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1st time cruise to Alaska-- tips?

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Hi,

We're planning on joining family for a Seattle-Alaska cruise on Holland America in early summer. Others have picked the itinerary, but I still have some first-timer cruise questions I was hoping someone could help with--

1) when is the best time to buy? I have signed up for emails from HAL but so far our sailing doesn't seem to be included in the sales they are advertising. If we are not flexible in our sailing date is it better to buy sooner?

2) Is it better to buy direct from the line, or should we find a travel agent? (Normally we book travel ourselves, but will a travel agent have access to cheaper upgrades or anything like that?)

3) Is it better to buy our own airfare, or to arrange it through the cruise line? If we arrange it ourselves, how much time do we need to leave to get off the ship? (We will be in Seattle for a few days before the trip, but the ship is scheduled to dock at 7 am on the return and we'll want to fly home that morning).

Any other advice or tips for a first-time cruiser? Maybe on meals? Based on some preliminary research, and the fact that we are planning to have an elementary-aged child with us, we are leaning towards getting the superior verandah suite on the theory it will be worth it to have some space for all of us-- thoughts?

thanks for any advice!

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