Cruise and Beach Destinations
in the Caribbean, Mexico & Beyond

How to Budget for an Alaska Cruise

How to budget for an Alaska cruise depends on planning for cabin prices, gratutities, excursions and extra expenses aboard ship and on shore.

Some people spend money freely on an Alaskan cruise. They don’t mind spending $500 per person for a helicopter tour. For others, it pays to budget carefully.

As in real estate, cruise ticket prices depend quite a bit on location, location, location. Popular locations with higher prices include cabins with balconies and cabins nearest certain amenities such as restaurants and the pool deck.

The White Pass & Yukon Route train out of Skagway
The White Pass & Yukon Route train out of Skagway is a popular cruise excursion. © 2018 Scott S. Bateman

Frugal passengers save money by waiting for cruise line discounts to arrive as the embarkation date gets closer. They also choose less expensive interior cabins on lower decks because they don’t plan to spend much time in them.

The total cost of a cruise is a combination of fixed and variable costs. No one can avoid the fixed costs. They have a great deal of control over the variable ones.

Think of a cruise as an all-inclusive resort on water. Cruise lines always quote a price for a full week, while resorts quote a price per night. For an apples to apples comparison, divide the total ticket and gratuity costs to get a price per night.

Most Alaska cruises are seven or eight nights. Use that price per night number to compare the value of cruises for seven nights versus eight nights and other lengths.

Example Cruise Budget

Altogether our eight-day, seven-night cruise cost us $3,600 just for tickets, gratuities, excursions, port fees and taxes. The total was much more than we normally spend on cruises. It was the excursions that pushed the cost so much higher.

For extra frugal travelers, taking away the excursion costs left us with a total cost of $2,700 for an eight-day, seven-night cruise or $386 per night for the two of us.

The typical cruise anywhere in the world has six major costs:

1. The price of the ticket.
2. Port fees and taxes.
3. Mandatory ship gratuities.
4. Extra shipboard expenses.
5. Excursions.
6. Extra expenses in port.

The first three are fixed and necessary. The next three are variable and optional. What makes an Alaska cruise unique among so many other cruise destinations are the excursions. They are both expensive and harder to resist, and they easily drive up the total cost.

But first the fixed and necessary costs.

Ticket Prices

The size and location of the cabin have a major impact on the cost. The timing of the ticket purchase also has a major impact.

On our first Alaska cruise, we paid for a cabin in what some people might consider the worst possible location on the ship: at the very front, next to the boiler room, right under the main theater.

We did it to save money because we are budget travelers. We had no regrets. The little noise that came into the cabin was brief. Besides, no cruisers in their right mind spend much time in a cabin unless they are the larger staterooms with balconies. The walking distance from the cabin to anywhere on the ship was usually no more than several minutes.

Unpopular cabins are cheap cabins. They also are among the last to get booked.

Cruisers who wait to book a cabin usually end up paying the lowest prices. A test of dozens of Alaskan cruises on a major online travel portal proved that point. Cruisers who book one year in advance pay the highest prices while the ones who book one month in advance may see discounts as high as 50 percent or more off the original price.

Cruise lines cut prices as the cruise gets closer to embarkation because a cabin that generates some revenue is better than a cabin that generates no revenue.

One cruise two weeks in advance had tickets discounted from $1,349 to $449 or 67 percent off. These late discounts work best for anyone who lives within driving distance of the embarkation port. For people who have to fly, airline ticket prices are higher and harder to get.

We ended up paying about $750 per ticket, which was lower than the average discounted price. The cost just for the tickets was $214 per night for a cabin with two people. Compared to a hotel, the price is cheap because it includes unlimited food.

That said, cruisers with large budgets and a desire for the best cabin locations should buy farther in advance.

2. Port Fees and Taxes

Port fees and taxes are often quite high on cruises to foreign ports such as the Caribbean. Alaska is much cheaper. We spent $116 in total on port fees and taxes for two people.

3. Automatic Ship Gratuities

In the old days of cruising, guests had the option of paying whatever they wanted in gratuities, just like in restaurants. Not anymore. Cruise lines apply gratuities automatically to final expenses, usually in the range of 12.5 to 20 percent.

We spent $14.50 per night per person or $203 in total on a seven-night cruise for room and restaurant service. The rate worked out to 12.5 percent.

Purchases for other services on the ship such as alcohol and soft drinks had their own 20 percent automatic gratuity.

Note that onboard credits can be used for gratuities and further reduce the fixed cost of a cruise. Cruise line policies are similar, but it’s a good idea to check your own cruise line to find out how credits can be used.

Anyone who wants to cruise again should be on the lookout for special deals on board. For example, Norwegian has a Cruise Next program that offers large onboard credits for deposits toward future cruises anywhere including Alaska.

It’s worth noting that passengers can object to gratuities or request changes to the amounts with some cruise lines if there are service problems. We didn’t do so in Alaska, but we have done it once on another cruise because of severe service problems.

4. Extra Shipboard Expenses

Cruise ships don’t make money just from ticket prices. They make a lot of money from people onboard ship during the cruise. They use a variety of sales tactics to upsell passengers into other services such as alcohol, casino, souvenirs, massages, other spa treatments, personal trainers and specialty restaurants.

Even frugal and disciplined passengers may find it hard to resist the temptations from the sales pitches. They include:

  • Free gambling lessons with free drinks in the casino to tempt people to bet money in the casino.
  • Free liquor tastings to tempt people to buy expensive bottles in the duty-free shops.
  • Free gemstone presentations to tempt people to buy jewelry, again in the duty-free shops.
  • Free champagne at art auctions to tempt people to buy art at $1,500 and up.

Various sales pitches including shipboard credits to get passengers to buy shore excursions. The cruise line represents most of the tour operators and gets a cut of the sale. More and more, they own some of the major tour operators, at least in Alaska. Frugal passengers may save money by buying the excursions directly from an independent operator.

Possibly the easiest way to spend money on board for many people on an Alaska cruise is the purchase of alcoholic drinks. I was stunned at the number of passengers in the bars and lounges when we were sailing between Alaska ports compared to Caribbean cruises.

The difference is the weather. Passengers on Caribbean cruises are more likely to sun themselves on the decks thanks to warm weather. Cooler Alaskan weather drives them indoors. Bored people drink more.

Frugal passengers have two ways of keeping these onboard costs down. First, when shopping for an Alaska cruise, look for trips that offer onboard credit as an incentive to buy tickets. Second, simply set a budget, whether it is zero, $100 or some other amount, and keep to it.

5. Excursions

Alaska cruise kayaking
Kayaking is one of the least expensive excursions to take for tight cruise budgets. © 2022 Scott S. Bateman

The typical Alaska cruise usually has only a handful of destinations. Some like Ketchikan and Skagway are so small that passengers can walk from one side of town to another in 10 or 15 minutes, if that long. Shoppers, of course, will take much more time.
Passengers have three choices for things to do when they arrive on land:

1. Go to places within walking distance of the cruise terminal. This seems obvious except for that fact that there isn’t much to see other than shops and a handful of minor attractions. This is unlike Caribbean and other cruise regions that have beaches or major cities with deep histories.

2. Go to places on land that require transportation such as glaciers. Nearly all of the major attractions are miles away from the docks.

3. Go back onto the water for kayaking and nature tour boats.

The first option has free possibilities. The next two require spending money. Most of the Alaska ports have little to do within walking distance of the docks other than shopping. The real fun is the excursions.

We spent $900 on our excursions.

6. Extra Expenses in Port

Three of the most common extra expenses in port are food, alcohol and souvenirs, just like on the ship

Despite cruise ticket prices that already include food on ship, some people have a couple of good reasons for buying food ashore, usually at lunchtime. They find a restaurant that has special appeal or they are simply too busy to back on board ship for lunch there. We found ourselves in that situation with back-to-back excursions at Ketchikan.

Bars are common in cruise ports—Ketchikan famously has one bar for every church—because of the high prices of alcohol onboard ships. So drinkers can actually save money by drinking ashore unless they have shipboard credits. Otherwise, they can go dry for the week.

Souvenir and local craft shops at Alaskan cruise ports usually have the same type and prices for items as in ports elsewhere such as the Caribbean. For example, high-quality T-shirts go for $15 to $20.

Scott S. Bateman is a professional journalist who has traveled widely throughout the Caribbean and the Americas.
January 22, 2022