Cruising Alaska This Summer? 10 Tips for Planning Your Time in Port

by Janis on May 3, 2011

Every Tuesday is Travel Tip Day
Today: 10 Tips on Planning Your Time in Alaska Cruise Ports

Alaska is a favorite summer cruise destination. This year, more than 800,000 visitors will tour Alaska via cruise ship, starting with the Carnival Spirit and the Disney Wonder this weekend.

Can you really experience Alaska from a cruise ship? Well, yes, although a cruise-only trip will expose you mostly to the southeast part of this enormous state.  Planning ahead for your time in port can help maximize your Alaska experience.

First time cruisers to Alaska often ask, “What should I do when my ship is in port?”

Here are 10 Tips for Planning Your Time in Port in Alaska.

1. Study your cruise schedule.  Note the time your ship is scheduled to stay in each port, and the day of the week. You won’t want to plan to hike a 5-hour trail if your ship is only in port between 1:30 and 5:30 pm. Most ships require that you are back on board at least a half hour before scheduled departure time. If you plan to visit a museum check the schedule to ensure it’s open. Consider your entire schedule – if you stay in Juneau until midnight, you may not want to be on that 7 am excursion in Skagway the next morning. 

2. Consider what you most like to do. Alaska is an outdoor playground.  You will find options for active adventures such as fishing, hiking, kayaking, rafting, 4-wheeling, zip-lining and flightseeing in each Alaska port.  You can also do more sedate activities like museums, shopping, and bus tours in Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway, Haines and other ports. 

3. Review the ship’s shore excursions in advance.  When your time in port is limited, traveling with a local guide can maximize your time.  The cruise lines know what’s most popular in each port, and their shore excursions tend to make best of the limited. They also ensure that you don’t get left by the ship if your tour is delayed.  Using the ships’ excursions is helpful if you want to experience different things than others in your group i.e. one of you wants to do the zip line and the others won’t consider it.

4. Book in advance if it’s something you really want to do. Many times, you can wait and arrange on your own activities on the pier in each port (or buy on the ship after you board.) However, if there’s something that you really want to do, it’s best to book in advance so you aren’t disappointed when it’s sold out.  Zip lines, flightseeing, dog sled tours and the White Pass Scenic Railway in Skagway/Haines are all popular, so it’s best to book ahead for these and event that’s limited to a small group.

5. Check the restrictions and activity level in advance. Most cruise lines rate excursions by activity level, offering tours with little exertion required to ones with expert level mountain hiking.  Some excursions have weight limits and age minimums.  Being on a strenuous bike tour (when you haven’t biked since you were a kid) may not be fun.

6. Be careful booking in advance from third party operators. If you book activities in advance outside of the cruise line, make sure the company allows refundable cancelations if the ship is late or misses the port.  Cruise ships can and do change their itineraries for any number of reasons.

The port city of Haines, Alaska is home to The Hammer Museum.

7. Vary activities. Everyone Alaska visitor should try to experience glaciers, Gold Rush history, wildlife and wilderness. Flightseeing – an amazing, if expensive experience – is probably not one that you want to repeat in every port, even if cost is not an issue. There are no shortage of fishing or shopping opportunities in Alaska, but you won’t experience all that Alaska has to offer if you only fish or shop in each port.   

8. Be prepared for variable weather.  Bring a sturdy rain jacket and dress in layers so you can “peel like an onion”.  Read more here on Packing for Alaska.

9. Wear comfortable walking/hiking shoes. The most breathtaking sights in Alaska are best experienced outside, and trails and walking are usually involved. Keep your feet comfortable and you will have a better time.

10. Read about Alaska before you go. While a young state, Alaska has a fascinating history and colorful characters from the Gold Rush days to the present.  Reading about the state before you go will enhance your experience.  Learn more about our favorite books on Alaska.   

Have you visited Alaska by cruise ship? What was your favorite activity in port?

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