“Northbound or Southbound?” I’d ask my guests after I split them up and learned who was mine for the tour. They knew right away what I meant. I was asking are you headed further into Alaska on the cruise, or are you at your last or near last port? So this post is no story or life insight, it’s my attempt to potentially help someone have the best adventure possible. Let me offer you some advice about the cruise lines, if I may, that I’ve collected from my guests, my observations, and working as a guide employed nearly entirely by the guests that get off the cruise lines.
Don’t take a cruise. If you’re willing to invest the time, plan the trip without the cruise. Granted, I know that’s not doable for everyone for various reasons, but the adventure you’ll have outside the cruise will be a thousand times more rewarding, not to mention you’ll save a substantial amount of money. What’s a cruise cost? About $2000, if not more, and that’s just the cost of the cruise. I spent a week in Denali at the end of the Ketchikan season, and the total adventure from Ketchikan to Fairbanks via plane, the shuttle to Denali, camping in Denali, the train to Anchorage, and the plane to Portland cost me about $600 (excluding food and other fun expenses). Like I said though… it takes planning. You’ll save a fortune if you invest the time, but I like logistics so that never intimidated me.
Consider all your options! Outside the cruise industry is way too vast to open in a single blog entry, but the cruise has three, more or less, paths to choose: the Inside Passage, the Land Cruise, and the Combo. The Inside Passage is fast paced, you see a lot very quickly and efficiently. Though you bounce around from port to port, you stay in the same cabin and explore each destination with the intent on going home. The Land Cruise is more low key, but expect a lot of road time and greater expenses. You’ll drive a lot and move hotels, but at the primo stops you get to spend a little more time than you would throughout the lower ports. It should come as no surprise that the “combo” option is both. I personally prefer Alaska’s coasts better, but the interior is a glimpse into another world if you can handle travel and cost.
If you take a cruise, book your excusions privately, not through the cruise line. The cruise line puts a siphon straight into your wallet and they’ll suck you dry if given the chance. And trust me, your brilliantly frugal nature is not going to hurt their profits. Cruises mark up excursions quite a bit for no added bonus, usually about $50, but upwards of $100 and maybe even more. And they justify this by saying that the ship won’t wait for you if you’re late and they’ll leave you behind. But here’s the catch: we’re not going to let you get left behind. Mostly because we don’t want to deal with you pissed off and stuck in our town, but also cause we’d feel pretty bad about it. At SouthEast Exposure, we’ve driven people back to the ships in our personal vehicles on more than one occassion to guarantee you make it home. Seriously though, unless you planned an obviously close time or you wander off after we’ve returned you to the docks, you’re not going to be left behind. The other cool thing, most of the Inside Passage adventures transport cruise excursions and private excursions on the same bus, so as long as there’s one other person with the same All Aboard time as you and he or she booked through the cruise, it’s impossible to be forgotten (but that person is your new best friend). So I guess, spend the extra cash if you’re only visiting a port for a small window of time, but save The money if you’ve got The better portion of the day! The Land Cruise isn’t so intense in this regard, but they’ll still gouge your wallet (they just have no way to justify it).
Use the cruise’s excursion itinery to book privately. The adventures that the cruise advertises are the best of the best, and they usually only do business with that company for that type of tour for a reason. So if the cruise is pimping it, it’s probably worth your while. Then google the name of the company, call them up, confirm times and locations, and reap the benefits of a chunk of change saved! Go get yourself that salmon dinner you didn’t think you could afford. There are, however, some excursions that are only offered through the cruise (like Denali’s bus tours), but they can be booked privately for noncruisers and there’s usually still something to compete through another company that you’ll have to find. For example, Princess cruise lines offer wonderful bus tours deep into the Park, but you’re really just paying for the guide (they’re outstanding guides though… daayum). Meanwhile, the Park offers their “camper shuttle” at a fraction of the cost for the same thing (they don’t advertise the animal and view stops, but they take the same single road for the same reason), minus the guaranteed stories and connection you’ll feel to your guide… and there’s no snacks offered through the Park’s tour.
Packages save you money through the cruise, but pale in comparison to what you’d save if you booked everything privately! I know… I’m beating a dead horse.
TIP YOUR GUIDE. You have no idea what we do and what we endure that you don’t see. I once carried on jokes and a good spirit to keep my promise of an Alaskan adventure while fighting tears to hide the fact that I had dislocated my elbow. But we also understand that you spent a lot of money to get here. Generally speaking, the more dangerous or more physically demanding of your guide the more you should tip. And there’s a good chance that if they look tired, they’re exhausted because of work, not because of partying. So tip what you can and show your gratitude if we earned it. Also, tips come in many shapes and sizes, beer and dinner can quickly switch an otherwise rough day at work into an awesome one.
TripAdvisor is cool, but read it with a grain of salt. I hate to stereotype, but a lot of cruise guests find a way to complain about anything and everything. It’s not the guide’s fault or the company’s fault if there were no animals, if it rained, or if the “beginner course” was too easy for you. Also, maybe know in advance what you’ve signed up to do… (Yes, you’re going to get wet whitewater rafting and yes zip lining means heights). So scour TA for the adventure that best suits you, but take the time to dissect the negative reviews. “My guide told too many stories” is a lot different than “my guide was drunk.”
Buy a nice rain jacket. I don’t care what your logic is, buy one. Now. And if you’re one of those super fortunate people that is going back home to paradise where you’ll have no use for it, on your last trip, give it to your guide or waitress (if it fits) you will seriously make his or her day.
The Northern Lights are not visible from mid June to mid August. Sorry. But if you’ve arrived in Fairbanks, Denali, Coldfoot, or anywhere else in the Interior during that slim summer window, you can usually ask the front desk to wake you up if the Aurora is seen. There are also apps to download for smartphones and tablets that will sound an alarm when the Aurora is at a certain strength (ie: visiblity), as well as show the Aurora Forecast. Since the Northern Lights are dictated by solar activity, their behavior can be predicted just like the weather… but on the note of weather, you won’t see the lights if it’s raining! “Aurora Buddy” is my favorite app to stalk the Aurora.
Yup, we know what reality show you’re talking about. No, that’s not how it is up here. Kill your preconceived images.
LEAVE THE FREAKIN MOOSE ALONE. They are the most dangerous animal in Alaska. No, not the grizzly bear, and Orcas only attack people in Sea World where they’re struggling with various psychoses. Moose will wreck your world. Leave them alone. And if you’re stuck at sea, you’re not supposed to approach an animal after 200 feet. That being said, that rule is void if the animal approaches you. So be respectful so future generations can enjoy this too.
Respect the Parks or I will come get you.
ASK BEFORE YOU USE BUG SPRAY!!! If your tour is providing any sort of gear, PLEASE ask if you can soak yourself in bug spray before you do it. Most sprays contain caustic chemicals that are VERY damaging to the expensive gear (like mesh webbing on climbing harnesses for zip lines, rubber gaskets on dry gear for water activities, traction on boots for hiking and climbing). So not only are you completely disrespecting your hosts’ equipment, but you’re potentially endangering yourself by damaging the gear. Our mosquitoes are huge and our no-see-ums are numerous, but they can’t bite through most clothing. And unless you’re severely allergic, we don’t have any bug-borne illnesses (like West Nile and Lyme’s) to worry about other than a little itch. Also, fun fact, most of the bugs have larger game to feed from that don’t swat as aggressively as we do, so they tend to be more of a nuisance than a problem.
If you liked your guide, host, whatever and have the chance to spend some time with them outside of work, do it. We seriously love you. We certainly don’t do our jobs for the money, we do it to share the experiences with you. If you know you’re going out to dinner or the bar that night, invite your new Alaskan friend. Chances are we’ll have to turn you down, but most of us are not anywhere near home and we don’t have family to visit. We make small groups of friends that we don’t always get to see due to very busy conflicting schedules. So if we can make it out, we would love to do it. Inviting your host or guide to dinner is like giving him or her a home for a night. It brings us a huge smile. And… you get that person you loved with no rules or boundaries… it’ll be an experience, if nothing else.
If you’re going on a nature tour of some sort, by boat or foot or whatever method, do a little research on the area. Most guides love a question beyond the standard “what’s that” and “what is this place named.” Pick our brains. And don’t be afraid to point out an idea you’re excited about… I’ve totally gone out of my way for guests that love the creepy crawly tidal life and told me. I had another guest hold the cockpit of my kayak so I could half capsize and pull up a sea cucumber… with my hands full of the gooey wildlife, they pulled me upright and we all enjoyed. I’m definitely not the only guide that does that.
DON’T HIDE YOUR PHSYICAL LIMITATIONS OR ILLNESSES. We’re not going to judge you if you have a heart problem and pass out every now again nor are we going to be annoyed if you need assistance getting up a flight of stairs. Please tell your guide or host. We would rather know and be prepared then play the guessing game with our pants down when time is short. Pull your guide aside after any safety talk or introduction and tell them what’s up. It may catch him or her off guard but it also does us well to remember that we’re dealing with mortal people. Trust me, we’d rather know.
Finally, if you have time to kill, ask your guide what they do for fun. There’s a slim chance they’ll invite you to do something, and be prepared for something ridiculous if an invite is given. You’ve been warned, we love to shock people when our jobs are not at risk. I’ve taken grandma shopping and a terminally ill guest on a personal island hike to an eagle’s nest. One ATV guide in Denali National Park tells everyone to “be wary of the river guides off the clock, you won’t make it back alive.”