So you booked your dream cruise to Alaska. Now it’s time to plan some shore excursions but after a little internet research your dream is turning into a nightmare. There are so many options and there is so much conflicting information online, what is the truth about shore excursions in Alaska and how do you find ones that will work for you? Should you book through the cruise ship, though a travel agent, or search online for local tour operators? The cruise lines want you to book everything on board; travel agents who specialize in Alaska have a lot to offer; and of course, being a local tour operator ourselves, we highly recommend taking the time to look for local companies in each port. Fortunately, there are amazing Alaskan adventures to be found whichever way you choose to book. In our experience Alaskan tours are generally safe, fun and designed to fit into the itineraries of cruise ship passengers. To help travelers get past some of the misconceptions about booking shore excursions for Alaskan Cruises we put together this list of the most common “myths” we hear from folks planning their trips.
Myth 1: Independent tour operators will not get you back to the cruise ship on time. FALSE
It is true that if you book your excursions through the cruise line then you are guaranteed that the ship will not leave if your excursion runs late. If you are the type of person who will worry greatly about being back on board the ship on time, then it may be worth booking through the cruise line just for peace of mind. However, no one could stay in business in Southeast Alaska if they didn’t work with cruise line schedules and bring their tours back on time. In the past fifteen years we have heard of people missing their cruise ships here in Ketchikan because they got the time difference wrong, they got lost hiking on their own or they spent too long shopping but never because an independent tour operator did not bring them back on time. Research, is always key, so be sure to check out TripAdvisor or Cruise Critic reviews of a company you are thinking of booking with and don’t be afraid to ask the tour operator to double check that the tour time works for your ship when you book.
Myth 2: If you book independently you will get a better deal. TRUE but...
This one is certainly true: booking direct with the company that runs the tour will always get you the best possible price. Cruise lines, travel agents and online bulk tour sellers (like Expedia) make commissions on the excursions they sell. In some cases the commission is built into the price and in others, the re-seller adds to the tour price to cover their costs. It definitely pays to shop around and don’t be afraid to ask (nicely) if there are any discounts available. You have to book tours that are not sold on board cruise lines independently and what often makes these companies’ tours such a good deal is the smaller groups and more personal service they offer. But… if you are booking a tour that is sold on board the cruise line independently there are a few things to double check before you trade the security of a booked on board tour for the savings of booking on your own. Is the transportation to the tour departure point included? Where do you meet the tour company representative? What is the cancellation policy in the case of inclement weather or changes in ship schedule? Where and when does the tour return? Remember Myth 1: no tour company wants you to miss your ship but it pays to be certain that there are no hidden costs like taxis to the tour location or a no-refund cancellation policy.
Myth 3: Independent Shore Excursions won’t be Safe or Insured. FALSE
It may seem like a world away, but don’t forget that Alaska is the 49th State in the Union. Whether or not a company is affiliated with cruise lines is irrelevant; doing business here in Alaska, just like the rest of the country, requires all kinds of insurance and compliance with industry safety standards. Aviation is regulated by the FAA, boating and maritime activities by the US Coastguard and bus tours must comply with DOT regulations. Again, research is key. If a company is operating tours that make guests feel unsafe that will show up pretty quickly in reviews on sites like TripAdvisor and Cruise Critic.
Myth 4: It’s better to wait until the day you arrive in port to book. FALSE
Many years ago, before the internet changed the way we plan our travels, this myth was true. At that time small local companies had no way to reach cruise visitors except by being ready on the dock to sell their tours when the ships arrived so there were great deals on offer. These days, the best deals on Alaska shore excursions can be found on the web and because of the limited time cruise ships are in port advance reservations are highly recommended. Even if you didn’t plan ahead, now you can check out what’s available in the next port on your smart phone or iPad and book a tour for tomorrow online. Waiting until the day you arrive in port means that you may miss out: many tours now sell out in advance and most tours depart shortly after the ships arrive. If you do want to book a tour on the day that you arrive in port be sure to disembark as soon as you can and seek out the local visitor information center or ask your cruise ship shore excursions agent to help.
Myth 5: If you book independently and your ship schedule changes or the weather turns bad, you will lose your deposit. FALSE but always check the cancellation policy…
Whether they work with the cruise-lines or not, all the tour companies and shore excursion operators in Alaskan ports are used to working with cruise ship schedules and are aware that they occasionally change. In fact, here in Ketchikan our Visitors Bureau sends out email alerts to all of its members as soon as there is a schedule change so sometimes we know before our guests. Be sure to check the cancellation policy before you book. A good tour company will accommodate changes in ship schedules whenever possible and promise to refund you if the ship misses port or changes their schedule in such a way that the tour cannot be re-scheduled. While the summers here a generally beautiful, Alaska is famous for it’s changing weather. You should always be refunded in full in the case of a weather cancellation but be sure to double check the company’s policy before making a booking. Travel insurance is always a great idea. If you do plan to book your excursions independently, be sure that your travel insurance covers excursions too, some folks have told us that the insurance they purchased when they booked the cruise only covers cruise line shore excursions. Travel insurance is also available for purchase online through companies like Travel Guard and it is usually a fairly small price to pay for the peace of mind that comes with knowing you are covered for unforeseen events.