|Cruising Alaska on a Budget|
We enjoyed all three Alaskan ports (Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan) and the Tracy Arm Glacier. We had incredible weather. We did not book any cruise ship excursions yet we saw more scenery and wildlife than most passengers. We were a family of four staying in one inside cabin aboard the Star Princess. We would do it again. Intrigued? Read on!
Precruise in Seattle
We stayed 3 nights at the Seattle Sheraton Hotel Towers, located at the corner of Pike and 7th. We had no need for a rental car. Great location. Highly recommended. We paid $75/night plus taxes bidding on Priceline.com We got a general idea of what to bid at biddingfortravel.com. The Sheraton hotel personnel treated us very well.
We were a party of four. Myself, my wife, a teenager, and a preteen girl. We had 10 bags. We caught an Airport Limousine from the SeaTac airport for $35 (including tip). Limos are located on the same parking deck as taxis --- just look to your right. Checked in at the hotel and explored the area. We spent the better part of Wednesday afternoon and evening at Gameworks. For $30/person you can play all their high-end video and electronic games for the entire day. They have like 500 games. This was a treat for the kids. We ate dinner at the Cheesecake Factory located nearby.
On Thursday, we started the day walking down to the Seattle Art Museum ($15 total). Of interest, the Gilbert Stuart full-length portrait of George Washington was on display. We ate lunch at the Rock Bottom Brewery. They have a great lunch menu which includes all your favorite sandwiches, including the Monte Cristo. My son is also fond of their Mud Pie. We then took the 2:00 pm reserved Boeing Tour hosted by Grey Line Bus Tour ($140 total). Awesome tour. Grey Lines main station for tours is at the Sheraton. Upon our return, our bus driver let us out in Pioneer Square where we experienced the Underground Tour (about $28 total). It too was fun. The kids thought it dragged a bit, but we all learned a lot. We returned to the hotel via the bus tunnel. Bus service is fast, and free, in downtown Seattle between 6am and 7pm!
On Friday, we took the bus back to Pioneer Square where we visited the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park Museum. Itll give you a great preview into the Alaskan Gold Rush before you get there, and its free. We then walked to Ivars Pier 54 for an early clam chowder lunch and checked out shops along the pier. (Hint: the Ye Olde Curiosity Shop has good prices on Dream Catchers). We visited Pikes Market. We really enjoyed watching fresh fish being tossed around, and my son checked out the original Starbucks location. We stopped in at F.A.O Schwartz toy store at my daughters request on the way back to the hotel, took in a movie at one of the three nearby theaters, and ate dinner at Rock Bottom Brewery. (Hint: the lunch menu is better).
Saturday morning we explored the Westlake Center. It has lots of fun shops. (Hint: check out the food court on the top floor. It features almost every ethnic food you can think of). We rode the tram to the Seattle Center and walked around for a few minutes, and took pictures, but did not go up the Space Needle as it was VERY pricey. Got back to the hotel, packed, and took a Northpacific Limo Service towncar to Pier 30 for only $20 (including tip).
Seattle Pier 30
We arrived at the pier about 12:20pm and were in our cabin on the Star Princess within 30 minutes. Security and check-in went very smoothly. We booked an inside quad cabin on the Dolphin Deck. It was small, but it had plenty of room for all four of us, our luggage and all of our clothes. We used the Front Bridge Cam Channel as our porthole. We left the channel on all the time (with the mute button hit). We grabbed a heavy snack in the Horizon Court, explored the ship, and unpacked. Later we joined my parents, grandfather, and his companion, for dinner in the Portofino Dining Room. Explored some more and got a briefing at the Kids Club. We ended up getting a fixed 6pm seating time each night in the Portofino Dining Room. We liked the early set dinner time. While you can eat anywhere at Breakfast and Lunch, we generally ate in the Portofino as well.
The food was generally pretty good. Some items were excellent.
Breakfast: salmon bagel, pasties, and fresh fruit (papaya) were excellent.
Favorite Items at lunch and dinner:
Appetizers: shrimp cocktail, avocado bowl with seafood salad, among others
Soups: Lintel with Caribou Sausage, Lobster Bisque, Cream of Wild Mushroom
Entrées: prime rib, most pasta dishes, king crab legs, lobster tails
Deserts: all nut ice creams, all fruit ice creams, soufflés, crème brule, chocolate mouse, among others
Pizza was excellent if you can get it hot out of the oven. It deteriorated fast with time. My daughter enjoyed the hot dogs and hamburgers served at the grill.
Fresh berries (raspberries, blackberries, blueberries) were used as garnishes for a number of deserts, but you could not get a bowl of mixed berries.
Coffee and ice tea were unremarkable. Could use improvement. Also, we couldnt find lighter refreshing drinks like lemonade anywhere on the ship.
The Soda Card
The soda card is a very good buy at $22.50 including tip and a cool coke travel mug. I think my son drank so much soda that he was able to get his cost per soda down to about 10 cents per serving. Note that they often served him small glasses which appear to contain ice and about 4 oz of soda. Once it was established that he had a coke sticker, he rarely had to show it. The waiters in the dinning room did a great job of keeping him liquid. The waiters and waitresses working the bars and lounges accepted the card but seemed a little put out when the saw it. We conjectured that they do not share in the coke card tips.
The Kids Club
My teenage son did not take advantage of the Kids Club. He chose instead to enjoy the regular activities with the adults. My pre-teen daughter took full advantage of the Kids Club. She couldnt get enough of it. Always looked forward to going. And made several new friends. The hours were generally 9am to Noon, 2pm to 5pm, and 7pm to 10pm. Activities included arts and crafts, board games, contests, movies, special tours, group dinners, scavenger hunt, a free t-shirt, and more. There is no additional charge for the Kids program, but we did tip her energetic leaders.
The song and dance productions were good. The sets were outstanding. The ships band is to be commended. Comedians Kevin Hughes and Elliott Maxx were very funny. Magician Jeff Peterson was entertaining but nothing special. His assistant was very attractive. The best entertainer on the ship is Bert Stratton. Unfortunately, he played in the small Promenade Lounge for the first 6 nights. Despite the location, he pulled in crowds that lined the walls in the hallway surrounding the lounge 2 people deep. They finally gave him the Explorers Lounge on our final night. He played to an appreciative capacity crowd which gave him a standing ovation after he performed a rousing medley. Over 80% of the folks in attendance after the first performance were repeaters or Bert Referrals. Bert is very entertaining and has a grand command of the piano.
We enjoyed Bingo, trivia, horse racing, various game shows, card games, the daily quiz, and the art auction.
Libby Riddles was very well received in Juneau. Michael Modzelewski gave a series of presentations on Alaska. We gave up after the first night. We found Michael to be overly flowery, long-winded, and self important. His air-conditioned lectures aren't a bad place to sleep. Outside of that, his content was good.
Simply outstanding! It was cold at Sea on the way to Juneau and Skagway, but air temperatures on land were above normal and very comfortable. We experienced no rain. We experienced moderately heavy seas on the way to Juneau.
We were actively looking for wildlife on this trip. A couple of viewing hints: 1. bring your binoculars. 2. spend time on the decks looking for wildlife. 3. when looking for whales look for the spouting of air. 4. when looking for bald eagles in trees, look for what appears to be a golf ball in the branches. 5. look high in the mountains. If the small patches of snow move, theyre likely mountain goats. If you spend time on the deck, you also get the benefit of the officer in the bridge who will announce anything he spots.
Juneau: numerous Bald eagles, mountain goat, dolphins
Skagway: a family of bears (Black mother bear, two brown clubs and a black cub), a caribou, 2 mountain goats, Baldeagles, a herd of seals, and humpback whales.
Ketchikan: bald eagles
Sea Day: Humpback whales
We have been on three cruises to date. Alaska, by far, has some of the most expensive excursions. Frankly all of them look worthwhile. However, given the size of our group, we could not afford any of them. So we made our own arrangements. Here is how to do Alaska on a budget and see more of Alaska than most of the passengers on the ship!
Juneau: we rented a van for $65 from Rent-A-Wreck in advance and were met at the pier. We drove to Mendenhall Glacier Park where we took in the glacier and two self-guided trails: Photo Point and Nugget Falls (free). Toured the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery ($12 for our group of 6). Highly recommend both. Hit Safeway grocery store for an early afternoon snack and souvenirs. Upon returning the van we were given a gratis tour of downtown. We elected to be dropped off in town to shop. Red Dog Saloon was too crowded so we just checked out a few shops in route to the ship.
Skagway: Rented a van for $75 from Avis which is located very close to the piers. We drove to Carcross, Yukon Territory, Canada (130 miles roundtrip). As it turned out, theres really nothing in Carcross, but the trip was incredible. (Its not the destination its the journey). There was almost no traffic at all. We saw but one bus, a truck, and maybe 2 dozen cars the entire trip. We saw bears, caribou, mountain goats and bald eagles. We saw snow capped mountains and crystal clear lakes, numerous water falls, sweeping valley and mountain views, raging rivers, the White Mountain Pass Train. The kids through snowballs. We got back into town about 2pm and shopped. Many interesting stores. The place was packed with 4 ships in port. Enjoyed an Alaska Amber Ale at the Red Onion Saloon and were driven back to the ship by the folks at Avis. Between 8pm and 10pm that night we saw numerous Humpback whales, including tail slaps, and a breach within 50 yards of the ship.
Tracy Arm Glacier: Spectacular. The weather was so good that we were able to get within 200 yards of the glacier. This was the first time a ship this big has gotten this close. It was such an event that Princess sent a helicopter down from Juneau to record video and photo footage. The calving glacier was breathtaking from my grandfathers balcony. Lots of blue ice. The captain slowly rotated the ship 360 degrees to allow all cabins a good view of the glacier. Several mother and baby seal duos were sighted on small icebergs near the ship. Bald eagles were also sighted.
Ketchikan: the skies were clear. Short-sleeved shirts were the dress of the day. We simply walked around town. They experienced an electrical power shortage for about 1 hour around 8am. Some shops closed temporarily. Not much time to do anything special in Ketchikan other than visit the National Park Services museum which was quite informative, and shop. The town had some really fun shopping opportunities. Three places to stop in... "Good God" and ask for a sample of his Special Reserve smoked salmon; "Sockeye Sams": a nice all-around store; check out the ancient whale bone carvings. Look for the awesome (and reasonably priced) fossils and gemstones at "Poker Creek Gold" , and ask for a taste of the Birch Syrup at Sam McGees on Creek Street. We enjoyed another Alaska Amber Ale in a 3rd floor pub overlooking the dock. We didnt leave the bar until the lines, to get back on the ship, got short.
Victoria, BC, Canada: $10 (Canadian) cab ride each way got us into downtown Victoria for beer, shopping, and sightseeing. Its way too far to walk from the pier.
We felt we did not have enough time in Ketchikan or Victoria to really enjoy those two ports as much as we would have liked.
Additional Notes, comments, and suggestions:
Post Cruise in Seattle
- Our cabin steward was outstanding.
- The TV is well thought out by Princess. We used the Bridge Cam Channel (31) as our 24/7 porthole. Princess also has a GPS channel with great info of interest. We loved knowing our current location on a map, outside temperatures, and wave conditions. (Celebrity are you listening?). The TV also showed current DVD releases (primarily rated PG) on a closed circuit movie channel that also ran 24/7. CNN and a couple other channels were also available.
- The recliners around the pools need cup holders.
- Bert Stratton should get a larger lounge to perform in.
- Smoking should be limited to open air areas only! Smokers did not light up anywhere they were not allowed to, but they did light up in the bars and casino (where it was permitted) which made the air in these areas pretty intolerable due to the low ceilings and poor air circulation.
- The dress code was not as formal as we expected, which was actually nice. Suit and tie, as opposed to tux, was the choice of dress for about 90% of male passengers on formal nights.
- Room service food is very limited. No pizza delivery. It is difficult to place an order. My daughter tried it once. We were on hold for over 20 minutes. If we had known this would happen, we would not have bothered.
- We did not hear of any reports of passengers getting sick. We did not witness any kids with diapers in the pools or hot tubs.
- The staff was generally very friendly and efficient. My son thought Dan was very funny. Dan ran the Bingo and some of the trivia contests.
- The casino is very large. Several card gaming tables, a couple roulette tables, and one craps table were surrounded by slot machines taking everything from pennies to dollars. We did not gamble on this trip.
- Photos were VERY pricey. 5x7s were $10 each. These are really 3x5s with a nice border. Ill never understand why they charge so much. As a result, most of the pictures are thrown away. We only bought one. Wouldnt they make more net money and have less waste if they were to charge $3 to $5 each and have folks buy more pictures and feel they werent getting screwed?
- Debarkation went very smoothly except for the baggage claim which was a bit of a madhouse. We were one of the last groups off the ship.
- Marketing idea for Princess: Want a great and inexpensive grassroots marketing campaign? Pay the postage on any postcards mailed from the ship!
We caught another $20 towncar ride back into town to pickup a National Rent-a-car van ($55) at the Hilton on 6th Street. We spent the day at the Woodland Zoo (outstanding all-around zoo) in Seattle and the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma (a few nice exhibits in an otherwise aging zoo undergoing construction) prior to departing via American Airlines at Midnight from SeaTac.
We had a great experience. The beauty of Alaska and Canada was beyond our expectations. We would do this again, and we wouldnt necessarily do it any differently. While we did not take any of the cruise excursions which basically start at $50$75 each per person, we do not feel we missed much. Of course, if we won a lottery, Id opt to upgrade the cabin and take a helicopter to a glacier for a dogsled ride ($375/pp).
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