Alaska is a dream destination, and people are always surprised to learn that I grew up there. For most people, they save their whole lives to visit Alaska once; for 15 years, I woke up, went to school, worked and lived in an item on their ‘bucket list.’
First, people ask me “What is it like to grow up in Alaska?” I love answering this, as it reveals that – for all its magic – Alaska is a pretty normal place with spectacular scenery. After that, people usually follow up by asking “Can you help me plan my Alaskan cruise?“
I don’t normally give travel advice for free (aside from, ya know, this blog), but answering questions about Alaska and Alaska cruises is one of my favorite kinds of travel advice, and I’m always happy to give it.
I spent three summers working for a major cruise company, Holland America Line, and have helped countless people have an amazing Alaskan experience through that work. I learned how to decipher brochures, read between the marketing speak, and help people choose the most unforgettable excursion that fits their travel preferences.
For many people, picking excursions is one of the hardest parts of a cruise. To get you started, here are some of my top tips. If you need extra help with specific excursions, email me directly or tweet at me.
Disclaimer: I no longer work for any tour companies doing business in Alaska, nor do I have knowledge of specific tour providers offering excursions this summer. These are general guidelines I would use to make suggestions to fellow travelers, not endorsements for any specific company.
Picking Excursions Tip #1: Get Up in the Air
Alaska is big.
Like, really big. So big that most people can’t conceive of how big it is, even when they’re visiting. This is why I heard so many people complain about how long it took to get from place to place.
If you want to see Alaska in its full majesty, I’d recommend taking a tour that gets you up above it all, to cover land quickly and show you the landscape from a wider perspective.
Many tour providers use small aircraft, so this isn’t for those who hate flying, and many also have weight and age restrictions. This is why I was once advised to travel often and extensively while young; many of the best things in this world require you being a bit more able-bodied and fit than average.
If you’re nervous about flightseeing tours, you’re not alone. But trust me, it’s worth getting over your anxiety to see Alaska from above.
Here are some great air tour providers:
- Rust’s Flightseeing Tours, based in Anchorage, they provide flights all over the state. Their Discover Denali flight is $435 per person.
- Fly Denali, based in Denali, they offer great Denali mountain flights. Their Glacier Landing Tour is $599 per person.
Picking Excursions Tip #2: Consider the Uniqueness of Experiences
In every part of the world, there are boilerplate tours that might have slightly different scenery but offer the same general formula. You’ll get some history, some interesting facts, and some poorly-marketed attempts to get visitors to spend money. These exist in Alaska too, sadly.
When choosing a tour, instead opt for something it’s unlikely you’ll find anywhere else in the world.
The photo above is taken on a husky homestead, where young husky pups are raised and trained for the Iditarod. If that sentence made virtually no sense, that’s how you know it will be unique and probably worth your limited time and money while traveling in Alaska.
Here are some awesome unique Alaskan tours:
- Visit Iditarod Champion Jeff King’s Husky Homestead, outside Denali. Summer tours are just $59 per person and include puppy snuggles.
- Chena Hot Springs, near Fairbanks, where you can soak in natural hot springs while you admire the Midnight Sun. A day trip pass starts at $140 per person, but the overnights are worth it for the extra time in the hot springs.
Picking Excursions Tip #3: Go to the Source
Whenever you see the opportunity to see something “up close and personal” in Alaska, I would take it. If possible, look at tour photos from past guests, to get a sense of how close you actually get.
Excursions offer a lot of flowery language about how immersive, experiential, and memorable they’ll be.
What I’ve learned from reading a lot of descriptions is that companies which are specific about how close they’ll get you are often going to be the best: they’ve taken the time to promise an experience, and they’re confident it’s going to amaze you. Let it amaze you! That’s what Alaska is all about!
Here are some awesome immersive experiences:
- Denali Raft Adventures, based in Denali, with Class III & IV Rapids. The Canyon Whitewater Run is $97 per person.
- Portage Glacier Cruises, based in Portage, which takes you right to the face of Portage Glacier. The cruise is just $39 per person.
Picking Excursions Tip #4: Do the Money-to-Time Math
After looking at many excursion listings, I’ve found something that serves as a general rule for my recommendations:
- If the tour is on land or relatively stationary (such as a dinner show), I recommend you pay no more than $50 per hour of the excursion.
- If the tour is on water, such as rafting or a whale-watching cruise, I recommend you pay no more than $100 per hour.
- If the tour is in the air, such as a flightseeing or helicopter tour, I recommend you pay no more than $150 per hour.
These are super general rules, but they’re good guidelines.
Any company charging more than that amount per hour for a tour is probably going to be less valuable than its competitors. Alaskan tours are certainly memorable – but not completely priceless and you shouldn’t pay $1000 for a 2-hour tour.
Here are some great value tours in Alaska:
- Major Marine Tours, based in Seward, offers half-day and day-long whale watching tours. (Read my review of Major Marine Tours here.) My favorite is the 7.5 hour tour, which is $189 per person.
- Rust’s Flightseeing Tours, based in Anchorage, offers a full-day Grizzly Bear viewing tour. The 10-12-hour Katmai National Park flight tour is $895 per person but totally worth it.
A Few Quick Tips to Wrap It All Up
∙ Want to know more about Alaska? Snag a Lonely Planet Alaska Guidebook.
∙ Take great photos of Alaska! I shoot on a Sony A6000 & my iPhone 11 Pro.
∙ Or get pro photos of your Alaska trip: Book a Flytographer shoot.
∙ You can never go wrong with travel insurance: I recommend World Nomads.
Do you have other questions about cruise excursions or a specific port? Let me know in the comments!