Let's debate which cruise line is the best choice for your Alaska cruise or land and sea vacation
Cruise Traveler Magazine compares the real difference between Holland America vs. Princess Alaska Cruises. Learn about the onboard experience, itineraries, ports-of-call. Compare cruises, or land and sea vacation [cruisetours] prices, current promotional offers, bonus extra's and wilderness lodges and rail adventures.
“What's the real difference between a Holland America and a Princess Cruise or Cruisetour of Alaska?”
Q. "My husband and I are considering taking an 11 or 12 day 'Denali National Park' cruise tour with either Holland America or Princess Cruises. Both cruise lines itinerary are very similar - 7 night cruise including visiting Glacier Bay, a Tundra Wilderness tour of Denali National Park, a night in Fairbanks, and 2 nights in Denali. However the cruise lines brand their rail travel, expressing that they are "exclusive", the McKinley Explorer, for Holland and the Denali Express for Princess. Is there an advantage to doing the rail by Princess over Holland America?
We also noticed that, for what looks like a similar cruise vacation, prices vary between Holland America and Princess. My husband wants to get a balcony, but isn't sure which is the better deal.
What do we need to know before we choose which cruise line to see Alaska? Could you explain why there is such a difference between Princess Cruises and Holland America, not only on price but amenities as well?"
A. OK, here's what you need to know before you go....
Holland America Line began sailing Alaska in 1967. Princess Cruises in 1969. Both cruise lines added land-and-sea vacations a few years later. So, both companies have years of hands on experience to rely on.
Both Holland America Line and Princess Cruises are the market leaders in Alaska. Both have their own motorcoach and rail services. Princess owns their own Wilderness Lodge accommodations in Denali, Fairbanks, Kenai and Cooper River. Combined they have the most ships of any of the name brand cruise lines sailing Alaskan waters.
Cruising in Alaska is a summertime adventure with an ocean-inspired cruise and an exhilarating land tour of Alaska. Alaska...where summertime memories last forever. Alaska offers a range of enriching options to see the Great Land's glaciers, frontier towns, native culture, wildlife and national parks from the perspective of spectacular ships, exclusive rail service and wilderness lodges.
Both Holland America and Princess' onboard enrichment programs introduce Alaska for a personalized perspective of America's last frontier. On Holland America and Princess cruises, ships feature a naturalist with informative lectures, and a national park ranger during Glacier Bay sailings.
Princess, however, offers their exclusive "North to Alaska" program. Onboard are Alaska Iditarod winner and renowned dog musher Libby Riddles, the first woman to win the grueling 1,100-mile Iditarod sled dog race. She comes aboard in Juneau to share tales of her historic triumph, answer questions and even sign autographs. You won’t want to miss this special Princess exclusive. Plus, on some sailings meet people from Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch" TV show. In partnership with the Discovery Networks, Alaska cruises feature content from the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet on the wildlife, terrain, history, and adventures from Alaska. Discovery Networks shows such as "Gold Rush!" and "Panning for Gold", along with episodes of "The Deadliest Catch" and "The Klondike" mini-series are featured.
In Skagway, Alaskan storyteller and musician Steve Hites comes on board to perform his “North to Alaska” show. This tribute to the Klondike days brings the region’s folklore, history and poetry of the era to life with plenty of rollicking humor.
Then there is The Klondike Festival and Midnight Sun Party. Princess guests experience the thrill and excitement of a real Klondike Festival, hearkening back to the good ol’, bad ol’ days of gold rush fever with authentic Alaska entertainment. Fun for the whole family, the festival includes performances depicting the heyday of the gold rush, Alaska icon & sled racing presentations, penny whistle classes, Tlingit art projects and more.
Princess is providing a variety of authentic Alaska cuisine options onboard including King Crab, King Salmon and fresh Halibut. There is a dedicated Alaska cuisine themed night in the main dining rooms, and a special Alaska Cuisine menu in the Crown Grill and Bayou Cafe on select evenings.
For kids and teens, they can explore their adventurous side with activities such as our Jr. Ranger Program, Panning for Gold, the Deadliest Catch Crab Sorting Game, and amazing "What would Survivorman do?"
The Cruise Ships That Sail Alaska
Each cruise line's ships that sail Alaska have a "personality" of their own and you should review the amenities, onboard programs, entertainment and dining options to decide which cruise ship best fits your lifestyle. Holland America tends to attract a more "senior" traveler, while Princess tends to attract travelers of all ages, especially middle age couples and families.
When it comes to choosing a cruise ship to sail Alaska, the difference between seeing Alaska and understanding Alaska is what the cruise line brings to life, while onboard.
As an example, Princess cruises brings aboard speakers to share their Alaska adventures, such as the grueling 1,100-mile Iditarod sled dog race. In Skagway, you'll enjoy the entertainment of an Alaskan storyteller. And in Ketchikan, a U.S. Forest Service naturalist will present a program about the largest forest in the country, Tongass National Forest. Alaska's intriguing flora, fauna and geology come to life by the full-time onboard naturalists who sails with you the entire length of the cruise.
While in Glacier Bay National Park, rangers from the National Park Service will board the cruise ship to serve as tour guides and answer questions about this national treasure. Rangers also lead our Junior Ranger and Teen Explorer programs in Glacier Bay, which teach kids about the wildlife and scenery in a fun and entertaining way.
Dining onboard spotlights local specialties like fresh Alaskan Seafood. You will also like the Taste of Alaska Buffet, a festive on-deck Fish Barbeque and a Reindeer Chili and Rockfish Chowder Cook-Off. The Chef's Alaskan Dinner and Glacier Bay Gala Buffet are highlights of your Alaska cruise. Or indulge in a romantic Glacier Bay Champagne Breakfast served on your own balcony onboard Princess Cruises.
Both Holland America and Princess' Alaska cruises, offer a number of round-trip seven-night itineraries, that feature the most popular ports of call :
Cruises departing from Seattle
Breathtaking Scenery of Glacier Bay
Cruises departing from Vancouver
The Beauty of Sitka
Inside Passage Itineraries
Cruises longer than 7 Days
Visit magnificent Hubbard Glacier
Visit Skagway - Home to the White Pass & Yukon Railway
Juneau - The Alaska State Capital & Mendenhall Glacier
Ketchikan - Visit Totem Pole Park, Creek Street & Misty Fjords
For information on these cruise itineraries, visit AlaskaCruisesDirect.com
Both cruise lines call on Juneau and Ketchikan. Itineraries sail through Glacier Bay, or Tracy Arm. Most sailings visit Skagway. Holland America's Seattle cruises go to Sitka. Some Seattle sailings call on Victoria, BC Canada.
Princess Cruises offer sailings from San Francisco on 10-night cruises that travel the Inside Passage with port calls in Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan and Victoria.
Alaska Cruise Prices
You will find in general, pricing for round-trip seven-night cruises competitive between Holland America and Princess for inside, ocean view and balcony cabins. Inside cabins for sailings during the early part of May or beginning of September start for less than $800.00 per person, Balcony cabins (known as Verandahs on Holland America) will cost you considerably more.
For north or southbound sailings, we found inside and ocean view cabins less expensive with Princess, at the start ( early May ) and end ( early September ) of the Alaska cruise season.
Alaska Land and Sea Vacations [ Cruisetours ]
Holland America's land and sea vacations include stops in Canada. Visiting Dawson City and Whitehorse, the Yukon. Both cruise line land tours visit Denali National Park. In addition to Denali, Princess can take you to the Kenai Wilderness Lodge, in the Kenai Peninsula and/or the Copper River Wilderness Lodge, to visit Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
Princess' northbound or southbound sailings from Vancouver, begin or end in Whittier, Alaska which is closer to Anchorage then Seward, where Holland America's cruises begin or end. Princess gets the upper hand here, as it has "Direct to the Wilderness" rail service for guests by going straight up north to Denali (or vice versa, going directly from Denali to their cruise ship). Hours of transportation by train or motorcoach are saved by this service.
Holland America accommodations are in Westmark-branded hotels. in Alaska and Canada's cities and towns. For visits to Denali National Park, Holland America guests stay at the McKinley Chalet Resort, which is less than three miles from the entrance to the park.
Princess' accommodations (except in Anchorage, where they use the Captain Cook hotel and others ) are in " Wilderness " lodges. Guest can stay at the Mt. McKinley Wilderness Lodge in Trapper Creek, near Talkeetna, the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge, or the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge the Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge, and the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge ( less than a mile from the entrance to Denali National Park). Which accommodation(s) you stay at depends upon your itinerary.
The Rail Services
Now when you disembark the ship, the difference between Princess and Holland America become more clear.
First, Princess Cruises docks in Whittier, Holland America in Seward. Whittier is much closer to Anchorage, when most northbound cruise tours begin. So, travel time is significantly reduced. If you are headed direct to Denali and will not be visiting Anchorage, Princess offers a real exclusive: "Direct-to-the-Wilderness® Alaska Rail Service".
Princess Cruises exclusive Direct-to-the-Wilderness service allows you to step off your cruise ship in Whittier onto the Princess rail service cars and arrive at their Princess Wilderness Lodge that same afternoon. Or, on southbound itineraries, guests leave the Denali area and board the train for a direct link to your awaiting cruise ship in Whittier. Because fewer transfers and less time waiting makes for a more relaxing and hassle-free trip, Princess exclusive cruise ship-rail-lodge connection takes you straight to Denali National Park.
While others like Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Holland America are still in transit, you'll be enjoying more time at one of Princess' two Denali area lodges. The connection is seamless. You step directly from your ship onto your waiting railcar. Sit back, read, chat, dine and marvel at the panoramic vistas from their domed observation lounge. You arrive at Denali that same day ready to experience the wonders you've traveled so far to see.
If reaching your destination nearly a full day earlier than with any other cruise tour company is important to you. Then consider Princess Cruises. It could mean more time to sit by the fire, linger over grilled salmon and soak up the comfort and luxury of Princess Cruises, Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge and the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge.
A word about the train. If the rail portion of your cruise tour departs from Anchorage, you will notice that Holland America's rail cars, marketed as the "McKinley Explorer" and Princess Cruises railcars marketed as "McKinley Express" actually travel together on the same train.
The train's engine is operated by the Alaska Railroad, which "pulls" the private rail cars of Princess, Holland America, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity. So, for everyone the view out the window or on the observation decks is the same. There are some differences on the rail cars themselves, but each cruise line offers glass dome views, onboard dining options, expert guide service and commentary along the way.
Denali National Park
Sightseeing inside Denali National Park is operated by the National Park Service, so the tours in the park are identical no matter what cruise line you travel with.
With Princess, you can choose your own park tour! Most Princess Alaska land and sea vacations include a tour through the park, plus Princess offers the flexibility to choose your preferred experience from three unique tour options. Park tour options include: Denali Natural History Tour, Tundra Wilderness Tour and Kantishna Experience. Your itinerary and time constraints may limit your options.
Denali Natural History Tour
Duration: Approximately 6 1/2 hours
Fully narrated tour that focuses on the rich history of Denali National Park
Travels to Primrose Ridge (Mile 17) for scenic and wildlife viewing opportunities
Includes a screening of “Across Time and Tundra”, a film that depicts development of the park road and early visitor experiences
Stop at Savage Cabin to visit a rustic, back-country shelter used by rangers for decades
Alaskan Native Presentation
Possible opportunity to see Denali ( formally called Mt. McKinley ) (weather permitting)
Passengers who are interested in Denali’s history, culture and nature
Passengers who have limited time in Denali and want to more thoroughly experience their lodge and/or land excursions
Passengers who prefer to have more free time in Denali
Tundra Wilderness Tour
Duration: Approximately 9 hours
Comprehensive, fully narrated tour that travels deep into Denali National Park (Mile 53)
In-depth information about the history of the park with plentiful wildlife and photography opportunities
Travels over Sable Pass to scenic Polychrome Overlook
Stony Hill Overlook provides opportunities to see Denali (weather permitting)
Note: The Teklanika Tundra Wilderness Tour is seasonally offered in place of the Tundra Wilderness Tour when the park road is not fully accessible due to weather.
Passengers with 2-night stays at Denali
Passengers who want a deep Denali Park experience
Passengers who enjoy motorcoach travel
Duration: Approximately 14 hours
All day tour that travels to the end of the park road (Mile 91)
This tour is guided by a National Park Service Interpretive Ranger
Explore the old gold mining town of Kantishna and learn about its history
Stop at the restored home of Fannie Quigley and learn about the early settlers
Visit the Eielson Visitor Center and Wonder Lake
Abundant opportunities for wildlife viewing
Possible opportunities to see Mt. Mckinley (weather permitting)
Limited space availability
Note: This tour does not operate when the park road is not fully accessible due to weather.
Passengers with 2-night stays at Denali
Passengers who want to travel to the end of the park road
Passengers who enjoy motorcoach travel
Other Helpful Information
Don’t wait; availability is limited. Space is assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. Not all requests can be accommodated.
A snack and hot beverage is provided on the Natural History Tour.
Box lunches and beverages are provided on the Tundra Wilderness Tour and the Kantishna Experience.
Wheelchair accessible buses are available, and all stops are wheelchair accessible.
Children under 4 years and/or 40 pounds are required to be in a child safety device (car seat) to ride on buses. Passengers must bring their own child safety device.
Tour buses are school buses and are not equipped with restrooms. Buses will stop approximately every 90 minutes for restroom breaks.
Park road is not paved and travels through beautiful Alaskan wilderness – wildlife is not guaranteed.
Privately owned vehicles are not permitted into the National Park.
Suggested items to bring include warm clothes, rainwear, insect repellant, camera, binoculars, and personal medications as necessary
Where you stay in Alaska may matter to you. Both Holland America and Princess offer lodges and hotels in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Denali. Princess also offers accommodations at Cooper River and Kenai. There are differences between the two cruise lines. First, Princess owns their own lodges. ( visit www.princesslodges.com ) So, the hotel/lodge staff are employees of Princess. This is important, for seamless continuity of service. Holland America and the other cruise lines, contract out hotel space for their guests.
Getting around Alaska, with the exception of the rail services provided, is by motorcoach. Grayline of Alaska provides the bus transportation for Holland America. Princess provides its own transportation. Both offer driver/guide commentary along the way.
For more information and to compare Princess, Holland America, Royal Caribbean or Celebrity cruise tours of Alaska, visit Alaska Cruises Direct. www.alaskacruisesdirect.com
Who Won The Debate?
Holland America vs. Princess in Alaska
Historically, Holland America appeals to an older demographic, with onboard activity and entertainment appealing to these travelers. The line is best suited for 55+ and seniors traveling with or without a group of friends.
Princess Cruises is better suited for active couples from 35 -50. Best for those looking for land and sea vacations [cruisetours] and families with young children. Guests should find the onboard experience with Princess Cruises "North to Alaska" appealing.
CruiseReport.com would like to thank Raye and Marty Trencher for this excellent comparison between Holland America and Princess in Alaska