Humpback whale in Juneau, Alaska

Alaskan Cruise 101

Thinking of embarking on an Alaskan cruise? Before you book, ask yourself, do you love incredible views? Can you appreciate nature in its rawest form? Have you dreamed of soaring with bald eagles or watching whales launch out of the water? Are you ready for a life changing trip?! If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, Alaska is calling!

Alaskan Cruise 101 - Glacier Bay Alaska

A few things you should take into account before you book:

  • You are only fully on board the ship for 2 whole days that are spread apart. The other 5 have some sort of stop, so don’t worry about getting too cooped up!
  • Alaskan cruises are much more laid back than Caribbean cruises. There is less of a “party” scene and the actives are a little further apart / aimed at an adult crowd. With that said, if you are ok with the relaxed vibe, you are good to go! You can also make the cruise as jam packed as you want by taking advantage of all of the on-ship activities, even the ones that may not peak your interest at first.
  • Expect to spend about double the cost of your cruise ticket. From transportation, hotels, excursions, dining, and cruise fees, cruises can cost quite a bit more than expected. More detail on this is below in the Booking Fees section of this post.

Booking Your Cruise

  • Booking through a major travel agency can have a lot of perks.
    • Make sure the agency books a lot of cruises so they have buying power first. Those agents can get you the best deals on your cruise price.
    • You can get room upgrades on better floors or locations. You do not want to be the floor beneath the treadmills or food courts! Agents can also help book multiple room parties close together.
    • They will ensure you have the best dining options like restaurant preferences and getting tables next to windows.
    • They can get you on ship credits between $25 – $100 per room and can help you get any booking specials that might be running.
  • Interior vs. exterior rooms are up to you. Exterior rooms are about double the cost so it really depends on your budget.
    • Interior rooms have big mirrors so they seem larger than they appear. You will not be in your room too much since there are so many days off of the boat. We booked an interior room and it was fine with us!
    • Balcony rooms – Go big or go home right? If you do want a view, go with the balcony instead of the window. You will have a great view and have a high likely hood of seeing whales right from your bed if you are an early riser. It is also nice to have the privacy while viewing the glaciers from your room. This is a great option if you don’t mind spending extra and you can potentially qualify for a free drink package if you book at the right time and check the ongoing deals page!
  • Expect extra fees on your trip.
    • Not only does the cruise cost $800+ depending on the room you pick, but there is a daily “tip” fee for your room cleaning team of $25+ per room.
    • Excursions are not included so plan for $50 – $500 per port for excursions depending on what you want to do.
    • For any use of the gym facilities outside of do-it-yourself, there are fees. $20 to use the upgraded saunas, spa treatments (for which I am a sucker), $12 per yoga class… these things also add up if you do them.
    • Gratuity is automatically added to any additional food / drinks you buy from bars / restaurants not included in the base price of the cruise.
    • Don’t forget transportation from the airport to your pre-boarding hotel or to the docks. In Seattle, this can be about $40 to downtown and another $20 to the docks. Multiply this by two for both ways.
    • If you don’t want to be risky and fly in the morning of your cruise, you will also need to account for the hotel on either side of your trip. I highly recommend the Maxwell hotel in Seattle as it is not too expensive ($137 per night), has amazingly comfy beds, and lots of personality.

Excursion Planning:

Don’t book on the ship because you will be going in a huge group and paying too much. Also, don’t worry about booking early!

  • We booked all of our excursions off the boat and in advance of our cruise to save money and to ensure we got what we wanted. Little did we know that at every single port, there are tons of excursion booking booths with discounted rates for basically every tour offered on the ship. Not only that, but almost all places guarantee you will be back in time before your ship leaves.
  • The excursions we did and highly recommend are below:
    • Juneau – Harv & Marv’s whale watching. Not only did we see tons of whales, we had a personal boat for the 6 of us for about $20 more than what we would have paid for a huge group boat ride.
    • Skagway – Skagway Shore Tours Hike and Float picked us up right from port and took 9 of us total to the Chilkoot Trail for a two-mile rainforest hike and then float down the Taiya River. It cost $95 for the 4-hour experience and included snacks and two great guides!
    • Ketchikan – Southeast Sea Kayaks took us on a 4-hour kayaking adventure through Orca Cove. There were a total of 6 people on our tour, including us, and the tour was $169 per person. We spent 2 full hours kayaking and it was our favorite part of the entire trip.

Kayaking in Ketchikan Alaska

Packing Essentials:

  • Forms of identification: Passport and ID are a must so don’t forget them! Also, you may want to bring a lanyard for your cruise ship ID card so you do not lose it while walking around.
  • Warm stuff: I read mixed reviews about how warm it gets in the various ports in Alaska and packed mid-warm jackets. I wish I had a heavier jacket, especially for the days we were onboard the ship.
    • Warm gloves, a beanie, scarves, warm socks, and a waterproof jacket are must haves.
  • The right shoes: I wore my hiking boots or my rain boots the entire trip. Seattle was very rainy so my rain boots were a total hit (and I jumped in quite a few puddles). My hiking boots were warm and great for the long walking days ashore.
    • Have the right socks and waterproof / warm walking shoes.
  • Rain gear: It rained at least once 90% of the days we were on our trip. My rain jacket, rain boots, and umbrella were life savers. Don’t forget them!
  • Personal products:
    • For every trip, sunscreen is a must have.
    • Bring lots of hydrating moisturizer and lip balm as well since the dry weather will get to you.
    • If you have finicky hair, the 2-in-1 shampoo / conditioner on the ship isn’t great so make sure you pack your favorite travel sized hair product. Also, the hairdryers are low powered so, if you have thick hair like mine, bring a hairdryer that won’t take 45 minutes of your cruise time to dry your hair.
  • Day-pack: I bought a North Face Flyweight foldable backpack that zips itself into a tiny bag that takes almost no space in my luggage. This bag became my go to for all of our excursions. It held my water bottle, was my wallet, had space for my rain jacket, umbrella, camera, and any other gear I could need for the day. It was so much better than carrying a purse around and was one of the most convenient things I had on the trip. A day-pack is a must for any active excursions.

On Board Your Cruise

Boarding & Debarking:

  • Airport to dock or hotel: We took an Uber from the Seattle airport to our hotel. There should not be surge pricing at the airport since there are tons of transport options. Almost every car service goes to the airport so getting to your hotel or the port should be easy. Expect about $40 to downtown for two people.
  • Downtown hotel to port: Surge pricing can occur close to the boarding time so check what your Uber fare is from your hotel to the port. If it is surge pricing, check with your hotel. They should also have shuttle / car services at set prices to take you to the port. This will help you get a good gauge for how much you should pay.
  • Boarding: Our boat started boarding at noon and we got there right when it started. There was a minimal line and it only took us 15 minutes to board! Once we were on ship, we were free to grab a celebratory drink! In short, get there early to avoid lines and start your cruise quickly and stress free!
  • Debarking: There are two options; carrying your own bags off the ship or letting the ship do it for you.
    • Recommended: Carrying your bags off early will get you off the boat by 8AM and you will not need to wait for your luggage. Our de-board time was 7:55 AM and we were off the ship and in an Uber at 8:15 AM. It can’t get much easier than that!
    • For those letting the ship deal with your luggage, it gets collected the night before you debark. Then, you have to be out of your room and in a holding area by 8 AM where you must wait until your group gets called, which may not be until 10AM. The process is relatively quick from there but then you also have to find your baggage. On top of all of that, the traffic to get out of the port and the prices for transport go up drastically since it is peak hour. By the time you are back in the city, you have missed out on at least 2 hours of prime tourist time!

Cruise Food 101:

Breakfast:

  • For when you aren’t in a rush in the morning, a great breakfast option is breakfast in bed! While the menu is a little more limited to mainly baked goods, cereal, and fruit, having breakfast while looking out your balcony / window in bed it an excellent start to the day! Not only that, but its complementary.
  • The buffet open as early as 6 AM and restaurants at 9 AM for all other breakfast options. The food it’s the same pretty much where ever you go.

Lunch:

  • Typically, while at sea, the formal restaurants are open for lunch. While they take longer than the buffet, the food is typically a bit better.
  • One of the buffet restaurants on board usually has a rotating menu of different cuisine. Look for the daily updates in your cruise itinerary for new options like “A Taste of Alaska”, Mexican, Indian, or Chinese food.

Dinner:

  • Book the 5:30 PM (or early) dinner reservation for your evening dinners. The food and menu is much better in the restaurants (included in the price of your cruise) than the buffets. Also, booking the early dinner will ensure that you are done in time for any of the fun shows or evening activities that the cruise provides.
  • Try a celebratory dinner at least one night in one of the other restaurants onboard that you have to pay for. We had a delicious 4 course steak dinner in the Crown Grill for only $29 a person. Considering we are from Texas and have good taste in steaks, I can say with confidence that it was a great deal and a great meal.

Alcohol / Beverage Options:

Before buying the alcohol package on the cruise, which can be over $50 per day (about 5 drinks a day), consider the following:

  • Look for / ask your travel agent about free alcohol packages if you book a suite or balcony room.
  • You can bring a bottle of wine per person in your luggage which can save you money. Also, if you go with friends who bought the alcohol package, get them to bring your extra bottles of wine in their luggage.
  • There are happy hours onboard almost twice a day (around 3 PM and 10 PM) which have deals like buy one, get one for $1.
  • You will be off the boat for multiple days so you will be paying your alcohol packages on those days even if you don’t use them.
  • Overall, we did not buy the drink package and faired just fine.

On-Board Tidbits:

  • On-ship communication:
    • Most blogs will recommend walkie-talkies to talk to your other cruise buddies. On Princess cruises at least, there is no need for them! Princess has an airplane-mode website that is free on their Wi-Fi. The site lets you message anyone else on the cruise. You can even have group chat! While it is not an app so there are no pop-up notifications, it is still a good way to communicate with your buddies without paying for anything extra.
    • The Princess website will also show all of the day’s activities so you can check them out / add them to your personal calendar while on the ship. You can even share events with people through
      the messenger function as well!
  • Movie nights: A must do at least once! The ship shows various movies each day on the outside movie screen. Find one you want to watch, grab a hot chocolate, and pick a lounge chair to relax in on deck. Too cold? Don’t worry, the staff provides fleece blankets and warm popcorn for an incredible movie watching experience.
  • Art auctions: Do not buy art on board the ship without doing your internet research first. A lot of times the prices are high and the value is low. What you should do, however, is attend the high-speed auction and watch people spend tens of thousands of dollars on pieces in seconds and the funny auctioneers try and get people to buy. It was quite an entertaining part of the trip!
  • Get involved in the axe-throwing, karaoke, trivia, or dance competitions. It will only make your trip that much more fun and will make you an on-board celebrity!
  • Attend the Alaskan speaker events that come onboard. A word of warning, their stories are inspiring and will make you want pack up and move to Alaska as soon as you return home.

Alaskan Cruise

The beaches of El Salvador

El Salvador Beach Trip

Another 6:15 AM morning for our trip to El Salvador from Guatemala City! It was a spectacularly clear morning and the view from Cass’s parents house was amazing. We had a quick black bean, egg, ham, and tortilla breakfast and hopped in the car for our 3+ hour drive. Cass’s dad, who is originally from El Salvador, was kind enough to drive us to their beach house. The drive was full of twists and turns and we passed lots of coffee, sugar cane, and pineapple fields along the way. We passed through El Salvador’s customs and then stopped at watermelon booth set up on the side of the highway for a snack and had to make sure the “water in the watermelon was safe to drink so we wouldn’t get Montazuma’s” – *places palm on forehead, shakes head, and sighs*. It was pretty funny!

Eventually, we hopped on a dirt path, through a gate, past huge trees, and parked in front of an adorable little beach house in the forest. The house had a big center room and then three rooms off to the sides with 5 beds in each room! It could fit over 20 people! There were super comfortable hammocks everywhere, a pool for sunning, and this great cabana next to the kitchen building overlooking the ocean. Talk about paradise!

We immediately changed into our bikinis and hit the beach. The water was like bath water and the sand felt so good between our toes. We literally had the whole beach to ourselves for two days! We laid out in the sand with the water lapping at our toes for a while before getting called in for lunch.

On the beach in El Salvador

Cass’s mom and maids had prepped food for us to bring and we had a yummy lunch of grilled chicken and veggies at this giant wooden table that sat about 20 people in the cabana. It is made of one giant, continuous piece of wood and was probably one of the most amazing piece of furniture I have ever seen.

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After lunch, we played some bocce ball (which I totally botched), and then some badminton. We got the fly stuck up in a big tree above us an all took turns throwing our rackets up at it to get it out. Janine tried to throw hers but, instead of throwing up, she threw the racket straight into a tree – we were laughing so hard we were crying! We eventually transitioned to sand volleyball and got super sandy so we relaxed in the water until sun-down when all of the mosquitos arrived in droves. Seriously, it was like a monsoon of mosquitos was upon us and we raced back to the house for cover and bug spray until they passed.

During that time, we put on some dance 101 YouTube videos and learned some new, sweet moves, including our attempts at twerking. I am pretty sure the groundskeeper and maid saw us, but El Salvador is a “judgment free” zone, right?

Finally, the mozzies left and we went back to the cabana for chicken tortilla lasagna – probably my favorite dish in all of Guatemala. It was SO good! We listened to the waves in the dark and watched lightning bugs dance on the beach until we were too tired to keep our eyes open and then went to bed.

El Salvador – Day 2

Although we were not traveling to another location, we still woke up at the crack of dawn to explore the beach at low tide on our second day on the beach in El Salvador. There were black volcanic rocks that led to a big boulder about 200 yards from the beach and, when the tide went out, we were able to walk across the lava path to the boulder. There were crabs, weird shelled creatures, and minnows strewn all along our path entrapped in pockets of water and ripe for exploring. We brought our water shoes and goggles to do some reef snorkeling as well and saw glimpses of colorful fish, kale looking sea slugs, and neat looking shells. unfortunately, a lot of the reef had disappeared over the years due to human intervention and shell-pocketing, but we at least got a feel for what once was.

Volcanic rocks on the beaches of El Salvador

There was no current while we were out in the morning, so we relaxed and floated for a while and then decided to pose like mermaids on a nearby rock while singing songs from the movie. I mean, who wouldn’t want to do that?

Channeling my inner mermaid in El Salvador

After we got our fill of pictures and sang out lungs out, we grabbed the kayaks for a sea adventure. Unfortunately for Kim and I, our kayak went rouge and we couldn’t stay stable for the life of us! We must have had 15 attempts before I left Kim to use the kayak on her own and swam back to shore. I sat under a tree and listened to the waves roll in for what must have been half an hour before I was rejoined by the group to play badminton and have ceviche for lunch.  Who knew cold shrimp, lime juice, garlic, and cilantro could be so delicious! We also made my new favorite drink – micheladas, and laid out by the pool until the swarms of mozzies returned and we had to go inside. It eventually started to pour rain and we had to make a break for it to the cabana for dinner. We had that delicious chicken tortilla lasagna again and watched the lightning break over the ocean until it was time for bed.

The Core 4 travel buddies at the beach in El Salvador

El Salvador Beach Tips:

  • Bring lots of bug spray! They mozzies are everywhere
  • Wear water shoes as the beaches are rocky
  • Bring board games for when you are indoors waiting for the mozzies to dissipate / rain to pass
  • Don’t forget your sun screen and a hat
View of Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua, Guatemala – Day 2

For the first time on this trip, I got to sleep in… to 9:30 AM. I was ready to go by 10, but the other girls were a little more slow-moving as they tried to wake up. We finally left our secluded cabin around 11:30 to walk into Antigua for a traditional breakfast. We sat at a quaint little restaurant that had a big garden that was under construction so we were surrounded by equipment, but that didn’t matter. The food was scrumptious and there was tons of it with bread and oatmeal to start and sausage, plantains, black beans, eggs, and coffee to keep us going for the day. Almost all meals in Guatemala come with black beans and they are SO delicious! I must have had them at almost every meal.

We decided to walk off breakfast with a stroll through the market and main squares. We bought Guatemala’s version of M&Ms from a little girl who was selling them out of a basket on the side of the street but, in retrospect, shouldn’t have. Guatemala is full of kids and women selling trinkets and snacks, but you should only buy from the adults as buying from kids will keep propelling adults to use kids as sales vehicles instead of sending them to schools and the like. The income inequality in Guatemala is astonishingly apparent and it makes you feel very lucky to be in your situation instead of theirs.

A little girl selling candy on the streets of Antigua, Guatemala

After a few hours of buying gifts and souvenirs for everyone at home that we could think of and haggling prices like pros, we walked to a large, ornate, open wooden door. Again, Guatemala’s streets are lined with high, concrete walls so you never know what is awaiting behind each wall’s doors. Unbeknownst to my fellow USA traveler’s and I, the door Cass led us through took us to a small slice of paradise; a hotel called Santo Domingo in which Cass has her heart set on getting married in one day.

The hotel was beautiful with huge gardens full of rainforest type foliage and gorgeous parakeets and macaws. In the main outside square of the hotel, there is a river walk with over 3K candles lining the path that leads to a ruined Cathedral in the back of the hotel. It is huge and probably one of the most romantic settings I have entered in my entire life. I totally get the appeal of having that as a venue!

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After touring the hotel, we walked to a coffee shop and went to its rooftop for a drink and the view. Almost all of the restaurants and bars in Antigua have views like the below and it’s the place to be to watch the sun set over the volcanos.

A few of the girls decided to go to Mass, so Cass’s friend Isa and I walked down the street to a rooftop bar and had micheladas, basically a love child of beer and a Bloody Mary, while talking about Guatemala and watching the Fuego volcano erupt in the distance. Seriously, it was an evening out of the movies and it was so surreal watching lava slide down a mountainside!

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After the girls were done at Mass, we said our goodbyes to our new friend Isa and took off back to Guatemala City for a delicious home-cooked Pad Thai dinner at Cass’s casa and much-needed sleep before our trip to El Salvador the next day!

Antigua Tips:

  • Try micheladas – such a yummy and refreshing drink! (And you get your daily serving of veggies through the tomato juice.. right?)
  • Watch the sun set on a rooftop bar and stay until dark to watch the Fuego volcano erupt
  • Haggle in the markets for some great deals on trinkets
  • Do not buy from children selling goods in the markets

 

View of Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua, Guatemala

The girls and I recovered from our Volcano hike in the car ride back to Antigua, Guatemala. We had a full day planned post-hike, including a birthday party and dancing for one of Cass’s friends. We stopped at a local grocery store for party supplies once we got back to town. They had everything you could imagine there and it was packed with people. Once we finished gat the store, Isa (one of Cass’s Guatemalan friends who hiked with us) took us around town, through the main square, to the markets for shopping (which we did plenty of since the USA dollar is so strong in Guatemala), to an ice-cream store to get a mid-day snack, to a Guatemalan candy store to try out the local sweets, and then to her parent’s house to see what the house architecture in Antigua is like since 8 – 1o foot walls line the streets making house visibility impossible. Boy are the houses uniquely beautiful. Traditionally, there is a big, open garden in the center of the house. The rooms all surround the garden and the second story is a big patio with volcano views. Talk about a private paradise! The gardens as well-kept with beautiful flower and vine overhangs and lots of candles.

After that, we all piled into the Jeep and rode to the birthday’ girls house right on the outskirts of the city. When Cass told me we were going to be staying at her friend’s house and then her aunt’s house later on, I told her I would prefer a hotel with a bed, but boy was I wrong and glad Cass ignored me! We drove into the b-day girl’s house and wound up taking a drive up the mountain at the back of her property to their guest house. It had another amazing view of the city, nestled in the woods, and was our own little paradise! We had some very deserved and needed showers and got ready for the celebratory b-day dinner. We did a little pre-gaming in the main house and met loads of very nice people. I actually had mutual friends with some of the people I met as there is a large Guatemalan population at TCU – small world, huh?!

About 15 of us took off on foot to a rooftop bar and resultant for dinner. We had some delicious pizza and I tried very hard to stay awake. Sitting and eating after loads of travel and a long hike will make one very tired. Thankfully, we headed to an Irish pub called Riley’s that was not Irish in the slightest – more Spanish with cool murals and a huge dance floor with great Latin music – that brought the energy back. We had some drinks, danced, and people watched until the lights came on! It was only midnight but apparently cops with dogs were going to raid the bar! We left in a hurry and walked to a different club called Lucky Rabbit down the street that had a very “American, hostel-hopping, young tourist” vibe and more groovy music. I was getting tired and a little cranky, so thankfully, we left before the break of dawn and headed back to the guest house. Our “Core Four” of girls tried to walk back together but the guys in our group wouldn’t let us. Apparently, while the streets of Antigua seem safe, there is a lot of kidnapping all over Guatemala and girls should travel in groups of 6 of more, preferably with at least one guy.

Anyways Janine and Cass stayed at the main house to continue socializing while Kim, Isa, and I went to bed. I slept extremely well, with the startling exception of some loud screaming in the night as Janine and Cass discovered a clementine sized spider hanging in their bed when they got home. Those bugs in Guatemala are BIG!

Antigua Tips:

  • Travel with a group
  • Make sure you have plenty of room in your suitcase for market goods and bring cash for lots of shopping
  • Don’t forget potent bug spray