From timing to tours, here's how to get the most out of the state's expansive and diverse attractions.
Caribous and bears, craggy glaciers, and gold rush towns—the treasures of the vast state of Alaska are as awe-inspiring as they are adventurous. The last frontier encompasses so much terrain that a voyage by sea can be an easy and convenient means of exploration, whether you’re a first-time visitor or a more experienced trekker. Here are a few tips for how to stretch your dollar on a cruise around the 49th State.
Time It Right
Although summer is considered prime season—when the days are the longest, the salmon is running upriver, and the temperatures are most pleasant and comfortable—the shoulder season (May and September) offers more bang for your buck; fares can be discounted up to 50 percent off compared to June, July, and August. During this time, you may also catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights, encounter fewer crowds, and experience the tundra flowers in bloom or autumnal foliage ablaze. For the best fares and cabin choices, book as early as possible (because the season is limited, so is availability). Many of the summer activities—from river rafting to hiking—are also available during the shoulder season months.
Combine Land and Sea tours (or Book a Pre- or Post-cruise Extension)
Alaska is a remote state that can be cumbersome to navigate—transportation and logistics can be complicated and annoying. Since you’ve already made the trek up north, why not add a stay in Denali or Glacier Bay National Park (other interesting options include Kenai Peninsula, Portage Glacier, and the Yukon). In many cases, these land tours and extensions can cost $200 or so per night, and include lodges, meals, and transfers, which can be cheaper than if you booked the components separately. Not only can you save money, but you can also save time on driving hundreds of miles on highways and hassle from the hours of extra planning.
Choose your shore excursions wisely.
Floatplane rides, dog sledding, glacier treks—these once-in-a-lifetime shore excursions can do some damage to the wallet. Do your research for cheaper alternatives. Independent shore excursion companies such as Shore Excursions Group or Shore Trips can offer smaller-group tours and customizable options at competitive prices. You can also contact the local tourism office at each port; they can provide information on licensed tour operators. The port of Skagway even has its own tour broker who can give you impartial advice on the quality and affordability of the excursions. At some stops, it makes sense to delve into town without a guide. You’d be surprised at how many ports offer free museums and park ranger tours at national monuments.
Book Round-trip Airfares
Reserve a cruise that departs and arrives from Seattle or Vancouver, instead of open-ended segments that fly one-way from Anchorage, which tends to be more expensive than the major hubs of the Pacific Northwest.
Repeat Travelers Should Consider à la Carte Pricing
Thrifty travelers often associate all-inclusive options with value, even though the price tag comes out to a higher price at the end of the day. If you’re an independent traveler who’s seen Alaska before, a pay-as-you-go pricing could make sense. You’ll have the freedom to explore—with or without a shore excursion (in some ports you may even prefer whale watching aboard the ship). In an adventure-oriented destination such as Alaska, an adrenaline-packed tour could even be too much for every single port depending on your (and your travel companions’) level of fitness. Consider what you want to consume, and do the comparison.