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Cruise Planning Tips I Wish I Knew Before Our First Family Alaska Cruise

boarding Carnival Splendor on an Alaska Cruise with the family

I’m hooked on cruising, sure. Open seas, long days of tropical drinks and warm breezes, cares and cell phones put away for a full week. But for me, the real bang for my buck comes long before. For us planning weirdos, the logistical fun before, during, and after is almost as good as being on the cruise. Each time we book, I spend hours looking at shore excursions, hotel reviews, port maps and other sundry details, and I mentally plan out my wardrobe. It makes waiting for a trip months or years away a little more tolerable.

wait staff in dining room

Note that I am the only member of the family that relishes in this planning bit. The kids feel like it’s a “spoiler” to watch port reviews on YouTube or read about an excursion. Such is the luxury of youngers who have their mother to work out and budget all the nitpicky details. My husband has the true heart of a nomad and would be fine with finding out the night before that we are heading out. This daydreaming, internet-scouring, and virtual list-making is my own little world, and I’ve become a bit of an expert at it.

aidan and his sushi boat

For our first Alaska cruise, though, I felt like I was hitting a firm and unyielding brick wall of doubt. Temperature fluctuations, exorbitant price hikes for excursions, and too many spoilers on the beauty and wonder gave me planning hesitation. I think Alaska cruises are marketed to older adults who consider the trip a “bucket list” item. They are willing to shell out big money to land on a glacier in a chartered helicopter, then be swept away to a dogsledding team who will deliver them to a remote cabin for a private salmon extravaganza catered by an indigenous chef.

They also exclusively shop at upscale outdoor boutiques and have a rugged clothing layer for every occasion. The port suggestions and packing tips I came across did not apply to the intrepid, very budget-conscious, multi-generational family I was planning for. My three children are 11, 12, and 13, and my mother is in her 70s. My husband and I are spritely but weary Gen Xers.

on board pro family photo

So, here’s how to plan for an unconventional Alaska cruise:

Step one: be chill. Like, really chill!

Not the tropical kind of "don’t worry” on a cruise, but the kind that says “man, it’s nice and chilly out here, this is awesome”. We left our Wyoming home in the scorching 90 F weather to sail on hazy damp seas that took our breath away, in a good way. We had to pack for the high temperatures at home, the mid-range temperatures in Seattle, and the lower 50s on the ship.

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hub app screen shot

I was stressed about ensuring we had adequate rain gear, hats, weatherproof shoes, a good pair of binoculars, and decent clothing for the dining room...and it all worked out perfectly. My husband is a polar bear in human form, so he was happy in his t-shirts and convertible pants. I am kept naturally warm by a nice layer of middle-aged coating, and by my hot flashes, so t-shirts and flannels did me just fine.

My kids are blissfully unaware of any temperatures anywhere, so if they got cold or hot, they just moved inside or outside. My mother was on her own for packing, and she seemed to fare just fine. It’s gonna be chilly, but it’s a good chill. It’s gonna rain, but it’s a nice rain. Just relax and bring enough clean underwear for each day.

ade eating lobster

We lucked out on the pre- and post-planning costs, since I have been hording my credit card reward points for the past year. Our airfare was covered by points, and by flying Alaska Airlines, our bags were covered by their military policy. Our pre-flight hotel costs were covered by my Marriott reward points, and our hotel stays in Seattle were booked under a military rate. The tip here is to do some research on how to get the best bang for your buck. We even took the Light Rail from SeaTac to our first hotel in Seattle, which saved a ton of cash (but had everyone grumbling on the uphill luggage push, whoops). After that, my mother offered to pay for transportation.

The other tip here is that not all of your preplanning will go perfectly, and that’s okay. When things got mucked up, we began to sing “but it’s still okay because I’m on vacation!” We reminded the kids that the opportunity for travel always comes with twists and turns, and unexpected bothers are best met with laughter and gratitude.

family at victoria port

As for the excursions, we totally winged it. This was hard as the planner, but I just couldn’t justify spending upwards of one grand at each port. You will have tons of people asking you on the ship what you plan to do at each port, and it was fun to say “we don’t know”. Don’t get jealous when they describe their helicopter-dogsled-feast plans, because here’s a big spoiler: these excursions are cancelled for weather all the time. 

Here’s another: you will see so many amazing things as you cruise on the ship. Glacier chunks, whales, orcas, otters, bald eagles, majestic mountains, the list goes on and on! We did one whale-watching tour in Juneau which we booked at the dock, and that was heavily discounted (and pretty amazing).

But in all the other ports, we made our own fun: skipping rocks on the shore, searching for sea glass and sea creatures, trying the local root beers and whiskeys, and just having fun together. We even went to the currency exchange in Canada to get the kids souvenir money, which had no line, while the nearby souvenir shop was packed with people. You can make your own memories and adventures, and it doesn’t have to cost very much money.

bunk beds interior room

Here Are Four More Tips That Work For Any Alaska Cruise With A Family

If you’ve read this far, congratulations ... you’re probably the planner in your family! 

Bring scissors, clear tape, and duct tape. We don’t always need them, but I look like a girl scout when we do.

Buy lanyards for your keycards, luggage tag holders for your printout tags from the cruise line, and magnetic hooks for your walls. These three things separate the seasoned cruiser from the newbie.

Fly to your port the night before and book an early departure. For maximum relaxation points after your cruise, book a hotel before you leave the port. Taking away these travel bumps make for a much better experience, especially with kids.

sitting on deck

On that note, make sure to include lots of downtime. Read on deck, take naps, have some television time, find quiet places. The bustle and crowds can get to anyone and can especially wear out children.

Alaska cruises are an adventure of a lifetime, and they don’t fit the normal flow of a tropical cruise. So set sail with flexibility and open mind and remember: you’re a planner who also needs a little unpredictability for true adventure!