Alaskan cruises are wonderful vacations, but are they a good idea for families, especially teens?
I’ve only sailed the Caribbean once, but I’ve cruised Alaska’s inside passage three times now, and there's a reason that I keep going back. America’s last frontier is full of breathtakingly beautiful scenery, and cruising the inside passage provides opportunities for once-in-a-lifetime port adventures. The ports of call are cleaner, safer, and less pushy than in the Caribbean, and I appreciate that Alaska sailings are known for catering to a less rowdy crowd, but that also means passengers tend to be older. So is an Alaskan cruise something kids and teenagers would enjoy?
I spent a long time researching which ship would be the best fit for our family of four, which includes two teenagers. While I’d previously sailed with Holland America, Norwegian, and Disney, I ended up choosing Princess Cruises. Why? Princess and Holland America are the biggest cruise operators in Alaska, but Princess caters to a younger crowd. It offers more on-board activities for kids and teens plus unique family-friendly, Alaska-specific, immersion programming. The Ruby Princess is a bigger ship with almost a thousand more passengers than Holland America’s Eurodam which increases the chances of kids interacting with other passengers their own age. On our sailing, there were 187 kids (aged 13 to 17) on board, much to the delight of my sons.
What to do on the ship?
The highlight of any Alaska itinerary is a day of glacier viewing and scenic cruising. There are three possible glacier itineraries and, while all are beautiful, I recommend choosing a sailing that includes Glacier Bay National Park. You’ll see more glaciers, and your ship will be boarded by rangers who narrate your time in the park and offer on-board programming, including a chance to earn your Junior Ranger badge. When you’re not feeling the difference between seal skin and sea otter fur, looking for orcas off the starboard side or watching giant chunks of ice break off Margerie Glacier and crash into the sea, Princess offers a whole bunch of activities to keep you and your family entertained, most notably North to Alaska special events. This unique program includes a Night at the Klondike party (evening in Juneau) and the popular Puppies in the Piazza (afternoon in Skagway). We really liked hearing tales from the gold rush days enthusiastically recounted in story and song by a charming old-timey performer named Steve Hites. And Iditarod winner Libby Riddles regaled us with her adventures when she and her sled dog boarded our ship in Juneau.
The cruise director’s staff, dressed as lumberjacks on most days, ran more trivia games than we had time for. There were 23 chances to play, sometimes with teen and tween-friendly subjects like animals, Disney songs, and Lord of the Rings. They also ran games like Passenger Feud and Speed Pictionary (which we all loved!) and produced a bunch of fun game shows (mostly family-friendly, but a few were PG-13). There were themed dances, including two family dance parties, and kid-friendly movies on the big screen like Beauty and The Beast, The Lego Batman Movie, and Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2. Families could play together at the paper airplane challenge and basketball free throw competitions. And on the last day of the trip, there was the Kids Fun Fair that included face painting, glitter tattoos, and a magic and juggling show.
Every big cruise ship has a theater for musical productions and other headliner entertainment, as does the Ruby Princess. Unfortunately, none of us cared for the big Broadway-style productions. The performers were talented enough, but the shows had very weak storylines with songs that we felt didn’t go together. (You should know that I've got a professional background in theater, so I had high hopes for the shows.) We saw the first two shows and skipped the third. However, the Elton John tribute performer was a riot, and the comedian Robbie Printz was hilarious! The whole family went to see him two nights in a row. Some of his material was a little PG-13, but our teens felt that the more mature references probably went over younger kids’ heads. We felt it was appropriate for our boys, who laughed their heads off.
All of the daily activities are described in the Princess Patter, a newsletter that you receive in your stateroom each evening. As soon as we got the Patter each night, we sat down as a family and circled the activities that we wanted to try the next day.
Teens, tweens, and kids also have their own week-at-a-glance newsletter filled with activities just for them run by counselors in the kids’ club areas. The teen club is called Remix, and we liked that our boys could attend it together. (Some cruise lines split the age groups into smaller ranges, but Remix is for teens ages 13 to 17. Younger kids are divided into two groups: ages 3 to 7 and 8 to 12.) Teens could play air hockey, foosball, board and video games or just chill out. Activities run by the crew included sports tournaments, arts and crafts, games, movies, and special events like the mocktail-making competition, hot tub party, and a just-for-teens performance by a magician. My boys enjoyed the blackjack and poker tournament, scary movie night, and Rock the Boat dance party, but the thing they liked best about Remix was the opportunity to make friends with kids from all over the world. Reluctant at first to even give the teen club a chance, my boys quickly connected with a group of friends that they hung out with until the wee hours of the morning several nights in a row. Now that we’re back home, they still keep in touch with their cruise friends via social media.
KidTripster Tip: Attend the Family Fun Time, scheduled on the evening of the day that you depart. It’s the only time that parents can get a peek inside the kids’ clubs. And encourage your kids to attend the icebreaker events on the first day at sea, so they don’t feel like an outsider after everyone else has had a chance to meet.
When the kids ditched us to go hang out with their friends, my husband and I took advantage of the multiple of venues with live music and dancing while still keeping connected with the kids via the free Princess@Sea Messenger. You can use the ship’s free WiFi to send and receive texts amongst yourselves and any other cruise passengers with whom you exchange contact information. The only problem is that the WiFi isn’t very strong inside some staterooms and you don’t get notifications when you have a new message, so you have to keep your browser open and check it often.
Finally, don’t forget your swimsuits! Just because you’re not in the tropics doesn’t mean taking a dip in the pool is out. We saw kids and families swimming every day of our trip. Our kids swam with their friends as the ship left Ketchikan on a day when the high was only 63°F and ice carving demonstrations were going on just 20 feet away! I am a big wimp when it comes to being cold, but even I enjoyed a swim on the morning that we were in Glacier Bay with a temperature of 46°F. The sun was shining, there was no wind, and the pools are nicely heated.
KidTripster Tip: If they’re not already hanging in your stateroom closet, ask your room steward for bathrobes. There’s no charge to use them if you don’t take them home, and they make a great cover up for after swimming.
Photo courtesy: Princess Cruises
What to do off the ship?
Alaska is America’s Last Frontier, and even though you’re only visiting the southern panhandle of this giant state, get out and explore! Our cruise stopped in Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, and the Canadian city of Victoria, B.C. In each port, there are many options for shore excursions, like whale watching, sea kayaking, and glacier treks, but which ones are best suited for families, specifically families with teens and tweens? I’ll let you know which ones we liked best, and what our kids’ newfound friends thought of the excursions that they took.
KidTripster Tip: After you book your cruise, browse the many excursions offered and get the kids involved in the decision-making. I recommend booking before you sail. By the time we boarded, many of the more popular excursions were sold out.
It’s expensive but splurging on a once-in-a-lifetime helicopter ride to a dogsled camp on a snow-covered glacier is an absolute must-do. In Juneau, we chose Dog Sledding on the Mendenhall Glacier with Alaska Icefield Expeditions. The 2-1/2-hour tour includes 30 minutes of flight time and an hour at the camp. Six guests fit in each helicopter, and even though they were assigned the middle of the back seat, my boys could still see the amazing views out the windows. A couple hundred Alaskan Huskies live at the camp, and boy, do they love to run! They bark like crazy waiting for their turn to race. Each set of sleds carries four guests and one musher. You’ll be treated to beautiful scenery, learn all about mushing, and have plenty of opportunities to stop for photos, pet the dogs, and switch spots on the sleds. If that isn’t thrilling enough, there’s time afterwards to hold puppies! Be prepared for a lot of begging, not from the pups, but from your kids; mine were desperately trying to figure out how to bring back a pup as a stowaway! This excursion was everyone’s favorite part of our trip. Cost: $590 per person if booked via Princess. (My husband and I have previously done a similar tour in Skagway, which was equally as good.)
KidTripster Tip: For all ports of call, dress in layers. Temperatures can range from 45 to 75°F in summer, and though we experienced sunny weather in most of our ports, rain is not uncommon. Juneau was cloudy, but the sun was shining brightly up at the dogsled camp, so bring your sunglasses, too. Jeans and sneakers are fine. Everyone is provided with glacier boots which go over your regular footwear.
If your budget won’t allow for this adventure, try visiting one of the Summer Musher’s Camps with Gold Rush Dog Tours. You can still hold puppies, pet Huskies, and go riding, but you’ll sit three abreast in a wheeled vehicle on roads instead of riding in a single-width sled over snow, and there’s no chopper ride over a glacier. Cost: $150 per person if booked via Princess.
The last time that I was in Juneau, I tried Alaska’s Ultimate Ziplining and Canopy Expedition with Alaska Canopy Adventures and loved it. But when planning for this cruise, my son asked if we could zipline upside down and do other tricks. I didn’t think that there’d be a place whose liability insurance would allow such things, but then I found Grizzly Falls Ziplining Expeditions with Alaska Excursions in Skagway. Not only do they allow tricks, they teach you how to do them and encourage you to try! Grizzly Falls is great for thrill seekers, but it was almost worth the trip just to be out in the forest with rushing Nelson Creek and waterfalls below you. Cost: $190 per person if booked via Princess.
One of the most popular excursions in Skagway is riding the White Pass Scenic Railway. It may be a lovely way to spend a few hours for adults, but our kids’ new friends who rode the rails thought that it was long and boring. However, teens and tweens who tried Skagway’s Klondike Rock Climbing and Rappelling gave that experience two thumbs up. If you’ve got some extra time or have already spent your excursion budget, there's an easy hiking trail to Yakutania Point and Smuggler's Cove that takes about 2 hours and starts just a few blocks from the pier. Also, the downtown blocks in Skagway are part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park, where you can learn about it’s interesting history at the different ranger stations.
In Ketchikan, it was fun to walk through the old red-light district of Creek Street and then follow Ketchikan Creek upstream, where we saw hundreds of salmon returning to their birthplace to spawn. On a previous stop in Ketchikan, my husband and I had visited Totem Bight Park. We don't recommend it for tweens and teens. Even as adults, we didn't think that it was worth the trip. Totem poles are everywhere in Ketchikan, and while meandering through town, we heard a tour guide talking about them. My boys were fascinated and didn’t want to leave until the tour group had moved on. You’ll be in Ketchikan for just over five hours, so there isn't much time to explore. We debated between two excursions - the Deadliest Catch Crab Fishing Tour on the Aleutian Ballad and the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show. The latter is an hour-long competition between two teams of rugged lumberjacks who represent Alaskan or Canadian logging camps. They throw axes, chop wood, climb trees, and race across floating logs, while being cheered on (or booed) by audience members who are assigned a team to root for. My husband and I had seen the show before and figured the boys would like it. They thought it was a “cool experience,” but other teens from our ship thought it was better suited for younger kids. If we had to do it over again, I think we’d opt for the crab fishing tour.
Most cruises out of Seattle only stop in Victoria, B.C. for a few hours, and it’s usually in the evening when museums are closed and the sun is getting ready to set on the city’s lovely gardens. But just because it’s late, don’t stay on the ship. Victoria has a charming waterfront, and several landmark buildings light up at dusk. We took a 25-minute stroll through quiet neighborhood streets to get from the ship to the main part of downtown, stopping to photograph the legislative building, totem poles, and various orca sculptures. You can take a shuttle or ride in a horse-drawn carriage, if you’d rather not walk. Wandering along the waterfront, we stumbled upon a free performance by a wonderful band. It was so good that we stuck around for an hour to listen and bought its album before heading back to the ship. It was a relaxing way to spend a summer evening and end our week together.
KidTripster Tip: Some excursions have to be booked through your cruise line but not all of them. You can often save money by booking directly. The more expensive the excursion, the more you stand to save. For example, Princess charges $590 per person for the sled dog excursion, but it’s only $529 if you book directly with Alaska Icefield Expeditions. Besides the price, the only difference is the pick up and drop off location of the bus that shuttles you from the pier to the airfield. Princess (and every other cruise line) will warn you that the only way to guarantee that you’ll make it back to the ship in time is by booking through them, and while that’s true, it’s not as big a problem as you may think because the other people on your tour are likely cruise passengers as well. Book through the cruise line if your time in port is short, you won’t save much money or you just prefer the convenience of going through the shore excursions desk. If you do decide to book directly, chose excursions that give you plenty of time to get back to your ship.
Where to eat?
The three main dining rooms on the Ruby Princess were elegant, the service was stellar, and the dishes that we ordered were artfully presented. We so wanted to love the entire dining experience, but compared to previous Alaska cruises on Holland America and Norwegian, the food was a big letdown. The salmon gravlax that we had for our first night appetizer was quite good, but most everything else that we ordered was mediocre. Meats and poultry were bland and underseasoned, a lot of the produce seemed inferior including gummy corn on the cob and flavorless tomatoes, and the hazelnut crusted salmon on the daily menu was so dry that our server apologized for it even before we said anything. And though our maitre ‘d and waiter were friendly, attentive, and treated us like kings, it took a long time to get our meals. We wouldn’t have minded if the food had been worth waiting for, but after a few disappointing meals, we ended up eating elsewhere on the ship.
KidTripster Tip: If you try something and don’t like it, feel free to order something else. The same goes if you love something and would like a little more. Order another one!
KidTripster Tip: My boys loved wearing suits and ties for the two formal nights. However, if that's not your thing, don't worry. Dressing up is encouraged, but not required, even in the main dining rooms.
Our favorite place to eat was the International Cafe in the piazza on Deck 5. We loved the ham-and-cheese croissant sandwiches, the fresh salads, and the decadent mini cheesecakes. It’s open 24 hours a day and always has cookies, pastries, and delicious gelato available. Only the gelato has an upcharge, but at $1.50 for three large scoops, it’s the best bargain on the ship. We really liked that this cafe was adjacent to the piazza and close to Crooners Lounge and Bar, so we could sit in either place and enjoy our meal while listening to live music.
Every ship has a buffet, and we thought the Horizon Court was a lot cleaner and less picked over than our buffet experience sailing to the Bahamas on the Disney Wonder. The kitchen crew was constantly replenishing the many different items available. As incredible as it sounds, the buffet food was often the same or better quality than the food in the main dining room. Even when it was crowded, we never had to wait long in line and could always find a table.
KidTripster Tip: Bring hot cocoa packets for the kids from home. Hot water is always available in the buffet.
Our boys enjoyed the poolside Pizzeria and Burger and Hot Dog Grill. The pizza and focaccia sandwiches were decent, and there’s a soft-serve ice cream available there, too. The burgers were pretty good, and my youngest loved the fries.
There are several specialty dining restaurants on board, including Share with a six-course fine dining menu developed by celebrity chef Curtis Stone. We felt the steakhouse was a little more kid-friendly, so we tried Crown Grill. There was a $29 per person cover charge, but my filet mignon was perfectly cooked, and the family-style sides that we ordered (mashed potatoes, fries, asparagus, and mushrooms) were very good. We might have eaten there more than once if the menu wasn’t the same every night.
KidTripster Tip: Read about our experience cruising with severe food allergies here. It was difficult because there was so much food that my son with dairy and seafood allergies could not eat, but we figured out how to make it work. Despite the challenges, he wants to cruise again.
Where to stay?
Alaska cruises are popular and frequently sell out. So for the best pricing and availability, buy early - as much as a year in advance. How much you pay depends on what kind of accommodations you want, the location of your stateroom, and how early you book. Alaska cruises aren’t cheap, but you can travel comfortably without breaking the bank.
When my kids were younger, we managed just fine sharing a stateroom. But now that they’re teenagers, sharing 162 to 182 square feet of cabin space and one tiny bathroom is not my idea of a vacation. So, if you think your kids are old enough to have their own room, consider booking two cabins. It costs a little extra, but not as much as you’d think. We booked two inside staterooms, and it was only 10% more than if we’d all crammed into one room. Our bookings had to have an adult in each cabin, but once we boarded, it was no trouble to switch sleeping arrangements and put the kids in one room and parents in another.
KidTripster Tip: The Ruby Princess does have some adjoining cabins, but they sell out quickly. If your rooms aren’t adjoining, get adjacent ones and ask for extra keys to your children’s cabin once you’re on board.
You can save a lot of money by choosing inside cabins instead of paying for private balconies. There are plenty of places to relax and enjoy the view in public areas of the ship, and we just used our cabins to sleep and shower anyway. It didn’t make sense for us to pay double for two little balconies that we’d rarely use, so we opted for two inside staterooms.
KidTripster Tip: If you must have a balcony or ocean view but still don’t want to cram the whole family into one room, book yourself a balcony room and an inside cabin across the hall for the kids.
We stayed on Deck 10, close to the middle of the ship. Our staterooms were quiet, tastefully decorated, and made the most of every square inch of space. Our tiny bathroom was efficiently designed, and the shower had amazing water pressure. The Princess Luxury Beds were heaven-sent. I slept better on board than I do at home! Our room had plenty of outlets for charging electronics and lots of storage space, including a very generously-sized closet. Our cabin steward gladly brought us extra hangers.
KidTripster Tip: Bring your own hair dryer. Your cabin comes equipped with one, but it’s incredibly weak. It took me more than twice as long as usual to dry my hair using the provided dryer. I also recommend bringing air freshener as the bathroom fans aren’t very powerful.
For more tips on what to pack for a cruise, click here.
Photo courtesy: Princess Cruises
Most 7-night Alaskan cruises sail from Seattle, Washington or Vancouver, British Columbia. Both port cities are serviced by international airports. If you plan to fly, I suggest that you arrive a day early; if your flight is delayed, the ship won’t wait for you. Both Seattle and Vancouver are worth an extra day or two to explore.
Flying into Vancouver is a breeze with trains that take you from the airport all the way to the waterfront, just across the street from the cruise terminal, Canada Place. Trains run every 6 to 12 minutes. If you fly into Seattle, you’ll need to get a ride to the cruise terminal via Uber/Lyft, taxi or shuttle. We drove to Seattle but had a relative meet us and take our car for the week because port parking is very expensive. The best parking deal we found in Seattle was $147 for a 7-night cruise.
KidTripster Tip: If you’re flying out of Seattle on participating airlines, you can spend the day touring the city without having to lug your bags around. Sign up for the free Port Valet service and leave your suitcases outside your cabin the night before you disembark. They’ll be transferred to the airport and checked in for you. The only fee that you pay is what your airline charges for checked luggage.
Elizabeth Ely Moreno lives with her husband and their two teenaged sons outside of Portland, Oregon. The older she gets, the more adventures she seeks!
This writer received some complimentary excursions for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.