By Tony Slinn, maritime journalist, explains why he now understands the reason Alaska is considering a cap on big ships after a cruise which didn’t deliver.

Shall we bother to get off the ship? That was the question wife Sandy and I asked ourselves almost daily aboard one of the big ships sailing Alaska at the start of this season.

It was our Golden (50th) Wedding Anniversary and we wanted something special to celebrate. We’d travelled before with this line and enjoyed it, and since the Alaska cruise base price and the package, including premium drinks and a couple of pay-for speciality restaurants, looked good, we booked.

What we hadn’t allowed for was the radical difference between the ships and what that would mean in terms of passenger space in public areas, queues on and off the ship, restaurant wait times and mooring ability.

Norwegian Bliss

Why size matters

Our first ship was 75,904 gross tonnage, 268.85m long, 36.88m beam has a 7.92m draft and carries 2032 passengers and 912 crew. Our second, however, is a mega ship, over twice as heavy at 168,028 gross tonnage, 333m long, 41m beam, draft 8.7m and carries 4,004 passengers and 1,716 crew.

These huge ships are increasingly being restricted, or even banned, at some ports and also face problems mooring in smaller harbours. Alaska has taken that onboard and plans to cap the number of cruise passengers allowed to visit Juneau, the major port, from 2026. One of Alaska’s busiest—1.6 million cruise ship passengers in 2023—Juneau has already imposed a 2024 limit of five ships a day.

As for us, embarkation at Seattle was crowded but well organised with days one and two being at sea. At that point we found out just how crowded things could be.

Finding a seat in the otherwise comfortable forward observation lounge was fraught, as was finding a lunchtime seat in the garden café buffet, which also had uncomfortably close tables. No problem in the enormous casino, though, with row after row of garish slot machines.

As for dinner in the evening, a 30-minute wait for a table was usually the minimum.

You get what you pay for

Part of the problem was that there were only five so-called ‘complimentary’ restaurants—ie: part of the package—as against eight pay-for restaurants. Our package included a dinner in two of them and we chose the French-style Bistro for our anniversary. Not a bad menu, but want a fillet steak, which I did, and it was U$D10 extra, plus 20% service charge, on top of the bill, which would have been U$D130 not including wine. Thank God for the drinks package!

It was even more expensive at thew steak house, U$D161.

Those extravagant charges, from the U$D20 per person per day gratuities charge to the 20% service charge even on a glass of wine, extended to the shore excursions. Like to learn more about the ship with a two-hour ‘behind the scenes’ tour? That’s U$D139 per person please. How about a ‘luxury’ 3.75-hour whale watch in Juneau? Adult or child, that’s U$D499 per person.

The other problem was cramming in five port calls with mostly short onshore times. Our first was Sitka, arrive 10:30, all aboard 17:30 which was reasonable. Then Juneau, arrive 06:30, back 13:00; Icy Strait Point, 06:00 / 14:30; Ketchikan, 06:00 / 12:45; and Victoria (Canada) 20:00 / 23:30.

Cruise-liner,At,Quay-side Alaska
Cruise-liner at Quay-side Alaska

Queues, queues, queues…

This was compounded by the huge queues for complimentary buses, not just getting off, but returning to the ship, which at Ketchikan, where the line has its own mooring, is seven miles away from the town. And could we really stomach a George Inlet Lodge Crab Feast which meant getting off the ship at 08:45 and costing U$D149 per person?

We did see the Dawes Glacier at no charge. We could have taken a ‘Bike & Brew with Glacier View’ excursion at Juneau that meant leaving at 08:15 and spending four hours doing it at a price of U$D159 each, but our getting-up-early-and-riding-pushbikes days are over and the U$D318 was better reserved for champagne once ashore.

Big ships? Never again!

Here’s how an Alaska cruise is supposed to be...

We have not named the ship as the writer believes it is typical of why Alaska is a small ship destination