Every year, between April and October (the Alaska cruise season), nearly 1.3 million choose to cruise Alaska. That’s nearly twice as many visitors to Alaska as the locals who live there. I have been one of those cruisers three different times.
In this post, we will share with you the when, where, how, and why of the best routes and best time to cruise Alaska. Then you’ll be ready to book your best cruise.
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The Best Route For Your Alaska Cruise Depends On Your Alaska Goals
Alaska has earned the nickname “Last Frontier,” a moniker highlighting its natural beauty and diverse wildlife. This land has breathtaking glaciers, rugged mountains, and abundant wildlife. Here, you can cruise through icy fjords, surrounded by towering glaciers that seem to touch the sky.
Our first Alaska cruise was from Vancouver round trip through the Inside Passage. Then, we took the whole family and cruised from Anchorage across the Gulf of Alaska through the Inside Passage to Vancouver. Our last cruise was this past June, a round trip from San Francisco through the Inside Passage and back.
We’ve visited Juneau (3x), Ketchikan (3x), Skagway (2x), Sitka (2x), and Haines (1x). Anchorage started our cross-gulf Alaska cruise, but we’ve been there many times.
Alaska boasts an allure that captures travelers’ imagination, but you need to know when and where to go. Let’s start with the where and later discuss the when. If it’s a cruise you are looking for, there are three primary routes to choose from… Let’s break it down.
Cruise Alaska: The Inside Passage
The Inside Passage Cruise in southeast Alaska is perfect for people looking to get the highlights of Alaska’s coastline. This is a classic cruise, not too in-depth, but with a relaxing, resort-like tempo. There is enough rugged Alaska Adventure in the excursions. Still, you can also simply sit back, relax, and watch the scenic coastline go by.
Cruising the Alaska Inside Passage is typically round-trip from Seattle or Vancouver. The ship will make port in three or four towns: Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, Sitka, and Victoria, British Columbia.
Inside Passage cruises are usually weeklong (7-day) cruises and will spend a day in Glacier Bay and two days at sea. There is also currently the Ruby Princess that makes a 10-day round trip from San Francisco to the Inside Passage.
A significant advantage of an Inside Passage cruise is that you can fly round-trip to and from your departure city (Seattle or Vancouver), which is usually less expensive than booking one-way tickets.
Potential Downside: The cruise is round trip, meaning you won’t see as much Alaska as you will on a cross-gulf cruise. Also, if you are doing the round-trip out of San Francisco, you will have two days at sea, getting to and from Alaska. If you like sea days, this is great; if you don’t, you may be twiddling your thumbs, longing to just be home already.
Cruise Alaska: Cross Gulf
If you want to see more coastline and glaciers. The cross-gulf Alaska cruise is best for you. In fact, as many as half the people who take this route do so just for the scenery. However, the cross-gulf Alaska cruise is best when you want to add a land tour to your cruise.
Because these cruises start or end in Anchorage, transitioning into a land tour before or after is very easy. Most tours connected with the cruise lines last 4-7 days. If you want to experience Alaska’s mountains and have more opportunities to meet local Alaskans, this cruise provides excellent value.
These cruises usually sail one way, either northbound or southbound. The ship then turns around and returns the way it came with a new group of passengers. Your cruise will start or end in Vancouver or Seattle in the south and Anchorage (via the ports of Whittier or Seward) in the north.
Itineraries include many of the same ports of call as an Inside Passage cruise. But you get the opportunity to see Anchorage and maybe Valdez, Hubbard Glacier, College Fjord, or Icy Strait Point.
The downside of a cross-gulf Alaksa cruise is that you must fly one way to or from Alaska and to or from Seattle or Vancouver. This may be more expensive than flying round-trip in and out of one city.
Cruise Alaska: The Bering Sea And The Northwest Passage
Most larger, mainstream cruise lines do not venture into the far north Bering Sea. But if you have an adventurous soul, expedition ships sail this historic sea between Europe, North America, and Asia.
One company has cruises from Reykjavik, Iceland, around the southern tip of Greenland. It then slips through the Northwest Passage along the top of Canada until finally arriving in Nome, Alaska. This is not a cruise for the usual cruiser; this is a cruise for an explorer.
Nat Geo has a ship that leaves Anchorage, sails past the Aleutian Islands to Kamchatka (Russia), then up to Provideriya, and ends in Nome 22 days later. Expect to pay dearly when you cruise Alaska via the Bering Sea or the Northwest Passage.
If you want to try something a bit more unusual but prefer luxury to the no-frills expedition ships, look for a repositioning cruise between Alaska and Asia. You will usually find these cruises in the “shoulder season” as the ships begin to leave the frigid waters of Alaska for warmer seas in winter.
The Charm of Alaska Cruises
All major cruise lines send a ship or two (or 5) to Alaska during the season. You will find Norwegian Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Disney Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, and even the venerated Cunard. These ships are floating 4-star hotels that make cruising one of the best ways to see Alaska.
No matter what line you are loyal to, you will find a ship that meets your needs. It’s not unlikely that you will see several different cruise lines represented in each port you visit. A guide in Ketchikan told us on our visit this past June that there would be as many as eight ships in town on any given day during the peak season.
One thing everyone loves about cruising is the ships. Yes, location is important, but having a 4-star hotel literally take you from one fantastic place to the next is amazing. Onboard all vessels, you will find well-appointed restaurants, cocktail lounges, and recreational areas.
Live entertainment is available for many tastes. There are often guest lecturers discussing the areas you are visiting. Music venues from classical quartets to pop or jazz performers and, of course, the main theater with comedy and production shows nightly.
Looking for more relaxation and less stimulation? Head over to the spa, where you can have a massage, facial, or just enjoy a steam and soak after your long day full of Alaskan Adventure.
One of the best parts of an Alaskan cruise may be the day you spend on your ship in the bays of Glacier Bay National Park or Hubbard Glacier. Witnessing these massive glaciers calving into the sea from your cabin’s balcony or on the main decks of the ship are awe-inspiring moments you will never forget.
Top Activities And Shore Excursions When You Cruise Alaska
There is so much to do in every port that you may have difficulty deciding what to choose first. If wildlife is what you came to Alaska for, I recommend any of the whale-watching tours. You will encounter humpback and gray whales in the close bays and inlets.
You may even see beluga whales and Orcas, also called killer whales. And don’t forget about the dolphins, seals, sea otters, sea lions, and other marine life on the water.
Adventure Is The Reason Most People Have For Cruising Alaska
Outdoor activities abound. Some tours will take you by helicopter up to the slope of a snowy mountain, where you can meet up with a local musher and go on your own dog sled adventure.
If you hope to see the massive black and brown bears, book a tour to Neets Bay Observatory and watch these majestic animals feasting on salmon swimming upstream.
You will see the glaciers from the ship, but if you’ve always wanted to be even closer, Mendenhall Glacier is the place to go in Juneau. Here, you can start the day by paddling a canoe around the glacier’s base watching the mountain goats and sea birds that call this place home.
Then, grab your trekking poles and backpacks to follow your tour guide out onto the glacier’s edge. As you hike, you will see the crevasses, glacial streams, and blue pools formed by the melting glacier.
On our last trip, we ventured deep into the Tongass National Rainforest on a UTV adventure that took us on a fast-paced 10-mile off-road wilderness trek. We spotted Sitka deer and bald eagles along the way.
There is seemingly no end to tours offering popular outdoor activities like hiking, fishing, and kayaking amidst Alaska’s breathtaking landscapes.
Looking For Cultural Experiences? Alaska Has You Covered
Are cultural activities more your thing? You can ride the White Pass & Yukon Railroad outside Skagway and learn about the Gold Rush of 1889. In Ketchikan, visit Creek Street and see how the gold miners spent their newfound riches, or check out the Great Alaskan Lumberjack show; always a good time.
And, of course, don’t forget to explore the rich indigenous heritage of Alaska by visiting Totem Bight State Park or Saxman Native Village near Ketchikan. and have opportunities to interact with local communities.
When is The Best Time To Cruise Alaska?
The Alaska Cruising Shoulder Season: Late April / May and September / October
This may be the best time to cruise Alaska if you want fewer crowds and enjoy a cooler breeze in your face. At this time of year, cruise lines have fewer cruise ships in Alaska. You are likely to have colder and more inclement weather during these months.
Also, there will be fewer children on cruise ships during these months. In the USA, most youngsters are in school from September – May.
This time of the year also means more rainy days and possibly rougher seas, particularly on the gulf crossings. Along with the weather come some issues. Some excursions may be canceled. Helicopters don’t fly in snow storms.
However, September and October is the best time to cruise Alaska to see the Northern Lights. If you are heading to Fairbanks on a land tour in the fall, you have the best chance of seeing the Aurora Borealis. October is the best month; the Earth is at the best angle with the sun, and the magnetic field and solar winds are in sync.
Cruising Alaska In The Summer Months: June, July, And August
The high season of Alaska cruising has the most ships available for cruisers. With Alaska cruising now in full swing, there are more opportunities for bargains. Also, with more ships, you will find activities tailored to more disparate age groups.
If this is a long-planned family summer vacation with the kids and grandparents, this may be your best time to cruise Alaska.
There is warmer weather during the peak season, which will be pretty good on most days. The average daytime highs in July are in the 70⁰’s most days. You may even be in a heat wave when temps get up to 90⁰’s. True Alaskans hate this!
When cruising Alaska in the summer on either the Inside Passage or Cross Gulf cruise, there will be around 20 hours of daylight. In Juneau on July 1, the sunrise will be around 4:00 am and sunset at 10:00 pm. However, in Alaska, they have this thing they call civil twilight.
The twilight period begins about an hour before sunrise and lasts about an hour after sunset. So what might look to be six hours of “dark” time is really only four. And to be honest, those four hours aren’t really dark.
This is a bonus as you have more daylight time for activities. And if sleep is your thing, well, there are blackout curtains in the cabins, or you can choose an inside stateroom and really save some money!
Should You Add A Land Tour When You Cruise Alaska?
Alaska is a long way to go for most travelers, and chances are your trip will be a “once-in-a-lifetime” vacation. The best time to cruise Alaska may be the best time to see more of Alaska!
We did not do the add-on land tour when we cruised Alaska. But if you’ve read some of my previous posts, you know we’ve spent time in Alaska visiting my SIL in the winter and the summer. We’ve toured Denali, Talkeetna, Palmer, Seward, and Alyeska on those visits. We also drove my SIL from Anchorage to Bend, Oregon, via the Yukon. So we’ve seen quite a bit of the state and know her beauty.
Choosing the Right Cruise and Land Tour Combination
Princess has been in Alaska for a long time and has two of their own wilderness lodges in Denali. Their longevity of experience makes Princess a good choice. The most common add-on tour from Princess takes cruisers from Anchorage to two stops in Denali National Park. Mt. McKinley is now known by its original name, Denali. From Denali, you head up to Fairbanks for your final day.
Celebrity has created several tour packages that take you from your ship to Talkeetna, Denali, and Fairbanks. You can find similar packages with most cruise lines.
Add-on benefits mostly come from the all-inclusive pricing that comes with a cruise. You will have additional costs for food and any excursion you choose during the trip. But the transportation and lodging are included upfront and you only have to travel to Alaska once.
These 3 – 4 day tours deeper into Alaska will probably be long enough. But you never know; you may get the Alaska bug and need to stay longer or even move to America’s 49th state!
Insider Tips for an Unforgettable Alaska Cruise Experience
- If you are new to cruising, I recommend you check with a Travel Advisor before booking a cruise line. These professionals can help guide you to a cruise line that best meets your needs and likes.
- On Princess Cruises, ships have Camp Discovery for young kids and Teens, and on Royal Caribbean, the Adventure Ocean Youth Program helps love their cruise vacation as much as their parents. And don’t forget Disney; many people love to sail with Mickey.
- Celebrity and Oceania are known for cuisine; foodies often lean more toward these lines.
Packing Essentials For Your Alaska Cruise
Bring a light rain jacket. If traveling on the shoulder, you may want a slightly warmer jacket or dress in layers.
Hats and Sunglasses are highly recommended. When the sun is out, it is strong, especially with the reflection off the water, snow, and ice.
Bring your best camera for wildlife photography. This may be your phone, as the newer models of both Android and iPhones offer fantastic cameras these days. Whatever camera you bring a small tripod to stabilize the camera for long-distance wildlife and landscapes.
Bug spray is essential if you will be hiking. Alaska has a nasty reputation for mosquitos in the summer! Repel Deet-Free Plant-Based spray is my favorite. Those no-see-ums love me and this keeps them away!
Have You Decided Your Best Time To Cruise Alaska?
As you can see, an Alaska cruise offers an unparalleled opportunity to experience the Last Frontier’s natural beauty and diverse wildlife. With three primary routes, each offering unique experiences, there is a perfect Alaska cruise for every traveler.
Choosing the best time to cruise Alaska depends on your preferences. The shoulder season in late April and May, as well as September and October, offers fewer crowds, cooler temperatures, and the chance to witness the Northern Lights. On the other hand, the peak season in June, July, and August provides warmer weather and more ship options, making it ideal for family vacations.
Adding a land tour to your cruise allows you to delve deeper into Alaska’s wilderness and culture. Many cruise lines offer well-organized tour packages, providing a convenient and immersive experience.
Whether you seek relaxation, adventure, or cultural immersion, cruising Alaska promises an unforgettable journey through one of Earth’s most stunning and pristine regions. So, when you are ready to set sail on your Alaskan adventure, you’ll be well-prepared to embark on the cruise of a lifetime. Happy cruising!