If there's a silver lining to the economic mess the world's in, it's cheap travel. Everybody and their mother are discounting. Take Alaska cruises for instance. Six experienced travel agents I polled told me either they have never seen Alaska cruise prices as low as they are for this summer, or in the least, not since 2002, in the wake of 9/11. If you can spare the dough, now's the time to go and explore Southeast Alaska's gorgeous fjords, glaciers, and forests.
I've done five Alaska cruises over the past decade and I'm ready to go back for more. A Cruise West sailing I did with my dad aboard the 107-passenger Spirit of Endeavour was my favorite. In the village of St. Petersburg the two of us and another three passengers spent the afternoon fishing in a local trawler, then feasting on the crabs we caught. We chatted with fellow shipmates in the cozy restaurant, sipped wine at the tiny bar, and watched the sun set after 10pm in a dramatic display of moody oranges and blues before watching Johnny Carson re-runs in our cabin and calling it a night. On a Celebrity cruise, snow-capped mountains were the backdrop to an afternoon of champagne toasts in an outdoor hot tub up on deck. On a Norwegian Sun cruise, I kayaked with my brother in a crisp mountain lake framed by distant glaciers. My mother and I enjoyed four-course meals in an elegant two-deck-high dining room with panoramic views aboard the Celebrity Infinity, and window-shopped along the main streets of Juneau and Ketchikan.
I've biked, hiked and thrown caution to the wind in helicopters and pontoon planes to survey the gorgeous Alaskan landscape from above. From cabin balconies and open decks, I've spotted humpback whales, Orcas, seals, bald eagles, porpoises and even the illusive brown bear, not to mention calving glaciers and bergy bits. I've feasted on local salmon, beefy halibut steaks and bottles of crisp Alaskan Pale Ale. In so many ways, Alaska is a super appealing cruise destination, though of course nothing's perfect (and I don't just mean Governor Whatshername). Airfare can be pricey if you need to fly to Juneau or Ketchikan to catch your ship, weather is often damp and drizzly, and you'll likely find yourself in a small port town riffling through piles of souvenir t-shirt will thousands of other cruise passengers in town for the day just like you. Still, there's no question I'll be heading for Alaska again real soon. And you? Here's what a handful of experts say about what to book, when to book and why they love our 50th state so darn much.
- Fran Phily, CTC; Landmark Travel (tel. 954/523-0727; www.landmark-travel.com)
- Charlie Funk, Co-owner, Just Cruisin' Plus (tel. 800/888-0922; www.justcruisinplus.com)
- Sherry Laskin Kennedy, Vacation Shoppe (tel. 866/7-CRUISE; www.vacationshoppe.com)
- David Shields, Vice President, Cruise Members Only (tel. 800/999-3543; www.cruisemembersonly.com)
- Steven Gelfuso, President & CEO, Cruise Brothers (tel. 800/827-7779; www.cruisebrothers.com)
- David S. Crooks; Vice President, Product & Operations; World Travel Holdings (www.worldtravelholdings.com)
Q: When is the best time to cruise in Alaska?
Fran Phily: Late June early July is the best time for nature/wildlife viewing as you get to see the bears feed on the spawning salmon and sea otters seem to be more plentiful. In June the harbor seals give birth to their pups on icebergs around tidewater glaciers in Tracy Arm, while humpback and killer whales can be observed in large sounds and straits of Southeast throughout the summer.
Charlie Funk: June and July work better because one of the wildlife species, the black fly, comes out in August and can be a bother.
Sherry Laskin Kennedy: I advise my clients for the best overall experience to go in mid-June until mid-July. The weather is warmer, the animals are very active and searching for food, the late summer rains haven't arrived yet and you have nearly 20 hours of daylight to experience. Of course the lesser crowds can be found at the beginning and end of the season, but then you have the weather changing, the animals aren't as active in September at the end of the season.
David Shields: My favorite month for Alaska is June because the weather is good, crowds are smaller and prices are better. I promote Alaska to the mature market and they like the fact that there are fewer children or young families on board.
Steven Gelfuso: May is the best time to see the Alaska wildlife; the best weather is July/August; and the smallest crowds are in late August/early September
David S. Crooks: I personally like the fall best as weather tends to be clearer, value is greater, and there are fewer crowds
Q: What is your favorite itinerary?
Fran Phily: My favorite itinerary is starting in Seward or Whittier and cruising south into Vancouver. I think Vancouver is a great way to end the cruise as the options to see the city, Victoria, Whistler or perhaps the northern section of Vancouver island are endless.
Charlie Funk: Southbound 7 nighters including Skagway and especially Ketchikan.
David Shields: My best selling cruise is a very standard itinerary including a 5-night pre-cruise land program with a 7-night southbound cruise featuring Fairbanks, Denali, Talkeetna and Anchorage with the ports/cruising of Hubbard Glacier, Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan, Inside Passage and finishing in Vancouver.
Steven Gelfuso: The Inside Passage is my favorite itinerary because you will see everything that most itineraries include without added expense.
David S. Crooks: Roundtrip from Seattle or Vancouver because both are great cities to do pre-or post-packages and air is relatively less expensive
Q: Which is better: Glacier Bay or Hubbard Glacier?
Charlie Funk: I like both.
Steven Gelfuso: Hubbard is more dramatic because it is one large glacier and it's still moving forward instead of receding -- it's definitely the most exciting of the two.
David S. Crooks: I prefer Hubbard as the Glacier is more impressive
Q: What is your best bargain-basement deal on a standard cabin?
Fran Phily: The Celebrity Infinity is a great value for August 28th. The 7-night cruise is round-trip Seattle with a day of cruising the Inside passage and near the Hubbard Glacier. An inside cabin is $649 plus taxes, totaling $777.67; an outside cabin is $748 plus taxes, totaling $876.67.
Charlie Funk: Carnival Spirit, Vancouver to Anchorage, $984.66 for TWO people, $1,689.32 for FOUR people including all taxes.
Sherry Laskin Kennedy: Celebrity Millennium, 7-nights Vancouver to Seward on May 28, 2009. Rates begin at $449 and include up to a $200 onboard credit and 50% reduced deposit.
David Shields: My best is Celebrity's Millennium departing on June 14th of this year; fares start at $499 per person cruise only plus shipboard credits of $50 per person and up.
Steven Gelfuso: Northbound on Princess this Spring from Vancouver starting at $499
David S. Crooks: $399 on Carnival Spirit.
Q: What is your best bargain-basement deal on a suite aboard a mainstream big ship?
Fran Phily: A Celebrity Sky Suite on the Infinity's Aug 28 departure is $2177.67 per person, double occupancy, including all taxes
Charlie Funk: Carnival Spirit, May 13, Vancouver to Anchorage, $4,404.66 for TWO people including all taxes.
Sherry Laskin Kennedy: Diamond Princess, 7-nights Whittier to Vancouver. Rates on a suite begin at $1,124, May 16 sailing.
David Shields: My best Alaska offer for suites is the Celebrity Mercury on June 7, 2009, at $1499 plus a $150 per person shipboard credit.
Steven Gelfuso: We have Suites available this spring starting at $1,199 on the Golden, Island, Coral, Sapphire & Star Princess, Holland America Amsterdam and Norwegian Star. On April 25th departure, you can get a suite on the Norwegian Star for as low as $799.
David S. Crooks: $1,399 on Celebrity, Royal Caribbean or NCL.
Q: What is your best luxury cruise deal for Alaska?
Fran Phily: We had a great promotion on the May 20th sailing of RSSC Mariner that started at $3,198 and included free economy airfare, a $450 per person shipboard credit, complimentary Wildlife Cruise of Auke Bay with lunch, an additional discount for repeat passengers and the scheduled guest lecturer is Jack Hanna. RSSC cruises include all the food, drinks & gratuities. The ship is now sold out.
Charlie Funk: Luxury ships in Alaska are limited; our best deal is the Sept 3rd departure of Silversea Shadow. Round-trip from Vancouver, pay $3,817, including all taxes for person plus $500 per person shipboard credit.
Sherry Laskin Kennedy: It has to be Regent Seven Seas. In particular, the all-inclusive Regent Mariner on May 20 southbound from Seward to Vancouver is only $3,198 and includes free air. On many voyages throughout the 2009 summer season, kids go for free. On the Mariner Sept. 9, 7-night northbound from Vancouver to Seward, a single rate is as low as $3,350. Past Regent passengers may be entitled to additional onboard credits.
David Shields: My best luxury cruise is Regent Seven Seas because you get free air because children are often free.
Steven Gelfuso: Silversea is offering a great deal -- all of the cabins are suites and right now we're offering up to $500 in shipboard credits per cabin, a complimentary shore excursion and cocktail party on select sailings.
David S. Crooks: Suite on Silverseas for $4,327.
Q: What is your favorite Alaska cruise memory?
Fran Phily: When I saw my first whale breaching!
Charlie Funk: Sailing the inside passage, shoreline falls away revealing a bay, on the far shore a mother brown bear is teaching a cub to fish in the surf.
David Shields: My favorite Alaska cruise experience is without a doubt the glaciers calving into the sea. It is visually spectacular but also the sound of the event is equally thrilling.
Steven Gelfuso: Skagway -- the history and the excitement of the gold rush. Skagway was the starting point to get into the Yukon.
David S. Crooks: Simple things like salmon bakes, sailing out of Vancouver, long hikes on trails, and the quiet beauty of early mornings at sea.
Q: What has been your best shore excursion experience in Alaska?
Fran Phily: I have two favorites: Tracy Arm off the RSSC Mariner (it's not offered by all the cruise lines) and hiring a private boat with a captain, mate and naturalist for just four of us in Sitka.
Charlie Funk: Kayak tour in Ketchikan, and if I can do it ANYONE can.
David Shields: My favorite shore excursion is the Misty Fjords Sea Plane Adventure that includes over an hour of actual flight time over some very beautiful areas of Ketchikan.
Steven Gelfuso: Flying on a 6-seat Cesna into Mt. McKinley into Talkeetna over the peaks of McKinley and when we came through the peaks we saw the beauty of the Alaskan wilderness unfold in from of us and we all just gasped at the unbelievable sight of the vast white peaks and wilderness.
David S. Crooks: Flightseeing and explore glaciers by foot.
Q: Do you prefer the big-ship Alaska experience or the small-ship Alaska experience?
Fran Phily: Definitely a small ship. We were in Ketchikan and I saw the mass-market ships with long lines of people waiting to get back on board.
Charlie Funk: Like smaller ships, haven't tried the really small ships.
Sherry Laskin Kennedy: I like the big ship experience for all the onboard diversions, entertainment and amenities; and I like the small ship experience to get a more up-close and personal view of wildlife and the glaciers.
David Shields: I would have to say that if I was interested in a cruise tour I would choose the big ship experience with a line that operates their own land product. I think you would receive a little better service with your guides and the land operation. If I was interested in a cruise-only itinerary than I would choose a small ship experience.
Steven Gelfuso: I prefer the small ship Alaska experience because of the ease of getting into the places that larger ships can't. And there are less people onboard and you can get to know more of your fellow passengers.
David S. Crooks: Medium.