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Are Shore Excursions a “Must” During Your Alaska Cruise?

I recently got a question from one of my readers:alaska question
I’ve written a post on our upcoming cruise to Alaska and included a breakdown of the costs. Spoiler alert! It’s not free or even close to it. So, let’s say you’ve also decided to  give it a go.
Everything is paid for, the flights are booked with miles. And now you have a big dilemma on your hands: should you  do any shore excursions? After all, this super duper expensive Alaska cruise may end up being a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
As always, I can’t tell you what to do. The cost can be significant, so it largely depends on your budget. You can browse and even book some shore excursions ahead of time. Here is a page of NCL website listing various options for Alaska. You might sit down first, though, before you take a look at some of these prices.
I have been on Alaska cruise before and my strong opinion is that you don’t have to do any excursions. The visual highlights can be experienced right from the ship. Alaska itself is what’s best about Alaska. You can pay more money to enhance your experience, but IMO the benefit will be somewhat marginal. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go on any excursions, of course. I’m just saying don’t feel the pressure to do it.

Follow the leader

Last time I went with my sister-in-law, she decided to treat me to a tour leading to the top of the mountain near Haines. Well, the cruise was in May and there was wet snow everywhere. The golf cart was completely exposed to weather elements. It kept getting colder and colder, and I didn’t really dress appropriately since it was  a surprise!
Additionally, it was “follow the leader” type of tour and apparently, some people never saw snow before. So, they would stop and go make snow balls, while the rest of us in golf carts just sat there waiting. I looked at my sister-in-law and said: “This is the kind of thing you put up with when there  is no other choice. You DON’T pay to experience it!” She laughed and agreed, but unbeknownst to me, she actually paid over $200 per person. Ouch! Well, at least the food was good.
 Of course, not every tour will turn out that way, but we are talking serious bucks here, especially when you have a family of four. Many tours run at $150 per person or more. What I recommend you do instead is try to rent  a car whenever possible. We actually did that in Ketchikan so we could explore the surrounding area, and it was way cheaper than what it would cost through cruise line. Research it ahead of time and make sure your insurance or credit card benefit will cover it.
Sometimes you can have the best of both worlds. For example, our cruise through NCL came with $75 tour allowance per port. So, of course, I’ll make sure to take advantage of it. Some activities don’t cost a tremendous amount, so I’ll look for those. There are a few touristy-type stuff like lumberjack shows, so we’ll take our kids there.

This tour costs how much?

We are actually splurging on one expensive shore excursion, but only because my sister-in-law insisted on it. She actually offered to pay for my family, that’s how badly she wants it. But I just couldn’t let her do it, not again. Introducing the tour of Yukon Territory:
alaska ;yukon
Yup, that would be $730 for the four of us. She has been on this tour before and absolutely loved it. This is a ridiculous amount of money but sometimes, you just have to do stuff like that  for the greater good.  Apparently, renting your own vehicle was complicated since you have to cross over to Canada.
If you end up visiting Victoria, BC during your Alaska cruise, there is  a place I strongly recommend:
Alaska_ butchart gardens
Butchart Gardens are considered the most spectacular gardens in the world by many experts. If you are into this sort of thing, definitely go. You can rent a car in Victoria (or just take  a taxi) and  pay for admission yourself. That’s what we did back in the day.

Credit card bonuses to help you pay for excursions

Signing up for cards like Barclaycard Arrival Plus or Capital One Venture Rewards should do the trick. You can read about both in this page The bonus points are redeemable toward travel expenses, and your tours should be coded by cruise line as such.  At least, that was the case for me in the past.

I do recommend you look for cruise line promotions that will give you port credits to use for excursions. Then try to use them up, but don’t go crazy. You are there to experience Alaska, and you don’t need to pay anything for that. Well, except the mega bucks you just dropped on your cruise, of course.

P.S. See my comments section for additional tips from readers.

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Author: Leana

Leana is the owner and founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.

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15 thoughts on “Are Shore Excursions a “Must” During Your Alaska Cruise?

  1. We did the train in Skagway as our only excursion and it was beyond beautiful!! Many of the ports we took public transportation to the things we wanted to do and see…. Litterly $2 a person at some places. Anything that was an excursion type, we booked once we got off the boat and then proceeded to haggle for the best deal. $30 all day Vespa rental in Mexico for an example 🙂

    • Emily, yeah, I saw that train tour in Skagway and it looked amazing. My son would go nuts for it, without a doubt. I think if a family has the means to do it without going into debt, it’s definitely something to consider. We are going on Yukon tour because the entire clan is on-board, and I don’t want to be the party pooper!
      Years from now, I’d rather have the memories of 9 of us on this excursion rather than $720.
      Oh, and we also prefer to do things on our own if at all possible. It’s cheaper and more authentic.

  2. Your sister is right about the train. We did an Alaska cruise in 2002 with shore excursions in every port and I can honestly say that the Whitehorse Yukon train was the one highlight. It was easily the most memorable. Be sure to listen to the commentary on the way up, because the return trip is mostly about getting back to the port and they won’t say much. I think in the other ports you’ll probably do just fine grabbing a taxi to see stuff. I am not a flower person, but I found the Butchart Gardens to be a very beautiful, peaceful, and calming place. It certainly might be the most beautiful gardens that I’ve ever visited. I did not go as part of a cruise itinerary, but on a separate trip to BC and Vancouver Island (highly recommended if you ever get the chance. One of the trip highlights was staying 2 nights at this bear viewing place: http://www.grizzlytours.com ). I think you can see the gardens and Victoria quite easily with a taxi or rental car and probably save some money.

    • @Erik Thanks for chiming in! You made me feel better because I was having a panic attack looking at the total price. Yikes! I also loved Butchart Gardens and in fact, plan to use my $75 port allowance for a night tour. Our ship will only be there in the evening, and I’m really excited to visit this place again.
      I definitely enjoyed Vancouver Island and hope to fly there with my family at some point as you suggested. I’ll check out that website you’ve linked to. My kids would go bananas for something like that!

      • We visited Knight Inlet to see the grizzly bears before we had kids. I would like to go again sometime and take my family. It was really cool, they picked us up in a float plane from Campbell River on Vancouver Island. After about 25-30 minutes of beautiful low-altitude flying, we landed in the estuary where the floating lodge was located. We went about a week before “shoulder season”, so the bears were just starting to feed on the salmon. I think we had at least two bear watching trips where we paddled out in a group of kayaks and sat there with binoculars/cameras watching the bears do their thing. There were also excursions included to see other wildlife like bald eagles and a boat tour around scenic Glendale Cove. The package was a bit pricey (around $2000 CAD total for 2 nights/3 days for 2 people) but the cost included the flights, all meals, lodging, and activities. Well worth the money and an incredibly unique experience. We were helped by the fact that the USD was worth $1.50 CAD in the year 2000. BTW, in the past year, the exchange rates have headed that way again to make Canada a good bargain destination.

    • @Erik That trip does sound amazing, if a little pricey! Just a little. Honestly, I know what you mean. Some things are worth the splurge. People pay that much for all-inclusive resorts in Caribbean during high season. This sounds way cooler. If I ever make a killing with my affiliate links, this is where I’m going! 🙂

  3. Thanks for writing this post! The comments are helpful, too! I hope you will post photos of what you did at each port when you return.

    • @Nancy No problem at all! If I’m still blogging, I will absolutely do an overview of the activities and whether they are worth the money (IMO, of course). All this stuff is extremely subjective. I am of the opinion that if you badly want to do something, then just go for it. You never know if you’ll make it back and might possibly regret not splurging when you had the chance. By the same token, I don’t want families to feel the pressure of spending huge amounts of money in addition to cruise costs.

  4. Everyone has to go to Buschart Gardens — it’s a must see and on the top 10 list of gardens in the world. My only must do excursion was the Float Plane in Juneau and it was cancelled because of rain and fog. I did book my husband on a helicopter glacier excursion in Skagway, and he absolutely loved it and took beautiful pictures. I wish we had done some whale watching, but I was saving all of our money for the Float Plane and I think that was our last stop — oh well, we’ll have to go back someday 🙂

    If you’re in Vancouver, you must go to the Capilano Suspension Bridge — I want to go back and spend more time there.

    • @Stephanie Totally agree with you on Butchart Gardens. What a treat for your eyes! I’m doing the night tour this time, so it should be quite spectacular. I’m sorry you didn’t get to do the float plane tour. Well, hopefully, you’ll make it back. My in-laws thought their first cruise to Alaska was once-in-a-lifetime thing, yet here they are, going for the FOURTH time! All the excursions look really neat, but due to budget constraints, we can only do one (barely). Well, aside from taking advantage of our NCL credit promo, but it won’t be used on expensive tours.
      I’ve heard of the Suspension bridge you’ve mentioned. Unfortunately, we won’t be in Vancouver this time. Something to look forward to in the future!

  5. I urge people to NEVER book excursions through the cruise lines. You can do better both price-wise and having fewer people with you. My suggestion is to go to http://www.cruisecritic.com and look under Ports of Call. There you will find reviews and recommendations on local tours. I also go to Trip Advisor, enter the city that you’ll be in and look for “things to do”. After you scroll down a little, you’ll see Private Tours. Finally, I’ll google “Shore Excursions in —–“. Here is a little post I wrote about non-cruise line excursions: https://airlandandsea.wordpress.com/2016/01/25/cruise-excursions-and-how-to-find-non-cruise-line-tours/

    • @Air, Land and Sea I agree with you! Private tours are almost always cheaper. That said, it could make sense to go with cruise tours if the excursion is fairy long and there is a danger of not getting back to the ship in time. I would be afraid to chance it.
      P.S. Thanks so much for the tips!

      • Don’t be afraid of taking a longer excursion and thinking you might miss the ship – that’s what the cruise line wants you to feel You can always tell your private tour guide that you need to be back sooner than you do.

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