- Ask Bob

Alaska Shore Excursion Discounts

Q: I am about to take an Alaskan cruise soon and have a question: Why are the shore excursions priced so high? $179 for a zip line--are you kidding? How can I chop that price down? --Geri

A: Geri, I totally feel your pain. I now have a family of four, and to take an excursion that costs even $125 per person suddenly becomes a $500 experience for a few hours.

There are a couple reasons why these prices run high. First, some of these excursions are expensive to operate. Alaska has only a 120-day visitor season, so the company’s overhead costs need to be carried by basically a third of a year's worth of operations. Also, some of these companies have to carry a fair amount of insurance, another big expense. And, quite honestly, they're high because there hasn’t been a lot of downward price pressure from consumers in recent years.

The good news is that there are a few ways to manage costs on excursions:  

  • Compare similar tours. There are usually a few versions of the same tour—say, glacier tours that either get you there by helicopter, or by a van. Use the roadside version and you’ll save a few hundred dollars. I discuss some lower-cost alternatives on my Alaska Budget Travel page, though a few may be less relevant for someone on a cruise, since you only have so many hours in each port.
  • Book outside the cruise line. Though contractually they're not supposed to, some operators who serve the cruise lines will take direct bookings. In some (but not all) cases, they’ll charge slightly less than what you’d pay through the cruise line. The challenge is finding those operators (the cruise lines don't publicize it, and most operators don't want to advertise it, either). If you have more than few people in your traveling party, you can even ask the operator for a custom trip—shorter or simpler than the cruise-line version, and that may cost a lot less, too. One source with a limited number of recommendations is a page I wrote: Best Shore Excursions. The thing you need to know, however, is that if the excursion is late returning to the ship, it’s your problem, not the cruiseline’s—but the risk of that is very low.
  • Find operators who don’t work with the cruise line at all. Check out, which specializes in catering to cruise ship passengers who don't want to book through the cruise lines. I haven’t used them so I can't vouch for the vendors they use, but I would imagine there is no problem.

Last, I would offer up some consolation: Most of the time, these excursions are truly worth it. Because Alaska is still so undeveloped, many of the sights you came for require an excursion to really get out there and see them. So in my view, this is a good use for much of your trip’s budget. These excursions are what I think you’ll remember most years from now.