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Eschew Jun 20th, 2013 03:37 PM

Alaska Shore excursion on the
We have often heard friends who have told us that they cannot afford to go on a cruise as it is so expensive, especially shore excursions and all the “extras”. We decided to prove them wrong and embarked on a cruise to Alaska, for 7 days, on a mass market cruise line mega ship, and do it all for under $1,000 per person including all expenses (except airfare).

A little bit of a preamble is required here. We were supposed to go on an Alaska cruise with our older son and DIL this coming August. Since he took a new job in May, the August Alaska cruise is off so we booked something else instead. Then we received words that a major cruise line that seldom discounts is offering a 7 day inside passage from Seattle for $349 plus tax (port charges). We have to jump on it and book our cheapo cruise to Alaska.

For the purpose of this trip report, the ship and the cruise line is not important. The point I am trying to make here is that you can do great self-guided shore excursions on the cheap and see more than people who are paying for an expensive shire excursion. The rule is simple: you have to do your homework. It helps if you’ve been there before but is not a pre-requisite.

So here it goes ….

Cruise to Alaska inside passage round trip Seattle 7 days with 4 port stops. June 2-9.

Eschew Jun 20th, 2013 03:39 PM

Landed at Seattle on a morning flight. A short 10 minutes’ walk took us to the Light Rail Transit terminal at the airport. Pay $2.75 per person on a one way fare to Westlake, the end of the line and into the heart of downtown Seattle. We walked off the station and on to the street right by Macy’s. Took a cab to Pier 91 where the ship was docked for $15 and we board the ship before noon. Total cost so far $20.50.
Great welcome lunch at the buffet. Walked around the ship to get our orientation and scouted out potential scenic view points as the $349 plus $150 port charges is for an inside cabin. (We have to come clean here. We did not book an inside cabin and we actually took an upgrade and was in a much nicer space. But for the purpose of this TR, it is $349 +$150 for a total of $499 per person for the 7 days).

Sea drill at 4 pm and ship left port at 6. We had dinner in the dining room and after dinner, we ventured off to the various entertainment venues.

Day 1 was a sea day. We took in the naturalist’s entertaining and well informed talk about Alaska. We attended a free photography seminar on how to take great pictures with a cheap point and ship camera. The photographer even offered tips while on excursion. Great info! Since it was a formal night so we have to dress up. Great dinner and off to see a solo performance from a Broadway singer. Decent show.

The cost so far for the day: zero.

Eschew Jun 20th, 2013 03:39 PM

Day 2 is Ketchikan. Since we did not book any shore excursion, we walked of the ship and start talking to the various booths and see what was offered. City tours, whale watching, the same thing that were offered at the ship’s excursions desk except cheaper. The further down the line you go (as in further away from the ship), the cheaper the same excursion gets. We checked at the tourist information center and asked the question if all those booths are all licensed. The answer is yes and off we go.

A floatplane flight to Misty Fjord can be had for $169. We have to “negotiate” a bit from the original $199. The ship’s shore excursion charged as much as $299. We were told to keep the price to ourselves. We promised. A van picked us up, a short drive around town and we are at the float plane terminal. We checked in, paid and boarded the 6 seater float plane for our 2 hour ride.

Misty Fjord is a must see in Ketchikan. And if you have listened in on the naturalist’s talk on the ship the day before, you will recognize the landscape and it looked so much like Yosemite. We landed at a floating platform, off the plane, stretched, fresh air, photo op and back into the plane for the trip back to Ketchikan.

Since there are lots of time left, the van dropped us off at downtown and we walked towards Creek Street, the historic downtown. We stopped and admired all the shops and businesses there. Everyone talks about Dolly’s house but we moved along.

A $2 “donation” got us a day pass on the “tram” to Cape Fox Lodge. Cape Fox Lodge offers a great of Ketchikan and the harbor as well as many hiking trails plus a “totem” display outside. The second floor lobby are full of displays. We spent 1 hour at Creek Street, 1 hour at the Lodge and 2 hours on the trails around cape Fox Lodge.

I have to add that Ketchikan is the cheapest souvenir stop in Alaska. It is always half price. For $20, you can get yourself a warm jacket. For $12, you can get a baseball cap and a t-shirt.

This is the expensive stop. $342 for the floatplane and the tram to Cape Fox Lodge. If you skip the floatplane to Misty Fjord, you can go Whale watching for about $80 or a city tour for $30, and a whole lot of other choices in between.

Eschew Jun 20th, 2013 03:40 PM

The next morning was the scenic cruise to Tracy Arm. You have to be up quite early to catch the approach through the sand bar. We passed the sandbar around 6:30 am. Best scenic view point was at the bow of the ship. You have to be there early as everyone would have the same idea.

We docked at Juneau in the afternoon. The ship was docked at AJ dock which is really far to walk. For $3 per person, you can get a day pass for the AJ dock shuttle which runs every 15 minutes. We paid the $3. The shuttle took us to the Mount Robert Tram station. There are lots of booths there that sell tours along the street. The prices are all the same.

We wanted to spend a lot of time at Mendenhall Glacier. The ship’s excursion usually allows only an hour and a half which is not enough. The shuttle to Mendenhall is $8 one way and the fee to the interpret center is $3. The total cost is $19 per person. You can get a package deal inside the Mount Roberts Tramway tour desk for a Mount Roberts tram pass and the shuttle package for $45. Since we have been to Mount Roberts and wanted to hike the trails around Mendenhall, we spent our $19 and that was it.

The bus ride was uneventful. The schedule is every half hour and the last bus is at 4:30 pm. We decided to hike to the Nugget Fall which is that big waterfall coming out from the side of the mountain right next to the Glacier. A non-stop hike would be 45 minutes to an hour return but since we were taking it slow and stopped many times, it took us almost 2 hours. We also spent a fair amount of time right at the foot of the fall.

Surprisingly, the water was warmer than we thought. People are actually swimming and kayaking right there. We were very close to the glacier and we can walk to the beach into the water and picked up lose ice. Half an hour to 45 minutes in the interpret center, caught the video and wander off to the other side where there is another trail. It was an unusually hot day so we decided to call it quit half way. Besides, it is too early and there is no salmon in the creek. Reports of bear sightings also kept us from going any further.

Shuttle back to the Tramway was uneventful. Walked around town a bit, a stop in Red Dog salon and shuttle back to AJ Dock. Dinner at the ship and off to town again. We were the last one back to the ship at 9:30 pm

Total expenditure at Juneau was $44.

Eschew Jun 20th, 2013 03:40 PM

The next stop is Skagway. A lot of people don’t realize it, Skagway is inside a National Park with a Park Ranger station. Almost everyone took the Whitepass railway to the summit. If you intend to take the train ride, book through the ship. It is easier and it ended up not costing you a lot more but a lot more convenient. If you go to the train station and pay your own, it is $120 any way and you have to get there on your own. The ship’s excursion will either let you get on the train right at the dock, or include a bus you that will take you to the station, which in the grand scheme of thing, a lot of convenience for not too much more money.

Since we have done the Whitepass thing before, we decided to do other things. First thing we did was spent $5 per person for a day pass for the Smart Bus (Skagway transit?). They ran on a schedule on a loop so you have to make sure you don’t miss it or it will be a bit of a walk. The whole town of Skagway is very small and you can walk from one end to the other end easily anyway, but we like to maximize our time there so we paid the $5.

The first stop was to the Ranger station and get tickets for a guided tour with the Nation Park service. The tour runs every hour on the hour. The first one starts at 9 am. The tour is free and they have a limit of 30 people per group so you have to get your free ticket in advance. We got our 9 am ticket and wander off a bit and back at 8:45. It is a walking tour and it is very well done. The tour took 50 minutes and we ended the tour at the Moore homestead where the original log cabin (first building at Skagway) still stands.

After the guided tour we took the Smart Bus to the Whitepass service yard where we walked to the Gold Rush Cemetery, and the lower Reid Fall. If you paid attention to the talk from the park ranger during the guided tour, the cemetery visit made a lot more sense. You have to walk through the cemetery to get to the lower Reid Falls. It is about 20 to 30 minutes’ walk from the road side to the cemetery and maybe 10 minutes top to the lower Reid Fall. Be aware that there is a bear cave on the other side across the creek just below waterfall.

If you want to go to the hidden gem of Skagway, Jewell Garden is just across the bridge from the Whitepass yard. Since we have been there, we took the Smart Bus and get off by the dock. From there, we walked towards Dewey Lake trail system. They build a dam at lower Dewey Lake there in 1908 and it provides electricity for the town. There is an extensive system of hiking trail there and we spent about 3 hours in the area. The trail system map is available from the ranger station as well as a DL on the internet. Note: The hike is rated moderate as there are inclines and it is not a well maintained trail in some area.

Total expenditure for the day: $10 for 2 Smart Bus passes.

Eschew Jun 20th, 2013 03:40 PM

Next up was a sea day and another formal night. Take in more talks from the naturalist, a production show, watched a movie, saw other passengers embarrassed themselves in fun and games. It‘s all good and it is all free.

Another half day at sea and we started our evening at Victoria. We walked off the boat and took the scenic route by the shore towards the old Harbor. Took about 20 minutes to the Fishermen’s wharf and then an extra 10 minutes got us to the beautiful Empress hotel and the surrounding arts and entertainment district. Since it is night time, there is a night market there and there are plenty of street performers keeping you entertained for free. If you are there during the day, there is the parliament building, the museum, art gallery, the aquarium just to name a few that is within walking distance. Since we only have from 7 pm to 11:30 pm in Victoria, we didn’t do much except spent time at the night market and walk through the grand Empress hotel.

When we return to the ship, we took the short cut and walk directly through residential area towards the ship. It is very easy and you won’t get lost. By the way, you can get a map of the area from the money exchange booth at the dock. Not sure why the maps are there but there is no visitors’ information booth which is strange.

Total money spent at this port: zero.

Eschew Jun 20th, 2013 03:42 PM

The next morning, we are at Seattle. We walked off the ship, took a cab to downtown, take the LRT and at the airport. Total expenditure: $20.50.

The bill form the ship was $168 for the daily tips. I can’t include extra tips that we gave or luxury items that we indulge on as they are all optional spending.

So, there you have it, total expenditure for the 7 days (not including airfare) comes to ….(drum roll please) $1,603, well under our $2,000 budget.

For slightly over $1,600, in 7 days, we have 21 meals including 7 fancy dinners, accommodation for 7 nights. Transportation to and from the airport. Floatplane adventure to the famous Misty Fjord, a long visit to the Mendenhall Glacier, a guided tour and great hike through Skagway, and city walk at Victoria.

If you skip the floatplane and substitute it with something a whole lot cheaper, it could be as low as $1,400 for 2 for the 7 days!

Eschew Jun 20th, 2013 03:50 PM

It turned out that we had great weather. Extremely lucky to have missed the rain.

As we are social drinkers, there wasn't a lot of money spent on booze. We are not gamblers either so we didn't make any donations at the casino.

Other discretionary spending that we had: a coffee card, wine for dinner, an occasional drink, souvenirs. They all added up to maybe $400. All in all, relatively good value.

BTW, Larry. all the extra space and the Jacuzzi tub is worth the extra $199 for the upgrade. Would we be doing this on a regular basis? No way if we have to pay full fare.

ita Jun 20th, 2013 08:07 PM

good cruising except: I would stay home for before I would stay in an inside cabin. A great part of the experience is looking out your window and watching the waves and looking for whales.

Eschew Jun 21st, 2013 01:34 AM

ita, I am with you on the whole inside business. I need lights and a window is the minimum for us.

However, you can have an inside cabin and spend the majority of your time out and about, sitting at the atrium or piazza, sitting by the window in the public area, or on the open deck, or at the promenade deck etc. There are many options to view what's out there: the wave, the wild life etc, even if you only have an inside cabin. The only time you spend in the cabin would be to freshen up and sleep.

We have been through Alaska many times, this was our third trip in 5 years. We saw plenty of wild life but never ever saw whales up close to the big cruise ship, at least not within decent camera range.

We spotted whale at a distance, saw spouts and an ocassional tail; nothing too spectacular or able to capture with the camera. You really need to go on a whale watching excursion if you want to see whale within camera shooting distance. We spotted bears and mounatin goats when the ship is close to shore travelling through the channels or Fjords.

The whole point of this TR is that you can still see lots without spending too much $$ on excursisons. You can enjoy all the amenities of the ship, the food, the accomodation, the entertainment, all for a small amount of money and you don't have to compromise anything.

And you can even do the exotic excursions if you go about it the right way. For all intend and purposes, the $340 spent on the floatplane is an uncessary luxury expense. But then we didn't spent the $240 on the Whitepass which would be a good excursion for any first timer to Skagway.

If you read the "fine print" on the final post, it mentioned an $199 upgrade with extra space and Jacuzzi tub. We didn't book an inside cabin for the minimal $349. We paid just under $750 per person for a fulll suite (regular suit price is well over $2,500 per person)

When the sale came about, inside cabin was $349, window cabin was $549 and Balcony cabins were not available so we booked the window cabin for $549; it worked out to about $57 per day for the use of a window. Many will opt to save the $400 and took the inside cabin, and use the $$ for other expenses such as souvenirs, excursions, wine, whatever.

One week prior to boarding, we were offered (via email) an opportunity to upgrade to a full suite for $199 extra per person, first come first serve. It was a heck of a deal since we only paid $549 to begin with. I called right away and took the offer, so we actually travelled in relative luxury and not quite the "inside cabin" experience.

Our original intent was to take a cheapie one week cruise with a budget of around $2,000 all in. With the suite, wine, and floatplane excursion, the whole tab came in under $2,500. We would be under $2,000 for sure if we did not take the suite upgrade and would be even less if we skipped the Misty Fjord float plane adventure.

The weather was perfect, the price is right; and we decided on the last minute that we would take that excursion.

jacketwatch Jun 21st, 2013 05:35 AM

Excellent TR Eschew. Sort of reminds me of that Rachel Ray show about feasting in various cities in the works for, what is it $20.00 per day.

Savvy cruisers know that doing it yourself in ports is nearly always the way to go. If we ever go to Alaska again I will do what you did. Just get off and find a tour on our own. Great advice.

jacketwatch Jun 21st, 2013 05:48 AM

I mean various cities in the "world"

Eschew Jun 21st, 2013 03:34 PM

Thanks for the accolades Larry. I would say at least 50% of the time, self guided is the way to go. It would be even cheaper than pre-booking a private tour.

There are times that I would not just walk off and not pre book anything. The Holyland cruise comes to mind. I guess you just have to be smart about it, and do it only in a safe and friendly place, that have decent quality control and standards. And of course, speaking the language helps.

ita Jun 21st, 2013 04:51 PM

the first time I went on the Alaskan cruise RCL big ship we had a whale trying to get in through our porthole. Also both times (second time with my grandsons) I went on the helicopter trip to walk on a glacier. It was well worth the money.

Another thrill for me was the excursion to Igacue Falls on a South cruise. It cost an extra $1,000 but was the best part of the cruise. I understand your concept but I think you should seriously consider extraordinary sites and budget for them. Skip the pay for restaurants and limit shopping and drinks, but see Igaucu Falls.

katybird Jun 22nd, 2013 06:33 AM

Enjoyed your report. I'm sure it will encourage people who think they can't afford it to look at an Alaska cruise more closely.

We have cruised 25 days in Alaska and would go back in a heart beat! You got a terrific rate!! I saw the cheap last minute fares and was itching to go BUT flying from the east coast added a huge expense. Just curious much was your airfare?

jacketwatch Jun 22nd, 2013 07:28 AM

E for me holy land tours were enhanced immeasurably by getting private Israeli guides who are liscensed and have to pass exams. I hear they are very well thought of for their expertise and though expensive I found the price well worth it. Not only did you get to see the places with basically a private history teacher but you went at your pace and as for safety I reasoned it was better to be in a private car vs. a tours bus with far more potential targets. Sad but true.

The other advantage turned out to be when we went to see the church of the nativity in Bethlehem. There were virtually no lines to see the birthplace and manger of Jesus vs. a 2 hr. wait if you arrived with a group tour.

The cost for us was about $550.00 per day but consider that gas then, 2011 with $10.00 per gal. there. OTOH Celebrity wanted, are you sitting, $1400.00 per person per day! to arrange a private car. That amts. to use paying way less for 4 days privately vs. one day thru the ship.

Eschew Jun 23rd, 2013 07:49 PM

ita, I agree with you the most memorable part of the cruise are generally the excursions. And the more exotic they are, the more "memorable". But the more exotic and far off places will (a) cost money (b) time and (c) planning (d) co-operative weather.

The whole point of this TR is that you can do a cruise on the cheap, not spending a lot of money, and not missing out on what the average cruise passengers on the same ship will see and that crusing is affordable, even on a limited budget, if you do it right. The key word here is "average". Only a very small number, less than 5% for sure, will do the helicopter, float plane excursions.

The Misty Fjord flaot plane adventure is not cheap. We paid $500+ the first time a few years back. We incldued it on this TR just to show that it can be done even for the budget minded.

Katybird, Alaska is beautiful. We would defineitly go back again and again if time, money, and the bucket list permits. This trip was such a good deal that we thought it would be silly to bypass. Looking at the scheduling right now, if there is a sale for 2014, we will defineitly look at Alaska for August 2014.

The flight was $417 pp, and I thought it was resonable given the last minute nature of the booking. As an aside, we rented a car after the cruise and spent extra days in Seattle. A place wehere I had roots (Grandfather lived there until 1938) and a place I had not been to for years. We stayed at Sheraton, a middle of the road hotel (not luxury). The rate was $159 plus tax per night. For 4 days (3 nights), with car rental, meals and hotels, it was over $1,000. For the same money, we could have stay on the ship for an extar week!

Larry, often, private guide is the only way to go. We paid 60 Euros an hour for a priavte guide to see the Vatican. There was 6 of us (the maximum size that she will take) so it works out to 10 Euros per person per hour which is not all that expensive in the grand scheme of things. We were able to get into the vatican museum an hour before the general public (and they were lining up already at 7 a.m.) We went through the security and they had our names, and we were in! For the entire morning, we stayed just one step ahead of the massive crowd. She gave "lessons", very witty, knew the area well (we went through some back stairways) and even had a chance to peek through a doorway into the "private" areas. In the end, if we did not have her, we would not even see half the stuff that we saw, plus won't have the trivial tidbits she offered.

Did you notice that there is marble statue that resemble Bill Clinton? and did you notice the painting on the wall above the entrance at the Sistine chapel looked like Darth Vader's mask? And did you notice what the snake is biting on when you pass through the entrance way and look up? There were plenty of real and funny tidbits.

It is a personal preference to decide when to spent the extra $$ to use a private guide, and when to just book a regular busload of people tour, or just do it on your own.

On our upcoming trip, we are doing our own walking tour in Rome, Santorini and Athens as we have been through there before and just wanted to revisit a few places and visit some places that we had missed. We booked tours for Corfu, Mykonos, Katakolon and Dubronvik. We also have a private guide for Venice for one day only and do our own walking tour for another 2 days before we head home. We have not made any decisions on what to do with Kusadasi yet (we have been to Ephesus and the Terarce houses) and we knew we probably would have been better off with a private guide in Katakolon for sure, and maybe Corfu if we wanted to get more out of the trip. This may change as time edges closer to the travelling date.

Larry, did they allow your Israeli guide into West Bank for Bethlehem? Our guide had to leave, the driver took us through the security check point, and picked up a Palestinian guide.

mumbeeDeb Jul 13th, 2013 04:49 PM

Hi! Great excursion advice, thank you everyone! We are going on our first Alaskan Cruise next week, we have already booked our whale watching excursion from Juneau ($318/2, cheapest) but now after reading this forum we are wondering if we can book this excursion on shore and save a little for later tours.

Eschew Jul 14th, 2013 09:30 AM

mumbeeDeb, $318 for 2 is not a bad price and you may do better than that. With that said, the duration of the excursion, the number of people onboard, the type of baot, the time of the day would make a difference as well.

"Evening" (or night) whale watching in June/July probably cost more than the normal day time avearge.

If your excursion is for 3 hours and incldue transportation, mauybe a sncak, then you did good.

NGail Jul 17th, 2013 04:40 PM

for the wish list.

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