Fireweed by the Lake, AK: Alaska shore excursions from Alaska Shore Tours
28 Sep

If you’ve already booked your Alaska cruise, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’ve also been bombarded by your cruise line’s Alaska shore excursions emails. Cruise lines will offer you all kinds of reasons for booking your Alaska excursion with them, but there are some things they just can’t or won’t tell you since the last thing they want is for you to book Alaska shore excursions on your own!

As with doctors, it’s always good to get a second opinion. Ultimately, it may make the most sense to book Alaska shore excursions with your ship, but before you do, you should know all your options. That’s why we’ve put together this list of 8 Things Your Cruise Ship Won’t Tell You About Shore Excursions.

1. “Missing your boat” is never a problem.

Most cruise lines will say, “We can’t guarantee that you’ll be back on time unless you book through us.” But the people who book independently are on the same tour as those who book through the ship, so the timing remains the same. Everyone, from the dock reps to the bus drivers to the guides, has been trained and coached to keep their timing as consistent as possible no matter the day, week or month.

unicorns miss the boat: Alaska shore excursions from Alaska Shore Tours

The tour departures for an Alaska excursion are built around the cruise ship schedule. This is especially the case in ports like Skagway and Ketchikan, where the majority of visitors arrive on a cruise. This means that it is almost impossible to miss your boat unless you purposefully try to.

With that said, if a tour operator says that a certain Alaska excursion departure time will not work for your boat, please believe them. As mentioned earlier, they know their timing better than anyone, and asking them to delay or rush through a tour is unfair to other guests who might be on the tour with you.

2. Your excursions desk won’t give you an unbiased opinion on tour options.

This can be especially prevalent where there is more than 1 similar option in a port. Many tour companies go to great lengths to wine-and-dine the Alaska shore excursions crew, because they know that is who will be selling their tour.

This is not always a bad thing, since many times it will weed out the less exemplary tours. But, it’s definitely a good idea to know which Alaska excursion you’re interested in, rather than approaching the desk blindly and asking for their opinion. That way, you don’t end up spending more than you’d like on a tour you might not be very excited about.

3. Ships take up to a 50% cut of the cost of the excursion.

Whether your Alaska excursion costs $50 or $500, a much smaller portion actually gets passed on to the tour operator. Because cruise lines bring in the majority of potential customers (especially in ports like Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan), they can command a very high commission from the Alaska excursion companies they work with.

While actual commissions vary from contract to contract, the cruise line’s cut may be as high as 50% for a same-day Alaska excursion. When you book with a smaller agency, like Alaska Shore Tours, more of your ticket price gets back to the actual tour operator. This is what helps them expand and offer even more awesome activities. Booking Alaska shore excursions on your own can substantially help with cutting costs.

4. Their “activity levels” are not always very helpful.

Every activity is assigned a level by the cruise line. Unfortunately, these levels are not very descriptive, and for some activities, may be woefully insufficient.

Alaska shore excursions from Alaska Shore Tours: activity level

For instance, most cruise lines list both the White Pass train trips and Takshanuk Mountain Trail as easy, but for the former Alaska excursion, you are simply a passenger, while the latter has you piloting your own vehicle.

It’s always better to ask, especially if you have any health concerns or mobility issues. Minor issues like stiff knees or a limited range of motion can be unpleasant on an excursion like the Ocean Raft Adventure, even if you are relatively healthy otherwise.

5. The tours booked on the ship are exactly the same as the ones you can book elsewhere.

This is a big one. With very, very few exceptions, you can book the exact same tour off the boat, as you can on the boat. In other words, it is more than possible to do Alaska shore excursions on your own. Often times, you can do so for a cheaper price as well. Exceptions to this rule tend to be the large coach tours, which in Skagway are operated almost exclusively by Holland America Princess Alaska.

You should definitely do your research when selecting your tours, as sometimes “Exclusive to us” can mean something as simple as adding a 10-minute marshmallow roast to the end of a regular tour. Nothing else has changed, except the price!

6. Some cruise lines impose additional weight/age limits beyond those of the tour company.

This most often happens to families with small children. The family will go on Alaska shore excursions and leave 1 or 2 of the small ones behind because they didn’t meet the age or weight limit.  Then they get there and find out that everyone could have come, because the operator’s limits are lower.

Alaska shore excursions from Alaska Shore Tours: happy meal

I’ve even heard stories of parents putting ankle weights on their kids or of guys refraining from the buffet, so they meet the weight limit, only to find out later that it really didn’t matter.

Some Alaska shore excursions, like the Chilkoot Horseback Adventure, are very strict, while others, like Grizzly Falls Zipline, are more lenient. If you have any doubts, you should contact the operator directly.

7. If your tour is sold out on the boat, the actual tour operator may still have spots available.

If you happen to visit Skagway on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, you’ll have the pleasure of being in port with 3 other cruise ships. Tour operators only allocate a certain number of spots on each departure to each individual ship. This helps them control their tour sizes, while still offering the tour on as many ships as possible.

If the Alaska shore excursions you want are sold out, try checking with smaller agencies or the tour operator directly. The cruise ship may have filled their allocation, while the actual tour still has spots available.

8. There might be other tour times available besides those offered on the ship.

Along with limiting the number of spots available, cruise lines and tour operators also collaborate on the departure times that are offered. This means that one ship might offer the Glacier Point Wilderness Safari only at 7:30 am, while another offers it only at 10 am.

If you want to go at a different time, you’re out of luck, right? Wrong. Again, check with smaller outfits or the tour company itself to see if there is still space on other departures. This is often the case for everything except the most popular tours (which includes Glacier Point – sorry!).

To book or not to book

Hopefully, these tips will help you to “think outside the boat” when booking your shore excursions in Skagway or other cruise ship ports. Whether you book with your cruise line or with an independent agency like us, it’s good to know that there are some things you just shouldn’t worry about, like missing your boat.

Is there something else you wish you’d known before booking your Alaska shore excursions? Let us know in the comments if we can help you plan Alaska shore excursions on your own! And if you’re looking to learn more about what sets an Alaska excursion with Alaska Shore Tours apart from one by the cruise companies, you may want to check out our article on Giving Back to Protect the Last Frontier.




  1. What a great newsletter, very informative. I have always said there are only a handful of tour companies that the cruise ship uses, so why give the cruise ship the money? Rather deal with the company themselves, they know their limitations and those expected of their customers. So glad I subscribed to your newsletter. As soon as I get my group together, I will be calling in some excursions. Thank you!

    [email protected] December 12, 2018 Reply

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