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Alaska cruise guide: Best itineraries, planning tips and things to do

March 25, 2022
22 min read
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Alaska may be one of the most beautiful places in the world, but it can also be rugged and tricky to get around. Explore the Last Frontier by cruise ship and you can travel to Gold Rush towns, glaciers, Alaska Native heritage sites and natural areas brimming with wildlife in comfort, even luxury.

When planning an Alaska cruise, you have many things to consider: when to go for the experience you’re anticipating, which cruise line is best suited to your travel style, the best Alaska cruise ports to visit and which shoreside activities you want to prioritize. It’s not the kind of trip you want to throw together at the last minute -- especially since the best fare deals typically go to organized travelers who book early.

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If you’re eager to spot bald eagles in the wild, ride a dogsled atop an ice field or pan for gold after a hearty salmon feast, an Alaska cruise is calling your name. Dive into The Points Guy’s Alaska cruise guide for all the planning tips you need for your dream cruise up north.

Why cruise Alaska?

Most people have similar reasons for cruising Alaska. They want to admire its rugged beauty, seek out wildlife (such as eagles, bears and whales) and learn about its native cultures and Gold Rush history. It’s so far from the rest of the mainland U.S. that it’s become a bucket list destination, especially for travelers looking to visit each of the 50 states.

One of the key reasons to cruise Alaska versus taking a land tour is to visit destinations along the Inside Passage that you cannot reach by road. Plus, many of the state’s famous glaciers are best viewed from the sea. If you want to see landlocked areas, such as Denali National Park, you can tack a cruise line-operated tour onto the beginning or end of your sailing for a seamless land and sea vacation. It’s easier than fumbling with multiple train, bus, ferry and hotel reservations to cobble together the same trip on your own.

Royal Caribbean Ovation of the Seas Alaska
Ovation of the Seas in Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean)

A cruise can also make an Alaska trip more affordable. Instead of taking a long and expensive flight to Anchorage or Fairbanks, you can choose a cruise that sails round-trip from Seattle or Vancouver. Restaurant prices in Alaska can be high, but a cruise bundles meals, accommodations and transportation into one price that, with sales, can be cheaper than you’d think.

Related: Best Alaska cruise tips to help you make the most of your time aboard and ashore

When do cruises go to Alaska?

Nearly every major cruise line has a presence in Alaska from May through mid-September, with some offering sailings as early as April or as late as October. The season is short due to weather; cold temperatures, icy waters and a long snowy season are not conducive to early spring and late fall cruises.

Alaska cruise weather can be chilly (in the 40s to 50s) first thing in the morning and at night. However, if it’s a sunny summer day, temperatures can shoot into the 70s and even low 80s. It does rain a lot in Alaska, too; it’s drier in the spring months than in the summer.

When you want to go will depend on which activities you want to do, how you feel about cool weather and rain, and the price. 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.

Related: Best time to cruise to Alaska

Best Alaska itineraries

Where do Alaska cruises even go? Most sail along the Inside Passage, a maritime route along the state’s southern coast (and into British Columbia and Washington state) that weaves around the area’s thousand islands. Some venture farther north into the Gulf of Alaska; these are often one-way cruises that begin and end at the ports near Anchorage.

Learn more about the best Alaska cruise itineraries for your next vacation.

Inside Passage

The Inside Passage is the most popular Alaska cruise route. Weeklong 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.

You’ll find magnificent mountains (often snow-capped, even in the summertime), lush forests, waterfalls, fjords and calving glaciers. 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 likely spy bears and Dall sheep while eagles, puffins and a host of seabirds circle above.

UnCruise offers this itinerary that explores the Inside Passage and San Juan Islands. (Image courtesy of UnCruise Adventures)

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 and 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. Most cruises will visit three or four ports of call.

Additionally, you’ll have one day spent cruising the Inside Passage and one focused on “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 Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve or Hubbard 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 the best Alaska cruise itinerary versus a sailing where your ship transits rougher, open waters.

Gulf of Alaska

If you book a Gulf of Alaska voyage, you’ll also 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.

You’ll have up to two days of scenic cruising, in addition to sailing the Inside Passage. Because Gulf of Alaska cruises sail farther north, scenic destinations may include College Fjord, in addition to Glacier Bay and Hubbard Glacier.

This is an example of a Princess Cruises itinerary that visits the Inside Passage as well as the Gulf of Alaska, terminating or originating in Whittier, Alaska. (Image courtesy of Princess Cruises)

Generally, these one-way sailings travel from Seward or Whittier (the cruise ports closest to Anchorage) to Vancouver (or vice versa). Most itineraries are seven nights, but you’ll find a handful that are longer.

Note that for these itineraries, you’ll need to fly into or out of Anchorage and take a train or bus to/from the cruise departure ports, which can take an hour or two. You can book the transportation on your own or through your cruise line.

Gulf of Alaska sailings -- especially those in late August and September -- can encounter 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.

Related: The best Alaska cruise for every type of traveler

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.

Ports on these longer sailings may include Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, Icy Strait Point and Victoria, British Columbia.

You may also find one-way repositioning cruises between southern California ports (Los Angeles and San Diego) and Vancouver at the beginning or end of a ship’s Alaska cruise season.

Cruisetours

Cruise lines understand that not all of Alaska’s best sights lie along the coast. Denali National Park and the city of Fairbanks are well inland. And some coastal highlights, like the Kenai Peninsula, aren’t typically visited on a seven-night cruise. So the cruise lines created their own “cruisetours": vacations that combine a weeklong cruise with a two- to seven-night bus tour.

Denali National Park. (Photo courtesy of Travel Alaska)

On a cruisetour, you’ll sail a one-way Gulf of Alaska cruise, so your cruise starts or ends in Alaska. Depending on the tour itinerary you choose, you might visit Seward and the Kenai Peninsula, Alyeska, Talkeetna, Anchorage and Fairbanks -- as well as spend one to three nights in Denali National Park.

Some lines also offer Alaska cruisetours that venture into Canada’s Yukon, including a few Holland America tours that combine half a cruise with a cruisetour that starts or ends in Skagway.

Your tour may include a ride on the scenic Alaska Railroad. Some activities are included in the cost of the cruisetour; other outings can be booked like shore excursions depending on your interest and budget. If you’re hoping to see the northern lights, booking a cruisetour in September might be your best bet to see the aurora on a cruise vacation.

Related: The best credit cards for booking cruises

Best Alaska cruise lines

Most big-ship and luxury cruise lines send at least one cruise ship to Alaska every summer. Some of the best Alaska cruise lines are Holland America and Princess because they have especially long histories in the region and offer cruises, as well as cruise and land tour combinations, on multiple ships each season.

If you want a more active trip in less touristed areas, a great choice would be a small-ship expedition line, including Alaska specialists such as Alaskan Dream Cruises and UnCruise Adventures.

Ships in all price ranges sail a variety of itineraries, so don’t let budget stop you from visiting. If luxury is what you’re after, you can find lines that will go overboard pampering you on your journey north.

Related: A beginners guide to picking a cruise line

Best cruise lines 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 cruisetour 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.

Cruise ships often stop in front of Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)

Best Alaska cruises for families with kids

Carnival, Disney Cruise Line, Norwegian, Princess and Royal Caribbean all have extensive kids clubs aboard their ships that cater to all ages, from babies to teens. Little kids will adore meet-and-greets with beloved characters onboard Disney cruises or hanging with Dr. Seuss characters when sailing with Carnival. Older kids will love the rock climbing walls, video game stations, sports courts, go-karts and laser tag on Royal Caribbean and Disney ships.

Related: Which cruise ship cabin category should your family book?

Best cruise lines for adventure-seekers

Active travelers can kayak, bike and hike on Alaska cruises. (Photo courtesy of UnCruise Adventures)

Active travelers may prefer expedition-style voyages on smaller ships that include more time for adventurous activities, such as hiking in the Tongass National Forest, wildlife and glacier viewing from Zodiac rafts or kayaks, or even overnight camping. These ships often feature complimentary shore excursions, kayaks and bikes for guest use and onboard scientists and naturalists.

If you’ve got active teens who have an interest in nature and the environment, an expedition voyage could be exactly what will keep them engaged and off their devices. Just expect the majority of your shipmates to be older adults.

Look to UnCruise Adventures, Alaskan Dream Cruises, Hurtigruten, Lindblad Expeditions and Ponant for the best adventure cruises.

Related: Pros and cons of small-ship cruising in Alaska

Best for multigenerational groups

Sailing with grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and kids? Try Celebrity Cruises, Holland America and Princess Cruises. These cruise lines, especially on their newer ships, offer something for everyone, as well as a higher caliber of onboard dining than on the cheapest cruises. Kids can hang out in the youth lounges while parents hit the spa or try a wine tasting class. Everyone can come back together for dinner and evening entertainment or onboard activities suitable for all ages.

Best for couples and big celebrations

The luxury cruise lines are your best bet 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, Windstar Cruises and Viking.

Related: 5 luxury lines that’ll make you rethink everything you thought you knew about cruising

Things to do in Alaska

Alaska cruises offer a wide range of activities in port, with options for active travelers, wildlife lovers, history buffs and shoppers. Whether you’re traveling with young kids or require more sedentary recreation, the Alaska cruise ports won’t disappoint.

Related: The coolest things to do on an Alaska cruise

Wildlife tours are available in every port. Hop a bus, kayak, boat or plane to look for bears, eagles, whales, sea otters and other wildlife. Note that moose don’t regularly show up in the Inside Passage; you’ll need to head more north to find them.

Book a fishing trip to try your hand at catching salmon or halibut, or go out crab fishing for a glimpse into that type of work.

Active travelers can explore Alaska by sea kayak or canoe, hike on glaciers and through rainforests, zip line, bike, ride an ATV and even snorkel (you’ll need a dry suit). You can even opt for a round of golf at the course in Haines.

Book a shore excursion to walk on a glacier in Alaska. (Photo by Blane Arnold/EyeEm/Getty Images)

In Alaska, sightseeing doesn’t only take place on the ground. Floatplane and helicopter tours take you around scenic areas like Misty Fjords or land you on a glacier, perhaps for a dogsledding or hiking adventure on the ice. If you prefer to stay grounded, you can find informative trolley tours of ports like Skagway.

Alaska cruises provide plentiful opportunities to learn about native Alaskan culture. You can get a taste of the Gold Rush life by trying your hand at panning for gold, attending a salmon bake or visiting a dogsled camp. A hike on the Chilkoot Trail or ride on the White Pass Railway lets you follow in the footsteps of the miners who came to seek their fortunes. Cap your day by trying out locally brewed craft beers.

Shopping abounds, and you can buy everything from diamond jewelry to T-shirts and other souvenirs. You’ll need to look carefully for Alaskan-owned stores selling local handicrafts, but they’re worth seeking out.

Best Alaska cruise ports

The best Alaska cruise ports are also the most crowded because no matter which type of itinerary and cruise line you select, you’ll likely visit a mix of the same ports. The immediate port area will be filled with tourist shops and eateries. If you want to see nature at its finest, you’ll need to book a tour or otherwise venture farther afield.

If you want to see some of Alaska’s most rustic and charming villages or stick to wild places, book a voyage with a line like Alaskan Dream Cruises and UnCruise that visits destinations like Baranof Island, Chichagof Island, Petersburg and Wrangell.

Ketchikan

Ketchikan, Alaska. (Photo by emperorcosar/Shutterstock.com)

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; see them at the Saxman Native Village and the Totem Heritage Center. Access the Misty Fjords by kayak, floatplane or scenic cruise. Fishing excursions are plentiful here, too.

Ketchikan is where folks go to see the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, with athletes wielding axes and saws in traditional lumbering activities. It is also the jumping-off point for a Bering Sea crab fishing tour.

Juneau

Alaska’s capital city is interesting because no road leads from here to the rest of the state. It’s located at the base of Mount Juneau and you can only get there via boat or small plane — even residents have to bring their cars to Juneau via ferry. Home to Mendenhall Glacier, this is a popular port for hikes by, kayak tours to and helicopter landings on the glacier.

For a view of the city and cruise port, take a ride in the sky on the Mount Roberts Tramway. Various wildlife-viewing trips (whale, bears and more) and visits to dogsled camps and salmon bakes leave from Juneau.

Juneau, Alaska aerial
Juneau nestled under the mountains. (Photo by chaolik/Getty Images)

Skagway

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 that's been 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.

Skagway is an easy port for independent travelers who want to explore the town or go for a hike on their own. It’s most famous as the terminus for the White Pass Railway into the Yukon.

Sitka

Holland America's Westerdam in Sitka (Photo courtesy of Holland America)

Sitka is as much a working fishing town as it is a tourist destination. Sitka’s Russian heritage also sets it apart from other Alaskan ports on your cruise itinerary. See St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral with its onion dome and the Russian Bishop’s House.

Before the Russians came, the Tlingit people settled here. You can learn about their history and culture at the Sitka National Historical Park and Sheldon Jackson Museum of native Alaskan art. Wildlife enthusiasts may want to visit the Alaska Raptor Center or go bird- and bear-watching.

Haines

The population of Haines remains less than 2,000, according to the United Status Census Bureau, and it isn’t yet as touristy as some of the other Alaskan ports, such as nearby Skagway. 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.

Animal lovers and kids tend to really enjoy a visit to the Kroschel Center for Orphaned Animals here. For a really special tour, go bear-watching at twilight.

Icy Strait Point

Icy Strait Point is notable among Alaska cruise ports because the area and its attractions are all native Alaskan owned. Most of the port and tour staff hail from Hoonah, Alaska’s largest Tlingit village. The port is set on Chichagoff Island, which is known for its large bear population. Wildlife lovers have plenty of opportunities here to search for whales and eagles; adventure-seekers won’t want to miss the ZipRider, with its six zip line course.

Scenic cruising

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 on board a skiff to get closer … but, even then, you’re still viewing these sites from the water).

Dawes Glacier at the Endicott Arm
A cute harbor seal resting on an iceberg calved from Dawes Glacier at the Endicott Arm Fjord near Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Paul Souders/Getty Images)

Onboard naturalists generally narrate what you’re seeing, so head to the observation lounge (or tune to a broadcast on your in-room television) to learn about some of the top sights featured on scenic cruising days.

Top scenic cruising destinations in Alaska include Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Hubbard Glacier, Tracy Arm (Twin Sawyer Glaciers), Dawes Glacier at Endicott Arm and College Fjord.

When to book an Alaska cruise

The best time to book an Alaska cruise is right when a cruise line first opens bookings on that sailing, often more than a year in advance. You’ll have your pick of itineraries and cabins — balcony cabins are very popular in this scenic destination — and often the best fares. Because Alaska has such a short season with a limited number of ships and is a dream trip for many, cruises are in high demand and people plan early.

Royal Princess in Glacier Bay, Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises)

If you wait to book, you’re not entirely out of luck. Cruise lines often run sales in the fall or in the early months of the year (a period known in the cruise industry as “wave season”). You can take advantage of discounted fares, free upgrades or complimentary add-ons, such as Wi-Fi, gratuities, restaurant meals, beverage packages and tours. Some of the most desirable cabins might be sold out; being flexible about your sail date or itinerary can help.

In general, waiting until the last minute is not the best idea, unless you live in Seattle or Vancouver and don’t need to book flights. While some less preferred sail dates or cabin categories may have availability a few months out spurring cruise lines to drop rates, you might have trouble finding affordable airfare and pre- or post-cruise hotel accommodations that do not eat up your cruise savings.

Related: The best time to cruise Alaska

What to bring on an Alaska cruise

When it comes to packing for an Alaska cruise, your mantra should always be: dress in layers. On the same day, you might be warm in town but chilly on your tour to a glacier. If you plan on hiking, kayaking or riding on a dog sled, you’ll need the appropriate activewear.

Definitely pack for rain; consider skipping the umbrella and instead bringing a wide-brimmed waterproof hat, rain jacket, rain pants and waterproof shoes or boots.

This is also the trip for a camera with good telephoto lenses and binoculars. For more on what to bring on an Alaska cruise, check out our Alaska cruise packing list.

Bottom line

An Alaska cruise is a memorable experience. The beauty of the land and its immense history; the thrill of seeing bears, moose and bald eagles; and the mysteries of the surrounding marine life will astound you. It’s a trip worth taking the time to plan and doing right — because who knows if or when you’ll make it back to the Last Frontier.

Thinking of booking a cruise? Here’s some more advice:

Featured image by earleliason/Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

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