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6 Tips For Cruising to Alaska on a Budget

Senior Editor, News and Features
Aaron Saunders

May 29, 2023

Read time
6 min read

Cruises to Alaska are loaded with budget busting opportunities. In addition to seeing towering glaciers and majestic fjords from the comfort of your ship, individual ports of call offer a seemingly-endless array of bucket-list opportunities. Dog sledding. Helicopter landings on a glacier. Railway tours. Gold panning. Salmon fishing.

These bucket-list activities, however, come with a cost -- one that can surprise first-time cruisers or those who have only ever sailed places like the Caribbean, where sub-$100 shore excursions are numerous.

For those looking for budget Alaska cruises, paying $500 to land on a glacier -- or $300 for a wilderness safari -- can quickly add up to more than the cost of the cruise itself, particularly for a family of four. Those looking for excursions in the sub-$50 per person category will be disappointed: frequently, the only tours that meet that amount are the cruise line sponsored transfers between the ship and the airport pre-and-post cruise.

However, it is still entirely possible to cruise to Alaska and not spend a fortune -- and still come away with an unforgettable experience in The Last Frontier.

Here are Cruise Critic's tips for cruising to Alaska on a budget:

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Identify the One Marquee Shore Excursion You Can't See Alaska Without

First things first: Cruising to Alaska on a budget doesn't mean spending zero dollars; it just means staying within a budget that's comfortable for you and your family or friends. And to that end, it's always worth looking through the shore excursion list provided by your cruise line to see if there are any tours that appeal to you.

These can be booked online, and now more than ever, it's a good idea to do so in advance. Tours -- especially marquee ones -- sell out fast, and those who wait until embarkation may find their tour of choice is sold out.

Browse Upcoming Alaska Cruises

So consider what you really want to do in Alaska. If you absolutely want to see bears, book a wildlife tour. If landing on a glacier sounds like an amazing opportunity, maybe that's the one big splurge you make on your Alaskan cruise. We've done it -- it is amazing. But you might prefer to spend that $1,000 elsewhere or keep it in the bank.

The choice is yours but definitely don't deprive yourself of an amazing opportunity based on price alone. After all, if there's one thing the global health pandemic taught everyone, it's that there are no certainties in life. Make the most of your time in Alaska and do what's important to you.

Realize You Don't Need an Excursion in Every Port

A common mistake first-time cruisers make is thinking they need an excursion in every port. With most excursions running around $100 per person and up, this mentality can dramatically ratchet up the costs for a family of four -- and unnecessarily so.

Sure, it's awesome to go on crab feasts and salmon bakes every day, but this can be both expensive and tiring. Ports in Alaska tend to occur in a back-to-back nature, meaning sea days are put on the start and end of a voyage -- and touring around for six or seven hours per day, for three or four straight days, can be exhausting.

Over-touring also deprives you from seeing what is truly Alaska's hidden gem: The ports of call themselves. Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan are fascinating towns in their own right, with plenty of local shops, restaurants, museums and noteworthy sights to see. And smaller ports like Icy Strait Point, Wrangell and Haines are easily walkable right from the ship.

Explore the Local Culinary Scene - On Your Own

In Juneau, you can take a culinary tour of the city for nearly $200 per person. Or -- and hear us out -- you can do your own culinary tour, at your own pace, for a fraction of the cost.

We're not talking about a trip to the local Denny's, either: Every Alaskan town has an abundance of amazing restaurants, bars, breweries, distilleries, and even food trucks that are worth your time and money. Most of these are clustered within easy walking distance of the cruise piers and are easily found by a simple Google search.

Some are famous in their own right. Tracy's Crab Shack and the Red Dog Saloon in Juneau are practically required visits for cruise passengers, as are Skagway Brewing Company and Klondike Brewing in Skagway or The Fish House in Ketchikan. Get lost. Ask locals where they eat and drink. We've done this very thing on nearly two dozen trips to Alaska and have never been disappointed with locals' recommendations.

Go For a Nature Hike (Or Walk)

Nature is within reach in every port of call, and hiking and walking options are plentiful -- and cost nothing more than some proper gear.

Hikers and walkers of all skill levels will find no end of interesting trails in Skagway that can be explored right from the piers. A printed map is even published of the trails and can be found at the National Park Service Office on Broadway Street or at the Skagway Museum on Spring Street. Descriptions of the hikes are also available online, and range from simple one-to-two mile strolls out of town to advanced, six-mile hikes to Upper Dewey Lake and beyond.

In Juneau, passengers can either take the inexpensive tram up Mount Roberts to go for a nice leisurely stroll, or hike straight from the cruise piers up the mountain.

Of course, if you are going to hike on your own, be prepared: Bear spray and insect repellant are a must, as are layers; weather conditions can change rapidly with elevation gain, and snow can be present on many trails into the summer months at higher elevations. Know your limits and always consult locals and websites first before setting out, as they can advise on recent trail conditions.

Visit The Local Museums and Points of Interest

Most of Alaska's ports of call are immensely walkable -- and that means plenty of points of interest included on tours are also within easy walking distance.

In Juneau, a short stroll from the piers brings passengers to the Alaska State Museum, where exhibits on Alaska's native peoples and history are on full display. It's well worth a visit and, like most museums, is more fascinating than its description might allude to.

Also in Juneau, visitors can enjoy free tours of the Alaskan State Capitol building through September 27. It's a surprisingly stately building for Juneau and is well worth your time to explore it.

In Skagway, the fabulous Skagway Museum should not be missed. Housed in a stone building constructed in 1899, it highlights the cultural history of Skagway's native peoples along with the town's transition from outpost to Gold Rush hub to tourist mecca. It also has a surprisingly nice little gift shop and bookstore within. Ditto for the Red Onion Saloon -- a former brothel turned museum, restaurant and tourist attraction.

In Ketchikan, the Tongass Museum is situated right on Dock Street, just a five-minute stroll from Ketchikan berths 1 and 2. Admission is just $6 for adults, and the museum -- along with the fabulous Totem Heritage Center -- can be accessed via the free "Downtown Shuttle Bus" that picks up at the cruise piers when ships are in port.

Don't Overlook the Inexpensive Tours; They're Fun!

Sure, it's easy to turn your nose up at some of the cheaper tours on offer. Duck boat tours? Lumberjack shows? Who would do that?

The answer is: You. You should do that. The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show in Ketchikan quickly became one of our favorite tours. We've seen it half a dozen times, and it never stops being fun. Affordable and great for the entire family, it is located just steps from Ketchikan Berth 1 and a short walk from Berth 4. A new option added back in 2021 allows visitors to participate in an axe-throwing competition (it's fun!), but the main show itself remains one of the most enjoyable - and affordable -- things to do in Alaska.

So, give an inexpensive tour a whirl. Chances are good that no matter what you do, you'll find something to enjoy in The Last Frontier.

Updated May 29, 2023
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