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Canadian Rockies via rail or drive..and budgeting with Alaska cruisetour

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I am planning a gift trip for my parents - as close as possible as I can get to their "dream" trip of touring the Canadian Rockies by train and then taking an Alaska cruisetour. I have about $8,000 to spend...and while that seems like it should be plenty, I am finding that this trip can easily get more expensive than I planned...or have the funds for. With my dad having terminal cancer, but still being relatively healthy for travel, I really want to get them on this trip this year. I've already started with the some preliminary research, but I'm hoping for a little guidance and maybe some ideas I haven't come across. My parents are in their mid-fifties with extensive travel (mostly driving) within the US. They do love camping and don't turn away from smaller less expensive lodging options, but I also don't want them to have to deal with camping equipment...and it would be nice for them to get to experience a little luxury here and there - although it's obvious that the entire trip cannot be luxurious on this budget.

They will be flying from DFW. It seems that the best flight options would be DFW to Calgary and then Anchorage back to DFW (or maybe Fairbanks if the land portion of Alaska is done independently). This flight has ranged in price from $1,000-$1,600 as I've been monitoring it. They also need to get passports...and that is another $300ish of the budget without expedited processing. So that leaves $6,000-$6,500.

I have been to Lake Louise myself...and I flew into Calgary and rented a car. Being winter, I did not go beyond Lake Louise. However, my understanding is that during the summer, this should be a perfectly driveable trip (and the portion that I drove was very easy even in winter). And not only because the rail is expensive, but because I imagine that they would really enjoy more flexibility to stop and explore where they'd like, it seems to me that maybe a rental car here would be a better option than rail. Thoughts? I do know that lodging is expensive in this region, but perhaps there are some specific route and lodging recommendations that would be enjoyable yet help make this leg of the trip more affordable. However, my preliminary search on car rentals is coming up with something like $350/day. Seriously? In that case, a train package may be more affordable or at least comparable...Rocky Mountaineer or VIA Rail? Or any cheaper recommendations on car rental? I know that the cost is often higher for a one way trip, but I was not expecting that price tag!

How much time do you recommend that they have in Vancouver prior to boarding the cruise? Any recommendations on what to do and where to stay?

(I realize that Alaska is not part of Canada...and I can separate this portion into the Alsaka forum if needed, but I expect that many people responding may be able to help here as well...)
As for the Alaska cruisetour, it seems like Princess has the best options for both the cruise and land portions if they were to be booked together. If they were to be split up, I still prefer the cruise options provided by Princess. They want to cruise while the humpback whales are there...so I believe that places them in July - August. It seems pretty clear that they will probably need to choose an interior cabin for budgeting purposes. What recommendations do you have to offer for shore excursions keeping budget in mind?

Finally...for the land portion of Alaska...It seems that there may be a benefit to going with the packaged land tour offered by the cruise line, but I could just be thinking that because I haven't actually been to Alaska and don't have much frame of reference for this part of the world. If there is a significant difference in either experience or cost to do the land portion independently, I'd be interested in hearing what you have to say. If you recommend going independently, please give some specifics - route, means of transportation, maybe recommended lodging and number of nights.

I realize that I'm asking a lot...and I appreciate all input.

Thanks!
Michaela

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