How to find the right Alaskan cruise for you

Sep 20, 2019

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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.

In This Post

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.

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

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.

Related: How to book a cruise using miles and points

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.

Inside Passage

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.

Alaska Inside Passage
UnCruise offers this itinerary that explores the Inside Passage and San Juan Islands.

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.

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

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.

Related: The best credit cards for booking cruises

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

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.

Juneau

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.

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 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

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.

Haines

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.

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 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

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

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve

Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park
The tidewater glacier Margerie is in Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve, west of Juneau. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.)

Hubbard Glacier

Hubbard Glacier, Alaska
Hubbard Glacier is more than six miles wide where it meets the ocean. (Photo bullsiphoto/Getty Images.)

Tracy Arm (Twin Sawyer Glaciers)

Some ships offer skift expeditions that get close to Tracy Arm. (Photo by earleliason/Getty Images)
Some ships offer skiff expeditions that get close to Tracy Arm. (Photo by earleliason/Getty Images.)

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.

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

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)
$549 12 2124 930 2001
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)
$939 13 2,850 1,250 2008
Cunard Queen
Elizabeth
17 IP, GA, L 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 16, 17, 19 San Francisco to Vancouver (& reverse)
Vancouver RT
Victoria, B.C. RT
$1,339 12 2,081 1,005 2010
Disney Wonder 16 IP 7 Vancouver RT $5,863 11 2,713 950 1999
Holland America
Eurodam
21 IP 7 Seattle RT $849 11 2,104 876 2008
Holland America Koningsdam 21 IP 7 Vancouver RT $849 12 2,650 1,036 2016
Holland America
Maasdam
10 GA, L 14 Vancouver RT $1,449 9 1,258 574 1994
Holland America
Noordam
20  IP, GA, L 7 Anchorage (Seward) to Vancouver (& reverse) $689 11 1,924 811 2006
Holland America
Oosterdam
21 IP 7 Seattle RT $799 11 1,964 812 2003
Holland America
Volendam
22 IP 7 Vancouver RT $749 9 1,432 604 1999
Holland America
Westerdam
19  IP, GA, L 7 Anchorage (Seward) to Vancouver (& reverse)
Vancouver RT
$699 11 1,964 800 2004
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)
$1,049 9 1,936 906 2001
Oceania Regatta 15  IP, GA, L 7, 10, 11, 12, 14, 20 Anchorage (Seward) to Vancouver (& reverse)
San Francisco to Vancouver (& reverse)
Seattle RT
Seattle to Vancouver (& reverse)
Vancouver RT
Vancouver to Los Angeles (San Pedro (& reverse)
$1,599 9 684 400 1998
Coral Princess 28  IP, GA, L 7, 14 Anchorage (Whittier) to Vancouver (& reverse)
Vancouver RT
$849 16 2,000 895 2003
Emerald Princess 19 IP 7 Seattle RT
Vancouver to Seattle (& reverse)
$759 19 3,080 1,200 2007
Golden Princess 7 IP, L 14 Anchorage (Whittier) to Vancouver (& reverse)
Vancouver RT
$1,629 17 2,600 1,100 2001
Grand Princess 27  IP, GA, L 7, 10, 14 Anchorage (Whittier) to Vancouver (& reverse)
Vancouver RT
$649 17 2,600 1,150 1998
Pacific Princess 17  IP, GA, L 7, 12 Anchorage (Whittier) to Vancouver (and reverse)
Vancouver RT
$899 11 670 375 2003
Royal Princess 28  IP, GA, L 7, 14 Anchorage (Whittier) to Vancouver (and reverse)
Vancouver RT
$699 19 3,560 1,346 2013
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
$1,089 17 2,600 1,100 2002
Regent Seven Seas
Mariner
16 IP, GA 7, 12, 13 Anchorage (Seward) to Vancouver (& reverse)
San Francisco to  Vancouver (& reverse)
Vancouver to Los Angeles (San Pedro) (& reverse)
$5,199 8 700 445 2001
Royal Caribbean
Ovation of the Seas
17 IP 6, 7 Seattle RT
Seattle to Vancouver (& reverse)
$811 14 4,180 1,500 2016
Royal Caribbean
Radiance of the Seas
16 IP, GA 7 Anchorage (Seward) to Vancouver (& reverse) $530 12 2,112 894 2001
Royal Caribbean
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)
Juneau RT
Vancouver RT
Vancouver to Los Angeles (San Pedro) (& reverse)
$4,299 10 462 354 2010
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

 

Bottom line

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:

Featured image by earleliason/Getty Images

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