Book your own excursions in Alaska at much lower prices than the cruise lines!
Updated: Jul 19, 2018
You might have a little sticker shock at first when pricing out shore excursions in Alaska, but by booking on your own, well in advance, they can be much cheaper. It just takes a bit of advance planning, so be smart and save!
We've established that just getting to Alaska isn't cheap...so don't think that the shore excursions for your cruise are going to be cheap either. This is where really talking to your family and deciding what is most important, what you would enjoy the most AND what is in in your budget. When it comes to Alaskan Cruises, for most people, this is not a spur of the moment, last minute trip. Usually it is one of these "dream vacations" so you would book your trip well in advance to get a great price and the cabin you want. This gives you plenty of time to book the shore excursions you want before they are all sold out.
Honestly, I would recommend you booking at LEAST 6 months in advance. Most places allow you to cancel penalty free, so if you change your mind, that's fine. You have to remember that there are limited spots available with these companies for private (ie: non cruise line) excursions. These tour companies contract with the cruise lines a specified number of reserved spots for the cruise lines to sell themselves (at an inflated price) so when the cruise line comes along and buys up 100 of the possible 125 available openings for a particular activity, if you want to book independently and save some money, by booking early, you are staking claim to one of those 25 remaining openings. When you are on an "independent" booking, you are not being herded onto a tour bus. You would have a smaller number of other people with you and you pay less. It's a win/win, but you have to be willing to plan in advance!
For some people...definitely not me...money is no object and something like "Private Luxury Whale Watching" is perfectly within your budget. It sure sounds nice: "Pamper yourself by spending the day on Southeast Alaska’s only private whale watching yacht available to cruise ship guests." For $3499.00 per person for 3 hours, George Clooney and Brad Pitt better be the captain and first mate on board. Sorry, but personally, I'd prefer to be able to send Sarah to college for a year than to spend 3 hours on a boat at a cost of $15,000 for the three of us.
Sweet Zombie Jesus, that is a lot of money, but I guess there are people out there who have that kind of cash to spend on three hours of looking at whales.
Just for kicks and giggles, I thought I'd list out the cost of some of the more popular excursions, just so you get an idea of the cruise line pricing:
Alaska's Ultimate Canopy and Zipline Expedition in Juneau, Alaska: "Come experience the wilderness of Alaska on a one-of-a kind adventure – zipping through the rainforest! Navigate through a series of ziplines and suspension bridge, never leaving the treetops!"
$199 per person through NCL;
$166.95 per person if you were to book on your own through True Alaskan Tours
White Pass Railway & Yukon Expedition in Skagway: "Experience the magic and the mystery of the famed Yukon Territory. Enjoy the majestic peaks, waterfalls and glaciers on your drive up the South Klondike Highway. Visit the Dog Musher's Village and meet the racers, dogs and puppies. Then board the historic White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad for an unforgettable ride"
$254 per person through NCL;
$190 per person if you were to book on your own through Chilkoot Charters
Wilderness Exploration and Crab Feast in Ketchikan: " Explore Alaska's wilderness by boat and enjoy a Dungeness crab feast at George Inlet Lodge. You'll cruise up the inlet while exploring the natural beauty of the region passing snowcapped mountains, 2,000 foot waterfalls and more"
$184 per person through NCL;
$169 per person if you were to book on your own through
Zodiac Coastal Expedition in Ketchikan: "Put yourself in the driver’s seat as you skipper a custom built inflatable boat on your Alaskan coastal expedition. Watch for Bald eagles, seals, sea lions, porpoises, sea otters, orcas and humpback whales, which are some of the sights you may encounter"
$209 per person through NCL;
$169 per person if you were to book on your own through Ketchikan Shore Tours
I know you're thinking, "but what if we don't make it back to the boat on time??" Well, yes, if that were to happen you're really sort of screwed, but that won't happen. Do you really think that any of these companies are going to risk their business by even coming close to being late? With blogs like this, travel websites, social media and just general word of mouth being how it is, there is no way that they are going to be late. Something major would have to happen and that is a risk you take on any trip. Most reliable companies offer "on time" guarantees to make sure you get back to your ship in time.
That being said, of course we didn't book with Norwegian. As I wrote in my Caribbean Port review, we don't do cruise line tours for the most part. We live to save money on vacation that way and be able to extend out budget to pay for other things. Here are the things we did while in Alaska:
Sled Dog Discovery & Musher Camp in Juneau
Company: Alaska Excursions
When you have a pre-teen or teenage daughter, you can never go wrong with puppies. Any animal actually.
"Oh they're so cute!!!"
I knew Sarah would love doing the Sled Dog Discovery & Musher Camp trip, but rather than pay $174 per person, as priced on the ship, we booked with Alaska Excursions and paid $133 per person. Not that is a nice savings!
I have to say....this was so much fun!! We were picked up promptly at our agreed upon time at the end of the dock, where we boarded a comfortable, roomy shuttle van and our guide took us out to the Tongass National Forest to the summer training camp for the musher teams and the sled dogs. It was so beautiful out there. It was like being on the Forest Moon of Endor, where the little Ewoks lived, in "Return of the Jedi". they had an entire team of dogs hitched up ready and eager to take us on a run through the trails in the forest, with us being in extended golf style shuttle carts.
What a hoot and a holler, as we sat in the front row and died laughing when one of the dogs at the back of the pack decided he just had to go #2 and was just pooping to his heart's content as he ran, in sort of a poop/scoot motion. Bless his little heart!!!
They take you on two separate runs and during the dog's water breaks, your guides tell you about the different dogs. WHen you get back to the mushers camp, there are sled dogs galore and puppies coming out the ying-yang. Sarah was in dog heaven. You can walk along the trails built in the trees, learn more about the history of dog sledding and the Iditarod in Alaska and warm up by the fire and drink some yummy hot cocoa. Afterwards, your guide then drives you back to town, where you have ample time to shop, grab some lunch/dinner and sightsee.
If you have kids, this is both fun and educational and for kids 12 and under, the price is only $109.
White Pass Rail & Yukon Territory Experience
(called the Yukon Rail & Bus Excursion on the website)
Company: Chilcoot Charters and Tours
Choose "Tours by Rail & Bus". Price per person is $190
"ALL ABOARD! Skagway’s most scenic ALASKAN experience begins with a 28 mile journey between Skagway, Alaska, and Fraser, British Columbia, aboard the Scenic Railway of the World (this tour also operates in reverse order with a bus first option except on certain Sundays). Experience the breathtaking panorama of mountains, glaciers, gorges, waterfalls, tunnels, trestles, and historic sites from the comfort of our vintage passenger coaches. See the original Klondike Trail of ’98 worn into the rocks, a permanent tribute to the thousands of souls who passed this way in search of fortune.
Once a water-stop for the thirsty steam engines and rotary snowplows, Fraser, BC, is now the site of Canadian Customs and Immigration. Upon arrival at the train depot at Fraser, passengers are transferred to a comfortable tour vehicle as they continue their journey into the unparalleled beauty of the Yukon Territory. Travel to Emerald Lake, Caribou Crossing, Carcross and Lake Bennett.
While at Caribou Crossing Trading Post, a piping hot BBQ chicken lunch with coleslaw, baked potato and all-you-can-eat cake donuts awaits you as well as “FREE ADMISSION” to the Yukon Wildlife Museum. Visit an authentic dog musher camp and enjoy “FREE ADMISSION” to pet the husky puppies!
Upon your return to Skagway you will be entertained by professional guides with their amusing stories of local lore and captivating tales of the Gold Rush Era. With stops all along the way there will be ample opportunities for photo enthusiasts to view and capture the picturesque beauty of cascading waterfalls, roaring rivers, majestic mountains, glaciers, historic sites and panoramic vistas."
Ok...yes, the views are gorgeous and I can say now that I've been to the Yukon Territory and seen some beautiful sights, but I have to admit I am torn as to whether or not I would recommend this tour. I have NO issues with our tour company, Chilkoot Charters. They were awesome. I guess I just had an issue with the entire train car of tourists who were so completely rude and had no concept of personal space. We were on a train car filled almost entirely with a tour group from China. Naturally I don't speak Chinese unless it is on a menu and I guess I really didn't enjoy having people literally climb on me as I stood on the train car's exterior platform taking a few photographs. I don't know if it was a cultural thing, but not a single person gave a second though to the fact that they could just do whatever they wanted to take a photo, regardless of the fact and/or comfort of the other passengers who weren't part of their group. I had people try and push me out of the way so they could take a picture, totally disregarding the fact that I was there first and in the process of taking the picture at the time.
I think I used my entire allotment of dirty looks with the first 1/2 hour on that train. If they understood English, they completely pretended they had never heard the words "excuse me" before. So the train ride was pretty, but frustrating.
Once we got off the train, we boarded our van and headed into the Yukon. We were lucky in that our tour guide kept us ahead of their big tour bus so we would be able to stop at all the scenic points before them and get our photos before a mess of people were there trying to do the same thing. We had 10 people on our shuttle van. they had about 50 or 60. We stopped at the Carcross Desert, which is a former lake bed that is now completely dried and a sandy desert if I ever saw one, and as we were getting ready to leave, we just stood in wonder as the busload of Chinese tourists pull up and the first guy off proceeds just to run out into the desert like he was Forrest Gump. The dude could run...he took off like the devil was chasing him. I can only assume he made it back to his bus.
Yes, there are some beautiful sites, but overall, there is a whole lot of nothing. In Caribou Crossing, you stop for a BBQ lunch and coming from the South, I know BBQ and dear baby Jesus, this had to be the worst BBQ chicken I ever had. Yes, you get to see animals in the petting zoo and more sled dogs, but it is SO sad and depressing. Not a fun stop. More of a "Why would anyone live here?" kind of thought provoking stop.
With one stop in Carcross, we picked up some delicious ice cream cones and a couple of little souvenirs at the General store in town and then we headed back towards Alaska on our return journey to the ship. It was a lovely day.
I'd recommend the White Pass Railroad, but I would totally skip the Yukon Territory part. Trust me on this one.
Ketchikan Taxi Cab Tours
$240 total for a 3 hour tour (of up to 6 people)
I really like Ketchikan and we're all looking forward to going back next year. We had decided to do a 3 hour tour along with another couple that I had met though our CruiseCritic.com Roll Call message board. We wanted to see the Ketchikan we wouldn't get to see just walking around and I'm glad that we had such a great tour guide in Norman, a local Native Alaskan who took the time to share his own personal experiences and culture with us. Although we didn't see any bears, he did take us to where we saw a plethora of Bald Eagles and I came across my favorite restaurant sign ever: Chico's Mexican Restaurant The Best Pizza in Town!
We wanted to go to Totem Bight Park and see all the totem poles and honestly, if you don't want to learn anything or don't care about the native American/Alaskan culture, you might not enjoy one of these tours, because that is what this tour does. Alaska is not just bears. This is not a wildlife sightseeing tour. This is a tour of Ketchikan and that means going to many different locations. Bears are not on your time table. They do not wear watches and they are not just sitting around on vintage barcaloungers smoking cigars while they wait for the our vans to show up.
Open your mind and learn something. Norman shared his native culture, family artifacts and history with us and that is more than you would get from a bear.