The best Alaska cruise for every type of traveler
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Even with a season that only runs from April through October, there are some 40 big ships and dozens of small ships cruising Alaska, making it one of the most popular cruise destinations in the world after the Caribbean and Europe.
Choices of type of ship abound from vessels carrying fewer than 100 passengers to megaships that hold thousands. Some ships stick to tried-and-true ports, following the Inside Passage in Southeast Alaska and into western Canada. Others wander deeper along the Alaska coastline to places such as the Kenai Peninsula, north to Nome and Barrow and even deep into the Bering Sea.
It can be hard to figure out which ship will deliver your idea of a “bucket list” experience in The Last Frontier. A lot comes down to your travel style, preferences and budget.
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Some travelers demand luxury, while others don’t mind going less fancy if it means close encounters with, say, bears in the wilderness. Some look for romance, while others want to introduce the kids or grandkids to glaciers and eagles, gold panning and sled dogs. You may want to hit as many of the national parks as you can, or prefer to dive into Alaska culture, whether learning the stories told by totem poles or hearing about “the big one” from a fisherman at a dive bar.
The good news is there’s a ship in Alaska for you no matter your taste or style. Here’s a beginner’s guide to help you narrow down your choices.
Best for megaresort fans
Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean both sail some of their largest ships in Alaska. They are floating megaresorts, carrying thousands, and big on amenities, glitz and a certain amount of glamor – think flashy casinos, Broadway shows, lavish spas. Dining and drinking venues number in the dozens, while amusement park features thrill the kids and adrenaline-seekers.
On Norwegian’s Breakaway-Plus-class ships, you can race along a go-kart racetrack, complete in outdoor laser tag and zoom down slides at the water park. On Royal Caribbean’s Quantum-class ships, you can order a drink from a robotic bartender, try simulated sky diving or surfing experiences and take a ride in a glass capsule that travels high above your ship on a mechanical arm – a weird and wonderful way to see the Alaska scenery.
These supersized ships stick to tried-and-true weeklong itineraries, sailing round trip from Seattle to such ports as Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway, Sitka, Icy Strait Point and Victoria, B.C. Many Norwegian sailings spend time in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. Ships that don’t visit the national park, regardless of cruise line, will call at other exciting tidewater glaciers.
Best for land and sea adventures
You’ve traveled far to get to Alaska and it would be a shame to miss inland sights such as Denali National Park and Preserve and the sight of Denali, North America’s largest peak – so big it’s often shrouded in clouds caused by its own weather system.
Market leaders Holland America Line and Princess Cruises both send a half-dozen ships to Alaska each year, and they have 75 and 55 years in the market, respectively. They top the list in terms of cruises, as well as cruisetours, which combine time sailing with overnight stays on land. The companies operate their own lodges, railcars and motorcoaches for exploration of Alaska’s interior and beyond. Many of the ships have permission to sail in Glacier Bay.
Standard one-week to 14-night cruise itineraries take you to the same ports as the megaships, such as Skagway, Ketchikan, Juneau and sometimes Sitka from Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco or Whittier, Alaska. On 10- to 17-night land tours, you might add an overnight in Anchorage, a visit to Denali park and time up north in Fairbanks, the gateway to Arctic Alaska.
Holland America Line also offers cruisetours that head into the Canadian Yukon, following the route of the Klondike Gold Rush from Alaska to northwestern Canada. Princess Cruises offers a cruisetour where you visit four national parks: Glacier Bay, Denali, the Kenai Fjords and, America’s largest national park, Wrangell-St. Elias.
Best for travelers on a budget
Older ships in Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean’s fleets tend to offer more reduced prices than you’ll find on the lines’ larger and newer ships, based on the fact the older ships don’t have as many bells and whistles. Since they have so many ships in the market, Holland America Line and Princess cruises also tend to offer frequent sales – especially on their older tonnage.
These ships have a loyal following, and tend to have fewer families onboard, which some couples find particularly appealing.
Itineraries for older ships range from five to 14 nights, with a lot of the sailings from Seattle. You can also find itineraries from San Francisco, Vancouver and Whittier, Alaska.
If you want to save on one of the newer and larger ships that does standard seven-night itineraries, you’re better off booking early, even in the fall for the following summer, especially if you’re looking for the cheapest cabins onboard. The least and most expensive cabins tend to sell out first on any ship.
Related: Best time to cruise Alaska
If you booked an inside cabin on the sparkling new 3,560-passenger Discovery Princess back in December 2021 (before the ship’s debut), the starting price for an inside cabin was $629. By April, interior cabins for July cruises were starting at twice that amount.
In Alaska, balcony cabins are also highly desirable, with everyone seeking views of the wilderness, snow-capped peaks and glaciers. As the reserves get low, the prices tend to get higher. Bargain seekers should book early for these accommodations.
Another surefire way to save is to look at sailings beyond the height of the season. You’ll find better deals April to early June and in September than you will in the height of summer.
Best for off-the-beaten path travel
Want to see and deeply experience coastal Alaska, and don’t mind a mellower environment where lectures and impromptu guitar singalongs replace casinos and show productions? Consider lines such as UnCruise Adventures, Lindblad Expeditions and Alaskan Native-owned Alaskan Dream Cruises, all with ships that carry fewer than 100 passengers (and in the case of Alaskan Dream, even under 20 passengers).
On these small ships, captains have the flexibility to alter itineraries and linger if the naturalist onboard spots a pod of whales or bears digging for clams on a beach.
Small ships can go places bigger ships can’t, so itineraries stretch far beyond the traditional ports. You’ll visit more remote places such as Petersburg, a fishing town with strong Norwegian roots, and Wrangell, one of Alaska’s oldest communities. Some itineraries are conducted entirely in the wild, with no port calls at all. With Alaskan Dream, there is also opportunity to visit remote Native villages that rarely see visitors.
Itineraries generally range from seven to 14 nights, from departure ports such as Sitka and Juneau.
Best for families
If you’re traveling with your kids or grandkids in Alaska and want an activity- and entertainment-packed experience, target the newest and biggest ships of Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Carnival and especially Disney Cruise Line. All have excellent camp-like activity programs for kids, plus eye-popping amusement attractions.
On Disney ships, Goofy might make an appearance as you admire soaring eagles, blue icebergs and glaciers. The extensive children’s program, entertainment and such activities as super-fast waterslides deliver what you would expect from the purveyor of dreams. Bonus: Cabins are designed with families in mind and include split bathrooms (one with a toilet and sink, the other with a shower/tub combo and sink).
Related: 5 best cruise lines for families
While lacking in whiz bang attractions, Princess Cruises is another good choice, both for its children’s and teens program, complete with spacious facilities, and for such programming like bringing sled dogs onboard, which is a hit with young passengers.
Best for luxury-lovers
If you envision sipping Champagne as you watch a glacier thunderously calve into the sea, consider booking one of the all-inclusive luxury cruise lines in Alaska: Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas Cruises or Silversea. All these lines include ships that are expert at delivering gourmet cuisine and the other finer things in life in intimate, cushy floating environments. Depending on the brand, the ships carry 382 to 700 passengers.
The 450-passenger Seabourn Odyssey boasts an onboard expedition team and does a posh version of expedition cruising in Alaska, using inflatable Zodiac craft and kayaks. Seabourn calls its program Ventures by Seabourn. Experts onboard these sailings include naturalists, biologists and other scientists who are members of the expedition team.
Upscale Windstar Cruises is another good choice for intimate exploration on a ship that carries up to 312 passengers, and is equipped with a fleet of kayaks and Zodiacs.
All the lines are big on featuring lectures by experts, which provides passengers with a deeper insight into Alaska.
Itineraries tend to include the popular ports and beyond. You might, for instance, visit Wrangell and Prince Rupert, a port city in Canada, and linger in places such as the Misty Fjords and Prince William Sound. Seven- to 14-night sailings embark from ports such as Vancouver, Seward and Sitka.
Best for solo travelers
The ships in Norwegian Cruise Line’s Breakaway and Getaway classes all have tight studio cabins designed and priced for one person. Additionally, they’re located in a complex where a private lounge encourages mingling. Royal Caribbean’s studio staterooms, on its Quantum-class ships in Alaska, give solo travelers the benefits of both decent space and balconies. Holland America Line has ocean-view accommodations-for-one on select ships in the Alaska market.
Among small-ship lines, Alaskan Dream and UnCruise occasionally offer discounts for solo travelers. Luxury lines Silversea and Seabourn, while not cheap, do a great job of taking care of single cruisers, hosting them at dinner and providing easy opportunities to meet and mingle with other travelers.
Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:
- The 5 most desirable cabin locations on any cruise ship
- A beginners guide to picking a cruise line
- The 8 worst cabin locations on any cruise ship
- A quick guide to the most popular cruise lines
- 21 tips and tricks that will make your cruise go smoothly
- 15 ways cruisers waste money
- 12 best cruises for people who never want to grow up
- The ultimate guide to what to pack for a cruise
Featured photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line.
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