As my kids are growing older and more independent, our family is discovering that we enjoy trips with built-in physical activity and Alaska is the ultimate adventure trip. My family vacation in Alaska with kids was a mix of small ship cruising and independent travel, but regardless of how you visit the 49th state, there are a few key planning tips for summer travel. And in Alaska, nature ultimately decides how you prepare for your trip.
Travel Planning Tips for an Alaska Vacation with Kids
These tips focus on planning a vacation to Southeast Alaska with emphasis on an Inside Passage cruise, a popular choice for families.
Best Age for Kids
An Alaska cruise works well for multi-generational trips because there are excursions for all activity levels and on the large cruise ships supervised kids’ club entertain and contain children of all ages. Small ship cruises which typically carry less than 100 passengers, are best for ages 6 and up for safety reasons and the activity level of the excursions. There may be some kids-only activities, but during periods of downtime the kids entertain themselves with board games and card games. It’s also important to note that the small ships have varying levels of physical activities from skiff excursions to strenuous hikes so there is an activity for everyone.
When to Go
Alaska’s high tourist season is June – September, with May and October being shoulder seasons. Other than school vacation calendars, the biggest factor determining your vacation timing is whether seeing the bear-catching-salmon scene is a priority. If it is, visit after the middle of July.
Wildlife viewing is never guaranteed but the salmon start showing up in the streams in Southeast Alaska in mid-July followed by the bears and continue throughout September. During my visit last June we did see brown and black bears, but they were on the beach and in the trees not in the streams eating salmon and not in the quantities I saw them on my previous trip in August. My kids did not see the bears and salmon together and wouldn’t think that they missed a thing because Alaska has so much to offer besides bear-viewing.
Prepare for the Weather: Clothing and Rain Gear
If you’re one of the million visitors that will arrive on a cruise ship in Southeast Alaska plan for rainy weather. The temperate rainforest that envelopes the region brings over 100 inches of rain a year. It’s normal to have daily amounts of rain and the 80 degree temperatures that Juneau and other parts of the region recorded in the summer of 2013 is unusual.
The best defense against the wind and rain is layers. A rain/wind jacket, a fleece and base layers that are not cotton, which doesn’t dry in the humid weather, is essential. You’ll also need water resistant footwear (or multiple pairs of shoes) and a hat and gloves for when the wind kicks in. On our Alaska cruise with kids we had rain pants for our days of hiking and kayaking and used them even when it wasn’t raining to block the wind. We also purchased rain boots but if you’re on a large cruise ship you probably won’t need these or the excursion companies will provide them.
TIP: Finding rain boots during the off-season is challenging and I found that Zappos.com had the best selection for all ages. We especially liked Kamik and Ugg for the best fitting rain boots.
For rain gear, I used REI and their online REI Outlet – they have a large selection for all ages and if you have time, the outlet has some finds. The most important factors for the rain jackets are material that’s breathable, pockets to put gloves/hats/cameras in and a hood with a brim so the rain doesn’t drip onto your face. If the jacket doesn’t have a brim, a baseball hat worn underneath the hood will serve the same purpose.
Plan for rain when you’re thinking of what camera to bring along. I used two cameras; my good DSLR that couldn’t get wet and another shockproof/waterproof camera with a floating strap that I let the kids use when I didn’t need it.
TIP: If you plan to zipline, dogsled, kayak, bike or do anything active a GoPro camera is convenient and a serious cool factor for kids of all ages.
Cruise Ship Excursions
Once your cruise is booked, the rush is on to plan your excursions. With little or no internet available on the ship, it’s challenging to “book-as-you-go” and the ship excursions do fill up. While booking through the cruise line is most convenient there are other options. Viator.com offers excursions in major ports and you can book directly with some but not all of the companies that are used by the cruise lines.
If you use a company other than the cruise line, check to make sure they guarantee in writing, like Viator.com, that they will have you back to your ship before it departs and if your ship arrives late and you cannot make the tour, your money will be refunded. You can also book at the docks but I find this stressful with kids in tow unless it’s something very simple like the bus ride to Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau.
Another aspect to keep in mind when you choose your excursion is that most tours are rain or shine. I once spent half a day biking in a downpour in Ketchikan and while the company provided rain gear it wasn’t fun or refundable.
TIP: If you book a helicopter tour to the glacier, have a back-up plan. Helicopter tours are weather dependent and for safety reasons, they don’t fly if the weather conditions aren’t cooperating.
Because the towns of Southeast Alaska are not connected by highways, small planes and ferries are the primary mode of transportation. We loved the experience and views on our Wings of Alaska flight from Juneau to Skagway and if time allows the Alaska Marine Highway is a way to experience how Alaskans travel. However, if you only have a week, a small ship cruise from a port in Alaska or a large ship cruise from Seattle or Vancouver is the best way to see the area.
Kristi received a media rate for her family trip to Alaska. As always, our opnions are our own on Ciao Bambino. Photo by Kristi Marcelle