In This Issue:
- Alaska Cruise/Land Tours
- Cruise Pricing
- Cruising The Caribbean #1
Alaska Cruise/Land Tour To Denali
One of the most popular land tours in the cruising world is traveling to Denali National Park in Alaska. Most everyone has dreamed about riding in those observation train cars rolling through the wilderness of Alaska and most Land/Sea Alaska tours use those trains for at least part of the tour.
Denali is not like any other National Park. First it is the most remote, the most massive and has very few roads or even trails. There are no campgrounds or hotels inside the park and no scenic roads for people to drive.
Many visitors come to Denali as part of a cruise/land package tour and unless you are planning an extended Alaska driving vacation with making bookings way in advance they are probably your best option. First, Denali is not your typical National Park. Access for the general public is mostly restricted to taking the parks bus excursions. While these are really great tours the problem is you need to book reservations way in advance – weeks or even months before. By going on a cruise/land tour all your park access is arranged by the tour companies for you.
The most popular option for visiting Denali is a cruise-land package. Most cruises with Denali land tours cruise from either Seattle or Vancouver one-way to Seward and then travel overland by train and or bus from Seward ending in Fairbanks for a flight home. Cruise/land tours also offer options of cruising first with land tour after or the reverse. One recommendation we would offer is the cruise after the land portion. Spend a week or so touring Alaska and then enjoy a wonderful seven night cruise to relax and be pampered on a ship.
Once in Seward take some time to visit the Alaska SeaLife Center and be sure to take a boat excursion on Resurrection Bay. Resurrection Bay is an amazing wilderness area where you will be virtually guaranteed to see dolphins, sea lions, Dall sheep, otters, eagles and a huge variety of sea birds. It could be the most incredible boat excursion you’ve ever taken.
The rail portion in or out of Seward is on the Alaska Wilderness Express train. Be sure and check with your agent or cruise line about the train portion of the tour as some offer train service all the way to Denali while others mix bus travel into the tour. The trains are made up of double decker glass domed observation cars offering great views as the train rolls across some high snow covered terrain chris-crossed by streams and rivers. The individual observation cars are actually owned by the various cruise companies and feature dinners served in a lower level dining room.
Popular stops on the tour include Girdwood and the Hotel Aleyska which is a major ski resort, Anchorage, the town of Talkeetna and amazing views of Mt. Denali (formally Mt. McKinley) and the Alaska Range with two days or more at Denali Park Village.
At Denali one day will usually include a tour sponsored by the Park Service, with approximately 8 hours on a bus. For perspective understand that the scenery is inspiring but so is the very desolate and wild character of Denali National Park. Many of the mountain tops are above the tree line exposing huge expanses of meadows overlooking valleys with flowing rivers and jagged mountains everywhere. The major focus of the tour is looking for wildlife but that also needs some explaination. Area wise, Denali is our largest national park. It encompasses about 9,492 square miles (larger than the state of New Hampshire) and most of it is without roads or even trails. The animal populations are much smaller than most people would imagine.
There are only 70 grizzly bears per 1,000 square miles in Denali. Other census numbers per 1,000 square miles show 131 Black bears, less than 8 wolves and the estimate for the total Denali Caribou Herd is about 2,230 animals. Dall Sheep totals for the park are less than 1,900. Based on these numbers it’s easy to understand that looking for wildlife is the major focus of the tour. You’re still likely see grizzly bears, Caribou and Dall sheep on your visit.
The landscapes are vast and rugged and North America’s tallest mountain, Denali (previously Mt. McKinley) stands above everything. The only problem is that it is shrouded in clouds most of the year, but, even if you miss the “Great One,” the Alaska Range is still a formidable sight to behold.
After a night or two near Denali east bound tours usually head for Fairbanks and a flight home. In Fairbanks you can visit and walk under The Alaska Pipeline, tour an interesting history center and see gold mining operations.
If you aren’t taking a cruise and plan on going to Denali on your own it is important to understand three things. First, the park is vast and has very little in the way of rest areas or visitor centers. Second, the park generally does not allow private cars far beyond the entrance and visitor’s center. Lastly, you need reservations to take the park operated bus tour and they book up weeks, maybe months in advance. Visiting Denali is not a casual process and considering the vast distances crossed in Alaska, you need to begin to make your arrangements months in advance.
The Truth About Cruise Pricing
Anyone who travels much and has, on occasion, requested information from the internet or given their email address to a travel company knows about those ads in their inbox. Dozens of them claim things like:
- Second person half price if you book with us! (actually if you book with anyone)
- Our exclusive cruise savings! (that’s usually a big lie)
- Plan your cruise with us get free wifi or a drink package!(or if you book with anyone)
The first truth is, these are all a lie or at least a misrepresentation. With a few rare exceptions, the price is the price. The cost of cruising has a lot of price variability but at any given moment your cost is the same regardless of what travel agent you use or even if you book directly with the cruise line. The same goes for those free or discounted add-ons
Much like pricing with the airlines, cruise prices fluctuate constantly based on how far away the departure date is and how quickly the cruise is booking up. When a cruise is first announced the pricing trends to the higher price with last minute bookings usually getting the best fares. The thing is those prices, at any given moment, are the official prices for everyone – independent agents, private individuals and large travel corporations.
The second truth is you get the best service if you use a travel agent along with the best price too. The cruise lines make higher profits if you book directly because they don’t have to pay commission but there are no savings for you. Travel agents are local and usually small businesses and getting to know an agent usually means you will get personalized service. They are much more interested in you as an individual.
The third truth is, in one specific situation, an agent can save you money over the cruise line booking price. Everyone on a specific sailing is part of the cruise ships “group” and there isn’t any discount for just being booked on that cruise. A travel agent however gets a discounted price for booking a group (usually ten or more passengers) and they often share the discount by offering additional free perks or add-ons. Also if you deal with an agent affiliated with a large travel organization they can often offer the advantages of a group booking for your cruise by combining all their agents bookings for that specific cruise into a group. Often we’ve gotten onboard credits, free tours or reduced pricing because we were added to a group.
The forth truth is the cruise price can often be reduced after you book. Most cruise companies (not all) allow you to take advantage of a lowered price after you have booked and paid your deposit. Usually that window opens right after you book and closes when you pay the final amount, mostly at 90 days before the cruise. After 90 days you are subject to the cruise refund policy or your cruise insurance. This is another reason why you should use a travel agent. Many agents keep track of your reservation and will notify you of a price reduction without you doing anything. Travel agents also have contacts inside the cruise companies office that the routinely use for those price adjustments.
The fifth truth is you usually get a better deal by booking while onboard a cruise. This is one of those rare times where the cruise line offers real exclusive deals. Usually they take the form of freebies like free gratuities, drink packages or internet that you cannot get anywhere else. You also don’t have to worry about cutting your favorite travel agent out of their commission either because the cruise company will protect the agents account. Just be sure and remind the onboard future cruise agent that you have a travel agent and their account information.
Cruising the Caribbean, An Introduction
The first thing that should be obvious is visiting the Caribbean, the ports actually end up sharing the vacation experiencing with just being on a major cruise ship. The ships are like an all-inclusive resort with the added advantage of moving to a new location every day. Each ship is a combination of theme restaurants, fine dining rooms, theatre entertainment, night clubs, spa experiences, pools with hot tubs, casino gambling, kids summer camp, shopping and much more. The ports of call are just icing on the cake.
There are many options in cruising into the Caribbean from selecting the cruise line, to deciding on an embarkation port and picking the cruise length and its itinerary. Generally the available cruises range from three days to fourteen and the available embarkation ports include Galveston, New Orleans, Tampa, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Port Canaveral, New Jersey and San Juan. Most of the major lines are involved including Disney, Holland America, Carnival, Royal Caribbean and recently MSC. Ship sizes range from under 2,000 passengers to about 5,000 for the newer class ships. Depending on the cabin choice and cruise line selected, prices per person range from just over few hundred dollars per person to thousands of dollars.
Most Caribbean cruises offer two main itineraries; Eastern Caribbean and Western. Popular ports on Eastern cruises include St. Thomas USVI, Sint Maarten, Antigua, St. Kitts, San Juan and often the Bahamas. Western cruises usually include Cozumel or Costa Maya, Mexico, Grand Cayman, Roatan Nicaragua, Jamaica, and Key West.
Our three preferred lines are Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Carnival but that is based on our experience. We have friends that equally prefer other lines. Over the years, because of loyalty programs and their benefits it becomes natural to settle on just a few. The benefits can include free internet, laundry, drink packages along with parties, loyalty lounges, priority boarding and more. Our first cruise which was with our children was with Royal Caribbean and we quickly discovered how family oriented they are. They provide a great kids program as well as a number of family activities. We have cruised a number of times with Carnival, initially because their pricing is more economical but also we enjoy the nightlife and nightclub atmosphere. Generally we find their passengers are a much younger, both singles and couples who tend to party all day and into the night. More recently we find ourselves cruising more often with Celebrity. We think they cater more to people looking for longer cruises to more different locations and that they represent, we believe, a notch up in service. Royal and Carnival are both in the Caribbean year round while Celebrity sails only in the winter season. Celebrity also offers more, longer cruises than the others. In deciding which cruise to select there are common elements to all of them. Your are going to be served good food, provided a selection of excellent entertainment venues and visit some interesting places with great beaches. After that the choice is based on time available, budget and what your interests are. Another thing to consider is theme cruises with headline talent offerings or lecturers or even classes you can enjoy.
Before booking our recommendation is to find a local travel agent that you can work with. The costs to you are exactly the same and working with an agent can actually save you money as they will normally check your booking regularly to see if there has been a drop in price. Travel agents are also much more skilled at dealing with cruise companies should problems arise.