I Survived a Cruise — And You Can, Too

Jun 22, 2018

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Full disclosure: I’m not a cruise person. I’m happy to travel across water in myriad ways — fishing boats and ferries, canoes and kayaks. But a cruise? It’s a floating mega-hotel, and I’m the tent-camping type.

But sometimes a cruise is called for.

In my case, it was my father calling. For his 80th birthday, he suggested we go to Alaska. How I could I turn down this charming octogenarian’s birthday request? Plus: Alaska! It’s a place I’ve always wanted to see.

So we did it, and we had some good times, for sure.

Me and my family in Ketchikan, Alaska. They say Ketchikan’s average annual rainfall is 165 inches but nary a cloud in the sky for us.

My family and me in Ketchikan, Alaska. They say Ketchikan’s average annual rainfall is about 160 inches, but nary a cloud in the sky for us. (Photo courtesy of Andrea Coombes)

One clear win for cruises: They can be a good deal. Our nice ocean-view room for a 7-night cruise cost about $3,700 total for two people, including unlimited food and drinks (we chose to include a drinks package — $112 each for unlimited alcohol, excluding top-shelf brands), taxes and prepaid gratuities ($97 each, though we did some additional tipping on top of that).

Of course, that price also includes access to two swimming pools, four hot tubs, a gym and sauna, exercise classes, entertainment and ... Alaska. The bowling alley cost an extra $7 per person. The fun I had bowling with my family? Incalculable.

Still, I’m unlikely to take another cruise. I prefer visiting places on my own terms, not being subject to a schedule. And, for me at least, the crowds can get tiring. That said, there’s lots of fun to be had on an Alaskan cruise, if you do it right. Here’s my take on how to do that.

Find your Deck 7

On our cruise, the ship held almost 2,400 passengers and more than 1,000 crew members. It was impossible to be alone, unless you wanted to be stuck in your cabin. The cabins are nice on the Norwegian Pearl — we were in the cheapest ocean-view cabins and they were fairly spacious — but they can still get claustrophobic.

If you want time away from the crowd, find the emptiest deck. On the Pearl, that’s Deck 7. You can walk an entire lap around the boat and run into no more than about 20 people, probably because Alaska in May can be blustery and cold. You’ll need to bundle up, but it’s worth it. Deck 7 has lounge chairs, old-school shuffleboard, space, views and room to think.

Me and Donald Hsu, my future son-in-law and reigning shuffleboard champion, on Deck 7.

Me with Donald Hsu, my future son-in-law and reigning shuffleboard champion, on Deck 7. (Photo courtesy of Talia Coombes)


Make your own excursions

You’re probably going to want to get off the boat at every opportunity. On our 7-night cruise, there were three stops in Alaska, plus one in Victoria, Canada. You can purchase guided excursions through independent companies or directly through the cruise line. Or make your own adventure. One of my favorite memories of the trip is a hike we did straight up a mountain in Skagway — 3,100 feet in elevation gain over the course of about three miles — on a trail my husband found mentioned in an old Alaska travel guide.

At the top, we found a frozen lake nestled beneath snow-capped peaks. (If that hike sounds like too much, note that other people on the cruise said the Skagway train excursion — about $150 per person through the cruise line — was great.)

We had a decent guided excursion in Juneau: a whale-watching boat ride plus a walk to Mendenhall Glacier (about $165, booked through an independent company). But that hike in Skagway stands out, bright as snow on a sunny day.

We made it! We hiked 3,000 feet in 2.5 miles to Upper Dewey Lake, Skagway, Alaska.

We made it! The hike to Upper Dewey Lake in Skagway, Alaska, has a 3,100-foot elevation gain over the course of about three miles. In other words, straight up. (Photo courtesy of Andrea Coombes)

Shell out so one person has a balcony

Thanks to my dad and stepmom booking a balcony suite, we didn’t have to jostle with the crowds when viewing the glaciers and whales in Glacier Bay, which was lovely. Don’t forget your binoculars. On our cruise, the base room rate for a balcony suite was $1,899 per person, compared with $1,359 per person for our room.

Glacier Bay.

Glacier Bay. (Photo courtesy of Hisako Coombes)

The rest of us had “ocean-view staterooms,” one step up from a room with no window, but our rooms were surprisingly lovely. They weren’t too small for a couple, and the window, which I expected to be a porthole — round and about the size of my head — was actually a large rectangle with a beautiful view.

Talia Coombes enjoying the view.

Talia Coombes enjoying the view. (Photo courtesy of Donald Hsu)

Buy at least one cruise amenity package

Maybe for you that means unlimited Wi-Fi (if you want any Wi-Fi at all, consider buying in advance, because onboard purchases are pricier). If you’re into food, consider buying the specialty dining package, which gets you into the “special” restaurants without paying extra. (That said, on our cruise, the regular restaurants were as good as the specialty options. Overall, the food was better than I expected, though some meals were mediocre.)

In my family’s case, the specialty package of choice was drinks, unlimited. Because even traveling through Alaska’s amazing Glacier Bay, when you’re traveling with six family members plus more than 3,000 other people, you’re going to want a drink.

Drinks package in effect, and we hadn’t even left Seattle yet.

Drinks package in effect, and we hadn’t even left Seattle yet. (Photo courtesy of Andrea Coombes)

Prepare for hand sanitizer. Lots of it.

On our cruise, stoic crew members stationed at the entrances of the dozen or so restaurants, spray bottles in hand, doused passengers' hands as they walked in. You, too, may get mighty tired of the “washy washy” song a musical duo is forced to sing every morning at breakfast, but at least none of us got sick.

Take it slow

On a cruise, if you’re a relatively active person, you will inevitably and often be behind large groups of people who walk more slowly than you do. Relax and remember to enjoy your vacation.

Consider a travel agent

Travel agents are paid by the cruise lines, not the travelers. No doubt ticket prices reflect this fact, so you may as well hire one. Our travel agent was helpful in booking shore excursions and specialty packages.

No matter what your weather app says, bring your swimsuit

There are hot tubs and swimming pools, and despite a forecast of rain, we had sun every day.

Norwegian Pearl.

Norwegian Pearl. (Photo courtesy of Steve Coombes)

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of NerdWallet or its partners.

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