Alaska lovers: If you missed last year's good deals on Alaska cruises, you've got another shot this year.
Discounts may not be quite as deep as they were in 2009, when the recession forced cruise lines to offer some of the lowest prices ever seen on Alaska sailings, but there are still good bargains. Seven-night cruises are going for as little as $449, and incentives on some other ships include free round-trip air, free excursions, advance booking discounts, onboard credits and upgrades.
Lowest fares are for cruises in May and September, the beginning and end of the Alaska season, with midsummer bringing the highest rates. A survey of bookings for 2010 by Cruise Holidays, a major cruise retailer, found the cruise-only price of its 2010 seven-night Alaska sailings averaged $230 per person per night. This figure, however, includes bookings from all categories of cruise lines, all stateroom types and all months of the season, from inexpensive to luxury.
Though prices may be slightly higher this year, many travel agents say clients are booking longer trips by adding on land tours.
"What I am seeing is quite a large number of passengers choosing to build nice pre- and/or post-tour stays in Anchorage, Denali or Vancouver,'' said Jeffrey Krudop, manager of the Travel Leaders agency in Fort Wayne, Ind.
"This year, my customers are booking longer trips,'' said Elaine Goad of the Travel Leaders agency in Tyler, Texas. "I think the downed economy (has) encouraged people to save for really special trips.''
Indeed, the number of passengers packaging a land tour with a cruise is much higher in Alaska than in other regions of the world. "A third of our passengers take a land tour,'' said Charlie Ball, president of Princess Tours, the cruise line's arm for land travel. Holland America puts its share at roughly 25 percent.
The favorite land tour for all visitors is to Denali National Park, a vast expanse where visitors can see moose, reindeer, bears and wolves in the wild as well as North America's tallest mountain, 20,320-foot Mount McKinley.
Helicopter and flightseeing tours over glaciers and remote inlets also are popular, as are bear watching, salmon fishing and city tours in ports of call.
New this year, Holland America has converted one of its former seven-night cruises into a 14-nighter from Seattle on its flagship Amsterdam that will take passengers to Anchorage, Homer and Kodiak, new destinations for the line. The line also is the only one to offer land tours to the Yukon, target of the famous Alaskan Gold Rush.
Princess, meanwhile, has introduced a new 12-night cruise tour that combines a seven-night cruise with a five-day land tour that includes such unusual features as a jetboat trip, panning for gold and a sternwheeler river outing in addition to exploring Denali National Park.
Agents are reporting that balcony staterooms are already getting hard to come by in Alaska, even though they are priced higher.
Balcony staterooms enable passengers to view the passing scenery on the Inside Passage from their own outside space. "They're the first to be booked,'' said Holland America's Sarah Scoltock.
Fewer ships are going to be cruising in Alaska this year, but most travel agents don't think the lesser number of ships is having much effect on availability and prices because the recession already reduced consumer demand.
"There are 130,000 fewer berths this year,'' said Ron Peck, president of the Alaska Travel Industry Association. Princess is basing one less ship in Alaska this year and one less in 2011. Holland America has eight ships there this year, but will drop to seven in 2011. Cruise West pulled two ships from Alaska this year.
Several factors in addition to the recession have prompted cruise lines to pull ships out of Alaska waters, among them higher costs associated with the state's new laws, including a $50 per head tax on cruise passengers; opportunities for greater profits in Europe and Asia; and the high cost of air travel to and from Alaska, which pushes up total costs of an Alaska vacation and further dampens consumer demand.
Still, there are encouraging signs, according to Peck, who says he has seen some good values in recently published airfares to Alaska from the lower 48 states, citing a $218 one-way fare from Denver to Anchorage. Round-trip flights from Tampa to Vancouver, where many Alaska cruises embark, start around $560 in mid May and $625 in mid July.
But pricing is not what makes people go to Alaska. As another travel agent put it, "it's the beautiful scenery, the thrill of watching wildlife in their natural habitat, seeing the last frontier.'' And that's not about to change.
Jay Clarke is a freelance writer in Coral Gables. He was the longtime travel editor of the Miami Herald.