We just got back from our Alaska adventure and wanted to post some info on the post-cruise land tour as well as the shipboard portion.
This is not our first cruise, nor our first with RCCL/RCI. In fact, our first cruise with them was for our honeymoon 30 years ago, Southern Caribbean from San Juan on the Song of Norway (I still have the ship boarding cards!). We've cruised alone and with family/friends.
Here's a reposting of my review on the cruise section of CC.
We wanted to go to Alaska, and picked this cruise because of the Vancouver departure and one-way itinerary. We selected Royal Caribbean since we have cruised with them a long time and hoped to take advantage of our Platinum status.
We liked the cruise overall, but got the strong impression that more things have become extra-cost options rather than being included in the price you pay. It would be fine if the overall price of the cruise was lower and you'd pay only for things you wanted, but the cruise price seemed about the same as before.
We booked our own flights and pre-cruise hotel in Vancouver. We have found that this gives us a chance to settle in ahead of time as well as avoid worrying about getting to the ship if the flights are delayed. We arrived on Tuesday and had 2 full days to explore the area. We stayed downtown and did not rent a car. The buses and taxis worked out just fine for times we did not want to walk. We also took the train from the airport.
Boarding was efficient. You clear US customs before boarding, so you can't leave the ship once you are onboard. If you have a choice, you will have to balance the check-in crowds against spending a bit more time in Vancouver. We could have boarded at 1 pm or 2 pm instead of 11 am (which we did).
We booked relatively early, but were still stuck with either a very expensive suite or an outside cabin on Deck 2. It was really pretty good, stable during sea passages, but you spend a lot of time waiting for the elevator.
The ship itself was in pretty good condition, but there were a few signs of wear around the edges. They had to fix one of the Centrum elevators which was misbehaving. One of the restrooms had a large-ish metal panel held in place with a wedge of paper stuck between the frame and the panel. The green trim paint on the outside around deck 10/11 seemed to be flaking off in spots. Other cruisers have noted things like sewage smells, which we noticed too.
Dining in Cascades (main dining room) was passable overall, about what you'd get at a hotel banquet function. Some entrees were quite good, and some were disappointing.
We tried some specialty restaurants too.
Chops: We did this on the first night for $20. I don't think it was worth much more than that, and definitely not $35 worth. Service was off, the meat was good but not top-notch, and selections were limited. The meat was not exactly done as we had ordered, but it was close. We ordered some bottles of wine since they said that they would hold the bottles for future visits in "any" shipboard restaurant. However, when we went to Cascades the next night, it took them 20 minutes and a head waiter to bring the bottles down from Chops to Cascades, and this was accompanied by a lecture that "we don't normally do this". If that was the case, then Chops should have told us that it really wasn't practical to move the wine from one restaurant to another and offered us the option to take it with us.
Samba: We did this on the second sea night. For $25, this felt much better. The food was tasty and well-prepared. They cook the 7 different types of meats more or less to order for each table, so they don't have a lot that's circulating like a typical Brazilian steak house. We had to sample the last two meats since we had too much salad at the beginning and were filling up fast.
Beverages: we skipped the unlimited drinks package due to high cost ($49/person/day plus 18%, even in advance) and limitations on what was included (nothing over $12 per drink, which was only about half of the wines by the glass and some specialty cocktails; fairly limited choices; and a discount on wine by the bottle in the restaurants). The daily drink special seemed a bit watered down, too. You'd have to consume four drinks per day, every day, to break even on the package. On shore days, you'll generally spend several hours in town, which also reduces the amount of time to have beverages on the ship. We noted that some people were looking for bars that were open at 9 am or 10 am, so we surmised they were on drinks packages and wanted to spread things out. I did find it interesting that some restaurants had certain wines available by the glass, while others had the same wines available by bottle only. There were some beers that were available only in certain bars, which was also interesting. I will also say that the beer and wine selections were fairly basic, and did not include a lot of local Alaska beers.
Shows: Most were pretty good, with lavish productions and decent enough performers. They were good cruise entertainment, but you'd probably not spend a lot of money to see the same show on land.
We were disappointed in the changes at the spa/fitness center. There used to be free one-hour classes like stretch and yoga, plus a "ShipShape" program that encouraged participation. Now, the free classes are quite short (15 minutes for a stretch class? Come on!) and you have to pay for longer classes ($12/class or $49 for unlimited classes during the cruise). Again, shore days will cut into the classes that you can attend. There was a constant push to buy expensive services like skin treatments to reduce facial lines and sagging. The staff was friendly, but you didn't get much interest from them if you just wanted to do free stuff.
Other shipboard activities included the usual art auctions, sales at the shops, photography packages on offer, etc. There were frequent trivia competitions in the bars, a scavenger hunt (which we won, thanks to being first back plus having one item that was worth 10 points), and "The Quest" which is a hoot for players and spectators alike. We leaned towards the free activities to show that some people like those and don't need to pay money for everything to have fun.
Cuddy, the cruise director, really made things great. He seemed to be everywhere, introducing shows, promoting activities around the ship, and being part of special nights like the 70s dance party in the Centrum. I have not seen such a wild, fun "Village People" tribute before. Having Cuddy dressed up as the construction worker just topped it off. This night seemed to be a highlight for the entertainment staff too.
The naturalist we had on board to talk about the glaciers was knowledgable, but not that good at communicating. I felt that he provided the same info during the on-deck commentary and the scheduled talks. We also had talks by a former RCMP (Mountie) telling of the life they lead and what they really do.
We had great weather during the cruise: sun in port, a little colder and windier at sea, but I can't complain at all. We kept hearing that the weather was the best the locals had seen in weeks, so we felt quite blessed to be cruising this particular week. Of course, your experience will be different.
The ports were pretty typical for this itinerary. I'm more willing to book tours on my own if they leave first thing in the morning, but the afternoon ones should be booked through the ship so they won't leave without you if you get back late (which happened to us in three of four ports). There were 4-5 ships in port at each of the stops we made, except Icy Strait Point where we were the only ship.
Ketchikan: A fun little town, but not much to do if you don't buy an excursion. We went on a floatplane trip to the Misty Fjords with Carlin Air, since the ship's excursion was sold out. You'll save some money booking it on your own. The air charter companies will meet you at the dock. There is also a row of kiosks where you can book a tour on the spot. The cost could be slightly higher cost that advance booking online, but perhaps you can negotiate with the people there. Beautiful weather, great pilot and wonderful experience. Carlin Air used an independent operator who was really good. We had two landings and got out of the plane at one of them to walk around and take pictures. They have to cancel trips due to the weather, so we felt fortunate to have really perfect weather on our visit. Highly recommended. We walked around town, went to the Totem Heritage Center, and had some lunch at the Alaska Fish House next to the pier. We skipped the lumberjack show. Our time here was sadly quite limited, or we might have been able to fit in a trip via bus to Totem Bight or Saxman.
Icy Strait Point: We enjoyed this stop. We took a little walk in the woods, checked out the old salmon cannery, but we had little time left after we did the bears/whale watching trip. We saw two bears plus whales having fun, sea otters, porpoises, sea lions, etc. We liked the involvement of the native people in presenting the history. You can book the same trips on site if you haven't booked them on the ship, and I did not check to see if the prices were any different than the advance bookings This port was developed with Royal Caribbean (we called it "Coco Cay of Alaska") and it was very nice.
Juneau: A nice city, lots to do, pleasant to walk and shop in the local stores. The tramway was a nice way to visit the top of the mountain. We wanted to walk around a bit and see something other than the city. The ticket is good all day, but we found that everyone wanted to go back down the tramway at the same time we did, so there was a 20 minute wait. Something to keep in mind if you have to be down on a schedule. It was one of the warmest days they had seen in months. We had lunch at Tracy's Crab Shack (famous, a little touristy but very popular for good reasons). We walked a few blocks to the state capitol building, but could not see that much without going up a few floors. We did the "pilot's choice" helicopter glacier tour, which is highly recommended and worth the extra cost. We had only four of us on the tour, and landed twice: once on Taku Glacier and once on a patch of snow near open tundra. It was really spectacular weather, with 150+ miles visibility and light winds. Our pilot was great, friendly, nice to talk to, and he took whatever pictures of us we wanted. We returned in time to walk around some more and grab a bite at Deckhand Dave's right on the pier next to our ship.
Skagway: A fun place, small enough to walk around or ride the ($5/day) bus. The dock is not that close to the town, so you'll have a bit of a walk. My wife did the glass blowing, which she enjoyed; I walked a bit, took some photos and enjoyed some shopping. We both went on the White Pass and Yukon rail excursion. The weather was perfect again, if perhaps a bit warm. I liked the rail trip overall. The route is nice. We did get back late (afternoon trip) but the ship waited for the hundreds who were on the train. We were in a handicap railcar, so it was less crowded, but the train was packed and access to the outside platform was very limited. I would imagine that the regular cars would have even more issues with people wanting to share the outside platforms for photos. The weather was warm and the train cars were rather warm inside too. We all wanted to jump in Summit Lake where we turned around, but of course that was not possible to do. They said they were expanding the capacity of the rail line to handle more/larger ships that they expect to get in the future. A good problem to have!
Departure at Seward was uneventful, but we were delayed a bit.
The cabin was good overall. Deck 2 does not get a lot of motion from the ship and is quiet at night (you don't hear music from any of the bars or activities).
If they put the top-performing cabin attendants in the suites and upper decks, one can figure out that Deck 2, or "steerage", gets the less-competent cabin attendants. Ours missed some small details along they way, like no shower mat one day (we made do with a hand towel). We didn't have towel animals every day, but the ones we had were done well.
Post-cruise tour: We selected the 7-night Alaska Wilderness Spectacular Tour 8A, with stops in Anchorage, Talkeetna, Denali and Fairbanks and all three transfers via the train. The tour director, Jennifer, met us at the dock and we boarded the bus ("motorcoach" to be official) for the ride to Anchorage. On the way, she described the plan for the next 6 days and handed out the info on the available excursions in each location. We had very little advance information about the land tour, so planning our open time was challenging at best. I found out later that there is a web site that seems more geared toward travel agents that provides some information, but nothing on the excursions. We all figured out that RCI outsources the tours to another company, but since they are marketing these, they should be willing and able to provide details such as departure and arrival times.
We stopped at the Anchorage Marriott, then had a few minutes in town before we went to the Alaska Native Heritage Center. This was a nice introduction to multiple native cultures, and extended what we saw at Icy Strait Point and other ports during the cruise portion. We had a light dinner in Anchorage and went to bed a bit early so we'd be ready for the early morning departure.
The train from Anchorage to Talkeetna was very nice, and let us relax and see things better than we would have on a bus. The railcar has a small platform with outside views of the landscape, but there's only room for 5-6 people at a time. We arrived in Talkeetna mid-morning, dropped our hand baggage at the hotel (the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge) and went back into town. The Saturday we were there was Pride Weekend, with a small parade and lots of activity in the town square. We had lunch and an Ice Axe ale before going back up to the hotel and walking around a bit there. Dinner (on our own) was at Foraker, the nice restaurant at the hotel. This was good, with spectacular views of the Alaska Range. We were able to see Denali poking through its usual cloud cover for a few minutes before it hid again.
The train to Denali National Park left just before lunch, and we arrived in Denali a few hours later. During this leg, we saw some moose from the train (but not for long, as we were moving along quickly) and enjoyed a nice lunch. We boarded a bus and went to the Denali Park Lodge a few miles south of the Canyon, where we checked in and unwound a bit before going back to the Canyon for dinner. The hotel is clean but not as plush as some of the other places we stayed. Jennifer was pushing the hotel's Cabin Nite (food plus entertainment for $75/person) but we decided to try something else. Prospector's Pizzeria and Alehouse was packed, and we enjoyed a salmon pizza along with conversations with other visitors and locals.
We departed for our Denali Tundra Wilderness bus tour around 8:30 am. Our group filled about half the bus, so they put another group with us. The bus had no empty seats, and if you were late to board you got stuck on the right side of the bus (most of the good views and animal sightings are on the left side, so get that if you can). We saw bears, caribou, Dall sheep, and snowshoe hares, among others, during our 8-hour trip. There were several "rest" stops so you could stretch your legs and try to get some better photos. The windows on the bus could be lowered for pictures, but overall it was not very convenient to take a lot of pictures if you're on the right side (which we were). We had one stop where a caribou walked across the road about 10 yards away, and another stop where one mama bear and two older cubs (2-3 years) were wandering over the hills. One group of Dall sheep decided to cross the road in front of our bus, so we had to stop to let them pass. I did get some good closeups of the sheep, but had to climb over other people sitting on the left but not taking any pictures. This was not really ideal, and I suspect some people were annoyed by this. We went back to the Canyon for dinner at the Salmon Bake, which was not as good as we had hoped. Maybe we were there too early, but the fish (Copper River king salmon, no less) was overcooked and uninspiring. The next morning, we tried to hike near the hotel, but were interrupted by a mama moose and her calf crossing the road about 20 yards in front of us, then having breakfast on the hill. We decided not to disturb them and went back to our room to prepare for the departure. We had some time at the Denali visitor's center between the hotel and train, which we spent by hiking around on some of the nearby trails and checking out the park store.
The train from Denali to Fairbanks was in the afternoon and evening. We had dinner on the train with another couple on the tour with us. By this point, we were all a bit more relaxed and were ready to have fun. The dinner was quite good and reasonably priced, so this was a good choice. We stopped at the pipeline visitor's area before going to the hotel. The hotel in Fairbanks was the Sophie Suites, a place originally built to house the pipeline workers. It's close to the airport in a commercial area, with not much nearby other than a couple of grocery stores and a strip mall. The hotel has a shuttle service that runs hourly, but the stops and capacity are limited. We decided to relax at the hotel, since we'd had dinner already and it was getting a bit late to go anywhere other than picking up some breakfast items to have in the room. The next morning, we went to the Museum of the North at University of Alaska - Fairbanks, which was spectacular. We would have liked more time here, but Jennifer had been pushing for us to cut the visit short and go to a barbecue place for their Wednesday wing special. Majority ruled, so off we went. The food was good, but I didn't see the place filling up with lines out the door as we'd been led to believe would happen. Shortly after we arrived, another tour group from the same company arrived also. I think at least half the people there were from the tour company. It was slowly becoming clear that we were being steered to places where the tour guides had a relationship and might get some commission for bringing people there. Jennifer seemed somewhat defensive when we asked too many details about where we were going (and why). After lunch, we went to the riverboat cruise. It was a nice experience, including watching a float plane take off and land; seeing a sled dog training camp; and visiting a recreated native settlement. The performers for all of these seemed to be reciting a rather polished script, so it didn't feel very spontaneous but it was reasonably entertaining. After that, we went back to the hotel for the evening. We took a taxi to the Pump House for dinner, which was wonderful.
Some people left as early as Wednesday night/Thursday morning at 1:30 am, which is possible since the organized activities end at about 6 pm on Wednesday. Our flight wasn't until 10 pm on Thursday, so we had a full day in Fairbanks on our own. We rented a car and were able to go to several other places around town: the Georgeson Botanical Garden at the university, lunch at Chena's Alaska Grill (maybe the nicest salmon of the whole trip), then some shopping, HooDoo Brewing (get there early) and a custom knife shop next door. We then stopped back at the hotel for our bags and final good-byes before going to the airport for our return flight to the Lower 48.
The land tour was pretty nice, but there were a few things that would have made it even better:
1. More advance notice of the schedule and the available optional excursions would be nice. We were able to consider the shore excursions for the cruise portion well before we got to the ship. We found that the excursions on the post-cruise tour were more expensive overall for similar activities. I don't think we would have skipped a glacier tour in Juneau for the one at Denali, but knowing the schedule would let us look into what was available locally. I got the impression that doing this would cut into the tour guide's commissions, so it was not being offered. There was little ability to investigate other tours that might be available, since we did not know when we would be free.
2. There seemed to be subtle (and some not-so-subtle) pressure to choose things that were being offered by the tour director, without offering other realistic options. An example was for us to cut short our visit to Museum of the North so we could have the Wednesday wing special at the restaurant in Fairbanks. After finishing lunch, most of us thought that this was poor time management, and that we should have gotten an earlier start instead. (The museum opens at 9 am and we could have been there when it opened, had 2 hours there and still had time for lunch.)
3. Getting information from RCI on the post-cruise tour details was almost impossible. Come on, RCI. You are selling this tour and should be able to provide details that people request. If you can't tell us, then at least provide a contact at the tour company so we can ask directly.
4. The hotel in Denali was disappointing. TripAdvisor rates it at 11 out of 11. It did not compare to the hotel in Talkeetna (really nice). Once you go into the Canyon, you discover that there are other possibilities in the area. Princess has built their own resort. There are nice resorts partway up the hill that would have amazing views. If RCI is serious about this market, the hotel experience needs to reflect that.
5. The hotel in Fairbanks was near the airport, but not convenient to downtown. It was nice enough, but nobody likes to be stuck miles from the action just because the tour company gets a good deal. It was pretty clear that they have a very close relationship with the hotel and the tour directors are treated well. The restaurant/bar at the hotel is middling at best. Yes, you can walk to the grocery store, buy supplies and cook your own meal, but for one night that is pretty impractical. We bought breakfast stuff, which was better than paying $20 for an overpriced breakfast or walking to Taco Bell for a breakfast burrito.
6. Small things: there was a suggested tip for the tour director in the published information, but Jennifer said that she gets in trouble if she puts out envelopes for people to put the tips into. This seems disingenuous - either don't suggest a tip amount or have envelopes available. She did say that the tips were entirely optional, and she would be happy with whatever, but I'm pretty sure this is not really true.
7. Small things #2: some of the staff on the train were conversing about things that were not really appropriate for passengers to be hearing. (Disney calls this "off stage" and "on stage" and the two should never cross over.) I believe they were not really aware of the impact this can have on the passengers' experience.
Would I do this again? Maybe. This time, we just wanted to have someone else figure out all the details and take us around. Now that we have been to these locations and have a better idea of the possibilities, I'd like to have a bit more time in some of the locations. I do think the train was a good way to get around, and quite relaxing. You can do some of the segments by bus and not be tied to the train schedule, but the bus takes longer and it's not as pleasant. I think overall that we had to leave Talkeetna earlier than I would have liked.
I know this is a long read, and I hope it's been helpful and interesting for you. Bon voyage!