We Need Alaska Tour Advice

What can you recommend?

After talking about it for several years, my husband and I have finally booked a vacation in Alaska. We’re going for two weeks in the beginning of June.

Our Trip

Our 2-week trip will have three parts:

  • Five days on land, starting and ending in Anchorage. We’ll be spending two nights in Anchorage with some friends before taking the train to Denali. We have two nights there in the park before returning to Anchorage.
  • One week on Radiance of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship (ironically, the only one we’ve ever been on) with a southbound cruise to Vancouver, BC. The itinerary includes Seward (our starting port), Hubbard Glacier (cruising), Juneau, Skagway, Icy Strait Point, Ketchikan, Inside Passage (cruising), and Vancouver (our ending port).
  • Three days in Seattle, visiting with Mike’s cousin.

What Should We Do Each Day?

I’d like to hear from experienced Alaska travelers (or residents) about the kinds of day trips, activities, and/or tours they recommend — or think we should steer clear of.

Mike and I are relatively active people who prefer activities that require us to get out and move around. We don’t want to sit on a motorcoach (i.e., a bus) for more than 30 minutes and will do it only if there’s no other way to get where we need to go. We don’t like events that are orchestrated, like lumberjack shows and indian village dance revues. We prefer activities that don’t attract a lot of families with small kids or less active participants. While we understand the importance of scheduling, we don’t like tours that rush us around from one place to another or tours that expect you to sit around waiting for an activity to begin.

I want to enjoy one or two or three activities each day and get back to the hotel or boat feeling exhausted and as if I’ve seen more than I can comprehend.

We are on a budget, so we can’t afford to drop $500 per person each day on entertainment. (I’ve seen some of the pricing for package tours and it’s scary.) Although we don’t mind dropping a bunch of money on a really special trip, we can’t do it more than once or maybe twice. And it would have to be very special.

I prefer working with small tour operators rather than the big ones that the cruise ship companies use. They usually offer more personalized service and, because they don’t have to cut in the cruise lines, they’re more affordable. (In Sedona, for example, I always put my passengers on a Jeep with Earth Wisdom instead of Pink Jeep Tours because I don’t like my passengers to feel “processed.” Ditto for Maverick instead of Papillon at the Grand Canyon.) That’s not to say that I won’t work with a bigger tour operator, but I certainly don’t want to be “one of hundreds” on a tour.

Some of the things we’re interested in include:

  • Salmon fishing (if we can bring our catch home)
  • Air tours (helicopter and/or seaplane) if they include ground activities.
  • Whale watching (although I think we’ll get enough of that from the ship).
  • Hiking or biking if not too strenuous. (I’m active but still out of shape.)
  • Nature observation and photography.

If You Have Suggestions, Please Help!

Although I can wade through a pile of tourist literature both in brochures and on the Web, I was hoping for activities that the average tourist doesn’t participate in. That means I need suggestions.

What have you done on an Alaska vacation? What do you think we might like? Don’t keep it a secret! Use the Comment link or form to share it with us. I need your help!

5 thoughts on “We Need Alaska Tour Advice

  1. I’m originally from Tennessee, and the Air Force sent me to Anchorage in 1995. After retiring from the Air Force in 2003, we decided to stay and call Anchorage home.

    You’ll love the train trip to Denali. The most fantastic and scenic trip you’ll ever take. Email me with any questions you may have. You can reach me at stooksbury@gci.net. I do find that some of the ‘tourist traps’ are available for about 20% of the cost that the tour groups charge (i.e. wildlife cruises from Whittier or Seward, etc.). You’ll also find that many of the cruise lines direct you only to the shops, etc. with which they have agreements.

    Fourth avenue in Anchorage is souvenir central, but Walmart carries the same items for about half the cost.

    Drop me a note.,

    BOB

  2. Thanks, Bob. This is the kind of info I was hoping for: an insider’s view.

    The trouble with cruising is that they do offer a sort of “tunnel vision” of each port by offering only certain tours and funneling you to certain areas for shopping, etc. But you really can’t beat the “moving hotel” aspect.

    We’re staying with friends in Anchorage at the beginning of the trip. I hope they can take us along to some places the locals enjoy.

    Fortunately for us, we’re not big on souvenirs, no matter where they’re purchased.

  3. Hi. The thing to remember about the cruise lines is that they have agreements with the day trip companies in every harbor and try hard to steer you to them. Unfortunately, most of these offers are not run by real Alaskans. If you can, try to walk past all the tourist kiosks when you get off the boat and find some real Alaskans. They will likely offer cheaper rates as well as more memorable adventures. They’ll surely have better tales to tell. In Juneau, for example, you have to walk up the mountain into town before you encounter any real Alaskans. All of the stores down by the water that cater to the cruise ships are also owned by the cruise industry and are staffed by professionals who spend the winter in the Bahamas and the summer in Alaska shucking to tourists. While I don’t begrudge these people a living, I urge you to put out a little effort and find some real locals. You’ll be richly rewarded for your effort. The cruise ships even import thier bus drivers (mormans from Salt Lake City because they don’t drink.) There’s lots of real Alaskans who run day tours of the local wonders. But you won’t hear about them on the crusie ship. Do a little Internet searching before you go and see if you can’t prearrange some day trips in your ports of call. In Juneau, definitely get a float plane ride out to Admirality Island to see the bears. You might also want to find a local boat to take you whale watching and salmon fishing in Juneau. The other Southeast ports are so small that you shouldn’t have any problem walking a half mile to get beyond the tourist traps. Stop and Alaskan and ask their advice, we’re usually happy to talk to someone who’s sincere. In Juneau, go up to the Silverbow deli and hotel and talk to Ken the owner. Anchorage is our one big city and much like any other city, except with great mountain views. Have a nice lunch at Saks and soak up the sun downtown (if it’s not raining.) Depending on when you get to Seward, there’s usually good salmon fishing to be had here. Denali will most likely be the highlight of your trip, so try to spend as much time there as possible. Remember that what you’re seeing is only one half of Alaska, the rural Native villages offer an entirely different magical Alaska. Come back and see it sometime. But for a small taste, check out the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Yes, it’s a museum of sorts, but they do a really good job. OK, that’s just what I can think of off the top of my head. If you have more specific questions, don’t be shy.

  4. We’ve been to Alaska several times. There are two things we’ve done in Ketchikan that were especially memorable.

    First was a float plane trip to Misty Fjords in a DeHavilland Beaver. A float plane trip is a must do for any aviation enthusiast.

    Second was a two part excursion that took us to the opposite end of the island via jet-boat. The jet boat ride was narrated by a former US Forest Service employee. We saw several whales and were given a lot of interesting facts about the waters around Ketchikan. Arriving at the destination, we donned full rain gear and drove off-road vehicles along logging roads. The scenery was spectacular and the buggies were a blast to drive. They have fantastic suspension to absorb all of the bumps. The turn around point is near a gorgeous waterfall and river. The only downside is the slow bus ride back to Ketchikan.

    I agree with other poster’s comments about striking out on your own in Juneau. We don’t really care for Skagway. You’ll see why. We recommend either taking the White Pass & Yukon RR, which has unbelievable scenery or going to Haines.

    You’ll enjoy the trip. Radiance of the Seas is a pretty ship. I hope you booked a balcony.

    Mike

  5. Thanks for the tips, Mike. Yes, we got a cabin with a balcony for the cruise. They call it a mini-suite. It’s one room, but has a little sitting area and the balcony.

    I definitely want to do a float plane trip. My husband wants to do a helicopter trip, but I think I’d rather have the new experience. And there’s a bike trip that’s all downhill — how could I say no to that? I do want to go salmon fishing (if we can send the fish home).

    Thanks again for the tips.

What do you think?