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

May 24, 2022

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Planning a cruise to Alaska is a lot different from preparing to sail in the Caribbean or Europe. Alaska’s calling card is not beaches or high culture but vast wilderness. The 49th state has half of the national park land in the United States.

Chances are you’ll be exploring sometimes rugged places and will want to spend time in the great outdoors, in addition to experiencing lively frontier towns with fascinating gold rush and Alaska Native history. Prepare to be amazed by the scenery, wildlife and some of the local characters you’ll meet along the way. Proper preparation will assure you have a real Alaska experience and not just a cruise-by look at an amazing place.

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I’ve taken more than 20 trips to Alaska, all but two of those trips on cruise ships. I have even written books about cruising in Alaska and my favorite Alaska attractions. So I’m confident I’ve got Alaska travel mastered. Here I’ll share my best Alaska cruise tips to help you make the most of your Alaska cruise experience.

Choose the right ship for you

UnCruise Adventures operates adventure-focused trips in Alaska on small vessels such as the Wilderness Adventurer. (Photo courtesy of UnCruise Adventures)

Choosing the best ship for you is key to a great Alaska cruise experience.

You can cruise in Alaska on ships with fewer than 100 passengers, on the fanciest luxury ships or on some of the largest ships in the world carrying more than 4,000 passengers. Size matters in terms of attractions and activities on board. Ask yourself: Do you want a casino, Broadway shows or amusement park rides?

Related: A beginner’s guide to picking a cruise line

Size also influences where you go in Alaska. If you’re happy to visit the typical, well-known ports of call — such as Juneau, Skagway, Icy Strait Point and Ketchikan — a big ship will suit you just fine. If you’d rather go to more off-the-beaten-track locales, you will likely need a small ship to get there.

Lines such as Alaskan Dream Cruises and UnCruise Adventures offer itineraries that spend a week completely in the wilderness. You won’t find these on other ships and cruise lines.

Consider early- and late-season cruises

Most cruisers visit Alaska between late May and Labor Day. That’s when the tourist towns and attractions are in full swing.

You will, however, find some advantages to traveling early and late in the season. The biggest benefits are reduced off-season prices and fewer crowds.

Off-season in spring is a chance to see how people in small Alaskan towns and the local wildlife wake up after a long winter or how they prepare for the colder months. On the downside, you will want to pack for chillier weather, especially in April and after mid-September.

Related: Best time to cruise Alaska

Book early

Even as the number of ships in Alaska rises to pre-pandemic levels, with lots of available cabins, this is a market where waiting for a last-minute discount fare can be risky.

The cheapest inside cabins and fanciest suites tend to sell out first. If you wait, you may have limited choices.

Consider too that Alaska is a market that is a very long drive from anywhere, meaning most travelers fly in, leading to limited space on planes as the season gets going.

For most people, it makes sense to book your Alaska cruise six months to a year in advance. Look for cruise line early bird specials.

Related: The best Alaska cruise for every type of traveler

Choose a balcony cabin

(Photo by davidgoldmanphoto/Getty Images)

As a follow up to the above, if you can afford a balcony cabin, book one.

Yes, you can grab your binoculars and head to the open decks of your ship to see snow-capped peaks, boreal forests, glaciers and everything else you imagine about the wilderness.

But there is something magical about waking early in the morning, throwing on your bathrobe and standing in your own deck space, feeling the cool air, breathing deep and communing with nature in “The Last Frontier.”

Plan to arrive in the embarkation city pre-cruise

As part of the traveling-far-to-get-there necessity, you’ll reduce concern about being on time — and toss away the potential stress from transportation delays — by arriving at your debarkation city a day or two before your cruise.

Chances are you’ll be embarking from Seattle, Washington, or Vancouver, British Columbia, both world-class cities ripe for exploring.

If you’re flying into Alaska to board your ship, consider a night in Anchorage to explore such attractions as the 600 Alaska Native objects in the Smithsonian collection at the Anchorage Museum.

Pack for all kinds of weather

Alaska weather is somehow, inevitably, both colder and warmer than you expect. One day in summer you may find yourself peeling off clothes on a sunny mountain hike. The next day you’ll be shivering near a glacier.

The key to your Alaska cruise packing list is bringing and wearing a variety of layers. Consider as a starting point three layers of clothes — such as a T-shirt, sweater and outer layer — as you head off on tour. Comfortable walking shoes are a must, and so is rain gear, especially in July and August.

Don’t forget bug spray to ward off Alaska’s prolific mosquitos, sunscreen and sunglasses for the ever-glowing midnight sun and a swimsuit for your ship’s heated pool or hot tub. Bring binoculars or a zoom lens, so you can spot bears and other elusive creatures.

Put in a northern lights wake-up call

northern lights over frozen and snowy lake
(Photo by Cavan Images/Getty Images)

Northern lights appear in the Alaska sky year-round, but under the summertime midnight sun, with few hours of darkness, it’s too bright to have much chance of seeing them.

Come late August, when there are more hours of darkness, your chances improve.

Staying up late and staring at the night sky can be like watching paint dry. Fortunately, your ship will have a sign-up list for a wake-up call should the lights appear in the clear sky. Your stateroom phone will ring, and you’ll want to be prepared to get outside quickly, as the sight of the lights is often fleeting.

You can improve your chances by heading pre- or post- cruise up to Fairbanks, which is inland, closer to the Arctic Circle and a prime worldwide aurora borealis-viewing location.

Budget for shore excursions and tours

The best nature sights and activities often are away from the ports in Alaska. Plan your budget to include shore excursions or private tours. Book well in advance, as the coolest ones sell out first.

Flying in a floatplane for glacier views then landing back on the water near your ship is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Helicoptering and landing on a glacier for a hike exploring the cracks and crevasses puts your trip into the stratosphere.

Related: The 6 coolest things to do on an Alaska cruise 

These experiences are just the beginning of what you can do on your Alaska cruise. Explore by kayak, mountain bike, historic railway, small whale-watch boat, canoe or even zipline. Visit Alaska Native villages to learn the stories behind totem poles and explore the history of the gold rush.

Or try my favorite Alaska experience, snorkeling in the chilly waters of the Inside Passage, where the starfish and other creatures are unusually colorful. Alaska is a perfect place to try something new.

Take a hike

(Photo by Blane Arnold/EyeEm/Getty Images)

All the port towns are easily explored on your own, whether you want to hit museums, historical sites, shops or restaurants. Doing research in advance will help you target what you really want to do and see. Tourist offices and parks service offices offer maps and on-the-ground advice.

I highly recommend you also plan a walk out of town. Hiking trails afford an opportunity to get out in the wilderness, breathe deep and feel at one with Mother Nature. A favorite trail from Skagway takes you uphill to a breathtaking glacial lake.

Stay for a cruisetour

Since you have traveled far to get to Alaska, it makes sense to see some of the interior of the 49th State. Cruise lines such as Holland America and Princess Cruises — which each send a half-dozen ships a year to Alaska — make planning easy, with 10- to 17-night packages that combine a cruise with a land tour and hotel stays.

These so-called “cruisetours” can get you, for instance, to Denali National Park & Preserve, Anchorage, Fairbanks, the Kenai Fjords and Wrangell-St. Elias, America’s largest national park. Beyond Alaska, you might follow your interest in gold rush history with a cruisetour into the Canadian Yukon.

Eat and drink local

Whether at a fancy or casual restaurant, you’ll want to try a taste of Alaska. Seafood is, of course, plentiful: splurge on giant king crab legs and crab bisque at places such as the famous Tracy’s King Crab Shack (featured on “Top Chef”) in Juneau. Try wild Alaska salmon or halibut, which are on the menu at most restaurants. Look, too, for Alaskan shrimp and scallops.

Reindeer sausages are a quintessential Alaskan taste, often devoured by locals on a bun with mustard. You may also find the sausages in omelets, as a side at breakfast or topping a pizza. You can buy sealed packages to take home.

Food tours, such as Juneau Food Tours, target locally owned establishments and afford a chance to meet local chefs and food producers.

Accompany your eats with local beer or vodka, gin, rye and other beverages distilled in Alaska. Even if you just order up a soda, a visit to a dive bar, such as Kito’s Kave in the fishing town of Petersburg or the Pioneer Bar in Sitka, is a guaranteed way to meet interesting locals and ask such biting questions as: How do you survive the winter? Have you seen a bear? What’s the largest fish you ever caught? Prepare to get an earful.

Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:

Featured photo by Michael Melford/Getty Images.

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