Alaska Shore Excursions Guide for Deciding What to Do While in Port

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We loved the excursions when we went on an Alaskan cruise. Going on a cruise is an easy vacation — just show up and enjoy! What makes it even more fun are the Alaska shore excursions and exploring the ports.

But which Alaskan excursions to choose?

You might get a good deal on the cruise but end up paying as much on the excursions.

There are some tips for choosing Alaska’s Inside Passage excursions to make it easier for you to decide what to do.

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Alaska shore excursions

We took Princess Cruises to the Alaska Inside Passage. The ship traveled from Seattle and stopped at Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, and Victoria, Canada. The day at Glacier Bay National Park was at sea.

Before you start booking excursions, it’s important to remember that being on the cruise ship is a wonderful time. It’s a vacation in itself.

Once you’ve booked your cruise, paid the gratituities, and are on the ship, there’s nothing else you have to spend money on.

You don’t have to feel pressured to spend a lot of money on excursions if it’s not within your means.

It’s tempting to want to book excursions in each port.

No matter whatever your vacation budget, you can enjoy the ports, whether you book shore excursions or not.

Especially in Alaska, you can end up paying as much for excursions as you did for your cruise. Perhaps it makes sense to not book excursions and use that money for next year’s vacation instead.

However, the great news about Alaskan excursions is that there are many different price points.

Ketchican Alaskan ports lots see right off the ship
In Alaskan ports, there is lots to see right off the ship.

Here are some tips to help figure out how to get the best value for your money and time in Alaska.

Alaska cruise excursions tips

Here’s what to do to make the right decision about Alaska shore excursions for you and your travel companions.

1. What Alaska shore excursions are available?

It’s really exciting to go on an Alaskan cruise, and it’s natural to get excited about the excursions there.

You will see a lot of information about shore excursions through whatever cruise line you book your Alaskan cruise. It’s a good idea to start there to learn about them.

Read about them to get a feel for what’s available.

Alaska cruise shore excursions Inside Passage

Here are some types of excursions you will have time for when your cruise ship docks in the Alaskan ports.

Active excursions:

  • Kayaking and canoeing
  • Ziplining
  • Hiking and biking 

Tours:

  • City bus tours as well as tours in small vans
  • Jeep tours

Sightseeing:

  • Boat tours, including whale watching tours
  • Scenic train rides
  • Helicopter tours to Mendenhall Glacier and other glaciers; flightseeing tours to Misty Fjords

Alaska activities:

  • Salmon fishing
  • Visiting Saxman Village in Ketchikan
  • Attending lumberjack show
  • Dog sledding on the glacier (need to take helicopter there)

So whether you want to enjoy a salmon bake or rafting down the Chilkat River, there is something that will appeal to everyone. 

2. Consider your interests

There many options for excursions in Alaska. However, before you start thinking about the costs and money-side of things, first think about:

What are you interested in doing? What appeals to you?

This is your perhaps once-in-a-lifetime cruise and visit to Alaska. Do you want to see whales? Go salmon fishing? Explore the history and layout of the cities? Hang out at a local restaurant and enjoy a beer?

3. Fitness level and mobility

Are you physically able to get around? Would you enjoy being physically active on this vacation?

Are you afraid of heights? If so, perhaps you will want to forgo zip lining as well as the helicopter tours.

Do you get seasick easily? (Even if you don’t experience motion sickness while on the cruise, the boat tours and whale watching tour boats will be much smaller, increasing your chances of seasickness.)

By considering your physical abilities and your interests, you can fine tune your list of excursion possibilities.

4. What’s your cruise ship’s itinerary?

Once you’ve gotten an idea of what excursions are available, your interests, and your abilities, another tip for deciding among Alaska’s excursions is know the ship’s itinerary.

You will find your cruise ship’s intinerary easily when you book your cruise.

This is really important.

It’s essential to find out how long and when you will be in each port.

Sometimes you will be in a port for a few hours, others, all day. You may only be there at night.

When you know where you are going and the times you will be in port, you can decide if you even want to take an excursion.

You may want to spend the time walking at your leisure through the town.

Alaska port itinerary

On our cruise to Alaska, our port itinerary was:

  • Day 3:  Juneau: 11am – 10pm
  • Day 4:  Skagway: 7am – 8:30pm
  • Day 5:  Glacier Bay (everyone stays on ship; it was a day onboard)
  • Day 6:  Ketchikan: 7am – 1pm
  • Day 7:  Victoria, Canada: 7pm – 11:59pm

We didn’t want to go-go-go on our vacation. We were looking forward to downtime days at sea and taking some time to explore on our own at the ports.

If you are only in a port for a few hours, you may decide to forgo an excursion.

5. Consider your travel habits

We were looking forward to our days at sea so we could thoroughly enjoy all the ship had to offer.

Another bonus and something to consider is when your ship is at port, many of the passengers leave the ship to explore the town and go on excursions.

While the ship never seems crowded, it will be even less crowded when it’s at port. That’s a fun time to enjoy the ship.

We planned our time in the ports based on meals. We didn’t want to have to spend money on food (plus we deal with food allergies) once we left the ship. So most days, we woke up, ate breakfast on the ship, and then headed to explore the town.

If we had an excursion, we factored that in as well.

It’s hassle-free getting off the ship and back on again, so if you have the energy and enough time, you can have your breakfast or lunch on-board, then leave the ship to explore the town. Then you can come back to eat again when you are hungry, and then go back out again if you are inclined.

6. Budget for Alaska shore excursions

Okay, this is the big one: Money. You have to pay for all of this fun. Many excursions are expensive. How much can you allocate to the excursions?

Know that many tours and other activities are more budget-friendly than the helicopter rides and other excursions.

There are many options to choose from and something to interest most everyone at many different price points.

7. There’s lots to do in the Alaskan ports

My family really enjoyed walking around the towns on our own, exploring them and being spontaneous.

Remember, these Alaskan ports have cruise ships and thousands of passengers almost every day from April through October. They make their money in these months from all the tourists.

There is a lot to do and see in the Alaskan ports of call, even if you don’t book an excursion.

Do I need to book an excursion when going on an Alaskan cruise?

It’s always educational and interesting to get a feel for the town you visit. You will get to experience a lot by exploring on your own. Most of the ports you will visit have historical sites, including statues and monuments as well as a downtown area with art, shopping, and more.

Juneau things to do

Within three minutes of walking off the ship in Juneau, we saw a bald eagle. It turned out to be the only bald eagle we saw the entire trip.

In Juneau we saw the state capitol building. (It was closed because we were there on Memorial Day, but it was still interesting to see. Across the street was historical information about the Alaska Purchase with plaques and statues.)

After wandering the streets and stopping in several shops, including souvenir shops and more that were like art galleries, we took a tram ride.

Mount Roberts Tramway in Juneau

While this felt like an excursion, it actually wasn’t.

This tram ride in Juneau was very economical and also made it seem like we “did something in Juneau.”

Scenery going Mount Roberts tram Juneau
Scenery going up the Mount Roberts Tramway Juneau

The tram goes 1,800 feet up and was a quick ride. It was fun for the kids as well as the adults. You will get to see Juneau and all the beauty of the city. When on the tram, looking out one way you will see all the trees, and the other way you see more of the city. There were stellar views; it was a wonderful experience, especially for the price.

I would absolutely do this again on a return visit. If we had more time, it would have been fun to ride up and down multiple times. With your purchase, you get access all day.

Once you take the scenic tram to the top, you will enjoy the lookout from a vantage point of 3,819′ on Mt Roberts. Take a minute to go to the lookout rail right off the tram. You won’t remember to do it on the way back down and won’t be able to if there is a line. The view is incredible. You will be able to see your cruise ship as well.

Afterwards, we went into the nature shop which was a small gift shop. However, it also had a lot of hands-on exhibits and information. You can walk around this building to learn about eagles. There is also an area where you can see craftsmen working on totem poles.

In addition, there are incredible hiking trails which range from moderate to challenging. You can even hike down the mountain.

Hiking on Mt Roberts

Taking a hike was among my favorite things to do the entire trip. It was a somewhat easy hike. There was a marked trail with a slight incline at parts. You can walk one way and turn around or take the loop which is what we did.

It wasn’t far, maybe a mile at the most. There were other paths to take, including a trail that you could take down instead of taking the tram back. We weren’t prepared for that but if you had time, the right shoes, water, and could do steep decents on less-paved hiking, it would be fun.

You can enjoy riding the tram up and down as many times as you want. However, when we were there, it wasn’t as practical to ride multiple times because of the lines. We loved going to the Mount Roberts Tramway. It was very close to our cruiseship. This was the last thing we did in Juneau.

Helicopter Tour to Mendenhall Glacier and Dog Sledding on Mendenhall Glacier

I’ve been blessed to go on two Alaskan cruises. Years ago, I went on the helicopter to the Mendenhall Glacier.

There are many excursions in Juneau. This time, we took the helicopter tour and did dogsledding in Skagway.

Skagway excursions and things to do 

We enjoyed our morning on the ship and had an early lunch before heading out to Skagway. We had a helicopter ride and dog sledding excursion at 5pm.

In the meantime, we explored Skagway on our own. Like in Juneau and Ketchikan, there are many interesting shops.

There is also the Chilkoot Trail with 33 miles of recreational trails.

In Skagway, we liked having this mix of exploring the shops and town as well as the opportunity to go to the historical sites. There was an ice cream shop and a popcorn shop along with restaurants, breweries, etc.

Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park Visitor Center

This is not a paid excursion but something free in Skagway.

Something we really enjoyed is the National Park Service’s historic sites in Skagway’s historic district. There are 20+ gold rush boom town buildings here.

In addition to being able to take free ranger programs, including their guided tours and talks, you can also go inside some of the buildings to experience them as they might have been.

Be sure to check out the Visitor Center Museum, the Mascot Saloon Museum, the Moore House Museum, and Jeff. Smiths Parlour Museum. You may walk past these at first, not realizing they are part of the sites.

You will also see the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway here. You book an excursion for a 40 mile roundtrip on this narrated train tour.

Alaska Helicopter Tour and dog sledding in Skagway

After exploring Skagway, we went back to eat before heading out to the helicopter ride. This was surprisingly close to the ship, so we didn’t have to factor in too much walking time.

Dog sledding Alaska excursions
Dog sledding Alaska excursions

We enjoyed the experience and the dog sledding. We wore layers, and they provided us with boots and gear as part of the fee. The only way for us to get a picture of us on the dog sled was to pay extra. So bring your camera to get other pictures, especially from the helicopter.

Originally, we had wanted to book this excursion earlier in the day. But by the time we committed to it, only the 5pm and later slots were open. We were disappointed but it worked out wonderfully.

We enjoyed staying on the empty ship as everyone left to explore Skagway. Then, we left at our own pace and enjoyed the town. It wasn’t cold at all at night which is what we were concerned about.

The helicopter ride and dog sledding excursion are really once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. We were glad we did it. 

Ketchikan shore excursions and things to do

Saxman Village

Years ago I booked the excursion to the Saxman Village in Ketchikan. I highly recommend it, and we may have went if we had more time.

The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show

For our excursion in Ketchikan, we booked The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show.

Ketchikan Lumberjack Show Excursion
Ketchikan Lumberjack Show Excursion

We sat in the arena for this show — it was about an hour. It was highly entertaining. These men are incredibly talented. They were definitely competing with each other in this show which made it even more fun.

Ketchikan lumberjack show
Ketchikan lumberjack show

When you consider this excursion, you have the opportunity to pay extra to throw an axe at a target after the show.

Surprisingly, my kids were the only kids who did this; the 10 or so others were all adults.It was fun for all of us to get up closer to the performers; they were great with my kids. It really ended the entire experience on an even higher note.

Ketchikan things to do

Even walking to the lumberjack show, we were able to get a flair for Ketchikan. We saw jellyfish in the water along the walk. There were shops and statues.

After the lumberjack show, we walked around town. We saw some totem poles and walked to Creek Street. On the way back to the ship, we stopped in several more souvenir-type stores.

Creek Street

Take some time to walk here to this historic district’s shopping area. The shops are on the water; it’s really neat to see all of these interesting shops filled with artisans’ works.

Victoria, Canada excursions

When we were docking in Victoria, Canada, this was our last night on the cruise ship. We didn’t book any excursions.

We wanted to “go to Canada” but really weren’t looking for something to do at night. So we got off the ship, walked around the souvenir shop and then a tented area with local artist and vendors, and then went back on the ship.

They had several tour busses lined up so even if you didn’t book in advance, you could take a bus and be back in time.

Exploring Alaskan ports of call

Of course there is the idea that “this is vacation” so you should “live it up.”

However, know the cruise ship itself is really fun. In addition, if you have kids, they will most likely love it.

In addition, remember, there are many fun things to do in the Alaskan ports that you don’t have to pay for. Walking around exploring the town is very interesting. It’s fun seeing the homes. It’s interesting to see the way these Alaskan ports make a living off of cruise tourism.

Book excursions in advance

There’s lots of information online. If there is an excursion you really want to do, book it in advance. Many excursions sell out. Also, depending on your cruiseline, you may end up paying more if you decide to schedule your excursion once you are on the ship.

Know that the research you do now will make your cruise easier.

8. Compare Alaska excursions and prices

You can book your Alaskan shore excursions through the cruise company you used to arrange your cruise, through Costco, or through other outside vendors.

Once you decide what you want to do and what you can afford, begin to compare prices. Note that most of the excursions will be somewhat the same depending on the terrain, etc. at the port.

You will see there are many excursions in all of the ports for most all of the cruise lines and stops.

Many cruise lines go to Alaska, including Carnival Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, Cunard, and Holland America Line. Some of the cruise ships that go to Alaska include Norwegian Cruise Line, Disney Cruise Line, and Holland American.

Most of these cruise lines all offer the same types of excursions. It’s more dependent on where you are going and what they have to offer there.

Alaska shore excursions through your cruise

The advantage of booking with your cruise company is they know exactly when you will be in port, and how long you will have to complete the excursion. This takes all the stress away wondering if there will be enough time.

If there is a delay getting back to the ship, the ship won’t sail without you. Although, when we were on our cruise, there was a tour bus that came back late (from an independent operator) and our ship waited for them.

We booked one of our excursions through Princess Cruises.

Excursions through Costco Travel

We really like Costco for booking cruises and excursions. Costco has built such a tremendous value-for-your-money brand that it’s easy to believe you are getting maximum value for the price.

Use it as a baseline. If you can find it cheaper through your cruiseline, book it through your cruise. 

We ended up booking one of our Alaska excursions through Costco.

Research local tour and excursion operators online

You can also do your due diligence by researching online for local tours and excursions. There will be many to choose from in each Alaskan port.

These are often — but not always — more local-type companies.

You can compare those excursions, prices and times.

If you see a significant difference in price, be sure to compare how long the excursion is and exactly what you will be doing to make sure it compares with seemingly-similar offers.

Off-the-ship excursions

Note, if you are more of the “let’s wait and see what we feel like doing” type, know there will be options right off the ship. There will be many local tour operators and offers for you to seek out if you are interested.

We didn’t check the prices to know if they are more expensive or less expensive than booking online. If you do some research in advance about excursions in the area, you should have a good idea of a “good price” when you ask.

Researching Alaska cruise excursions

We went through Costco to purchase our excursions. While we don’t necessarily advise this, we booked our cruise with 32 days out and first looked at excursions three weeks out.

Some excursions were already sold out by this time.

Fortunately, we were flexible. We decided to buy some excursions online. We planned to spend the rest of the time exploring the Alaskan ports and Victoria, Canada on our own.

Alaska shore excursions costs

Likely most of the time, for most people, it comes down to price.

Because excursions are optional, you want to be sure it’s worth the cost of doing it. Otherwise, you may want to save the money and explore what there is to do in the port.

Sometimes an excursion can cost as much as your airfare. If you book several, they can be more expensive than your cruise. Perhaps it makes sense to use that money for another cruise vacation!

Perhaps you’d rather explore the Alaska ports on your own — for free.

It is important to remember, you will have just booked and possibly paid for your cruise. If you’ve paid for the gratuity fees, there is nothing else you will have to pay for pertaining to the cruise itself.

(Of course, you will have to get yourself from home to the cruise terminal and back home again. You may need to factor in lodging and food if you fly in the day before.)

After that, you can determine how much you have to spend for excursions and other discretionary spending.

If you and your family do excursions each day in port, it adds up quickly.

Things to do at Alaskan ports

Each port we went to had something to do right off the ship. From Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan, you can easily spend the time walking around.

Like at all the Alaskan ports, there are specialtiy stores — everything from jewelry, art, carvings, local handiwork, etc. — breweries, bars, restaurants — and the more traditional souvenir stores with Alaska t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, knick knacks and trinkets, bottled water, snacks, etc.

For our cruise to Alaska, we took Princess Cruises. We used Princess Cruises and Costco Travel to research and book our excursions.

While we don’t recommend it, we booked our cruise 32 days out and first looked up excursions about three weeks out.

Compare both to get an idea of what’s available and what interest you and if you are traveling with kids, what you will want to do as a family.

By the time we decided and went went back to pay for the excursions many were already sold out. Again this was less than three weeks out so if you do a little bit sooner you will probably be fine.

Alaska excursions
Alaska excursions

We decided to buy some excursions and then spend the rest of the time exploring the Alaskan ports on our own.

Getting back on the ship in Alaskan ports

We boarded our cruise ship with ease each time. There weren’t lines. We simply showed our cabin keycard and went through security and the princess cruises staff welcomed us back on board.

Our cruise to Alaska sailed to the Inside Passage. You will have a fun time on the ship as well as get the chance to explore the cities and towns at the ports whether or not you plan excursions.

Booking Alaska shore excursions

If you really want to do an excursion, plan to book it in advance of your cruise. If you are more flexible, you can take advantage of the special offers that might be off the ship from local tour and excursion operators.

Consider if you will be happy seeing the scenery, shops, local history and overall feeling for the town. With a little research, you can find hikes and historical things to do as well.

Whichever Alaska shore excursions you decide on, you will likely enjoy them. And remember, it’s interesting to experience the Alaskan scenery, local vibe, and recreation in the ports — no matter what you choose to do.