When you talk to most families, Alaska is usually one of the top destinations on their travel bucket list. In fact, according to the US Family Travel Survey conducted on behalf of the Family Travel Association in 2017, 37 percent of respondents said they would like to visit Alaska in the future.
With Alaska twice the size of Texas, getting there and traveling around is a challenge, which means many visitors only see a fraction of the state. This is why approximately half of all visitors coming to Alaska arrive by cruise ship.
We made that same choice with our visit to Alaska this summer. With only a week and a limited budget, an Alaskan cruise from Seattle was what worked best with our schedule and budget. But if you only have a few days in port to experience Alaska, you really want to make sure you pick the best Alaska cruise excursions. Of course now I want to return and spend more time on the mainland so I’m digging into this Alaska travel guide to plan a future trip.
I asked a few of my fellow family travel bloggers their family’s favorite Alaska cruise excursions and grouped them below by port to help you narrow down the wealth of choices.
How to Choose an Alaska Cruise Excursion
If you are a frequent cruiser, you probably know the deal about choosing excursions in advance and booking through your cruise ship. If you are adventurous, you may even have branched out and booked some excursions direct with outfitters in port. There are a few things to consider when booking through the cruise line or direct.
Unlike booking excursions in the Caribbean, there are a few more factors at play to keep in mind:
- Excursions booked through the cruise line are typically more expensive, as much as $20-30 per person
- Cruise lines will typically guarantee that they will wait for you if you are on an excursion booked through them (no such guarantee for things booked on your own)
- When you book through the cruise line, there is generally a transfer pick up directly from the pier, whereas if you book direct, you may need to walk or take a taxi to a more central meeting spot
- Outfitters are charged a waiting fee if they get back late, so they are highly motivated to get you back on time anyway
- If you book direct the same excursion that is offered through the cruise, chances are you will be on the same trip as people that booked through the cruise so you are likely to get back on time or the boat will be waiting for them too. HOWEVER, if they drop you off in town and drop everyone else off at the boat, you are going to need to book it back to the boat
- Weather and transportation are big variables in Alaska. Excursions are often cancelled because of weather. Also, you may get to your excursion and have to wait to get back because of weather. Something to keep in mind when booking direct vs through the cruise. It is much less stressful to know the boat has to wait for you.
When you are looking through all the options of excursions, I would recommend first sitting down with your family and deciding what the main experiences are that you want to have in Alaska. Do you want to?
- See bears?
- See whales?
- See glaciers?
- Meet sled dogs?
- Take in the scenery?
- Be active?
If you can narrow down the top experiences you want to have, then you can figure out how to prioritize and fit them in. For example, in my family we each picked our top thing that we wanted to do: sea plane ride, get to see bears in the wild, and go kayaking. It made it easy then look at each port and see where we could do each of those activities.
You also need to look closely at your time in port. If you are on an Alaskan cruise from Seattle, like we were on the Norwegian Bliss, then you are going to have less time in port than some other cruises. If you are on the Disney Wonder, you will want to see what special character options are available.
Be sure to leave yourself a little leeway on the timing. Even if you have seen enough Diamonds International stores to last a lifetime, you don’t want to miss a chance to get a lunch of Alaskan King Crab legs in at least one port. And waits at restaurants can be very long, especially when you have three or more cruise ships in town. Also keep in mind my suggestions on what to wear on an Alaskan cruise so you are prepared for the weather.
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Best Shore Excursions in Ketchikan, Alaska
Neets Bay Bear Adventure by Float Plane
Since my husband has wanted to go on a float plane since watching Fantasy Island as a kid, we knew a float plane excursion had to be on our list. The Neets Bay bear watching adventure from Taquan Air was the perfect combination to satisfy my desire to see bears in the wild with his dream of a float plane. We had a surprisingly smooth 20 minute flight out to Neets Bay, flying over some beautiful scenery, before arriving at a salmon hatchery.
There we met our guide for a walk out to the river where the salmon swim upstream and into the waiting arms of the bears (and fishermen.) Before we barely left the dock, we ran across a bear snacking on the salmon that had beached themselves on the rocks. During the short walk through the woods to the viewing platform, we learned about the bears and the local ecology.
We spent about 30-45 minutes watching the river as various bears emerged from the forest to climb down to the river for lunch. It was an amazing excursion and even left us time to get a lunch of crab legs back in town before heading back to the ship.
Nature Hike in Ketchikan
Recently my husband and I sailed on an Alaskan cruise and our first port day landed us exploring Ketchikan. There was a nature hike offered in the Tongass National Rainforest and we jumped on it. It was a couple of hours in length with a knowledgeable guide (she knew her plants and bears) who trekked along at a pace easy enough for almost anyone to keep up.
There were several stopping points including a couple of breathtaking observation platforms where we saw salmon headed upstream and gorgeous waterfalls. Questions were encouraged and answered thoroughly including: “Are there snakes in Alaska?” And, the answer is no, by the way. We were offered snacks and bottled water, and came away with so much wisdom and knowledge about the Tongass Rainforest, its vast wonder and the habitats held within.
Most people concentrate on the glaciers when in Alaska, and rightfully so, they are fabulous. But, don’t overlook a lazy day hike in the rainforest. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.
From Becky Beall from Travel Voice by Becky
Best Shore Excursions in Juneau, Alaska
Top of my daughter’s wish list for our Alaska trip was sea kayaking. Since Juneau was our shortest time in port, we decided to sea kayak there, with a hope of getting close enough by water to see the glacier faces (and perhaps see some wildlife.) It ended up raining hard when we arrived so we were really thankful for their raincoats, kayak skirt (to cover the opening) and boots, as ours weren’t as waterproof as we thought!
The excursion started with a 20 minute drive through town and out to Douglas Island. We then boarded tandem kayaks (Hannah went with a guide) and luckily the rain let up for us to enjoy the fog and mist it left behind. We saw seals and eagles, but unfortunately couldn’t make it close enough to see the Mendenhall Glacier through the fog as they sometimes can.
After kayaking, we warmed up with hot apple cider, cheese, crackers, veggies, and reindeer sausage. The only downside (besides the weather) was that they were all tandem kayaks so you may get paired with someone that you have trouble synching up with.
Visiting a Dog Musher’s Camp
For the cutest Alaskan cruise shore excursion around, a visit to musher’s camp with sled dogs is a must, especially for families. The best part, not surprisingly, was cuddling the adorable newborn puppies! We loved being pulled through the woods by a pack of twelve well-trained dogs, as we sat in a golf cart-type vehicle, the kids yelling “mush” all the while. We also learned the fascinating history, culture and techniques of sled dog racing, including all about the iconic Iditarod, as well as how the dogs are cared for and trained.
Our boys had a great time dressing up in a musher’s jacket and huge mittens and standing behind a sled, imagining what it must be like in winter for these intrepid racers. We had booked the sled dog and musher’s camp outing as part of a fantastic 14-day Inside Passage cruise on Holland America’s MS Amsterdam, where my siblings and our families celebrated my father’s 80th birthday.
This excursion out of Juneau also included a visit to the cute and historic town of Skagway, where we treated our post-puppy smiles to some hot cocoa. While we had many memorable experiences throughout our magical two weeks, meeting the hard-working dogs and adorable puppies melted our hearts and stayed in our memories more than any other.
from Julia Slatcher from Inspire World Travel
Best Cruise Excursions in the Inside Passage
Cruising by Dawes Glacier/Endicott Fjord
Small Ship Cruising
Best Shore Excursions in Skagway, Alaska
Denver Valley Wilderness Hike & White Pass Railway
Many of the cruise excursions from Skagway include some portion of the Whitepass-Yukon railway. Since we had the longest time in port in Skagway, we really wanted to use that time to get into the interior of Alaska and see some of its raw beauty. So we picked a combination excursion from Packer Expeditions.
We started with a 20-30 minute scenic coach ride to Fraser, British Columbia (Passports required.) We then caught the White Pass Railway as it was headed south back to Skagway. After eating a provided lunch on the train and getting a chance to hang off the back of our car to take pictures of the amazing scenery, the train stopped in Denver Pass before getting to Skagway.
Here we hopped off and started a four-hour, out-and-back hike through the Denver Valley. The scenery was gorgeous and we ended up resting near a beautiful waterfall and refueling with their provided snacks before heading back to the train tracks. The trip finished off with us catching the train back to Skagway. The train was late so I was very glad we booked through the ship and I knew the boat would be waiting for us.
Scenic River Float
My family did a scenic river float while visiting the town of Skagway, Alaska. Our kids were young (5 and 3) and we wanted a cruise excursion that would be enjoyable for all of us. Being from Florida, the Alaskan wilderness is quite foreign to us, yet nonetheless stunning.
Instead of booking the shore excursion through the cruise line, I did some online research and found several companies that will pick you up from the dock on a bus and take you to the float. The van ride itself was scenic and we soaked in the splendor of the mountains and winding roads.
Once we arrived at the Skagit River, our family of 4 and my mother in law were given life jackets and instructions about how to get on and off the raft. While on the raft, we saw plenty of bald eagles, beavers, birds and even a moose wading on the shore. This is a nice family friendly activity for those who do not want anything too adventurous or for a gentle scenic float through the Alaskan wilderness.
From Margie DQ from DQ Family Travel
Best Shore Excursions in Sitka
Alaska Raptor Center
Sitka National Historical Park
Fortress of the Bear
Best Shore Excursions to Denali
Planning an Alaskan cruise? Be sure to also check out these tips:
- What to wear on an Alaskan cruise
- 13 Unexpected Costs on a Norwegian Bliss cruise
- What to do with kids on an Alaskan cruise
- Everything you need to know about the Norwegian Bliss dining options