We just spent 7 nights on a cruise ship! And man, what a week! This was my third cruise (2 previous Carnival cruises with my family in 1996 and 2003) and my husband’s first. I still feel wobbly, like my head is swimming. But what an incredible trip. Relaxing, gorgeous, so fun!
It’s also a type of trip that is way outside our usual travel M.O. We tend to focus on finding that local experience, figuring out affordable ways to do a lot, and forgoing group activities in favor of doing things on our own, stumbling about a place and letting the people we meet dictate what we end up doing. A cruise is the total opposite. You don’t have to do or worry about a single thing from the moment you step on board. It is all taken care of for you, which allowed me to relax to unprecedented levels. Part of me did miss the planning aspect and having that element of control, though.
So why an Alaskan cruise?
It was actually the wedding celebration of our best friends, who wanted to do something unique for their wedding ceremony. Because this was for a specific purpose, we did not choose the dates, the destination or cruise line. On one hand it was nice to just be told “this is what we’re doing, if you would like to join us, woo!” On the other hand, I love planning trips and getting the most bang for our buck; there are many other trips we may have chosen to do over this one considering the cost. Having said that, this was a once in a lifetime experience because it was for my best friend’s wedding celebration and fifteen of us got to share in that experience, which is something that can never be replicated.
Now on with the review! 🙂
Name: Alaska Tracy Arm Fjord Cruise
Dates: Sept 1 – Sept 8
Leaving from Seattle, WA
Ship: Celebrity Solstice, built in 2008
Length: 1041 feet
Fun features: Ocean-going live grass lawn, a glassblowing studio, and a 12 deck-high atrium
Booking the room over the phone was a simple process, but after the initial booking I found the lack of communication from Celebrity frustrating. We didn’t receive a reminder to make our final payment before the due date (thankfully our friend reminded us!), nor did we receive any embarkation information. Even after I filled out everything in our online account and printed out our express passes, I still had no idea where we needed to go and when, so I called to find out and the representative I spoke to sounded annoyed that I didn’t already know these things.
After the initial booking, things smoothed out. The check in and security process was super smooth and painless. They have it down and know what they are doing. It took us thirty minutes to get on board after our cab dropped us off. Easy peasy.
Walking on board, we were handed mimosas and headed up to one of the decks to take in the view of the Seattle harbor. The weather was perfect, the service was already exceeding expectations, and the excitement was palpable.
Well laid out, and well marked with maps, the ship was fun to explore, and in our opinion really pretty. I’m sure there are fancier, snazzier ships out there but we thought the Solstice was beautiful and well-maintained. 15 decks of fun! Our favorite spots were the Solarium, which was the indoor pool area with hot tubs and comfy chairs looking out onto the blue expanse of sea, and the Sky Lounge, a huge club-bar-lounge at the front of the ship with windows for days that was totally underutilized.
Small but larger than expected, the state rooms were nice. We had an inside cabin so it was dark and quiet. I’ve never slept so hard in my life. Seriously, I got some of the best sleep on this trip. The bride and groom had a balcony room, which was the same size as ours but with a good-sized balcony and killer views; if we’d had that I doubt I would have left the room much! That balcony would have called to me. So that’s one good thing about having the inside room; it forces you to get out and about, really explore the ship and lets you meet other people.
Day 1: Embark in Seattle (10-3 pm), depart 4 pm
Day 2: At Sea
Day 3: Dock in Ketchikan, Alaska
Day 4: Dock in Juneau, Alaska
Day 5: Dock in Skagway, Alaska
Day 6: At Sea
Day 7: Mostly at sat, Dock in Victoria, BC in the evening
Day 8: Disembark in Seattle (7:30 am)
Day 2 might have been my most favorite day because it was the first time, in a very long time, that I truly relaxed. After an incredible night’s sleep, I spent the day reading, eating, drinking, hot tubbing, doing puzzles and napping. I’m not very good at doing nothing and always feel the need to be planning, doing, thinking ahead. But I was able to disconnect (no internet! no cell service!), forget about work, and just vacate for 24 hours. It was incredible.
Ketchikan was cute, and we had perfect weather that day. We even saw a seal swimming around the Creek Street creek! Soon we found ourselves in a seemingly locals dive bar and talked to a guy missing several teeth who had lived in Ketchikan for 40 years. It was nice to get a bit of a local’s perspective on things and be away from other cruise guests for a while. Of course, the day we spent in Ketchikan I was suffering a massive hangover and was not in the mood for hiking or much exploring so after a few hours and lunch we went back to the ship.
I wish we could have seen a bit more of Juneau, but as that was the wedding day, we didn’t spend any time exploring. The wedding was so sweet. I’ve never been to a small ceremony like that, and it was really special. I’m not sure of the name of the place where we went, but it was a botanical garden of some sort. Thankfully they had an indoor garden area, since it was raining and yucky outside.
We didn’t get to go to Skagway because of a landslide (!), so we got rerouted to Icy Strait Point, which was pretty but didn’t seem to have a whole lot to offer. A few ladies who had done this cruise several times told us that Skagway was way more interesting and more beautiful, and that Icy Strait Point was pretty much a tourist town created for the soul purpose of cruise guests. We did see a bald eagle, which was awesome, and walked through a magical forest, but otherwise the food in port was overpriced for what it was and we didn’t spend much time off ship. When we went back to the ship, we hung out in the Sky Lounge and witnessed several whales nearby! Definitely a highlight of the trip.
We didn’t sign up for any excursions, and we’re not particularly nature lovers, so I think a lot of the appeal of an Alaskan cruise was lost on us. We didn’t take full advantage of what this trip offered other people. We didn’t walk on any glaciers or go on a whale watching tour, we didn’t ride any ATVs or go on organized hikes (or any hikes for that matter). We didn’t even wake up early enough to see the glacier as we passed by, so I’m sure we missed quite a bit. The towns we visited didn’t have a whole lot of cultural or historical attractions, so you didn’t need a whole lot of time to see everything. They seemed to be made up of mostly jewelry shops and overpriced restaurants aimed at taking money from tourists.
The one exception was Victoria, but we had only a few hours in the evening, which wasn’t time enough to do more than find dinner and meet up with friends for drinks. What we did see of the downtown area was beautiful, clean and teeming with food options (seriously, so hard to choose). We ended up eating at a Himalayan restaurant called The Mint, where I had the most incredible chicken curry. We also had drinks at the Bard and the Banker, which seemed like an awesome place, and at Darcy’s pub which had a chill, local vibe. Some of the architecture in Victoria reminded me of things we saw in Budapest, and I wish we could have seen the castle, but there just wasn’t time!
We’re always more interested in urban life, in exploring cities, eating and drinking our way through a town and meeting locals over seeing trees and mountains and getting close to nature. So, the itinerary is not exactly something Justin or I would have chosen to do on our own, but I’m glad we did it (and that I’ve checked Alaska off of my list)! It was all definitely outside of our normal M.O. and we got to see things we’ll probably never (or rarely) see again.
Overall, excellent, with a few missteps. Dinner service in the main dining room was fantastic every evening. The menu changed each night, with a few unchanging staples. Gluttony made most of our food decisions: I ordered 2 desserts one night, and Justin did 4 appetizers one night and 3 entrees another. With so many delicious options, we wanted to taste them all! We ate lunch in the main dining room one day, too, and it was great.
Up in the buffet cafeteria, the food was good, not always great (dry and overcooked meat, soggy veggies, cold food that should’ve been hot), but with such an array of options it’s hard to complain. Chinese, Indian, Mexican, barbecue, pizza, pasta, salads… one day there was everything you needed for a Thanksgiving dinner. And the dessert station, my god. I haven’t had that much sugar all year (and I’ll be starting the Whole 30 again next week to cleanse my system, ha).
We didn’t eat at any of the specialty restaurants since they all cost extra and with such variety of included food in the main dining room and the buffet, we never felt the need to expand our horizons.
While the bartenders may not have all been world class mixologists, they certainly put up with all of us drunken fools and also put on a great show. They had several tricks up there sleeves, including pouring a dozen martinis at one time.
The schedule was full of stuff for all ages starting at 7 am and lasting until after midnight. Line dancing lessons, jewelry and art auctions, movies, family ping pong tournaments, wine tastings, trivia and group games. There was always something to do if you wanted to, or you could spend the whole time lounging.
Justin and I did not attend any of the shows, but we did go to a few trivia games, and watched a latin dance lesson in the main foyer. We spent most of our free time in the Solarium (with Justin turning into a prune in the hot tubs), in the Sky Lounge, at a bar, or dancing. We danced so much my legs fell off. Not really, but my knee is killing me. We went to two silent discos (SO MUCH FUN! See the video below!), and tried to get some dance circles going (old people just did not understand). An old Chinese guy who did not speak English tried to teach me and one of our friends how to swing dance on two separate occasions. And Justin shut down the club every evening (usually after I’d already ordered room service and passed out back in the cabin).
Apparently Celebrity Cruise line is one of the more expensive lines, and many of the guests we spoke to on the ship had strong opinions one way or the other. Some people were unhappy, saying that they weren’t seeing evidence of the cost of their tickets. Others seemed very pleased with the quality of the food, service and overall experience.
After the initial sticker shock of our inside state room faded (about 50% more than I had originally expected), Justin and I thoroughly enjoyed our experience. The ship was gorgeous, not too big (2800 guests, 1250 crew), with several bars and restaurants and entertainment options.
The service we received from the crew was absolute top notch; always friendly, always timely, and always made us feel valued. The worst service we received was from one moody bartender who wouldn’t smile, but he may have been having a bad week. (We learned later from some crew members that they do not ever get a day off throughout the length of their 6-8 month contracts. I’d be moody too.)
A few things annoyed me about how Celebrity nickel-and-dimed us, though. Every day a gratuity charge for $13.50 per person appeared on our account (which we could check easily from our TV). That’s an additional $189 at the end of the week that I didn’t know we’d have to pay. If you’re going to charge a daily gratuity, why not just build it into the ticket price instead of surprising guests with additional charges once they’re on the ship? We also opted to buy a drink package when we got on board (even though I was told by several representatives on the phone that I could not purchase a drinks package because we were in the cheapest room). We chose the cheapest drinks package, of $45 a day per person that included unlimited well liquor, bottles of water, a few domestic beers and house wines. It did not include coffee…. Why? Not a big deal, but one of those little things that seems like a petty thing to charge guests for. (The drink package was definitely worth the cost, though, with bottles of water costing $3 each and beers costing $6. We got our money’s worth for that, for sure!)
The cost of the digital photo packages were also astronomical (especially considering they are NOT great quality… so much flash), but I caved and bought one because it meant I’d get ALL of the photos taken at our group dinners and any of the photo stations. Once I figured this out, we visited every station MULTIPLE times and tried to take the most awkward group photos. I know now that on the next cruise to do this from the beginning and aim to get hundreds of photos in my account (I did manage to get over 100, with photos of everyone in our group, so I did okay).
I have a lot of questions about how prices are configured. How do they figure out ticket prices? Where is each dollar going? How do they decide which things cost extra and which are included? How much is going to the crew vs the company? I’d love to see a cost breakdown of our ticket, to see where the money is going and what costs what. Overall, things seemed a touch on the pricey side, and I wonder if the people who paid thousands of dollars for their tickets feel that it was worth it — when much of their experience was the same as ours.
Without getting too detailed, this 9 day trip, with an overnight in Seattle pre-cruise, cost the same as 71% of our 43 day trip to Europe. Yes, a major difference is the style of travel: our Eurotrip was a DIY adventure that included a free place to stay for 30 days, and a cruise is an all-inclusive trip of convenience. You go to sleep and wake up in a new location without having to lift a finger. (And if you do lift a finger, a crew member will notice and offer to get you a fresh beverage.) So I realize that part of the cost is the convenience of that hands-free vacation mode, which is not something we usually get to experience. But we were still a bit surprised at the final cost after adding it all up.
I can’t say enough good things about the crew members we met. Even when they were being yelled at by rude guests or having to deal with an unexpected rush of people, they were gracious and quick and still managed a smile (though maybe they were grimaces).
Being a super social drinker, my husband got to know several of the bartenders on a first name basis. Following in my dad’s footsteps, we tip early and often, so our room attendant, servers and bartenders got to know us, too. Walking through the ship, guests and crew alike would smile and wave at us, greeting Justin by name (or a nickname!), and there were a few times when the bartenders gave us an upgrade on what we were drinking, something not included in our drink package.
On our second to last day, one of the photographers got friendly with us. Maybe it was the fact that we took dozens of ridiculous photos at her station, making her laugh. Or maybe we were just nice to her. For whatever reason, she gave us her number and invited us out for a drinks in Victoria. We hung out with her, her girlfriend and another one of their co-workers, and boy did we get the lowdown on ship life. The drama, the rules, the terrible customers.
I have the utmost respect and admiration for the people who choose to serve on a cruise ship. Contracts lasting between 6-8 months, with no days off, living in closet-sized quarters, and dealing with entitled guests every single day? No, thank you. But I understand why many of them choose to do it. Semadi, a family man from Bali, is saving to build a house for his wife and three kids. Spending seven months away from them, he’ll go home for a few months before doing it all again. Silvia, a freelance photographer, was struggling in the Venezuelan economy and was looking for a job anywhere else; when the cruise opportunity came up she thought, “Why not?” and is on her second contract. Harold from Columbia was in a similar situation; terrible economy and no job prospects lead him to take the opportunity though after 2 contracts he’s ready to go do something else, or at least work for a different company. Cece, from China, has been doing this for more than a decade and even though she doesn’t particularly like the work, she loves to travel and thinks it’s worth it for the chance to go to places she’d never get to visit otherwise.
I’ve never met so many people from so many different places at one time. The crew all seemed to hail from Asian, South American and eastern European locations. But the guests, too, came from far and away. I overheard French, Spanish, Italian, German and Russian, not to mention them multiple English-speaking accents I encountered. Justin hung out with a South African group several nights, and I played ping pong with some Chinese guys from Australia. Combining all of those different worldview and experiences, languages and cultures onto one boat, it’s almost like a microcosm of the world.
Yet most of the people on the ship were older, wealthy and white, a fact that, I suppose, is unavoidable on an Alaskan cruise. (The average age of the guests? Probably early 50s.)
The lobby of our Seattle hotel contained a blackboard with a “Daily Fun Fact”; on the morning we left, the fun fact was this: If you can afford to eat 3 meals a day for 3 weeks straight, you are among the top 15% richest people in the world. Carrying that sobering fact with us as we got on board a luxury cruise ship makes you think about your privilege. Not only can we afford to eat 3 meals every single day, but we can were about to embark on a week of unlimited food and drink, eating whenever we wanted, being served by people who perhaps left financial situations where they were not in that 15%. That’s definitely not something we take lightly. We are grateful to not only have the opportunity to take a trip like this but to also have the means.
Had this been just any trip, another vacation (i.e. not our best friends’ wedding), I don’t think this would have been our first choice. There are several other trips that I would have choose over this particular Alaskan cruise simply due to cost, which ended up being much higher than we expected.
However, I have never gone on a more relaxing trip. We got to see wildlife that we never see at home. I’m one state closer to my goal of visiting all 50. I ate and drank more in one week than I think I have all summer (not that this is necessarily a Plus but I felt relaxed and guilt-free enough to do so, so that’s something). The ship was beautiful, the scenery was beautiful, the experience of our friends’ wedding was beautiful. I am so grateful that we got to be part of that, sharing this incredible trip with our friends, and we’ll treasure this week forever.
Have YOU been on a Celebrity Cruise? Have you taken an Alaskan cruise? What cruise lines do you recommend? What cruises give you the most experience for your dollar? If you could take a cruise anywhere in the world, where would it be?