Miles and Points Alternative to Cruising Alaska’s Inside Passage

As most of you know, my family just got back from a cruise to Alaska. It really is a beautiful place which I recommend you try to visit at some point if you possibly can. Cruising the Inside Passage via one of industry’s mega-ships can definitely make for a refined and comfortable travel experience. But it comes at a  price which many families simply can’t afford.

I wrote a post where I broke down the costs of a basic balcony cabin on NCL, but let me recap them here. We paid $3,220 for two adults and one child for a 7-night cruise on NCL’s Norwegian Pearl. My daughter stayed with  in-laws and it cost us $210 to add her to the reservation ( in a penthouse suite no less!). We could have had her with us because the balcony stateroom technically fits four, but chose this much more sane route.

We are supposed to get $210 cash back from Discover, which was on top of rewards we’ve received from booking the cruise. So, for four of us, we have a total cost of $3220 so far. The tips to stateroom/dining attendants and so on were $364 for seven days for four people. I gave extra to our room steward, but it wasn’t a requirement. We got a $75 tour credit per port, but we still had to fork over $550.

The final bill did include $6 for a big bottle of water (ouch!), but otherwise, I didn’t spend any money on the ship at all. I got $50 credit from NCL which was an unexpected surprise, so onboard expenses added up to $864. I also spent $49 on IHG renewal certificate in order to book a Holiday Inn Express for one night stay before the cruise.

The grand total comes out to $4133.

There were other minor expenses here and there, and I’m not counting the miles we used for flights to Seattle. The goal here is to have an overall idea on what an Alaska cruise will run for a family of four. And believe me, paying $3220 for a balcony cabin is pretty darn good, all things considered.

We went at the end of May (cheapest time) and got in on “kids cruise free” promo, so only had to cover taxes and port charges for our little spawn. Still, as you can see, it wasn’t  even a remotely “budget” trip. Additionally, for many families, the lack of space in a  stateroom is a major  deal breaker. I’ll have more on this topic later on, but check out this photo:

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The full-size (hard as a rock) sleeper sofa is supposed to fit two additional guests. I can’t imagine how. There is an extension to make the bed normal length, but then  it would block balcony access. Sure, room attendant can probably put it back together once you leave the stateroom for breakfast, but it would be kind of a nuisance each day. I strongly believe that this is only a (barely) acceptable set-up for a family with two very young children.

To be honest, I was glad my daughter stayed in another room because my kids would not be comfortable sharing that tiny sofa bed. Sure, different ships will have different set-ups but in general, as a family of four, prepare to be very cramped for 7 days or pay more for a suite. You know how you feel uncomfortable sharing a hotel room that’s 350 square feet in size? Now divide that in half, and you get the idea.

So, if you have kids who are older than ten or happen to have five in the family, you will probably need two staterooms. And that is a deal-breaker for many. I still recommend you consider cruising under those circumstances, but if you absolutely can not pull it off, this post is for you.

So, here is a possible alternative to crusing Alaska’s Inside Passage. It’s definitely “apples to oranges” kind of thing, but I hope you find my research and hours I have poured into the  post somewhat helpful.

Award Flights 

For your Inside Passage city base I recommend Juneau because it has a decent amount of flights to Lower 48 States. You can use Alaska ferry to visit various islands  and have a poor man’s cruising experience.

First, you will have to make  a redemption that incorporates Alaska Air because that’s the only major airline that serves Juneau airport. For most people the best three options will be AAdvantage, Delta Sky Miles and Alaska program itself.

Sure, you can fly from Seattle to Juneau for only 7,500 Avios one-way (BA currency is redeemable on Alaska Air). That said, if you spend 60,000 UR points on transfer to Avios  for  four roundtrip ticktes, you might as well put it towards the cruise and get 1.25 cents per point.

If you don’t live near Seattle, in all likelihood, Delta will be your best option. In order to see award availability, go to Delta website and start your search.

delta search

I put in five one-way tickets from Orlando to Juneau, and was able to locate a few dates where price was only 12,500 miles.

delta juneau

Can we please stop saying that Delta miles are useless? You can obtain them via instant transfer from Amex Membership Rewards, transfer from SPG (takes a few days) or by signing up for one of their co-branded credit cards.

Right now there is an offer for 50K Delta miles+$50 credit and you can read about it here Be aware, Reddit users indicate that you may be able to get a $100 credit  when you make a dummy airfare booking on Delta.com

Interestingly, when I did a search on Alaska Air website, the same exact tickets were 25K miles per person. Weird. Yes, this is one-way pricing:

alaska juneau

Update: See the comment from Dan. I can’t believe I forgot it, but Alaska program still doesn’t allow one-way redemptions on Delta. That’s the reason flights price out at 25K miles one-way.

You may also consider using AAdvantage miles, especially if you live near AA hub. Convenience and decent schedule are important when you are traveling with kids. The program charges 15K miles one-way, so it’s not that much more compared to Delta.

You can obtain AA miles via transfer from SPG (takes a few days) or by signing up for one of their co-branded cards that comes with 50K miles offer. Remember, you can put your awards on hold for up to 5 days even if you don’t have a sufficient amount of miles for a  specific redemption.

aa juneau

Hotels

Hotels in Juneau are expensive and those that can fit four in one room will run you at least $150 per night. It makes sense because the season is short. I checked VRBO and AirBnB but couldn’t find any rentals that cost less than $250 per night.

Additionally, there are very few chain hotels. What to do? Wyndham to the rescue! There are two properties in the area and while they are spartan, beggars can’t be choosers. Let’s take a look.

Super 8 Juneau

The rooms have two queen size beds, and continental breakfast is included. Rooms go for flat 15,000 points per night, but  a better deal is redeeming just 3,000 points per night in order to get an $80 discount.

juneau super 8

Yes, believe it or not, even Super 8 here costs $135 per night in the middle of July. Check for yourself if you don’t believe me. The reviews on TripAdvisor are mixed, but they are not horrible. Most say that the place is spartan (duh, it’s Super 8!) but indicate that it’s fairly clean. There is a convenience store across the street where you can buy cheap food. Think of this hotel as a glorified form of camping.

Travelodge Hotel Juneau

This one looks a bit nicer than Super 8, but don’t expect a Grand Hyatt. Breakfast is not included. This place may be of interest to families who have a total of five people because the rooms will accommodate this number of individuals.

juneau travelodgeOnce again, you can redeem 3,000 points for a hefty discount or just burn 15,000 points for a free room.

You can consider signing up for Wyndham Signature Visa that gives 45,000 points after spending $1,000 in 3 months. You get 30,000 points after your first purchase and annual fee of $69 is not waived. Here is  direct non-affiliate link

You don’t have to use Wyndham credit card for cash portion. To offset the cost, you can consider signing up for Barclaycard Arrival Plus, Capital One Venture Rewards and Wells Fargo Propel cards. Those bonuses can give you a flat rebate against travel purchases. Read about all three on this page

Car rental

I found the best prices via Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. You don’t have to have Chase Sapphire Preferred or Chase Ink Plus in order to get discounted rates. Chase Freedom or Freedom Unlimited  will suffice. Here is the price (all-in) I found for a 7-day rental in July.

juneau car rentalI selected a mid-size car which will work just fine on well-paved Juneau roads, unless you decide to go off-the-beaten path. You can use a combination of UR points and payment made with Chase credit card or skip using points altogether.

If you want to offset the cost of your car rental, one option is getting Chase Sapphire Preferred. The offer comes with 55,000 Ultimate Rewards points and you can redeem  them for travel expenses and get 1.25 cents per point.

I can’t link to Chase Sapphire Preferred directly, but it does pay me commission if you apply through my site.

 

Excursions

It won’t cost you a cent to see Mendenhall Glacier, well, other than gas for your car. This impressive nature display is located less than half an hour from Juneau and getting there is very easy. There is a visitor’s center where park rangers do various presentations and you can watch movies about the area as well. There is even a waterfall you can see up close.

Be aware, no food or drinks are allowed if you decide to hike park’s trails. My husband saw a ranger order a tourist to throw away his sandwich in the special trash can. Obviously, it’s meant to keep away bears.

DSC_0065

Tracy Arm Fjord is another impressive sight and is often compared to Glacier Bay National park. Except, in some ways, it’s superior. Because the fjord is narrower, you can easily view wildlife from the boat. According to the tour operator, they frequently spot bears, seals and whales. Almost everyone who has visited Tracy Arm Fjord can’t stop raving about it.

Adventure Bound Alaska  will give you this “mini Glacier Bay experience” for a fraction of the cost. You can see a gallery of photos on this page. Here are some additional details from the website:

Rates

“Adult $160 plus tax

Youth $95 plus tax (17 &under)
Children must be at least 5 years of age to go on the cruise.

Adventure Bound boards at 7:45 AM. Boats return to town around 6:00 PM. Cruises depart daily from Marine Park.”

While it’s not cheap, I recommend you include Tracy Arm fjord cruise while in Juneau. This is what you came here to see, right? Also, consider taking  a ferry to Sitka or another neighboring island. I imagine that Tracy Arm Fjord tour would code as a travel purchase, but I don’t know that for a certainly.

For more things to do in Juneau, see this page on TripAdvisor You won’t be bored, that’s for sure!

Total costs 

Once again, we won’t count the flights because if you decided to go on a cruise from Vancouver or Seattle, you would pay at least 25,000 miles roundtrip for an economy ticket via most mileage programs.

Lodging: $431+ $69 annual fee on Wyndham card, assuming you go that route.

Car rental: $307+$50 for gas.

Tours: $510 for a cruise in Tracy Arm fjord for a family of four.

Food: I think $650 should cover it as long as you stick to affordable restaurants and fast food. Also, consider stopping by a grocery store because deli section will often have healthy meals at an affordable cost. Remember, your breakfast at Super 8 is already included. You won’t be eating fancy food, but so what?

Grand total: $2017 for a weeklong vacation in Juneau. 

It’s less than half compared to what a cruise would cost, and that is assuming you would be willing to share one cabin like we did. Of course, you can decrease this cost further by strategically signing up for various credit card bonuses.

Bottom line

As I’ve mentioned earlier, comparing these two options is similar to comparing apples to oranges. Families with two young children may find the cruise option way more attractive due to the fact that you can take advantage of the Kids’ Club and have food readily available on the ship. It’s also much easier to fly to Seattle than it is to Juneau.

Those with older kids or large families on a tight budget, may find non-cruise option preferable. Either way, I hope you consider visiting Alaska’s Inside Passage. It truly is spectacular.

Readers, did anyone fly to Juneau for a family vacation? Did you enjoy it?

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8 thoughts on “Miles and Points Alternative to Cruising Alaska’s Inside Passage

  1. Thank you for your report and the comparison. Alaska is on my Bucket list. Saw several last minute reduced trips. However, that would put it back to back of my Paris/Germany trip. maybe next year.So glad you had a good time.

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    • Thank you, Hilde! We all got sick, but it was still worth it. I really hope you visit Alaska someday, it’s incredibly beautiful. If you travel with just your husband, cruise may be the way to go.

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  2. This is a tempting alternative to our cruise! If we love Alaska (which I’m sure we will) this would be a great way to visit again when our kids are older. I don’t think we can afford a second Alaska cruise, LOL.

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    • Nancy, I seriously doubt we’ll be doing an Alaska cruise for the same reasons as you! Unfortunately, I don’t think my son will remember any of it, but I still have no regrets. It was a multi-generational trip that will not be repeated again. That said, it is very expensive.
      I think you’ll be glad that you decided to visit Inside Passage via big cruise ship. It makes things much easier with kids. I know yours are still relatively young, so having Kids Club will come in handy, I guarantee it. I really look forward to reading your report on Disney. I’m curious as to how it compares to NCL when it comes to Alaska cruises. I’ll tell you, leaving out of Vancouver is way better, Seattle was a nightmare of a port.

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  3. Thanks for the breakdown! I did Alaska by cruise waaay back in 2009 (I’ve been back for non-cruise vacations since then) and chose a cruiseship specifically because the Alaska ferry is MAJORLY expensive. So, if you want to stay put for a week, hotels can be cheaper, but the ferry prices between ports are very high. In fact, the cost of transport alone was more than my entire cruise (and the cruise included a tiny cabin + food).

    Anyway, I hope to do both types of trips again in the future because I love Alaska. Highly recommended!

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    • @Becky Thanks for stopping by! I remember looking at Alaska ferry and being shocked by how expensive it is. I guess the way major cruise lines can beat the price is by hiring workers from poor countries who are willing to work for tips. It is what it is.
      I too hope to come back someday. I would love for my husband to visit Denali park. I was actually able to do it 9 years ago without him. Long story! I had no kids back then, so it was a lot easier to do this type of trips. I do hope we come back to Alaska, but my mission/challenge now is to convince my man to visit Hawaii as a family.

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  4. Cool post with alternatives. Alaska (along with Hawaii) is one of the 2 states I’ve not been to. I’m going in September but pretty much just a turnaround in Ketchikan to say I’ve been. I want to go back.

    One note – even though Delta now allows one-ways, you can’t book a one-way with Alaska miles on Delta (or you can, but as you saw, it’s roundtrip price)

    http://www.pointswithacrew.com/does-alaska-have-full-access-to-delta-low-level-awards-seems-like-no/

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    • @Dan Thanks for chiming in. Yes, you are absolutely right. I can’t believe I didn’t think of it. Of course it’s because Alaska doesn’t allow one-way redemptions on Delta! I knew they didn’t change the policy right away after Delta made the switch, but figured they would have updated it by now. Absolutely makes sense, I will update the post. Weird how many nuances there are when it comes to mileage programs.Thanks for commenting, it appears I had a brain freeze. 🙂

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