How To Take an Alaska Cruise

Moving cruise ship

So you've decided on an Alaska cruise.  Fine choice!  Here are some tips to help you prepare for your trip:

  1. Offshore activities.  Once you've decided upon the cruise line, and made a down payment, you'll receive listings of offshore activities so that you can decide ahead of time what you'd like to do at each port.  The activities tend to have an Alaskan theme, i.e. dog sledding, whale watching, gold digging, and so on.  Because Alaska cruise ship lines want to appeal to a wide range of folks, they tend to offer activities that appeal to both the active (think bicycle ride to a glacier) and the more sedentary (think garden tour).
  2. Remember the weather.  For all its beauty, Alaska tends to the cool and wet side.  This means that many of your Alaska cruise activities will take place in less than ideal conditions.  You'll need to not only pack accordingly, but to decide ahead of time if you'll be as excited by your splurge on a $500 helicopter ride should the day be overcast.  That being said, Alaska is inimitably beautiful, rain or shine.
  3. Your swipe card to the city.  Your key to the city will actually be a magnetic swipe card that gets you on and off the boat.  You'll be given this card at the start of the trip and expected to hang on to it.  Every time you board, depart, or need to charge something to your cabin, you swipe your card (and remember that you do have to pay the tab at the end of the trip).  On some Alaska cruises, a photo of you is embedded in the magnetic strip of the card (be sure to bring photo ID).  Babies and children may be given an ID bracelet instead of an ID card.
  4. Norwalk virus.  Let's just get this one out of the way.  We've all heard about that nasty Norwalk virus that spread through cruise ships several years ago.  The symptoms-nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea-would definitely detract from your Alaska cruise experience.  While cruise ships provide the concentration of people in a contained environment that any virus loves, cruise ships everywhere have taken significant preventative measures after the Norwalk virus outbreaks.  You'll find antiseptic gel dispensers just about everywhere there is a surface to touch.  If you don't use the gel dispensers, you may get some dirty looks, which leads us to our next point....
  5. Socializing.  It's going to be a part of your cruise.  With that many people in a contained space, socializing is a part of the Alaska cruise experience. The cruise usually begins with an ice-breaker of sorts-perhaps a contest or game-which will be either fun or excruciating, depending on where you fall in the Myers-Briggs personality spectrum. How much you choose to participate in these events is entirely up to you-if you prefer to watch a video in your room, so be it.  I look at the organized social events as an opportunity to meet people and maybe win some free drink tickets!
  6. Itinerary.  Most Alaska cruises provide a "newsletter" or itinerary:  Organized social events and classes will be listed as well as scenic landmarks and the arrival time at your destination port.  This way, you can plan your daily nap so that it doesn't coincide with any of the must-see scenic views.  Alaska cruises try to get the boring part of travel done at night as you sleep so that each day offers something unique.
  7. Food.  Food is always a big part of the cruise ship experience.  There will be more than enough food, guaranteed.  You'll probably have several different dinner seating times in the dining room as well as additional options-say cafes or bistros-that offer food and beverage choices in informal settings.  And there's always room service.
  8. Shopping.  You'll have plenty of opportunities to shop at ports along the way.  Rumor has it that many of the shops are owned by the Alaskan cruise lines themselves and shut down once cruise season is over. In my experience, most towns do have stores that seem similar.  Still, the souvenirs are fun, and once again, tend to have an Alaskan theme (think gold nuggets, smoked salmon and Native American art).
  9. Programs.  Alaskan cruises tend to have programs that are of a more cultural and historic bent than some other cruise destinations.  There is also usually an opportunity to visit the galley (kitchen) and the bridge (where the captain navigates).  Obviously you'll want to behave yourself in the bridge (no sea level club here) so as not to unduly distract the captain.  Generally, as with the offshore activities, there is enough variety in the programs offered that there is something for everyone.

As a Seattleite who lives with a view of the waterfront, I sometimes forget just how spoiled I am to see tugboats, container ships and the like on a daily basis.  Regular sightings of these will be a part of your Alaska cruise ship experience that to some will be just as exciting as the whales, glaciers and bears.  There really is something for everyone on your trip, so simply do some planning ahead of time to maximize your fun.  And don't forget your rain gear!


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