(2:20 p.m. EDT) -- Your eyes are not deceiving you -- Alaska cruises really are selling for under $400 a week. On premium lines. During peak summer months. If you want to cruise north to the land of calving glaciers, dogsledding and gold panning, your base cruise fare could cost less than one flightseeing shore excursion. (We saw tours listed in the $400's or $500's on our recent cruise.)
We talked to a few travel agents to get the lowdown on the recent spate of Alaska cruise deals … and what cruisers should keep in mind before they book.
Fares have been dropping for June and July Alaska cruises, without a doubt. "We've seen Holland America and Princess Cruises down to below $399 per person for inside cabins," John Keen, CEO of CruiseNow.com, told Cruise Critic in an e-mail. "Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises have come down too, but not to the extent that HAL and Princess have."
While Keen says that the "ridiculous" rates are mostly on inside and occasionally outside cabins, Joad Hamed, vice president of American Discount Cruises and Travel, told Cruise Critic that other great fares can be had as well. For instance, balcony cabins on Princess are hovering around $1,000 a person, compared to previous years' prices of $1,700 to $1,900 for peak-season cruises.
"The very best deals … are typically on the one-way cruises," Hamed added. One-way cruises typically start in Vancouver and end in Seward or Whittier --or vice versa. Hamed notes that one-way cruises are best if you want to see more northerly Alaska destinations, like the Anchorage area, or want to tack on a land tour in the state's interior pre- or post-cruise.
These peak-season deals are definitely unusual. "I think the stock market swoon in May stopped a lot of people who were planning that late booking to Alaska. That caused the cruise lines to have to drop rates to fill these ships," posits Keen.
If you're a bit pickier, you can find reduced rates, but possibly not bargain basement prices, on other sailings. According to Hamed, a handful of roundtrip cruises are showing more affordable fares, including Star Princess for $517 and Westerdam for $499 (for inside cabins). Hamed also sites August and September rates from under $450 on Princess and $499 to $549 on Holland America.
Before you start tossing dollars at the cruise lines, you'll want to consider the greater picture. Close-in sailings, departing in just weeks, may be cheap, but last-minute airfare is not. "Airfare this summer has been high to Vancouver, Seattle and certainly Anchorage and that has been a deterrent to last minute bookings," notes Keen. As Hamed likes to tell his customers, you need to focus on the entire vacation package price. Make sure the airfare doesn't wipe out any cruise savings, and don't assume you can cash in frequent flier miles for your desired air routing this late in the game. Alaska shore tours tend to be pricier, on average, than Caribbean ones, so adjust your expectations upwards.
Plus, an eleventh hour booking means you're late to the table. Your fellow passengers have been snapping up the best dining times and cabin locations and pre-booking shore tours, spa treatments and specialty dining times. You run the risk of not getting your first choice in any of these areas.
It's also worth repeating that the really low fares are on inside cabins. Be sure you're OK with smaller, windowless digs -- especially in a scene stealing region like Alaska -- before you sign up.
Finally, cruise fares can change faster than a bald eagle can snatch up a hapless salmon. If you're interested, book soon to lock in these Alaska deals.
--by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor