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Alaska Inside Passage Cruise...A Must?

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We are looking at doing an inside passage cruise in June, one-way from Vancouver, drop off point is dependent on which cruise line we go with, but lets say Whittier for discussion sake. Then our plan is to spend one more week on the main land doing our own sight seeing.

Our debate is do we skip the cruise and just do two weeks on the mainland, as I'm sure we could find plenty to do or do we do the cruise and just one week on the mainland.

We are traveling with my parents who are in their early 60's and are still very active. My husband & I also have three boys: ages 12, 11, & 9. They are great travelers and are always up for adventure. For most of us this will be our first trip.

For those of you who recommend the cruise... will you please give recommendations for specific cruise lines. I've researched some of the different cruises and it would be wonderful to take the smaller cruises, but I would rather not spend $5,000+ per person.

Thanks in advance for all the suggestions & insight

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    I would do the cruise. You can save a bunch of money if you shop for cruises and choose an inside cabin. If the kids like trains, then go to Skagway and take the train ride there.

    One unusual place to go near Anchorage is the Musk Ox farm in Palmer

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    You will receive many different answers to your planned trip to Alaska. We went on Holland America 3 years ago and loved it. The reason I decided on HAL was because of the ship's size (1200 passengers) and being able to get so close to seeing the glaciers.) I did a lot of planning and research to give me ideas of what to do in the ports. I got a good deal (not $5,000 pp) on HAL that included a two night stay along with the cruise. The two nights were definitely not long enough so if you are planning a cruise and land tour that would give you plenty of time to explore. We flew to Fairbanks and then boarded the open top train (think your boys would love this ride, u see wildlife, etc. along the way) to Denali. We stayed at a Princess lodge as part of the package and loved it. Our day in Denali was spectacular and our favorite (we were 6 "seniors" on this trip). We took the bus tour, the Tundra Wilderness Tour (TWT) and this was an 8 hr. trip into Denali. Absolutely positively highly recommended. We saw all kinds of wildlife into the park and actually did get a glimpse of Mt. McKinley. Sometimes it is not visible. I am sure others will give you definite itinerary ideas.

    The advantage to a cruise is that you get a lot of inclusions in your price - all the food your boys can eat and then some (lol); wonderful shows, guest lecturers, etc. Think your parents would love it also. You can get so close to the glaciers you can almost touch them and your boys would definitely love that. Scenery is spectacular as well. We loved our day in Juneau as there is lots to do there - we took the bus out to see the Mendenhall Glacier and that was a wonderful experience! We also took the tram to top of Mt. Roberts and explored up there, hiking trails, etc. Think you would love a day in Juneau.

    There is much to do in each of the ports stops. Whatever cruise line you choose will have a list of the port excursions that you can sign up for. You can also opt to get off the ship and explore the particular port. This is what we did in a couple of the ports. The big thing we did was to book a float plane excursion (I booked on my own) in Ketchikan. It is expensive to do this so u may not want this option. You can find lots of info on this if you are interested.

    There is so much to do for your boys that they won't be bored. This ended up being one of our favorite cruises and we have taken many wonderful European cruises. Do your planning well in advance of your trip and scan the boards for info from others who have gone. As I noted, I am not an expert on the land portion of your trip so you would need to get ideas from others. Maybe sit down and work up an itinerary for your group and fine tune it w/ recommendations from the others. This is what I usually do when planning our cruises. As I said, I am definitely not an expert on Alaska but given you our perspective of our cruise. You need to decide what your budget will be and go from there. Good luck and keep us posted.

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    Yours is not an uncommon question, and of course there's no "right" answer on the overall question.

    Alaska is an enormous state, with a number of very distinct regions - from the rain-forested southeast panhandle (where the Inside Passage is located - along with parts of coastal British Columbia) to the mountainous southcentral region, to subarctic forests, the tundra of the far west and arctic north, even the wild and remote volcanic Aleutian Islands. Most of this area (by a wide margin) is inaccessible by road.

    Each of these regions has incredible natural beauty, wildlife, and human history that are also very distinctive. Polar bears to Orcas, Yupik Eskimos out on the Yukon Delta that have more in common (culturally, linguistically) with Siberia than with Tlingit natives in the southeast.

    So when one talks about "visiting Alaska" the automatic question is, "Which part?"

    The answer is that you have to choose, because nobody (short of someone with many years and many thousands of dollars to spend) will see more than a tiny fraction of this diversity in the space of one or two visits.

    The cruises focus almost exclusively on the southeast panhandle and its Inside Passage scenery and towns. These are historic and interesting places, to be sure, with plenty to see, even if one doesn't participate in the costly "excursions" the ships offer (and which is one of their major sources of operating profits.) There are glaciers, totem poles, whales, salmon to be fished, the ancient native practice of zip-lining ;-) and lots of shore-based jewelry stores selling Tanzanite, just like you can buy on St. Croix. And the cruise ships definitely have an impact: on some days there can be five 2000+ passenger cruise ships visiting Skagway, a town with a population of about 800. You can do the math.

    If you take a round-trip cruise from Seattle or Vancouver, that's all you'll see - the seven-day itineraries don't allow any time for moving past the panhandle.

    If you take a one-way cruise, they'll still focus mainly on SE Alaska, but then will charge across the Gulf of Alaska (usually at night so that the open ocean, which can be bumpy, doesn't result in sick passengers) to their ports of Whittier or Seward.

    Whittier and Seward give you access to southcentral Alaska and to the main body of the road system, from which you can explore such areas as Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula, the Mat-Su Valleys, Denali NP, or head further to Fairbanks or the Wrangell-St. Elias mountains, or Prince William Sound and Valdez.

    Again, there's an infinity of things to see in these areas, too, so more choices are needed. Visiting Denali NP needs at least three days (one to get there, one to penetrate the park's interior - no private cars allowed most of the summer - and one to return or move on.) The roads are good but the distances are very long and accommodations thin on the ground. Certain areas like the entrance to Denali Park and the settlements all around it tend to be impacted heavily by tour bus groups.

    And again, by sticking to the road system you're only seeing a tiny percentage of a tiny percentage of Alaska.

    So enough philosophy. What to do?

    The cruises are easy, and amazingly cheap all things considered. You get transportation, decent food, entertainment, and a water-view hotel room (and what a view!) all for a pretty cheap price. You unpack once and don't worry about schlepping bags around for a week. There are kids programs, baby sitters, unlimited room service, gyms, pools, a casino, lots of bars, schlunky art auctions, ice carving, movies... or you can sit on the deck or your balcony and watch the scenery slide by. Not too shabby. But it's mainly a cruise ship experience, not an Alaska one. It's not all that different from a Caribbean cruise, except for the glaciers and mountains that take the place of palm trees.

    If you drive around for a couple of weeks you'll see more on land but won't see much of the watery forested landscapes of SE Alaska. Logistics will be more complicated, but still very doable. Because of the long distances, you'll need big enough vehicles for everybody to sit comfortably, and things to amuse the kids for hours at a crack. With the size of your group, you'll probably have to rent two cars and use a walkie-talkie to communicate, as cell phone coverage might be spotty outside the towns.

    So, recommendation?

    I'd probably combine a cruise with a week on land. Depending on where you're coming from (an issue is jetlag - Alaska is four hours earlier than the east coast) I'd probably start in Vancouver and cruise north - use the easy days on the boat to overcome the time change.

    Then when you get to southcentral Alaska I'd rent a couple of cars and focus mainly on the Kenai Peninsula - Seward, Homer, etc. and not so much on Denali. Save your "excursion" money on the cruise and allocate it instead to two activities once you're off the boat.

    First, take a Kenai Fjords cruise from Seward. This will give you unparalleled opportunities to see marine mammals and birds up close, as well as stunning scenery.

    Second, rather than spending hours on the road to visit Denali, then more hours sitting on the shuttle bus into the park (which can be boring for many, not all, kids) splurge with a flightseeing tour of Denali, either from Anchorage or Talkeetna. Personally I'd recommend doing it from Anchorage, because it will give you the added benefit of seeing some of the vastness of the state that you can't see from the car OR from the cruise ship.

    In my view, getting up into the air at some point is crucial, and I promise it will be life-changing for the kids. The experience itself is unique, and the chance to see amazing sights, wildlife from the air, and to see what real wilderness looks like... worth every penny, but be warned - it's highly addictive.

    The cost of the flightseeing can be mitigated by locating affordable accommodations in Anchorage - maybe a hotel with cooking facilities so you can pack lunches for excursion days, or one that includes breakfast, whatever. Utterly worth it.

    But again, you're only seeing a tiny fraction of the state. Plan a return visit - maybe to Barrow or Kotzebue in the arctic, or to Anchorage for Fur Rendezvous ("Rondy") in the late winter, combined with the Iditarod start. Or out to Lake Clark to see bears and go fishing, or (a real adventure) ride the state ferry out the Aleutian chain to Unalaska. Or head to Fairbanks in February to see the northern lights, or to Sitka for its music festival... See what I mean?

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    I am interested in the answers to this thread, as I am just starting to plan a trip to Alaska for early next year - early in the Alaska season that is, late May or early June, as I am a mosquito magnet and need to leave before they show up.

    However, I have an aversion to cruise ships - especially now they are SO big - and have always figured I would do the Inside Passage using the ferries, stopping off to see the towns after the hordes left. I am still thinking that. (BTW, does anyone know if there is a web site with arrival counts for the ports? There's a very useful one for Dubrovnik, for instance.) Has anyone here used the ferries? They might be an interesting alternative with kids, too. (http://www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs/index.shtml )

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    I guess my main concern is are we really missing out if we don't do the cruise. To see the inside passage and the pan handle I feel like it needs to be done by cruise. I would rather skip the big cruise lines and do the 30-50 people max cruises, however, that expense really cuts into the budget. Maybe it's completely worth it. Are the stops & sights worth the cruise? Maybe our money would best be spent on other activities. However, Alaska is so vast that would it just be better to concentrate our selves on the mainland. I know two weeks won't even cut it.

    Appreciate all the great input so far. Thank you

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    I will say that we decided we were not cruise people after taking a cruise from Vancouver to Seward via the inside passage. For us there was way too much sit on your fanny time and we felt we were being ripped off with the price of the excursions on land, and to see Alaska you really need to go in some of the excursions.

    I would guess that there is not much you could not see, like glaciers, whales, seals, puffins etc if you took a day trip or two on the water and spent the rest of the time exploring the state.

    If your family like cruising, then go for it otherwise don't.

    If you use the view by state box at the top of the page and click Alaska you will find lots of trip reports (look for the flags) of people who took the cruises and those who did a land tour or a land tour with a day trip on the water and some who used the ferry system; these might give you an idea of what would work for your family.

    Have a great time planning and doing!

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    I've done a land trip (Anchorage, Seward, Denali) and a land/cruise trip from Whittier to Vancouver. I completely agree with Gardyloo. If you want to see Alaska, you need to make that the trip and go all the way and see the inland area as well.

    If you are just wanting to see wildlife, take some day cruises.

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    If you take one of the smaller expedition type boats, you'll see much more and have no excursion prices. We had about 70 passengers on our Lindblad cruise from Juneau to Sitka.There were children our cruise.This is not a cruise ship but an expeditionary boat with naturalists abord leading the trips. You get off twice a day by zodiac rafts to villages, hikes and exploring the coves, some kayaking. Passengers aged from 4 to 90. We spent another ten days on land in a rental car visiting Seward, Homer, Talkeetna, Anchorage.

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    Great post from Gardyloo. You can't go wrong no matter what you decide.

    We had this same dilemma last year. A cruise is really an affordable and really the easiest way to see SE Alaska. I too would choose a one way Vancouver to Alaska cruise that includes Glacier Bay. I would choose Holland America or Princess. You don't have to see Glacier Bay though to fall in love with Alaska.

    I would love to do a small ship cruise--that is really a dream trip. I do believe they are worth it, but we have never spent that much on a trip. We are more budget travellers.

    We did not take a cruise--even though I still have an Alaskan cruise on my bucket list. We rented a car and did a two week road trip. We loved it.

    Have you considered renting an RV? If I was taking my family, I would--even if you have never camped before, you may want to consider it. An RV is a great way to travel in Alaska--and since you would probably have to rent 2 cars for your crew, it may save you some money. I would suggest you rent your cars immediately, if you have your flights. You can always cancel the reservation. Then keep checking to see if you can find a cheaper rate. Alaskan car rentals are expensive.

    I posted a trip report. Click on my name and it will be listed.

    Note to thursdaysd: June is the driest month in the summer but it has more mosquitoes than July and Aug. Mosquitoes are fewer the later you go in the summer. You get more rain though in August. We took headnets in July but never used them and we were hiking.

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    Thanks, Lindain. I need to be in the US for a wedding at the beginning of August, so I may go after the wedding rather than before. I usually try to avoid July and August as I'm retired and want to mis the crowds, but that may not be an option for Alaska.

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    thursdaysd, Mosquitoes aren't a big problem in coastal SE Alaska, where the ferry goes. (Not to say they're not around, but not like out in tundra country where they'll fly off with you.)

    The ferry is indeed suitable for hop-on-hop-off itineraries, but it's (a) more expensive on a pppd basis than most cruises and (b) when you land in Ketchikan or Juneau on the ferry, you're still surrounded by the same thousands of tourists coming off the cruise ships.

    Here's the calendar I think you were asking about - http://www.claalaska.com/schedules.html

    Again, the questions about weather, mosquitoes, etc. are 1/3 "when" and 2/3 "where." Conditions in Fairbanks in August are utterly different from those in Sitka.

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    We are not cruise fans, but we loved the inside passage cruise. We had a cabin with a balcony, and if we were to do this cruise again (which I would love to do), would definitely want a balcony cabin again.

    As far as the time spent sitting on one's fanny, we bundled up in blankets and sat on the deck, and enjoyed the gorgeous scenery.

    We did an excursion in each port - raft trip where we saw so many eagles we couldn't even count them, float plane excursion to see bears were among the excursions we did.

    We went on Princess. Would have liked to have done the smaller ships but couldn't due to cost.

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    Gardyloo - thanks very much for the reply and the calendar.

    I'm planning to do more than the Inside Passage - probably Fairbanks, Denali, Kenai and maybe a litle of the southwest. If it's not subject to mosquitoes maybe I should do it to last rather than first. Also, I was thinking of overnighting in places like Ketchikan, in my experience the cruise ship crowds disappear before dinner, not true in Alaska?

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    I'm also interested in this thread as we are planning a trip to Alaska next August. After weeks of going back and forth on cruise or no cruise, we opted for land only. The decision for me was more about feeling trapped on a ship, the crowds, and wanting to spend time in Glacier Bay. It would have been less expensive to do the cruise and the airfare would be half as much.

    Now we are planning to fly to Juneau and spend several days there and Glacier Bay and then fly to Anchorage, rent a car, and have 8 nights for Denali and the Kenai Peninsula.

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