Alaska Family Cruise: Planning Shore Excursions

Jun 27, 2016 | By Lauren Macleod

As I shared in the first post in the Alaska Family Cruise series, I will be taking our little ones on their first cruise, our first trip to Alaska, and my first work trip with family. In addition to being incredibly excited about the trip, I am also thrilled to be doing the preparation and planning a bit in public. The team is committed to helping our readers get the most out of their cruises. And while our Alaska cruise content is fantastic (yes, I am biased), we haven't ever created it in real-time as we were on the ground or in the preparation stages. 

What Happened to that Compulsive Type-A Planning Thing?

At 2 months before we depart, I am a bit behind on planning. This is not so much an exemplary demonstration of cruise preparation as it may be the reality for anyone who is working full-time while trying to manage a huge family trip. Here's the good news: I have flights, I have tickets on the fabulous Crystal Serenity, and I have great articles our writers have put together on the top things to do in the key ports (Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway among them). I have done all of the pre-cruise documentation on Crystal's online guest system and have booked my specialty dining reservations at Silk Road and Prego. 

But as of this moment--just over 2 months from my departure date-- I have zero excursions planned.


If we were going to the Caribbean or to the Mediterranean, I wouldn't worry for a second. I'm a fan of wandering solo and with two small kids, a day at the beach is their idea of fun. But I have never been to Alaska and everyone says that the excursions are some of the best in the cruise business. So it's time to get on it.

Alaska Shore Excursions with Two Small Children

Some people say they are too young; that a 3-year old and 6-year old won't appreciate Alaska. They might be right, but we are not afraid to take our little ones on adventures and can't wait to see their eyes and expressions as they see glaciers, whales, and everything else Alaska has to offer. From all of my research (and that of our writers), there are handful of must-try experiences in Alaska:

  1. Glacier Viewing or Landing. Take a helicopter to land on a glacier or a seaplane to fly over them. Most people do these adventures in Juneau or Skagway, but other ports offer similar experiences.
  2. Whale Watching. In addition to seeing whales from the ship itself, most people recommend going on a boat tour to find humpback whales in Juneau, Hoonah, Seward and Homer. It's possible to see orcas as well, but they are a bit harder to see. As such, spotting one is more a lucky break than a specific tour.
  3. Land & Air Wildlife Watching. Alaskan brown bears are the most often sought & seen, but you can also find bald eagles, moose, caribou and wild goats.
  4. Ziplining. There are multiple tour operators that offer ziplining or ziplining + glacier experiences. One of the more popular ones is in Juneau at the Tongass National Park.
  5. Dogsled Rides. Technically you don't get to 'mush' yourself, but you get to meet the dogs, go on a ride in a sled and hang out with the dogs. From all that we've seen, this is among the favorites for adults and kids alike.
  6. White Pass & Yukon Route Train Ride. For train, mountain and gold rush enthusiasts, the Skagway rail trip is a must-do.
  7. Kayaking, Canoeing, and Boating. There are tons of opportunities to get on the water and see the sights from a different vantage point. Whether it's active and a bit strenuous or calm and placid, there are plenty of choices for adventure
  8. Cultural/Historical Sights. Ketchikan is known for its totem poles, Sitka for its Russian history, and Skagway for the gold rush. Each of the ports offers insights into the unique culture that is and was Alaska.
  9. Alaskan Food DelightsThere's the salmon, naturally; the crab legs, the Ketchikandies, and the beer. 

Crystal Cruises provided a list of available Alaskan shore excursions to help us plan. However, we won't have the opporunity to try everything there is to offer (the print-out was 96 pages), especially with little ones in tow. My husband put together a spreadsheet of our favorites with the associated prices, schedules, and options. One of our selections is pictured below:

A preview of Crystal Cruises' Alaska shore excursions

As we made our choices, we found that one of our favorites, the Hoonah Whale Watching, was already sold out. This excursion is on of the most popular, as they effectively guarantee that you will see whales and that's an experience few want to miss. While we have missed on of our top choices, the good news is that the cruise line lets you get waitlisted for excursions. There are also a few other providers in town who offer whale watching and are very cruise-friendly. So one way or the other, my family will see whales--or at least try.

Our Final List of Alaska Shore Excursions 

There are truly amazing experiences in each port: private Hummer tours in Vancouver, helicopter rides to glaciers, fishing trips to see salmon spawn, golf at one of the top courses in Alaska, culinary adventures, ziplining, kayaking...almost anything you'd want to experience in Alaska that fits into your budget. However, we are opting to do excursions in only some of the ports. We want to also see some of the towns at a slightly slower pace (to let our boys run around a little) and not be 100% planned before we arrive. 

It took us about a week of solid reading/reviewing/circling/spreadsheeting to decide, but our final selections are:

  • Ketchikan: Misty Fjords Flightseeing. This is one that we have gone back and forth on, because for a family of 4 this is >$1,000. But it means we get to see glaciers from above and take our aviation-loving kids on a plane to see something they have never seen (and probably never will again). So it seems worth it and it's a great way to get some glacier experience without trying to maneuver a gigantic backpack with a 3 year-old. If we have time, we might do the Ketchikan Duck Tour, as it's supposed to be a great plan for families, or the Alaskan Lumberjack show. Without a doubt, though, we will make a stop at Ketchicandies for their famous chocolate-covered Oreos. [for more ideas, check out Top 10 Things to Do in Ketchikan]
  • Hoonah: Whale Watching. Because we absolutely have to. If we can't get off the waiting list for Crystal's excursion or get clarification on their stated 8 year old minimum age limit, we will take the tour with Hoonah Travel Adventures, a highly recommended provider.
  • Juneau: Dog Sledding + Glacier Helicopter ride. This is the most expensive thing we could possibly do. But everyone from our editorial team to friends who've cruised to Alaska assures us that this is the thing to spend your money on. It's been called once-in-a-lifetime and 'the best shore excursion I've ever done" from someone who's been on dozens of cruises. Our 3 year-old will need to walk a little bit on a glacier, which should be kind of hilarious (watch for Instagram videos that he will hate me for when he's older). And while we are in Juneau, there is no doubt that I am going to Tracy's King Crab Shack
  • Skagway: White Pass Railway. I'm actually totally freaked out about part of this excursion, which involves walking across a suspension bridge. I'm quite certain I will pass on that part, as the helicopter and seaplane excursions are more than this anti-heaights person can take. But the train trip sounds like it will be an amazing view. At 3 hours total, it might be a little too long for our little guy. The older one can always read and we can resort to YouTube videos if they are too stir crazy. 

We may have been late to plan our shore excursions, but now we are almost ready to set sail.

Next on the list: I will start thinking about gear that we need to bring. The weather poses some packing challenges for this Miami family!


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