Many thanks to the great reviews on this and other sites. All that info really helped preparing for my first ever cruise.
Here is a 1-minute review for those who are in a hurry to book their next cruise:
Our experience with Holland America was all about Luxury, comfort, extremely detailed planning by HAL and perfect execution of every aspect of the cruise, from before boarding through the daily schedules to disembarkation and beyond. Excellent route choice and a perfect balance of at-sea versus port-of-call days, allocation of resources on the infrastructure side (very short waiting time for any consumable, elevators, restaurants, ample and comfortable seating at the theaters and elsewhere on the ship), as well as a personal service level by the best and friendliest staff I could imagine. If you can afford the expense, you'll get your money's worth with HAL cruising Alaska. (and no, I am not affiliated with HAL, I have my own daytime job at a very ground-based company :) ).
And for the detail oriented future travelers:
Shopping for the Cruise:
Expedia, Priceline and other mega travel sites did not offer the best choice on Cruise prices. Other less known online travel agencies had prices at 10-15% discount on the exact same cruise lines, cabins, cabin credits, and sail dates. That's very significant considering the cost of a cruise (more on total cruise costs below).
Booking your Summer Cruise 6+ months before cruise date has its advantages. Better cabin selection for example + a $300 credit per cabin if booked by end of February in our case. No gimmicks. On March 1st and later, the credit offered went down to $50 credit per cabin.
When you book your trip, you are asked to pay around 10% of the full price, and the balance payable about 2 months before the Cruise date. Cancellation insurance is an additional 7% ($80 on $1150 per person per cabin).
Or you could decide to shop for bargains just a few weeks ahead of time.
If you are flexible on dates, cruise lines, departure ports, and OK with fewer cabin choices, you can find excellent deals at real discounts of 40-50% off the full price. but, not on all cruise lines..
As a reference, in our case, the price on the specific HAL cruise we had paid for 4 months earlier was still the exact same price 4 weeks before actual departure. (yet, other dates/cruise lines could save you half off for a similar itinerary!).
Here is a list of items we took with us based on other members recommendations and our own needs + comments on usability in the aftermath.
Flashlights - Never used those on or off the ship. Might be handy in case of a very unlikely total power outage.
A power strip w/surge protection - very handy because the cabins only have 2 power outlets.
Waterproof laynards - Never used those. On the ship we carried the HAL Cards in a wallet and off ship a purse/bag did the trick for anything we wanted to shlep around.
My Cellphone served as the camera/video recorder proved and was invaluable for such a trip. (also used it as the video editor). - An extended charged battery or a second one are very useful too.
Netbook - even away from wifi it was very useful as an eReader + to write emails for later or portions of this review.
DVD Burner - My parents were delighted to get a nicely edited DVD on the final cruise day to take with on their flight back home.
We also took an additional camera as a backup. You just can't afford to miss photographing the amazing sights of Alaska's nature.
Ginger candy - Some say Ginger helps with sea sickness. Never came close to even considering these. The waters was mirror-calm.
Walkie Talkies - We did not get any. Not even one passenger carried those with them. Effectiveness is doubtful through the metal structures of the ship anyway(?)
Scarf, Coat w/Hood, Gloves - a must, especially on days when you want to be on the open decks for uninterrupted views of the incredible Glaciers and other sights.
Water-tight shoes - never needed those. The most we had was light rain/drizzle in Ketchikan.
Wrist watch w/alarm - No alarms clocks in the cabins. But you probably have your own watch or use your cellphone.
A day ahead of the cruise:
We flew in from California a day ahead of the cruise to enjoy Vancouver for a day (it deserves more!), also to make sure we don't miss our ship, and to allow our suitcases to catch up with us should they be delayed for whatever reason by the airlines. As far as hotel bookings go, this is one of the best sites I could find for hotels: trivago.
For US travelers who just want the cruise, the better option is to take a 7-day Inside Passage from Seattle instead of Vancouver. Not only is the itinerary identical, but it can save you on flight costs, time, and more importantly eliminate all the overhead associated with Immigration: Going through Vancouver means doing Immigration from the US to Canada,then Canada to US (for the cruise), then 2 more times on disembarkation and flying back to the US.
Cruising to Alaska from San Francisco is an option too,which we readily abandoned after learning from first hand experiences of colleagues at work (a lengthy 10 day cruise with many days in the open ocean affected by waves. Limited selection of cruise lines.Not the best route in Alaska). But do your own checks of course.
The process was a breeze. Very efficient all around from the moment you reach the beautiful 'Canada Place' Cruise terminal, hand over the suitcases at the curb, and head toward Immigration (Canada to US). The next quick step is check in at the HAL desks to get your personal plastic Card to use as your stateroom key, ID, and for payments while on the ship.
--> The cruise ship left dock at 4:15PM! - Note that you can board as early as Noon, and head straight to the excellent Lido buffet which is waiting for you.. Then by the time you go to your stateroom an hour later or so, the suitcases are already in there. Nice.
Again, very efficient. Prepare your suitcases the evening before you get off the ship. Put them outside your room by Midnight, and they appear at the waiting area off the ship. You get special colored/numbered tags for that part of the process that also tells you when it's your time to get off the ship.
And everything in between.. :
We loved everything about the ship. The decorative elements. The artwork and flower arrangements everywhere. The carpeting and trims on the walls and windows and stairwells and elevators. Everything felt very luxurious.
There are many different areas you can hang in and relax in semi private settings too: The beautiful Explorer's Cafe and Internet areas (1 min internet connection goes for 75c). The comfy Library area with a surprisingly up to date and varied selection of books, Magazines and Newspapers. And many other areas like a Tea bar section, or other areas on Decks 4,5,8,9 both indoors with large windows, or outdoors on Deck 8 at the pool/spa area or at rear deck pool area, or the front of the ship, both wide open to the elements and unobstructed views 24 hour/day.
We would be hard pressed to believe that there were 1500 passengers and 600 crew members on board. You never felt crowded, and always had areas where you could just kick back, relax and read or nap with your eyes open while looking at the scenic views that only the inside passage can offer.
My parents stayed at a full Ocean View cabin,while we stayed at an inside room (my wife's choice). Both were on Deck 2 (Main Promenade). The rooms are not spacious, but very functional. Very comfortable beds and pillows with good air-conditioning, 32" flat-screen TV and a DVD player. The power outlets have both 115v and 220v, but only 2 in a cabin. (bring a power strip or just an in-the-wall splitter to charge all of your electronics at once).
The Ocean View cabin has a bathtub. The inside cabin only a shower. The hot water comes out instantaneously and with good pressure. Can't complain about that! - Shampoo, Conditioner and soap dispenser unit is affixed to the wall. Very good quality of all 3. There is a wall mounted hair dryer in the bathroom and another portable electric one at the drawer in the room.
Great sound insulation too. The rooms were VERY quite. We never heard a sound from other rooms and all were occupied.
The ship's 57,909 HP engines were doing their job but we did not notice much vibrations or noise in that respect.
The closets provide ample space, enough to stash your suitcases away too. They are also modular and can be set to different configurations for your wardrobe. The safe in the closet is pretty large, good enough to hold our two 12" Netbooks and much more room. They are easy to open/close by just sliding any credit card (no fee) in the slot.
-- I can't say enough praise for the Service crew!!! - We met the most wonderful, warm, thoughtful and caring service providers anywhere we went on the ship. They are not only service minded for a moment, but connect instantly and offer options or ask about preferences that did not even occur to us. Considering the fact that they only have you for 7 days before a new round of passengers comes aboard, you would expect them to be more distant or formal. But that's not the case. We got to know some of them by name from day one and they remember yours too. Amazing. Remember that there are 1500 passengers on board!! . The servers at the oh-so-beautiful Rotterdam restaurant (free to dine, just make a reservation), remembered our names and our preferences of drinks after just one visit there.
The service teams are mostly from the Philippines or Indonesia. Many of them work the cruise lines for years. It's no easy job. During the cruising season they work 7 days a week non stop for 3+ months, before having a break and joining the ship for cruises on other parts of the world. Obviously they only see their families a couple of times a year. It was very interesting talking to them. I noticed other passengers engaging in conversations with them too. Some gave them personal tips at the last day, but you don't need to and can still feel good about that (read below).
-- The managing teams:
Those are mostly Dutch, British or Australian. The captain did a fabulous job, and the totally calmed waters probably helped towards that end. The captain messages were informative and interesting but kept to a minimum and only came on after 9:30AM in the speaker systems. It all felt very professional as far as getting to port of calls, timely departures, slowing down along beautiful scenery, and coming to full stop in front of Glaciers for as long as needed to allow everyone to absorb the magnificent sights.
Coming form the nicely diversified Bay area of San Francisco, the mix was a bit of a surprise to us. 85% or so were US/Canadian and others of European/British heritage. Only about 6 people of African origin and 10% of Indian-Asian descent. The age groups were predominantly retirees, about 20% 20-60 year old and ~20 kids which considering the fact school year was just starting made a lot of sense. Everyone was very polite, quite and easy to talk too. You did have a lot of personal space and we mostly talked to other passengers during special Tea hours or other small group events.
The Food, oh the food:
First, it's a myth that you have food 24 hours. There were no open buffets from 1AM to5 AM.. hmm, just kidding.
From the moment you board to the moment you disembark, you can indulge yourself in a fantastic culinary adventure.
Board as early at noon on departure day and head straight to the Lido buffet on Deck 8. Two identical lines of rich,varied and plentiful ready made or made-to-order plates are available. From appetizers to bread rolls to fruit plates to main courses to the many desserts - the Lido has it all.
On the first 2 days you are served and cannot pick food or drinks by yourself to prevent the spread of illnesses. The lines were very short and there is ample seating available indoors or outside by the pool.
We also tried the wonderful Rotterdam restaurant - free breakfast and dinners too - and found even more exclusive items on the menu that were irresistible. We went there several times for both Breakfast and Dinner during the 7-day cruise.
Then there are the 'specials' - the food fests. Either a BBQ by the pool one evening, or the Philippine/Indonesian feasts on another and more surprises that keep you form ever getting bored.
You can also take advantage of room service and have breakfast in your stateroom (no extra charge). That was a nice arrangement and they did not miss even one of the items we ordered. Everything arrived super-fresh and hot.
The only 2 issues we had were with the air-conditioning in the room that was not cooling enough. We called the Front Desk and someone came and fixed it within 1 hour. We also called to have a breakfast tray picked up but no one came after an hour. Turned out that we needed to call some other number instead of the Front Desk. Once we did the tray was picked up 15 min later.
Another passenger had what seemed like a water flow in the room down the corridor from us and a crew was on it before we even knew anything was going on, with blowers to dry the corridor and the passengers moved to another stateroom.
Ports of Call:
Juneau -- You arrive at 1PM and depart at 10PM, but the useful hours for in town activities actually end by 5-6PM when the Museum and surprisingly many stores close for the day. So, make sure to disembark at 1PM.
We highly recommend the Alaska Museum and also the trip to the Mendenhall glacier. We opted for a round-trip with one of the local bus operators that have booths right where the ship docks. It's $16 round trip per person for a 20 min ride. The bus driver was very funny, helpful and knowledgeable. The last bus left at 3:30PM and the last returning bus from the glacier at 5:00PM. The trip is well worth it. There is a beautiful visitor center with fantastic views of the Glacier, as well as an elevated nature path above Salmon spawning areas and the Bears are right there too. We will always remember one mature bear with her 2 cubs hunting for Salmon and picking berries from the bushes. And they were just 100 feet away from us (but safely below the elevated wooden path).
Skagway -- I could not visit the town because of a minor cold, but my parents took the Train trip up the mountains and found it interesting, although at $125/pp for the 2 hour round trip felt that it was a bit pricey. (The tickets on board the ship were only selling at a $5 premium - $130/pp). My wife chose to check out the stores for freebies and some small items to take home. If you are into Jewelry shopping, not only is there a 'motivational' 1+ hour presentation at the theater on board the ship, but you are also flooded with coupon books and free-gifts info to lure you into shops at all 3 ports. (not our thing but it is a revenue generating machine for the ships and apparently there are enough passengers that do go for that)
Ketchikan -- We took a 2 hour tour with a local operator that takes you to places where Salmon come to spawn (and die) and others where Bear meet Salmon, and for a drive along the coast line for possible views of Whales and assured sights of Bald Eagles. They also stopped at the Totem pole Park which we did not find interesting. The final drop off point was Creek Street that makes for interesting photos with the houses built against the side of the very steep hillside and above the river. The trip cost $60/pp and included the fee for the Totem pole park and Dolly's house.
Fees and expenses:
So, you paid for a cruise. How much more will it really cost you?
Aside from the cost of flights and lodging, should you decide to arrive ahead of the cruise or stay after, you are also going to be charged about $100/pp in gratuities at the end of the cruise. It goes without saying that you never really need to leave 'tips' while on the ship. It's all taken care of collectively. (assuming $100/pp for 1500 passengers,divided by 600 crew members and you can see that it averages $900 of tips per crew member per month. So feel good about the service and enjoy it all).
It is all charged automatically to the Credit Card you provide at online check-in.
Other expenses can be for wine bottles or wine by the glass, and for excursions you chose to take that can range from a basic ride around a town for $50/pp to Helicopter rides to remote glaciers which can run you $500/pp.
The numerous activities available daily on the ship were more than any person can do in one cruise. You are guaranteed to find whatever floats your boat, and the well laid out daily 'Newspaper' delivered every evening to your room, lists all the activities for the following day along with Weather forecast and other interesting facts. You can chose to work out everyday in the well equipped Gym or do anything at all. Whatever makes you happy.
We saw Orca whales and some were breaching on our second day at sea. Bears hunting for Salmon. Large chunks of ice breaking off Glaciers and crushing with loud noise into the waters, many sea birds, and Bald Eagles, and pristine wilderness of forests and snow covered mountains. Everything was very unique - a true Alaskan experience and all from the comfort of a modern ship.
There are many more details to the trip and surprises to enjoy, but better leave the discoveries for you.
This was my first cruise, and now I know there will be more.
Maybe even a repeat cruise of the Inside Passage in Alaska. It was that good.