When you book your cruise to Alaska, you have the option to reserve land-based excursions through cruise line itself. On surface, it sounds quite appealing, not to mention, convenient. But is the juice always worth the squeeze? Nope. Let me share with you what tours you may want to skip and one you should definitely consider. But first, some background.
We booked our Alaska cruise on Norwegian Pearl and sailed in May of 2016 (see my review). Yes, this post is long overdue. Here is a detailed itinerary (screenshot is for this year’s sailing) :
One perk that came with the cruise fare was free $75 credit towards excursions per cabin/per port. It was a “use it or lose it” kind of thing, as in, it didn’t carry over to the next port. Obviously, the cruise line wanted to give passengers an incentive to book their overpriced shore excursions. I have no problem with it, they are a for-profit business, after all.
Since we were traveling with an extended family, there was a huge challenge in coordinating everything. My sister-in-law was the alpha dog of the trip, so she was calling the shots when it came to excursions. She also insisted on paying for my daughter who was staying in her cabin. This made it difficult to say No to her various schemes. So, let me list the things we did in each port and whether it was worth the cost:
We all really wanted to visit Mendenhall Glacier, but cruise-operated excursions were quite expensive, even factoring in $75 credit. My brother-in-law and his wife ended up doing their own thing, so the seven of us could fit in one minivan. That’s why my sister-in-law decided to rent one and bypass the cruise line. It was definitely a wise decision. Here is what NCL was charging for this activity:
As you can see, even with $75 credit per cabin, you are looking at paying a boatload of cash for seven people. Instead, my sister-in-law ended up renting a van from Avis for a day for $100 all-in. There is also an option to take a bus from downtown for around $30 roundtrip per person.
A family of four will be better off just taking a taxi (about $35 one-way). NCL drops you off via free shuttle in the middle of town, so there is easy access to various modes of transportation. With small kids, renting a van seemed like a better option, plus, we would have to take two taxis.
Whatever option you end up choosing, seeing Mendenhall Glacier up close is definitely worth it. Check this online brochure for helpful tips on maximizing your time in the park.
Verdict: Skip the tour, do it on your own.
Originally, we were planning on doing a train tour of Yukon. However, due to an exorbitant price, it was decided that we would do a bus tour instead. The cost was about half compared to train option. I’m sure the latter would be super fun, but I absolutely loved our excursion. No regrets!
Whoa, that’s still a lot of money, right? That’s what I thought, but my sister-in-law insisted that it was the best way to see Yukon. Apparently, she looked into renting a van, but there were some issues on taking it across the border to Canada. I’m not sure about specifics and perhaps there is a way to do it efficiently, but the bottom line is, we ended up on the tour. And I’m glad we did.
I think the biggest reason I enjoyed it so much was our tour guide Peter. He was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. A true Renaissance man. The guy is a painter, sculptor and a poet, not to mention, a fascinating person to talk to. During long winters he represents Alaska and Yukon in international snow carving competitions around the world.
You can tell that summer tour guide job is primarily a labor of love for him, a chance to show visitors his beloved state of Alaska. Peter has tremendous knowledge on the history of the area, and really makes it come alive. It’s also an opportunity for him to sell some of his incredible photography prints, like the one we bought for $15:
Speaking of bears, we saw some from our tour bus:
Our guide mentioned that he and his brother come to Yukon to camp during the summer. Personally, I would be a bit concerned about one of those creatures entering my tent during the night. Yikes.
Here are all nine of us, right before entering Yukon territory:
It was freezing!
Apparently, this is the world’s smallest dessert
One of many beautiful lakes we saw on our tour
There was an interesting tidbit of information shared by Peter. Did you know that Donald Trump’s grandfather (back when the family went by Trumpf name), made his fortune in the Yukon? Apparently, he had built the Arctic Restaurant and Hotel on Lake Bennett, north of Skagway, along the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad.
According to this website, “Bennett was once a thriving transit point for prospectors in the Klondike gold rush at the turn of the 20th century, and Friedrich Trump made a killing running a restaurant and bar. The nest egg he generated in just two years grew into the fortune that has supported his grandson’s bid for the U.S. presidency.” How about that?
Let me be clear, this is NOT a political statement in any way, shape or form. I’m simply sharing something I found quite fascinating. A tiny town in the middle of nowhere that changed the course of world history.
You can watch this short YouTube video (only 1.5 minutes) where Peter himself explains why you should consider this tour:
Verdict: Highly recommended, especially if you are lucky enough to get Peter as your tour guide.
We ended up doing a “trolley” tour of Ketchikan, booked through our cruise line. The trolley is actually a regular bus, nothing more. This tour was such a dud, I can’t even tell you. Our guide (a college kid) was very nice and knowledgeable, but there was just no way to put a lipstick on a pig. Not at this price.
Basically, all we did was drive to see totem poles and were given a half hour to shop at a nearby souvenir store. This is such a joke of a deal, I’m still upset for going along with it. We ended up paying $75 total for me, my husband and son (after $75 credit from cruise line) and frankly, I think that’s too much. For a couple it’s probably OK if you factor in credit. But don’t even think about paying full price.
Considering there were seven of us, it would have been much cheaper to simply rent a minivan. Heck, even taking a taxi would have been a better idea. And honestly, it just wasn’t all that interesting of a tour. I recommend you do something else while in Ketchikan.
Verdict: Terrible value, skip.
4) Victoria, British Columbia
Victoria is a beautiful city and I highly recommend you get off the ship and see it in person. The absolute highlight of the area, of course, are Butchart Gardens If you love flowers and landscaping, you have to visit this place. Whether you decide to do it via ship tour or on your own is up to you. The latter will usually be cheaper, but it depends.
I didn’t have any choice because my sister-in-law opted to do a tour. Since my daughter was with her, I wanted for all of us to be together. My husband decided to skip it because he’s already been there with me twelve years ago. So, he said he would stay in the cabin with my son. Since we only had to pay for one person, taking advantage of $75 cruise credit seemed like a no-brainer. Once all was said and done, my portion was $50.
The admission to Butchart Gardens is $32 CAD per person for adult ticket ($16 for children), so obviously, this was the only logical choice. For an extra $18 out-of-pocket, I got transportation to the gardens and a short tour of the city of Victoria.
This time our tour guide was the most boring person I have ever met in my life. I don’t know why they would hire him. Shouldn’t a somewhat lively personality be a requirement for a tour guide job? I don’t mean to sound like a jerk, but it was puzzling to me why this guy was there in the first place.
He was very nice and polite, but he spoke in a monotone voice and it was clear, he didn’t want to be there. In my experience, a guide can truly make or break a tour. Regardless, we mostly came there to see the flowers, and Butchart Gardens were as splendid as I remembered them from my original visit years ago.
Japanese garden area:
Being there in the evening was definitely a magical experience due to all the lights that were lid up after sunset:
But what made it truly special is the fact that I got a chance to share this experience with my daughter:
So, should you pay the big bucks for the cruise excursion to Butchart Gardens? I probably wouldn’t, especially if you have to purchase four or more tickets. You can simply arrange a taxi to the gardens and ask the driver to take you through city of Victoria on the way back. Just pay him extra to wait till you are done exploring the gardens.
Let’s say you are a family of four. It will cost you $388 total for the tour. Even if you get a $75 credit, that’s still over $300. I did a Google search, and it looks like one-way fare to Butchart Gardens is $55 USD, so you’ll spend $110 roundtrip (or more if the driver ends up waiting for you).
The admission to the gardens will run you $96 CAD. So, you will pay significantly less and won’t be stuck with a large group of people. Of course, for convenience sake, you may opt for an organized tour, though it doesn’t have to go through cruise line. There are several companies in Victoria that offer various excursions, here is just one example.
Verdict: Worth it, but compare the cost of the tour vs. do-it-yourself option, and go from there.
Playing Devil’s Advocate
Booking directly through cruise line has benefits. The biggest one is the fact that they are liable if the tour runs late and you can’t make it back to the ship before departure. I think this is mainly an issue in a foreign port and when your tour is complex/covers a great distance. For simple itinerary in Canada or US I wouldn’t hesitate to book through a third party in order to save money.
Another advantage in booking excursions directly through cruise line is knowing ahead of time that the charge will code as “travel.” This will make it easier to utilize points from cards like Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard With tour companies it can be hit or miss.
Last but not least, booking through cruise line saves you time and effort so you can focus on more important things. And that’s worth something, right?
Cruises to Alaska can be overwhelming for a family on a budget. There are so many options, and most of them cost a small fortune, especially if you have four or more people to think about. I recommend you always check cheaper local options via Google search, though do compare apples to apples, of course. While some tours are worth the cost (if you can swing it), as I’ve mentioned before, the biggest attraction in Alaska is Alaska itself. And you can see it right from your ship.
Readers, please share with me your favorite Alaska land-based excursions!
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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.