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14 lessons learned after I tried my first Alaska cruise


After 20 cruises to The Bahamas, Caribbean, Mediterranean, and Mexican Riveria, I decided it was finally time to explore a cooler and more rugged region: Alaska. 

I knew it would be far different than sailing to the tropical Caribbean. I'd be trading in my flip-flops and sundresses for sweatshirts and jeans. In return, however, I'd be in the midst of jaw-dropping landscapes, sailing through dramatic fjords with snow-capped mountains, icebergs, stunning greenery, and more. 

After returning from my first-ever 7-night Alaska cruise, I realized that there were some mistakes I made. As with anything new, there are certainly lessons to be learned along the way. Now, I'm more prepared for my next sailing to the Last Frontier! 

Here are 14 lessons I learned after sailing to Alaska for the first time. 

Flying from the East Coast, I'd rather fly in two days before departure

American Airlines

Counting my Alaska cruise onboard Quantum of the Seas, I've only been on three sailings that didn't depart from Florida, with the majority of my cruising portfolio consisting of voyages to The Bahamas and Caribbean. Having lived on the East Coast my entire life, flying to Florida the night before the cruise was simply the norm of my travels. 

In hindsight, since my 7-night Alaska cruise departed on a Monday, we had an amazing opportunity to take advantage of a weekend pre-cruise stay in the Emerald City. In the end, my dad and I took an afternoon flight from Charlotte to Seattle, arriving around 7:15pm. 

Though not the latest, I wish we would have flown out on Saturday to, one, be able to adjust to the time change and, two, have time to explore the city. It's been years since I've been to Seattle, and I only enjoyed a few short days before heading out to Orcas Island. My dad, however, has never been. I wish we had time to stop by Pike Place Market, at least. 

Read more: The costly cruising mistake newbies make planning their first cruise

The terminal was extremely busy and a little chaotic


When check-in opened, I immediately selected the earliest arrival time possible which happened to be 11:00am, as I hate wasting time in the embarkation city sitting in a hotel. 

The day of, however, we decided that we wanted to head to the terminal around 10:00am to see if they'd let us on early. The Lyft was also pretty expensive, coming in at around $70 for the ride. Of course, if you're sailing from Miami and coming in from Fort Lauderdale, you'll most likely pay a similar price for your ride. 

Though traffic is to be expected with thousands of passengers disembarking and embarking within a few hours, I wasn't expecting too much, as Quantum of the Seas was the only cruise ship docked in Seattle at the time. 


Upon arrival, I was surprised to learn that there weren't any porters present. Instead, there was a single line dedicated to dropping off luggage. If you did not print tags in advance, you had to visit the luggage tag desk and return to the line. 

With a long line of disembarking guests waiting for taxis, it was a bit confusing to decipher which was which, especially amidst the honking cars and screaming traffic directors. As we arrived so early, I only presume it got more chaotic around 11:30am/12:00pm. 

Read more: 31 cruise ship embarkation tips and tricks

Since the sailaway party was held inside, we skipped it and headed up to the pool deck


When I was browsing the day's activities on the Cruise Planner, I was shocked to see the sailaway party was scheduled to be held in Two70. According to crew members, it was too cold to hold the party outside. While it obviously wasn't a warm day in Southern Florida, I assumed that the majority of passengers would want to be outside taking in the views of Washington. 

Two70 filled up pretty quickly, with passengers flooding to the dance floor excited to kickstart their cruise to the Last Frontier. As someone who has witnessed crazy sailaway parties on Carnival ships, I was more interested in watching Seattle's skyline disappear and admire the greenery of the "Evergreen State."

My dad and I stayed at the sailaway party for a few minutes before grabbing a drink at the pool bar, which was far less busy than the bar in the aforementioned Two70. We made our way to the aft of the ship and watched two passengers on the FlowRider surf simulator. 


Overall, though, I was shocked at how few people were on the top decks. There was plenty of room to spread out, with the aft being the busiest. The port and starboard sides of the pool deck were, compared to other sailaways, relatively empty. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the sailaway experience was the younger child splashing around in the wave pool. 

You have to be 21 to gamble in the casino on a Royal Caribbean cruise to Alaska


On cruises to The Bahamas and Caribbean, guests 18 and over are welcome to gamble in the casino. On Alaskan sailings, however, everyone must be at least 21. Since Alaska's gambling age is 21, I can only assume that's why Royal Caribbean adopted the same rule. 

On the first evening, the slots and tables didn't open until 8:30pm, and passengers were ready to gamble. In fact, I was a bit taken aback by how crowded the casino was within minutes of opening. 

Day 6 was our second full sea day, and it was busy late into the evening! After listening to some music at the pub, my dad and I decided to play $20 on a random slot machine. 


We had a bit of trouble finding side-by-side machines that were open! And, as luck would have it, I chose the wrong machine, as my dad won $80 within seconds of playing! Though the casino is popular on Bahamian and Caribbean voyages, I thought it was much busier on my cruise to Alaska. 

Of note, don't forget to check the casino's operating times, as it closed for good at 2:30pm on the last day of the cruise! 

Read more: How old you have to be to sail, gamble, and more

Research each port thoroughly and book the right excursions


Being in my mid-20s, I'm a bit more energetic than my dad, so I didn't want to select any excursions that would be too strenuous for him, though he is pretty fit for his age. I sent him a couple of excursions from each port to choose from. In the end, we went with the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad in Skagway and a whale-watching tour in Juneau that visited Mendenhall Glacier afterward.

Looking back at our choices, we agree that we would have done a whale-watching tour in Icy Strait Point instead of Juneau, giving us more time to explore downtown and possibly eat dinner at one of the nearby restaurants. We didn't have much of a plan for Icy Strait Point, so we ventured to the nearby town of Hoonah. While it was neat to see such a remote town, there were better ways to utilize our time in port, as we were ready to get back onboard after spending three hours ashore. 

We wouldn't, however, change anything that we did in Skagway. We loved the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad excursion, as it gave us enough time to explore the small town and have lunch at a local brewery. The weather could have been better, but that's just Alaska for you! 

Read more: 10 tips for getting the best cruise shore excursion values

I'd never sail in a traditional interior cabin on an Alaskan cruise


The total fare for my 7-night cruise to Alaska was $1,900, and while I think that was a good price for two people to visit the Last Frontier, I would definitely splurge on a balcony for my next Alaska cruise, especially if it was a one way sailing with more scenic cruising. 

Though I appreciated the live video feed that was streamed into my stateroom via the virtual balcony, nothing beats stepping outside on a personal verandah. 

Plus, the view on the screen is pretty limiting. Unlike a balcony, you cannot look in multiple directions. You only get a straightforward view. Though I could tell we were sailing past land, I didn't know the extent of the scenery until I stepped outside. I would have missed the snow-capped glaciers sailing into Icy Strait Point and the true magnitude of the icebergs in Endicott Arm had I not ventured to the top decks. 

Read more: Balcony cruise ship rooms: are they worth the splurge?

Get up early, even on days when glacier sightings aren't scheduled 


On our second full day, we were supposed to call on Icy Strait Point around noon. By 9:30am, the top decks were full of passengers taking in the snow-capped mountains we were sailing past. Though you could certainly still find a seat, it was a warning of what was to come on Day 5. 

My dad and I woke up around 5:15am the morning we were scheduled to sail through Endicott Arm to see Dawes Glacier. Our goal was to head up to the Solarium and claim seats around 5:45am; we didn't want to be stuck on an outer deck in the cold! While we were able to find two, the area filled up quickly. It seemed as though many passengers had the same idea as us: claim front-row seats and wait for the Solarium Bistro to open for breakfast. 

In fact, there was a group who had been up there since 3:00am! I was shocked at how rude some passengers were when others tried to approach the windows for pictures, too. Next time, I'd probably wake up fifteen or twenty minutes earlier, as the couple beside us said there weren't too many people around at 5:00am. Plus, since it was already light outside, I would have been able to take in more of the fjords. 


Even if you aren't actively sailing past a glacier, you don't want to miss any of the amazing scenery that accompanies an Alaskan cruise, especially when cruising through the Inside Passage. While there are onboard activities scheduled to keep guests entertained, part of the appeal of an Alaskan cruise is taking a moment (or two) to slow down and appreciate nature. 

You might regret not bringing binoculars 


Though I had read that you should bring binoculars on an Alaska cruise, I truthfully underestimated the importance of them. When sailing into Icy Strait Point, there was a passenger sitting next to me in the Solarium using binoculars. After sailing past some unbelievable mountains, I can understand why. 

While the ship sails relatively close to the shore, those who want to have an up-close view of the dramatic waterfalls, icy mountain tops, wildlife, glaciers, and more will benefit from binoculars. You'll have a greater appreciation of the landscapes that you're passing. 

Though I am still in awe of Alaska's beauty, I'll definitely want to purchase binoculars ahead of time. If you really regret not bringing any, you can purchase some on the ship. In fact, they had binocular sales starting around 6:00am the morning we sailed through Endicott Arm! 


I further regretted my decision not to bring binoculars on my whale-watching cruise in Juneau. While my father and I certainly weren't the only cruisers without them, they would have made admiring the large humpback whales far easier, as the ships are required to stay 100 yards from marine life.

Read more: 20 Alaska cruise must-do excursions

Expect lines


Our arrival into Icy Strait Point was slightly delayed due to strong winds that we encountered en route from Seattle. As we pulled into port, passengers began lining up in the Royal Esplanade to disembark the ship. My father and I made our way there around 12:45pm to hop in line, and I'm glad we didn't wait much longer! Within minutes, the line extended the length of the Esplanade past the pub. 

The following day, we docked in Skagway and had an 8:15am meeting time for our ship-sponsored excursion on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. We arrived at the Royal Theater a few minutes before 8:15am and were greeted by a long line of passengers waiting to check-in. It took about fifteen minutes to make our way to the front of the theater to receive our shore excursion stickers. 

Afterward, we were guided from the Royal Theater in the front of the ship through the Deck 3 stateroom corridor to the aft gangway, with some passengers expressing frustration for the poor crowd management. One family tried to leave their cabin as we were making our way to the gangway, and you could tell they were confused! 


While lines and crowds are to be expected on any cruise, I was a bit surprised at how often I encountered them during my Alaska voyage on Quantum of the Seas. We never had to wait at the bar or for Sorrento's; however, when it came to disembarking the ship, two out of four port days started off a bit chaotic. 

You can't do it all, and that's okay! 


Our cruise began with a sea day followed by a late arrival at Icy Strait Point, meaning the first two days of the cruise were pretty relaxed. We had lunch at the Crab House in Icy Strait Point and took the bus to explore the small town of Hoonah before returning to the ship for our one-minute RipCord by iFly experience. 

The next morning, however, our excursion for the White Pass & Yukon Railroad met in the Royal Theater at 8:15am. After we returned to Skagway, we walked around and had lunch at the Skagway Brewing Company (which was my dad's favorite meal of the trip!) while enduring strong winds and heavy rains. 

Since we knew we had to be up even earlier the next day for our sailing through Endicott Arm, we thought it was best to retire early, especially since we had a 6-hour excursion in Juneau followed by a 9:00pm showing of Starwater, a Royal Caribbean original production show, in Two70. 


Though we had been enjoying sitting in the pub at night, we couldn't justify staying awake that late. In the end, we both woke up at 5:15am well-rested and ready for a long day, so we knew we had made the right decision. 

This proved even more true when we found out we had the chance to see the Northern Lights! While we had woken up extremely early, we were rested enough to stay awake until 1:30am to get some glimpses of the lights as we sailed through the Inside Passage. 

Seeing the lights illuminate the snowy mountain peaks was incredible, and I'm glad we didn't push ourselves the night prior. Otherwise, we might not have been able to force ourselves to stay awake!


Whenever you're cruising, though you'll likely want to make the most out of your limited time onboard, it's important to know your limits. I've definitely pushed myself to the brink of exhaustion before, and it isn't an enjoyable way to spend vacation. Now, I know what experiences to prioritize and when to call it quits, so I don't ruin the latter half of the trip! 

Packing layers is more important than you think


When I began thinking about what to pack for Alaska, I knew that I needed to focus on layers, rather than cute outfits. The majority of my suitcase was filled with sweatshirts and jeans, rather than floral dresses and fashionable sweaters. 

Perhaps the article of clothing I was most thankful for was my rain jacket. It rained the entire time we were in Skagway, from when we docked to sailed away. Even though we were slated to spend the majority of the day on the White Pass excursion, we brought our rain jackets along, so we could explore the town afterward. 

A rain jacket and sweatshirt weren't enough to keep me warm, though, especially considering that Alaska is still pretty chilly in May. Whenever I stepped foot off the ship, I made sure to bring my down jacket, too. The only time I felt too warm was when we were walking to Nugget Falls, a 377-foot waterfall located within the Mendenhall Glacier Recreational Area and part of Tongas National Forest. Earlier that day, however, I was freezing while on our whale-watching cruise. 


With Alaska's weather being so unpredictable and subject to change at a moment's notice, you'll want to have layers to adjust accordingly. It's no fun being too warm or cold while trying to enjoy a shore excursion! 

We arrived at most of our scheduled ports of call in the afternoons


On sailings to the Caribbean, Bahamas, and even Mediterranean, I'm used to arriving in port earlier in the morning, typically no later than 9:00 or 10:00am. In Alaska, however, I found that we didn't arrive at three of our four ports until the afternoon, with the gangway opening in Victoria, British Columbia around 5:45pm. 

This meant that mornings onboard were pretty relaxed, and it was nice to have opportunities to sleep in a bit after long excursions, rather than having to rush back onboard, eat dinner, and start over early the next day. We, for instance, didn't have to meet in the Music Hall for our excursion in Juneau until 12:45pm. 

Even when we were up early for Dawes Glacier, there wasn't a sense of urgency onboard like on busy port days when passengers are trying to meet their excursion groups! Everyone was meandering and taking in the sights— with a coffee in hand. 

If you're a fan of seafood, don't plan on eating every meal onboard the ship


Alaska is known for its seafood, from fresh salmon to crab, halibut, cod, and more. Though your cruise fare includes unlimited food, you will want to budget for at least one meal off the ship. On my Alaskan cruise, we ate three meals off the ship: two in Alaska and one in Victoria, British Columbia. 

While the crab in Icy Strait Point was just okay (I'd suggest trying the Fisherman's Daughter in Honnah over the Crab House), I'm glad we didn't give up. The meals in Skagway and Canada were two of the highlights of our vacation. 

We ate at the Skagway Brewing Company, and besides Chops and Wonderland, this was my dad's favorite meal of the trip. Though the crab legs were pricey ($75 for two), it was well worth the cost. Plus, according to my father, they had some tasty beers. 


Since we were docked in Canada for a few short hours, we utilized the time to grab a bite to eat, rather than have dinner onboard the ship. We stumbled upon Bard & Banker, a pub on Governement Street, and after a short ten-minute wait, we were seated on the upper level of the restaurant, which was ideal for people-watching. 

If, however, you're looking for seafood, Victoria isn't short of options. Nautical Nellies, Finn's Seafood, and the Upstairs Seafood & Oyster Bar all have amazing reviews if you're craving one final meal consisting of fresh seafood from the Pacific Ocean. 

There wasn't a ton of entertainment on the last evening


As we sailed into Victoria, we noticed many amenities closing. Though some, like the casino and onboard shops, made sense, we were shocked to discover that the majority of bars closed, too. We were the most disappointed to learn that the pub wouldn't be reopening until 10:30pm, with no scheduled singer on the itinerary. 

We boarded the ship after exploring a bit of Canada and got a drink at the Schooner Bar. Considering it was one of the only bars with entertainment at 9:00pm, I was a bit shocked to arrive and find plenty of open seats. 

I'm used to lively last nights on Caribbean cruises, with tons of entertainment and programming available throughout the day and into the late hours of the evening. 

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