What To Expect on an Alaskan Cruise

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During the summer of 2022, I took my first cruise to Alaska.

The trip was full of incredible scenery, lousy weather, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Lucky for me, Marcello had previously sailed to Alaska, so I had a good idea of what to expect.

That said, there are many reasons why Alaskan cruises differ from your usual Caribbean sailing.

If you’re trying to find a destination for your next cruise or are in the early stages of planning your Alaskan cruise, here’s what to expect on an Alaskan cruise.

This is Not a Caribbean Cruise

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You might not have any expectations for Alaska if you have never been on a cruise. However, if you have sailed to the Caribbean or Bahamas, you’ll find a completely different cruise experience in Alaska.

The atmosphere onboard will be very different from the party-like cruises you see in the Caribbean.

Alaskan cruises tend to cater to an older and more sophisticated audience. That doesn’t mean you won’t be able to enjoy yourself but be prepared for a more relaxed style of cruising.

Visit Alaska for the Scenery, Not the Ship

View of alaska coastline from the rear of a cruise ship with the wake trailing the ship

Many major cruise lines have cruise ships that sail during the Alaska cruise season.

Alaska has become such a popular cruising destination that many cruise lines position their newest ships in the region. However, it’s important to remember that most vessels sailing in Alaska tend to be the cruise line’s older ships.

It’s important to note that while you will find many older cruise ships sailing in Alaska, the cruise lines refurbish their ships approximately every five years. So, while the ship may be old, you’ll still find many of the same great amenities that you’d expect from a modern cruise ship.

That said, you will still find many great ships that fit your style of cruising. But the cruise ship isn’t why you are sailing to Alaska.

View of chilkoot lake from ground level

Alaska cruises are all about the scenery.

When you visit the last frontier, you will be taken aback by the incredible scenery and wildlife you see while sailing and at the ports of call.

Alaska is one of the most beautiful destinations in the world. The older cruise ships are perfect for the very reason that they are distraction-free.

The older vessels allow you to fully immerse yourself in your surroundings and truly experience everything Alaska offers.

You Will Be Paying for the Experience

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Alaskan cruises are not cheap. Be prepared to pay anywhere between 50% to 150% more than you would for a 7-day Caribbean cruise.

Transportation, taxes, and shore excursions can also be more costly to and from the cruise.

Airfare is a critical consideration if you decide to take a one-way cruise. Unlike round-trip itineraries, one-way cruises begin and end in different locations.

If you’re sailing on a one-way cruise, you won’t be able to take advantage of round-trip airfare prices.

Royal Caribbean cruise ship Radiance of the seas docked in skagway alaska

Is the cost worth it?

We think so!

An Alaskan cruise is unlike any other voyage. Where else will you get the chance to walk on top of a glacier, try your hand panning for gold, and, if lucky, see the Northern Lights?

You won’t find these opportunities in the Caribbean.

There’s no Guarantee You Will See Wildlife From the Ship

Humpback whale breaching jumping in Alaska Inside Passage

It’s the incredible scenery along the coastline that travelers remember for the rest of their lives.

As you cruise the Inside Passage, you’ll be greeted by rocky strips of the coast, old-growth forests, and snow-capped mountains. Occasionally, you may catch a glimpse of a humpback whale breaching the water, a bald eagle soaring above the ship, or a mama bear with her cubs.

Here’s a list of animals you might see from the cruise ship:

  • Whales
  • Grizzly and black bears
  • Bald eagles
  • Moose
  • Foxes
  • Wolves
  • Seals

With the potential to see wildlife at any moment, it can be disheartening to travel all that way and not see any wildlife. Although this has never happened to us, there is no guarantee that you will see any whales, bears, or other animals.

If getting up-close and personal with nature is essential to you, we recommend booking an excursion dedicated explicitly to whale watching, bear sighting, or another animal-intensive tour.

There are still no guarantees, but I will never forget my close encounter with a gray whale on my first whale-watching tour.

It’s Not Always Cold

View from the top deck of Serenade of the Seas overlooking Sitka Sound

Do not make the rookie mistake of only packing only for cold temperatures. During most of the sailing season, June to August, the temperature averages between 40 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

When you visit Alaska, it is wise to pack for varying degrees of weather. The temperature, humidity, and precipitation change rapidly throughout the day and become very unpredictable.

You’ll definitely want to pack for all seasons.

One minute it’s raining, and the next, it’s 72℉ and sunny.

That’s why we recommend wearing lots of layers, including a lightweight raincoat. That way, you’re prepared for any weather the Alaskan wilderness throws at you.

The Days are Long

Royal Princess and HAL Konings Dam docked in Juneau Alaska

While you won’t be traveling far enough North to experience 24 hours of daylight, the days are longer than you might expect. It’s not uncommon for the sun to set well after 10 pm in Juneau, Alaska.

After a few days, you will get used to strolling out after the late-night show and seeing daylight.

The late daylight hours provide more time to take in the scenic Alaskan coastline. Late at night, you’ll find other passengers on the top decks hoping to spot a whale or grizzly bear.

Keep in mind that sunrise is as early as sunset is late. If you have an ocean view or balcony, the sun rises as early as 3:45 am.

Most oceanview cabins have blackout curtains for your sleeping comfort. But, if you’re a light sleeper, you’ll want to pack a sleeping mask.

Insider Tip

Tip: The wind is usually calmer during the evening, giving the ocean a smooth-as-glass appearance. The low winds create the perfect backdrop for photographing the sunset.

Expect it to Rain

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You can expect it to rain at least once during your trip to Alaska.

Why does Alaska get so much rain?

Southeast Alaska is home to the 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest. Tongass is part of the largest temperate rainforest in the world.

When sailing through the Inside Passage, you’ll want to wear rain-and-wind-resistant clothing. Although rain is less common in the northern part of the Inside Passage, you can expect it to rain throughout the cruise.

And if you are visiting Ketchikan, there is a reason it is one of the rainest cities in the United States. Make sure you are prepared on the ship and in port.

It’s almost guaranteed to rain during the cruise, so bring a lightweight rain jacket, umbrella, and rain shoes or boots.

Alaska Cruises are Perfect for the Family

Many people consider Alaskan cruises an “older” crowd, but we’ve seen many children aboard our Alaskan cruises having a great time. As a kid in Alaska, we spent dozens of hours sitting on the deck, hot chocolate in hand, scanning the ocean for whales. It was, and still is, one of my most memorable cruise vacations.

An Alaskan cruise is a fantastic choice for families who want to encourage their children to explore and love nature and science. The ports of call include many family-friendly shore excursions, including panning for gold, whale watching, and glacier tours. Many ships even have children’s programs teaching kids about the local wildlife and geology. 

A Balcony Cabin is Worthwhile

Nearly every cruise itinerary will visit the Inside Passage, Gulf of Alaska, Glacier Bay, Tracy Arm Fjord, or College Fjord. And no matter which itinerary you choose, the scenery will be breathtaking.

Alaska is full of ice-capped mountains, icy-blue glaciers, and the occasional whale.

If there is one cruise destination where it’s worth splurging for a balcony cabin, it’s Alaska. Although you will always have an incredible view from the ship’s upper decks, there is nothing like sitting on your balcony for a peaceful and private view of Alaska’s natural wonders.

Excursions Are Worth the Price

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There is nothing cruisers hate more than the cost of shore excursions. Shore excursions are the best way to experience all that Alaska offers when sailing through Alaska. Each port of call has its unique charm, but to truly experience Alaska, you must ditch the crowded streets of the small town and take a small organized tour.

white pass and yukon route railroad passing through a forest with a snow capped mountian in the background

Alaska has so many unique experiences that you won’t find anywhere else. For instance, you can take a trip down the historic White Pass Rail, walk on top of a thousand-year-old glacier, experience the wildlife up close, or pan for gold. The excursions are often costly, and it isn’t uncommon to see prices of $300-$500 per person, but they are the best way to experience everything Alaska offers.

The Alaska Cruise Season is Short

When planning your Alaskan cruise, you may notice that the ships don’t sail year-round.

That’s because the Alaskan cruising season only runs from May to September.

The peak season for Alaska is between July and August, when you will find the best weather and sightseeing conditions; however, that is also when the cruise rates are highest.

You’ll Need to Pack More for an Alaskan Cruise

You won’t be able to travel with just a carry-on while sailing through Alaska. As we previously mentioned, the weather in Alaska is notoriously unpredictable and can change several times throughout the day.

Given the constantly fluctuating weather, you will want to make sure you pack for all kinds of weather. If you cruise during July and August, you can expect lows in the 40s and highs well into the 60s.

Make sure you pack lots of layers and don’t forget to bring wind and rain-resistant jacket and water-resistant shoes for rainy days in port.

If you aren’t sure what to bring with you, check out our Alaskan cruise packing guide!

You Will Take Lots of Pictures

View of mendenhall glacier from a nearby hiking trail

You will inevitably take lots of pictures and videos of the incredible scenery. Modern smartphone cameras will do just fine, but it may be time for an upgrade if you want to take your photos to the next level. Investing in a digital camera will give you the quality to want without maxing your phone’s memory or battery.

Final Thoughts

An Alaskan cruise is unlike the warm tropical vacations you might be familiar with. Onboard an Alaskan cruise, you can expect a slower, more relaxing getaway focused on the picturesque scenery and abundant wildlife.

Now that you know what to expect on an Alaskan cruise, it’s time to learn when you should visit. Whether you want to see the northern lights, catch a king salmon, or spot whales from the deck of your ship, timing is everything.

Check out our article on when to take an Alaskan cruise to make the most of your cruise vacation!

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Victoria

I love to travel, see new places, and meet new people. I have been lucky enough to travel on multiple continents, as well as several cruise lines. I am passionate about sharing my experience with readers.

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