Navigating the options for Alaskan excursions can be overwhelming. Cruise operators offer many options for travelers, and encourage you to book in advance. Here’s what you need to know when mapping out your excursions, from Lisa Hollander, a Skagway resident with more than 20 years working in Alaska’s travel and tourism industry. Lisa loves welcoming visitors through her work with Frontier Excursions & Adventures, and connecting people with local travel experiences.
1. Do your research in advance, but stay flexible
When planning a trip, take some time to research excursions. Cruise ship operators send information on a variety of activities, which is a great place to start. But don’t be shy about researching local tour operators yourself. You can even book directly with a local company, and will likely save some money if you go that route.
Of course, some people want to have all of their excursions locked in before they step foot on the boat, which is particularly smart if you are traveling with a large group or have special needs. But, depending on what activities you are interested in, you may want to wait to decide the day you arrive. (This also gives you more flexibility if the weather is inclement or if you’d rather have a quiet day in town.)
Local tour operators are on hand upon arrival, and day-of booking is commonplace. The exception for this is excursions that book up early, Lisa says, like dog sledding, which is only accessible in Skagway via helicopter, so spots are limited.
2. Ask about a tour operator’s history and their approach
When researching tour operators, ask, "How old is your company?” "Who owns it?” More people are searching for truly local experiences, Lisa says, and Alaska is filled with proudly locally owned and operated businesses.
When talking with a representative from one, ask about their philosophy and approach to how they interact with visitors. If you’re scheduling a bus or car tour, ask about how much time is spent in the vehicle.
3. Consider your activity level, budget and the needs of your group
The great news it that there’s something for everyone here. But it’s smart to have an honest assessment of what you truly want to do and of what you are capable of doing. Are you a weekend or avid hiker who wants to immerse yourself in nature? There are plenty of free and low-cost hikes (though it’s wise to seek guidance about routes from locals). Are you a history buff who wants to immerse yourself in town lore, and would rather learn about that by riding a train or taking a small guided tour? Have those conversations with your travel companions early to make sure everyone is on the same page. This will also help you be better equipped for explaining your interests to tour operators and locals who want to make sure you have the best experience.
4. If you are on a cruise, plan to disembark early
During the height of the season, cruise ships arrive on a highly scheduled timetable — for instance, in Skagway they arrive between 6 and 7 a.m. Representatives from excursion companies will be waiting for you at the port, and the sooner that you can connect with them, the better. In other words, don’t wait until noon to disembark and ask if you can go on a ziplining tour.
5. Plan Ahead for Larger Groups, Physical Limitations and Special Requests
It seems obvious, but you’d be surprised. If you are traveling with a large group, it’s not uncommon for people in the group to plan different activities. For instance, in Skagway, some might be interested in an adventure-based excursion, like rafting, ziplining, or a guided hike. Others might want to take things at a more leisurely pace, like a ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route train or a history-filled show. There are many accessible options for visitors to experience Alaska up close, and it’s important to talk with tour operators about any physical limitations or special requests, as well as accommodations for large parties.
Our favorite local businesses and activities (click below to learn more and book online!)
Ketchikan Misty Fjords Flightseeing
Juneau Fishing & Whale Watching
(1) Rum Runner Charters, owned and operated by Chris Conder
Skagway Bear Viewing & Yukon Bus Rides
Skagway & Juneau Dog Sledding
Skagway Chilkoot Trail Day Hikes
Other Favorite Activities
(5) Kawanti Adventures
adventure karts, zipline, & rainforest walk, owned by Brien Salazar