6 Crafty Things That Catch Alaska Cruisers Out
6 Crafty Things That Catch Alaska Cruisers Out (Again & Again)
While there are many things that catch passengers out once already in Alaska, I want to highlight something that trips up many cruisers before they ever get there. This includes my good friends Graham and Pete.
After they’d watched my videos about my last Alaska cruise, they booked a sailing on Norwegian Bliss. They excitedly told me they were going to visit the ports I had suggested and also had scenic sea days cruising glaciers.
However, they had fallen into a cruise line trap.
#1: The Port Catch
When I looked at their itinerary, I noticed that while they were calling on the three key ports (Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan), they were in them for at most four hours each. They arrived so early in the morning that their exploring time was more like two to three hours.
On the way back to Seattle, they were in Victoria for just three hours, but from eight o’clock at night. Even worse, they were not scenic cruising in the best glacier regions.
Check Your Options – Twice!
If they’d chosen a different cruise at the same time and price, like the ones I’ve done on Majestic Princess or Nieuw Statendam, they would’ve had all day in the ports. This would have allowed for better and must-see glaciers like Hubbard Glacier and those in Glacier Alley.
Too many cruisers get caught out by focusing on the itinerary map, and don’t closely examine the actual time spent in each port. It is something that constantly catches travellers out, and they don’t get the maximum Alaska cruise experience.
Luckily, they had time to sort that out and I got them to change to a cruise that would give them the best options.
Next, I had to make sure they did not get caught out on sightseeing. Here, I had what may seem to be contradictory watch-outs and advice.
#2 The Unnecessary Excursion Catch
First, I pointed out many great things they could do in Alaska cruise ports that the cruise line would sell them as tours, but many they did not need the cruise line in order to do. By relying on the line, they would lose flexibility and add unnecessary cost.
Here’s some examples in those three most visited ports where I warned they could be caught out using the line tours.
Go Your Own Way
In Ketchikan, the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show is a fun thing to do, and the cruise line would sell it as an excursion. But all that means is they would walk them across to it and seat them in an allocated area.
However, they could buy tickets online or at the venue for way less, around $37 for adults and $18 for kids. It’s a short, and well signposted walk from where the ships dock.
Alaska Cruise Must-Do!
In Skagway, the line would sell excursions on the – in my view must do – White Pass & Yukon Railway. It’s a great experience, but again they can book tickets on any of the departures for less (around $142 for adults and $71 for kids).
The cruise line tour would involve walking them to the train, which admittedly often departs from the pier where the ship docks, and that’s it. The publicly booked ones usually depart from the station which is also close to where the ships dock.
In Juneau instead of a cruise line tour up the Goldbelt Mount Roberts Tramway for stunning views at 1,800 feet above the city, they could just book tickets online or there. It’s right on the main pier and they then could ride whenever they want.
Cruise line excursions to view the Mendenhall Glacier 14 miles from Juneau are popular but costly and would limit their time at the Glacier, sometimes to as little as 20 minutes.
Instead, I suggested they use the local Capital Transit Buses, which will cost about $2 each way. But as that is an hour bus ride and 30-minute 1.5-mile walk, I suggested they could use the Blue Bus Glacier Express that would cost around $45 return, taking them right to the visitor centre from the parking outside the tramway. I told them they can but tickets from sites like Viator or Expedia, or at the booth dockside.
I warned them to not get caught out booking things where the cruise line is not really adding much value, but to book these alternatives in advance because they often sell out on busy port days.
But for some excursions I told them they would get caught out by NOT booking cruise line excursions.
#3: The Safer Excursion Catch
If they are planning to do some of the more exotic excursions in Alaska, like float plane or the helicopter excursions up onto glaciers for dog sledding or walking, then even though cost is important to them I suggested they could get caught out making potentially bad choices because of money.
These are expensive excursions costing several hundred dollars and are potentially higher risk. The cruise line will have done a lot of research and locked up some of the top-notch providers based on years of experience.
When To Rely On The Cruise Line
While excursion accidents are very rare in Alaska, they do happen. I mentioned that this was brought home to me with the tragic incident in 2021 when guests off Holland American Nieuw Amsterdam booked their own floatplane excursion out of Ketchikan and unfortunately were killed when it crashed.
So, with these more expensive and exotic excursions, I personally use and rely more on the cruise line expertise and history. But I told them if they preferred not to do this and wanted to book in port, which they could easily do, as there are many booths selling excursions dockside, to do some checks before confirming.
For example, “Google” the provider and check their reviews on TripAdvisor or CruiseCritic on their phone. Or, before the trip ask in their cruise Roll Call on CruiseCritic if anyone had a great experience or recommendations for providers that they felt safe and were impressed with.
Next, knowing they are big souvenir buyers on their trips I had to warn them about not getting caught out here.
#4: The Shopping Catch
There are several ways I’ve seen Alaska cruisers fall into traps that part them with more cash than it should.
Port Shopping Advisors
It all starts on board the ship with the support of the cruise line itself. Every Alaska cruise I’ve been on has Port Shopping Advisors on board who run talks, provide coupons and maps.
They are not employed by the cruise line, and they are not unbiased nor recommending the best quality or value stores necessarily.
In fact, they work for promotion companies, like Onboard Media and PPI Group, and earn commissions by pushing cruise passengers to shop in specific Alaska port stores, like Diamonds International and Effy Jewellery stores, Del Sol colour-changing clothes and so on.
These stores also pay hefty fees to the cruise lines to be in these programs. An investigation by the Huffington Post for example, reported stores in Alaskan ports pay several hundred thousands of dollars every year to be included.
Freebies – Not So Free!
I warned them that in their cabin on embarkation they may find, like I did, discount vouchers and free charms to start collecting with the promise of more free ones by visiting certain stores. But that they needed to remember they’re designed to get them to visit stores which may not be the best value with highly skilled salesman to pressure them into buying jewellery, watches, diamonds, clothes – and not always at the sharpest and best prices.
I said if they are going to follow the advisor’s suggestions and wanted to avoid getting caught out, at least double check the prices online to see if it really was a good deal before buying.
Local versus Chains
The next area I see Alaska cruisers getting caught out shopping in port is focusing on the big souvenir shops close to the docking area. Some reports say they are owned by the lines, but I could not confirm that, but they do seem to be chains and not owned by locals.
So, I suggested to Graham and Pete to really support the community they are calling on to look for locally owned stores, often selling the same or similar items.
Local stores proudly advertise it on their signs or windows, and so they’re easy to find. Though I did warn them it may mean heading a block or two back from those clustered right as they got off the ship.
This brought me to tell them about another way cruisers get caught out when shopping for souvenirs and taking back something to remind them of the trip.
Most of the merchandise in the stores is mass-produced, made in places like China, and have almost no link to Alaska itself. I told them as they called into different ports, they would see the same item with just the port name changed.
Instead, when shopping I recommended they look for items with the “Silver Hand” and the “Made in Alaska” logos. These are controlled, monitored, and must be applied for to ensure authentic Alaskan goods.
When buying, I pleaded that they don’t get too caught up in the “smoke and mirror” promotions in stores either.
I suggested they be sceptical of the deep discounts off so-called usual selling price, the multi-buys like buy three T-shirts for price of two, and other tricks of the trade. I admit I have been caught out buying more mugs, T-shirts, and candy than I needed thinking it was a good deal. It wasn’t!
#6: The Tourist Traps Catch
I did stress that to not get caught out overall, to remember that in Alaska there are only a few ports, The Alaska cruise season is short and so all are focused on, and being developed, to separate us from as much money as possible.
Skagway, for example, has just over one thousand permanent residents, but it explodes when cruise passengers are there. So, they should be ready for “tourist trap” venues. Not to say that they’re not going to have a good time in them, but venues close to the port, like the bars and restaurants, are crowded, costly and often manufactured for the tourist trade.
Hunt Out Local Hot Spots
For example, in Juneau on the dock front there are often long lines for places like Tracy’s Crab Shack but 10 minutes away in a quieter and more local part of town where the float planes are, I told them they’d find more authentic restaurants. just like Alaska Fish & Chips where I had the best fish and chips I’ve had anywhere in a long time.
The Red Dog Saloon is also one of the most famous places to go in Juneau. However, the original Red Dog Saloon is long gone and was two blocks away. So, while they’d find it packed and very popular it is very much about creating a place for passengers like them to have a good time and take a big slug of their money.
I did also argue that while exploring the port towns are entertaining, they should not get caught up in just doing that, like many cruisers do, as the best things to see are outside of the towns and will be a more rewarding Alaska cruise experience.
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