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Alaska cruise excursions tips & logistics help

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Hi guys!

I'm hoping to get some advice for an upcoming trip to Alaska. My family (of 4 - with a 20 yr old girl & 25 yr old boy) are going on a northbound cruise departing from Vancouver. I have been put in charge of planning our days off of the ship.

A little bit about my family - we enjoy low-moderate level hikes. We are not looking to bike, kayak or fish. I have been whale watching before and found it rather boring. However, I would be excited to see some bears. I would loveeeee to go dog sledding, except I've read that it's pretty disappointing in the summer, unless you fly to a glacier.

Ideally I would like to divide our day between exploring the town and partaking in a special activity. I am running into two main issues: 1. I am on a budget. I've cruised the Caribbean before and am aware that excursions through the cruise, although convenient, are rather expensive. I'm open to booking things from the vendors off-ship, but I want to ensure they are licensed & not scams, and research ahead of time to see which are the most enjoyable and the best bang for your buck. My second issue...there is so much to see in just a few short hours! I've read some trip reports, blogs and looked at the ships excursions to get an idea of the typical tourist attractions. Although I do like going off the beaten path for most trips, the time factor is limiting here. I have listed below our tour route & a list of rough ideas of what to do in each place.

The advice I'm mainly looking for...is it possible to do this on your own? If so, do you recommend certain transportation? If logistics are too much of a hassle I'm not completely opposed to booking things through our ship. A rough estimate on how long activities will take. Anything that's a must-see I'm missing out? Also- authentic restaurant suggestions for lunch (can't forget that! Ha. One of us is a vegetarian though, and only one eats fish. Guess that crosses off salmon bake and crab fishing!) Any help & advice is greatly appreciated!
Depart Vancouver
(We will be getting here 3 days early - haven't researched anything yet)

Cruising the Inside Passage
(Day at Sea)

Ketchikan (7am-4pm)
-Misty fjords (I've read about sea plane trips here. Due to budget restraints, most helicopter excursions are not possible, however I'm thinking it may be fun to splurge on one extravagant adventure.)
-Saxman native village
-Totem brite state park
-Explore town

Juneau (10am-8pm)
-Mendenhall Glacier & gardens
-Mount Roberts tram
-Explore town

Skagway (7am-8pm)
-White pass railway (having a hard time understanding this one. I'll admit I haven't looked that much into it, but many people have said its gorgeous and some said its way too long. I'm looking at the 3 hr or 4 hr one, but having a hard time justifying spending 1/3 of my time on a train.)
-Mushers camp and dog sled (see above concerns, is it worth it?)
-Chilkat Eagle Preserve
-Klondike gold fields (I think our kids might be too old for gold panning, but it seems like a big attraction. Is it more historical?)
-Original street car
**definitely not doing all of this

Glacier Bay
(Day at Sea)

Hubbard Glacier
(Day at Sea)

Whittier --> train to Anchorage

(We will have approximately 1.5 days in Anchorage before our flight home. We made reservations to rent a car. I haven't looked up things to do here yet, but I did see that Denali Park is rather far and probably not possible in this time frame :()

Speaking of renting a car - I something called rent a wreck - a company that brings rental cars to the cruise ship dock, do you think this is useful in any of the ports?

Again we are concerned with trying to do this on the more DIY style, minimum costs incurred, but we definitely want to make this a trip to remember and would like to see as much as possible, without trying to shove in too much, fine line. Any specific or general tips - greatly appreciated :) Thank you in advance!!

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    Although we weren't in Alaska on a cruise, we found Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway very easy to tour on our own.

    Ketchikan: both the Saxman Village and Totem Park were excellent; there's a good museum in town, and a place that shows how they've restored the totem poles.

    Juneau: liked Mendenhall Glacier and some of the walking trails around it, Mt. Roberts Tram, the Alaska State Museum, and the State Capitol (although our interest in state capitol buildings may be idiosyncratic).

    Skagway: the White Pass & Yukon RR was a wonderful way to spend a few hours. Also liked the National Park walking tour (and their exhibits), Carrington Museum and (IIRC) the City Hall Museum.

    You are correct that, with only 1.5 days in Anchorage, going to Denali is not the best idea. In Anchorage, the Native Heritage Center (that's not exactly the right name), Art & History Museum, Earthquake Park were highlights for us.

    We like self-guided walking tours and often find them in guidebooks--or I compile my own from several books.

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    We have also done a few Caribbean cruises and did an Alaskan Cruise in Sept. 2011. I found that shore excursions in the Caribbean are quite different than Alaska. In Alaska, we didn't find much price difference between independent operators and Princess. About $50. We traveled with my elderly parents, so convenience was a key to us. For our Sept cruise I started researching tours in that January and found that most of the popular excursions offered by the independent operators were already booked. We were on a budget also and, the independent operators required full payment upfront with booking while booking with Princess we did have to pay until the cruise was completed. Gave us so much more time to save up. I did notice with Princess that the closer it got to the sailing date, the higher their excursions prices went. About $100 more than when I booked in January.

    In Ketchikan we did the Misty Float Plane with Princess. It was OK, but from reviews I thought it would be more. We did not see any wildlife. I was disappointed when we landed on the water we didn't get any awesome photos with the float plane that I had seen in other people's reviews. Afterward, we walked down to Creek Street and also did a little shopping. We stopped and ate at the Fish Pirates Saloon across from the cruise pier. It was expensive and not that great.

    In Juneau, we did the whale watching and Mendenhall Glacier with Princess. I am so glad we did the whale watching with Princess and not an independemt operator. The Princess boats were double deckers with inside and outside viewing. It was cold and windy and I would not have wanted to subject my parents to outside viewing. The inside part had full floor to ceiling windows and was not crowded. They offered free coffee and the yummiest cocoa I have every had. We have also been whale watching on previous vacations and by far this experience was the best because the whales are so active. Never saw this many whales or that much activity on any other trip. So definitely not boring. We had 2 Nautralists on our boat that gave really great history. I noticed that the independent operator boats were following the Princess boats around.

    Afterward, we took the bus to Mendenhall Glacier and visitor center. After seeing it was so glad we did pay the huge amount of money to walk on the glacier. Didn't seem worth it to us. We ate lunch at the Red Dog Saloon. Yes, its full of tourists, but it's a fun and lively place and the food was quite good.

    In Skagway, we did the full day White Pass Railroad by train and bus that included a 15 minute dog sled ride with Chilkoot Charters. The day was very long and exhausting, but so worth it. We went up by train and back down by bus. On the way back, we stopped frequently for photo ops. They offered lunch at Carribou Crossing along with the 15 minute dog sled ride. The dog sled was on just the typical ground, not snow. Afterward, we ate again at the Red Onion Saloon. Again, another tourist place, but it was fun and the food good.

    I did tons of research on excursions at cruisecritic.com. We were very satisfied with the choices we made for our first trip. We went out of Seattle and spent 4 1/2 day there since we hadn't been before. Next time I would definitely go to Denali. Just can't do everything in one trip.

    If you are interested I have all our photo posted on our share site:

    https://kvrlvnphotogallery.shutterfly.com/pictures/5

    Just scroll down to the Alaska books. I made a separate book for each port.

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