Last year, my family and I headed back to New York to visit places and friends we had left behind two years earlier when we relocated to Honolulu. We also were excited to enjoy the colder weather that the east coast could provide. Instead, a heatwave left us sweltering in nearly 100-degree weather. We ended up having to run over to Uniqlo for tank tops and shorts. Ironically, all we had brought for our trip were newly purchased jeans. This year we hedged our bets. We opted for an Alaskan cruise at the very start of the summer, hoping to finally get to experience that colder weather we were missing.
I never thought I would talk about money on here but after I booked our Alaskan Cruise vacation I started learning about the world of “travel hacking” (e.g. using points / miles / cash back from credit cards to fund travel costs). Since I did use credit card points to fund a good portion of this trip, I figured that even if the booking took place before I got my new education, it was worth mentioning. However, keep in mind that most of the trip was wastefully just paid for out of pocket. Sigh. Because I didn’t know any better (shame on me).
Three round trip tickets on Alaska Airlines. We’ve had the Bank of America Alaska Airlines credit card for several years because we love the fact that they have a once-a-year buy a round trip ticket and get another ticket for only the taxes and fees (typically around $120).
We prepaid our stay through Expedia for a discounted deal. However, this hotel is part of the IHG rewards club so if I could do it all again I would definitely have looked into using points.
The full price of the 8-day/7-night cruise for three people in a standard room was $3,722. I had an American Expense Platinum card and had accumulated 328,010 membership rewards by the time I booked the cruise. I wiped out all my rewards points and paid an additional $1,426 on top of that. If you do the math, that only equates to the points being worth around $0.007. This is a far cry from the $0.019 that I usually see travel blogs estimate membership rewards to be worth, so that was bad planning on my part.
However, there were some perks in booking through American Express: 1) I received a $200 credit for each of the three passengers’ shipboard accounts. These credits could be used on things like onboard purchases or shore excursions. Adding this perk onto the cost of the cruise gets you to almost $0.008/membership rewards point. 2) We received a lovely welcome snack of canapes upon arriving in our cabin. While food is all-inclusive so this didn’t save us any money, it was certainly a welcome surprise.
There was also a $50 credit added to each passenger’s account to use towards one of the specialty (additional costing) restaurants. I did not count this option as an actual perk because you couldn’t book a reservation using this deal until you were onboard the ship. The second we boarded the cruise I ran to the front desk and asked to make reservations. And nada. All reservations were taken at every specialty restaurant. Since guests can pay for this additional option as soon as they booked their cruise reservation, all the reservations can be taken long before the cruise even docks in the port. Therefore, I’m not sure when this perk would ever be able to be used.
We took a red-eye from Honolulu into Seattle and arrived at 6:30 in the morning. (I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: red-eye flights are the easiest way to travel with a little kid.) We hit up the American Express centurion lounge for a free breakfast and to wash up for the day before grabbing a cab to the Kimpton Palladian Hotel. Read my post on whether the American Express platinum card is worth the annual fee in order to stay at the centurion lounge. However, keep in mind that the rules changed since this trip. Customers are no longer able to use the lounge after they arrive at their destination.
After dropping off our luggage with the bellhop it was time to visit one of our favorite places in Seattle. You guessed it, Pike Place Market. I embarrassingly will admit that we ate at all of the following places at the market during our time in Seattle (both during and after our return from Alaska):
After a morning of taking in the sights, sounds, and foods of the market we made our way back to our hotel to catch up on some much-needed rest.
After grabbing breakfast at Pike Place Market we hailed a cab and headed to the pier to board. It was time for our Alaskan cruise adventure aboard the Ruby Princess to start. Embarkation was relatively easy. 1) Provide luggage with preprinted labels. 2) Show passports and onboarding papers. 3) Have Emily receive one of those plastic bracelets she was forced to wear for the entire trip in case she was ever lost or there was an emergency. 4) Smile for a couple of pictures. Before we knew it we were boarding our floating home for the next week.
We were extremely (and pleasantly) surprised when we arrived in our cabin. My mom and American Express had both decided to sent us off in style. Waiting in our room was cheese, grapes and crackers and canapes. Not pictured was the wine my mom ordered for us as well. While they wouldn’t leave the bottle for us to drink in the room, we were able to have it in the main dining room.
After boarding the ship and finding our cabin, we headed up to the cafeteria-style restaurant on the pool deck for lunch before exploring all the different decks on our way back to our room.
Of most importance to check out was the kids club area. I had originally figured that this was a place we would rarely use since Emily seemed to want to hang out with us more than make new friends. (I was the same as a kid.) However, upon seeing the Pelicans room for 3-7-year-olds Emily was in seventh heaven. She couldn’t wait to play on the indoor structures and explore all the club had to offer. Emily ended up being very disappointed on this front, but more on that later. There were two more areas associated with the kids club: “Shockwaves” for 8-12-year-olds and “Remix” for 13-17-year-olds.
I was actually really excited that Emily had shown interest. My very first cruise ever was when I was 12 years old. I had accompanied my mom, dad, and sister on an Alaskan cruise to celebrate my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary. I loved the cruise, in great part due to the friends I met in the teen lounge. We got along so well that we remained pen pals for several years after that trip. (Yes, I realize I’m dating myself. We were pen pals because email was not yet a thing.)
By late afternoon we had joined in on the mandatory safety drill and headed back up to the top deck to watch Ruby Princess cast off. All three of us (especially Emily) enjoyed the Sailaway Celebration by dancing around the deck. After leaving Seattle’s harbor, the Ruby Princess meandered its way through Elliot Bay and into Puget Sound before heading north for Alaska. We were on our way!
I wrote this post seven months after our Alaskan vacation. I’m typically a great procrastinator but that was not the reason for my delay in writing this post. I needed distance from our vacation to have better clarity over what went right and what went wrong. Our initial feeling when we first returned was that Alaska was so amazing that we wanted to take a trip back as soon as possible. We wanted to experience more time on land with nature, the people and all that Alaska has to offer. However, our second thought was that this cruise was the worst vacation we had gone on. We vowed to never travel on Princess Cruise Lines again.
Looking back on our vacation with seven months of space in between, I can see one thing clearly. A lot of our issues stemmed from the kids club being closed for almost the entirety of our cruise. When you are on a cruise that doesn’t have a lot of things for kids to do outside of a kids club, days at sea become very painful. Read my post for more on our issues with the Princess Cruise Lines and why it just wasn’t the correct pick for us this time around.
One cool option that the Princess Cruise Lines offered was to provide celebratory signs and balloons for special occasions. Since our vacation was during Mother’s Day, Bryan pulled a world’s best husband move. He got a special congratulatory note to commemorate my 4th year of motherhood. He would have just gone with Happy Mother’s Day but that wasn’t an option.
Our first port of call was Juneau, Alaska. In the 1880s, Juneau was founded as a gold-mining camp. The town is advertised as being the only state capital with no road access. Instead, it is only accessible by sea or by air. I understand what they mean but I would argue that Honolulu isn’t that much different just because you can reach it from another town on the island that is only accessible by sea or by air. But I digress.
The cruise docked at noon and we quickly disembarked in order to check out the town and look for lunch. We found a place for the latter at the Twisted Fish Company Alaskan Grill. I cannot sing enough praises for this amazing restaurant. The waiters and waitresses were beyond nice, the food was delicious and the portions were huge. If ever there was a reason for me to return to Juneau, this restaurant would be it. I cannot stop dreaming of the smoked salmon they heaped on my plate. I excitedly assumed that the food on the cruise ship would be just as fresh. Sadly, the cruise line must get their smoked salmon elsewhere. The ship smoked salmon turned out to be several grades below what we were served in Juneau.
After lunch, we headed back to the pick-up spot to catch our tour bus out to Mendenhall Glacier. We selected a tour of the Glacier and a ride on the Mount Roberts Tramway but there are so many options you can choose in Juneau. You could also take a helicopter tour of the mountains and glaciers, go whale watching, ride a dog sled or go salmon fishing, just to name a few. While fishing of any kind isn’t really my cup of tea, I assume it is absolutely amazing in Juneau as for years my father would organize a big group of people from Hawaii to fly out to Juneau and spend a week salmon fishing off of a boat.
The bus driver gave us a nice synopsis of Juneau (and Alaska in general) as he drove us out to the Mendenhall Glacier. This glacier is 12 miles long, a half-mile wide and from 300 to 1,800 feet deep. It stretches from the Juneau Icefield to Mendenhall Lake and has been slowly retreating since the mid-1700s.
Just as a heads up, you won’t be able to get too close to the glacier. In the tour company’s defense, the shore excursion pamphlet listed this fact out plainly. However, I thought it was worth mentioning here in case someone like me didn’t bother to read the description and assumed you’d be walking on a glacier. You’ll be close enough to take breathtaking pictures but not close enough to really see the glacier in all its imperfections and glory.
After our bus tour returned us back to the port we took the Mount Roberts Tramway up to the top of the mountain. The panoramic views of Juneau were breathtaking.
I wish we could have spent more time at the top of the Mountain. However, upon hearing that it could take over an hour for us to get through the line to take the tram back down to the port and worried that any dalliance would cause us to miss getting back on the ship on time, after looking around for a little while and checking out the gift shop we quickly headed to the back of the very long line to get back to our floating hotel.
Skagway was the birthplace of the Klondike gold rush and its port is the most northern in Alaska’s Inside Passage. Since the Ruby Princess docked by 7:00 AM, we had ample time to look around the town before the excursion time.
After exploring the town and picking up some souvenirs it was time for our “gold panning, sled dogs and 40 degrees below zero” tour. All three were located in the same area, built out as a clearly very touristy experience. However, the tour pulled it off so well that this was my favorite of all the shore excursions.
First, a delightful young woman sang through the instructions of how to pan for gold before giving each one of us a pan filled with gold-flecked dirt. Let me tell you, mining for gold is not easy. Even in touristy situations like this where they plant the gold. However, we worked hard and in the end, we had enough gold between all three of us to make a necklace with a ball of gold floating in water for Emily.
Next, it was time for us to experience how the competitors of the Iditarod felt by heading into a freezer keyed to 40 degrees below zero. They did have jackets for our use – thank goodness. I guess it was no big deal for the others on our tour group because we turned out to be the only ones that really enjoyed the photo op of being in the cold. Of course these same tour group members, who hailed from Canada and Minnesota, didn’t need to put on two different layers of ski jackets just to step foot into that ice chest.
Guess which one of us was born in cold Connecticut… I’ll give you I hint. It’s the one that looks like she may be in pain and not really smiling. #HawaiiBaby
Last, it was time to learn about how life on the trail of the Iditarod was before meeting the dogs (and puppies!) that ran (or will run) the race. This was my favorite part of the tour (and you are talking about someone who prefers cats over dogs)! Meanwhile, any misguided thoughts I ever had about getting to experience competing in the Iditarod went out of the window as I heard about all that it entailed.
Other excursions that you could take in Skagway included a visit to the White Pass/Klondike Summit (over 3,000 feet in elevation), seeing the Yukon via car or rail, or enjoying a salmon bake.
This was the “stop” I had been most excited about when planning our trip, not a port of call but a day in Glacier Bay. The ship also provided hot chocolate from 6 AM to 12 PM which was thrilling to an addict like me!
I’m clearly a bad blogger. While others around me were whipping out their state of the art cameras and zooming in the capture the whales and seals swimming around the bay, I just enjoyed finding a quiet area, pulling up a chair and pinching myself that I was really getting to see this majestic Alaska wonder up close and in person.
Overnight, the Ruby Princess sailed south to Ketchikan, the salmon capital of Alaska. Bryan was dying to see the lumberjack competition so this port of call had been on his “must visit” list ever since we decided to go to Alaska. As for myself, I hadn’t known much about Ketchikan and certainly wasn’t aware of how much I would fall in love with this town. By far this became my favorite port of call just based on the beauty of the town. I want to return to Alaska just to stay in Ketchikan overnight and truly experience the town. As an aside, when I told my mom the impression I had of this town she concurred, having been on a motorcycle trip throughout Alaska with my stepfather. It had been her favorite place in Alaska as well.
The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show was our first stop in Ketchikan. I expected a more realistic competition in the woods cutting down real trees versus a touristy performance on a stage but that didn’t make the show any less entertaining or fun. (Apologies to Alaskan natives who are rolling their eyes at me right now for my ineptitude… feel free to ask me why I don’t wear coconuts and grass skirts.) The MC of the show split the audience in two groups. One group cheered for the American lumberjack team. The other group cheered for the Canadian team. Emily had a great time and joined in the cheers and laughter with her dad and I as we ended up cheering on the Canadians to victory. And as touristy as it was, those were still real axes being flung through the air before perfectly hitting targets. Unbelievable!
One thing that helped us get to really know the town was a souvenir hunt that we went on. Our ticket stubs from the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show allowed us to visit various shops and ask for free gifts. Emily was in seventh heaven collecting all her “jewelry” and it got us to spend a lot of time walking around the downtown area.
Unfortunately, since Ketchikan is a small town, we were only in port for about 5 hours. Therefore, after our souvenir “jewelry” scavenger hunt, we headed back to the ship.
Our final night on the Ruby Princess had a 4-hour stopover in Victoria, British Columbia starting at 7 PM. This meant that the day played out like it was a full day at sea. We spent the morning lazily wandering the cruise ship and Bryan and Emily took a nap in the afternoon. Having time to myself I enjoyed relaxing amongst the beautiful backdrop of Alaska with a wine glass in my hand. I also played some Harry Potter trivia (which I totally rocked, by the way).
The evening started with The Voice of the Ocean, a spin on the TV show The Voice. I have to say, the contestants were pretty amazing. I heard they put in A LOT of practices in order to perform with a live band on the final night. Well, it showed
After our final dinner in the main dining hall, we got ready to disembark for our evening in Victoria. There was a slight hiccup when Bryan and I were both viewed as terrorists. We had been trying to disembark when the scanners went off while scanning our room keys. We had to step out of line and stand aside until the “powers that be” granted us special permission to leave. What did we do that was so bad that it warranted our temporary hold in the departure bay? We were never told so your guess is as good as mine. Finally, we were allowed into Canada. Still a little confused, we made our way to our bus for a 1-hour narrated trip out to Butchart Gardens.
When we first got to Butchart Gardens, a guide for the park saw Emily and asked if we were interested in renting (for free with a $10 returnable deposit!) a stroller. Yes please! Emily was thrilled to get a break from walking. Bryan and I were also thrilled to get a break from her whines of “I’m sooooo tired of walking.”
I’ll admit, I originally signed up for this excursion just to give the family something to do while in port. I didn’t know if my family would like a garden but the other options didn’t seem interesting to a preschooler. However, this 55-acre floral wonderland of meandering pathways, refreshing fountains, exquisite foliage, and magnificent bronze statues turned out to be a surprising treat.
Not pictured but by far the best thing (according to Emily) was the beautiful, wooden carousel found smack dab in the middle of the gardens. Since we were in the park after hours without a lot of other kids, more often than not Emily had the entire carousel to herself. It was also one of the best deals for a carousel ride. I’m used to forking over $2 for myself just to stand alongside Emily and make sure she doesn’t fall off. Here they only charge the kids riding the animals, standing adults are free.
On our final day, we docked back in Seattle, Washington early in the morning and were quickly on our way. I guess we were no longer considered a threat since Bryan and I were able to leave the ship without sounding multiple alarms. Looking for a way to kill time before our flight, we opted for a bus tour of Seattle. This put us in the first category of people to disembark from the Alaskan cruise.
Our Seattle tour took us to Pike Place Market. We made a beeline to revisit our favorite places (hello, Piroshky Piroshky!) and had a nice lunch enjoying our food findings and watching street performers. Then, we got back on the bus for a trip to the top of the Seattle Space Needle. Sadly, it was partially under construction. Since we finished with plenty of time to spare before the bus left, we also walked around the neighborhood to see some other sites as well. Once the bus collected us, it was time to head out to the Seattle airport.
There wasn’t enough time but if we came back I’d love to visit the nearby Chihuly Garden and Glass museum.
Not because I think that Princess Cruise Lines is bad for everyone, it’s just bad for a young family. Read my post about who should travel on Princess Cruise Lines and what line families should travel on.
Even with the tour of Seattle we still had a lot of time to kill. We were hesitant to go anywhere but the airport given our bags. In retrospect, I wish we would have skipped the tour and stayed in a hotel. That would have given us an extra day to explore Seattle, such as seeing the Chihuly Garden.
At the time we booked (and then took) the vacation, I was very concerned about our spending habits. We had recently changed from renting to taking on a mortgage and Emily’s education costs were about to triple. This concern over finances is actually what led me to learn about travel hacking. I wanted to continue to travel with less out of pocket expenses. Therefore, in my frugality, I insisted that we eat as many meals as possible on our all-inclusive ship. Looking back on this I wish we had gotten to experience more of the local flavor and hospitality of Alaska.
As mentioned above, I was trying to be as frugal as possible and yet still have an enjoyable trip. However, some of these ports of calls had long stops. We definitely could have enjoyed both a morning and an afternoon excursion, letting us get to know more about the places we were visiting in Alaska.