When is the Best Time to Cruise Alaska: Ultimate Guide

Updated

by Marcello

If you’ve never visited Alaska, you’ll be happy to know that a cruise ship is the best way to explore America’s Last Frontier.

You may be wondering when is the best time to cruise Alaska?

The truth is, there’s no one perfect answer to that question. Every season in Alaska has its own charms, and depending on what you’re looking to see and do, some months might be better than others.

About Alaskan Cruises

Radiance of the Seas in Alaska with Glacier in the background
(Photo credit: Royal Caribbean International)

Cruising in Alaska is very different than the tropical Caribbean sailings you might be used to. The remote location, picturesque landscapes, and abundant wildlife provide memories unlike anywhere in the world.

Alaska’s long, cold winters and short summers mean that cruise ships only have a short window to safely sail the Alaskan waterways.

The Alaskan cruise season is five months long, from May to September.

During the short sailing season, you’ll find noticeable differences in wildlife, weather, pricing, and crowds from one week to the next. With such rapid changes, the month you choose to sail can make or break your Alaska vacation

Whether you have your heart set on catching a king salmon, whale watching from the top deck, or hope for a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse of the northern lights, we’ll help you find the best time to book your cruise to Alaska.

When is the Best Time to Cruise Alaska to see Whales?

Humpback whale breaching jumping in Alaska Inside Passage

When it comes to cruising Alaska, whale watching is at the top of many people’s wish lists.

Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities to spot these majestic creatures throughout the cruising season.

There are eight species of whales that call Alaska home. Fortunately for us, the Alaska cruise season perfectly coincides with the prime whale-watching season.

During the month of February, whales begin their migration from the warm waters of Mexico to Alaska. After a long migration along the pacific coast, these magnificent creatures can be first spotted in April – albeit in small numbers.

Fortunately for us, whales are a common sight along Alaska’s coastline from May to September. This just happens to be the exact same months that the Alaska cruise season operates.

If whale watching is a must on your Alaska cruise bucket list, you’ll want to visit during peak whale season in June. During this month, you’ll find the largest number of whale species in the Inside Passage and Alaskan Coast.

Often, passengers can see whales breaching from the deck of the ship. Sitting on the top deck searching for whale sightings is one of my favorite activities while cruising in Alaska.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that there is no guarantee that you will see whales from the cruise ship.

We’ve been very lucky on our Alaskan cruises. Every time we’ve sailed in Alaska, we’ve always spotted at least one whale from the deck of our cruise ship. And trust me, watching a humpback whale breach the water against the beautiful Alaskan landscape is a sight you’ll never forget.

If you have your heart set on seeing these magnificent creatures, you can increase your odds by booking a small boat tour at one of the ports of call.

The smaller boats used by whale-watching tour groups allow you to get close encounters with the whales. And, the tour guides love to share interesting facts about the species and whale pods in the area.

Whale species that call Alaska home include humpbacks, orcas, grey whales, and minke whales.

Don’t forget to add a pair of binoculars to your Alaska cruise packing list.

Over 500 humpback whales call Alaska’s Inside Passage home during the summer months. June and July are the best months to see these enormous whales. Over 500 humpback whales migrate to Inside Passage in Southeast Alaska every year.

The best time to see Orcas is between June and September. Orca whales are most commonly found in the Pacific Northwest, Seward, and the Kenai Fjords in Alaska.

There are two primary varieties of orca living in Alaska: residents and transients. Transient orcas and resident orcas both inhabit the waters of the West Coast, but they behave differently. Transients troll up and down for food while residents stay in families to feed on salmon during fall months when salmon are abundant.

Gray whales can be spotted in Ketchikan, Sitka, Kodiak, or Seward during April and May.

Blue whales are best seen in the northern and eastern regions of the Gulf of Alaska during July and August. They are rarely found near shorelines, instead preferring open water.

Beluga whales are one species I have not yet encountered. According to Whale Watching Alaska “Beluga whales can be seen along Cook Inlet heading south from Anchorage along what is known as Turnagain Arm in the spring through fall months. They can be viewed year-round in the southern Alaska waters of the Shelikof Strait between Katmai National Park on the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Island.”

The Best Time to Cruise Alaska to see Wildlife?

Alaska is one of the best places in the world to view wildlife. The state is home to 15 national parks, and 16 state parks and its federally-protected lands cover an area the size of California.

If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a bear, eagle, moose, fox, whale, or otter as your ship sails through Alaska’s inside passage.

Although you can find wildlife throughout the year, the best time to see a wide variety is during the summer. During the summer, you’ll often find brown bears fishing for salmon along streams, deer and moose calves along the shore, and a wide variety of birds circling above.

Best Time of Year to See Bears in Alaska

Mother bear protects her three little puppies in Alaska

Grizzly bears are one of the most sought-after wildlife sightings. Your best chance of spotting a bear is during June or July.

Summer is when brown bears gather along the Katmai coast to feed, mate, and socialize. You might also see bears fishing on the beaches for razor clams during low tide.

Another great opportunity to see wildlife is during the famous salmon run. This is when you can find grizzly bears fishing along Alaska’s many rivers and streams.

When is the Best Time of Year to See Eagles in Alaska

american bald eagle diving in flight against forested alaska mountain

More than half of North America’s bald eagle population lives in Alaska. During the summer months, you may be able to spot them from the deck of your cruise ship as they tend to their nests in tall trees near the water.

But, if you’re willing to brave the cold, autumn and early winter offer the best opportunity to see bald eagles in large numbers.

The Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve has the largest gathering of bald eagles in the world. The preserve spans about 48,000 acres along three rivers: the Chilkat River, Klehini River, and Tsirku River. Visitors can see dozens or even hundreds of eagles at a time, fishing in rivers or resting nearby!

When is the best time to visit Alaska to see the Northern Lights?

Alaska is one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights. The northern lights, or aurora borealis, are some of the most incredible sights in the world.

Travelers visit Alaska from all over the world to see these colorful bands of light that dance in the dark night sky. Best of all, you don’t even need to leave the ship to see them – that is if you are lucky enough to see them at all.

The northern lights can be visible at any time of the year, but they are harder to spot during the summer because of the long hours of daylight.

Seeing the northern lights from a cruise ship is a rare occurrence, but you can increase your chances of seeing them by booking a trip in late September or early October. During the late Alaska cruise season, the sun sets sooner in the day compared to summer, which provides a better opportunity to see the aurora borealis.

When is the Best Time to Visit Alaska to Avoid Crowds?

Cruise Ship passengers get a close-up view of the glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve on an Alaskan Cruise

Shoulder season is also the best time to sail on an Alaska cruise if you prefer fewer crowds. The shoulder season for the Alaska cruises includes the months of May and September. The weather is still cool (May) or cooling down (September), with school still in session or just beginning.

As a rule of thumb, fewer people will be traveling when school is in session, and therefore, fewer crowds. You can often find great deals on Alaskan cruises that sail during the shoulder season.

Fewer families travel during the shoulder season as school is in session during May and September. Also, many cruise passengers prefer to travel to Alaska in the warmer summer weather. So you will find fewer tourists at sea and on land.

Shore excursions are also easier to book during these months. So take advantage of the smaller crowds and roomier excursions.

The Best Months for an Alaska Cruise for Low Prices

Cruise Sailing in Alaska

If you have a flexible travel schedule and don’t have your heart set on a particular ship or itinerary, the shoulder seasons typically have the lowest prices.

With fewer people traveling in May and September, it is easy to find special discounts on sailings.

During May and September, Alaska is a bit on the cold side (40 to 53 degrees), so you will want to pack plenty of layers to wear around the ship and at the port.

The cooler weather may also limit the availability of port destinations, as some areas may be unpassable with ice. However, May is one of the driest times for visiting Alaska.

When is the Best Time to see Alaska’s Glaciers?

Cruise ship up close with Alaska Glacier

Alaska’s glaciers are an amazing sight. The deep blue ice that forms the glaciers is a sight you won’t forget.

The summer months (June, July, and August) are the best time to see Alaska’s glaciers. During peak season, temperatures are at their warmest, meaning the winter ice has melted which allows for cruise ships to sail deeper into the Inner Passage and Fjords

Cruise ship captains often turn the ship 360 degrees so that passengers on both sides can take in the amazing views.

Alaskan cruises are one of the few places where we recommend booking a balcony cabin. One of our favorite things to do on an Alaskan cruise is to wake up early and enjoy the views of the inner passage, fjords, and glaciers – all while sipping coffee on our balcony.

When is the Best Time to Cruise to Alaska for Salmon Fishing?

Fishing poles lined up in a row background

There are a large number of cruisers who visit Alaska specifically for the sport of salmon fishing.

One of the best ways to experience salmon fishing is by booking a shore excursion with a local fishing tour company. These companies know exactly where to find the best fishing opportunities. Further, many shore excursions offer a service to package up your catch and ship it back home in dry ice so you can enjoy your fish when you return home.

Fortunately, any time during the Alaska cruise season is a good time for salmon fishing.

But, if you have your heart set on landing a King Salmon (also called Chinook Salmon), the best time to visit is between May and mid-July, when they make their way upstream.

Here is a quick guide to help you time your trip to match when your favorite salmon is running:

  • King Salmon: May-July
  • Sockeye Salmon: June-July
  • Silver Salmon: Mid July-late August
  • Chum Salmon: July-August
  • Coho Salmon: July-September
  • Dog Salmon: July-October
  • Pink Salmon: July-October

Month by Month Guide to the Alaska Cruise Season

View Of Sitka Alaska Boats and Buildings from the Water with Mountain Background

May in Alaska

While the Alaska cruise season doesn’t kick in until June, many cruise ships begin Alaskan itineraries in May.

May is one of the best times to visit Alaska. The May season provides dry weather, fewer crowds, and lots of wildlife, then May is a great time to go on an Alaska cruise.

May is one of the state’s driest months and it provides plenty of opportunities to see wildlife. During May, you can witness the spring migration of birds and whales. Spring is also the time to spot newborn wildlife.

Due to the low tourism in May, you’ll find many of the attractions are still closed. Many National Parks, land-based excursions, attractions, and shops stay closed until later in the year when more tourists visit the State

The first few weeks of sailing are considered the off-season (or shoulder season), and prices tend to be lower. In recent years, Alaskan tourism has increased in popularity, which means even last-minute bookings on May sailings aren’t a sure bet anymore.

June in Alaska

Early June is when the Alaska cruise season kicks into high gear. The warming weather allows cruise ships to travel through the Arctic waters providing unique opportunities for passengers.

With 18-20 hours of daylight, guests have lots of time to enjoy the Alaskan wilderness and abundant wildlife.

June is one of the best months for wildlife sightings with caribou, black bears, mountain goats, moose calves, and even polar bears out and about.

July in Alaska

July is perhaps the busiest time of year for Alaska cruises. This month has some of the warmest weather, longest daylight hours, and the largest number of tourists.

July is an ideal month to visit for salmon fishing, cultural festivals, bear viewing, and small-town exploring. With the popularity of July cruising, cruise prices are at their highest.

The weather in July is very unpredictable. You’ll want to pack for all kinds of weather; hot, cold, rainy, dry, and windy. Make sure you bring plenty of layers and a good, lightweight rainproof jacket or windbreaker.

August in Alaska

August is when the Alaska cruise season begins to wind down. During this month, you can expect the weather begins to cool, higher rainfall, and gorgeous fall landscapes.

You may be able to find some deals towards mid-August, but expect full fares for the most part.

The chance of rain during this month is over 50%, so you’ll want to pack plenty of waterproof gear – including waterproof shoes and wool socks.

September in Alaska

As school returns to session, cruise prices dip and provide travelers with last-minute bargains to take an Alaskan cruise. September also sees fewer crowds than in the summer. However, the shoulder season has become more prevalent in recent years, making great deals harder to find. Knowing when to book your cruise can help you save money on your trip.

September provides the best opportunity to see the Aurora Borealis from an Alaskan cruise due to the shorter daylight hours.

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Author

Marcello

I’ve been cruising since I was 11 years old. I love the freedom that cruising provides, meeting new people, and exploring amazing new ships. I love to share my passion for cruising and travel with readers.

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