A few tips for an Alaska trip

While the 2008 Alaska cruise and tour season is coming to an end, now is the best time to plan and purchase your 2009 Alaska vacation.

Right now, you have the largest selection and availability and the prices are very good. If you are considering a cruise tour where you explore the interior “Heart of Alaska,” then now is definitely the time to buy as the best tours fill very early.

Alaska definitely lives up to its reputation as the Great Land. If you have been searching for an Alaska vacation that’s right for you, you may be overwhelmed by all the options. So many choices! Twelve different cruise lines sailing 36 different ships will ply the waters of Alaska in 2009, not to count literally dozens of combinations of land tours to choose from.

Briefly, the following is a summary of your major options for Alaska cruise and tour vacations:

1. Seven-day round-trip Inside Passage cruise embarking and disembarking from Seattle. You will visit Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway or Sitka and either visit Glacier Bay, Hubbard Glacier or the twin Sawyer Glaciers in Tracy Arm. Your exact itinerary will depend on when you are going and which cruise line you are on.

2. Seven-day round-trip Inside Passage cruise embarking and disembarking from Vancouver, B.C. You will visit the same places, just a different point of departure. There isn’t any real advantage for Seattleites unless you just want to visit Vancouver. We have 10 big ships that leave Seattle weekly and prices are usually at or below Vancouver prices for essentially the same cruise.

3. Seven-day Gulf of Alaska northbound or southbound cruise embarking and disembarking from Vancouver, Whittier or Seward. You will visit Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway or Sitka and either visit Glacier Bay, Hubbard Glacier or the twin Sawyer Glaciers in Tracy Arm. You will continue on across the Gulf of Alaska and visit pristine Prince William Sound and College Fjord with the seven Ivy League glaciers. You will go into Kenai Fjords National Park and end or start your cruise in Seward or Whittier, depending on the direction of your sailing. If you are cruise only, you will either fly into or out of Anchorage after going by motorcoach through the scenic Kenai Peninsula. Your exact itinerary will depend on when you are going, which cruise line you are on and whether you are doing a northbound or southbound cruise. The advantage to this trip is obviously you will see more spectacular scenery. The downside is that your cost is higher because of the airfare.

4. Nine- to 14-day Alaska cruise tour. The cruise portion will be exactly the same as the seven-day Gulf of Alaska cruise, but once on land in Alaska, depending on the tour option you choose, you will also see Alyeska, Anchorage, Copper River, Kenai, Talkeetna, Denali National Park and Fairbanks. Other options can include traveling onto Coldfoot, Barrow and experiencing the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve. You will see this incredible landscape by either domed railcar or motorcoach or combination of the two. An Alaska cruise tour is by far the best way to see Alaska and appreciate its beautiful scenery and wildlife. Obviously the cost is higher, but it is well worth it in my opinion. If you are doing a seven-day Inside Passage cruise, you are only seeing 28 percent of Alaska. Granted it is a spectacular 28 percent, but it is still a relatively small part of what Alaska is all about. A cruise tour allows you to see the true Alaska.

5. Small ship cruising in Alaska. No doubt about it, big ships aren’t for everyone. A small ship cruise in Alaska is the up close and personal view where you will see and experience things you never would on a big ship. These ships typically hold around 100 passengers, are very informal, have more flexible itineraries, and travel into bays, coves and inlets not accessible to big ships. You will have a more cultural and educational experience than on a big ship with 2,000-plus other guest. The onboard enrichment programs are generally superior to the big ships with naturalists that know the area intimately. The upside of small ship cruising in Alaska is the experience. The downside is the price. Cruise fares tend to be pricy because these operators aren’t making their money on onboard revenue from casinos, overpriced Caribbean drinks (in Alaska?) or big gift shops on the ships. There are also some options for small deluxe yacht cruises accommodating 10 to 12 passengers. It is a great way to see Alaska, but make sure your checkbook is pretty fat.

Typically, if you cruise the last two weeks of July or the first two weeks in August, you have the greatest probability of the best weather. If your budget allows it, I highly recommend you take a balcony cabin on the aft (back) of the ship.

This gives you a full view of both sides from the ship and a very comfortable windbreak to sit and take in the beautiful sights in the comfort of your own balcony — without fighting the crowds. The balconies are a little bigger on the back of the ship. If a balcony on the aft won’t work for you, go with a balcony or ocean view stateroom on the starboard (right) side of the ship for maximum viewing of the land side for northbound cruises or the port side for southbound cruises.

Federal Way resident Jerry Vaughn is president of World Voyager Vacations. E-mail:

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