Planning my first trip to Alaska was daunting.
Most of us have no idea how genuinely big the state is or how far apart its most iconic sights are from one another. Once we get our heads around the size of Alaska -- larger than Texas, California and Montana combined -- then we've got to figure out how to cram it all into a vacation.
I guess it shouldn't be a surprise, then, that the default choice for many first-timers is an Alaskan cruise. But, does a cruise pack in the most value for an Alaskan vacation?
Independent exploration vs. cruise travel
You can do some things on an independently arranged Alaska land trip that you're not going to experience during a seven-day cruise. You'll have more time to savor the ports after the ships depart for the day, you'll have a chance to hang with the locals and you'll have more flexibility with touring plans than you do on a cruise.
Note that I'm not referring to the cruisetours offered by many cruise lines -- that is, when a seven-day cruise is packaged with a land extension that takes us to Denali National Park and points north. No, I'm talking about exploring Alaska's glorious Inside Passage, the 1,000-mile panhandle of islands and byways jutting toward Vancouver. This is magnificent country, rife with hemlock-forested mountains and glacier-carved fjords, brimming with bald eagles and bears alike.
But, it's also relatively inaccessible by road. Only two ports in the southeast -- Skagway and Haines -- can be reached by a (very long) road through Canada's Yukon. Ketchikan and Sitka are on islands. Glacier Bay National Park, home to must-see scenery, has no road access and only a tiny landing strip. Even Alaska's state capital, Juneau, is landlocked.
By contrast, Alaska's southeast is ideal for cruises. The ships shorten the distances -- you'll sail mostly at night, packing in experiences each day. You won't be waiting for planes and ferries, nor checking in and out of hotels (packing and unpacking!) every few days.
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And then there's the cost. How does traveling through Alaska by cruise differ from a land-based trip? Which one's more expensive? I ran the numbers to find out.
Apples and Oranges
I'll start with two caveats about this head-to-head comparison. First, not everything offered on a cruise will be available to someone touring Alaska by land. Many Alaska-bound cruise ships offer Broadway-style stage productions, "Movies Under the Stars," a casino, a spa and other services that are rare in the state. Similarly, experiences such as savoring the famed sour toe cocktail at Dawson City's Downtown Hotel in Canada's Yukon are availed only through longer stays. Another difference: Most hotel rooms are bigger than standard cruise cabins.
Second, while costs for hotels, restaurants and tours in ports don't fluctuate much whether booked a year in advance or last-minute, cruise pricing seesaws enormously. As with airline seats, an empty cabin generates no revenue -- cruise lines are incentivized to fill every bed. So, if a particular cruise has lots of empty cabins in the weeks leading up to departure, prices will fall; if a sailing is close to selling out months in advance, deals evaporate.
There are two main ways to do an Alaska cruise. Most common is a seven-day round trip sailing out of either Seattle or Vancouver. These usually call on three ports in Southeast Alaska and make a visit to a tidal glacier. Two sea days also are in the mix. The other option is a one-way cruise between Vancouver and Anchorage (or vice versa). You'll still visit three ports, but you'll also get Glacier Bay National Park thrown in. One other advantage of this routing is that you can tack on additional touring in "mainland" Alaska before or after your cruise.
The cruises I chose to make my comparison with are two nearly identical one-way sailings, the same week, from Vancouver to Anchorage. The first is aboard Holland America Line's Westerdam departing July 12, 2020 on a Glacier Discovery voyage; the second rides Princess Cruises' Voyages of the Glaciers itinerary on Grand Princess sailing July 18, 2020.
This is my favorite seven-day itinerary through the Inside Passage. Both ships include long days in Alaska's top three ports -- Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway -- and a full day in Glacier Bay. The Holland America Line cruise ends in Seward, which is 126 miles by bus or train from Anchorage, where you'll catch your flight home. You'll disembark Grand Princess at the port of Whittier, and from here it's a 60-mile bus or train ride to Anchorage. With Princess, you'll also get a second glacier experience at College Fjord.
What does an Alaska cruise cost?
For the Holland America Line sailing, booked six months out, I found the ocean-view cabin selling for $899 per person, based on double occupancy. Grand Princess was priced at $765 for a similar cabin.
You could save a few bucks booking an inside cabin, and cruise fares can even go lower than the example above, but airfares would probably rise as you get closer to sailing date. You can also spend more by springing for a balcony cabin or signing up for spa treatments or meals in the ship's specialty restaurants. To make our comparison, we'll leave out those upgrades.
But, there are some extra costs you can't avoid. For Holland America Line, taxes and port fees add $240; with Princess (docking in Whitter) add $205. For either line, gratuities -- $14.50 per person, per day -- will total $102. For airfare, I used Google Flights to source prices out of Chicago, and the round trip cost -- flying into Vancouver and home from Anchorage -- came to $515 for the Holland America Line dates; $605 for Princess. Airport transfers in Vancouver and Anchorage add another $98 (using Seward) or $88 (Whittier).
Cruise grand total: $1,854 per person with Holland America Line; $1,765 sailing Princess.
To make our comparison, let's look at prices for an independently arranged land itinerary, staying in hotels and dining at restaurants in the same ports. I'm leaving out drinks from the calculation as, by my observation, drink prices on ships and on land are pretty comparable. I'm also leaving out shore excursions; these are things you can add into your cruise schedule or into the land itinerary below.
First stop: Ketchikan
By land: To price airfare, I again used Google Flights and Chicago as my departure airport, but instead of flying into Vancouver for the first leg (where the cruise departs from), I opted for us to fly straight to the first port: Ketchikan. The least expensive one-way fare on July 18, 2020, was $376 (all prices per person except as noted), using a morning flight aboard Delta Air Lines, connecting through Seattle.
Ketchikan's airport is located on a separate island from the town, and the price of the two-minute ferry ride across is $12 round trip. Fortunately, the hotel I'd select for our stay in Ketchikan, the Cape Fox Lodge, offers a free transfer for the 3-mile ride from the ferry dock to the lodge. In July, rates at the hotel for a mountain-view room, the least expensive category, run $284 per night (double), including local taxes.
Restaurants in Alaska aren't inexpensive. Much of the menu is focused on the sea's fresh bounty. Although not high priced compared with seafood at home, it's still not cheap. Let's take a look at what meals cost in a typical port like Ketchikan.
We'll start our morning at the Pioneer Cafe, where the popular stuffed hash browns run $14.99. Add 6.5 percent local sales tax and a 20 percent tip, and the meal comes to $18.96. For lunch, let's try Annabelle's Famous Keg & Chowder House, noted for its seafood. Here, a salmon burger with a side of fries or coleslaw runs $19.99 -- with tax and tip, $25.29. And, the New York Cafe is an unpretentious but delicious option for dinner. The pan-seared halibut filet served with rice and salad runs $32, or $40.48 with tax and tip.
Now, although we will have dined well, we haven't eaten at Ketchikan's most expensive restaurants. Multiply those costs by two days and we'll have spent $169 per person, without drinks. The cost of eating out in Alaska becomes readily apparent.
If we were on Westerdam or Grand Princess, we'd spend the first night and day en route to Ketchikan sailing past the beautiful forests of Vancouver Island and along the British Columbia coast. To make things equitable for us on the land-based tour, I'd suggest a day trip to the stunning, 2.3-million-acre Misty Fjords National Monument, where waterfalls course through 3,000-foot glacier-carved cliffs. This 4.5-hour trip offered by Allen Marine Tours is priced at $200.
Bottom line: We've spent two days and two nights in Ketchikan and the cost comes to $653 per person, not including airfare.
By sea: Aboard Westerdam and Grand Princess, all our meals are included, and we'd also have a crack at evening entertainment, complimentary to guests, including a Broadway-style stage show and a nightclub with a live DJ. One other benefit: enrichment-focused programs that bring aboard Alaska culture, history and dining, all of which are included in the cruise fare.
Onward! To Juneau, Skagway and Glacier Bay National Park
By land: To get to Juneau, the next port, we'd fly on one of the several daily Alaska Airlines flights. The one-hour hop is priced $149, one way. A taxi from the airport to the center of town runs about $30, and here we'd stay at the Baranof Downtown, a centrally located classic, with lots of shops and dining venues within walking distance. The cheapest price I could find in July came to $227 per night (double), and only if I prepaid -- $681 for a three-night stay for two in Juneau.
Any excursions I'd add to the itinerary -- helicopter flights over the Juneau Icefield, a canoe trip to Mendenhall Glacier -- will all be priced comparably to the price onboard the ship, so we'll leave these out of our comparison. I'll use the meal prices found in Ketchikan for Juneau (though there's a greater variety of options in the capital, both more and less expensive).
Skagway is the smallest port on the itinerary. There's a tiny airport, but the flight from Juneau can be pricy, so let's use the Alaska State Ferry system. These ferries represent the workhorses of Southeast Alaska, an indispensable network for residents. The ferries don't operate daily on this route, and speeds vary by boat. But optimally, we'll be on the Fairweather out of Juneau, and the trip north takes 2.5 hours; round trip, the ticket is $142.
Once in Skagway, accommodations are limited, but the Westmark Inn is a simple-but-comfortable beacon of hospitality. It's just a few blocks from the ferry pier to the hotel, so we won't need a cab, and the rate I found for July was $183 per night. Again, lots of excursions are possible in Skagway, such as the rail trip to White Pass and the Yukon, but I'll leave these out of the comparison.
A cruise ship is, by far, the easiest, most economical way to see Glacier Bay National Park. To plan an independent visit, the only easy alternative to the cruise is a scenic flight, and Mountain Flying Services operates trips out of the Skagway airport. Flightseeing won't be quite the same experience as a cruise, but it will almost definitely be spectacular (bring me along!). The one-hour flight over the Chilkat Range and along the east side of Glacier Bay is $250 per person, but if the weather's good, I'd be sorely tempted to do the $450 Pilot's Choice, a two-hour route that takes in the whole bay and gets to within kissing distance of 15,300-foot Mount Fairweather.
After two nights in Skagway, we'll take the Alaska State Ferry back to Juneau and taxi to the airport ($30) for our trip home. The Juneau–Chicago flight on Alaska Airlines, with a connection in Seattle, runs $363 on July 25.
Bottom line: On a land trip, five nights in Juneau and Skagway runs $1,173 per person, and that's using the least-expensive flightseeing trip to Glacier Bay.
By sea: It's a beautiful sail from Juneau to Skagway through the Lynn Canal, a spectacular, glacier-carved trough. It's usually a great time to be out on deck enjoying the scenery, but the onward route from Skagway takes us to Glacier Bay, a highlight of the journey for many Alaska visitors. A sea day crossing the Gulf of Alaska takes us on to Whittier or Seward, the cruise ports for Anchorage, and the scenic bus journey to the airport takes about two hours.
Comparing land and sea costs
So, did we save anything by arranging an independent tour of Southeast Alaska? Nope. The ground version of the trip through Southeast Alaska comes to $3,081 per person, almost 75 percent more than the cruise, which as we've noted comes in between $1,765 and $1,854 per person.
Wow! I knew that the price of a cruise would equate favorably against an independent land trip, but I didn't expect the difference to be that much.
Obviously, there are ways to shave costs when arranging a land-based tour of Alaska's southeast. You can stay in cheaper hotels or dine in less-expensive restaurants, but these aren't going to cut costs by much. You could also skip flightseeing in Glacier Bay, but alternative routes to this Alaskan icon aren't going to be any less expensive.
There are a lot of good reasons to book an independent exploration of Alaska. I've made three cruise-less trips to the state and each one of them has been eye-opening -- and expensive and time-consuming to arrange. But in this case, it's not just about the money and planning time. Independent travel requires a steady focus on getting to the next destination. When I think of the ease of planning a cruise, of unpacking just once and letting the scenery sail by my window -- well, that's hard to beat.
Bottom line? Step aboard and let the captain introduce you to the best of Alaska.
Independent, ground-based tour, July 2020
Round trip airfare (Chicago–Ketchikan, Juneau–Chicago): $739
Internal air (Ketchikan–Juneau): $149
Ferry (Juneau–Skagway, round trip): $142
Hotels (two nights Ketchikan, three nights Juneau, two nights Skagway per person): $808
Three meals daily (based on Ketchikan example): $593
Day tours (Misty Fjords, Glacier Bay): $450
Incidentals (taxis, tips, shows): $200
Total: $3,081 per person
Westerdam cruise -- July 12, 2020, departure
Ocean-view cabin: $899
Taxes and port fees: $240
Gratuities ($14.50 per day): $102
Airport transfers (Vancouver, Anchorage): $98
Round trip airfare (Chicago–Vancouver, Anchorage–Chicago): $515
Total: $1,854 per person
Grand Princess cruise -- July 18, 2020, departure
Ocean-view cabin: $765
Taxes and port fees: $205
Gratuities ($14.50 per day): $102
Airport transfers (Vancouver, Anchorage): $88
Round trip airfare (Chicago-Vancouver, Anchorage-Chicago): $605
Total: $1,765 per person
A native of San Diego, David Swanson has been awed by Alaska on more than 10 separate trips, including land-based journeys, one of which ventured north of the Arctic Circle. His writing and photography has been featured in the pages of National Geographic Traveler, American Way and the Los Angeles Times for more than 20 years, and he has served on the board of directors for the Society of American Travel Writers since 2009.
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