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First Time To Alaska: Avoid These 18 Common Cruising Mistakes

When it comes to planning an Alaskan bucket list cruise, there are many factors to consider. From choosing the right itinerary to budgeting for shore excursions, travelers can easily dodge several common Alaska cruising mistakes with some preparation. 

In this article, we will discuss some of the most common errors to avoid so that you’ll be better prepared for a trip to the Last Frontier.

I remember my first cruise to Alaska in 2009. I didn’t do my research before embarkation day, and I didn’t pack the right clothing or enough warmer items. As a result, I wasn’t prepared for the rain every day of that July cruise. 

Cruising To Hubbard Glacier in Alaska

Since then, I have traveled to Alaska every year, sometimes multiple times. I now know what to pack and the types of clothing needed, and I’m here to share with you.

Here are some things to remember to ensure you have a great time in Alaska.

Avoid Booking Last Minute

It might seem like a good idea to book an Alaska cruise at the last minute when trying to save money. I only suggest doing this when it isn’t a bucket list cruise, and it’s your umpteenth trip north.  

Last-minute bookings often result in less desirable staterooms and sold-out shore excursions, and you may pay more for a last-minute flight and pre-cruise hotel. When cruising to Alaska once, pre-planning will turn the journey into an incredible adventure.

Guests can get the top pick of cabins by booking six to twelve months ahead, including connecting rooms if needed. Families in need of connecting staterooms won’t find them on drop-and-go deals.

As itineraries sell out, booking so close to embarkation may result in settling for a less-than-desirable itinerary and a lower room category. For instance, when cruising to Tracy Arm Fjord in April or early May, vessels don’t reach the glacier due to too much ice.

Thinking It’s Cheap

Another common mistake is assuming an Alaska cruise is inexpensive, like the Caribbean. While it’s true that some cruises can be more affordable, many are also quite expensive. 

Alaska cruise pricing can vary greatly depending on the month of departure, ports of call, and which glaciers the ship visits. 

Dod sledding cost
Expensive dog sledding tour

When we factor in all the costs, we usually pay more for the excursions, specialty dining, and other expenses than the cruise itself.

When planning an Alaska cruise, it’s crucial to consider all costs, including airfare, excursions, and onboard expenses. This will give you a comprehensive understanding of the total trip cost.

Thinking All Itineraries Are Similar

Don’t assume that all Alaska cruise itineraries are the same. Each itinerary offers different experiences; some may be more suitable for your interests than others. 

For instance, the best Alaska cruise itinerary includes Glacier Bay National Park or Hubbard Glacier. As a result, Glacier Bay cruises generally command higher prices since only Holland America, Norwegian, Cunard, Princess, and some smaller lines go there.

Brian and Karen in Glacier Bay, Alaska
Cruising in Glacier Bay National Park

Some Alaska cruises don’t include a glacier-viewing day, and others spend half a day in port. If Denali National Park is your desired destination, it’s only available on a one-way itinerary to and from Vancouver.

We prioritize the itinerary over the cruise line. This way, we ensure we get the specific cruise that aligns with our desired ports and experiences. 

Not Pre-Booking Excursions

The Last Frontier is known for its bucket list activities. Summer dog sledding on glaciers, helicopter flightseeing and walkabouts, and chances to see grizzly bears salmon fishing, come to mind.

Be sure to budget for these expensive tours, as they can be the highlight of an Alaska trip. If bucket list tours are out of budget, waiting another year to visit Alaska may be worthwhile rather than missing out on something you really want to experience. 

Many shore excursions sell out quickly, often six months in advance. This applies to helicopter tours, dog sledding, Hubbard Glacier and Wilderness Exploration, and flightseeing tours to Misty Fjords.

Sold out excursions
Sold out shore excursions

So, book your excursions in advance to avoid disappointment. Since bad weather often cancels dog sledding and helicopter excursions, have a backup plan for the day.

As a rule of thumb, we budget just as much for the excursions as the cruise cost.

Not Comparing Port Times

When comparing cruise itineraries, it is important to pay attention to the port times. Some itineraries offer only a few hours in each port, while others provide more time to explore. 

Cruises to and from Vancouver, British Columbia, generally have longer port days since reaching Alaska is a shorter distance. Itineraries from Seattle, Washington, must stop in Victoria to comply with the Jones Act.

This stop in Victoria may be as short as four hours, not leaving time to do much in the BC capital. When we select an Alaska cruise with a Victoria stop, we opt for one that docks for ten to twelve hours.

Enjoying a peddlecab ride in Victoria. BC
Enjoying a peddlecab ride in Victoria. BC

Finding a cruise that spends up to twelve hours in most ports will provide maximum time to enjoy Alaskan cities. With extended hours, we usually manage more than one tour.

Selecting The Wrong Cruise Line

Each cruise line has its own personality; some may be more suited to your preferences than others. What works for some passengers may not be suitable for others.

One family may want a ship catering to children or teens, while others prefer an adult-focused vessel. No one ship fits all. 

We thoroughly enjoyed our cruise with Cunard but realized it wasn’t for everyone. The cruise line is quite formal and should be avoided by those who prefer a more casual vibe.

So, research and choose a cruise line that matches your interests and budget.

Selecting The Wrong Side Of The Ship

The majority of Alaska cruises sail roundtrip, while others go one way. While it doesn’t matter which side you book on roundtrip itineraries, one-way sailings differ slightly.

When cruising north to Whittier of Seward, we prefer the starboard or right side, which is closer to land. Port-side cabins or the left side are preferred when we cruise south. 

Having views of land increases our chances of spotting humpback whales. However, it only works when booking a balcony category stateroom or higher.

Not Booking A Balcony

Karen viewing the fjord from our balcony
Enjoying the views of a fjord from my balcony

Booking a balcony cabin may be more expensive, but we feel it’s worth the splurge. In the Caribbean, an inside or oceanview cabin may suffice. However, Alaska cruises are very scenic, and there’s no better way to enjoy the vistas than from a private balcony.

Without a balcony, guests must share the outer decks with fellow passengers. On glacier viewing days, these decks get very crowded, and we could only get a front-row view if we hit the outdoors early.

Forgetting Travel Insurance

Travel insurance might be something most travelers put off. Alaska’s weather can be unpredictable, and travel delays and cancellations can happen. So, being prepared for any unexpected events during your trip is essential.

There’s a difference between travel interruption and travel insurance for medical reasons. Know the difference and purchase the one you need or both. Since we live in Vancouver, we pass on the travel interruption insurance since we aren’t flying.

During one of our cruises, a fellow passenger slipped in the spa, broke two fingers, and severely bruised her face. Since she was cruising solo, and there was fear of concussion, she had to spend a night in medical. 

She incurred a bill of USD 800, but luckily, she had medical insurance.

Forgetting Warm Clothing

Alaska’s weather is known for its unpredictability and can change quickly. Even in summer, it is crucial to pack warm clothing, including a jacket, gloves, and a hat. Shops onboard will have a selection of Alaska-inspired fleece and sweatshirts whould you need to buy something.

Layers are also essential, allowing you to adjust your clothing to the changing temperatures. When hiking higher elevations, we’ve encountered snow in July, and next to a glacier, temperatures may not get above the mid-30s. Onboard, blanket are sometimes provided on deck.

Bundled up in a blanket on the promenade deck
Bundled up in a blanket on the promenade deck

I found cold spots in the theater and dining room. So, when packing for Alaska, I always include a few sweaters, cardigans, and extra layers to prevent catching a chill.

Not Having Enough Layers

As mentioned earlier, layers are essential when cruising in Alaska. It is better to pack more layers than you think you’ll need, which can be removed if the temperature rises. 

It’s also a good idea to bring thermal underwear or base layer clothing, as it can get chilly, especially on shoulder season cruises.

Not Managing Onboard Expenses

Cruising can be expensive, and it’s easy to overspend while onboard. It’s essential to set a budget for your trip and stick to it. Most cruise ships offer all-inclusive packages that include meals, some drinks, and activities. 

However, alcoholic drink packages, Wi-Fi, spa treatments, specialty restaurants, gambling, and duty-free shopping can make your onboard spending account skyrocket.

I’ve seen many guests unable to pay their onboard account at the end of the cruise. 

Not Having Waterproof Clothing

Ketchikan, the wettest city in Alaska, receives 235+ days of rain per year. Because of the unpredictable Alaska weather, waterproof, not water-resistant, items are a must. Jackets, shoes, or boots will keep you dry, as most excursions operate rain or shine.

Wearing raincoats in Sitka on a wet touring day
Wearing raincoats in Sitka on a wet touring day

We have Columbia jackets and Vessi shoes, all waterproof, and they have served us well in Alaska. If you don’t have waterproof items and aren’t willing to invest a little, try using a water-repellent spray on coats and shoes.

Forgetting About The Midnight Sun

During the summer, Alaska experiences the midnight sun, which means the sun sets late at night, often in the wee hours. Bring an eye mask to aid in sleeping when requiring a darkened environment.

Alternatively, booking an interior cabin provides complete darkness for light-sensitive people.

Forgetting Mosquito Repellent

Between mid-May and mid-August, mosquitoes can be a problem in Alaska, especially near bodies of water. To avoid getting bitten, make sure to pack mosquito repellent. Mosquito repellent towelettes are convenient, easy to carry, and do the trick. 

My worst mosquito experience was hiking a section of the Chilkoot Trail in late May. The mosquitoes were huge, vicious, and unkind. 

Not Prepared For Rough Seas

Alaska’s waters can get rough, especially near the Gulf of Alaska and during shoulder season. It’s essential to pack motion sickness medication or patches.

Motion sickness patches
Motion sickness patches

Cruise itineraries that stop in Sitka sail on the west side of Baranof Island, which faces the Pacific Ocean. With no protection from the open seas, vessels cruising there often experience choppy seas. On all my cruises to Sitka, the ship rocked and rolled.

I remember on one cruise, the staff places barf bags on the stairwells, which I was shocked to see. That was a first for all all my trips to Alaska.

The waters between Cross Sound and Yakutat Bay and Yakutat Bay and Prince William Sound can also experience storminess.

Forgetting Binoculars

Alaska’s natural beauty is a sight to behold, and there are many opportunities to see wildlife. Packing compact binoculars will help you spot humpback whales, bald eagles, porpoises, harbor seals, and other animals from afar.

Some cruises keep a tally of marine wildlife sightings during the cruises. On my Cunard Queen Elizabeth itinerary, I was shocked to see a final count of:

  • 102 humpback whales
  • 20 Orcas
  • 96 sea otters
  • 350 Pacific White-sided dolphins
  • 2 Fin whales
  • 60 Dall’s porpoises
  • 8 harbor seals
Wildlife sightings from the bridge count
Wildlife sightings from the bridge

Just Winging It

There are two types of travelers: those who research and plan everything to a T and others who like to wing it. I’m the former, which one are you? Alaska isn’t a place to try to do things spontaneously in ports.

By not researching and planning days in port, you could miss out on the city’s highlights or best attractions, which may be fully booked.

The Bottom Line

A cruise to Alaska requires more research than an itinerary to the Caribbean. While packing can be problematic due to the selection of clothes needed, take advantage of the ship’s laundry services to prevent taking too much.

By avoiding these common Alaska cruising mistakes, expect a comfortable and enjoyable onboard experience while visiting the Last Frontier.

A cruise ship in Glacier Bay, Alaska