Alaska is a dream destination, and people are always surprised to learn that I grew up there. After that, they often 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.
Then, people usually follow up by asking “Can you help me plan my Alaskan cruise/choose my Alaska cruise excursions?” Funnily enough, I have actually helped many people plan their Alaska cruise over the years… not just through this blog!
See, I spent three summers working for a major cruise company, Holland America Line. I learned how to decipher brochures, read between the marketing speak, and help people choose the most unforgettable Alaska cruise excursion that fit their travel preferences and budget.
For many people, picking Alaska cruise 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 choosing between specific excursions, you can comment below, or on the posts I’ve written for each port of call in Alaska (Icy Strait Point, Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka, Skagway, Seattle, and Vancouver).
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the Lingít Aaní of the Áak’w Ḵwáan (Tlingit) people. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
This post was originally written in July 2017, and was updated with more tips in October 2022.
Picking Excursions Tip #1: Get Up in the Air
Alaska is big.
Like, really big.
Alaska is 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 booking Alaska cruise excursions that get 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:
- Fly Denali, based in Healy (north of Denali), is my absolute top recommendation. They offer great Denali mountain flights, and their Glacier Landing Tour – while spendy at $649 per person – is worth every penny.
- Rust’s Flightseeing Tours, based in Anchorage, also provides flights all over the state. Their Discover Denali flight is $445 per person; they have bear-viewing tours starting at about $1000 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 Alaska cruise excursions where 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 cruise excursions and tours:
- Visit Iditarod Champion Jeff King’s Husky Homestead, outside Denali. Summer tours are just $59 per person and include puppy snuggles if they have fresh pups at the time of your visit
- Chena Hot Springs, near Fairbanks, where you can soak in natural hot springs while you admire the Midnight Sun. In years past, day passes started at $140 per person; staying overnight is a better choice since you can enjoy extra time in the hot springs and enjoy other activities on the property (like the Ice Museum!).
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.
Many Alaska cruise excurisions 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 that 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 $125 per person.
- Portage Glacier Cruises, based in Portage, which takes you right to the face of Portage Glacier. The cruise is just $45 per person.
Picking Excursions Tip #4: Do the Money-to-Time Math
After looking at the fancy marketing speak for many Alaska cruise excursions, 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’s duration).
- 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 – unless the tour includes a landing, in which case I’d bump that up to $200 per hour.
These are super general rules, but they’re good guidelines.
Any company charging more than that amount per hour for their Alaska cruise excursions 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 their 8.5-hour Northwest Fjord tour, which is $269 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 $995 per person but totally worth it.
As you can see, both of these tours are well within the scope of the price suggestions I provided above.
Do you have other questions about choosing Alaska cruise excursions or a specific port? Let me know in the comments or join me in my Alaska Travel Tips Facebook community.
Keep Planning Your Alaska Cruise!
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