Travel Smarter: Alaska Travel Tips

AAA Travel Counselors who specialize in trips to Alaska give the lowdown on booking and preparing for your trip to the Last Frontier, and what to expect once you’re there.

Sailing into Skagway at dawn

Photo: iStock

Considering a trip to Alaska but don’t know where to begin? We sat down with three AAA Travel Counselors—Marco Ruiz of Monterey, California; Andrea Leslie of Las Vegas, Nevada; and Heidi Kazemi of Roseville, California—to answer some frequently asked questions and get some Alaska travel tips so you’ll be prepared to book your trip to this once-in-a-lifetime destination.

BEFORE BOOKING

Vacation Now: How do I know if a trip to Alaska is right for me?

Marco: If you are a nature lover, Alaska is right for you.

Heidi: Alaska is all about scenery and wildlife. Many endangered animals you won’t find in large numbers elsewhere live in abundance here. Spot bald eagles, gray whales (from May to September), brown bears (from late April to early October), humpback whales (from mid-June to September), caribou in Denali National Park and many, many more species. You can also witness the northern lights, active volcanoes, 3 million lakes, tundra, rainforests, half of the world’s glaciers and so much more. The state certainly lives up to its motto, “North to the future.”

Heidi: You always have the option of doing a combined cruise and land tour, which is my favorite way to see Alaska. But there are some advantages to focusing on one type of travel. By choosing only a cruise, you could sail through the Inside Passage, where you’ll find breathtaking glaciers. You’ll also visit more port cites, including Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan; some cruises even stop in British Columbia. On a land-only tour, you can spend more time exploring Denali National Park, where you’ll see Denali (formerly Mount McKinley), and Talkeetna, where you’ll depart on a scenic train journey.

Andrea: The best type of trip for you really depends on your personality. One great benefit of a cruise is getting to see many different ports but only having to unpack once, as you won’t be moving from hotel to hotel.

VN: I’ve heard AAA partners use the term cruise-tour. Can you tell me more about that?

Marco: A cruise-tour is a program that includes a cruise and a land tour, usually guided, as part of one vacation package.

Heidi: You can choose to do the cruise first followed by land, or vice versa. There are also plenty of options as far as itineraries go for each portion of a cruise-tour.

VN: When is the best time to visit Alaska? How far in advance do I need to book?

Andrea: Cruise season in Alaska runs from mid-May to mid-September. Many people like to visit on the early end of the season, as they may see more wildlife coming out of hibernation. At a minimum, you should be booking six to seven months in advance.

Marco: Weather-wise, the best time to travel to Alaska is July or August, because the days are very long. But if you’re looking to save, you can often find better prices on sailings in early May and June, as well as in early September. Sometimes these shoulder months have the added benefit of being less crowded, since cruise lines typically have fewer sailings during these months.

VN: On what side of the ship should I book a stateroom to get the best view of the glaciers?

Andrea: You don’t need to be concerned about which the side of the ship your stateroom is on when cruising through the Glacier Bay area via the Inside Passage because there will be glaciers on both sides of the ship.

Marco: Most cruises sail the Inside Passage on at least one leg of the trip. In that case, it does not matter which side of the ship you are on, because the scenery is pretty much the same on both sides. Plus, on roundtrip itineraries, what you don’t see on the way there you will see on the return trip. If you’re going on a one-way cruise from Vancouver to Seward or Whittier, or vice versa, and sailing a route other than the Inside Passage, the best views will be on the starboard (right) side of the ship going north and the port (left) side going south.

Heidi: I always recommend booking balcony cabins for cruises to Alaska. It’s always fun to be able to have breakfast on the balcony with a view of the glaciers.

Mount Roberts Tramway overlooking the harbor in Juneau

Photo: iStock

PRE-TRIP PREPARATION

VN: If I go on a cruise to Alaska, will I need a passport?

Andrea: Travel document requirements vary based on cruise itineraries and whether international flights are required. Passports are recommended, but in some cases not mandatory. For example, if you’re a U.S. citizen and you’re sailing on a closed-loop cruise, where you departing from and returning to the same U.S. port, you can travel with a government-issued photo ID and birth certificate. If your itinerary stops in any Canadian ports, such as Vancouver, you will absolutely need a passport on your trip.

VN: Are activities included as part of the tour itinerary, or will I be able to select my excursions?

Marco: Onboard activities are mostly included. Shore excursions are always extra unless you sail with a premium cruise line, which may include some shore excursions and offer others for an additional fee.

VN: How cold is it in Alaska? Do I need to purchase special clothing or gear for this trip?

Marco: Cruises and tours to Alaska take place during the summer months, and the weather can be unpredictable. It is best to dress in layers so you can adjust according to the weather. It will never be cold to the point of snowing, but you will need a jacket when you are close to the glaciers.

Heidi: Temperatures in Alaska can range from 60 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. Nighttime and early mornings are cooler, usually in the 40s or 50s. Dressing in layers is the way to go in Alaska.

VN: Is there a limit to the amount of luggage I can bring on a tour of Alaska?

Marco: If you have to fly to your port of embarkation, which is the case for many AAA Members, you will only be able to bring what the airlines allow you. There is no limit if you are going on the cruise without having to fly first.

Heidi: I always advise my clients to pack smart. Anything you take with you—and the bag you pack it in—will be in your stateroom the entire trip, so be cautious about how much luggage you travel with. Most cruise lines have the option of formal events in the evening, but otherwise casual clothing is appropriate for excursions and day-to-day activities. Jeans and layered clothing work, and a good walking or hiking shoe is a must.

Tracy Arm Fjord

Photo: iStock

ON THE TRIP

VN: Will I be able to call friends and family on my cell phone on board a cruise ship and/or on land?

Marco: Yes, but as you might cross into parts of Canada as you sail, there might be a roaming fee. Ask your cell phone provider for specifics before you go.

Andrea: You will most likely have normal wireless service when you’re in a U.S. port. If you’re stopping at a Canadian port, you may want to purchase a foreign data package. When you’re at sea, cruise ships have emergency phone numbers for family so they can contact you on the ship and vice versa, but the charges can be quite expensive.

Heidi: The best way to avoid extra charges from your cell phone carrier is to purchase a Wi-Fi plan on the ship.

VN: I’m planning to go on a fishing excursion. Can I take the fish I catch home?

Marco: Yes. The tour company can pack it for you or ship it for a fee.

Heidi: Alaska has the longest salmon run in the world—2,000 miles up the Yukon River—so it’s a great place for fishing. The tour company can pack your catch and mail it to your home.

VN: Is tipping expected on cruises and/or land tours, or is it included?

Heidi: Tipping is expected, and it’s not included on most cruise lines.

Marco: It’s about $12 per person per day. Some premium cruise lines offer pre-paid gratuity options, which make the cruise more of a true all-inclusive vacation.

VN: What if I have special dietary needs?

Andrea: Cruise lines and tour groups are very good at accommodating special dietary needs. You should notify your travel agent so they can put a notation on your reservation.

AAA Travel offers a variety of vacations to Alaska and beyond. Visit AAA.com to see the options or call 877-396-7159 to speak to a AAA Travel Counselor.

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David Kallas, AAA Travel Counselor, Murray, Utah

I'm all about once-in-a-lifetime trips to destinations such as the Cook Islands, Australia or an African safari. I love to plan trips that my clients return from not regretting anything.

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