How to Take an Alaskan Cruise Vacation with Your Kids (From Someone Who’s Done It!)
I’ve dreamed for years of taking an Alaskan cruise. Last summer, when my friend in Florida told me that Princess Cruises was running a “Kids Sail Free” promotion and invited us to come along, I looked at the prices, talked to my husband, and, hardly believing it, made the reservations. We kept it a secret from the kids and made a scavenger hunt to tell them about it for their big holiday gift. They were shocked and so, so excited.
This summer, our family of seven took our long-awaited, much-anticipated Alaskan cruise, truly a trip of a lifetime and one that’s forever woven into the fabric of our family memories. Looking back, we’re so glad we took a cruise. We were able to see parts of Alaska that are only accessible by plane or boat, and we were able to relax and enjoy without worrying about traveling between places, hotels, or meals.
We also loved that pretty much everything was paid for before we took the cruise. Overall, we felt opting for a cruise to visit Alaska freed us up to soak in all the sights without the usual practical considerations and real-time expenses of traveling on land, and we would wholeheartedly recommend an Alaska cruise to other families.
This trip was not only my first trip to Alaska, but also my first cruise, and embarking on that kind of adventure with five kids in tow took lots and lots of planning. But nothing teaches you like the experience itself.
Here are my best tips, insights, and things I wish I’d known for going on an Alaska cruise with kids. (One thing to note about our particular Alaska cruise experience: these tips are for a summer-time cruise. I’m sure there’s a whole different kind of preparation involved for colder months.)
1. Book your flight for at least one day before your cruise departure.
Many Alaska-bound cruises leave from Seattle, which is where our port was. But wherever your departure port is, make sure to plan for at least one overnight stay in that city. This way, you allow a buffer for flight cancellations and delays, and you don’t arrive on your ship completely stressed. Book a hotel that offers shuttle rides to the cruise ship and book it as soon as you arrive. (Many of the shuttles only take cash, so be prepared for that.) If you book a hotel with a free breakfast, you’ll not only save on costs, but you won’t have to venture out for breakfast before your shuttle arrives. We stayed at Staybridge Suites at Lake Union, but if you book a hotel close to Seattle Center, you could spend the evening exploring the Space Needle and/or the Chihuly Gardens.
2. Pack for weather changes.
The best way to pack for an Alaska cruise is to pack layers. I packed shorts, long pants, t-shirts, sweatshirts, a thin puffer jacket, a rain layer, a warm hat, and gloves for each of us. We ended up getting super lucky with incredible weather the entire time, but this is rare. The captain of the ship announced that Ketichikan, one of the ports where we stopped, has only 12 days a year of sun, and we happened to be there on one of them. Most cruisers experience rain and cold weather, even on a summer cruise in Alaska. It’s better to be prepared and not need your items than to be cold or wet and miserable on your special trip.
3. Pack a day bag for embarkation day and disembarkation day.
As a new cruiser, this was something I really didn’t know about. My friend made sure to tell me to have our suits for when we got on the ship, but other than that, I didn’t realize that we might want to have a bag packed for when we were separated from our luggage.
Let me backup a little, for those who are new to cruising like I was. When you embark on the cruise ship, you pass off your luggage to the crew, and they take it to your rooms for you. So you’re without your things for a few hours when you’re first on the ship. Pack a backpack per person with items that everyone might need, such as a swimsuit, hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen, etc. When we got on the ship, we went straight to the pool deck and enjoyed lunch and some pool time. Depending on the weather, this could be the warmest time to swim, so take advantage of it.
On disembarkation day, you probably won’t need as many items, but just be prepared to pack up what you don’t want to be separated from. Think of your embarkation/disembarkation bag as something in between your carry-on and your personal item when you take a flight.
4. You can have a wonderful trip without booking all the excursions.
We booked only two excursions through the ship and had a wonderful time in each of our ports. We planned ahead what we’d do in each port, using the Wanderlog app, and when we needed to ride somewhere, we called our own cabs. For example, we booked our own taxi to Mendenhall Glacier and to Butchart Gardens. This saved us a lot of money over booking through the ship. Keep in mind that booking excursions through the ship ensures that you arrive back at the ship on time, but also know that you aren’t without options if you do your own thing. We love to hike, so that was something we did at each of the ports. It was a wonderful way to be immersed in the untouched Alaskan wilderness, away from the throngs of other cruisers, and it was free.
5. Make restaurant reservations for meals besides dinner.
The buffet on the ship was great. It was convenient being able to go eat whenever we wanted, but it could get a bit chaotic with the kids jumping up and down from the table to get more food and the younger ones needing our help to get their plates. I wish we had reserved more meals at the restaurants that are included in the price of the ship, just for the simplicity of it and the quieter atmosphere. Of course, the buffet area’s noise and activity “disguises” active children’s own noise and activity, so in some ways, this option is less stressful. Just know that when the buffet gets to be too much, there are other options. Definitely use them.
6. Make a plan for sea days.
There were three different kids’ clubs on the ship. Our youngest two enjoyed their club and were excited to go. Our oldest went to the teen club with her friend just to meet up with the other teens there, and they’d leave and hang out elsewhere on the ship. Our two middle boys did not enjoy their kids’ club at all. We let them hang out on the ship with the friends they made on the cruise, playing basketball and ping-pong, hanging out in the hot tubs watching movies, etc.
But even between kids’ club and hanging out with friends, there is down time on the ship, especially during sea days. I haven’t been on any other cruise ship, but this ship, the Discovery Princess, didn’t have as many kid-centered areas as some of the other ships I’ve heard about. For instance, there wasn’t a wave pool or water slides (probably because the weather tends to be cooler than on a Caribbean cruise, for instance). While we did have some activity books and books to read, I wish I’d brought some easy-to-pack card games and maybe a small art set for us to do together during down time on the ship.
Places you must visit
Visit Devil’s Club Brewing in downtown Juneau.
After a day of visiting Mendenhall Glacier, we all wanted a bit of a rest and refreshment before getting back on the ship. The adults had a cold beer in mind, but we had seven kids total with us and were also hungry. Devil’s Club Brewing Company was just the spot. We bought some flights of beer and a few delicious artisan pizzas to share, and sat together chatting. It was the perfect low-key activity before boarding the ship again.
Don’t skip the White Pass Scenic Railway in Skagway.
The White Pass Scenic Railway train ride was one of the excursions we booked through the ship, and it was possibly my favorite thing we did in Alaska. The train goes to the summit of a glacier through utterly pristine wilderness. The route takes about 2.5 hours, but it’s completely breathtaking. From opaque teal water rushing in canyons below to crystalline pools circled with baby trees that look like miniatures on the crest of the mountain, I felt like we were in a fantasy world of railway dreamscapes. Definitely bring some small activities for younger children whose attention may not be held entirely by the scenery,
Make the trek to Butchart Gardens in Victoria.
Our stop in Victoria, BC was short, and the trek to Butchart Gardens wasn’t inexpensive. But I’m so, so glad we made it happen. The gardens were absolutely spectacular, and visiting them in the evening, as the lighting came on, made them even more beautiful. My travel companions didn’t quite share my enthusiasm for the gardens because they aren’t plant people like I am, but I can honestly say it’s one of my favorite places I’ve ever been. Walk from the ship to the Parliament Buildings and catch a cab across the street from the Fairmont Empress hotel.
A tip that was unique to our experience on the Princess Discovery.
The Medallion device is a feature slated to be rolled out on all Princess cruises, and it’s really useful. It looks like an Air Tag, and it can be used to access wi-fi on your phone to communicate with others on the ship, to order food and drinks to wherever you are, to pay for items, and as your stateroom entry key, among other things.
The most useful feature for us, being on the ship with our kids, was being able to locate each other at all times. We just opened the Medallion app on our phones and could locate where our kids were on the ship. (Obviously, we only used this with the older kids; the younger ones were in the kids’ club or with us the entire time.) This feature let our older children have some freedom but kept us at ease because we could always check their whereabouts and find them. It was a huge perk of traveling with the Princess Cruise line.
Explore the ship right away.
On our first day on the ship, I went with one of my boys to scope out the ship. Not only did we have a great time together, oohing and ahhing over the different areas and the general novelty of a cruise ship, but I was also able to see which restaurants we might want to try (for instance, we found a pizza restaurant that ended up being a favorite alternative to the buffet) and which lounge areas we may want to hang out in. It was good to get the “lay of the land” early on so that we didn’t waste time during our travels trying to find things.
Temper your expectations.
If you have your heart set on seeing whales or sailing through calving glaciers or on any one particular thing, you might be disappointed. For instance, we saw many whales, but we were not able to go very far into the glaciers because the icebergs made it too dangerous the day we sailed through the Endicott Arm. I was sad, but there were so many other beautiful, awe-inspiring sights that I couldn’t stay disappointed for long. Remembering going into it that weather and wildlife are completely out of our control – and reminding the kids of this – can help keep spirits up if things don’t happen exactly as planned.