The gold miners who once rushed to liberate Alaska of its riches are still there. These days, they’re the tour operators, restaurateurs, and souvenir sellers who mine gold from vacationers from the Lower 48. If you want to hold on to as much of your cash as you can, here are 10 tips for your Alaska cruise.
1. Look for shoulder-season cruises
Most travelers want to visit Alaska in the summer, even though July and August are rainier than the spring months. You can typically find great value on shoulder-season cruises in May, early June, and September. You might need to bring an extra parka, but in the spring you may not need your umbrella quite so much and in September, you have a chance of spotting the aurora borealis. Plus, a couple hundred dollars per person get to stay safely in your bank account.
2. Book round-trip sailings
One-way flights in general, and flights to Alaska specifically, aren’t cheap. Combine the two and you get an airfare nightmare. If you’re looking to save money, find a cruise that sails round-trip from Seattle or Vancouver. These cities are served by plenty of airlines, increasing your odds of finding an airfare deal, and you won’t have to book a pricey one-way trip into Vancouver and out of Anchorage, or vice versa.
3. Book late for 2007 voyages
For the first time in years, Alaska cruises are [% 2351433 | | not selling out %] months in advance. Chock it up to the huge demand for Europe sailings or a “been there, done that” attitude on the part of cruisers, but good deals are still available for peak-season sailings. A recent CruiseMates newsletter listed fares as low as $349 for a seven-night cruise. If you’ve always wanted to see Alaska and have some summer vacation time left, start looking for a last-minute deal now.
4. Don’t automatically book the cruise line’s land tour
Many cruise lines, especially Holland America and Princess, offer pre- and post-cruise land-tour packages to their customers. You can tack on extra days to see the interior of the state and visit Denali National Park, Talkeetna, or even Fairbanks. Before you automatically increase your cruise bill, check out the do-it-yourself options. It’s not hard to rent a car or book train travel in Alaska—it is the U.S., after all. You can probably find a better deal by creating your own land tour.
5. Don’t believe the myth of the balcony cabin
I’ve heard cruise experts say an Alaska cruise is the time to splurge on a balcony cabin. Not necessarily so. Sure, it’s pleasant to sit on your balcony and watch the scenery. But on [% 1254882 | | my recent Alaska cruise %], the top deck with its 360-degree view was a much better spot for glacier gazing and wildlife watching than my balcony with its one-directional side view. Plus, you’re not likely to be eating breakfast on your verandah when it’s cold and rainy outside. You can put the dollars back in your pockets if you book a cheaper inside or outside cabin and take advantage of the free vantage points on the ship’s top decks.
6. Say no to luxury
The easiest way to spend less on an Alaska cruise? Skip the luxury lines in favor of a mainstream or premium cruise. You’ll see the same ports, glaciers, and wildlife, and get to take advantage of onboard amenities such as fine dining, spa services, and nightly entertainment. You may have to share the ship with more passengers, but you won’t have to share as much of your bank account with the cruise line.
7. Book your own excursions
It’s easy to find independent operators who can take you on all the trips the cruise lines offer, and do it for a cheaper price. Cruise lines make money by taking a cut of your shore excursion payment, so you’ll save by eliminating the middleman. You may also want to invest in the Great Alaskan TourSaver book, which features coupons for a variety of activities in Alaska.
8. Ignore souvenir shops
Your onboard shopping specialist will inevitably point you toward tacky souvenir shops and expensive jewelry stores (never mind the fact that diamonds are not a local Alaska product). Unless you really need to bring home T-shirts for the kids or buy a diamond ring in every state you visit, the cruise-recommended shops in Alaskan port towns are not worth your while. Seek out locally owned shops for authentic gifts (perhaps start your research online before you go), or go shopping once you arrive in Anchorage. Smart shoppers not only save money, but they have less junk to fit in their suitcases for the flight home.
9. Skip the tours
It’s true that the best adventures lie outside the port towns in Alaska. But, you can certainly spend happy (and less expensive) days in port rather than splurging on an organized day tour. Sitka, for example, has several cultural museums, cute shops, and a National Historical Park complete with totem poles that can keep you occupied for hours. Other towns offer museums, cultural centers, free walking tours, and trailheads for nearby hiking paths. You don’t always need a guide to see the sights, and the more independent you are, the less money you’ll need to give away.
10. Eat onboard
You’ll want to try some Alaskan salmon while you’re visiting, but a typical sandwich lunch in Skagway or Ketchikan will most likely be overpriced and not a unique cultural experience. Because many port towns aren’t accessible by road from the rest of the state, most food needs to be flown or shipped in. This causes meal prices in Alaska to be sky-high. An easy way to save is to eat lunch on the ship rather than onshore. If you’re only going to have pizza or a salad, I bet that meal will taste better just because it’s already paid for.
You’ll certainly find many things worth splurging on in Alaska, such as once-in-a-lifetime dogsled or helicopter rides or a local salmon bake. Just keep your smart-shopper wits about you when booking a cruise and once onboard, and you can make your budget stretch as far as it can go. That way, you won’t have to rely on that gold-panning excursion to fund the rest of your trip.