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Alaska Cruise Shore Excursion Tips

We have learned from many cruises the importance of setting a budget for excursions before we go. This tip is especially true for Alaska cruise shore excursions.

It’s fun to go at the last minute on an expensive and impulsive excursion during the cruise. It’s not fun getting an enormous credit card bill afterward. Alaska excursions can get awfully expensive.

Once a budget is set, then decide if one big excursion is appealing or several small ones. Start researching various excursion options to see which ones fit the budget.

For example, a $500 per person budget will get wiped out with a single flightseeing tour by helicopter. But that budget also can cover five excursions at $100 apiece.

In our experience, the unique once-in-a-lifetime excursions are the most memorable and most valuable. If that big “wow” excursion isn’t available, it’s better to go with several smaller excursions to get the most fun out of an Alaska cruise.

Research Saves Money


Alaska cruise kayaking excursion
Price shopping saves money with Alaska shore excursions. © 2018 Scott Bateman
Researching excursions in advance of the cruise is an important and valuable investment of time.

Even a small amount of research will help travelers identify which excursions have the best fit based on price, location, activity level and overall appeal.

The prices of cruise can break down into three categories: $50 to $100 per person (such as a city tour), $100 to $200 per person (boat, train and kayaking tours) and more than $200 per person (fishing, flightseeing and dog sledding).

Many Alaska cruise excursions fall into the lower end of the $100 to $200 per person category.

Location matters because some locations are less expensive than others for certain types of excursions. For example, we found kayaking excursions in Seward less expensive than Juneau. So if a kayaking excursion sounds fun, compare the prices for each location.

How long an excursion takes also matters in keeping the budget under control. Not surprisingly, the longer the excursion, the more expensive the excursion. So for example, if the budget is tight, try looking for a shorter kayak tour at two to three hours versus one that is three to four hours (or more).

On a similar note, some excursions break down into half day or full day schedules.

Pay special attention to activity level because sometimes the excursion is harder or easier than it first appears. For example, Skagway offers a train ride into the mountains with a bike ride back to town again. But the bike ride is more than 90 percent downhill.

Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau requires hiking more than a mile from the visitor center in the park to the glacier. But the entire path is flat.

Overall appeal is not just a matter of what sounds like fun. It’s also a matter of checking the many reviews that are available online.

Cruise lines offer such reviews on their websites. Major national excursion marketing companies such as Viator also offer them. They will offer insights about whether the excursion and the amenities are worth the price.



Price Shopping


Passengers who shop for an Alaska shore excursion before the cruise have several ways to save money than just comparing options and the prices in each location. It depends in part on whether the the tour operator or the cruise line offers the best deal.

A good starting point is some simple online searches at the major search engines using keyword phrases such as “alaska excursion coupons” and “alaska excursion discounts”. It will take a little time to get through the junk and find real discounts, but they do exist.

Most reputable tour operators have their own websites, although we didn’t find the best deals there. Instead, we found them through resellers such as TourSaver.com and others.

For example, on our trip we got two-for-one coupons for the Seward Sea Life, kayaking in Ketchikan and an Anchorage trolley city tour. Wildlife cruise was $50 off per person. The Seward to Anchorage half-day tour was 20% off.

Cruise lines offer another way to save money. Some of them offer onboard ship credits that passengers can use toward excursions they book through the cruise line. We saved more money with this option.

Passengers who book their excursions after disembarking from the ship should first look for local publications that have the latest deals.

Finally, in this age of competing credit cards, it also pays to use the ones with the best points or cash back offer.

Best Times to Book


Cruise passengers have three options for when they book an excursion. The three options each have different advantages and disadvantages. The options are:

1 - Book before the cruise through the cruise line or independent operator.

2 - Book on the ship during the cruise.

3 - Book in the port of call directly with the operator after getting off the ship.

Booking far in advance has a major advantage because some tours get sold out, just as some of the better cruise ship cabins get sold out. Travelers can book with either the cruise line or an independent operator.

The disadvantage to booking in advance is the unpredictable weather. Heavy rains even in June or July can ruin certain excursions such as kayaking.

Booking on the ship during the cruise has its own advantage. Many cruise ships have an excursion desk where crew members answer questions about specific cruises. By that point, another advantage is weather, which is now more predictable from short-term forecasts.

One possible downside to booking on the ship is price. Some excursions offered by cruise ships are more expensive than what passengers can get on their own directly from tour operators.

The third option is best for people who like to take a few chances. Imagine walking off the ship in Seward and seeing a beautiful morning with a warm sun and no clouds. It’s a perfect day for a boat tour.

Now imagine going over to a tour operator’s office at the harbor and seeing people packing onto the boat. The person sitting at the desk in the tour office will say one of two things: 1) yes, we still have room on the boat or 2), sorry, we fully booked.

Passengers who book in the port after leaving the ship can take advantage of good weather and avoid the risk of bad weather. They also may not get the excursion they want because too many other passengers are doing the same thing.

This option is especially bad for anyone who doesn’t do research about the excursion options and prices at a port before getting off the ship.

Refunds / Cancellations


Always check the booking policies of the excursion operator before committing money. Tour operators usually require cancellation requests in writing.

Most operators give a full refund a certain number of days before the excursion. Here is an example of one policy:

“All cancellation requests received 7 days prior to your shore excursion date will be fully refunded for any reason. Cancellations received less than 7 days prior to your shore excursion date cannot be refunded without documentation from a medical explaining the circumstances.”

Other operators have different deadlines for cancelling in advance to receive a full or partial refund. Check each policy for details.
Scott S. Bateman is a professional journalist who has traveled widely throughout the Caribbean and the Americas.

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August 21, 2018

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