Planning my first Alaskan trip was daunting.
Most of us have no idea how genuinely big the state is, and 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?
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Updated May 31, 2019
Land vs. Sea
There are things you can do 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 cruise tours 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 (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.
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, there are experiences -- like savoring the famed sourtoe cocktail at Dawson City's Downtown Hotel in Canada's Yukon -- that 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. There are also two sea days 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 an extra glacier 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 cruise I chose to make my comparison with is a one-way sailing from Vancouver to Whittier (Anchorage) aboard Princess Cruises' Star Princess, departing on August 4, 2018.
I love this itinerary, named Voyages of the Glaciers. It includes long days in Alaska's top three ports -- Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway -- and a full day in Glacier Bay National Park. Plus, after crossing the Gulf of Alaska (mostly overnight), there's a bonus cruise through Prince William Sound, where College Fjord is also chock-full of glaciers and wildlife. From Whittier, it's a 60-mile bus or train ride to Anchorage and the flight home.
What does an Alaska cruise cost?
For the August 4 departure, booked six weeks out, an ocean-view cabin sells for $649 per person, based on double occupancy. Taxes and port fees add $205, and gratuities -- $13.50 per person, per day -- total $95. For airfare, I used Google Flights to source prices from Chicago, and the round trip cost -- flying into Vancouver and home from Anchorage -- came to $713. Airport transfers in Vancouver and Anchorage add another $83. Cruise grand total: $1,745 per person
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. But to make our comparison, we'll leave those upgrades out.
To evaluate costs, let's start by looking at prices for an independently arranged land itinerary, staying in hotels and dining at restaurants in the same ports. I'm leaving drinks out of the calculation as, by my observation, drink prices on the ship 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.
Read reviews from travelers in our Princess cruise reviews.
First stop: Ketchikan
By land: To price airfare, I again used Google Flights and Chicago as my departure airport, and 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. Least expensive was a one-way on August 4, 2018, at $358 (all prices per person except as noted), a morning flight aboard American Airlines, connecting through Seattle onto Alaska Airlines.
Ketchikan's airport is located on a separate island from the town, and the price of the 2-minute ferry ride across is $12 roundtrip. But 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 August, rates at the hotel for a mountain-view room, the least expensive category, run $261 (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 to 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 $13.99. Add 6.5 percent local sales tax and a 20 percent tip and the meal comes to $17.70. For lunch, let's try Annabelle's Famous Keg & Chowder House, famed 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 serviced 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 times two days and we'll have spent $167 per person, without drinks. The cost of eating out in Alaska becomes readily apparent.
If we were on Star 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 stunning, 2.3-million-acre Misty Fjords National Monument, where 3,000-foot glacier-carved cliffs are coursed by waterfalls. This 4.5-hour trip offered by Allen Marine Tours is priced at $200.
By sea: Aboard Star 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: Princess' enrichment-focused program, North to Alaska, brings onboard Alaska culture, enrichment and dining, all of which are included in the cruise fare.
Bottom line: We've spent two days and two nights in Ketchikan and the cost comes to $640 per person, not including airfare.
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 1-hour hop is priced $131, one way. A taxi from the airport to the center of town runs about $30, and here we'd stay at the Four Points by Sheraton, a newer hotel that's right in the heart of downtown, with lots of shops and dining within walking distance. The cheapest room I could find in August came to $219 with taxes (double), and only if I prepaid.
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 this out of our comparison.
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 $122.
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 summer specials bring the rate as low as $161. 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 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 1-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 2-hour route that takes in the whole bay, and gets to within kissing distance of 15,300-foot Mount Fairweather.
After two nights each in Juneau and Skagway, we'll take the Alaska State Ferry back to Juneau and taxi to the airport ($30) for our evening flight onward.
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.
Bottom line: On a land-trip, four nights in Juneau and Skagway runs $1,247 per person, and that's using the shorter flightseeing trip to Glacier Bay.
Our last stops: Anchorage and Prince William Sound
By land: After ferrying back to Juneau we're on to the last leg of the journey -- the flight to Anchorage. Nonstop flights on this 1-hour, 40-minute route priced at $178, and a taxi from the airport to downtown runs about $15. Here, we'd bunk for the night at Hyatt House, one of several midtown hotel options in the same price range. The cost: $251 for the advance purchase rate, including taxes.
The reason we're coming to Anchorage isn't just for the flight home -- we have one last day trip to cover, one that is part of the cruise itinerary. It's a visit to eye-filling Prince William Sound, where the glaciers are named after prominent colleges, giving it the name College Fjord.
Whittier also happens to be home base for Phillips Cruises and Tours, which operates a day boat experience to explore Prince William Sound. Their 5-hour, 26 Glacier Cruise is offered daily in the summer, and including a coach transfer from Anchorage, the price comes to $239 (it's also possible to do the trip by train, for $40 more).
For the trip home to Chicago, United offers a nonstop flight that was both the cheapest and easiest option, and I priced it at $431; the same cost it would be if traveling home following the cruise.
By sea: Aboard Star Princess, the ship travels overnight across the Gulf of Alaska and then settles in for a lazy afternoon in Prince William Sound. After getting our fill of the ice, we'll dock in the early morning at the nearby port of Whittier, 60 miles from Anchorage. From here it's a scenic 1-hour transfer to the airport, where we'll await our flight home.
Bottom line: For the overnight in Anchorage and the visit to Prince William Sound, we'll spend $641, not including the flight home to Chicago.
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 $3,317 per person, almost twice as much as the cruise, which as we've noted comes in at $1,745.
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.
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.