Cruise Tips,  Destination Guides

How to Choose Your Alaska Cruise Excursions

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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.

While I personally do not support the mega-ship cruise industry due to its negative impact on local economies, damage caused to the environment, and evasive tax practices, I created this resource to allow you to make your own choice. Please consider booking a small-ship cruise instead, carbon offsetting, and buying local souvenirs to help reduce the negative impact of your Alaska cruise.

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:

Picking Excursions Tip #2: Consider the Uniqueness of Experiences

Alaska Excursions - Valerie at Husky Homestead

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:

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:

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    Picking Excursions Tip #4: Do the Money-to-Time Math

    Alaska - Fireweed

    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:

    Do you have other questions about 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!

    My eBook, Alaska’s Best Cruise Excursions, will help you wade through all the excursions in each port to make the best choice for each stop on your Alaska cruise itinerary.

    Get your copy for just $9.99!

    Help others discover this post too!

    I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.


    • Leslie Soto

      This is a great article. I love your insider information, that’s very helpful. Visiting Alaska has always been a bucket list dream of my husband’s and I hope that some day we can!

    • Nikki Gwin

      Great advice! We hope to make a trip to Alaska before we are too old and decrepit to do so. I will be back to read your other travel advice.
      🙂 gwingal

    • Gillian Kent

      Awesome advice. I would never have thought of the flying one, though it was one of the best things we did in Hawaii. I would like to do an Alaskan tour one day as I live in Vancouver.

    • Taylor Bishop

      I wanted to thank you for this advice for Alaska cruise excursions. You mentioned it could be good to consider if the tour will offer something you may not find anywhere else in the world. Maybe it could be good to think about what kind of experience you are hoping for, especially to give you a better idea of what excursions can help with that.

    • Kathie

      Hi Valerie,
      It’s been a breathe of fresh air to read your blogs. Me and my sister-in-law are heading off to Alaska in September.

    • Sarah Wells

      Best site that I have found for good commonsense advise on travel tips for Alaska. Leaving from Down Under (New Zealand) with my husband in two weeks to see your amazing country. Clothing tips were my main priority, but you have put my mind at rest.

      Many thanks

      • Valerie

        Sarah, so glad to help! I once met two Kiwis who said they felt Alaska was the only place as beautiful as their home country – I hope you feel the same. Happy travels!

    • Robert

      We are going on a cruise so have limited time per port for excursions. Any recommendations? Ports are Sitka, Skagway, Juneau, Icy Strait Point, and Ketchikan. Seems like many stops have whale watching but hard to know what is unique for each location. For example, the train ride to white pass in Skagway looks unique.

    • Linda and Jim Corbett

      Thanks for this information. We are booked for a 10 day Alaskan Princess Cruise leaving August 29, 2020 (on your own tours).
      Any information for 2 seniors celebrating their 70th birthday, would be greatly appreciated.
      We will travel by ship from Vancouver to Ketchikan, Juneau. Stagway, to Whittier on 9/5 for overnight Denali Princess Lodge and the 9/6 to Mount Mc Kinley Princess Lodge. On to Anchorage 9/7 & 9 /8 ending tour.
      We will be traveling with an other couple, same age!

      Thanks, Linda and Jim
      From Minneapolis, Minnesota

      • Valerie

        Linda & Jim, thanks so much for commenting! I recommend signing up for my email list – you’ll receive a bunch of automatic emails with a ton of helpful Alaska travel advice!

      • Lori Mornard

        My friends (70 ish) are planning a trip to Alaskain late June to early July in 2023. There will probably be 8 of us; what words of wisdom do you have? I live in Mound, MN., many of my friends are also from Maple Plain, MN. We are excited and are just planning, can’t imagine how we will be next year at this time..

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