Remember that you don't have to book shore excursions through your ship. Let's examine your options.
Cruise Line Excursions
The cruise lines have expanded their Alaska shore excursions dramatically to accommodate the thousands of passengers they take to Alaska each week from May through September. On my 1995 Alaska cruise aboard Royal Caribbean's Sun Viking, 37 excursions were offered, ranging in price from $23 to $205. In 2005, RCI is offering more than 108 shore excursions from $23.95 to $489 with additional excursions available for those booked on the line's 19 different pre and post cruise-tours.
You will also receive a booklet of shore trips with your tickets, or ask your travel agent to get you a copy ahead of time.
With the increase in family cruising in Alaska, the hours for the supervised kids programs on port days have been gradually extended to allow parents time to sightsee ashore on their own. Check the regulations for your ship. Cruise lines also offer reduced pricing for children taking excursions with their parents. Carnival has a program of excursions for teens only.
If you're planning a late-season sailing, remember that by September, a number of excursions are no longer offered. Dog sledding trips can be over by mid-August as the weather starts to close in on the higher elevations.
Port Promotions Online
< One company that offers organized excursions from your ship is Port Promotions. This independent operation, active for years in the Caribbean, now packages shore excursions for cruisers worldwide. If your ship calls at Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan, Port Promotions has a "Best of Alaska" package of three popular excursions -- one in each port -- for $109 per person. For individual excursions, be sure to check the details carefully against your cruise line's offerings. You might find your ship has just as good a price for the same service on individual tours. Visit the company's web site at http://www.portpromotions.com.
However, advance planning is essential if you have specific things you want to see and do in Alaska. Facilities are limited in this remote State and the number of visitors is increasing. The very popular float plane excursions and helicopter flight-seeing combined with glacier walks or dog sledding must be booked well ahead of time to avoid disappointment. Cruise lines take much of the available space and it is often sold out well ahead of sailing. According to Temsco Helicopters, passengers who wait until the day they arrive in port to book their flights will most likely be on standby.
Those wanting to rent a car should also book in advance. Pier pickup is available from some rental companies and can be requested at time of booking. More details for each port are given below.
For those who want to go it alone, here's a description of the ports of Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka with information on how to get around and where to book the leading excursions.
Information: http://www.skagway.com; Phone: (907) 983-2854 or 1-888-762-1898
Helicopter flight-seeing, dog sledding, White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
A Skagway walking tour map is available at the Visitors Center (between Second and Third Avenue). This valuable guide can tell you every building on Broadway and the year it was built, along with background information about the surrounding area. The Historic Skagway Inn and the Red Onion Saloon are just two of the many original buildings along Broadway. Walk down the side streets to discover more interesting historic sights. The gold rush cemetery is a fascinating spot just a short walk from town. The Skagway Museum & Archives (Trail of '98 Museum) is just off Broadway at 7th and Spring.
Shops are many and varied, from souvenir shops like the Skagway Outlet Store (at Seventh Avenue) to Little Switzerland (at Fifth Avenue).
Gold rush entertainment still lives in Skagway with the Days of '98 show at Eagles Hall (6th and Broadway), a musical comedy about Skagway and the famous outlaw Soapy Smith.
Skagway is known as the "Garden City of Alaska". A great variety of flowers and giant vegetables grow here, thanks to the extended light and good soil conditions. Garden enthusiasts should visit Jewell Gardens, which includes a miniature town site and train within the gardens. Garden teas and lunches are offered to groups of 10 or more only so book those through your cruise line. You are welcome to visit the gardens on your own. http://www.jewellgardens.com
Cars should be booked well in advance in Skagway, as many cruise ships can be in this popular port at the same time and there is a limited number of available cars. Car rental offices are walking distance from the piers, or simply hop the shuttle bus into town. Two local companies offer car rentals: Sourdough Vehicle and Bicycle Rentals at 351-6th Avenue (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 907-983-2523) and PB Cruisers, Car Rentals at 326-3rd Avenue, blocks from the cruise ships and 150 feet from the shuttle bus stop next to the PILLBOX - daily summer rate $60 - (e-mail email@example.com or call 907-983-3385). Avis has a seasonal operation in Skagway, open from May through September. The office is in town at 2nd & Spring Streets (call 1-800-331-1212 or (907)-983-2247 ) www.avis.com. Avis has 30 cars in Skagway starting from $65 a day. Avis may be able to offer pier pickup and drop off. Check with the agent when booking.
Whitehorse in the Yukon is a two hour drive from Skagway and makes a good day trip by car. Canadian citizens should note that you cannot drive into the Yukon from Alaska in a car rented in Alaska so you'll need to stay on the Alaska side of the border when renting in Skagway.
Southeast Tours is a locally owned and operated company which offers Yukon Horseback riding, hiking and photo safaris as well as Skagway sightseeing, Salmon fishing, Chilkoot Trail hike and float tours. Southeast tours has been guiding visitors to Skagway for over 15 years. Visit their web site at www.southeasttours.com. Tours can be booked online.
Helicopter excursions have become extremely popular and are now combined with glacier walks and dog-sledding for added adventure. This is a remarkable way to experience the grandeur of Alaska and its many glaciers. Temsco Helicopters inaugurated glacier helicopter tours in 1983. Today when your ship docks in Skagway, you will see the Temsco helicopters lined up at their base near the piers, ready to take off. Since most of the seats are monopolized by cruise line excursions, you need to contact them a few months ahead of sailing to secure a place.
Temsco Helicopters offers three tours from Skagway. Allow an additional 30 minutes to each tour for transportation to and from the ship and viewing of a safety video, outfitting of glacier boots and safety vests. The Valley of the Glaciers ($199) includes a 30-minute flight and around 25 minutes exploring the glacier with tour guides. The Pilot's Choice Glacier Explorer ($299) is a 1 hour 20 minute excursion which lands twice within the ice fields surrounding Skagway. The sites visited vary depending on weather. The Flightseeing and Dog Sledding tour ($399) includes a 30-minute flight and an hour at a dog camp with 20 to 25 minutes on a dog sled. Visit Temsco at www.temscoair.com
The White Pass railway is one excursion you might prefer to book through the cruise line. Cruise lines monopolize space on the early runs, leaving 4:30 p.m. as the best departure for those booking independently -- a time that might not fit in with your ship's sailing time from Skagway. Unsold seats on the early departures are given back to the railway the morning the ships arrive, so you could check at the rail depot for the mid-day departure, the morning you arrive in Skagway. For more information, see www.whitepassrailroad.com.