Alaska lovers: If you missed last year’s good deals on Alaska cruises, you’ve got another shot at them this year.
Discounts may not be as deep as they were in 2009, when the recession forced cruise lines to offer some of the lowest prices ever seen on Alaska sailings, but there are still very good bargains out there. Seven-night cruises are going for as little as $449, and incentives on some other ships include free round-trip air, free excursions, advance booking discounts, onboard credits and upgrades.
But fewer ships are going to be cruising in Alaska this year — 130,000 fewer berths, says Ron Peck, president of the Alaska Travel Industry Association.
Princess is basing one fewer ship in Alaska this year and one less in 2011. Holland America has eight ships there this year, but drops to seven in 2011. Cruise West pulled two ships from Alaska service this year.
Several factors besides the recession have prompted cruise lines to pull ships out of Alaska waters, among them the higher costs associated with the state of Alaska’s new laws, including a $50 state head tax on cruise passengers, opportunities for greater profits in Europe and Asia, and the high cost of air travel to and from Alaska, which pushes up total costs of an Alaska vacation and further dampens consumer demand.
Most agents don’t believe the lesser number of ships is having much effect on availability and prices, however, because the recession already reduced consumer demand.
Still, there are encouraging signs, according to Peck, who said both Disney and Crystal will return to Alaska next year. He also said he has seen some good airfare values from the lower 48. Round trip flights from Miami to Vancouver, where many cruises begin, start at around $500 in mid-May and $700 in mid-July, if booked now.
Lowest fares are for cruises in May and September, the beginning and end of the Alaska season, with mid-summer bringing the highest rates. A survey of bookings for 2010 by Cruise Holidays, a major cruise retailer, found the cruise-only price of its 2010 seven-night Alaska sailings averaged $230 per person per night. This figure, however, includes bookings from all categories of cruise lines, all stateroom types and all months of the season, from inexpensive to luxury.
Though prices may be slightly higher this year, travel agents say clients are booking longer trips by adding on land tours.
“What I am seeing is quite a large number of passengers choosing to build nice pre- and/or post-tours stays in Anchorage, Denali or Vancouver,” said Jeffrey Krudop, manager of the Travel Leaders agency in Fort Wayne, Ind.
“This year, my customers are booking longer trips,” agreed Elaine Goad of the Travel Leaders agency in Tyler, Texas, who said she thinks the poor economy has “encouraged people to save for really special trips.”
The number of Alaska cruise passengers pairing a land tour with their cruise is much higher than cruising in other regions of the world.
“A third of our passengers take a land tour,” said Charlie Ball, president of Princess Tours, the cruise line’s arm for land travel. Holland America puts its percentage at roughly 25 percent.
The favorite land tour for all visitors is Denali National Park, a huge expanse where visitors can see moose, reindeer, bears and wolves in the wild as well as North America’s tallest mountain, 20,321-foot Mount McKinley.
Helicopter and flightseeing tours over glaciers and remote inlets also are popular, as are bear-watching and salmon-fishing excursions, and, of course, city tours in ports of call.
New this year, Holland America has converted one of its seven-night cruises on its flagship Amsterdam into a 14-nighter from Seattle that will take passengers to Anchorage, Homer and Kodiak, new destinations for the line. The line also is the only one to offer land tours to the Yukon, target of the Alaskan Gold Rush.
Princess, meanwhile, has introduced a couple of new cruise tours. One is a 12-nighter that combines a seven-night cruise with five days on land and includes such unusual features as a jet-boat trip, panning for gold, a sternwheeler river outing and three days exploring Denali National Park. The other offers a choice of four “a la carte” options that combine a seven-day cruise with a three- to five-day visit to Denali National Park.
Travel agents are reporting that balcony staterooms are already getting hard to come by in Alaska, even though they cost more than inside cabins and outside ones with windows only. Balcony staterooms enable passengers to view the passing scenery on the Inside Passage from their own outside space. “They’re the first to be booked,” said Holland America’s Sarah Scoltock.
But pricing is not what makes people go to Alaska. As another travel agent put it, “it’s the beautiful scenery, the thrill of watching wildlife in their natural habitat, seeing the last frontier.” And that’s not about to change.