The thunderous crack of a calving glacier, snow-capped mountain peaks, bears fishing for salmon in clear meltwater streams, humpback whales swimming through turquoise waters. Alaska takes natural beauty to another level. This vast wilderness isn’t the easiest place to get around though, especially if you only have a week or two to spare. But its coastal network of islands, fjords and glaciers make Alaska one of the best parts of the world to cruise in.
But if you’re planning an Alaska cruise you’ll soon find out there are a baffling array of options – different departure ports, routes, stops and cruise lines. Cruises can be pricey and you can’t exactly change your mind halfway round and get on a different ship if you decide it’s not right, so you want to make sure you pick a good one. But how do you decide which that is? Here’s my guide to the questions to ask to help you choose your perfect Alaskan cruise.
What to consider when choosing an Alaska cruise
Do you want to do a one-way or round trip?
There are two types of Alaskan cruise itineraries – one-way or round trip. Each have their pros and cons, so the best choice will depend on what’s most important to you. Round trip itineraries tend to be seven days long, starting in Seattle or Vancouver and focusing on Southern Alaska, normally sailing up the Inside Passage (a coastal shipping route that runs through the islands along the Pacific Northwest Coast) as far as Juneau before heading back down.
The advantage of round trips is they make travel planning much easier. You can fly in and out of the same airport, with return flights usually cheaper than one-way or open jaw tickets. But having to loop around means you don’t cover as much ground, and although the stops are different on the way up and down, you’ll be retracing your steps part of the way.
One-way trips usually start in Anchorage and head south or start in Seattle/Vancouver and head north. They are often longer (10–14 days) and sail across the Gulf of Alaska as well as through the Inside Passage. So you get to see more of the Alaskan coast, with more stops and more chances to see wildlife and glaciers – a bonus if you get stung by Alaska’s unpredictable weather.
Either starting or finishing in Anchorage means it’s easy to add on a land-based tour so you can see more of Alaska too. But the disadvantages of a one-way cruise are that travel planning is more complicated and often more expensive. And if you’re worried about seasickness, the Gulf of Alaska can be rough compared to the more sheltered waters of the Inside Passage.
Where does the ship depart from?
The three main departure points for Alaskan cruises are Seattle and Vancouver in the south and Anchorage in the north. Seattle is popular with cruisers from the US as they don’t need to go through immigration and can often get cheap flights. But you end up travelling through a large section of open sea which can be rough, some short trips miss out the Inside Passage and ships have to make a compulsory stop in Canada so there’s less time in Alaska.
Vancouver is the most popular departure point for Alaska cruises so you’ll have the biggest choice of cruise lines, itineraries and departures. If you’re travelling internationally there are plenty of flights, and routes mostly travel through the Inside Passage with more to see.
Most departures from Anchorage actually leave from the ports of Seward or Whittier rather than Anchorage itself. So you need to allow time to get to the ship from the airport. It’s 60 miles to Whittier and 125 miles to Seward so will take at least a couple of hours, but it’s probably safer to stay overnight, especially if you’re flying internationally. There’s some beautiful scenery along the way though, and one bonus is you can get there via the Alaska Railroad.
When’s the best time to take an Alaska cruise?
The cruise season in Alaska runs from late April/early May until early September, and can be broadly split into three different seasons: spring, summer and autumn. There’s not really a ‘best’ time to take an Alaska cruise as each season has different advantages and disadvantages – which might relate to the weather, the wildlife, the prices or the size of the crowds.
It’s important to remember weather in Alaska is pretty unpredictable, so you’re never going to be guaranteed blues skies and sunshine, even in the middle of summer. I travelled in late August and got lucky with some beautiful weather, but the same cruise a week earlier had thick fog and rain, so there’s always a bit of luck involved and you need to be prepared for changing weather conditions – pack wet weather gear and warm layers whenever you’re travelling.
Average daytime temperatures lie around 8–11°C (45–52°F) at the start of the season. But they can get down below freezing at night, and you might still see snow on the ground, as well as on the mountains through the Inside Passage. Rainfall is fairly low but seas can sometimes be rough.
Spring’s a good time to see wildlife, with animals like bears and lynx coming out of hibernation, as well as seabirds and humpback whales migrating. There are also plenty of wildflowers, and waterfalls are at their most impressive as the snow melts. As it’s low season, ships aren’t so busy and you’ll often find good deals on cruise packages and discounts on excursions.
Summer (June–early August)
Summer in Alaska is peak cruise season, with warm temperatures averaging 13–16°C (55–65°F). Days are long, peaking around 20 hours of daylight around the summer solstice in June – or even longer in the far north of Alaska. June tends to be fairly dry but rainfall starts to increase from July. Warmer days mean glaciers are most active and you see them calving more.
Peak season means both ships and ports get more crowded. Prices go up and you’ll need to book earlier – particularly in the July/August school holiday period when more families are travelling. Wildlife tends to move inland in summer, but it’s a good time to spot marine wildlife, especially whales but also sea lions and porpoises. Bears also come out for the salmon runs at the end of the summer. Less welcome is an influx of mosquitoes, so pack plenty of repellent.
Autumn (late August–September)
Temperatures start to cool down towards the end of August, with autumn averages lying around 10–12°C (50–55°F). It does start to get rainier though, with almost half of days each month seeing some precipitation on average. August is still fairly busy on board, but as you get into September ships get quieter, prices fall and there are more discounts available.
In the autumn you can see bears fishing for salmon as they head upstream, moose and caribou move back to lower elevations and you can also see migrating Beluga whales. The colourful autumn leaves make it a great time for photographers. And if you’re really lucky you can see the Northern Lights if you’re in the north of Alaska towards the end of the season.
Which cruise line suits you best?
A quick search for Alaskan cruises will come up with a huge amount of different cruise lines and ships – even if you’ve narrowed down which route you want to do. The difference in ship sizes, facilities and even your fellow travellers means you can have a completely different experience depending on which you choose. But how do you pick one which suits you the best?
One of the first decisions to make is whether you want to go small or go large. Do you want a mega-ship with tons of facilities and activities on board, or something a bit smaller and low-key, which can reach places the giant ships can’t go? Smaller ‘Expedition’ cruise ships only carry around 60–100 people and tend to be less formal, with more adventurous outdoor activities. They’re sometimes described as cruises for people who don’t like the idea of cruises.
Companies like National Geographic, Silversea and UnCruise’s small ships can access narrow fjords and small islands, get up close to wildlife, glaciers and waterfalls, and are also more flexible in their itineraries in case of bad weather. But they have much more limited facilities on board and can be bumpy in rough seas so aren’t so good if you’re worried about seasickness. Expedition cruises also tend to be more expensive, and you don’t often see discounts.
The large cruise ship industry is a lot bigger and more competitive. These floating resorts come with tons of facilities, dining, entertainment and excursion options. Advanced stabilisation means a smoother ride on board and their faster speeds mean they can cover a larger area. But their size limits which ports they can visit, itineraries are fixed and ports can get overwhelmed with 2500 plus people arriving at once, making it hard to escape the crowds.
Ships still vary in size, with mid-size ships tending to be more adult-orientated and the huge mega-ships attracting more of a family crowd. Cruise lines often try to market themselves as being good for everyone, but certain lines tend to be better for certain groups of people. Also check availability as some lines like Holland America and Princess Cruises run a larger number of cruises in Alaska so there will likely be a wider range of departure dates and itineraries.
If you’re travelling as a family, Carnival, Disney, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian have a good range of family-friendly facilities like kids clubs, playrooms and babysitting. Carnival and Norwegian are more budget options with an unstuffy atmosphere. Or if you’re looking for more luxurious touches, try Celebrity, Holland America, Crystal or Silversea.
With Alaska being known for its natural beauty, one thing to bear in mind is the environmental impact of the cruise you choose. The cruise industry doesn’t have the best reputation for sustainability, but not all cruise lines and ships are equal. The Cruise Ship Report Card ranks ships based on how they deal with sewage, air pollution and water quality – it’s controversial but does give some guidance. And do check out cruise lines’ own environmental policies too.
Where does it stop? (And what can you do there?)
Each cruise line – and often individual itineraries within the same cruise line – makes different stops as they travel through Alaska. So one important thing to consider when you choose an Alaska cruise is where you want to visit and what you want to see and do. Here’s what you can expect in the main Alaskan cruise ports of call (travelling from south to north).
Normally a stop on itineraries from Seattle, Vancouver Island’s capital is a pretty, European style city. Victoria is a popular spot for whale-watching but there’s lots to do on land too – take a walk around Beacon Hill Park, learn about local history at the Royal BC Museum, visit colourful Fisherman’s Wharf and have afternoon tea at the Fairmont Empress hotel.
Quirky Ketchikan is known as the ‘salmon capital of the world’ and you can buy it, eat it, catch it and watch it migrating upstream here. There’s also the historic Creek Street district to explore and more totem poles than anywhere else in the world. Or you can head out to nearby Misty Fjords for floatplane, kayaking and even snorkelling trips if you’re feeling brave.
Sitka’s unique Russian influence make it a bit different from other Alaskan cruise ports. The former capital of Russian America still has its onion-domed cathedral as well as other remnants of its Russian history. Sitka National Historical Park marks the site of a battle between the Russians and native Tlingit people and has a totem pole walking tour you can follow.
Icy Strait Point
The small town of Icy Strait Point lies on the edge of Glacier Bay – only one ship can dock at a time so it doesn’t get too crazy. Icy Strait Point is home to the Tlingit people and you can learn about their local culture and tour the 1930s salmon cannery. It’s a good place for wildlife-watching, with whales and porpoises offshore and bears in the surrounding rainforest.
Alaska’s state capital is the smallest in the US, and features on most Alaskan cruise itineraries. It’s surrounded by mountains and the Tongass National Forest, with some great hiking routes. You can also explore its Gold Rush history, take the Mount Roberts Tramway for panoramic views or visit the nearby Mendenhall Glacier. There are tons of excursions available in Juneau too, including floatplane and helicopter sightseeing, dog-sledding and whitewater rafting.
Surrounded by snowy mountain peaks, Haines is one of the most beautiful Alaskan cruise ports – with the bonus that it’s one of the sunniest too. With less ships visiting than many of the other ports it’s kept its small-town charm, with a former army base and museums dedicated to both local history and hammers (!) to visit. It’s also a good place to see bald eagles in autumn.
The small city of Skagway is one of the most popular Alaskan cruise ports, which does mean it can get a bit overwhelmed in peak season. It’s home to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park which has costumed guides, period buldings and historic exhibits. There’s also the ghost town of Dyea nearby and train trips on the scenic White Pass and Yukon Railroad.
Which glacier/s do you visit?
Most Alaska cruises have at least one day of ‘scenic cruising’ in their itinerary, when you get up close to a glacier – or maybe two or more of them if you’re doing a one-way cruise. Normally the ship will spend at least half a day at the glacier, with a commentary from an on-board naturalist to explain what you’re seeing. The three main glaciers visited on Alaska cruises are:
One of the largest glaciers in Alaska, the Hubbard Glacier is the biggest glacier visited by cruise ships with its six-mile-wide and 400-foot-tall wall of ice. Cruise ships can normally get to around half a mile away – though conditions when we visited were so good the ship got closer than it’d ever been. The glacier is fast moving (comparatively at least) so you can often see it calving. But sea ice can restrict access to the glacier at the start and end of the season.
Glacier Bay is a remote US National Park which you can only reach by ship or plane. Cruise ships travel up through inlets along the coast so you get the chance to see a variety of different scenery and multiple glaciers. The park is known for its wildlife, with whales, seals, sea otters often spotted in the waters offshore as well as brown bears and mountain goats on land.
Tracy Arm Fjord
Tracy Arm Fjord, just south of Juneau, is home to the twin Sawyer glaciers. It has the most spectacular setting, with a 30-mile-long narrow fjord surrounded by towering 3000-foot cliffs. The glaciers aren’t as big as the others but they have an amazingly bright blue colour as they extend deep underwater, and the area is home to humpback whales and harbour seals.
What excursions do you want to do?
Each cruise port has a range of different excursions available – at an extra cost. Some of the more common ones like floatplane sightseeing, bear-watching, whale-watching, dog sledding and fishing you can do in multiple places, but others are only available in one location.
It’s worth doing a bit of research in advance to work out what you want to do as some of the most popular excursions book up fast, especially in peak season. So if there’s something you particularly want to do then it’s a good idea to reserve a spot when you book your cruise. The pros of official cruise line excursions is that you’re usually allowed off the ship first and it’ll wait if there are delays, but they can be pricey and sometimes have big group sizes.
You can also book excursions independently, either through companies like Get Your Guide or Viator, or directly with local operators. There are usually tour desks lined up at cruise ports too where you can book something last-minute too if you don’t want to book ahead – we did a last-minute trip to the Mendenhall Glacier from Juneau when we knew it’d be a sunny day. Make sure you allow plenty of time though as the ship won’t wait if you’re late back.
Which cabin should you book?
Cruisers tend to be split into two camps – the ones who don’t spend any time in their cabins and are happy to go without a window to save money, and the ones who’ll pay a bit extra to have a balcony to relax and soak up the views from. As Alaska is such a scenic area, with some great views along the Inside Passage, we decided it was worth the cost to have a balcony. Turns out we had fog on the way up and didn’t see a lot, but it came into its own at the glacier.
It can help to be able to see the horizon and get some fresh air if you’re worried about seasickness. You can also choose a cabin on as low a deck as possible, in the middle of the ship rather than the forward or aft as they move less. It can cost a bit more to reserve a specific cabin rather than a generic category but I like to know where I’m going to be (plus we also managed to bag a room with a bigger balcony by choosing a cabin where the ship widened out).
So which is your ideal cruise? I was travelling with my parents at the end of August, wanted to do a round trip from Vancouver, didn’t mind too much about what stops we made, and wanted a mid-size ship with a bit of luxury. So we ended up choosing a Celebrity Cruises seven-night Hubbard Glacier cruise (around £1200 per person in a balcony cabin with drinks package) and really enjoyed it, but there are tons of options to create your own perfect Alaska cruise.