Alaska: Where cruising is always cool

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105 degrees, 108, 110, and on it goes - all the way through August and into September. The blast furnace heat is here!

After being lulled into a false sense of security by such a long and lovely spring, summer has struck with a vengeance! I don't know about you, but I'm already looking for ways to beat the heat.

One of the more popular ways to stay cool is a cruise of "the Last Frontier," Alaska. Over the past few seasons, Alaska cruises have proven to be among the most desirable ways to chill out, so to speak.

Once the bastion of retired folks, Alaska is now a terrific destination for couples and families, too. Dog sledding, snorkeling (yes, really!), helicopters landing on glaciers and other more adventurous excursions have opened Alaska to a whole new generation of cruisers and explorers.

With so many cruise lines offering Alaska sailings, you have plenty of options for ships and itineraries. But what kind of cruise works best for you? Here are a few things to keep in mind when planning your trip to Seward’s Ice Box.

Itinerary
Alaska cruises offer a variety of routes: Northbound (Vancouver to Seward or Whittier, fly home from Anchorage), Southbound (Whittier or Seward to Vancouver, fly home from Vancouver) or Inside Passage sailings, which are from both Seattle and Vancouver.

When you are budgeting for your vacation, keep in mind a roundtrip ticket to Seattle or Vancouver will be significantly less than the two one-way tickets you’ll need for a Northbound or Southbound. You'll still see the famous Inside Passage and many of the same ports, but you'll have more money to spend on shore excursions and adventures!

Type of Cabin
I used to think a balcony stateroom for Alaska was a bit of an extravagance - if you could afford it, great, but good luck getting any use out of it.

And now? Now that I've done my own Alaska cruise with my own balcony? I wouldn't do it any other way.

Sure I was completely bundled up while reading outside in the afternoon, but being in the fresh air, hearing the amazing sounds of the birds and even the whales breaking the surface of the water as they glide along, I'm hooked.

It's also nice to have your own private space on the days you're "scenic cruising" close to the glaciers. It's often very cold, but the ships are so maneuverable these days, all sides of the ship will be able to enjoy amazing views.

If you do decide on a balcony, and many people do, make sure you book early to get the best rates and position on the ship. The premium balcony staterooms will sell out months in advance.

Port vs. Starboard
Some folks swear by this. If you're doing a one-way cruise, you might want to literally "take sides" (Starboard on a northbound, Port on a southbound), but again, only if you're planning on viewing the scenery from your cabin, not from the deck. These days the cruise lines do a really nice job of sailing the scenic areas of the bays and inlets so all areas of the ship get a wonderful view.

Dining
Alaska cruises used to be dominated by Princess and Holland America, two of the more traditional cruise lines, offering assigned seating at a specific time and not much else.

These days, Norwegian Cruise Line has put several ships in the Alaska market offering their "freestyle" cruising, meaning you can eat what you want and when you want - like a floating resort. Princess has also introduced a more flexible dining plan called Personal Choice cruising. Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity are also offering new dining options.

Let's put it this way: if you don't want to dress for dinner, you now have plenty of choices.

Shore Excursions
Hooray! You can now book shore excursions in advance online, thereby avoiding the "I'll grab the luggage, you grab the excursion forms" dance of previous cruises.

If you don't have access to the web, don't fret. Although pre-booking excursions is very popular, the cruise lines still keep a percentage of spaces on many excursions for those who want to book onboard.

You'll still need your dancing shoes, though.

Also, because the days are so long in Alaska for the summer months, you'll be able to fit in activities well into the evening instead of simply morning and/or afternoon. Check the itinerary to see how long you'll be in a particular port to maximize your time on shore.

Alaska "Seasons"
Because the sailing season for Alaska is so short - May through September - it's pretty easy to figure out when you'll pay big bucks versus when you'll get a good deal: look at those five months and work from the outside in.

May and September will be your least expensive options, followed by June and August. July, that month in the middle, is the most popular time to sail Alaska, and you'll pay a premium for the privilege.

Cool and lovely, Alaska is a great place to take a break this summer - and still reasonably priced, too. Because of the large number of ships up there, you can still get some good rates for inside and outside cabins, particularly in late August and September.

Seattle and Vancouver are so lovely, you might even consider going in a few days early or staying a few days after your cruise to fully explore these great cities. Grab a reasonable airfare and you're set for a cool getaway!

But in case you're looking for sun and sand instead of ice and snow:

SUMMER ON SALE IN THE CARIBBEAN
There are still lots of great deals to be had in the Caribbean this summer!

Although not usually a time of year we see lots of sales (since it's high season pretty much every place but here), lots of hotels are still feeling the effects of the economy and are offering wonderful rates!

The packages below include round trip air from Phoenix, six nights accommodations as noted and airport transfers. They are valid for mid-week travel in late June, July and into August.

All the resorts are all-inclusive, making these some great vacation options:

JAMAICA
Sunset Jamaica Grande
Resort View Room
$999.00 per person, double occupancy

RIU Negril
Run of House Room (best available view at check in, but most likely Garden View)
$1099.00 per person, double occupancy

RIU Ocho Rios
Ocean View Room
$1119.00 per person, double occupancy

Breezes Resort, Spa & Golf Club Runaway Bay
Run of House Room
$1039.00 per person, double occupancy
Includes free golf!

CANCUN Gran Royal Solaris
Ocean View Room
$989.00 per person, double occupancy

Grand Sirenis Mayan Beach
Junior Suite
$949.00 per person, double occupancy

Barcelo Colonial & Tropical
Kids stay and eat free!
$1059.00 per person, double occupancy

Valentin Imperial Maya
Junior Suite - Adults only property
$1259.00 per person, double occupancy

SAVE THE DATES
How about Spring Break in Italy for 2011?

I'm finalizing the contracts for a fantastic Rome, Florence, Venice tour of Italy - and I'm trying to fit in a stop in London on the way back! Mark off March 11 - March 22 and you'll be in good shape - the trip will fall right in that window!

The fully escorted tour will include round trip air from Phoenix, all your hotels, at least three nights in Rome, two nights in both Florence and Venice, along with some truly fabulous sightseeing.

I'll have much more information in my next column, and keep an eye on my agency site, www.travelationonline.com. I'll add information there as I confirm it.

Italy is an amazing country - I hope you come with us!

Sun and sand or ice and snow - we do it all at Travelation! Give us a call at 602-252-1140 or, if you're outside the Metro Phoenix area codes of 602, 480 and 623, call toll-free at 888-751-2032. You can also reach me directly via e-mail at rosanne@travelationonline.com. I look forward to hearing from you!