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View of Icy Strait Point's pier (Photo: Jorge Oliver)
Icy Strait Point, Alaska (Photo: Jorge Oliver)

Can You Have an Unforgettable Alaska Cruise Without Booking Shore Excursions?

View of Icy Strait Point's pier (Photo: Jorge Oliver)
Icy Strait Point, Alaska (Photo: Jorge Oliver)
Jorge Oliver

Last updated
May 27, 2024

Read time
6 min read

There’s no denying that shore excursions are a fundamental part of any cruise experience. And some destinations -- due to their vastness, their plurality of attractions or the relatively short time passengers spend in port – simply lend themselves more to booking a tour with your cruise line.

Alaska may very well be considered one such destination. Shore excursions in this immense and largely unspoiled region are famous for being uniquely awe-inspiring, not to mention offering the convenience of having all the logistics sorted out for you.

But are shore excursions essential in the Last Frontier? Can you have an enjoyable time in Alaska without booking a single tour?

Recently, we went on a seven-night sailing aboard Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas and steered clear of all organized tours.

Here’s what we learned from our experience.

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Why Forego Shore Excursions in Alaska?

Juneau welcome sign (Photo: Jorge Oliver)
Juneau is one of Alaska's most popular cruise destinations (Photo: Jorge Oliver)

While there are copious compelling reasons to book a shore excursion in Alaska -- either through your cruise ship or independently – the opposite can also be true.

Perhaps you prefer to go solo or with a smaller group than the average shore excursion offers. Or maybe you’re already familiar with the destination and have a clear idea of how you’d like to spend your day in port.

Sometimes the reason can be out of your hands, like when the shore excursion you had your heart set on is fully booked or cancelled due to weather.

But the most universal reason is arguably economic. In general terms, Alaska cruises are notorious for being expensive (although deals can be had).

The same goes for Alaska shore excursions, which tend to be priced considerably higher than their counterparts in other popular destinations like the Caribbean.

In fact, depending on your choices, you can easily end up spending more on shore excursions than the cost of the cruise itself -- particularly if you want to take any marquee excursions like flightseeing or dog sledding adventures.

If you’re looking to save some money or stay within a certain budget, setting off on your own can be an attractive -- and economical -- alternative.

Alaska’s Cultural Attractions are Easily Accessible

Performance hall at Sitka's Kwaan Naa Kahidi Tribal Community House (Photo: Jorge Oliver)
In Sitka, the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Tribal Community House showcases native culture (Photo: Jorge Oliver)

Nature is Alaska’s undisputed star, and it comes as no surprise that most shore excursions focus on the state’s natural attractions. Whether it’s an up-close-and-personal visit to a glacier, wildlife-watching expeditions or kayaking in pristine waterways, the Last Frontier is a haven for outdoor activities. And guided professional tours are indisputably the way to go when diving deep into the state’s natural beauty.

But the great outdoors isn’t all that Alaska has to offer. The 49th State has plenty of cultural attractions that are well worth checking out and don’t necessarily require signing up for a tour.

Museums and cultural centers abound and provide excellent insight into Alaska’s unique natural and human history. Enjoying them is as easy as walking into the venue and buying an entry ticket, if one is required. And you can count on finding at least one worthwhile cultural attraction in every port of call, no matter how small.

Discovering and learning about the traditions of Alaska’s native cultures is another worthwhile enlightening endeavor that can be enjoyed without booking a shore excursion.

Having a pint at Haines Brewing Company (Photo: Jorge Oliver)
Having a pint at Haines Brewing Company (Photo: Jorge Oliver)

In Sitka, for example, you can catch a performance at the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Tribal Community House, and similar cultural presentations are frequently held in ports like Icy Strait Point or Juneau.

Some Alaska attractions go beyond the cultural realm. For instance, discovering the state’s legendary breweries, bars and restaurants is a great way to soak in the local flair as well as sampling homegrown specialties. Juneau’s Alaskan Brewing Company offers a free shuttle from the cruise pier to the brewery, some five miles away, where you can partake in tours and tastings.

And while culinary tours may be offered by your cruise line, Alaska’s ports are manageable enough that you can sort out on your own where to go.

Take a Hike in Alaska

Hiking shore excursion in Wrangell's Rainbow Falls. (Photo: Jorge Oliver)
Hiking Wrangell's Rainbow Falls on a Hurtigruten cruise. (Photo: Jorge Oliver)

Of all the physical activities you can practice in Alaska, hiking is easily the most accessible. Trails are abundant in every port and range from laidback strolls to strenuous treks.

The popularity of hiking in Alaska is widespread, so it’s not uncommon for cruise lines to offer a hearty selection of walking tours as part of their shore excursion offerings.

And there are very good reasons to book a hiking a tour: A good local guide can enhance your experience by providing valuable context. Plus, setting off with a sizable group is an advisable way to keep bears and other potentially hazardous wildlife at bay.

But setting off on your own is also doable and only requires a pair of sturdy boots and other hiking equipment of your choice (plus, be sure to bring bear spray!). As soon as you step off your ship, you’re never too far from a trailhead.

In Sitka, for example, you can easily tackle the totem-rich trails of Sitka National Historical Park, located just a stone’s throw away from the city center. Ditto for Juneau’s Mount Roberts Trail, or the Gold Rush Cemetery and Lower Reid Falls in Skagway.

Local visitor’s centers are equipped with a wealth of information to enhance your hike, including maps and other useful goodies. They can also help you identify the most transited trails and whether bears have been spotted in the area.

Access to Alaska’s Attractions Isn't Limited to Shore Excursions

Skagway's White Pass & Yukon Route railroad (Photo: Aaron Saunders/Cruise Critic)
Skagway's White Pass & Yukon Route railroad (Photo: Aaron Saunders/Cruise Critic)

Shore excursions booked through your cruise can offer convenience and piece of mind, but not necessarily exclusivity. That is: you can book many of Alaska's most popular excursions and attractions on your own.

This is largely the case with fixed local attractions like Juneau’s popular Goldbelt Tram to Mount Roberts or the Skyglider Gondola in Icy Strait Point that climbs up to Hidden Lake (and from where you can also opt to glide down on what's billed as the world's largest zipliner).

But you'll find that more elaborate tours, like Skagway’s White Pass & Yukon Route Railway or any number of wildlife sighting excursions, can also be booked independently from your cruise line.

Planning ahead is usually advisable, but in some cases you might be able to snap up the tour of your choosing on site, right on the day you arrive in port. You won't need to stray far from your cruise disembarkation point to find a wealth of tour operators offering their services.

This can be particularly useful if you’re on the fence about a specific shore excursion, and would rather not commit to pre-booking it on your ship.

A word of caution, though: this approach may not work as well during the busier days of the Alaska season, when multiple ships are in port.

The Verdict: Are Shore Excursions Essential in Alaska?

The Creek Street sign in Ketchikan, Alaska
The Creek Street sign in Ketchikan, Alaska (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

Booking a shore excursion in Alaska has many undeniable benefits. They place Alaska's most breathtaking attractions right at your fingertips without having to manage all of the logistics.

There’s also the added perk that comes with knowing that, if you booked with the cruise line, you won’t be left behind if the tour is delayed due to unforeseen circumstances.

But Alaska's attractions are diverse enough that you can, in fact, skip the shore excursion expense. This can either mean doing the research and logistics yourself (a bit challenging, but nowhere near impossible), or simply going into port with no agenda other than allowing the destination to wow you with its charms.

There’s also something to be said about taking a hybrid approach: perhaps you want to splurge on one of Alaska’s most awe-inspiring shore excursion options – like a helicopter or seaplane tour – and take an independent explorer approach on other days. Simply wandering Alaska's towns, hiking its nature trails, or sitting down and enjoying some local seafood and a pint of local beer can be rewarding in and of itself.

Whichever road you choose, there are plenty of things to do in Alaska to keep you busy and entertained. And discovering them is part of the fun.

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