When I was escorting Cruise Experts Travel ‘s Ultimate Alaska CruiseTour a few summers ago, I received an excellent question from a reader that I thought was deserving of an entire article. Here’s the question:
Hi Aaron, we have a cruise planned in August. We have never been on a land/sea cruise before and never been to Alaska. Can you share the top 3 things we need to know or prepare for?
Ketchikan, Alaska during the first week of June of 2013… Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders
Alaska is one of the hardest destinations to pack for. I’ve cruised there when it’s been as hot as the Caribbean and when it has rained harder than I’ve ever seen. That, in turn, can make packing a nightmare.
A week or so before your cruise, start looking at the weather forecasts. Extended long-range forecasts are notoriously unreliable, but once you get to the seven day mark, they do a decent job of predicting – with a fair degree of accuracy – what you can expect on your voyage.
Even then, I’d moderate my packing: if it looks like it’s going to rain, bring clothes suited to wet or chilly weather, but don’t neglect clothing for warmer weather.
….and Ketchikan basking in the sunshine in the second week of July. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders
Because the weight of luggage is such a critical factor for air travellers these days, don’t go overboard on the heavy coats or fleece pullovers. If you need an extra coat or sweater, every single Alaskan shop has these in abundance, and some of them – particularly the coats – are so nice that you might just want to buy one anyway.
Do As the Locals Do
Alaska remains one of my absolute favorite destinations to cruise to, six voyages and counting. But the over-abundance of jewelry stores and shops hawking “precious gems” can really work against visitors who are looking for an authentic Alaskan experience.
Skagway, Alaska offers numerous tourist activities, but there’s also plenty to see for history and nature buffs. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders
Cruise lines do nothing to help with this situation, handing out “maps” at the gangway that are created by the PPI Group, publishers of Porthole Magazine. These maps list “guaranteed” shops for your spending pleasure. There’s just one catch: they’re all diamond, watch, or gemstone shops that have paid a promotional fee to PPI, and none of them offer anything remotely authentic – unless Tissot suddenly opened up a factory in Ketchikan and told no one.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with that; if you read the “map” closely, you’ll see that PPI is very up-front with everything. The problem for first-time cruisers and visitors is that this “map” and the accompanying “Port Lecture Talk” can be misleading. But this is nothing new; the same system has been in operation since well before I started cruising in 1998.
Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders
Alaskans also seem to know this, which is why I’ve seen more shops this year than ever that are railing against the diamond epidemic by denoting their authenticity with signs, placards and even giant murals placed in storefront windows.
Don’t be afraid to ask the Alaskans where to go and what to eat, see or do: they’ll tell you, and your experience on-shore will be richer for it. Go find where the locals have coffee and grab a latte.
Alaskan Beer Tasting aboard the Zuiderdam in 2012. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders
If you enjoy beer, the Alaskan Brewing Company is based in Juneau, and their Alaskan Amber ale is to die for. For those with a sweet tooth, head on over to the Alaskan Fudge Company in Juneau for some of the best fudge you’ll ever eat, and pick up a book to go with it in Skagway at the Skaguay News Depot or in Ketchikan at Parnassus Books.
Have Realistic Hotel Expectations
The Grande Denali Lodge in Denali National Park may not have been much to look at, but it offered a fantastic night’s rest. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders
There’s no Ritz Carlton here: Alaskan hotels can be a mixed bag, and they can vary in quality depending on brand and city. Think ‘decent three-star hotel’ and you’ll be fine.
When it comes to Denali National Park, understand that these properties are run hard for five months out of the year, and sit largely vacant during the off-season. Thus, the incentive (even ability) for hoteliers to outfit their properties with the latest and greatest can be severely limited.
However, I will say this: the beds at all properties I have stayed at in the past have been phenomenal, and at the end of the day, isn’t that the most important thing?
Connectivity can be a Challenge
Looking for free Wi-Fi in Skagway? The Skagway Public Library may be able to help you out. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders
Need to keep in touch with home? Prepare for a bit of a struggle. If you’re a U.S. resident, your cellphone will work just fine. My Canadian cell phone, on the other hand, frequently lost reception in places like Denali National Park and on the journey from Denali to Anchorage.
Free Wi-Fi can also be a challenge, particularly in smaller towns like Skagway. If you’ve seen people clustered outside the Public Library, there’s good reason for that: it’s one of only two places in the entire town with free public Wi-Fi.
In Juneau, several small bars, pubs and coffee shops feature free wireless internet access.
In Ketchikan, Wi-Fi seekers would do well to visit Salmon Landing, directly adjacent from Berth 1. The signal strength here is quite good – until everyone discovers it.
Of course, if you can, our advice is to just leave the digital world behind for a week!
Bring Some Cash
A little cash on-hand is always a good thing – and it can be applied to your onboard account! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders
I always like to bring some cash with me when I travel. ATM’s can be scarce (or sketchy!), and not every establishment may take credit cards, though more often than not they will. But more importantly, any excess cash can be applied to your onboard account on the cruise ship – and that’s always a good thing.
Properly planned for, an Alaska Cruise Tour can be one of the most rewarding vacations you can take – regardless of what the weather does!