Tuesday, September 8, 2015
I’ve spent the last five months working as an expedition guide for a small-ship cruising company in Southeast Alaska. Here are some tips I’m passing on to prospective passengers on expedition-style cruises. These are NOT the big Holland America sorts of cruise ships.
What is an Expedition Cruise?
Expedition cruising is less about port stops, and more about visiting places that aren’t listed in the travel guides. Remote bays, tiny islands, and un-named salmon streams are all potential destinations. There are no on board gift shops, no evening entertainments, no water slides or squash courts. Instead, there is a group of people all united in their quest to seek out the most of wild Alaska that can be possibly crammed into seven days. Instead there are Zodiacs, kayaks, paddle-boards, and snorkel gear. If your cruise company’s brochure spends more pages talking about its launch system for their on-board fleet of kayaks than its gambling options or evening entertainment, you might be on an expedition cruise.
The difference between big-boat cruising and small-ship cruising is the difference between looking at Alaska and actually experiencing it. Expedition-style cruising is very nature-oriented - small groups, wildlife and scenery-focused itineraries, and options to hike or kayak or explore in zodiacs right from the ship itself. Companies like Lindblad, The Boat Company, Alaska Dream Cruises, UnCruise, and the now-defunct Cruise West are examples of this sort of cruising.
A Few Things You Should Know About Expedition Boats
So you’re considering a small-ship cruise for your next vacation. Here are a things to consider as you prepare for your vacation.
1. Cabins are Small
For all but the most expensive cabins, cramped living quarters are a reality of life on boats. However, there are things you can do to maximize space in your cabin. First of all, do what your embarkation documents suggest and bring collapsible luggage. Something like a gym bag or soft-sided roller bag, that can easily be crammed in a corner under your bed once you’ve unpacked, is ideal. Also, consider what clothes you're most likely to use on board. Warm layers, sweaters, rain jackets, hiking pants, brimmed hats, gloves, and woolen socks should rate highly on the list of stuff to make room for. Go ahead and pack a sweatshirt or something comfortable to slip into after a day of adventuring, but definitely plan on most of your clothes being outdoors oriented. Skirts, jewelry, and fancier outfits may not be worth the space they will take up in your cabin, let alone your suitcase.
Another thing you can do to maximize space in your cabin is to look at the various bed arrangements available in the cabin you’re booking. On my boat, many cabins can be configured either with two twin beds, or one queen (made by shoving the two twin beds together). In the queen configuration, one of the people in the bed is right against the wall, and has to climb over their partner to get in or out. Some couples are OK with this, others aren’t. Many passengers find that a room set up with two twin beds is a better use of the space, as both people have access to the aisle between the beds, as well as the bedside table.
If you are much over six foot three, it is also worth inquiring about the ceiling height. Not kidding, unfortunately. On my boat, there were always one or two guys per week who walked around the dining room with their head cocked at a weird angle because they were too tall to stand up under our boat’s ridiculously low ceilings…
Finally, if you choose to book the least expensive class of cabin on the boat, remember that those cabins are less expensive for a reason. You might be closer to engine noises, galley noises, generators, or the occasional whiff of exhaust fumes. Your room might be smaller, or your ceiling lower. Weird air ducts might be snaking across your ceiling, or gurgling water pipes running down your walls. Remember, these cabins cost less for a reason.
Just remember, your cabin is really only the place you go where you sleep. Regardless of what you pay for the cabin, everybody on the boat is still eating the same food, seeing the same whales, and exploring the same wilderness…
2. Boats are Noisy
Ships, especially small ones, are inherently noisy places. There are engines. There are generators, cranes, anchor winches, bow thrusters, pulleys, water pumps, and fans. Most cabins (with a possible exception of the most expensive ones) are often in some way exposed to vessel noise. This isn’t just during the day. If the boat is cruising overnight, the engines will be running. On some itineraries, the boat will cruise to reach an overnight anchorage (dropping the anchor around 11pm, say), and hang out there with the engines off for a few hours. Then, at four or five in the morning, the boat will take off to the day’s operating area, with all the noise (starting the engines, lifting the anchor, firing up the bow thruster) inherent in that process.
Just remember, you don’t come to Alaska in the summer because you want to get lots of good sleep (the jet lag and the constant daylight make that a difficult goal). Between hiking, the kayaking, the great food, and the wine list, most people don’t have a problem falling asleep at night. Just know ahead of time that your cabin won’t be as quiet as your favorite hotel. (But I’ll bet your favorite hotel doesn’t have whales eyeballing you through the lobby windows, either…)
3. Motion Sickness Probably Won’t Be A Problem
Smaller vessels are more affected by ocean conditions than larger cruise ships. That being said, sea sickness is generally not a problem for our passengers. The waters of the Inside Passage are usually very calm, and the ships themselves have an interest in staying in waters that are mild enough to let passengers get out in zodiacs and kayaks and play.
However, certain cruising routes ( as well as certain times of the year) can be more exposed to open ocean conditions. If in doubt, talk to the company - or look at the route map. Is there always land between the route and the open ocean? Are there places where the route goes into places where there isn’t land between the boat and the open Pacific Ocean (such as the Dixon Entrance)? Those are places where the boat may be subject to a little more motion. Rougher sea conditions are also more common very early and very late in the season - a cruise with an exposed route in April or September will probably be much bumpier than a cruise along a protected route in July.
If seasickness is something you are concerned about, I would recommend picking up a few remedies before getting on the plane. Ginger candy is a good option (I am a big fan of Ginger Altoids), and some passengers have good success with wrist bands and pressure points. A number of over-the-counter medications also combat motion sickness, though the medication needs to be taken before you start feeling ill in order to be effective. If you are worried about possible bad weather while on board, just ask one of the boat crew. They will likely be able to tell you whether you should consider taking the medication. Another very simple solution to motion sickness is to just lie down if you start feeling unwell. Sea sickness is caused by your brain perceiving a conflict between what your eyes are seeing (I’m not moving), and what your inner ear is reporting (I’m totally moving). By lying down and closing your eyes, you’re giving your brain less conflicting information.
In summary, the Inside Passage is protected enough that you shouldn’t let fear of motion sickness (or past bad experiences with motion sickness) bar you from getting on a boat.