We went on a cruise and land tour in Alaska in the beginning of August. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I read tons of online reviews of what to pack, what to see, what to avoid, etc. Let’s face it, cruising to Alaska during the short 4 1/2 to 5 month season is going to be expensive. No getting around that. All of the cruise lines that operate out of Alaska have land tours in addition to the cruise, and I highly recommend doing both.
1. Book your cruise, excursions, land tour, and flights with one cruise line.
We booked all aspects of our cruise through Princess: flights, cruise, land excursions both on the cruise ship and for the land portion of our tour, and transfers to and from the airport. We flew into Vancouver and home from Fairbanks. Booking airfare thorough the cruise line was definitely much cheaper; however, to get to Vancouver we had to fly from Baltimore to Dallas and then catch a connecting flight to Vancouver. The only hotel we had to book was a Days Inn in Vancouver at the airport as we decided to arrive the night before (actually very early on the morning the cruise was scheduled to depart), to avoid any possibility of being detained. As it turned out, our flight from Baltimore to Dallas was canceled, and we had to book another flight that arrived into Dallas at 11:30 p.m., and we missed our connection in Dallas to Vancouver. We called Days Inn in Vancouver to inform them we would not be arriving through no fault of our own and they refused to issue a refund. Still working to resolve that issue. Coming home from Fairbanks, our flight was canceled, and we had to wait 24 hours to get another flight out. Be patient, and come prepared.
I’m not sure if we got any bargains, however, Princess was very accommodating. I was booking two rooms for the cruise, and the information for each stateroom had to be filled out separately. I filled out all of the information for one set of staterooms, and when I went to book the next stateroom, the entire cruise was suddenly sold out. When I called Princess, they assisted me in selecting another cruise with basically the same itinerary during the same time frame (our dates were not flexible). When we checked into the cruise ship, Princess had upgraded one of our rooms from an interior room to one with a window at no charge.
Our luggage followed us every step of the way from the time we checked in with Princess at the airport in Vancouver, until we arrived in Fairbanks for our flight home 12 days later. All we did each time we were moving to another place was place the appropriate luggage tag (provided well in advance by Princess) on our bags and place them outside the door of our room, and the next day our luggage was there waiting for us. We packed our medications, and anything we would need during the day, and that bag traveled with us on the bus or train. When we were transported by bus, it was a motor coach with plenty of luggage storage beneath the bus.
2. Take the Cross Gulf Alaska Tour
The Cross Gulf Alaska Tour cruises are one way, and leave from Seattle or Vancouver, and disembark in Anchorage (Whittier or Seward). These cruises are more expensive than a round trip out of the same port; however, you also get to see a lot more. On our cruise, we left out of Vancouver and stopped in Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway. We also saw the glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park and College Fjord. The day we toured Glacier Bay on the cruise ship (no stops, just a spectacular view of the glaciers from our balcony), the National Park Service boarded our ship and gave a talk about the glaciers, how they were formed, what the park service is doing to protect these magnificent treasures, and answered any questions we had. At the end of the cruise, we disembarked in Whittier.
3. Splurge on Land Excursions
Helicopter Tour to Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau
How many times do you plan to go to Alaska? Splurge and take the helicopter tour to Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau. It was by far one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced. You land and walk on a real glacier. What could be cooler (literally) than that? The temperature was about 45 degrees on the day we went; however, with the wind blowing at 20 to 30 mph, it felt much colder. I was bundled up pretty good as you can see from the photos. I was also provided special shoes with spikes in them to help when walking on the glacier.
Musher’s Dog Sled Experience, Skagway
I really enjoyed the dog sled experience in Skagway. It was drizzling, overcast and the dog trail really muddy, and I got splattered with mud since I was sitting in the front of the dog sled, I still thoroughly enjoyed watching the dogs in action, working as a team. These sled dogs are Alaskan Huskies, a mixed breed, built for strength and endurance. These dogs are capable of pulling a sled through deep snow for miles. Dog sled was the main mode of transportation in Alaska during the winter months before the sea plane and snowmobile. The Iditarod Race celebrates the tradition of mushing and dog sledding, and started on March 3, 1973. The race was from Anchorage to Nome on a trail that was originally a mail supply route. You can read more about the Iditarod here.
My favorite part was holding the puppies …. I have such a soft spot for baby animals.
Catch a show about the gold mining days, such as this one in Skagway, Days of 98 Show. Very entertaining.
4. Don’t let the travel photos fool you, Alaska can be cloudy and rainy for days at a time. Apparently early spring is drier than later in the summer.
The day we visited Glacier Bay we had this spectacular view:
The following day, we visited College Fjords and this was our view:
The day after that, which is the day we arrived in Whittier, it looked like this:
And the following day after that:
During our entire cruise and land tour of 12 days, we had 8 days of cloudy/rainy/drizzling/foggy weather. A couple of those days the sun came out towards the end of the day. Plan accordingly.
5. Upgrade to a balcony room. You won’t be sorry.
All of the photos below were taken from the balcony of our room. No other words are necessary.
6. The land tour should definitely be included in your travel package.
I enjoyed the land tour almost as much as the cruise. When the cruise embarked in Whittier, we took a bus to Mt. McKinley Wilderness Princess Lodge, and the Princess staff made sure our check-in process was as smooth as possible. Everyone on the bus was provided with an envelope with room keys and information about the property and available excursions. Our luggage was waiting in our room. The property was beautiful and had a hot tub overlooking the mountains. Unfortunately for us, it rained the entire time we were at the Mt. McKinley Wilderness Lodge. (2 nights and 1 1/2 days). We never saw Mt. Denali (also known as Mt. McKinley) because of the rain and fog, and because of the weather, our summit plane ride and tour around the mountain was cancelled. On our one full day, we took a courtesy shuttle to Talkeetna located at the base of Mt. Denali. Mt. Denali is the tallest peak in the U.S. at 20,310 feet. Climbing season for Mt. Denali is from late April to mid-July, with peak occurring mid-May to late June. Climbing Mt. Denali is not for the faint of heart or those not in optimal physical shape. Here is information on climbing Mt. Denali from the National Park Service. Below are the stats for the 2016 climbing season:
I definitely want to go back to Mt. Denali and the Mt. McKinley Wilderness Lodge, and hope for better weather and to be able to see this magnificent mountain.
What an amazing train ride! The roof was clear so you could see all around you. The ride was about 3 1/2 hours long, and there was so much to see.
We spent one night in Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. I almost wish we had spent two nights here and only one night at the McKinley Lodge, because when we arrived it was a gorgeous sunny afternoon and sunset. Again, the Princess staff had our welcome package and room keys waiting for us when we arrived.
The Denali National Park Visitor’s Center was a short bus ride or a longer walk, which I did to take this photo:
I saw these cool rock words on my walk back to the lodge from the Denali National Park sign.
The following morning, we had a tour of the park on a bus, and it was a cloudy and rainy day. Denali is a six million acre park with only one single road that is 92 miles long. Only the first 15 miles are paved and open to private vehicles. Past mile 15, you must either hike in, cycle, or take a bus tour (available only from May through mid-September). The bus tours are on school buses, just like the ones we rode to school when we were kids.
The dog musher’s cabin is still in use in the winter in Denali. The park is patrolled in the winter months with dog sled teams, and there are several cabins interspersed throughout the 92 mile long stretch of road where the park rangers and their dog sled teams can spend the night.
Our tour was the Natural History Tour, which was informative, although only about 4 hours long, and only went to mile 17 within the park. If I ever went back, I would spend another day or two at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge and take the Tundra Wilderness Tour, which is 7 to 8 hours round trip and covers through mile 53 of the park, and the 12 hour round trip Kantishna Experience which goes all the way out to the end of the 92 mile road. More information is available here.
In the afternoon, we were picked up by a motor coach and transferred to Fairbanks for the final evening of our trip. Our flight back to Baltimore was scheduled for the following evening at 9:30 p.m., so we had a whole day in Fairbanks (which turned into two due to our canceled flight).
We got to see the Alaska Pipeline and Olnes Pond because we rented a car when our flight was canceled and drove around, and we really enjoy exploring on our own.
My favorite photo on this trip:
We would like to go back in the next year or two and explore other parts of Alaska on our own, and visit the other five National Parks: Gates of the Arctic, Katmai, Kenai Fjords, Kobuk Valley, Lake Clark, and Wrangell-St. Elias