Most large cruise ships today feature a casino, but in booking an Alaska cruise, timing is the biggest gamble.
Cruise lines offer a plethora of routes, excursion and land-cruise options, but the biggest unknown is probably the weather.
Travel too early in the May-September Alaska cruise season, and your teeth may be chattering. Go too late, and your trip may be cold, wet and dreary.
The sights and sounds of Alaska
The PG's Rob Owen takes a cruise along Alaska's beautiful waterways and explores some of the coastal wonders. (Video by Rob Owen; edited by Melissa Tkach; 11/4/2012)
Our three-person group made the trip the last week of August and got lucky with the weather. We encountered just one day of rain in Ketchikan, Alaska, which averages only 100 sunny days per year, so the drizzle didn't come as a surprise.
The sun broke through the clouds, which all but disappeared, for cruising through Tracy Arm Fjord and during visits to Juneau and Skagway, which have fairly similar weather patterns. One week earlier or later and we would have been soaked by a chilly rain.
Turns out, September is Juneau's second rainiest month (behind October). During cruise season, June is the least rainy month, followed by May, July and August.
Of course, June through mid-August is the height of the Alaska travel season and the most expensive time to cruise, acknowledged Tracy Edwards, manager of travel sales for AAA East Central.
"If you're talking about pricing and you want to get the best price possible, it's best if you sail early in the season in May or late in September," he said. "Later in the season, you tend to get better prices. June, July and early to mid-August are the peak season, and that's when the prices tend to go up."
Although cruise lines consider January through March their "wave season" for coming cruise sales -- people usually don't start thinking about next year's vacation until after Jan. 1 -- Mr. Edwards urged would-be Alaska cruisers to book now.
"The best time to book is usually in October and November before the season starts, so you can get what you want as far as availability is concerned," he said. "Balcony staterooms are the most popular type of accommodation for their views. When you book this far in advance, you have more opportunity to get the location of your choice and lock in your price as well."
Some cruisers swear by balcony staterooms, but we opted to economize by booking an interior. We simply planned to be on deck for most of the sightseeing so we'd be able to scurry from one side of the ship to the other with ease.
The cool morning we cruised through Tracy Arm -- take gloves and a hat, even at the height of summer -- was the only time I wished we'd had a balcony room, and really just to get a sense of where we were. I probably still would have run up on deck to behold the majesty of massive stone mountains rising out of the sea. But for cruise passengers with mobility issues, a balcony is ideal.
As far as prices go, we didn't see much fluctuation in pricing after we booked our room last fall. But if that does happen, Mr. Edwards said passengers can often get a lower rate for their cabin category even if they already locked in their price.
"Like anything else, if you wait, either the category you want is not available or the price point you want is not available and you get disappointed," he said. "If you lock it in early, you get your pricing."
Plenty of cruise lines make the trip to Alaska, including Disney, which began sailing out of Seattle last summer. (Almost all of these cruises dock in Canada at some point, so you'll need a passport to make the trip.) It helps to know the reputations of the various cruise lines -- type "cruise line reputation" into Google to find a variety of opinions -- but it's a subjective variable. We wound up on Princess because of price, itinerary and the positive experience we'd had on a previous cruise.
Another option to consider: Will you buy your tickets from a cruise line directly, through a travel agency or from a cruise consolidator?
I'd never heard of cruise consolidators/brokers like cruises-n-more.com before doing research while planning our trip last year. I found them using CruiseCompete.com, where users can request quotes and receive competing offers as a way to find the best cruise deal. Some folks posting to online forums expressed skepticism about these cruise broker sites, which may be warranted. We used cruises-n-more.com and had no problems. We got a rate I never saw beaten elsewhere, a $50 cabin credit and a packet of coupons for use on board the ship. (These coupons were pretty useless to us, but a coupon book given out at the Seattle cruise terminal was helpful.)
There's also the significant issue of where you want to travel to. We booked a seven-day, round-trip cruise out of Seattle, which is probably the cheapest option from Pittsburgh when airfare is factored in (some cruise lines also offer 10-day cruises out of San Francisco, but those cruises cost more).
Leaving from Seattle, there are two Inside Passage cruise options: scenic cruising through Tracy Arm Fjord, which we did, or scenic cruising through Glacier Bay National Park.
On a Cruise Critic message board, veteran cruisers preferred Glacier Bay, although in some cases it was due to being aboard ships that encountered too much fog to enter Tracy Arm. Several cruise vets recommend sailing through Glacier Bay and buying a small-boat excursion to Tracy Arm out of Juneau as a way to experience both.
There are also round-trip and one-way cruises from Vancouver, British Columbia, that travel farther north than the round trips out of Seattle that stay in southeast Alaska. With one-way cruises, travelers can opt to book a cruise-tour into the heart of Alaska and Denali National Park.
"A lot of folks do that because they have the thought process that they probably won't get back to Alaska again," Mr. Edwards said. "They look at it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so they do the cruise and land tour."
Of course, adding on the land tour is more expensive. Next summer, the starting price for an Inside Passage round trip from Seattle on Princess or a one-way cruise from Vancouver to Whittier, Alaska, starts at $749 per person; the least expensive 2013 Alaska cruise tour that Princess lists begins at $1,323.travel
Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. First Published November 4, 2012 4:00 AM