My husband and I are considering taking an 11 or 12 day 'Denali National Park' cruise tour with either Holland America or Princess Cruises. Both cruise lines itinerary are very similar - 7 night cruise including visiting Glacier Bay, a Tundra Wilderness tour of Denali National Park, a night in Fairbanks, and 2 nights in Denali. However the cruise lines brand their rail travel, expressing that they are "exclusive", the McKinley Explorer, for Holland and the Denali Express for Princess. Is there an advantage to doing the rail by Princess over Holland America?
We also noticed that, for what looks like a similar cruise vacation, it costs much more on Holland America, costing almost $1300 more per person for a verandah ( balcony ) cabin vs. Princess' balcony that sells for around $2500 per person. My husband thinks we can even get a suite for less that Holland America charges.
What do we need to know before we choose which cruise line to see Alaska? Could you explain why there is such a difference between Princess Cruises and Holland America, not only on price but amenities as well?
OK, here's what you need to know before you go....
The Cruise Ships That Sail Alaska
Each cruise line's ships that sail Alaska have a "personality" of their own and you should review the amenities, onboard programs, entertainment and dining options to decide which cruise ship best fits your lifestyle. Holland America tends to attract a more "senior" traveler, while Princess tends to attract travelers of all ages, especially middle age couples and families.
When it comes to choosing a cruise ship to sail Alaska, the difference between seeing Alaska and understanding Alaska is what the cruise line brings to life , while onboard. Onboard enrichment programs introduce the real Alaska for a personalized perspective of America's last frontier. As an example, Princess cruises brings aboard speakers to share their Alaska adventures, such as the grueling 1,100-mile Iditarod sled dog race. In Skagway, you'll enjoy the entertainment of an Alaskan storyteller. And in Ketchikan, a U.S. Forest Service naturalist will present a program about the largest forest in the country, Tongass National Forest. Alaska's intriguing flora, fauna and geology come to life by the full-time onboard naturalists who sails with you the entire length of the cruise. While in Glacier Bay National Park, rangers from the National Park Service will board the cruise ship to serve as tour guides and answer questions about this national treasure. Rangers also lead our Junior Ranger and Teen Explorer programs in Glacier Bay, which teach kids about the wildlife and scenery in a fun and entertaining way.
Dining onboard spotlights local specialties like fresh Alaskan Seafood. You will also like the Taste of Alaska Buffet, a festive on-deck Fish Barbeque and a Reindeer Chili and Rockfish Chowder Cook-Off. The Chef's Alaskan Dinner and Glacier Bay Gala Buffet are highlights of your Alaska cruise. Or indulge in a romantic Glacier Bay Champagne Breakfast served on your own balcony onboard Princess Cruises.
The Rail Services
Now when you disembark the ship, the difference between Princess and Holland America become more clear.
First, Princess Cruises docks in Whittier, Holland America in Seward. Whittier is much closer to Anchorage, when most northbound cruise tours begin. So, travel time is significantly reduced. If you are headed direct to Denali and will not be visiting Anchorage, Princess offers a real exclusive: "Direct-to-the-Wilderness® Alaska Rail Service".
Princess Cruises exclusive Direct-to-the-Wilderness service allows you to step off your cruise ship in Whittier onto the Princess rail service cars and arrive at their Princess Wilderness Lodge that same afternoon. Or, on southbound itineraries, guests leave the Denali area and board the train for a direct link to your awaiting cruise ship in Whittier. Because fewer transfers and less time waiting makes for a more relaxing and hassle-free trip, Princess exclusive cruise ship-rail-lodge connection takes you straight to Denali National Park. While others like Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Holland America are still in transit, you'll be enjoying more time at one of Princess' two Denali area lodges. The connection is seamless. You step directly from your ship onto your waiting railcar. Sit back, read, chat, dine and marvel at the panoramic vistas from their domed observation lounge. You arrive at Denali that same day ready to experience the wonders you've traveled so far to see.
If reaching your destination nearly a full day earlier than with any other cruise tour company is important to you. Then consider Princess Cruises. It could mean more time to sit by the fire, linger over grilled salmon and soak up the comfort and luxury of Princess Cruises, Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge and the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge.
A word about the train. If the rail portion of your cruise tour departs from Anchorage, you will notice that Holland America's rail cars, marketed as the "McKinley Explorer" and Princess Cruises railcars marketed as "McKinley Express" actually travel together on the same train. The train's engine is operated by the Alaska Railroad, which "pulls" the private rail cars of Princess, Holland America and Royal Caribbean and Celebrity. So, for everyone the view out the window or on the observation decks is the same. There are some differences on the rail cars themselves, but each cruise line offers glass dome views, onboard dining options, expert guide service and commentary along the way.
Denali National Park
Sightseeing inside Denali National Park is operated by the National Park Service, so the tours in the park are identical no matter what cruise line you travel with.
With Princess, you can choose your own park tour! Most Princess Alaska land and sea vacations include a tour through the park, plus Princess offers the flexibility to choose your preferred experience from three unique tour options. Park tour options include: Denali Natural History Tour, Tundra Wilderness Tour and Kantishna Experience. Your itinerary and time constraints may limit your options.
- Fully narrated tour that focuses on the rich history of Denali National Park
- Travels to Primrose Ridge (Mile 17) for scenic and wildlife viewing opportunities
- Includes a screening of “Across Time and Tundra”, a film that depicts development of the park road and early visitor experiences
- Stop at Savage Cabin to visit a rustic, back-country shelter used by rangers for decades
- Alaskan Native Presentation
- Possible opportunity to see Mt. Mckinley (weather permitting)
- Passengers who are interested in Denali’s history, culture and nature
- Passengers who have limited time in Denali and want to more thoroughly experience their lodge and/or land excursions
- Passengers who prefer to have more free time in Denali
Tundra Wilderness Tour
- Comprehensive, fully narrated tour that travels deep into Denali National Park (Mile 53)
- In-depth information about the history of the park with plentiful wildlife and photography opportunities
- Travels over Sable Pass to scenic Polychrome Overlook
- Stony Hill Overlook provides opportunities to see Mt. McKinley (weather permitting)
- Note: The Teklanika Tundra Wilderness Tour is seasonally offered in place of the Tundra Wilderness Tour when the park road is not fully accessible due to weather.
- Passengers with 2-night stays at Denali
- Passengers who want a deep Denali Park experience
- Passengers who enjoy motorcoach travel
- All day tour that travels to the end of the park road (Mile 91)
- This tour is guided by a National Park Service Interpretive Ranger
- Explore the old gold mining town of Kantishna and learn about its history
- Stop at the restored home of Fannie Quigley and learn about the early settlers
- Visit the Eielson Visitor Center and Wonder Lake
- Abundant opportunities for wildlife viewing
- Possible opportunities to see Mt. Mckinley (weather permitting)
- Limited space availability
- Note: This tour does not operate when the park road is not fully accessible due to weather.
- Passengers with 2-night stays at Denali
- Passengers who want to travel to the end of the park road
- Passengers who enjoy motorcoach travel
Other Helpful Information
- Don’t wait; availability is limited. Space is assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. Not all requests can be accommodated.
- A snack and hot beverage is provided on the Natural History Tour.
- Box lunches and beverages are provided on the Tundra Wilderness Tour and the Kantishna Experience.
- Wheelchair accessible buses are available, and all stops are wheelchair accessible.
- Children under 4 years and/or 40 pounds are required to be in a child safety device (car seat) to ride on buses. Passengers must bring their own child safety device.
- Tour buses are school buses and are not equipped with restrooms. Buses will stop approximately every 90 minutes for restroom breaks.
- Park road is not paved and travels through beautiful Alaskan wilderness – wildlife is not guaranteed.
- Privately owned vehicles are not permitted into the National Park.
- Suggested items to bring include warm clothes, rainwear, insect repellant, camera, binoculars, and personal medications as necessary
Getting around Alaska, with the exception of the rail services provided, is by motorcoach. Grayline of Alaska provides the bus transportation for Holland America. Princess provides its own transportation. Both offer driver/guide commentary along the way.
For more information and to compare Princess, Holland America, Royal Caribbean or Celebrity cruise tours of Alaska, visit Alaska Cruises Direct. www.alaskacruisesdirect.com