By paul motter
Now is the peak time for Alaska cruise bookings, and it isn't a bad idea. Not only do you get the best selection when you book farther out but you also get the "lowest price guarantee" from both the Royal Caribbean the Carnival families of cruise lines. If the prices go lower you pay the lower price, or you get a shipboard credit for the difference if you have already made your final payment.
Demand for cruises suffered in Alaska last year and the number of visitors was down substantially. Pricing is expected to remain weak this summer as the state continues to debate a $50 head tax on every cruise passenger. Several cruise lines pulled ships out of the Alaska region for 2010 and relocated them to the Caribbean, Europe and South Pacific.
If you'd like to consider these Alaska bargains there are a few options you need to know about. Most Alaska cruises are 7-days and sail roundtrip from either Seattle or Vancouver, British Columbia. The roundtrip cruises actually offer more to see than you might expect since much of the voyage will be through what is called the "Inside Passage," a long group of barrier islands along the coast of Canada nearly all the way to the ports in Alaska. For ports of call, nearly every Alaska cruise will take you to Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway.
Ships sailing out of Vancouver generally spend more time in the Inside Passage, because they start out closer to Alaska and can travel a little slower. Cruises sailing out of Seattle tend to spend more time in the open sea. However, this does not automatically mean Vancouver departures are better. If the itinerary once you get to Alaska is more interesting then Seattle may be the better choice. A more enticing itinerary option would include an extra glacier visit or port of call, for example.
The next Alaska option is the one-way cruise which originates in either Seattle or Vancouver but ends in Alaska, requiring you to fly home. These cruises are usually sold in tandem with a "cruise/tour" - an added land trip at the end of your cruise.
For example, Princess offers the "Direct to Wilderness" cruise where you leave from Vancouver and disembark in Anchorage. From there you board a special train with state of the art sightseeing rail cars with glass dome tops. The train takes you to the Denali Princess Wilderness lodge. The next day you take a motor coach to yet another Princess Lodge not far from Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America. There are tours both days where you look for bears and bald eagles, and enjoy the spectacular views of some of the most dramatic mountains in the continent. You are then returned to Anchorage where you catch a flight home.
Naturally, you can also opt to do the land portion of your cruise first, flying to Alaska and then sailing home. Either way, the cruise itself is also an extensive sightseeing tour of Alaska focusing on the sea life and the amazing glacier activity. In ports like Juneau you can take whale watching expeditions. In Ketchikan you can see salmon swimming up freshwater streams to spawn after an entire lifetime at sea.
A highlight of every Alaska cruise, whether it is one-way or roundtrip is a visit to a glacier. These glaciers, which have been forming for thousands of years, are slowing flowing to the point where they meet the sea. The bottom portion of the glacier slowly melts into the seawater making the ice above the water line unstable. Every 20 to 40 minutes large sheets of ice, sometimes hundreds of feet tall, break off from the glacier and slide or tumble into the sea. Your ship will anchor not far from the glacier and you will stand on deck and watch, never looking away, hoping to witness some of this exciting glacier action.
Some of the best Alaska prices we are seeing in 2010 include an early May 21st, 7-day cruise on Celebrity Millennium. Good ol' Millie is selling for as little as $449 for an inside cabin, $599 for an oceanview or $899 for a balcony. The ship sails one way from Seward, calling at Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway and ending in Vancouver, British Columbia, so you will have to fly to Alaska to catch this ship and you can take an optional land tour.
Carnival Spirit has 7-day Alaska cruises roundtrip from Seattle. These cruises visit Endicott Arm, Lynn Canal, Juneau and Ketchikan, Alaska, and stops in beautiful Vancouver for a day on the way back. Prices are as low as $649 for the September 7th cruise, but balcony cabins can be found throughout the summer as low as $1109 per person.
The Princess cruise/tour I mentioned above can be booked for the May 29 sail date for $1499 per person for an inside cabin, $2149 per person for a balcony. Keep in mind that on a cruise tour while the land transfers and lodging are included in the price you may be responsible for some of your own meals.
Alaska is a fascinating destination, especially the visits to glaciers. Personally, the glacier action I have witnessed comprises some of the most vivid memories of my lifetime. Be sure to take advantage of the tours in local ports of call, such as whale watching and glacier flightseeing. While you can see a lot just staying on the ships, you tend to see much more from the local tour providers, whether you book them onboard the ship or independently.