Responding to reader requests and questions, Chris will be reporting daily on this 12-day Alaska land and sea vacation sponsored by Princess Cruises. The Alaska Cruisetour series runs between now and June 26.
Today we take the Alaska Railroad from the Princess Mt McKinley Lodge to meet Coral Princess for our 7-day Voyage of the Glaciers cruise. That marks the end of the land portion of our Princess Cruisetour. But we’re far from done with today also marking the beginning of what promises to be a fabulous cruise. Before we embark on the next part of our journey though, I have some clear observations and solid recommendations for you.
Princess land hotels are an excellent, consistent choice
We stayed at three. In Fairbanks, Denali and Mt McKinley, we found the facilities appropriate, clean, safe and easy to navigate. Those factors are important when planning your first vacation to Alaska, a destination that is far away from pretty much everybody. Are they 4-star hotels? Yes, no and yes. They offer a level of service consistently caring throughout all properties. They don’t offer room service, a concierge to plan a night on the town or fine china in a number of dining venues. But that’s not what Alaska is all about. What they have done is carve nice, comfortable hotels out of barren wilderness. That’s good stuff. When I forgot the key to my room when leaving one morning, locking myself out. They came running, literally running, up the hill to our building to let me in. I write this at 2am as the sun comes up (or goes down, not really sure) from a brief daily rest drinking a cup of coffee front desk worker Barbara went out of her way to go find for me. They do stuff like that all the time. That’s my Princess there.
Do the Cruisetour, not just a cruise
I was pretty sure I would never be able to say “just a cruise” in any way, shape or form about Princess before this started. But the way this has gone, there is no way I could honestly recommend a cruise-only visit to Alaska. The cruise portion we start later today will take us up close and personal with glaciers and other natural wonders. The land portion took us up close and personal with the people that make this a great land. I’d go so far as to say skip it and wait if you can’t swing at least a few days pre cruise. We have indeed seen a lot of seniors, as anticipated. As a whole, that group has the time to vacation more than 7 days like younger families might. We’ve seen multi-generational families too though so to say this is an “old folks cruise” is quite inaccurate. Lisa and I are the oldest couple with our group and technically “seniors” but like so many others I have met, these are not old people who have no business being out of the home.
Do the land part first
The ship itineraries run 7-day round trip or 7-day North or South. I spoke with several guests who had done both. All agreed Southbound was the way to go. It made sense to me before and makes even more sense now. As noted above, the hotels do a great job and create a great land experience. With a dozen sailings with Princess I know first-hand the job they do pampering us, seeing to our every need and needs we didn’t know we had. It’s a different experience and that’s how you need to look at it. If you have cruised before but not visited Alaska and do the cruise part first, I think there would be tendency to feel let down when you got to the land part. It might take a while to figure it all out and that could lead to an inaccurate disappointment.
Select the escorted version
On Cruisetours there are two choices, hosted or escorted. Hosted land tours take up 90% of the catalog of choices from Princess. Escorted land tour itineraries are quite similar but include most meals, the best rooms at all the hotels and other easily measurable benefits that make the higher price our best value. Remember, Value is what it is all about in any cruise vacation and the Escorted product from Princess delivers. Another factor that comes into play here is the host who travels along with you. That, to me, is the bonus value that makes choosing the Escorted version the clear and easy choice, especially on your first visit to Alaska, a destination that is at it’s best different and can often be a confusing place to go.
Fly in a day early
Regardless of where you come from it’s usually a very long travel day to get here. Coming from Orlando we had a grueling 15-hour travel day and crossed four time zones. If I had it to do over again I would add a day on the front end just for rest and relaxation to get our heads in the right place and adjust to Alaska’s never ending day. I’d also start hoarding frequent flyer miles and be sure I had enough to upgrade to comfy first-class too. I can’t imagine flying that far then starting a 7-day cruise, another point in favor of a Cruisetour with at least a few days on land first, before the cruise part. Frequent cruisers know that embarkation day on any cruise, any line, is often a very long day.
We need to change our mindset about Alaska
It’s so easy to say “Hey, I love to cruise, let’s do Alaska”. To go with that thought would be a mistake because Alaska is way different than any other cruise destination. The sheer size of the state and all that is offered deep inside are reasons enough to take time to get your head in the right place. This one needs to be planned at least 6 months in advance. I recommend 12 months or more, maybe even before it is possible to pick an itinerary because sailings have not been opened for sale yet. As noted above they need to be done as a Cruisetour with careful consideration given to land and shore excursions which, frankly, can make or break the experience. I would only recommend buying a last-minute Alaska cruise if you have done it before.
So now it’s on to the familiar cruise part of our vacation. Still, we’re not going to be seeing anything like we’ve seen on more than 50 sailings on a half-dozen cruise lines. This is not about sandy beaches, Margaritaville or pool time in the blazing Caribbean sun. The really cool part is that from the very beginning I thought I would miss that. After experiencing Alaska, up close and personal on this land part, I’m really excited about putting the cruise product I know so well with what can only be seen on a Princess Voyage of the Glaciers, the core offering for all their cruise products.
So hang on because here we go: Hello Alaska!