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Originally published April 26, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 26, 2009 at 5:19 AM

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It's the perfect season to catch a cruise to Alaska

If you've ever wanted to cruise to Alaska, this may be the summer to sail away. The weak economy, and an abundance of ships sailing from Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., on Alaskan cruises, are keeping prices down.

Check your ID before cruising

On June 1, tougher U.S. laws on ID requirements for land and sea travel take effect, requiring a passport or other federally approved identification documents for those re-entering the United States from Canada, Mexico and certain other Western Hemisphere countries. Most Seattle-Alaska cruises are what are called closed-loop cruises and such strict ID is not required, even though they stop at a Canadian port, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol spokesman Mike Milne in Seattle. However, some cruise lines are insisting that U.S. citizens have either a passport or one of the federally approved alternatives such as a U.S. passport card or Washington's enhanced driver's license. Be sure to check with your cruise line on ID requirements. Get U.S. government information on the new ID rules at www.getyouhome.gov

Cruise discounts

Beyond their advertised deals, cruise lines offer discounts for certain types of passengers, including travelers age 55 and older; repeat customers; military personnel; and, at times, residents of certain states. Family-reunion groups can get discounts and some stateroom upgrades, plus other perks. For parents traveling with children, there are discounts on the third and fourth berth in a cabin.

Small ships, ferry trips to Alaska

Besides the big cruise ships sailing from Seattle, there are many small-boat cruises to Alaska. Some ships carry around 100 passengers; some classic yachts carry less than a dozen. Most are significantly more expensive than big-ship cruises.

Small-ship cruise lines includeAmerican Safari, Cruise West and Lindblad Expeditions. Classic yachts are run by All Aboard Yacht Charters, Pacific Catalyst, Alaska on the Home Shore and others. Find some links at www.smallshipcruises.com

A bare-bones way to sail to Alaska is aboard the Alaska Marine Highway System ferry that departs from Bellingham, www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs. Kristin Jackson / Seattle Times

Beware of extra costs

While cruises are all-inclusive, there are many ways that spending can soar beyond the base price.

• A cruise line's optional shore excursions are among the biggest-ticket items. In small Alaskan ports or in Victoria, B.C., it's easy to explore on your own or arrange a local tour.

• Drinks can be very expensive. Cruise lines try to make up for low basic fares with high prices for wine, beer and spirits plus hefty service charges. Most cruise lines forbid passengers from bringing their own alcohol aboard, but some passengers do. If you or any of your family are big soda consumers, buy a "soda package" that allows unlimited soft drinks during the cruise.

• Most cruise lines automatically add a gratuity of about $10 per person (or more) per day to the final shipboard bill. Passengers can ask at the purser's office to get the amount adjusted, or to tip individually.

• Some ships have "premium" restaurants that charge extra or have introduced fees (in addition to a service charge) for late-night room service.

Booking a cruise

Most cruises still are booked by travel agents. A travel agent can advise on ships that will suit you — and help avoid second-rate staterooms by the elevators or under the nightclub. Travel agents can get volume discounts and know of deals you might overlook. And, if the fare goes down, a travel agent can alert you and help you try to get shipboard credit or other compensation. Almost any travel agent can sell cruises; big Seattle-area agencies such as AAA Travel and Doug Fox Travel sell many.

Even if you use a travel agent, it's still wise to educate yourself on itineraries and prices (which will be lowest in the spring and fall, outside the high season). Check cruise lines' Web sites. Get links to cruise lines serving Seattle, plus a sailing schedule, through the Port of Seattle, www.portseattle.org/seaport/cruise/. Check prices at online travel agencies such as Expedia.com or Travelocity.com. And get useful ship reviews from passengers at www.cruisecritic.com

Also comparison-shop on Alaska cruises from Vancouver, B.C. One advantage: Cruises departing Vancouver sail along the scenic east side of Vancouver Island, part of British Columbia's Inside Passage. From Seattle, ships travel west of Vancouver Island to make better time. Get a sailing schedule at www.portvancouver.com(search for cruises).

Drive to the dock — and parking deals

The big advantage of sailing out of Seattle is being able to drive to either of the city's cruise terminals, saving on airfare. Princess, Holland American and Royal Caribbean cruises depart from the new Smith Cove Terminal (at Pier 91 near Magnolia); Norwegian and Celebrity cruises leave from the Bell Street Cruise Terminal (downtown at Pier 66) .

For those who need to park during the cruise, parking is available at both Seattle terminals. At the Smith Cove Terminal, it's $20 a day. For the Bell Street Terminal at Pier 66, it's $17 a day at the Bell Street Garage. Get details from Republic Parking, www.rpnw.com/seattle/cruise/

Some Holland America passengers can get free or reduced parking at the Smith Cove Terminal. For passengers with veranda-category cabins and above, it's free; for those with outside cabins it's 50 percent off. (No free parking if you have an inside cabin.)

Many Seattle hotels also offer reduced or free parking for guests who stay before or after a cruise. Get details on cruise-and-park packages at www.visitseattle.org/visitors/cruise/packages.asp

If you've ever wanted to cruise to Alaska, this may be the summer to sail away. The weak economy, and an abundance of ships sailing from Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., on Alaskan cruises, are keeping prices down.

How low? Celebrity Cruises is offering a seven-night round-trip Seattle-to-Southeast Alaska cruise starting at $549 per person on some sailings of its ship Infinity. Four other major cruise lines sailing out of Seattle — Holland America, Princess, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian cruise lines — also are offering deals, with fares starting around $650-$700 per person for a weeklong cruise, even in the July-August high season. Such prices are significantly lower that past years, sometimes saving passengers hundreds of dollars.

"This is the most aggressive pricing we've seen in many years," said Rick Meadows, the executive vice president of marketing for Seattle-based Holland America Line. It will base three ships here this summer, including the 1,380-passenger Amsterdam that was to be the first to dock when Seattle's new Smith Cove Cruise Terminal opened Friday.

Prices are low for cruises worldwide this year as Americans, by far the bulk of worldwide cruise passengers, economize on everything and cut back on travel. That's forced cruise lines to offer all sorts of discounts, from early-booking specials and onboard credit to two-for-one deals and last-minute discounts, to fill up their ships.

Next year, however, Seattle-to-Alaska cruises could be costlier as several ships will be shifted out of the Alaska market and additional (and more expensive) 14-day cruises will be offered. However, Carnival Cruise Lines will sail out of Seattle for the first time in 2010 with midweek Alaska cruises.

Many sailings, many choices

Seattle kicked off its five-month Alaska cruise season Friday when the Smith Cove Cruise Terminal opened at Pier 91 near Magnolia. It replaces Terminal 30, at the south edge of downtown, which has reverted to cargo; the city's downtown Bell Street Cruise Pier Terminal (at Pier 66) continues to host cruise lines.

Eleven ships will sail out of Seattle this season, with 211 ship calls and an estimated 801,000 passengers, according to the Port of Seattle, down from last year's record 886,039. The ships will glide in and out of Seattle mostly on weekends; the gleaming white floating mini-cities include the 2,600-passenger Star Princess.

Most Seattle sailings will be weeklong roundtrips to Southeast Alaska, with stops in ports such as Ketchikan and Juneau, plus Victoria, B.C. But several lines, including Holland America and Celebrity, also offer three- or four-night Pacific Northwest cruises at the beginning and end of the season.

For would-be cruisers, all those sailings mean a big choice in style and price, from an apartmentlike penthouse suite, with a private veranda, to an inside stateroom. There are, of course, downsides to getting the cheapest stateroom on a ship. You'll get a small inside cabin — no porthole, no window — possibly on the lowest deck. And then there's the fine print: The lowest fares are available only on certain sailings; are based on double occupancy; and taxes and fees are additional. (For the $549 fare available as of midweek on the May 22 sailing on the Celebrity Infinity, taxes and fees add about $128 per person).

Yet even if you're sleeping in the modern-ship equivalent of steerage, you still get an all-inclusive trip — accommodation, transport, meals and entertainment are covered in the price.

Besides, even if your cabin doesn't have a view, all the ships have many public rooms and decks. Whether you're economizing or splurging on a cruise, you'll enjoy the same scenery of the Washington, British Columbia and Alaska coasts, from seaside cities to a wilderness of fjords, peaks and glaciers.

Kristin Jackson: kjackson@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2271.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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