Alaska Small Ship Cruising: What you need to know

After three tours aboard three different Un-Cruise Adventure vessels, I’ve come to an understanding about the concept of “small ship cruising,” especially when it involves children and Alaska. Small ships (those sailing with fewer than 100 passengers, by my own definition) are intimate experiences, so whether traveling with your own kids or alongside someone else’s, it behooves the savvy traveling family to take the following tips to heart. During each Un-Cruise, I sat down with moms, dads, and grandparents to unearth their impressions and suggestions for those who may follow in their footsteps, and I was impressed by both candor and positive feedback:

Little, and big. Which is right for you?

1. Understand the goal. Small ship cruises are unique in that they offer opportunities for families to travel together without a formal, kids-only program. Parents and kids eat, sleep, and recreate as a unit, with occasional breakouts for children. There’s no disco, no video games, and no internet, but plenty of boating, hiking, beachcombing, and animal-spotting, which, I’ve found, are the main reason parents choose such a cruise in the first place. Still not sure? Research the various companies using smaller vessels, and ask questions about amenities, which might be vastly different from your original impressions of “cruising.”

Kids use lounge space for indoor games during an Un-Cruise Kids in Nature week.

Everyone gathers together for a presentation about bears.

2. Be prepared for smaller spaces. Cabins are small to encourage passengers to mix and mingle in common areas, but those common areas can also be small, and feel a lot smaller on a rainy day when the itinerary calls for sailing during the bulk of it. Do not rely on the cruise company to provide all the entertainment, after all, kids are as unique as the trip, so bring books, quiet toys, action figures, puzzles, and other small items of interest to your own personal offspring. I found kids mingle just fine with a conversation piece like the latest version of Uno or teaching each other to finger-knit. But they sometimes need a comfortable nudge from their own toy box to get started.

Skiff tours in glacier country.

How about a mom-kid kayak adventure?

How about exploring the caves of El Capitan?

3. Review the itinerary before booking. Like most small ship cruise lines, Un-Cruise Adventures offers a wide variety of trip options that appeal to families. Are you a hiking and history-loving family? Consider a trip with a port call in a small southeast Alaska town and a few activities in the woods. Are geology and glaciers a big thing with your family? In that case, the Glacier Bay National Park trip may be a better fit, with kayaking, more skiff tours, and multiple drive-bys of ice and glacial moraine. The point is to fit the trip to your family, not cram your family into a trip made for someone else.

See this? It's wet and muddy in southeast Alaska, but way fun with the right gear!

Boots. Must-wear fashion accessories in Alaska.

4. Bring gear to fit the experience. Alaska’s weather and terrain can be wet, rugged, and different from what you’re used to at home. In turn, small ship cruises tend to be more casual, so leave the dinner jackets at home. Adventures off the ship require gear that can hold up to rain, wind, chilly temperatures, and the occasional stray tree branch. Best ideas I ever had? Packing two sets of raingear, two pairs of gloves, comfortable pants in which to lounge about after a busy afternoon bushwhacking the forest, and slip-on shoes with soles that handled wet decking when I wasn’t wearing rubber boots. Ask during booking if the company provides rubber boots; if they do, you’ll save suitcase space. Another good idea? Stash a few of those chemical handwarmers in your bag for use during skiff tours on cold days, your kids will bow and call you Awesome.

Boys vs. Girls sand creation contest during a Kids in Nature beach party.

5. Ask about theme cruises designed for kids. Some itineraries are designed for families, some just happen to have lots of kids. Either way, inquire about the difference; do lots of kids mean an adapted schedule of activities, even if the trip is not specifically a theme week for children and families? Un-Cruise offers several departures called “Kids in Nature,” whereby children receive a discount on their fare, and itineraries are structured with kid-centric activities.

Small ship cruising with kids? Bring it.

Read more about AKontheGO experiences aboard Alaska’s small ships: 

The “Un-Cruise:” Mingling with Mother Nature 

Kids in Nature: Alaska vacation bliss


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