How to find the right Alaskan cruise for you
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Alaska is a national treasure. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world, and though it can be remote and rugged, you don’t need to forgo comfort or even luxury to explore the Last Frontier when you do so by cruise ship.
In 2019, the 49th state celebrated 60 years of statehood, and that anniversary renewed interest in this region — so much so that you need to book early and think strategically if you’re looking for a deal. That’s why now is the best time to plan for a spring or summer sailing in 2020.
When is Alaska cruise season?
Nearly every major cruise line has a presence in Alaska from late April through mid-September, so it can be difficult to narrow down your choices — especially because there are so many types of itineraries you can book and key ports of call.
What’s the weather like?
Spring, summer and early fall in Alaska can be lovely, but your mantra should always be: Dress in layers. Nights and mornings can be chilly (in the 40s to 50s) but if it’s a sunny day, temperatures can shoot into the 70s and even low 80s. It does rain a lot in Alaska, too, so be prepared. I left my umbrella at home and instead packed a wide-brimmed rain hat, rain jacket, rain pants and waterproof shoes. It rained like crazy the day we visited Kodiak, but we didn’t mind since we had the right gear.
The Best Alaska itineraries
My first visit to Alaska started in Anchorage, where we took the Alaska Railroad to Whittier to board Regent Seven Seas Mariner to explore Prince William Sound, Kodiak and the remote Dutch Harbor before heading to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and the northern islands of Japan.
What I saw in Alaska took my breath away, and we’ve returned several times since. While that particular cruise was aboard a pricey luxury line, there are ships in all price ranges sailing a variety of itineraries, so don’t let budget stop you from visiting.
The Inside Passage is the most popular route. Itineraries generally embark in either Seattle or Vancouver, British Columbia — though there are some itineraries originating in Juneau.
Glacial ice carved this passageway long ago, and today, cruise ships and fishing vessels thread their way through the islets and channels to see some of the most spectacular natural sights in the world.
Sports enthusiasts and nature lovers head to Alaska for fishing charters, seaplane sightseeing, bird- and bear-watching trips, sea kayaking, hikes (on glaciers and through rainforests) and more.
On the East Coast, the Intracoastal Waterway is a similar inland passage along both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. If you’re familiar with that topography, you have an inkling of what to expect in the Inside Passage. But in Alaska you’ll also find magnificent mountains (often snow-capped, even in the summertime), lush forests, waterfalls, fjords and calving glaciers. And if it’s marine life you’ve come to see, you’ll find it in abundance, from whales and dolphins to sea lions and harbor seals. On land, you’ll spy bears and Dall sheep while eagles, puffins and a host of seabirds circle above.
Many people trek to Alaska to commune with nature, but there’s history here you shouldn’t overlook. Shore excursions and onboard lectures will explain the cultures of the indigenous peoples of Alaska as well as more recent inhabitants, from the Russian community in Sitka to the fortune-seekers who moved to Skagway during the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1890s.
Popular Inside Passage ports of call include Juneau, Icy Strait Point, Ketchikan, Petersburg, Haines and Skagway. Along the way, there are sights like Glacier Bay National Park, Endicott Arm and Dawes Glacier.
One nice thing about the Inside Passage is how calm the water is, since you’re sailing between land masses. If you worry about seasickness, an Inside Passage trip is a safe bet, versus an itinerary where your ship transits rougher, open waters.
Gulf of Alaska
If you book a Gulf of Alaska voyage, you’ll enjoy exploring parts of the Inside Passage and its ports that could include a mix of Juneau, Skagway, Sitka, Ketchikan, Haines and Icy Strait Point.
Additionally, you’ll have up to two days of “scenic cruising,” where you can enjoy the landscapes but won’t go ashore. This is not nearly as boring as you might think, since you’ll see some incredible sights, like Hubbard Glacier or Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve.
Generally, these one-way sailings travel from Anchorage (Seward) or Anchorage (Whittier) to Vancouver (or vice versa). Most itineraries are seven nights, but you’ll find a handful that are longer.
When you look at cruise itineraries, you’ll see certain embarkation/debarkation ports listed like this: Anchorage (Seward), for example. That means you must fly into Anchorage and then transfer to the cruise port in Seward. The transfer is usually a bit of a distance, which is why the cruise lines call out these types of ports in their brochures. If you buy the cruise line’s airfare, transportation to the port is usually included or available for a small fee. When we sailed from Anchorage (Whittier), for example, Regent included a transfer from our hotel in Anchorage to Whittier aboard the Alaska Railroad.
Gulf of Alaska sailings — especially those in late August and September — can experience some rough seas in the Gulf of Alaska portion of the voyage, so that’s something to think about if you’re particularly prone to seasickness.
Longer sailings from the West Coast
Finally, you’ll find some San Francisco round-trip itineraries — usually 10 nights long — as well as longer sailings between San Francisco and Vancouver. These cruises are best suited to travelers who love days at sea. You’ll have four sea days (for example, two days from San Francisco to Juneau) plus a day of scenic cruising at a spot like Tracy Arm (Twin Sawyer Glaciers), Endicott Arm, Hubbard Glacier or Glacier Bay National Park. The waters before you enter the Inside Passage can be calm, rough or anything in between, depending on when you go and luck of the draw.
Ports on these longer sailings may include Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, Icy Strait Point and Victoria, British Columbia.
Types of cruises
No matter what style of cruise you’re looking from, you’ll find it in Alaska. See our chart at the end of this post for all the major ships sailing Alaska in 2020.
Mainstream: Just about all of the mass-market cruise lines offer sailings in Alaska. Princess Cruises and Holland America Line have especially long histories in the region and offer cruises as well as cruise and land tour combinations. But you can also book a voyage with Carnival, Celebrity Cruises, Disney Cruise Line, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and others.
Small ship and expedition sailings: Active travelers may prefer expedition-style voyages or a cruise aboard a small ship that includes more time ashore so you can partake in serious hikes and even overnight camping. Cruise fares on small ships or expedition ships — which are usually much more expensive than voyages aboard mass-market cruise ships — also include benefits like complimentary shore excursions, kayaks and bikes for guest use and the presence of naturalists, marine biologists or other specialists who present lectures to guests and lead small-group shore excursions.
We booked an Inside Passage itinerary with UnCruise Adventures and traveled with just a handful of other passengers. (Its Alaska-based ships can accommodate between 22 and 90 passengers.) Our cruise was an incredible experience with plenty of time to connect with nature — several types of whales swam near our skiff during excursions and we spied mother bears with their cubs along with sea lions, harbor seals and more.
Major expedition and small-ship players include Lindblad/National Geographic, Silversea (the line also has a luxury ship that sails to Alaska), Ponant, Hurtigruten, UnCruise Adventures and Alaskan Dream Cruises.
Luxury: When you want to see Alaska in style, board an all-inclusive luxury cruise ship with free-flowing Champagne and sometimes even a butler catering to your every whim. Look to the luxury brands such as Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, Silversea and Viking. Premium lines Oceania and Windstar Cruises also provide a high-end experience in Alaska.
Top Alaskan ports of call
No matter which type of itinerary you select, you’ll likely visit a mix of these ports. Like so many places around the world, many of these ports now cater to the cruise market. If you want to see nature at its finest, go beyond the immediate port area. And if you want to see some of Alaska’s most rustic and charming villages, book a voyage with a line like Alaskan Dream Cruises and UnCruise that visits destinations like Baranof Island, Chichagof Island, Petersburg and Wrangell.
Ketchikan is known for three things: Native Alaskan (Tlingit) totem poles, Misty Fjords National Monument and the city’s distinction as the “salmon capital of the world.” The town has more standing totem poles than anywhere else in the state and you can see them at several parks and at the Totem Heritage Center.
What to do in Ketchikan: The main draws include opportunities to visit Saxman Native Village and learn about the totem poles in the area, or enjoy The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show. The show is staged within walking distance of the cruise port and it’s the place to see athletes wielding axes and saws in traditional lumbering activities. Kayak or cruise tours of Misty Fjords are incredibly popular and you can also sightsee by floatplane or city trolley, bear-watch, fish (think: salmon and halibut), hike through a rainforest and try active adventures like a canoe safari, Zodiac expedition, zip-lining or join a Bering Sea crab fishermen’s tour. You can even snorkel at Mountain Point, or take it easy with a pub crawl downtown to enjoy local brews and meet locals.
Alaska’s capital city is interesting because no road leads from here to the rest of the state. It’s at the base of Mount Juneau and you can only get there via boat — even residents have to bring their cars to Juneau via ferry. Home to Mendenhall Glacier, this is a popular port for a variety of shore excursions.
What to do in Juneau: Look for kayak and bike adventures, a ride in the sky on the Mount Roberts Tramway (the pickup point is right at the cruise port), wildlife-viewing trips (whale, bears and more), fishing outings, glacier visits (Mendenhall, Taku and Tracy Arm Fjord) and even fun culinary trips such as an Alaska salmon bake or a craft beer tasting. You can go to a dogsled camp, pan for gold or take a helicopter and land on Mendenhall Glacier.
If you’re interested in Alaska’s Gold Rush history, Skagway — 90 miles northwest of Juneau — is a port you shouldn’t miss. In fact, it’s the gateway to the Klondike and Dawson’s mining district in Canada’s Yukon territory where prospectors searched for gold in the late 1890s. The historic district still has a Wild West feel … though a bit commercialized for the modern era. This port can get crowded in the heat of summer when several ships can call on the same day.
What to do in Skagway: You can easily walk from the cruise port to town and explore on your own or book a guided shore excursion. Tours include panning for gold, a snowshoeing expedition and rides on the White Pass Rail. You can also visit a waterfall, hike the Chilkoot Trail, explore Glacier Point by ATV, helicopter flight-see the area’s glaciers or rock climb and rappel. If you didn’t get to enjoy a dogsled experience yet, do it in Skagway. And if you just want to see the city sights, take the Skagway Street Car city tour.
Sitka is a working town that has more going for it than just tourism. Commercial fishing is still a major player here. Another thing that sets Sitka apart from other Alaskan ports is its Russian heritage. See St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral with its onion dome and the Russian Bishop’s House.
What to do in Sitka: Enjoy a nature safari by 4×4 or sea kayak, visit the Alaska Raptor Center, go bird- and bear-watching, dry-suit snorkel or book a “ghosts of Sitka” city walk. Guided fly fishing and a sea otter quest are also available, along with Tongass National Forest nature hikes, a bike and hike combo tour and local pub crawls.
According to the 2010 Census, the population of Haines is less than 1,800, and it isn’t yet as touristy as some of the other Alaskan ports. It’s known for great fishing (salmon, halibut and trout) and an eagle preserve — because, hey, eagles know where the best fish can be found!
Haines shore excursions: Try a zip line, go kayaking, learn about eagles and other raptors, fish Chilkoot Lake, see Glacier Point by ATV, go hiking or play golf. For a really special tour, go bear-watching at twilight. Animal lovers and kids tend to really enjoy a visit to the Kroschel Center for Orphaned Animals. You can also ride the scenic White Pass Summit railway.
Most Alaska itineraries include some “scenic cruising,” where your ship sails past some incredible natural sights. You’ll rarely leave the ship during these sail-bys (unless you happen to be aboard certain expedition, luxury or small ships that offer the chance to get aboard a skiff to get closer … but you’re still viewing from the water).
Onboard naturalists generally narrate what you’re seeing, so head to the observation lounge (or tune to your in-room television that may broadcast the nature talks so you can listen while watching from your balcony or ocean-view window) and learn about some of the top sights featured on scenic cruising days.
Dawes Glacier at the Endicott Arm
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
Tracy Arm (Twin Sawyer Glaciers)
How to pick the best Alaska cruise for you
You’ll see from our chart below that dozens of ships are sailing Alaska in 2020. And this just includes the mass-market and luxury ships. There are even more if you count all of the small ship and expedition vessels. That’s a lot of information to parse as you determine which ship is right for you, so consider a cruise line that caters to your specific needs or interests. Consult this list, and then check the chart to find a vessel that might fit your own preferences, from ships with the fewest (or the most) passengers to those with the least expensive cruise fares to the ones offering exactly the itinerary you want.
Best cruises for extended trips to Alaska
If you want to cruise Alaska but also see some of the interior and enjoy a stay in a lodge or hotel, go for a cruise-tour package from either Holland America or Princess Cruises. Both have fantastic itineraries that take passengers not only to the Inside Passage, but also Anchorage, Denali National Park, the Yukon, Kenai Peninsula, Talkeetna and Fairbanks. Princess even owns a handful of its own lodges.
Best for families with younger kids
Carnival, Disney Cruise Line, Norwegian, Princess and Royal Caribbean all have extensive kids clubs aboard their ships. Disney kicks that up a notch with meet-and-greets with its beloved characters on board. You can hang with Dr. Seuss characters when sailing with Carnival and there are DreamWorks personas (think: Shrek, the panda from “Kung Fu Panda” or the penguins from “Madagascar”) aboard Royal Caribbean ships.
Best for teens and adventure-seekers
If you’ve got active kids who have an interest in nature and the environment, an expedition voyage could be exactly what will keep them engaged and off their devices. Anyone else looking to really explore Alaska should also consider an expedition cruise where you’ll hop aboard skiffs for up-close looks at glaciers, go hiking in Tongass National Forest and kayak the calm waters of the Inside Passage. Look to UnCruise Adventures, Alaskan Dream Cruises, Hurtigruten, Lindblad Expeditions (National Geographic sailings), Ponant or Silversea’s expedition ships (Silver Cloud and Silver Explorer).
Best for multigenerational groups
Sailing with grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and kids? Try Celebrity Cruises, Holland America (especially Koningsdam, which has excellent nightlife options for a range of tastes) and Princess Cruises.
Best for couples and big celebrations
Look to the luxury cruise lines if you’re a couple and enjoy spacious suites, gourmet food, pampering (many luxe lines hire butlers to cater to every passenger) and the opportunity to meet other like-minded cruisers. The personalized service and all-inclusive nature of luxury voyages may also be attractive to anyone celebrating a milestone, such as an anniversary, big birthday or retirement. Look at Oceania, Regent Seven Seas, Scenic, Seabourn, Silversea (Muse is its luxury ship in Alaska and it also sails two expedition ships, Silver Cloud and Silver Explorer), Windstar Cruises and Viking Ocean.
Ships sailing Alaska in 2020
This chart shows the major ships that are sailing Alaska in 2020. Itinerary types include IP (Inside Passage), GA (Gulf of Alaska) and L (longer sailings). RT indicates a round-trip sailing that originates and ends in the same port. Other itineraries begin in one city and end in another.
Also, remember that cruise fares fluctuate over time. The per person fares are what’s currently listed on the cruise line’s website, but you may be able to find a lower — or higher — price than what’s published here.
Finally, cruises at the beginning (April and May) and end (September and October) of Alaska’s cruise season are generally a bit cheaper than those in June, July and August.
|Cruise Line/ Ship||# of 2020 Sailings||Itinerary Types||# of Nights||Embark and Debark Ports||Per Person Fares From||Passenger Decks||Passengers||Crew||Year Built|
|Carnival Miracle||10||IP, L||10, 11||San Francisco RT||$819||12||2,124||934||2003|
|Carnival Spirit||22||IP||7, 8, 9||Seattle RT
Seattle to Vancouver (& reverse)
|Celebrity Eclipse||19||IP||7||Vancouver RT||$969||13||2,850||1,250||2010|
|Celebrity Millennium||16||IP, GA||7||Anchorage (Seward) to Vancouver (& reverse)||$989||11||2,218||1,024||2000|
|Celebrity Solstice||17||IP||7, 8||Seattle RT
Seattle to Vancouver (& reverse)
|17||IP, GA, L||9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 16, 17, 19||San Francisco to Vancouver (& reverse)
Victoria, B.C. RT
|Disney Wonder||16||IP||7||Vancouver RT||$5,863||11||2,713||950||1999|
|Holland America Koningsdam||21||IP||7||Vancouver RT||$849||12||2,650||1,036||2016|
|10||GA, L||14||Vancouver RT||$1,449||9||1,258||574||1994|
|20||IP, GA, L||7||Anchorage (Seward) to Vancouver (& reverse)||$689||11||1,924||811||2006|
|19||IP, GA, L||7||Anchorage (Seward) to Vancouver (& reverse)
|Norwegian Bliss||22||IP||7||Seattle RT||$799||16||4,004||1,716||2018|
|Norwegian Jewel||18||IP, GA||7||Anchorage (Seward) to Vancouver (& reverse)||$549||12||2,376||1,069||2005|
|Norwegian Joy||23||IP||7||Seattle RT||$699||16||3,804||1,821||2017|
|Norwegian Sun||14||IP, L||7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 15||Seattle RT
Vancouver to San Diego (& reverse)
|Oceania Regatta||15||IP, GA, L||7, 10, 11, 12, 14, 20||Anchorage (Seward) to Vancouver (& reverse)
San Francisco to Vancouver (& reverse)
Seattle to Vancouver (& reverse)
Vancouver to Los Angeles (San Pedro (& reverse)
|Coral Princess||28||IP, GA, L||7, 14||Anchorage (Whittier) to Vancouver (& reverse)
|Emerald Princess||19||IP||7||Seattle RT
Vancouver to Seattle (& reverse)
|Golden Princess||7||IP, L||14||Anchorage (Whittier) to Vancouver (& reverse)
|Grand Princess||27||IP, GA, L||7, 10, 14||Anchorage (Whittier) to Vancouver (& reverse)
|Pacific Princess||17||IP, GA, L||7, 12||Anchorage (Whittier) to Vancouver (and reverse)
|Royal Princess||28||IP, GA, L||7, 14||Anchorage (Whittier) to Vancouver (and reverse)
|Ruby Princess||20||IP||7||Seattle RT||$859||19||3,080||1,200||2008|
|Star Princess||15||IP||3, 10||San Francisco to Vancouver (& reverse)
San Francisco RT
|Regent Seven Seas
|16||IP, GA||7, 12, 13||Anchorage (Seward) to Vancouver (& reverse)
San Francisco to Vancouver (& reverse)
Vancouver to Los Angeles (San Pedro) (& reverse)
Ovation of the Seas
|17||IP||6, 7||Seattle RT
Seattle to Vancouver (& reverse)
Radiance of the Seas
|16||IP, GA||7||Anchorage (Seward) to Vancouver (& reverse)||$530||12||2,112||894||2001|
Serenade of the Seas
|15||IP||5, 7||Vancouver RT||$551||12||2,146||884||2003|
|Seabourn Sojourn||23||IP, GA, L||7, 10, 11, 12, 14||Anchorage (Seward) to Vancouver (& reverse)
Juneau to Vancouver (& reverse)
Vancouver to Los Angeles (San Pedro) (& reverse)
|Silversea Silver Muse||15||IP, GA||7||Anchorage (Seward) to Vancouver (& reverse)||$4,230||8||596||411||2017|
|Viking Orion||8||IP, GA||10||Anchorage (Seward) to Vancouver (& reverse)||$5,599||10||930||550||2018|
|Windstar Star Breeze||9||IP, GA||11, 12||Anchorage (Seward) to Vancouver (& reverse)||$2,899||6||212 (312 after 2020 refurb)||150||1989|
Everyone should cruise Alaska at least once if they can. The beauty of the land and its immense history; the thrill of seeing bears, moose and Dall sheep; and the mysteries of the surrounding marine life will astound you. I bet you’ll want to return to see it all over again, too, because I know I do.
Thinking of booking a cruise? Here’s some more advice:
- The best adults-only cruise lines
- Which cruise line is best for you?
- How to enjoy shipboard credit and other cruise perks with the Amex Platinum
- What happens if you miss your cruise?
Featured image by earleliason/Getty Images
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