaska is big enough to really support a multi-day trip. In fact, a few felt exhausted after just a couple hours. So a cruise that took us to multiple locations for day trips gave us exactly what we wanted from the region.
There are essentially three ways to approach any port day.
- Participate in a planned excursion run by the cruise company.
- Research and book your own excursions.
- Customize an itinerary and explore on your own, or just wing it entirely.
I never choose Option 1 because it’s the most expensive and the most restrictive, two things I avoid at all costs when travelling, but it’s an excellent option for anyone with mobility or independence limitations and for nervous travellers. The biggest selling point is that a cruise-operated excursion is the only group the ship will wait for if something goes wrong and you don’t make it back to the dock on time. If you’re on your own, you need to be really responsible about time management and/or be prepared to problem solve to meet the ship at the next port in the worst case scenario that you, ahem, miss the boat. If that’s a stress you can’t handle, cruise-operated excursions are the option for you. They’re also easy to book and organized for you so you don’t have to do any research at all in deciding how you’ll approach your port day. If you’re nervous about language & cultural differences on bigger cruises or you’re just too busy or overwhelmed to do your own research, I won’t judge you for paying more to play it super safe.
On a bigger cruise that’s taken me further away from home, it’s usually Option 3 for me. Bigger cruises (to Europe or Asia) feature mostly city ports so planned excursions are basically just going to shuttle you around and take you to the same places you can find for yourself using public transit and TripAdvisor (TripAdvisor is always my first stop to find the big must-sees in any new location; the off-the-beaten-path stuff I tend to save for a return trip when I get to spend more time in each place than a cruise allows). Since wandering on foot is almost always the best way to see any city, I usually just pick a handful of must-see sites and maybe a well-rated lunch spot and build myself a custom walking tour that will bring me back to port at least an hour before the posted all-aboard time.
We did a little of this type of planning in Alaska, but mostly our approach relied more on Option 2: Research and book your own excursions. There are two reasons for this: 1) Alaska’s ports simply don’t have enough in them to fill a walking tour like the ones I designed for myself in Seoul and Kyoto. And 2) Alaska is all about the wilderness, not the individual towns that happen to have a place for a cruise ship to dock. In order to truly get the most out of visiting Alaska, you need to sign up for fun ways of exploring the nature that’s just a little too far from the dock to find on foot (and I should not have to tell you that there is no public transit). When booking our cruise, my fiancé and I purposefully chose a ship with fewer bells and whistles so that we’d have enough money in the budget for a few big ticket excursions. With a 100% “that was amazing!” rate on the tours and activities we chose, we often talk about this as the single best decision we made.
Research is the hardest part about planning any independent port day but we found that putting in the time to really look at all the options meant we found the best possible excursions at a fraction of the price we would have paid if we booked through the cruise line. Alaskan tourism is so cruise-dependent that most of the activities we chose actually catered to the specific ships they knew were scheduled to arrive that day so the timing lined up perfectly, there was always someone ready to meet us as soon as we stepped off the ship, and we essentially had all the perks of a cruise-operated excursion without the cost (in at least one case, you could literally book that exact same tour through the cruise but we found it on the company’s website for about half the price). You can easily start by just googling “[Port Name] Excursions” if you’re on a popular cruise route and you’ll find lots of websites where local tour operators are advertising their options. Even easier, you can peruse the excursions the cruise ship is offering and use that as jumping off point of what to look for in each port. We used that trick to determine what to do where since most of our chosen activities were offered in multiple places.
We started by discussing the activities we wanted to prioritize. The first thing on both of our lists was a helicopter glacier tour. Phil wanted to add whale watching and I really wanted to try dogsledding. I’ve talked before about how fall 2021 was counterintuitively the best possible time for this trip with limited crowds and great deals but the one true downside was that the lack of crowds meant certain excursions weren’t worth the operating costs for the organizers. So dogsledding was the one great sacrifice of our decision to cruise during Covid. But the helicopter and whale watching were still on the table and they became the big-ticket activities that anchored our port days. A little research solidified Juneau and Icy Strait Point respectively as the best places for those key activities and we built the rest of our port schedules around those anchors.
We chose specialized guided tours in both Ketchikan and our base city of Seattle and restaurants we wanted to try in Sitka and Juneau. And that was really all we needed. Alaska’s beauty speaks for itself so the best way to approach it, at least for us, was by spending the money where it counted to give us really unique points of view on nature and otherwise just take it pretty easy. You don’t need to stop by every little church or historic house in a place like this. Take a breath, look at some mountains, don’t let the rain slow you down, and let that be enough.
In Part Four I’ll break down the trip port by port and share the details of our fantastic excursions so you can book them for yourself.