Ready to check an Alaskan cruise off your bucket list?
Alaska is often a once-in-a-lifetime adventure with jaw-dropping scenery. But it’s also a credit-card-buster, so you want to make sure that you squeeze out every ounce of fun and adventure from your trip.
I recently went to Alaska on the Norwegian Cruise Line’s Bliss and the memories will last me a lifetime. It wasn’t a perfect trip, but I learned some handy tips for you.
1.) Choose your ship wisely.
We chose the NCL Bliss because it is a new ship and Mom LOVES clean things. We’ve also never been on a new ship. (And wow, was it clean!) The NCL Bliss also has lots of activities. There are water slides, including a slower one for me; I wasn’t in the mood for the fast one especially after seeing someone get stuck in it. But the slower one was… well, bliss. They also have go-karts, which was a huge selling point for me. Ironically, I hated them because there were many mean kids ramming into me and staff was very unpleasant (I should note that they were the only staff that were unpleasant; everyone else was great). In addition, there was bad weather the day we went on the go-karts, and the go-karts were on a high deck. It was very windy, rainy, and dangerous coming down the stairs after doing the go-karts. I literally nearly got blown down the stairs. The go-karts should have been closed that day, in my opinion.
I was also excited for Splash Academy, which is where kids go to be away from their parents. It didn’t earn high marks from me. It might be great for little kids but not good for 12-year-olds. They said I would be grouped with the other tweens, but instead I was grouped with a bunch of germ-ridden preschoolers, so I escaped to the bathroom since they wouldn’t allow kids to leave until closing time, and I preferred that to coloring.
Even the toilet was too tiny for me. Seriously. So tiny that I texted my parents a photo of it, writing, “For the love of all that is good, rescue me from this torture!” It took about 11 texts before they finally received them; even though we paid for WiFi, it’s imperfect at best. The ship does has a teen club that I couldn’t get into yet. (The Disney Dream has a tween club that is cool, in contrast to Splash Academy.)
But that’s enough of the negative for now. Because, fact is, I loved so much that this ship offered. Seriously… best cruise to date. One of my favorite activities was the running track. I could jog forever while listening to music and enjoying the vast ocean view. I miss that! For the adults there is gambling – Dad lost 30 cents and still won’t shut up about it. Clearly, my parents are NOT gamblers. The ship has a closed smoking room, which is very good for kids with allergies because I could go anywhere without smelling smoke. I also highly recommend doing laser tag. The shows on the cruise ship were awesome! We watched Jersey Boys and a Beatles cover band show. For a rocker like me, these were fantastic. The NCL Bliss has many restaurants. Make sure you get a ship that has things to eat that you like. I’m a pescatarian. I only eat seafood when it comes to meat. The Bliss’s Garden Café had lots of options that I could eat. I got to try lots of new kinds of food. I even discovered I like some Indian food!
Point is, find a ship that offers food, activities, and entertainment that appeal to you.
2.) Book lots of shore excursions.
You are here to see Alaska – not just a ship. But the trouble with Alaska is that the weather is usually unpredictable, so some of your shore excursions might get cancelled.
Of course, only book what you can afford because you might end up doing all of them. However, in our case, our Skagway helicopter tour to a glacier was cancelled due to high winds. Fortunately, we had wonderful shore excursions at other ports that we can look back on happily including Ketchikan, where we did the Neets Bay Bear Watch with a floatplane going there and back. I’ve never been on a floatplane before. Add to that, the adventure of being in the wild and seeing at least 8 black bears feeding on salmon in the distance.
Here’s some handy advice: find the guide with the bear spray. Meet your new best friend. Be his shadow. He assured us that the bears prefer the salmon to us, but I liked having him close by.
In Juneau, we did the Mendenhall Glacier and the Whale Cruise. Honestly, the Mendenhall Glacier was a bust – it was cold and rainy, and even though we took the longer hike out to the glacier, we could barely see it with the poor visibility that day.
Looking back, we would have skipped the Mendenhall Glacier because we got to see a much more impressive one from the ship later that day. (Photo at right)
3.) Pack wisely.
You’ll need a diverse wardrobe to deal with the changing climate. You should pack rain gear, including pants that dry quickly. In Juneau my jeans were soaked for the whole day!
I’m not talking about packing a light rain jacket. I’m talking about packing a 100% waterproof rain slicker with a giant hood; the kind that is so plastic you smell like you are emitting toxic fumes. If you don’t smell like a brand new beach ball, then you might not be waterproof enough.
Pack layers. And layers upon your layers.
Also pack bathing suits for the water slides and the pool, if you are going on a ship with these amenities.
And pack sunscreen!
4.) Know yourself and what you like and book accordingly.
Take some time to do some soul-searching about the kind of adventurer you are.
For example, the Mendenhall Glacier tour had a huge mega bus with tons of people – some of whom were exceptionally rude, and I discovered my family prefers smaller groups and in the future we will book accordingly. Do you like fine dining? So make sure you have good dining choices available.
Ask questions when booking things. This is your big chance to make your trip exceptional. But if you go blindly into it, you might find yourself wasting time on the wrong things.
5.) Pack binos!
We saw humpback whales, seals and sea lions from our ship so clearly, whereas others missed them. Our only problem was fighting over who gets to use them, so I recommend bringing enough for your whole family. As an only child with awesome parents, I usually win the battle over the binoculars. Ours is a Canon with image stabilization (the image stabilization is so sweet!) They are pretty pricey, but worth it.
6.) If you are a wildlife fan, stay as close to the balcony or viewing areas as much as possible.
We booked a balcony because of this and it was worth it, especially because people were camped out in all the seats close to the windows in the public areas which I’m sure was annoying for some people who got inside cabins and wanted to enjoy the view.
Funny story: My mom was just about to jump in the shower when I was on the balcony and all of a sudden I saw a massive pod of dolphins. I screamed for Mom, and she came running, thankfully, still clothed.
Point here is: take brief showers. It was the biggest pod I’ve ever seen. (This video was taken not even at the peak of their activity because we didn’t want to break away from the view just to grab the camera.)
Ditto for whales – you will see whales from your ship if you keep your eyes open. So short bathroom breaks are a must.
7.) Talk to the cruise line when booking.
I know – we prefer to do everything online too. TALK to a person? Oh no! Not that!
But seriously, it can be worth it. We got the right person on the line because he helped us find a really big balcony for the same price as the other smaller balconies because he looked hard at the layout of the ship.
Ask questions. If you don’t get a good representative, call back again. And again! Because every person you talk to has something to share. Same goes for booking shore excursions. You have to remember that people who work for cruise lines generally go on a lot of their own cruises and shore excursions. They usually enjoy sharing with you what they’ve learned on their own trips.
8.) Do your research.
I know that research sounds boring. But it’s actually really fun. And it’s a great way to get excited for your trip.
We did a lot of online sleuthing (including looking at negative reviews to see what they are complaining about) and found out that we should book certain things immediately upon arriving onboard because they sometimes run out of slots. For us, this meant getting our slots for laser tag and go-karts early. We heard others complain about not getting any times at all. And I should note that at my time of cruising, they don’t let you book these things until you are on the ship. So ask your cruise rep if there are any things that you need to book as soon as you get onboard.
Check out what people are saying online in places like cruisecritic.com and tripadvisor.com forums (TripAdvisor doesn’t focus on cruises, but it can be a great resource for learning about the ports you are visiting.) This helped us learn that one of our ports, Victoria, might be best enjoyed for us without a shore excursion because so many sights to see right within walking distance of the port were intriguing to us.
9.) Book shore excursions early.
You don’t want to go all the way to Alaska and come home without getting your preferred selfie. So book early.
There was a dogsledding adventure we were considering but it sold out months in advance. I’ve heard some of the glacier helicopter tours sell out early as well.
10.) Bring your best vacation self.
Most important tip (and happily it applies to all vacations): you are on vacation; act accordingly.
Leave your work behind. Leave your school behind. Leave the stress behind. Don’t check your work emails and texts so regularly, even if you sprang for Wi-Fi. And if you’re a kid like me, look up from your phone because whatever your friends are posting on Instagram can wait. And that cute puppy video that just went viral isn’t more interesting than what’s happening around you.
Let go of the boring, and seize the fun.