Cruise Haters Guide to having a blast on an Alaska Cruise

Last Updated on July 15, 2024

Are you a DIY traveler considering an Alaska cruise? Or being forced encouraged to go on a cruise by someone else? Don’t knock it till you try it! It is totally possible for a DIY traveler to have a blast on a cruise ship. You can make it yours and get some of that DIY feel even on a big ship.

Whether you’re going with friends or family that want to cruise, or you’re considering a complicated destination that’s easier to visit on a cruise, you can totally do this. You might even love it. I have worked in the cruise industry for many years, plan and book cruises for others and have been on many cruises myself. I’m a DIY traveler who generally likes to do my own thing, so if I love cruises there’s a good chance you will too. Let me share my secrets!

My 8 tips for having a blast on a cruise if you’re a DIY traveler are:

#1 – Embrace the benefits

The stern of a large white cruise ship with balconies. A blue and red banner on the back says "Choose fun"

Even if this is not normally how you choose to travel, there are some amazing things about being on a cruise. There’s no denying some of the big benefits. I encourage you to embrace them and enjoy it! Things like…

  • You only have to pack and unpack once to arrive and once to leave
  • You don’t have to carry your own luggage
  • Someone else provides all the food – but you still get choices about what you want, anyone can find something they love to eat on a cruise ship!
  • Someone else figures out the directions and where you’re going
  • In general, someone else is figuring out almost everything, so it feels like a real vacation from having to plan at all
  • There are shore excursions available if you don’t want to figure out how to do things while you’re in port
  • Amazing views!

Related: The best Alaska cruise ports

#2 – Find the quiet places on the ship

If you want to avoid crowds, you can absolutely do this, even on a packed big cruise ship. Part of the fun of this is exploring the ship you’re on and finding those spots. You can also ask a member of the crew (the dining room staff and the purser’s desk are good people to ask).

Some of my favorite go to spots are –

  • Deck chairs away from the pool in warm places
  • Deck chairs near the pool in cold places
  • Any outside space – except for the pool area on sunny, warm days, there are usually plenty of quiet spaces on deck. Bring some extra clothes to bundle up if you’re going to Alaska so you can enjoy quiet time outside, if you’re going to the Caribbean bring plenty of sun protection to enjoy the deck
  • Many ships have a library, it’s almost always quiet
  • On embarkation day, skip the bananas busy buffet area and have lunch in the Main Dining Room or get room service instead.
  • Eat dinner early or late (after the shows have started)
  • Explore the different dining options and ask the crew when the quietest time is to go

#3 – Get a balcony cabin

A small white table on the balcony of a cruise ship at sunset. There is a bouquet of flowers as well as two cocktails and a piece of chocolate cake.
Now honestly, this doesn’t look so bad, does it?!?!

Balcony cabins are more expensive but absolutely worth it, especially for DIY travelers. Having a balcony gives you a completely private space to watch the world go by.

Whether it’s enjoying the scenery and looking for whales and birds on a sea day, or watching port operations and the port action from high above, your balcony gives you a sense of privacy and getting away from it all without ever leaving the ship.

Pro tip: get room service breakfast and eat it on your balcony at least once. Or get drinks and dessert for sunset. You get the idea!

A person in a warm hat and coat holding a coffee cup sitting on a balcony of a cruise ship with glaciers in the background.
Enjoying a private balcony in Glacier Bay National Park

#4 – Spend your time in port the way you want to

The house screen on the outside of a native clan house in Saxman near Ketchikan. the building is surrounded by forest and the sun is setting.
Saxman Totem park near Ketchikan is served by shore excursions from the ship, but you can also walk there and back on your own for a delightful six mile round trip walk along the water.

This is the most important part of making your cruise feel like a good fit for you. When you’re in port, you have freedom to do whatever you want! As long as you make it back the ship before it departs.

It’s worth spending some time ahead of time figuring out what you want to do on your port days. One of the big decisions you’ll want to make is whether to do a shore excursion organized by your ship or whether you want to explore on your own.

If you’re considering a shore excursion, look for ones that have smaller group size or go to places that are not the most famous. For example, skip the tour to Lover’s Beach in Cabo and go on a different one instead. A hiking or kayaking tour is usually a good bet because they usually have a small group size. You can also ask the shore excursion staff for their favorite tour, or you can ask them which one doesn’t usually fill up (it might still be awesome, just less well known).

If you’re exploring on your own, many ports are wonderful to just walk around on your own. Look at Google maps the night before or the day of and see what looks like it would be fun to check out within what you consider walking distance.

Just walking around and finding some local food is my favorite way to spend a port day no matter where it is! This guarantees you’ll always have a unique experience. Keep in mind that it’s 100% on you to get back to the ship well before it sails, so keep track of time and manage your day accordingly. Depending on where I am, I love to go for a hike if that’s easy to do from the ship.

Related: The best hike in every Alaska cruise port

#5 – Ask the crew and locals for advice for port days

A close up of a table in an outdoor Mexican restaurant. The table is blue and there is a beer in a glass as well as a basket of tortilla chips and three salsas.
This amazing taco joint is Puerto Vallarta was recommended by a crew member

If you’re in a cruise ship port, don’t use yelp for picking places to go because most of the reviews are written by other visitors! Instead, ask a crew member where they like to go to eat if they get a day off in port. Don’t question it, just do what they say! Sometimes locals and visitors enjoy the same places and if you find a place like that then you have really hit the jackpot.

Another great option is to ask a local. Just go into a gift shop near the port and ask them where THEY like to go for lunch, or coffee, or for a hike, or whatever you want to do. This will give you lots of great ideas you won’t find from other sources.

Pro tip: in a tropical port, the crew will absolutely know the best beaches to go to. If that’s what you’re looking for, ask them!

#6 – Invest in learning about where you are going

Taking some time to learn about the destination you’re going to as well as the ports is a great way to DIY-up your cruise.

Find books and podcasts that help you learn about the human and natural history and in addition to being more informed, this will also help you connect to the place and come up with fun things to do in port.

You can design your own walking tour based on what you’ve learned, or choose a shore excursion where you can learn even more. You can also research local food and try it out in port (see previous tip!).

# 7 – Travel in the shoulder season

A waterfall coming down a rocky and brushy hill near a glacier. There is a large sandy area below the waterfall and a person in a red jacket sitting on a rock looking at the waterfall
Alaska cruise ports are noticeably less busy in May and early June. This is Nugget Falls at the Mendenhall Glacier on a rainy day in late May.

Shoulder season leads to less crowds in port and more friendly locals. Your ship will also be less crowded and your fare less expensive! The trade off is usually less than ideal weather, but for a DIY traveler like you, this is totally worth it!

In general, getting out and exploring ports or the decks of the ship in less than ideal weather is a near guarantee for more solitude.

#8 – Consider a small ship cruise

DIY travelers should definitely consider a small ship cruise experience. It is more expensive, and you can definitely create many of the benefits of a small cruise by following my tips in this article.

However, there’s no denying that on a small ship there will be less people on board and you’ll get plenty of personalized experiences and opportunities big ships don’t get. You can go to places and on tours (called shore excursions in the cruise industry) with far fewer people.

One potential downside of a small ship cruise to be aware of is that you will get less choices of activities – there will be lots of wonderful things to do but there won’t be as much opportunity to explore ports on your own because small ships spend less time in towns. You can offset this by spending a few days in whatever port you are embarking or disembarking from.

Final Thoughts

Even if you don’t like the idea of cruising or you’re a DIY traveler, you can still have a great time on board a cruise ship. If you embrace what it is and what it isn’t and dive into local experiences in port, you’ll end your trip with great memories and plenty of ideas for your next trip.

Jennie Flaming on InstagramJennie Flaming on LinkedinJennie Flaming on PinterestJennie Flaming on Youtube
Jennie Flaming
Hi! I'm Jennie. I’m a fourth generation Seattleite. I lived in Alaska for many years and I still spend lots of time there every year visiting friends and working as a tour director. I've been a guide for many years in both Alaska and Washington, am a field editor for the Milepost and host the Alaska Uncovered Podcast about Alaska Travel as well as the Washington State Hiking Podcast. I love to share the places I love with visitors, newcomers and my fellow locals. I’m so glad to have you here!