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Originally published April 6, 2013 at 7:01 PM | Page modified April 9, 2013 at 10:16 AM

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Travel Wise: Setting sail for Alaska on the right ship

Finding the right ship, right itinerary and right price for an Alaska cruise.

Special to The Seattle Times

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When Ballard resident Marguerite David and a group of her baby-boomer college friends began coordinating plans for an Alaska cruise, they sifted through the choices with several priorities in mind.

“No ‘Sex in the City’ spa or designer dresses for the dining room,” she recalls. “It was all about the hiking, weather, flora, fauna and comfortable shoes.’’

They settled on a seven-day Holland America cruise that included a full day in Glacier Bay and another in Sitka where they could hike on trails close to where the ship docked.

With seven major lines sailing 10 ships between Seattle and Alaska this year (and more ships sailing out of Vancouver, B.C.), a decision on which trip is the right one hinges on more than price. Not that the bottom line isn’t important, but costs can be managed by picking off-peak sailing dates (in May and early June or in September, not the peak summer months).

More challenging “is what you want to do and who you’re traveling with,’’ says Lisa Anciaux, director of travel products for AAA Washington.

It’s wise to do as David did and make a list of priorities for a cruise. Kid-friendly or not? Twenty-four-hour pizza or craft cocktails? Ports of call that emphasize historical sites or active outdoor adventures?

The right itinerary

If seeing Alaska’s Glacier Bay tops your list, look at seven-day, Seattle round-trip cruises offered by Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and Holland America. Ships head along the B.C. coast and Alaska’s Inside Passage and include a day of scenic cruising at Glacier Bay.

Alternatively, other lines offer trips that include Hubbard Glacier and Tracy Arm, a 30-mile-long fjord that ends at the dramatic twin Sawyer glaciers.

Oceania Cruises, new to Seattle this year, has a few longer sailings. One is a 14-day Seattle round-trip that includes Sitka, Hubbard Glacier and cruising in the Gulf of Alaska. The line also has some Alaska cruises that depart from Seattle but end in Vancouver, B.C., (and vice versa) that offer more varied scenery than round-trip Seattle cruises.

Get this year’s sailing schedule for cruises from Seattle to Alaska at portseattle.org/cruise. For cruises from Vancouver, B.C., to Alaska, see portmetrovancouver.com (search for cruise).

If you decide to go in the offseason, you can save a lot. Princess Cruises’ website shows the double-occupancy rate for an oceanview cabin aboard the Star Princess jumping from $964 per person, including taxes, in mid-May to $1,969 in late July for a seven-day Inside Passage/Glacier Bay cruise.

But keep in mind Cruise Critic’s (cruisecritic.com) advice on timing and weather: “May and September offer cheaper cruise fares and fewer crowds; however, shore excursions have a greater chance of being canceled than they do in high season — especially boat and helicopter tours.”

The right ship

Match the itinerary you want to a ship with the type of atmosphere you’re seeking.

“If it’s just you and your husband and you want a romantic getaway, we might steer you to Oceania’s Regatta,’’ the smallest ship (684 passengers) of the major cruise lines calling in Seattle this year, said Anciaux of AAA Washington. “If you’re traveling with a family, it might be Princess or Royal Caribbean,’’ both bigger ships with lots of activities for kids.

Cruise Critic, owned by TripAdvisor Media Group, a partner with Expedia, has a stake in selling cruises, but its ship reviews are thorough and candid.

“Norwegian’s Pearl is designed for families so of course there are plenty of kids,’’ says the Cruise Critic website. It lauds the ship for its “super teen center’’ but subtracts points for “tacky plastic flowers that show up in places where there should be real ones or none at all.’’

The Star Princess is “not a great ship for solo travelers because so many fellow passengers arrive in packs.’’

Holland’s Oosterdam draws “mostly mature, sophisticated, well-traveled couples,’’ says Cruise Critic, and scores points for an Internet lounge, library and coffee bar operated in partnership with The New York Times.

For those who prefer smaller ships and fewer people, there are alternatives to cruising with the masses.

Un-Cruise Adventures (un-cruise.com) has 11-14 day Seattle-Juneau sailings this summer from Seattle’s Fishermen’s Terminal aboard boats that hold between 22 and 86 guests. Ports of call include Sitka and Glacier Bay.

See smallshipcruises.com for other small ship itineraries

Activities

Look not only at the types of shore excursions that are offered (everything from dog-sledding on the Mendenhall Glacier to bike rides around Sitka), but also what there is to do aboard the ship.

For the laid-back passengers, Holland America wins praise for its cocktail tastings, mixology classes and digital-photography workshops.

For the like-to-keep busy crowd, the Celebrity Solstice includes a half-acre of grass with bocce courts and a putting green. The Norwegian Pearl features a bowling lane that turns into a disco at night.

Carol Pucci is a Seattle freelance writer. Contact her at travel@carolpucci.com. Web/blog: www.carolpucci.com. Twitter: @carolpucci

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