Alaska Cruise 2015 – Trip Report Introduction

This entry is part 1 of 11 in the series Alaska Cruise 2015

 

I’m starting a new trip report today all about our June 2015 Alaskan cruise.  Our trip also included a day in Vancouver and two days in Seattle, which I’ll cover in the trip report as well.  Our out-of-pocket costs on this trip were limited to paying for the cruise.  Our hotels in Seattle and Vancouver, our flights, and a train ride were all covered by points.  Man I love this hobby!

Booking the Cruise

This part didn’t require much work on my part.  We’d be cruising with my sister and her family (her husband, her 9-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter), as well as my dad.  My sister, a VERY avid cruiser with probably 25+ cruises under her belt, had identified a cruise line and itinerary that offered a fairly decent deal.  The cruise would depart in early June, meaning that prices were a less expensive than what they would have been in mid-summer.  The cruise was scheduled to depart just two days after her son’s last day of school, so it really worked out!

We booked a 7-day roundtrip Alaskan cruise on the Ruby Princess.  The cruise would include stops in Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, and Victoria, British Columbia.  On the day we would arrive in Juneau, the cruise would transit the Tracy Arm Fjord area, which, although not a “stop,” is definitely worthy of viewing from the ship!

alaska cruise itinerary

 

We opted for a mini-suite with balcony onboard the Princess Ruby.  Our Caribbean cruise in 2007 had a balcony, which we loved, but on our Mediterranean cruise in 2010, we opted for no balcony in order to save some money on the cruise.  We regretted our decision to not have a balcony on that cruise, so we definitely wanted our own balcony for this Alaskan cruise.  My sister booked the same type of cabin.  She and I booked cabins on the same deck, but on different sides of the ship.  That way if we were passing beautiful scenery on one side of the ship only, we could all pile onto one balcony inside one of our cabins!  For our dad, we booked a handicapped-accessible room on the same deck.  It didn’t have a balcony, but it was an “obstructed view outside cabin.”  I’ll be doing reviews of both the mini-suite with balcony, as well as my dad’s accessible room, in future posts.

We booked the cruise in November 2014, about 7 months prior to the sailing, but then it became a little worrisome about whether my dad would be able to go.  Luckily we had all added cancellation insurance to our cruise, but obviously the point was that we all wanted to go on vacation!  My dad broke his hip in February, but doctors were optimistic that he’d be healed enough by June to go on the cruise.  Then, just a few weeks after getting out of rehab from his broken hip, he ended up hospitalized for a month in April with pneumonia.  He was put on a ventilator because he was unable to breathe on his own.  (After my dad was better, doctors told us just how close to death my dad really was.)  He had to go back into rehab at the end of April after his hospital stay, and it was really uncertain whether he’d be better in six weeks to depart on a cruise.  All that previous physical therapy on his repaired hip had been undone by a month-long stay in a hospital bed.  So, he not only had to recover from the pneumonia, he had to work that hip all over again.  And luckily he recovered beautifully just in time!  In fact, staff at the rehab facility said that the cruise was probably a good thing, because it gave my dad a goal to work toward.  “I have to be healthier and stronger by June to go on that cruise with my family!’

 

Getting to the West Coast

Our cruise was departing Seattle, so first I needed to figure out the best way to get us from Washington, DC to the Seattle area.  Flights from here to Seattle are nearly as long as getting to some European destinations (about six hours), but the flight options aren’t nearly as fancy.  I explored both coach and first class options.  Alaska Airlines offered nonstops from DC to Seattle, but holy crap the flights were expensive.  I can’t recall exactly, but I think they were in the ballpark of $600 roundtrip for one coach seat!  Ouch.  There were some frequent flyer options available for both coach and first class, but they included some annoying and ill-timed connections.  (A six hour layover at DFW anybody?  No thanks!)

And then it dawned on me!  JFK to Vancouver!  The famed Cathay Pacific flight that continues onto Hong Kong after its stop in Vancouver.  Beautiful business and first class options.  I searched on British Airways for availability, and there were plenty of business class seats!  No first class, but that was just fine.  I had read previously that seats on Cathay First tended to become available as the flight date approached, so I’d just keep checking back.  (Spoiler alert … read the full review post later on to see if First Class seats ever became available!)  I booked two seats in Cathay Business Class for me and Ken using British Airways Avios points.  We redeemed 50,000 Avios (25,000 points each) plus $55.40 total.  Now that sounds like a great way to get to the west coast.  Cheap and comfortable!

british airways flight

british airways redemption

 

To get to New York for our Cathay Pacific flight, I used more British Airways Avios points to book a short-hop flight from DC to New York.  Unfortunately the Avios options were all for Laguardia Airport, and the Cathay Pacific flight was departing New York JFK airport.  However, a $40 taxi ride from LGA to JFK would be far cheaper than paying out-of-pocket for two tickets from DC to JFK.  9000 Avios and $11.20 for two coach seats from DCA to LGA.  Can’t beat that!

dc to lga redemption avios dc to lga avios redemption

For our return flight, we redeemed American Airlines AAdvantage miles for two first class seats from Seattle to DCA (Certainly not the best use of miles, value wise, but it was worth it to us, especially since we didn’t have any other near term plans for AAdvantage miles).  It included a connection in Dallas, which was definitely not ideal, but it was the best we could do without being out-of-pocket a ridiculous amount of money.

Aadvantage redemption

 

Getting from Vancouver to Seattle

So, we were ending up in Vancouver, and our flight was leaving from Seattle.  A small inconvenience for experiencing Cathay Pacific!  My original plan was to just stay at an inexpensive hotel near Vancouver Airport, and then drive the following morning to Seattle (our flight wasn’t arriving in Vancouver until like 12:45AM, so I didn’t want to start driving so late at night.  But there was one issue.  Rental cars were INSANELY EXPENSIVE.  A ONE DAY rental from Vancouver to Seattle was going to be $199 CAD (About $150 USD.)  I swallowed my pride and made a reservation, but I couldn’t help but think that there had to be a better, and cheaper, way.

And lo and behold, there was!  I came across the Amtrak Cascades option!  I had read that it was a very picturesque way to get from Vancouver to Seattle, and much more relaxing than a drive.  Even though we have Global Entry these days, the line at the Canadian-US border crossing can get very long, so the train seemed like a good option to minimize the delay as well!

For just 4000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points (which I transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards), we were able to get two business class seats on the Amtrak Cascades line.  (I should point out that Amtrak Guest Rewards has since altered their redemption chart, so the points needed for the Amtrak Cascades line has likely changed).

amtrak redemption

I am SO thankful that the rental cars were expensive, otherwise I probably would’ve never done additional research to find out about this option.  I can’t wait to give the full review, but it was so gorgeous!

t t t

Of course, I’ll have more pictures (LOTS more pictures) in the full review post.

 

Hotel in Vancouver and Hotel in Seattle

The hotels were the most straightforward part of our booking!  I booked the Westin Grand Vancouver on a cash rate.  (I’d later redeem Barclays Arrival Plus points as a “rebate” for the expense).  Since our train wouldn’t be leaving until the evening, we’d have some time to spend in Vancouver, so I wanted to stay in the city instead of our original plan of staying near the Vancouver Airport.

For our Seattle hotel, I chose a Hyatt property. I had two free nights from my sign-up bonus for the Chase Hyatt Credit Card the previous year.  Since those would be expiring within a few months, we went ahead and used them for our two nights at the Grand Hyatt Seattle.

 

Whew!  It was a lot of fun booking this trip.  Stay tuned for all the individual posts!

How we Picked Shore Excursions for our Alaska Cruise

This entry is part 2 of 11 in the series Alaska Cruise 2015

After Ken and I booked our Alaskan cruise, we started researching the cruise excursion options.  As you can probably tell from our Caribbean Cruise in 2007 and our Mediterranean Cruise in 2010, we generally do a mix of independent travel and cruise-organized shore excursions.  We had read before that Alaskan Cruise shore excursions can be VERY pricey, so we wanted to make sure we budgeted appropriately, both for time and expense, and determine if independent options were more cost effective than the options offered by the cruise line.

Selecting Shore Excursions for a Cruise

To keep things organized, we developed a spreadsheet.  (Say Wha? Totally unlike us, right?  End sarcasm).  The goal was to help us identify the shore excursions that sounded appealing to us, and then to compare prices, departure times, and reviews of the shore excursions.  The spreadsheet contained 8 columns:

  1. Tour (shore excursion) Name
  2. Port of Call
  3. Code (this was the code designated by the cruise line.  It helped us differentiate between similar sounding tour options)
  4. Duration
  5. Cost Per Person
  6. Times
  7. Link to description of shore excursion on Princess’s website
  8. Link to online reviews we found of the excursion (mainly from Cruise Critic)

When we had time, we each went through the shore excursions being offered for our cruise, and added ones that sounded interesting to the spreadsheet.  This was great because we could each do it on our own time, and then take a look at each other’s additions, and see if we had any overlap (and sure enough, we did!)

This is what our spreadsheet looked like (well, for the first two ports-of-call anyway):

alaska cruise shore excursion options

 

We also had some general information at the bottom, such as the cruise itinerary and some links to third-party (independent) tour operators.

alaska cruise itinerary times

 

This was great for reference.  For instance, we could see at quick glance that if we did the “Misty Fjords Seaplane Expedition from 7:30-9:30,” then we’d still have time for another cruise excursion after that, such as the “Lighthouse, Totems, and Eagles Excursion” that would leave at 11:30AM.  (We didn’t end up doing that combination, but you get the idea!).  By having the duration and price listed, we could also get a quick idea of an “entertainment price per hour” to try and determine if something was worth the cost.  For instance, does a $99 excursion that lasts 6 hours offer a better value than a $250 excursion that only lasts two hours?  Of course, that’s something we looked into further as we narrowed down our options.

I’ve included a link to our spreadsheet, which you can then save as your own document in Google Docs if you’re looking for a template:

Spreadsheet to Figure out Cruise Shore Excursion Options

Although we didn’t do it in our spreadsheet, I can foresee other options that might be useful for this spreadsheet, such as color coding which entries were entered by which person (probably great for a larger group trying to organize cruise excursions), as well as coming up with a scheme, like maybe an additional column, indicating priority of which excursions sound REALLY REALLY great, and which ones might just be fun to consider if your schedule or budget allows.

Anyway, I’ll discuss which shore excursions we did for each port-of-call as my trip report progresses here on the blog.

 

How do you figure out what to do when you’re in a port-of-call on a cruise?

British Airways First and Business Class Lounge at JFK (Serving Cathay Pacific Passengers)

This entry is part 3 of 11 in the series Alaska Cruise 2015


For the first leg of our trip to get to Seattle for our Alaskan cruise, Ken and I had a short hop flight on American Airlines from Washington, DC National Airport to New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Since our Cathay Pacific flight to Vancouver was leaving out of JFK, we had to take a taxi from LGA to JFK. It was a flat rate, around $40 I think, and relatively quick despite being the beginning of rush hour.

We had booked a fairly early flight from DCA-LGA to allow for flight delays and traffic delays to get to JFK, but as it turns out, everything went perfect. No flight delays, barely any traffic. So, once we arrived at JFK, we had to wait a while before the Cathay Pacific ticket counter opened before we could check in and proceed past security to get to the lounge. (We had been unable to check-in online!)

Check-in counter for Cathay Pacific and other international departures Check-in counter for Cathay Pacific and other international departures

Can I just point out that the location of the TSA screening line was SO ridiculous at JFK. It was actually on some sort of ramp, so everybody’s suitcases would tip over backwards while waiting in line. And, as the bags came off the conveyer belt and onto the rollers, the bags would drift backwards. Not very well designed!

After we made it through security, we made our way to the British Airways international departures lounge, which first and business class Cathay Pacific passengers are allowed to use.

The lounge is split into two sides: The First Class passenger side and the Business Class passenger side.

As I alluded to in our introduction post, I had originally booked two business class tickets on Cathay Pacific, knowing that they usually open up first class availability at the last minute. The idea was that I would switch our seats from business class to first class. About two months before our departure, ONE first class seat opened, and I jumped on it, booking it in Ken’s name. And I kept checking and checking for one more seat to come available. There were four open seats in first class according to ExpertFlyer (meaning that only two seats were booked, one of which was Ken’s).

Long story short, a second first class seat NEVER opened. I checked all the way until the morning of our departure. The flight did, in fact, go out with FOUR empty first class seats. Ken and I had talked about it, whether we both just wanted to sit in business class together, but I told him I really wanted him to experience Cathay Pacific First Class. So, I sat in business and he sat in first.

Anyway, all this to say that we had access to BOTH sides of the British Airways lounge. The first class side (Ken as a passenger plus me as his guest), and the business class side (which both first and business class passengers can access.)

So, first we went to the first class side, assuming it would be nicer. It was quiet and clean, with a decent spread of food. I’d say about 70% of the seats were full, so there wasn’t a huge issue with seating. But the biggest problem was the absolute SWELTERING heat in the lounge. It was early June, but it really wasn’t THAT hot outside. maybe like the upper 70s. In fact, it was downright pleasant outside for summer weather. So the heat in the lounge was downright perplexing.

British Airways First Class lounge | Cathay Pacific First Class lounge at JFK British Airways First Class lounge | Cathay Pacific First Class lounge at JFK

Food spread at British Airways first class lounge at JFK
Food spread at British Airways first class lounge at JFK

So, Ken ventured off to check out the business class lounge side while I saved our seats in the first class lounge.

Within a few minutes, I get a text from Ken. The below photo was attached along with the caption, “See if you can come find me on the business class side.”

Outdoor seating area at British Airways JFK business class lounge | Cathay Pacific Business Class Lounge

I was all like, “Huh?” I gathered up my bags and headed to the business class side. It took me a few minutes to figure out where on earth he could be in an outdoor seating area, but I finally found it!

We sat down on the lovely outdoor couches and enjoyed the gorgeous June air while we waited for our late night Cathay Pacific flight. It was truly a perfect spot to lounge.

Ken at outdoor seating area at lounge Melissa at outdoor seating area at lounge

Now that we weren’t completely sweating like we were on the first class side, we were able to sit back and enjoy the lounge.

There were multiple buffet and alcohol stations throughout the lounge.

British Airways Business Class Lounge at JFK | Serving Cathay Pacific passengers Alcohol at British Airways Business Class Lounge at JFK Alcohol at British Airways Business Class Lounge at JFK

The food and snacks servings were decent.

Food at British Airways lounge at JFK Food at British Airways lounge at JFK Food at British Airways lounge at JFK Food at British Airways lounge at JFK

The business side was more crowded and definitely more bustling than the first class side, but there was almost a festive atmosphere in the lounge. There was a LOT of seating in the lounge, but most of it was full, as it seemed this was prime departure time for a lot of the flights that can use the British Airways lounge.

Seating at British Airways Lounge at JFK Seating at British Airways Lounge at JFK Seating at British Airways Lounge at JFK

Even the outdoor area, which was completely empty when Ken and I first found it, started to fill up quite a bit!

Outdoor seating area at British Airways business class lounge at JFK

I visited the “pub” area of the lounge many, many times during our several hours at the lounge. It had self-serve beer on tap!

Pub at British Airways Lounge at JFK Pub at British Airways Lounge at JFK

There as also an abundance of shoe art on the walls:

Art at British Airways Lounge at JFK

And a decent-looking area for kids:

Kids play area at British Airways business class lounge at JFK

Ken and I tend to be fairly introverted, but the outdoor space at the lounge lent itself so well to socializing. We chatted with a dude from Sweden for quite a while, and many others who sat for a while outside on the couches. It really made our layover fly by!

For what it’s worth, the lounge offers a pre-departure supper for first class passengers.  But, Ken had filled up on snacks, so he wasn’t hungry for the supper.

Pretty soon, it was time to board for our 9:55PM departure to Vancouver. We took care of some adminstrative things in the lounge, like calling AT&T to add the “Canada” plan to our cell phones, and then we headed to the gate for boarding.

The gate area was a complete zoo, so I’m glad we had had some nice quiet time in the louge before our departure. Before long, we boarded, and pushed back for an on-time departure.

The next post in the series will cover our experiences in Cathay Pacific Business Class and Cathay Pacific First Class.

Cathay Pacific 777-300ER Review (First and Business Class) – JFK-YVR

This entry is part 4 of 11 in the series Alaska Cruise 2015

After our long, but lovely layover spent in the British Airways lounge at JFK, it was time to board our Cathay Pacific flight to Vancouver!

You can read more about why I sat in business class and Ken sat in first class in my previous post, but here’s a quick excerpt for the lazy:

I had originally booked two business class tickets on Cathay Pacific, knowing that they usually open up first class availability at the last minute. The idea was that I would switch our seats from business class to first class. About two months before our departure, ONE first class seat opened, and I jumped on it, booking it in Ken’s name. And I kept checking and checking for one more seat to come available. There were four open seats in first class according to ExpertFlyer (meaning that only two seats were booked, one of which was Ken’s).

Long story short, a second first class seat NEVER opened. I checked all the way until the morning of our departure. The flight did, in fact, go out with FOUR empty first class seats. Ken and I had talked about it, whether we both just wanted to sit in business class together, but I told him I really wanted him to experience Cathay Pacific First Class. So, I sat in business and he sat in first.

Cathay Pacific Business Class Review – JFK-YVR

My business class seat was fantastic. I sat in the “front row” of the business class cabin, which the ticket counter agent was kind enough to do so Ken and I were really only one “row” apart, even though we were in different classes.

Business class seat review on Cathay Pacific JFK-YVR 777–300ER Business class seat review on Cathay Pacific JFK-YVR 777–300ER Business class seat review on Cathay Pacific JFK-YVR 777–300ER

The business class cabin is set up in a 1–2–1 configuration, and I had a single seat. I snapped a photo of the middle seat configuration as well:

Two center seats of business class configuration on Cathay Pacific 777–300ER

The TV screen was at an angle, but popped out for viewing.

TV screen Cathay Pacific business class

The remote control and TV controls were above the seat, which I much appreciated after constantly adjusting my seat by accident thanks to the poorly placed seat controls on Air Berlin’s Business Class.

Seat controls Cathay Pacific Business Class

There was also a small, convenient table between the seat and the window.

Cathay Pacific Business class seat

The food was decent, but to be honest, I was getting pretty tired by the time food was being served. It was a 10PM flight departure, and I had already been, ahem, imbibing quite a bit at the lounge, so I was feeling pretty sleepy 🙂

I opted for the Potato Leek and Vegetable Strudel. I thought it was quite tasty!

Cathay Pacific Business class menu JFK-YVR

My starters were placed on my tray first.

Meal tray on Cathay Pacific Business Class

Followed by my main dish, the Potato Leek Strudel.

Main dish in Cathay Pacific Business Class

After dinner, I reclined my seat, put on my headphones, and started watching Selma. I fell asleep shortly into the movie (which is no indication of how I felt about the movie! Tiredness was just winning out at that point!)

I woke up to some turbulence and turned on the airshow, which showed that we were over Montana. I peeked out the window and saw some lightning in the clouds far off in the distance to the south.

Airshow Cathay Pacific JFK-YVR Airshow Cathay Pacific JFK-YVR

Cathay Pacific First Class Review – JFK YVR

Ken thoroughly enjoyed his first class seat! Toward the very end of the flight, the flight attendants even let me come up from business class to join him in his “guest” seat for a cup of Hong Kong Milk Tea.

Cathay Pacific First Class Guest Seat Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Milk Tea

Although, I had snuck up there briefly to talk to him before, and snap a picture of him cozy in his bed-in-the-sky. (Full disclosure, he’s not actually sleeping, just pretending for the photo)

Sleeping in Cathay Pacific First Class

Here were some photos he took of his bed. And seriously, how can one person have SO MANY CABLES AND ELECTRONICS next to him on his seat?

Cathay Pacific First Class Lay Flat Bed Cathay Pacific First Class Lay Flat Bed

Ken is a fairly picky eater. Basically, if there’s any “fancy” sounding ingredients, it’s pretty much safe to assume that it won’t be anything he’ll want to try. So, this gorgeous looking ramen bowl didn’t get eaten much. (Sorry, we didn’t get a picture of the menu, so I’m not sure of its precise name).

Cathay Pacific First Class Dining Cathay Pacific First Class Dining

He did indulge on the bread though!

Cathay Pacific First Class Dining

And dessert too.

Cathay Pacific First Class Dining

And check out the fancy sink in the first class cabin lavatory. Since there were only two passengers in first class, and two lavatories, each passenger basically had their own bathroom. 🙂

Cathay Pacific first class lavatory sink

Ken didn’t sleep as much as I did on the flight, so he enjoyed flipping through the inflight entertainment system.

Inflight entertainment on Cathay Pacific First Class Inflight entertainment on Cathay Pacific First Class Inflight entertainment on Cathay Pacific First Class

Also worth pointing out were the seat massage controls available!

Seat massage first class Cathay Pacific

Once we landed in Vancouver (nearly 1AM PDT), we transited immigration and customs, and then hopped in a taxi to our hotel, which I’ll review next in this trip report!

Westin Grand Vancouver (Hotel Review)

This entry is part 5 of 11 in the series Alaska Cruise 2015

By the time our flight landed in Vancouver, we transited Canadian immigration and customs, and stood in a long taxi line, it was about 3AM when we got to our hotel, the Westin Grand Vancouver. We were only staying for one night, but they had graciously already pre-approved a (very) late checkout for us of 4PM the next day.

I had long lamented what hotel to stay at in Vancouver. Which was silly because we were going to be there for such a short time. Did we want to stay close to the airport? Close to Stanley Park? (since that was going to be our primary place to visit during our short stay?)

I had been ogling the Fairmont Pacific Rim, but alas, couldn’t justify the price. Although the Westin Grand Vancouver was not terribly close to Stanley Park (we took a taxi there), it was centrally located in Downtown Vancouver and was very reasonably priced.

I booked a Deluxe Corner Suite, with view.

Upon entry to the room, there was a bathroom door straight ahead, and a living room to the left.

Deluxe Corner Suite at Westin Grand Vancouver

The living room was nice, but oddly shaped and not as spacious as I expected.

Living room in Deluxe Corner Suite at Westin Grand Vancouver Living room in Deluxe Corner Suite at Westin Grand Vancouver Living room in Deluxe Corner Suite at Westin Grand Vancouver Living room in Deluxe Corner Suite at Westin Grand Vancouver

There was a small nook in the hallway with a closet, coffee supplies, and a small fridge.

Coffee Nook | Westin Grand Vancouver review

The bathroom was spacious and had a separate tub and shower.

Bathroom at Westin Grand Vancouver | Hotel Review Bathroom at Westin Grand Vancouver | Hotel Review Bathroom at Westin Grand Vancouver | Hotel Review

There was also plenty of counter space, which is greatly appreciated.

Bathroom at Westin Grand Vancouver | Hotel Review

The bedroom was a decent size, and had wraparound windows.

Bedroom Deluxe Suite Westin Grand Vancouver

The windows were gorgeous and allowed for great views of the city, but it was summer, just shy of the solstice, so the days were LONG and the sun was up early. And the room darkening curtains had some unfortunate gaps, especially in the corners. Not usually a problem when we travel, but when you’re not getting to bed until after 3AM.

edroom Deluxe Suite Westin Grand Vancouver edroom Deluxe Suite Westin Grand Vancouver

There was a door to a small balcony next to the desk in the living room.

Door to balcony in Deluxe Suite

There were some fantastic views of the Vancouver skyline from the balcony. And if you peak far in the distance, you can even see the coast! (er, the bay?)

Views of Vancouver at Westin Grand from hotel room balcony Views of Vancouver at Westin Grand from hotel room balcony Views of Vancouver at Westin Grand from hotel room balcony

One minor complaint about our stay is that the elevators in this hotel were HORRENDOUSLY SLOW. There were only two, and the hotel had at least 30 floors, if I recall correctly.

But, the hotel location was great, and I was so appreciative of the late checkout that they allowed. Since our train to Seattle wasn’t leaving until 5PM, I didn’t want to have to pack up and put our luggage in storage before heading out sightseeing for the day. I’m never a huge fan of having to put my luggage in storage after checkout and before moving on to our next destination. So, the late checkout gets a big thumbs up from me!

Have you visited Vancouver recently? Where did you stay?