Alaska Cruising Guide

Alaskan Cruises offer a unique glimpse into the history of Alaska, but the wildlife and scenery are the main attractions!  Towering mountains, massive glaciers, & acres of rainforest, and arctic tundra… along with whales, eagles, bears, moose, seals, and an abundance of birds can be seen from the ship and experienced while in port or on an excursion!!

Here are some of the basics to know when planning your Alaskan Cruise:

When is the best time of year to take an Alaskan Cruise?

The Alaskan cruise season runs from April through September, with most contemporary cruise lines beginning their routes in May.  The best time of year to take your cruise depending on the experiences you are hoping to have.  Are you looking for wildlife, the warmest weather (or the best chance for snow), seeing the northern lights, or just the best deal?  Here is a quick chart to help you pick the best dates for the experiences you are hoping to take in:

Which Cruise Lines Cruise to Alaska?

Nearly every major cruise line has at least one ship in Alaska each summer.  Contemporary big ship cruise lines include Celebrity, Princess, Holland America,  Disney, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean sail Alaska each year.  You can also choose from luxury cruises on smaller ships with more included amenities such as Crystal, Oceania, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, Silversea, and Windstar.  If you are looking for a more up-close & personal cruise there are several expedition cruise lines like Hurtigruten, Lindblad, and UnCruise Adventures.

Alaskan Cruise Routes

Alaska is huge – at 663,300 square miles, it is 2.5 times larger than Texas!  Here is a simple map for you to reference as we discuss the different Alaska Cruise Itineraries.

Inside Passage

These voyages are typically seven nights sailing round-trips from Seattle or Vancouver.  The inside passage is a sheltered waterway between Pacific Coast Islands lending itself to calm, scenic cruising.  Air arrangements are easy and less expensive since they are round-trip from your home gateway.  The main ports of call are Juneau, Skagway, Sitka, and Ketchikan with some ships stopping in ports like Icy Strait, Haines, Wrangell, or Petersburg.  All of the itineraries include one or more glacier visits.  Sailings from Seattle must call on a Canadian port during the voyage – typically Vancouver or Victoria.

Here are a few sample itineraries:

  • Seattle – Cruising the Inside Passage – Scenic Cruising: Stephens Passage – Juneau – Scenic Cruising:  Hubbard Glacier – Sitka – Ketchikan – Victoria – Seattle
  • Vancouver – Cruising the Inside Passage – Juneau – Skagway – Scenic Cruising: Glacier Bay – Ketchikan – Cruising the Inside Passage – Vancouver

Gulf of Alaska

These voyages are also typically seven nights long, sailing one-way between Seattle/Vancouver and Seward/Whittier.  Gulf itineraries reach further north allowing for better access to Anchorage, Cruise-Tour offerings to the National Parks, Kenai Peninsula Ports and Additional Glaciers.  These itineraries include a cruise through the inside passage along with similar ports from the Inside Passage itineraries.  Air arrangements are a bit trickier since you are flying in and out of different ports – the cruise lines block lots of space – talk with your travel agent to help find the best value for air transportation.  Similar to the Inside Passage routes, all of the itineraries include one or more glacier visits and sailings from Seattle must call on a Canadian port during the voyage – typically Vancouver or Victoria.

Here are a few sample itineraries:

  • Vancouver – Cruising the Inside Passage – Ketchikan – Juneau – Skagway – Scenic Cruising: Hubbard Glacier – Scenic Cruising:  College Fjord – Whittier
  • Seward – Day at Sea – Scenic Cruising: Glacier Bay – Haines – Juneau – Ketchikan – Cruising the Inside Passage – Vancouver

Longer Sailings

There are several cruise itineraries that are 9 to 14 nights long.  Several offer round-trip or one-way Inside Passage itineraries from San Francisco including additional stops in California, Oregon, Washington, or British Colombia.

Other options for longer cruises are round-trip itineraries from Seattle/Vancouver that include both the Inside Passage & Gulf itineraries along with a few additional stops.

Ports of Call

Ketchikan, Alaska

Creek Street is the main attraction here. Built on pilings over the water, it once was the city’s red-light district and now is lined with funky stores and restaurants overlooking canoeists and leaping salmon. Ketchikan is the gateway port for scenic tours of the Tongass National Forest and Misty Fjords, as well as fishing trips. Be prepared: It’s one of the rainiest cities in the U.S.

Gourmet Guru:  You know the saying “When in Rome…” well when you are in Alaska you must have some local, fresh-caught crab!  When you are done touring stop at the Crab Cracker Seafood Bar for lunch or a snack of King Crab Legs and don’t forget to sample some of the local beers!

Exploration Specialist:  The town of Ketchikan is very easy to navigate and is worth a walkthrough.  If you are looking for a great opportunity to see wildlife, grab a Kayak Tour.  We choose one that visited Eagle Island – only a short coach bus trip from the pier.  The tour offers only double kayaks and allows for about 2 hours on the water.  The paddle was easy with the calm waters of the bay – the paddle was medium crossing out of the bay but very manageable.  Once over at the island, Bald & Golden Eagles were everywhere – bring your camera and a good lens!!  A few harbor seals came to visit too.  The shoreline was beautiful with bluffs covered in orange & purple starfish!

Juneau, Alaska

In Alaska’s capital, you can kayak, canoe, or hike close to Mendenhall Glacier. In town, the Mount Roberts Tramway takes riders 1,800 feet up for gorgeous views and hiking trails. Or enjoy honky-tonk music and wholesome grub at the raucous Red Dog Saloon. The local culinary scene has been booming of late, and some solid breweries are on hand, too.

Make sure to check your cruise itinerary to not miss some of the beautiful cruising on your way into or out of Juneau.  The sites from the ship are what make cruising Alaska so special!!

Exploration Specialist:  If you are looking to experience all sides of Juneau looking for a full-day excursion that will have you out whale watching, hiking in the rainforest, and of course visiting a glacier!  Our favorite tour is one that combines all of these in a small group setting with a professional photographer to help you capture the best shots!  Make sure to bring a camera or two – they are happy to share how to use the one on your phone too!!

Skagway, Alaska

Skagway came into being in the last part of the 19th century as the nearest port of entry for stampeders making their way into the Klondike in search of gold. Today, a train ride along the narrow-gauge White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad is a must for cruise passengers. The tracks follow the staggeringly photogenic route the gold-seekers took — on foot — over the pass to the Canadian border. In town, take a Gold Rush history tour, or spend your own gold at the various shops.

Exploration Specialist:  Skagway is also a great place for adventuring!  How about a full day of hiking, biking, and float paddling?  This journey starts with a short scenic drive inland to Dyea.  You then hop on your bikes for a 6-mile ride (about 90 minutes) through town, into a rain forest, and to the Chilkoot trailhead.  Here you will hop off and begin your 2-mile Chilkoot trail hike up and down a few hills ending at the water’s edge.  Then you will board your raft (all gear provided) for a relaxing 45-minute float.

Sitka, Alaska

Sitka offers a unique cultural melting pot for both Alaska Native and Russian-descent populations. Many remnants of Alaska’s Russian (St. Michael’s Cathedral, the Russian Bishop’s House) and Tlingit (including a clan house and totem-filled park) heritage are found there. Another highlight is the Alaska Raptor Center, a not-for-profit facility dedicated to healing injured birds of prey, primarily American eagles.

Exploration Specialist:  Sitka has magnificent scenery and hundreds of hidden coves, inlets, and passages, a kayaker’s delight. It’s the perfect place to paddle!  The crystal-clear water allows you to view the kelp beds, home to sea urchins, crabs, sea stars, jellyfish, and anemones. You might spot a curious otter checking you out or a seal basking on the sunny warmth of the rocks. Perhaps most exciting of all, there’s a good chance you’ll see Steller sea lions or even humpback whales!

There are several tours to pick from depending on how long you want to be on the water.  The best part is that these protected waters are calm to paddle through giving you lots of opportunities to take photos of the scenery and wildlife!

Victoria, Canada

Welcome to the capital of British Columbia!  Take in the Victorian experience with a historic horse and carriage ride through the city or a leisurely walk through the city’s beautiful inner harbor.  Fisherman’s Warf is only a short walk from the cruise terminal and quite a sight to see all of the colorful houseboats, fun eateries, and water activity starting points.  The city’s Chinatown is the second oldest in North America only to San Francisco.

Often cruise ships will arrive in the afternoon and ship excursions can be limited.  Talk with your travel agent, there are still lots of options for your visit if you are looking for some adventure!!

Exploration Specialist:  Victoria is home to several pods of Orcas that hang out year-round.  There are several options to view these beautiful creatures – we think the best is with a high-speed Zodiac.  The pros to these tours are that they are small (limited to only 12 people and your guide), they can get up closer to the whales, are faster (which means they can get to the whales faster and visit more sites during your tour) and they are faster (meaning you get the thrill of an open-air zodiac tour and get to suit up in a lovely survival suit to stay warm).

Scenic cruising

A key part of any Alaska itinerary is scenic cruising. In addition to the Inside Passage, ships may visit Tracy Arm/Sawyer Glacier, Hubbard Glacier, Glacier Bay, or College Fjord. Bring binoculars and warm outerwear to best enjoy the views of glaciers calving, aquatic life and birds, and gorgeous scenery. Some ships will bring naturalists onboard to narrate.

If you are staying in a balcony stateroom or higher, plan to spend the day on your balcony watching the scenery pass by.  Treat yourself to room service with the best view!  Also, make sure to bring your tripod along to capture some great photos.

If you are staying in an inside or ocean view stateroom – no worries – there is ample space up on the decks to catch all of the views in a more panoramic way!!  There are also several areas to watch from inside – but the photos sometimes aren’t the best.  If you are heading up on deck for the views, make sure to bring along a few layers of clothes and grab a few pool towels to keep you warm!

Alaska Cruise-Tour Optional Add-ons

Consider extending your cruise with a land tour add-on!  Alaska has so much to offer that can only be experienced by touring ashore.  On either end of your sailing, you can tour on your own or book a cruise tour that combines a cruise and a land tour, which usually runs three to seven nights.  The cruise tours usually involve scenic train rides, luxury lodges, guided excursions along with your meals.  If you are looking to adventure on your own work with your travel agent to help make car/train and lodge reservations along with select tour operators.

Popular northern destinations include Denali National Park, Talkeetna, Fairbanks, Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula, and Canada’s Yukon Territory.  Popular southern destinations include extended stays in Vancouver or Seattle and touring to Whistler, Jasper, Banff, Washington/Oregon Wine Country, or the San Juan Islands.

If you are booking a Gulf itinerary you can begin or end your sailing with a land tour of the northern or southern destinations.  If you have booked the Inside Passage you can add on any of the southern destinations.

Alaskan Expedition Cruises

Cruisers can opt for a different kind of trip on the smaller expedition vessels of lines like Hurtigruten, Lindblad, Tauck, and UnCruise Adventures. These cruises typically focus more on nature and wildlife, rather than the big-name ports.

The advantages of these small ships are:

  • They can visit places big cruise ships can’t & get much closer to the glaciers
  • Fewer passengers on board (ranging from 20 to 284 total guests) means a more intimate experience
  • Most itineraries visit two to three places each day
  • The itinerary is flexible, there is no big port waiting, which means the captain can stop and change course if there is a wildlife sighting or a change in the weather
  • These cruises are all-inclusive meaning all of the hiking, kayaking, paddle-boarding, zodiacs, and even snorkeling are included in your cruise fare.