It's understandable that a mass-market Alaska cruise may not be the thing to arouse lustful stirrings in the 20-something cruising set. After all, the average age of the Alaska cruiser, according to a report by the Cruise Lines International Association, tends to be even higher than industry average (50). Likewise, Alaska hasn't traditionally been one of the more value-priced cruise regions, which can hamper interest among travelers in their 20's, with most of us far from our high-wage earning years.
And yet: A cruise to the Alaska and British Columbia region, with its blend of sophisticated urban towns and villages, like Victoria, Seattle and Vancouver, and the ultra-adventurous wilderness ports of Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan, is actually a blast. And you no longer have to possess independent wealth to go. These days, Alaska cruises are priced in a variety of ranges. And there's a huge variety, as well. Princess Cruises, a big ship, all-whistles-and-bells cruise line, positions 10 out of its 17 ships there every spring and summer. Other mainstream operators that ply the bays and inland waterways of the region include Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Holland America, Celebrity and even the upscale Regent Seven Seas.
Slightly more pricey -- but hey, you can always find deals in shoulder season periods like May and September -- are the small ship, soft adventure lines like Lindblad and American Safari Cruises, which offer a more personal experience. You can gather a bunch of pals together and charter boats through companies such as Alaska Charter Boat. Or go really basic on Alaska's ferry system.
Whatever your choice of ship, here are a few suggestions:
Getting on a ship, especially if you opt for an inside or oceanview cabin, can appear pretty financially painless at first -- especially if you keep tabs on Alaska bargain opportunities via Cruise Critic's Deals section. While prices vary, we're seeing fares as low as $499 (inside cabin, no view) for a seven-night cruise on Princess. That's a major deal. Others have included oceanview accommodations on a weeklong trip for $699 (one particular deal featured a $100 onboard credit included in that rate, covering at least an evening's worth of cavorting for a 20-something). There's a caveat, though: If you're not blessed with a home in Vancouver, Anchorage or Seattle, you'll have to ante up for possibly pricey airline tickets. Try to avoid the one-way trips (between say, Anchorage and Vancouver or Seattle) as air can be exorbitant.
It's the excursions of the ship that really drive home the overwhelming beauty of the landscape (even in tourist areas) that surrounds you. But know this: If you book excursions through your cruise line, you'll pay premiums that range from a relatively modest $5 extra (Princess charges $25.95 for a ride on Juneau's Mt. Robert Tramway while the attraction itself is priced at $21.95) to a $30 difference when booking a hiking/helicopter trip to Mendenhall Glacier. But it's also important to note that, particularly on more rugged excursions, half the appeal is getting away from the crowds. In those cases, smaller tour operators featuring more intense and personal experiences might be a better match anyway. One warning: If you're taking an independently arranged excursion and you're late getting back, the ship likely won't wait (it will hold off if a tour organized by the cruise line is running behind).
Go in with a group of pals for onboard -- and onshore -- economies. For most cruise lines, if you book at least eight cabins (with double occupancy, meaning you have to have a minimum of 16 people), the cruise line will throw in a free fare. Off the ship, if a group of you can book a tour together you'll have it all to yourself.
Even if you can't round up enough friends to make up a worthy group, you can try to make connections through Cruise Critic's Alaska forum. Find some fellow 20-somethings who are on your cruise -- and ask if they want to pair up on shore tours. On the Cruise Critic message boards, there are in fact a number of 20-somethings, especially couples, who are making the trips. So if you can't convince your pals to join you in Alaska, the boards, and especially the Roll Call forums, which allow individuals to declare their attendance on specific sailings, are of special utility.
Finally, we're not making insinuations about the negative effects of age mixing. State of mind is vital. There are certainly 20-somethings who are wise beyond their years, and wrinkled cane-toters who still know they're going to live forever.
Even still, here are a few recommendations suited to younger cruisers:
The Trip: Seven-night southbound cruise, Anchorage to Vancouver
Why: With the youngest demographic in the industry, Carnival Spirit is the clear choice for a 20-something Alaska cruiser. With typical "Fun Ship" schlock onboard, Alaska cruises with Carnival are sure to be the liveliest (relatively speaking) both at night and, during sea days, throughout the daylight hours. Especially key: The seven-night southbound cruise aboard Spirit schedules a 15-hour call in Juneau, plenty of time to explore one of the more adventurous Alaska cruise excursion options -- hiking Mendenhall Glacier. If there's one excursion that should motivate you to give an extra pint of blood, perhaps this is the one.
The Trip: Seven-night Inside Passage cruise, roundtrip Seattle
Why: While you'll certainly still find a majority of over-50's on a Princess cruise to Alaska, the line has really made its mark offering some of the most elegant, yet still affordable, voyages to Seward's Folly. Over 80 percent of the cabins on Golden Princess are oceanview, and 80 percent of those offer balconies, a splurge that can make for an unforgettable Alaska cruise. It's an option that creates the perfect romantic setting against the stunning backdrop of the visceral Alaskan wild.
Providing passengers with over 14 hours on a scheduled stop in Skagway is another reason to choose Princess. The time in port allows for more leeway to create your own independent excursion. Beyond shore tours, rent a car (Avis offers daily rentals there for about $75) to explore the outer regions of the area, but a decent amount of research is essential. Having had personal experience with nearly missing my ship departing from port, I know the overwhelming feeling of existential horror that consumes you as you sprint to the dock. Get back on time.
Finally, if you meet other similarly aged couples, Princess makes dining together quite accommodating; its "Personal Choice" dining option allows for easy group coalescence.
Royal Caribbean's Radiance of the Seas
The Trip: Seven-night Inside Passage, roundtrip Vancouver
Why: Royal Caribbean's whole marketing approach is about activity. Radiance of the Seas has the standard RCI rock-climbing wall -- something to warm up on prior to ascending the genuine article. The sports court with basketball/volleyball is another nice draw for those passengers wielding a youthful vigor.
One caveat: With some of the most highly lauded children's programs at sea, you're likely to see a reduction in overall average age as a result of the families onboard. One particular Cruise Critic thread mentioned 300 children on the Adventure Ocean list. So while the average age might be a smidge lower, realize that family circles are the result.
Charter a Boat
The Trip: If you can pull together at least three (and up to 20 or so) like-minded friends (the more you gather, the more you can divide the costs), charter a boat. There are various choices, from two- or three-nighters to a week or more; these come with cook and captain.
Why: Small-boat chartering means itinerary flexibility and the most intimate experience possible. Choose from a traditional Seattle to Sitka Inside Passage sailing or work with the captain to design a more specialized route (say, exploring the inlets around Juneau or sailing from Sitka to Ketchikan, winding your way, within reason, to your heart's content). Meals and snacks are included, and often feature "Catch of the Day"-type fare, as well as crab and shrimp bakes. "Excursions" may include beach and rainforest hiking, fishing, kayaking (most charters are equipped with kayaks and smaller skiffs), wet-suit diving, whale watching, and visits to hot springs and waterfalls -- all there to be enjoyed whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Just about everything you would need for the voyage is included onboard (foul weather gear, fishing equipment, etc.). Bringing your own beer/snacks is perfectly acceptable. In fact, just about everything is kosher, as long as it's legal.
While our research indicated that the average cost of $2,400 per person (during high season) will make this option out of reach for most (but certainly not all) of the recently employed, there are some possibilities. Prime among them? Go for an offseason trip that can amount to ludicrous savings. Pay a visit to the specials page of the Charter Brokers of Alaska Web site; on one recent visit there was an entirely reasonable 11-day all-inclusive charter from $1,135 per person (September 17 - 27, Juneau to Seattle) listed.
Three Caveats: Ideally, you'll want to book at least six months in advance, especially for the larger vessels (of which there are far fewer). If you are looking for a close-in voyage, there are options. Large parties can be split between two vessels, which are run in tandem. Secondly, access to certain places -- Glacier Bay or Pack Creek for bear viewing -- require permits. Passengers have to apply through the Department of Fish and Game folks for individual permits.
As a final note, be aware that some boats are more suited for single sex parties (multiple close-quarter bunkings), and some are more suited for couples (double bunkings).
Alaska Marine Highway System
The Trip: Cruise Alaska's Marine Highway via its year-round ferry system, with about 10 ships (200 - 750 passengers) covering a route that connects 33 ports -- from Bellingham in Washington State all the way up to Skagway and the Aleutians -- over thousands of nautical miles. Itineraries can be pieced together into an endless number of different routes.
Why: Established over 40 years ago, the "Blue Canoes" are a no-frills, spontaneous option for scenic cruise travel and transportation between an impressive number of Alaskan port communities. Buy a ticket between two ports, get off and stay for a few days, then hop back on the next ferry that glides through.
In standard ferry mode, you can bring your vehicle -- car, truck, RV or motorcycle -- along with you (no sleeping in vehicle, junior). Campers and trekkers will find the mode of travel ideal for penetrating some of the more inaccessible portions of Alaska's coastline -- with stunning views along the ride.
Book a cabin with in-suite facilities, or rough it in your sleeping bag in the heated solariums and out on deck. Hot meals are available "cafeteria style" on all ferries, and two of the larger vessels have full-service dining rooms. Options may include Alaskan seafood, hot meals, salads, sandwiches, yogurt, fruit, juices and snacks. For late-night snacks, vending machines are an option. All dining is a la carte.
You can also travel with your pet and bring food and beverages onboard. One thing to remember, however, is that there are no refrigerators available onboard (microwaves, however, are).
With so many port options, rates are highly variable, but a three-night Bellingham to Skagway (Inside Passage) summer sailing will run you about $400 per person for a ticket. A private cabin will cost another $350 or so (price is per cabin, not per person).
Of special note: No other Alaska option really allows for the opportunity of year-round travel. Winter sailings -- where the temperatures may average in the teens or low 20s -- provide the opportunity to witness the spectacular aurora borealis or attend the Iditarod. If past prices are any indication, you'll save about 30 percent off the summer rates.
One caveat: Port stops are very short -- about two hours on average, or enough time to load and offload passengers and vehicles. So if you're looking to take a long voyage with extended time in ports, you'll have to book your trip in segments.
--by Dan Askin, Assistant Editor
Image of Golden Princess in Tracy Arm Fjord appears courtesy of Cruise Critic member debjo.