10 Tips for a Great Cruise

Planning Next Year’s Cruise: 10 Tips for a Better Time

‘Have Fun’ most important of all

When Beth Broudreaux, her husband and their son cruised to Alaska last summer, Broudreaux did something she’d never done on a cruise before: She booked a room with a balcony.

“If you are ever going to get one, get one on an Alaskan cruise,” said the Louisiana native, who has cruised the Caribbean several times but knew the journey to Alaska would be all about stupendous scenery—mountains, water, glaciers, and amazing sea and wildlife.

Not only did the Broudreaux family enjoy seeing icebergs up close (they were on the fourth floor), they met a lively local in Skagway who entertained them for hours.

“We had a little seal hanging around under our balcony,” Broudreaux said. “I can’t imagine having been on that cruise without the balcony—it was totally worth it!”

Booking a room with a view is one of many things those traveling to Alaska by cruise ship should consider including in their plans, to have the best vacation possible.

“For many, Alaska is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, though I’d recommend returning again and again,” said Karen Candy, spokeswoman for Princess Cruises, which offers seven ships sailing to Alaska in 2013, 15 itineraries and multiple land- or sea-tour options.

“For those travelers who may only visit the Great Land once, it’s helpful to really plan out what you want to do and see, how long you can spend in Alaska and your budget,” Candy said. “It’s also great to do a little research about Alaska before you go. There’s a lot to learn and discover to really gain the best understanding of the people and culture once you’re there.”

With this in mind, the following are 10 tips to keep in mind when booking space on a major cruise ship to Alaska:

One: Pick the Right Ship

According to cruise travel experts, different cruise-ship lines have their own on-board style. With some 20 different cruise companies worldwide, and many of them cruising to Alaska, it’s important to keep in mind that some aim to please families, others focus on older couples, still more tailor offerings to families with tweens and teens, those with younger children, couples only, those who yearn for an exciting nightlife or those who prefer a more relaxed experience. Then there are the smaller, expedition-style ships that offer more adventure, education and a more personal experience when only a few hundred people might be on board.

“Pick a ship that matches your personality,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of Cruisecritic.com, a website dedicated to news and reviews about the cruise industry worldwide.

Cruise Critic and other cruise websites offer insights into which ship lines specialize in serving different types of passengers, so be sure and check before you book, or try to get a good match by talking to representatives from prospective cruise lines about your travel style.

Erin Kirkland, who owns the AKontheGO.com website and writes a travel blog about traveling with children, also believes a room with a window is essential to an Alaska cruise.

Kirkland, who has taken her family of two boys and husband on large and small cruises, also advises cruise passengers to “identify your style of vacationing. Active? Passive? Plan around that both at sea and in port,” she said.

Two: Dress Appropriately

No one would bring a bikini on an Alaska-bound cruise, but many travelers might wonder just what is appropriate to pack. Cruise companies gladly advise passengers on what to bring and, in some cases, publish packing lists (as does Cruisecritic.com).

An Alaska packing list must include raingear (particularly items that button or zip up all the way, to do away with the need for a scarf), waterproof hiking boots and comfortable walking shoes, which might also be waterproof.

“Our feet were just wet the whole time we were there,” said Broudreaux, adding that they didn’t let wet feet ruin their trip.

Broudreaux wisely had each of her family members bring a small backpack for on-shore excursions, in which they each had a small collapsible umbrella. Travel experts advise cruise passengers to pack layers, so clothing items can be donned or removed as temperatures and conditions fluctuate.

One cruise passenger also suggests families bring walkie-talkies to keep track of each other on board and on shore, as a way of avoiding the use of poor-coverage-area cell phones and eliminating high roaming charges.

Three: Arrive a Day Before Departure

With frequent delays in air travel, why take the chance you might miss your boat?

Many cruise ship companies provide a pre-departure hotel overnight that includes transfers to and from the hotel, and from the hotel directly to the ship the next day.

Four: Buy Travel Insurance

“Buy from an independent agent, not the cruise line,” Brown said.

Also make sure you have coverage for medical emergencies outside the U.S., in case you or a loved one need to be evacuated off the ship.

Five: Know the Smoking Policy

“One big issue, especially in the U.S., is smoking on ships,” Brown said. She says travelers should inquire about smoking on board so there are no surprises for smokers and nonsmokers alike.

Six: Be Warned—All-Inclusive is Not 

This is something Brown says passengers often are surprised to learn. Brown said the cruise lines do not intend to deceive passengers, but many cruise travelers assume all-inclusive includes everything. It does not.

“People get really upset about it,” Brown said.

While all-inclusive does include one’s room, three meals a day in the ship’s dining room and child care/activities during regular hours, many things such as spas, gym classes or even sodas can cost extra.

She recommended checking with your cruise line to learn what is included and what’s not—this includes learning the ship’s individual tipping policy—to help you budget accordingly.

Seven: Buy Excursions Through the Cruise Line

Do your homework, travel experts say, and book all of your excursions before you board your cruise ship. Most important: Book excursions through your chosen cruise company.

Cruise companies thoroughly investigate land excursions by doing independent background checks, evaluating each company’s safety and maintenance procedures, interviewing local authorities and even performing on-site inspections.

In planning her family’s on-land experiences, Broudreaux booked the outings using her chosen cruise line’s excursion link on its website, she said. She merely clicked on a port city and “there was a list for every possible thing there was to do.”

The company’s website allowed Broudreaux to create her own unique excursion experience by combining trips and activities in one day and piecing together her family’s own itinerary.

Eight: Get some Rest

Beware of port burnout.

“Even on a vacation, you need a day off,” Brown said, adding that many people tend to try to cram too many activities in each port. Not only does doing too much end up costing a lot, exhausted travelers end up not enjoying themselves.
If you find a particular port especially interesting, plan to come back on a land tour, Brown said. Also, Brown advises cruise passengers to view a cruise as a sampler of a given area, allowing passengers to experience a little of everything.

Nine: Plan for Some Long Days at Sea

In cruising to Alaska, there can be a day or two at sea. Unlike warm-weather cruises Louisiana native Broudreaux had experienced, there weren’t many on-board/deck activities, since the major point of an Alaska cruise is to enjoy the view.

In the end, Broudreaux put her hours of research to good use, picking a wide range of excursions that included gold panning, eating seafood at local eateries, riding the train over the White Pass out of Skagway and flightseeing to watch bears. 

“It was great,” she said. “I feel like I really went to Alaska.”

Ten: Have Fun

Everyone has a different idea of what this means on a cruise. Because she didn’t know if she would ever do the trip to Alaska again, Beth Broudreaux said having fun meant just going for it. 

“We did everything!” the Louisiana native said, adding that it meant booking as many excursions as time and the family’s pocketbook allowed. She recommended booking a cruise early, then booking as many excursions as possible in the months leading up to the departure date.

Broudreaux chose activities that allowed her family time to wander around port towns and find locally owned eateries and pubs. 

“While there, we’d go eat at little fish houses and stuff, just to be able to hang out and drink a beer.”
For Kirkland, having a good time meant not controlling all the excursion choices. 

“Let kids choose some activities,” she said. “I really believe parents should take the concept of ‘fun’ and apply it to their children—not those of their fellow passengers, not the kids pictured in cruise-line literature, but their own offspring, who have definite likes and dislikes and levels of tolerance for activity. The concept of fun is, after all, a very personal thing!”

On their first cruise, the Kirkland family called at the small Southeast community of Haines.
“My husband and I gave our son a bunch of options for the long day at port—day trip to Skagway, hiking, visiting the Bald Eagle Foundation,” Kirkland said.

Upon looking at the map of town, her son chose none of these, opting instead for a rousing two hours at the local playground.

“We did manage to fit in some hikes, and the Bald Eagle Foundation, but our 4-year-old’s version of fun that day was simple, unstructured playtime,” she said. “He met some new friends, we chatted up local moms and dads, and everybody had a fine time.”

Kim M. Rich grew up in Alaska and is the author of  “Johnny’s Girl.” She is a writer, screenwriter, college professor and mostly mom to three rambunctious daughters. Her work has appeared in numerous books and magazines.

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