Alaska Travelogue Part 1 – Planning the Trip

No Time Like the Present – We had been trying for years to organize a trip to Alaska with our families and it just wasn’t working out.  So in accordance with our new “do it now” life philosophy (I think that is the philosophy you adopt after your older family members and some of your way-too-young friends and coworkers start passing away) at the end of July I booked our trip for late August.

I checked online for cruise and air fares and discovered a key fact about flying from the east coast to AK for a cruise.  If you choose a northbound itinerary you will likely fly into Vancouver and back from Anchorage or Fairbanks (depending on whether or not you choose to add on a land tour).  Flying to Vancouver is no big deal, but flying back from Anchorage presents one problem:  all the flights back to the east coast are overnight flights.  If you can sleep on a plane, go for it.  I cannot, and I avoid red-eyes like the plague.  I knew a southbound itinerary was going to have to be our choice.  Actually this works out great when coming from the east coast.  You gain 4 hours in the time change, so you can take an early morning flight and arrive in Anchorage by lunch time.  Since it stays light so late during Alaskan summers, you will have plenty of time that first day to get out and start your adventuring.

I found an excellent rate on a south-bound itinerary with Celebrity so I headed off to a travel agent to book the cruise and our flights.  Normally I book everything online myself but for some reason I felt I wanted the expert input of a travel agent who was supposed to be knowledgeable about Alaska.  Not sure I will be making that “mistake” again.  Unfortunately our travel agent was either not very knowledgeable or she was less than honest with me when I asked what the weather was like in Alaska in August and Sept.  I know that it frequently rains in AK, but there are times when you are more likely to see sunny days, and I wanted to make sure we weren’t setting ourselves up for soggy disappointment.  Our agent assured me Aug/Sept was a “dry season,” when in fact August and September are the rainiest months up there.  My bad for not checking that out on my own before booking.  I started panicking a week before our trip when the weather forecast showed rain or heavy rain for every day of our trip.  As it turned out, the Lord blessed us with a few gorgeous days, a few cloudy days and only a couple days of light rain.  And even those cloudy, drizzly days turned out to be a blessing.  But more on that later….

Getting the Best Price – It is a misconception that you must book a cruise far in advance to get good rates or the best cabins.  In fact it can be quite the opposite.  I guess if you are traveling in a group or you want a very specific cabin type or location you should book in advance.  If, like me, you are not too particular about your cabin and can be flexible with your travel dates, you can get some sweet deals booking last minute or simply choosing a “guarantee” room.  With a guarantee room you book the “category”  of cabin you want (e.g. balcony, oceanview, etc.) but do not select your specific cabin.  Because you allow the cruiseline the flexibility of choosing your room, guarantee rooms are offered at a significant discount.  If your category of cabin sells out, you will be upgraded, at no extra cost, to the next available category.  You will never be downgraded, so worst case scenario you get the least desirable room in the category you booked.  If this type of rate is available when I book, I go for it because every time we have had a guarantee room we have been upgraded to a nicer cabin.

Another way to save on a cruise is to frequently check for sales.  Cruise lines have monthly sales goals for each of their ships.  If they don’t meet those goals they offer temporary price cuts.  It’s wise to check every week or two even after you have booked your cruise.  If there is a price drop more than 30 or 60 days out you can request the new, lower rate without paying a change fee.  Less than 30 or 60 days out you may have to pay a change fee, but the new rate or a better yet cheaper cabin might be worth it.

On this particular cruise we booked a guarantee veranda room on the Celebrity Millennium (veranda is Celebrity-speak for the lowest category of balcony stateroom).  At the time we booked our agent told me there weren’t even any rooms in that category available, so we were virtually guaranteed an upgrade.  And wow, we got an upgrade!

Not too shabby!  Snapped this pic on our way out for our whale-watching tour.  Too bad my sister Cristal wasn’t out there waving!

We were assigned to cabin 7212 which is a handicapped accessible, Concierge class veranda room in the middle of the back of the ship.  This room was HUGE, with a veranda that is bigger than most cruise ship staterooms and a bathroom about the size of your average guest bath at home.  The Concierge perks included priority embarkation and disembarkation, nicer robes and toiletries in your room, fresh fruit and hors d’ouevres delivered daily, and a surprisingly nice bottle of champagne waiting for us when we boarded the ship.

What Are We Going to Do Each Day?  Once I had booked the trip I set about finding activities for each day.  Here is where and are your best friends.  CruiseCritic is an extremely helpful resource for all things cruising – thousands of user and expert ship and port reviews, message boards where you can ask questions or just troll for info and links to everything else.  Trip Advisor is another great resource for finding the best restaurants, tour operators, activities and lodging all over the world.  I always read the reviews on either site before I book any cruise, hotel or dinner resi when traveling.  Yelp is also a helpful resource for finding good restaurants.

How you book your activities is a personal decision.  The cruiselines make it convenient to browse and book your excursions through them, and they offer a number of pre and post cruise tour packages.  Another benefit that some people appreciate about booking their tours through the cruiseline is that they guarantee to get you back to the ship on time or pay to get you to the next port.  However, all that convenience and security does come at a cost:  the excursions are more expensive than the exact same tours (or better) booked on your own, and you will almost always be in a very large group.  My personal preference is to book all our activities on my own with reputable private tour companies or adventure about on our own.  The reputable tour operators are well versed in getting their cruise ship customers back on time and will guarantee to do so.  By booking our own activities we save lots of money and end up on private or nearly private tours that go to places the big ship tours don’t.  It really is a matter of what you are comfortable with, what type of experience you want, and how much time you can put into planning.

Our trip itinerary was as follows:  Day 1:  fly to Anchorage, hike Flattop Mtn and dine at a VERY authentic mama-san and papa-san Japanese restaurant; Day 2:  gorgeous drive from Anchorage to Whittier, hiking near Portage glacier, “world famous” 26 Glacier Cruise out of Whittier; Day 3:  5 hour train ride to Seward to board our ship; Day 4:  stomach clutching fun on the high seas (literally) and finally some calm waters for cruising the Hubbard Glacier; Day 5:  Juneau – hike out to Mendenhall glacier then tour the State Museum; Day 6:  Skagway – minibus and train tour to/from the Yukon; Day 7:  Icy Strait Point/Hoonah – whale watching and shopping; Day 8:  Ketchikan – private kayaking and flightseeing; Day 9: sea day cruising the Inside Passage; Day 10:  Vancouver – biking Stanley Park and sampling the international cuisine; Day 11:  fly home.  I plan on posting entries for each stop on our tour with pictures, our experiences and hopefully some helpful tips and links.  Stay tuned!

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