Going Ashore On An Alaska Cruise: Best Bets for Families

One of the most exciting moments of any maritime adventure comes when the gangplank is lowered and a shout for “All ashore that’s going ashore!” filters through the staterooms. Perhaps that’s why a floating tour of southeast Alaska is so rewarding for families. The idea that kids go to sleep in one place and wake up in another is positively magical, and cruise lines work hard to capture that seafaring nostalgia among families who choose to sail. Cruising with kids is increasingly popular among Alaska visitors, so discerning moms and dads want to be sure everyone reaps the benefits of time spent at each port of call.

Alaska cruising usually means a seven-day sail north or southbound from either Seattle or Vancouver, B.C., to Seward or Whittier. In between are at least five port cities, each offering unique opportunities for history, culture, recreation, and relxation. The trouble is deciding what do first, when, and how.

My only major bone to pick with large cruise lines is their (understandable) mantra of  herding passengers to their advertised shore excursions. From the moment a potential passenger clicks the online “book now” tab, shore excursions are flashed past in a colorful display of photographs and descriptions meant to entice and endear. Cool, they are, and our family has joined the party more than once in order to experience a particular aspect of southeast Alaska. An advantage of participating in, and paying for, a ship-endorsed shore excursion is the security of a pre-vetted attraction or experience, complete with all the ancillary arrangements. No worry about transportation, tickets, or other tricky nuances; cruise lines deal directly with tour companies, which means passengers have little else to do but disembark the ship and climb aboard a bus, boat, or trolley.

That said, all this smoothness comes at a price. Cruise ship shore excursions usually cost more than do-it-yourself tours, since passengers pay for the privilege of convenience. They are also less likely to provide visitors with a true Alaska-immersion experience, something many parents strive to achieve once they’ve arrived in a place like this. Many families are searching for the Alaska they’ve read about or seen on television (the good stuff, anyway); hiking trails and moose encounters and opportunities to exchange parenting yarns with moms and dads who allow their offspring to thrive in a place flush with such wildness.

Offering a rousing "YO-HO" at the Ketchikan Lumberjack Show.

My advice? Find a workable combination of activities, some scheduled, some spontaneous, and give your kids a chance to witness Alaska, unplugged and unplanned. Here’s how:

Review your cruise itinerary. Do a little homework about port cities and poll your kids to gauge their level of interest in each community’s historical, recreational, and cultural attractions. Depending upon the cruise line, activities will vary, so knowing kids’ abilities and preferences in advance can help with final decision making. Many ports also have duplicate activities; look for a city’s unique attributes, and then double back for repeat attractions like ziplining, dogsledding, and river rafting.

Grab a guidebook. Before booking any shore excursion, take the time to research lesser-known tours or activities found in port communities. Many, many guidebooks exist to help Alaska visitors make sound choices for activities. Doing a little bit of homework well before your trip may result in an experience you never thought possible. Of course, use our guidelines to inquire about family-friendliness before booking any unfamiliar activity in Alaska.

Explore a city on your own. Our family loves to pack a picnic and walk around an unfamiliar community. Stop by the local visitor bureau, grab a map, and see what makes each particular Alaska town tick. Kids will love visiting local playgrounds, schools, libraries, or cultural centers, and eating somewhere else besides the ship’s dining room. Turn the experience into a scavenger hunt, of sorts, finding things that are new or different, but also familiar. Ask questions: “What do you notice about how kids dress, here?” or “Does this school look like yours?” Take a little bit of time to connect the dots between Alaska children and your own, and see where the insuing conversation takes you.

Know your ship’s policies for disembarking. Each cruise line has very clear limits for time spent in port. Some stops are mere hours, some last from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Ship’s officers will outline the expectations for passenger embarkation/disembarkation, and for heaven’s sake, follow assigned sailing times if you take off on your own.

Don't be afraid to set out on your own! With a few guidelines, of course.

Cruising is so much more than sights viewed from the water side of things. Truly experiencing Alaska means boldly going where few passengers have gone before, embracing the unexplored, and perhaps surprisingly familiar road ahead. Give it a try.


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