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18 ways to take an Alaskan cruise on a budget

You can have the trip of a lifetime without paying for it for the rest of your life.
A scene from a balcony cabin on a 2017 Alaskan cruise. [BOYZELL HOSEY | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Sep. 20

An Alaskan cruise can be mind-blowing — majestic mountains, powerful glaciers, ocean creatures, floating ice and cool breezes — all can seem dreamlike. And, without careful planning, your bill on the final day could also be astonishing.

When you book a cruise, you might think all the fees are included. But that’s not the case. Doing a little investigating can go a long way.

Our family wasn’t planning on a vacation this summer; we need to save money for our daughter’s upcoming wedding. But as the weather warmed up, my Irish-born husband who struggles in the Florida heat became determined to escape. He found a great deal on a Princess Alaskan cruise out of Vancouver with ports in Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Whittier for us and our sons.

We had gone on a similar cruise years ago with friends and had been longing to return. This time, we needed to budget. No fancy excursions, no long Vancouver layover; we were just going to take in the views and bask in the cool weather.

If you are cruising with modest funds, be aware that costs can arise at every turn. Cruise lines specialize in upselling and they can be very persuasive. So don’t be embarrassed to ask about costs and have a marvelous time within your means. In the end, besides a few small splurges, we mostly stayed on track.

Here are some tips we gleaned.

1. Disconnect. Turn off your phones and laptops and enjoy the experience. If you must connect, internet service is available for a fee. Packages range from by-the-minute to unlimited. If you opt for unlimited, you can pick the lowest number of devices and switch back and forth.

2. Do your homework. Boredom can lead to expensive and rash decisions. Take advantage of the many free and cheap things to do in each town. You can find information online for every port. A friend saved money on a Mediterranean cruise by referencing Rick Steves’ guide books. She recommends them because they are very specific.

3. Bring your own activities. Days at sea with nothing to do can tempt you to gamble, indulge in fee-based spa services and visit the exclusive parts of the ship. Instead, bring cards, books, portable games — or just a pair of binoculars because the main attraction will be the spectacular scenery. Fun and free activities will be provided on board as well, but some involve elaborate sales pitches.

4. Skimp on the hotel. If you find a great deal on a cruise, remember you need to book flights and a hotel. Avoid arriving the day your ship leaves. People have missed cruises due to late flights. Our Vancouver room at the Tropicana Suite Hotel cost $45 and had a lovely view and plenty of room for the four of us. It was run-down, but we made the most of the beautiful waterfront city and used the room for sleeping.

5. Be your own booker. The cruise line may charge more for the convenience of booking your shore excursions. A friend booked a Juneau whale-watching trip by going up to a kiosk after the ship docked. It cost $100 per person, half what the ship was charging. Check cruisecritic.com for good deals.

6. Ask early if tips are included. Tips are typically added automatically and there may be other fees. On Princess, tips of $14 per person per day were added to our bill.

7. Keep necessities close. To avoid extra purchases on the first day, pack necessities in a bag you keep with you. Once on board, it can take hours for your luggage to get to your room. One of our suitcases didn’t get to our stateroom until the next morning.

8. Stick to drinks provided. Water, iced and hot teas, lemonade, orange juice, milk, hot chocolate and coffee are available. Sodas, alcohol and fancy coffees can cost extra. Some ships allow each adult to bring one bottle of wine for free. Beyond that, alcohol will be confiscated.

9. Same for food. Most ships have dining rooms providing delicious meals, but tempting specialty restaurants may cost extra. Also, gourmet cuisine in the regular dining rooms can come with an upcharge, so ask.

10. Be careful when you smile. Photographers pose you in every port, then want you to pay for pictures. Bring your own camera and take selfies or meet new people by asking them to take your picture.

11. Watch the water. The best entertainment can be scanning the water for wildlife. On our first trip, we paid no small sum for a whale-watching expedition. It was delightful! On this last trip, though, it was just as fun spotting wildlife from our ship. We identified humpback whales, orcas, sea otters and dolphins frolicking in the water near our ship. In Ketchikan, we found a lovely river where we watched salmon swimming upstream and witnessed a seal steal a fisherman’s catch.

A view of a mountain from Stephens Passage on a 2017 whale-watching excursion out of Juneau, Alaska. [BOYZELL HOSEY | Tampa Bay Times]

12. Bring binoculars. Some cruises sell or rent them, so dodge the expense. Passengers noticed black bears on shore. While driving to Anchorage we saw mountain goats near the road, as well as moose and eagles.

13. Avoid the casinos. Enough said.

14. Order room service, because, why not? It’s likely included, or nearly so; double-check this on your ship. It feels so luxurious to eat in your cabin.

15. Bring good hiking boots. We visited tourist centers in each town, asked for advice, got maps and went exploring. Alaska is part rain forest, adding to the outdoor experience. In Juneau, we went off the main trail while hiking and discovered ourselves in an old mine, complete with mining equipment.

16. Budget for holiday shopping. There are some excellent deals on jackets and jewelry and other items in port towns. We like to stock up for presents throughout the year.

17. Get up early and stay up late. Watching the sun rise and set over the water can be a spiritual experience. It’s so magnificent. One night we saw the sun set and the moon rise simultaneously. It was one of the most memorable nature experiences I’ll ever have. The last day, I went up top to watch the sunrise and saw whales swimming alongside. It was so magical, I regretted not having done that every morning.

18. Rejoice in your surroundings. Focus on what you can afford. Alaska is spectacular to visit even if you never leave the ship. With some discipline, you can truly enjoy the trip of a lifetime without paying for it for the rest of your life.

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