Alaska Cruise Guide: Best Itineraries, Ports, Tips, & More
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When you think of a cruise vacation, Alaska might not be the first destination that comes to mind.
Alaska is one of the most scenic destinations in the world, offering an escape into America’s Last Frontier. The lush rainforest, snow-capped mountains, abundant wildlife, and blue glaciers provide an experience unlike any other.
But the rough terrain makes it challenging to navigate by land, so it’s best to explore Alaska by cruise ship.
This Alaska cruise guide covers everything you need to know before you sail to Alaska. We’ll cover what to pack, the best time to sail, cruise ports, things to do, weather, wildlife, and more.
Let’s dive in.
There are several reasons why people cruise Alaska, but one way or another, people are drawn to the state for its incredible scenic beauty.
Alaska is home to a beautiful snow-capped mountain landscape, abundant wildlife, vibrant Alaskan native cultures, Gold Rush history, art, culture, and the largest temperate rainforest in the world.
Alaska is one of the most beautiful destinations on the planet. And an Alaska cruise is unlike any other. Alaska cruises are less of a party and more of a laid-back scenic cruise.
Exploring Alaska by land is both tricky and expensive. Many cities are inaccessible by land. A land tour is expensive between cars, trains, ferries, and hotels.
The best way to explore Alaska is by cruise ship.
An Alaska cruise allows guests to explore multiple ports of call and experience the state through hands-on shore excursions.
Unlike other cruise destinations, Alaskan ports aren’t separated by large bodies of the ocean. The land is visible throughout most of the sailing, and you can often spot whales, eagles, and other wildlife from the ship.
Not sure if Alaskan cruises are for you, here’s what to expect on an Alaskan cruise.
The Alaska cruise season runs from May to late September, with some sailings in April and October.
The short cruise season owes itself to the weather. Aside from the winter cold providing an uncomfortable experience, many regions of Alaska become inaccessible as the water turns to ice.
The best time to cruise Alaska depends on what you want to see and do. For smaller crowds and lower cruise fares, you’ll want to sail at the beginning or end of the cruise season (May, June, or September).
May, June, and September are known as the shoulder season. With kids still in school, there’s less demand for cruise vacations. Sailing during the shoulder season is the best time to find cheaper cruise fares.
The peak season for Alaska cruises is July and August. If you sail during these months, you’ll find higher prices and larger crowds.
But if you want to see wildlife, you should take an Alaska cruise during July or August. Summer also provides the best weather, with warmer temperatures, lower rainfall, and more hours of sunlight.
Alaska cruises come in two forms; one-way cruises and round-trip sailings.
Round-trip cruises are the most popular, typically beginning and ending in Seattle, Washington, or Vancouver, Canada.
Most round-trip sailings travel along Alaska’s Inside Passage, visiting ports like Juneau and Skagway and scenic destinations like Tracy Arm Fjord or Mendenhall Glacier.
You’ll likely have to choose a one-way cruise if you want to travel further north on your Alaska cruise. One-way cruises begin and end in different ports, typically embarking or debarking in Seward, Alaska.
A one-way cruise is the best way to visit the Gulf of Alaska, with calls in northern ports like Whittier or Hubbard Glacier.
Inside Passage, cruises are the most popular Alaska cruise route. These week-long sailings embark in either Seattle, Washington, or Vancouver, British Columbia.
The Inside Passage consists of a series of passages along the West Coast. Glacial ice formed the passages over 250 million years ago. The glaciers carved the unique rivers, islands, and ocean passages that make up the Inside Passage.
As you pass through the passage, you’ll notice the unique footprint of the glaciers that carved the mountains and waterways.
Some of the tallest mountains have sharp edges towards the peaks. Mountains with rounded peaks were once submerged beneath the glacier, eroding their sharp edges. The mountains with sharp peaks stood above the glaciers. By carefully looking at the structure of the mountains, you can see just how massive the past glaciers were.
Inside Passage cruises are popular for the incredible scenery, snow-capped mountains, glaciers, and whale species.
Even on sea days, there’s always something to look at.
Inside Passage cruises typically have a”scenic cruising” day at a Fjord or glacier. You won’t leave the ship on scenic days, but it’s a chance to witness some truly incredible scenery.
Inside Passage, itineraries are best for nature lovers, outdoorsy, and active-minded people.
From the ship, it’s fun keeping an eye on the water for local whale pods or searching the shoreline for bears, moose, or sea lions.
If you’re in luck, you can spot plenty of wildlife from the deck of the cruise ship. On our last 7-day cruise, we could spot pods of orcas, humpback whales, seals, and bald eagles without leaving the vessel.
Popular ports of call along the Inside Passage include Juneau, Ketchican, Sitka, Skagway, Haines, Icy Strait, and Tracy Arm Fjord.
Shore excursions provide the best chance to explore the beauty of Alaska or enrich yourself with the area’s deep history and culture. Through the shore excursions, you can learn more about the Indigenous peoples of Alaska or the fortune-seekers who traveled to the region during the Klondike Gold Rush.
While cruising through the Inside Passage, the islands create a natural break from the open ocean, calming the water. If you’re worried about getting seasick on a cruise ship, Alaska is one destination where you won’t spend much time in the open ocean.
If you book a Gulf of Alaska cruise, you’ll experience other less-visited cruise ports further north.
Most Gulf of Alaska cruises is one-way cruises traveling from Vancouver or Seattle to Seward or Whittier. If you embark in Seward or Whittier, you’ll have to fly into Anchorage, Alaska, and take the train or bus to and from the cruise port.
It’s a drive that can take an hour or two. You’ll have to book your transportation, but you can often book through the cruise line.
And it’s essential to keep in mind that you won’t be able to book round-trip airfare, which means you’ll have to pay more for flights.
Gulf of Alaska cruises tend to be 7-nights in duration, though you’ll find a few 8 and 9-day itineraries.
Some cruise lines offer round-trip sailings from Seattle and Vancouver. The round-trip Gulf of Alaska cruises tend to be 12 to 14-day itineraries, and you’ll likely spend at least two days at sea (not including scenic cruising days).
In addition to visiting some of the ports along Alaska’s Inside Passage, itineraries also include up to two scenic cruising days. The scenic destinations may include College Fjord, Glacier Bay, or Hubbard Glacier.
The seas in the Gulf of Alaska can be particularly rough. If you’re prone to seasickness, you may want to think twice before booking a Gulf of Alaska cruise.
Some cruise lines offer longer west-coast sailings that begin in San Francisco. The round-trip sailings have four or more sea days, a scenic day, port visits along the inside passage, and a call at either Vancouver or Victoria, British Columbia.
With for or more sea days, West-coast sailings are best for people who like to spend multiple days at sea.
You may find rougher seas at the beginning and end of the cruise until your cruise ship reaches the Inside Passage, where the waters are calmer.
A cruise ship is one of the best ways to visit Alaska. But there are many destinations that you can’t visit by sea.
Many cruise lines offer tours combining a traditional Alaska cruise with a bus tour. Cruise tours allow you to extend your vacation and explore further inland.
The three to seven-night land tour allows passengers to explore destinations not accessible to cruise ships.
The cruise tours visit places like Denali National Park, Kenai Fjords National Park, the city of Fairbanks, and the Kenai Peninsula.
Most cruise tours begin as one-way Alaska Gulf cruises before passengers embark on a bus tour through northern Alaska. Some cruise tours bring travelers into Canada’s Yukon territory, and there are even some round-trip cruise tours.
Locals lead the tours, so you will get to know the land and culture firsthand.
Because the tours venture farther north than most cruise itineraries, they provide the best opportunity to see the northern lights. If you want to increase your chances, you should book towards the end of the Alaska cruise season, in late October.
Cruise tours are ideal because they provide fully booked itineraries. Guests don’t need to worry about booking transportation, hotels, or activities both on and off the ship.
The activities are often included in the tour price, though you may need to pay extra for some excursions.
Almost every mainstream cruise line provides Alaskan cruises.
Holland America and Princess Cruises are two of the most popular cruise lines for Alaska sailings. They have a long history of offering trips around Alaska and provide the largest selection of itineraries and cruise tours.
There are cruise lines of all price ranges sailing in Alaska, with budget-friendly lines like Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean and luxury cruise lines like Seabourn and Silversea Cruises.
For unique experiences, you may want to try smaller expedition cruise ships like Alaskan Dream Cruises and Uncruise Adventure.
In the past, cruise lines sent their older and smaller cruise ships for Alaskan itineraries. But with younger crowds and growing demand for cruises to Alaska, cruise lines have started to offer some of their latest ships.
Royal Caribbean has positioned Ovation of the Seas, one of the newest cruise ships, in Alaska. The ship’s North Star provides an incredible once-in-a-lifetime opportunity you simply can’t pass up.
No matter your preferences, you can find a cruise ship to fit your dream vacation.
If you’re looking for longer Alaska sailings of 12 or more nights, you’ll want to stick with Holland America or Princess Cruises.
Both cruise lines offer plenty of longer sailings and a large selection of cruise tours.
Royal Caribbean, Disney Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Carnival Cruise Line are perfect for families sailing with kids.
The cruise lines offer kids’ clubs, from babies to teens, catering to all ages.
Some people wouldn’t consider Alaska a family-friendly cruise destination.
But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Alaska is an excellent destination for families with kids. From mountains to whales, there’s so much for kids to see. If you choose the right shore excursion, you can create an adventure that’s both fun and educational.
And with cruise lines sending their latest and greatest ships to the region, you’ll find enough entertainment for the whole family.
Still not convinced. I can tell you from experience that my favorite cruise as a kid was our trip to Alaska.
If your dream vacation includes hiking in Tongass National Park, Kayaking on Lake Chiliak, or overnight camping, you’ll want to look at expedition cruises.
Expedition voyages feature smaller ships with a greater focus on adventurous activities. Smaller vessels can better access less habited areas of Alaska and provide a closer look at the Last Frontier.
Expedition cruise lines often include complimentary shore excursions and provide zodiacs, kayaks, and bikes for you to use.
The cruises are very different than a traditional cruise to Alaska, with a greater focus on education, enrichment, nature, and the environment. Expedition-style cruises often bring scientists and naturalists to provide lectures and act as tour guides.
If you’re an adventure-seeker looking for the vacation of a lifetime, you’ll want to look at UnCruise Adventures, Alaskan Dream Cruises, or Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic.
Several luxury cruise lines are sailing in Alaska, including Silversea Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Cunard Line, and Seabourn Cruises.
There’s a significant benefit to sailing on a luxury cruise to Alaska. With fewer passengers on the ship, you won’t need to fight through the crowd for a prime sightseeing spot.
You’ll also find a more intimate experience with personalized shore excursions and better service.
Luxury cruise lines often visit less-traveled cruise ports, including Wrangell, Alaska, and Klemtu, British Columbia.
But there’s one significant benefit to sailing on a luxury cruise line.
Small-ship, luxury cruise lines like Seabourn, Silversea, and Regent can navigate more waterways than larger mainstream cruise lines. They can get close to glaciers and travel to the twin-Sawyer Glaciers at the end of Tracy Arm Fjord.
Couples looking for a romantic getaway should choose Princess Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, or Holland America.
The cruise lines provide a slightly upscale atmosphere with fewer kids and affordable cruise fares.
There are lots of things to do in Alaska. There’s more to do than you’ll have time for when it comes to Alaskan cruises.
Unlike a Caribbean cruise, where most days are spent lounging on a beach, most Alaska tours and activities are outdoor adventures.
Alaska offers opportunities for active travelers, history buffs, shopping, wildlife encounters, and sightseeing.
It’s always a good idea to research your port of call to get information about the shore excursions before you embark on your cruise.
Some of our favorite things to do on an Alaska cruise include:
You’ll have a different experience at Alaska cruise ports compared to Caribbean cities. The ports of call in Alaska have different atmospheres and personalities.
Where Skagway is a historic small town full of history and adventure, Juneau is a large city with great eateries and shopping.
As you might expect, the best Alaskan cruise ports are also the busiest. You can expect long lineups and higher prices at popular attractions if you’re sailing during peak season.
Book a shore excursion or cruise tour if you want to explore Alaska’s wilderness or venture beyond the town center.
Juneau is Alaska’s capital city, located at the base of Mount Juneau. The city is notable for its lack of roads leading in our out. You can only reach Juneau by plane or boat.
If you’re not afraid of heights, the Mount Roberts Tramway is a must-see activity. The 15-minute tram ride takes you to the top of Mount Roberts, where there’s a lookout point, bald eagles, a gift shop, and a restaurant.
Juneau is home to the Mendenhall Glacier. The glacier is a popular destination for hiking and kayaking tours. If you want an up-close glacier experience, you can book a helicopter tour and glacier walk.
If you’re interested in Gold Rush history, you’ll want to visit Skagway, Alaska. The town of Skagway was once the gateway to the Klondike in Canada’s Yukon territory (the site of the famous gold fields).
Thousands of prospectors visited Skagway in the late 1890s with dreams of finding gold.
Much of the gold rush history is preserved. Many of the original buildings remain, as are the town’s wooden boardwalks.
Skagway’s most popular attraction is the White Pass railway. The train ride takes passengers along the original route used by prospectors during the height of the gold rush.
Ketchikan, Alaska, is best known as the “Salmon capital of the world.” But the town is also popular for its Misty Fjords National Monument and numerous totem poles carved by Alaska’s Indigenous peoples, the Tlingit.
The city is home to the Great Alaskan Lumberjack show. Tourists worldwide come to see athletes wield axes and saws while competing in lumbering activities. The show is within walking distance of the cruise port and a must-see if you’re in town during the event.
Sitka is a little fishing town located on Baranof Island.
The town is the former capital of Russian America and offers a glimpse into the past with Russian landmarks and museums. Landmarks like the Russian Bishop’s House and St. Michaels Orthodox Cathedral are some of the famous historical sites.
The town is full of museums, shops, and small restaurants. Wildlife lovers should take a whale-watching tour in Sitka Sound or visit the Alaska Raptor Center and Fortress of the Bear rescue centers.
Sitka is the best town to visit if you’re hoping to spot bald eagles. There are so many bald eagles in Sitka that you’d have to try not to see one.
Sitka National Historical Park is the oldest national park in Alaska. The park is home to over 20 hand-carved totem poles scattered along the nature trails. It’s also the site of the final battle between indigenous Tlingit people and the Russians
More: Things to do in Sitka
Haines is a newer cruise port of call. The town has less than 2,000 residents and isn’t as touristy as other Alaska cruise ports.
Haines is best known for its fishing, golf, wildlife, and Chilkoot Lake. The lake is a popular destination for its immense beauty and the site of the salmon rush.
The town is also home to a hammer museum with the world’s second-largest hammer located out front.
Seward is located along the Gulf of Alaska and is an excellent port for exploring the outdoors. There are mountain biking tours, fishing excursions, and kayaking adventures.
The city is home to Fort William H. Seward and the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park.
Most Alaskan cruises include at least one “scenic cruising” day. You won’t leave the ship on a scenic day, but you’ll have an incredible view of Alaska’s scenery.
The most popular scenic cruising destinations include Glacier Bay National Park, Tracy Arm Fjord, Hubbard Glacier, Endicott Arm, and College Fjord.
It’s important to note that the cruise line may cancel scenic cruising days due to weather. The fjords and narrow passages are difficult for large cruise ships to navigate. If the weather conditions aren’t perfect, the captain may cancel the scenic sailing or sail to an alternative destination.
Glacier Bay National Park: The expansive bay provides a window to 250 million years ago when the land was covered by ice. Most cruise lines stop at Marjorie Glacier, located 55 miles into the park. While sailing along the bay, keep your eye out for bears, mountain goats, eagles, and grizzly bears.
Hubbard Glacier: The largest glacier visited by cruise ships. Hubbard Glacier is an impressive 6 miles wide with a 400-foot tall face. We were fortunate enough to sail beside the glacier and were awestruck by the blue ice wall that stood before us. (We were also entertained by an otter playing on an iceberg.)
Endicott Arm & Dawes Glacier: The 32-mile-long fjord is home to the beautiful Dawes Glacier. The glacier is home to many wildlife species and was founded by John Muir in the 1880s.
Tracy Arm Fjord: One of the most popular scenic destinations for Alaska cruises, located only 50 miles south of Juneau. At the end of the 30-mile-long fjord sits the South Sawyer Glacier and the North Sawyer Glacier. Tracy Arm Fjord is famous for its narrow passageway and towering mountain landscape.
Millions of passengers travel to Alaska every year, hoping to see the Northern Lights. The Northern Lights are most visible further north during darker nights.
You best to see the Northern Lights on a cruise ship by booking a Gulf of Alaska itinerary during September.
The Gulf of Alaska itinerary brings you the furthest north, and sailing in September provides more hours of darkness.
You can increase your chances by visiting Denali National Park, where there’s less population and light pollution. Still, it’s never a guarantee that you’ll see the Northern Lights.
The best time to book an Alaskan cruise is as early as possible. Cruise fares are often the cheapest when first released to the public.
If you purchase your cruise fare early and later find a lower price, you can take advantage of price protection and ask the cruise line to honor the lower price.
Because of the popularity of Alaska cruises and the short sailing season, cruise fares tend to be more expensive than traditional Caribbean sailings.
An Alaska cruise can cost between $500 to $10,000 per person depending on the cruise line, cabin category, flights, hotel, shore excursions, and drink purchases.
In general, you don’t want to wait for last-minute discounts on unsold cabins unless you live near Seattle or Vancouver.
Alaska is one of the cruise destinations where we recommend booking a balcony accommodation. There’s nothing we love more than sipping a coffee on our balcony while admiring the picturesque views.
Due to their popularity, balcony cabins on Alaskan cruises are more expensive than traditional Caribbean sailings. You can expect to pay a higher price if you book a balcony.
When you visit Alaska, you’ll want to pack very differently than you would for a Caribbean cruise.
You’ll want to pack clothing for all types of weather and temperatures.
It’s essential to dress in layers. Because of the fast-changing weather in Alaska, it’s not possible to dress for the weather.
It might be warm in the morning, then cold and rainy in the afternoon.
Dressing in multiple layers prepares you for any weather. It helps to take a backpack or waterproof bag to put extra layers if you don’t need them.
Most importantly you should bring a lightweight rain jacket and waterproof shoes. If there’s one thing you can count on in Alaska, it’s rain. It also helps to pack an umbrella or a rain poncho.
If you’re unsure what to pack for your Alaska cruise, check out our printable Alaska cruise packing list.
Common items to pack for an Alaska cruise include:
The Alaska cruise weather changes rapidly throughout the day. One minute it’s warm, and the next, it’s cold and rainy. Only for it to change again ten minutes later.
The weather can drop into the 40s or 50s in the morning during the cruise season. But on sunny days, the temperature can rise into the mid-70s.
It’s important to remember that Alaska is home to the world’s largest temperate rainforest, and you can almost guarantee that it will rain during your cruise.
The weather in Alaska changes rapidly throughout the day. One minute it’s warm, and the next, it’s cold and rainy. Only for it to change again ten minutes later.
Even if it’s sunny when you’re on the ship, you can expect the weather to change at a moment’s notice.