Do it yourself Alaska cruise excursions (what we booked)


A couple of weeks ago, I set sail on an Alaska Cruise on Holland America’s Niew Amsterdam, which was one of the many “free” cruise offers we’ve booked thanks to the magic of casino matching (See: How to get free cruises by gaming casino status matches for more detail). If you’re considering a cruise to Alaska, even on one of the “free” cruise opportunities we’ve identified, chances are that you’ve experienced some sticker shock when looking over the cost of excursions. We booked all of our excursions on our own, independent of the cruise line. Activities still weren’t cheap, but we saved some money and still got a great experience doing it on our own. This post outlines what we did and how we booked. Note that this isn’t an exhaustive list of what you should do — I’m sure that you can improve upon what we did to maximize your time each day, but hopefully it provides some insight into what you can do on your own.

a train on the tracks

This post is not the “amazing Alaska scenery” post. That’ll come in the cruise review. The point of this post is to share that many of the activities that your cruise line might be offering can be booked direct for less.

Holland America Niew Amsterdam itinerary

Our cruise on the Holland America Niew Amsterdam was one-way from Vancouver, Canada to Whittier, Alaska. It is possible to cruise round trip from Vancouver or Seattle (or even San Francisco on some lines), but we chose a one-way itinerary to Alaska specifically so that we could spend a few days in Alaska after the cruise. In hindsight, thanks to our flexible schedules, I may have booked even more days than we did after the cruise in order to have time to fly elsewhere in Alaska and see another location or two, but it is better to leave wanting a bit more than to leave wanting a little less.

That said, there are some complications (or expenses) if you end your cruise in Whittier as you’ll read at the end of this post.

Our cruise had the following itinerary:

  • Day 1: Depart Vancouver
  • Day 2: At sea
  • Day 3: Ketchikan, Alaska
  • Day 4: Juneau, Alaska
  • Day 5: Skagway, Alaska
  • Day 6: Scenic cruising of Glacier Bay
  • Day 7: At sea with scenic cruising in College Fjord near the end of the day
  • Day 8: Disembark in Whittier

The cruise itself was a mixed bag. I’ll review it with more detail in a separate post, but here is my quick hit review:

  • Food: Very good. Not gourmet, but easily the best we’ve had yet in our cruises on Carnival, Royal Caribbean, MSC, and Holland America.
  • Service: Excellent overall. We were really impressed at how genuinely warm service was all over the ship.
  • Motion of the ocean: Seas were a bit rougher than I’d have expected on the first day / night. I took Dramamine on two separate occasions (before feeling sick but after noticing a fair amount of motion). Nobody in our group got seasick, but a couple of people took Dramamine daily to be sure to avoid it.
  • Activities on board: Great if your primary focus is attending talks to learn about Alaska, but in the opinion of someone who is admittedly quite a bit younger than the Holland America target demographic, activities were otherwise dull. A family member attended origami a couple of times and there were some painting classes, but there were often hours with seemingly nothing going on. I loved that a national park ranger boarded the ship to narrate the day on Glacier Bay though!
  • Entertainment: The house band in the B.B. King Blues Club was great. I didn’t attend a ton of the other entertainment, but it was mostly just singers singing different genres in varying quality. I didn’t enjoy the comedian they had on board.
  • Ship: The Niew Amsterdam was probably the dullest ship of those we have sailed. There just wasn’t much to do. The main pool had a retractable roof, so it was an indoor pool for most of the cruise (that was nice for people who wanted to use it!). The casino was a decent size and the tables were nice, but the hours were extremely limited (I assume because of the need to be a certain distance away before they could open and late all-aboard times). There was a small kids club, but unlike other cruise lines there was no playground or arcade, no rock climbing wall, etc. We knew that Holland America isn’t really geared toward families and that impression held true.

From that quick hit review, you might get the impression that we didn’t like the cruise. That isn’t true at all. This cruise was easily one of the most gorgeously scenic things I’ve ever done. We came for the Alaska scenery and the Alaska scenery did not disappoint. Frankly, in hindsight, I’m kind of glad that the ship didn’t have much to distract us. I’d have hated to have missed time on my balcony or on the deck marveling at the fabulous scenery so that we could spend time in an arcade. I would certainly cruise to Alaska again, but this was definitely a different cruise experience than Europe or the Caribbean.

Our overall strategy

I want to note first and foremost that I can not take credit for any of the planning for this cruise. We had a lot of travel plans this summer (including our return to the Grand Hotel Victoria, our MSC cruise in Europe, our trip to Legoland in Denmark, and our visit to Belgium, all in the time since we wrapped up our Party of 5 Challenge that took us to Japan, the Philippines, Macau, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil…it’s been a busy summer). I didn’t have the bandwidth for more travel planning beyond flights and hotels for this trip, so my wife handled almost all of the planning for the cruise, researching what we could do and how we could book it. While we held many decisions until late in the game, all credit for figuring stuff out goes to her.

It is also worth mentioning that we didn’t approach this as a once-in-a-lifetime, spare-no-expense cruise to Alaska where we felt pressure to do everything or the best of everything. When 2023 rolled around, we had no intention to visit Alaska this year, but we had some family members who had always expressed interest in a “someday” trip to Alaska and the Wyndham Earner Business card-to-casino-matching shenanigans meant that a cruise to Alaska this year would cost everyone far less than we had figured we’d all pay one day to make the trip happen. This whole plan came together between April and May of 2023, so none of us were looking to drop bucketloads of cash on relatively short notice.

If we did want to do the extreme things like taking a helicopter tour and landing on a glacier or one of the many float plane tours, I would have looked at booking tours like those through Viator. That’s because I continue to have a standing targeted 20% back offer for Viator through Capital One Shopping (I have to check the box for Viator and scroll all the way to the bottom to see the 20% buttons) and have seen as high as 30% on Viator (and for the record, the 30% did pay out on things like our Iguazu Falls helicopter tour and our dinner with locals in their home in Buenos Aires). Sometimes Viator even has a coupon code available through the portal and we’ve seen card-linked offers that stack. I’m not a huge fan of Viator, but the value is hard to beat with some of the big cash back offers and I’ve had a lot of good luck in the time since my 2021 negative experience. With cash back, it becomes what looks like a very good value compared to booking through the cruise line.

Since we have young kids, and it is both difficult to herd young kids out the door in the morning as well as to corral them back in once they get over-tired much earlier than everyone else, our schedule was different than it would be for the average person taking this cruise. We did less than what many people would do, but we saved a little cash by doing it on our own.

Ketchikan, Alaska: Walking Creek Street & the Lumberjack Show

a city with many buildings and trees

The stop in Ketchikan was the shortest of the cruise, lasting just 7am-3pm.

The nice thing is that almost all of the stops on this cruise were very much walkable from the center of town (the picture above was taken from my balcony) and there wasn’t the usual built-up gift shop maze to navigate when disembarking the ship. It was an easy walk to “Creek Street” (Google Maps will get you there), which is a pedestrian street that consists of walkways along the river lined with gift shops and plenty of places to watch the thousands of salmon fighting their way upstream. It was pretty cool to see so many fish swimming over each other in pursuit of getting upstream.

a group of fish swimming in water

We saw the salmon ladder here and walked down to the docks to get a closer look at some sea life before heading to the “main event” in town, the Great Alaskan Lumberjack show. While the Lumberjack show was as corny and tourist-oriented as you would expect, it was actually a fun time and it really was interesting seeing the techniques and skills people have used.

a man holding an ax in front of a log cabin

We booked this directly at Tickets were $37 per adult and $18.50 per kid ages 3-12. Our 2yr old was free. We did not book this far in advance and we certainly saved over the price of booking it through the cruise line just by booking direct.

Juneau, Alaska: Car rental to see Mendenhall Glacier, Nugget Falls, a salmon hatchery, and brewery stops

a street with a clock on it
“Downtown” Juneau.

In Juneau, we made a game-time decision to rent a car. I literally booked the car the day before from ship WiFi and was able to get a large enough SUV for the 7 passengers in our family group and a booster seat (we also brought one booster of our own) for $332.53 booked directly with Budget Car Rentals. That was less than the ~$50 per passenger that the cruise line wanted for the bus to Mendenhall glacier alone. The price of rental cars was significantly higher through other booking channels than it was directly through Budget — so much so that I was skeptical as to whether the booking would be honored.

a screenshot of a web page

However, I had no problem at pick up time — they had a large Toyota Sequoia waiting for us. We used the car to drive to Mendenhall Glacier and while there we also hiked to Nugget Falls, which was an easy 1-mile out-and-back walk.

Mendenhall Glacier pic
Mendenhall Glacier
Nugget Falls pic
Nugget Falls

We later stopped at the DIPAC Macaulay Salmon Hatchery, where we saw more than a million salmon in the hatchery and many outside in the salmon ladder along with a cool little museum inside that had a bunch of local sea life in tanks (and free coffee!). If you only wanted to see the salmon ladder, that was outdoors, so you could see it without entering the museum. That said, it was five bucks to get in the door and my wife and I both had a cup of coffee, so I didn’t mind paying.

A couple of people in our group are big time beer aficionados, so we visited the Forbidden Peak brewery for lunch and then stopped at a couple other breweries in Juneau thanks to having the car.

Interestingly, choosing a same-day pick up and drop off was significantly more expensive than a next-day drop off for the car rental (in other words, renting for 8 or 10 hours was much more expensive than reserving for 24hrs). I reserved the car for 24hrs and simply returned the car “early” (the same night we took it obviously) and was charged as though it was returned the next day without issue. There wasn’t actually an attendant when I returned, but I left my keys in the drop box with a note with my return time and within an hour or so I received an email confirming the return, so someone must have returned to the booth. When I initially picked up the vehicle, the attendant asked for the name of my hotel. I explained that I was on the ship, but I probably could have named a local hotel and I don’t imagine they would have called to check on me unless I didn’t return the car.

Unfortunately, Juneau airport is not walking distance from the cruise port – it’s about 9 miles away. I Ubered to the airport to pick up the rental car and took a taxi back to town after dropping it off.

A couple of tips regarding that: before we could get off the ship, I checked the price of an Uber to the airport and I think it was something in the mid $30’s. At the moment when I got off the ship, the price standing at the dock was $46 to the airport. I walked a few hundred yards up the road in the general direction of the airport and checked and it was $34.97, so I ordered the Uber from there. I assume the pricing was influenced by the demand right there at the port, whereas there were no people standing on the street a few hundred yards up the road.

a dock with a body of water and a mountain in the background
If you see the grey structure behind the mural in the pic, that’s a parking garage. I walked a bit past that to hail an Uber to the airport and it was ~$10 cheaper.

I went to the airport by myself to get the vehicle and then drove back to the ship to pick up the rest of the family, which was easy enough.

When we dropped off the car at the airport that night, we tried to Uber from the airport into town, but nobody accepted the ride request. We then walked to the taxi area outside the airport and the taxi driver’s estimate of the meter fare into town was identical to the Uber quote (and it was accurate at ~$30).

The Juneau airport was very small. I don’t know what time flights stop arriving, but you may want to look up the phone number to a taxi service to call for a ride if there are no taxis when you return your rental car.

There was also a cable car in Juneau that has an amazing view in clear weather. I was really glad that we hadn’t booked that in advance though because it was so overcast and cloudy when we arrived that you wouldn’t have seen anything from the top. By the end of the day, it cleared up significantly, but I thought to myself that I’d be pretty disappointed if I’d paid full price for a trip up in the morning given the weather (which is hard to predict if you’re planning excursions far in advance).

Skagway, Alaska: White Pass railroad

a street with buildings and mountains in the background
Broadway in Skagway.

In Skagway, we did one thing: the White Pass railroad. We booked direct with the rail line and it was worth every penny. It looks like White Pass & Yukon Railroad has online ticketing, but for some reason we had to call to book. My wife was doing the planning for this trip and somehow she knew that the 1pm departure on our date was available, but she instructed me to call — so there I was on the patio of the Grand Hotel Victoria at 11pm one night calling the White Pass & Yukon Railroad to book :-). For those doing the math, that means I was calling in the last few days of June to book an August 16th train and there was only one time slot available.

Tickets for this were $142 per adult, $71.00 per child between age 3-12, and free for “infants” age 0-2 (infant in quotation marks because my 2yr old was less than a month from turning 3, so he doesn’t feel like an infant to me, but I’ll take the $71 savings).

There are a couple of things to know about this: you can alternatively book through the cruise line. I don’t recall what they were charging, but it was certainly more. If you booked through the cruise line, you could apparently board the train at the cruise port right next to the ship. If you book directly with the White Pass & Yukon Railroad, you need to walk to the train depot on 2nd Ave in town. It is at maximum a 10-minute walk from the ship to the depot and you are very likely to walk into town anyway to go sightseeing (particularly if you’re on the 1pm departure, since you aren’t likely to sit on the ship until that time). There is no food available for purchase on the ship, but you can bring what you like to eat. We grabbed a pizza from a pizza shop in town and snacks from a coffee shop.

Given the fact that other departure times were sold out, I was surprised at how relatively empty the train was. There was a Seabourn cruise group that seemed to pack entirely in one car, but otherwise people really spread out over the span of the train. In our entire train car, it was only the 7 people in my family and one other family of four, so they took the front half of the car and we took the rear half (with LOTS of empty seats).

people on a train with people sitting on seats

This train ride was incredibly scenic. It was expensive (for my family of four it was $355 even with our 2yr old being free), but I would do it again. Pictures will not do justice to the scale of the scenery. This Instagram post has some videos that do a slightly better job. The first video is one I took about 90 seconds after my wife had asked one of the train guides whether they see bears often (the guide had said no because the trains are too loud):


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A post shared by Nick Reyes (@nickatfm)

a mountain range with clouds a train going down a mountain a woman looking at a valley

We loved the train more than the videos and pics will show, not only for the scenery but also for the fascinating commentary narrated throughout the trip about the people who walked this route (apparently, back in the day, the Canadian Mounties required that people who showed up to cross the border had to bring a year’s worth of supplies with them, so it took multiple trips!). A potential alternative for about the same price would be a car rental. Someone I know who was on a Holland America cruise the week after us rented a large SUV and drove to Yukon, Canada. The pictures of that drive were downright stunning as well.

I always recommend searching rentals via and/or tracking the deal you’ve gotten there. I didn’t try in Skagway since we already had the train booked for the day at not-insignificant expense, but I believe our friends got an SUV for about $350.

After the train ride, we found a playground in Skagway where my kids could burn some energy and then we did some souvenir shopping along the main drag. Truthfully, Skagway has all sorts of hidden treasures to find.

a man taking a selfie
Found him!

Whittier, Alaska

Whittier isn’t actually a cruise stop but rather where the cruise terminated. However, I wanted to include this as a bit of a warning for anyone considering a one-way cruise that drops off in Whittier: while Whittier is only about 60 miles from Anchorage, there was no “cheap” option to get to Anchorage and we didn’t make it any easier by procrastinating. Figure this out sooner rather than later.

For starters, Whittier is sort of cut off from the rest of civilization by the Whittier Tunnel. What is the Whittier tunnel? It is the longest vehicle-railroad combined tunnel in North America according to the Internet. How long is this one-lane tunnel that alternates allowing traffic in either direction, including to both motor vehicles and trains? Two and a half miles. Check it out in this reel:


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A post shared by Nick Reyes (@nickatfm)

Again, the tunnel is only just wide enough for a single lane of traffic, so traffic can only move in one direction at a time, and that single lane is on top of railroad tracks. Traffic can obviously only happen in one direction at a time, so you can only get through the tunnel once an hour.

The cruise line wanted something like $150 per person for the one-way bus to Anchorage airport. The train was another option, but we were slated to get off the ship around 7am and the Alaska Railroad from Whittier to either Girdwood or Anchorage was only running once a day at 6:45pm (with an arrival around 7:30 in Whittier or 9:15pm in Anchorage) and it was $98 per adult  to either destination, putting us over $500 for our 5 adults and 1 paying child). We could have tried taking the train to Portage (2nd stop), which departed at 12:45pm and was only $32 per person, but that would have put us about 10 miles short of Girdwood with no surefire plan for how to bridge that gap nor how to get from there to Anchorage to pick up a rental car (and we’d have had to sit in Whittier with all of our bags and no place for luggage storage from the time we got off the ship until 12:45pm).

I should add that the whole bit about the Whittier tunnel was unknown to me before we arrived. I had originally thought that the cruise was ending in Anchorage and this would be an easy taxi ride to the airport — it wasn’t until the day or two before the cruise took off that I realized we were ending in a place that was not Anchorage. I initially assumed that there had to be a cheaper more “local” option to get to Anchorage. When that didn’t materialize, I thought that maybe I’d just take the bus alone to Anchorage for $150 to pick up the rental car and then I’d drive back for the rest of the family, but looking at the bus schedule it seemed like they would all be stuck waiting with the bags for hours in Whittier.

In the end, our solution was Turo (like an Airbnb for cars). This wasn’t a good solution, it was just a solution — and one that I only came up with the night before the cruise ended. I ended up booking an 8-passenger Chevy Express van via Turo for pickup right in Whittier (less than 200 yards from the port).

a van parked on the side of a road

I booked the van for one day at a cost of $255 plus taxes and fees, or about $300 all-in. That seemed absolutely ridiculous given that I had an SUV rental car reserved at Anchorage airport for $386 all-in for four days, but the extra $150 over one-way bus fare for one person meant that the rest of the family wouldn’t have to sit and wait for hours with the bags, which seemed like a worthwhile trade-off.

The owner of the van was extremely responsive, confirming my reservation within less than an hour and trading messages with me that night and the morning of pick up in nearly real-time. This was my first Turo rental and it was a very positive experience overall. The van was no show car, but it easily fit all of our luggage (which was a ton of luggage for the 7 of us given that my family of four came directly from Europe to Vancouver, so we had enough stuff for 1 month of travel plus the stuff our other 3 family members brought) and all of our people.

It was only after picking up the van and starting our drive toward Anchorage that we ran into the line for the tunnel and got an inkling of what was going on next. We originally had cell service at the port, but there was no service in the traffic waiting area outside the tunnel on either side (perhaps it is blocked intentionally for security reasons?), so we couldn’t look it up — all we knew was that it said that the next tunnel was in something like half an hour and traffic was coming through from the other side.

After passing through the tunnel, it was a smooth drive toward Girdwood. We stopped at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, which is on the way toward Girdwood, where we saw numerous animals including moose and a brown bear from a closer distance than you would otherwise ever want to see one.

a cow standing in a pond with a fence and mountains in the background
Moose at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
a bear behind a fence
Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? (Children’s book reference for the parents out there)

We got to Girdwood about an hour before check-in time and our Vacasa vacation rental wasn’t yet ready. I’ll have some more Vacasa thoughts in a coming post, but here was our rental for those curious:


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A post shared by Nick Reyes (@nickatfm)

We ended up driving to Anchorage to pick up the other vehicle, back to Girdwood to drop off people and stuff, and two of us drove the vehicles back through the tunnel to Whittier to return the Turo van that same night. For those with rental car status, make sure to reserve the vehicle you want in Anchorage: there is no picking the car you want with outfits like Hertz or National at ANC airport — everyone has to go to the counter and get keys, there are no keys in vehicles on the lot. Cars were sold out, so it was a “get what you get and don’t get upset” situation. I probably could have saved a bunch of money by renting from an off-airport location in Anchorage, but then I’d have had to get the family to the airport after returning it.

On the way back to Whittier, we got stuck waiting for longer than expected at the tunnel to go to Whittier because of a train coming toward Anchorage from the Whittier side (a Princess cruises excursion train, likely used for the land & sea tours).

a train on the tracks
A Princess Cruises train exiting the Whittier Tunnel.

We were the first car in line to go to Whittier. When we got through the tunnel, we knew that if we were fast enough, we could gas up the Turo, return it to its owner, and get back to the tunnel in time to catch the tunnel back toward Girdwood / Anchorage — but if we missed that tunnel opening, we’d be stuck on the Whittier side for another hour.

Luckily(?) for us, there had been a freight train waiting on the Whittier side when we came through and apparently the freight train went through the tunnel toward Anchorage before they released the cars. I guess that freight train made some smoke because the sign outside the tunnel to go back to Anchorage had a rotating message saying that traffic would be allowed through after the tunnel was purged of smoke. That process took at least half an hour (so there were no vehicles moving in either direction for at least that long). When we got back to the Anchorage side of the tunnel, I could see the remnants of having purged it.

looking through a tunnel to a road

All that is to say that the tunnel can put a wrench in your plans if you plan tightly. Don’t plan too tightly.

We got back to Girdwood that night and spent a lovely few days in Girdwood and the Anchorage area. I would totally stay in Girdwood again.

Bottom line

We recently cruised on the Holland America Niew Amsterdam from Vancouver to Whittier, Alaska. We arranged all of our own transportation and activities and saved money over what the cruise line otherwise would have charged. That said, we also planned poorly for the end of the cruise, which cost us extra time and money in order to get from Whittier to Anchorage. Still, we kept costs reasonable — and considering the fact that one family member’s interior room on this cruise cost less than $600 in taxes for two passengers plus daily gratuities, overall costs were quite manageable for a trip that is often thought to be quite expensive. Despite the higher-than-average prices, I couldn’t highly enough recommend a cruise to Alaska. I’ll publish a separate post about the cruise itself with pictures of the scenery that will show you why.

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I am cruising in this ship next week!


I know the Carnival Pride is another popular choice. We just got back and we found that the excursions on the Pride were much more expensive than the local options, in some cases over $100 per person more.
We used BusyBus, Belfast City Tours and Paddywagon. Others also like SandraCruiseTours and there were more.
Join the facebook group specific for your cruise.


Thank you for sharing your experience, Nick! Our family of four took a “free cruise” to Alaska with Holland America a week before yours and had a very similar approach and activities. One thing I wanted to highlight was that even though you do need to pay taxes and additional fares for kids, I was able to find a round-trip sailing from Vancouver that somehow did not show an additional price for kids. We booked it, and it came out to be around $1,000 for all four of us (a pretty good price for an Alaskan cruise!). I wonder if you paid for the kids, or if you were also able to find one that did not charge for the third and fourth passengers.


Thanks Nick! Very helpful and timely! I board the Princess cruise from Whittier to Vancouver later today.


Thanks for this post!! As an avid traveler, a frequent cruiser, and a big fan of the Frequent Miler, you guys continue to write on topics of interest to me. We cruise to Alaska almost every year, and yet there is info in your post that I was not aware of. Keep up the amazing work!


There’s a bus for $49/pp. It’s not cheap, but may be better than the hassle you went through.


is smoking allowed in the casino on Holland America? I have only cruised Celebrity (no smoking/vaping) in casino.


Nope, it’s a smoke free casino.


The Holland America’s Koningsdam ship had a smoking section in their casino. We sailed Aug 19-26 2023

JW in GA

Hope you saw the “bore tide” at Turnagain Arm — impressive to see it come in like a tidal wave so fast. We’ve had good luck staying twice at Alyeska Resort (but I get why Vacasa makes sense for a large family) in Girdwood. The resort is a little rough around the edges (it IS Alaska) so it’s not quite Vail but it’s a nice area adjacent to the Chugach State Park. I think the hand cart that you pull yourself across the river inside was closed on our second trip (hopefully temporary) but super fun for kids!

The whole state is pretty much a National Park — amazing country! Seward’s Folly turned out to be a steal!


On our last cruise to Alaska, I met Seward’s great great granddaughter in the ship’s casino. I kid you not. I thanked her profusely for her ancestor’s work!!


Hey Nick, thanks for sharing your thoughts on Holland America. I’m on my “free” Holland America cruise now from Boston to Quebec and we are in Prince Edward Island today.

Our evening entertainment has been a comedian (pretty good), a 6 person dance company (pretty good), and a piano player (excellent). The casino is pretty small but we each had $100 free play that I squandered playing roulette, tried my luck with the scratchers ($5 free with $25 scratcher purchase), and didn’t win the free cruise bingo.

They have had dueling pianos and various trivia games through the cruise, along with a newlywed type game. There are probably less than 15 kids on board and maybe double that many teenagers, but I’m definitely on the younger side of the age range on board.

The food has been pretty good, just eating at the buffet at the top, not any of the specialty dining restaurants that have an up charge.