Cruise to Alaska: A Beginner's Guide

alaska cruise guide
There are a lot of things to consider when cruising to Alaska. - Photo by Norwegian Cruise Line

Alaska is a vast wonder of natural beauty. From the decks of a ship large or small, you'll have spectacular views of the massive glaciers, iceberg-choked straits, sheer rock faces, miles of forest, and untamed wildlife that have made America's northwestern-most state such a popular cruising destination. And despite its popularity – there can be five ships in port at a given time – you'll be able to feel and touch Alaska's natural bounty as if you were the only one there. Wildlife likely to be spotted along the way includes humpback whales, orcas, seals, bald eagles, and if you're lucky, brown bears along the shoreline. Don't forget your binoculars!

Cruise ships stop at a handful of rustic 19th-century pioneer towns that originally grew up around the fur trade or the gold rush. The remote outposts, some only accessible by sea, include Seward, Skagway, Ketchikan, Juneau, Anchorage (Whittier and Seward), and others. They're a blend of thousand-year-old-plus native traditions and those of the European, Russian, and American settlers who left their marks.

Here are some of the most common questions cruisers have when it comes to sailing to Alaska.

Who should take a cruise to Alaska?

who should take an alaska cruise

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Cruises to Alaska are perfect for anyone who appreciates the great outdoors and wants something completely unique for a vacation.  Alaska is not about amusement parks and spending your days on the beach. A cruise to Alaska is filled with wild-animal sightings, shore excursions that take you through mountains and rainforests, and cuisine that focuses on local ingredients. You'll see a wide range of traveler types, from families with kids to older adults and couples.


When is the best time to cruise to Alaska?

best time to cruise to alaska

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The Alaska cruise season extends from late April through early September, with mid-June through August being the warmest, busiest (especially with families) and typically the most expensive because demand is high. April, May, early June and September are considered low season, when crowds will be thinner and temps a bit cooler. Some of the local businesses don't open until early May, especially in the smaller towns. April, May and June tend to be a little drier than the rest of the season, although you should always come prepared for rain, which is common throughout summer in Alaska.


What can I see from my ship and in port?

what you can see from alaska cruise

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The immensity of the unspoiled landscape and the chance to see whales and glaciers, coupled with fresh air and friendly (and hilarious) locals make Alaska very special.

When you're cruising the fjords, straits, and bays of the Inside Passage, most of which is surrounded by the vast Tongass National Forest, park yourself at your ship's rail to see humpback whales dramatically surface, especially in the Upper Lynn Canal near Skagway. Look down, as schools of dolphins may be trailing your ship, and look up to spy bald eagles soaring overhead. On shore in ports like Ketchikan, in July and August especially, see salmon by the thousands swim upstream to spawn.

Glaciers are a huge draw in Alaska, and even though many are receding, there still are ample opportunities to admire the massive blocks of ice. Consider Mendenhall Glacier outside of Juneau and the Sawyer Glaciers in Tracy Arm Fjord to the south.

To see glaciers from the ship, choose an itinerary that spends time cruising in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Other places to see glaciers from the ship include Hubbard Glacier, near Yakutat Bay, Prince William Sound, and Kenai Fjords National Park. If you're lucky, you'll witness them calving, when huge chunks break off the end and dramatically crash into the water.

Alaskans also love their totem poles, and you can see them in Sitka National Historic Park and even more in and around Ketchikan, including at Saxman Village and Totem Bight State Historical Park.

As for the northern lights (aurora borealis), it's unlikely you will see them on your cruise to Alaska. Some have claimed to see them during the late September cruises, but they are best seen in the winter months when the skies are dark and clear and temperatures are absolutely freezing. During the summer, Alaska's midnight sun keeps the skies bright, even in the middle of the night.


What is a typical Alaskan itinerary like?

alaska cruise itineraries

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The vast majority of Alaska cruises are seven nights long and focus on southeast Alaska's Inside Passage. Some also venture further north into the Gulf of Alaska and are as long as 10 to 14 nights. Smaller ships, which move slower, tend to cruise one way, north or south, between towns like Juneau and Seattle or Vancouver, while the faster-moving mega-ships typically cruise round-trip out of Vancouver or Seattle, or they cruise one-way between Vancouver and Seward, Alaska.

Most itineraries include a full day of cruising in Glacier Bay National Park, near Juneau, or near Hubbard Glacier or Sawyer Glacier. Many routes also include a day sailing through the hauntingly beautiful canals of the Misty Fjords National Monument outside of Ketchikan, an area of primeval wilderness and 3,000-foot high rocks sprouting from the ocean.


How do I get to port? Do the ships pull right into the action, or do I need to take some kind of transportation to most of the sights?

getting to alaska cruise port

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On Alaska cruises, your ship will either dock right in town or anchor very close by, unlike in Europe and Asia, where your ship can be tied up hours from the top sights. The vast majority of popular natural attractions and excursions are no more than 30 minutes from the ship docks and are often within walking distance. The main ports are bustling during busy summer days; there is no shortage of T-shirt shops, jewelry stores, pubs selling fried halibut (yum) and chips, and cold local beer, but ports in Alaska still manage to retain a rugged, pioneer feel untarnished by commercialism.


What are the excursions like?

guide for alaska excursions

Photo by Royal Caribbean

Alaska is about getting out into nature for those once in-a-lifetime experiences. Here's a look at the type of shore tours offered in some of the most popular ports:

What to Do in Juneau:

Alaska's state capital sits at the base of Mount Roberts; explore the nearby ice fields of Mendenhall Glacier or take the tram up to the top of Mount Roberts for spectacular views of the harbor. Or kayak in nearby Auke Bay to soak up the beautiful scenery of the area and maybe spot seals and eagles as you're paddling around.

What to Do in Skagway:

Charming Skagway is all about the legacy of the Klondike Gold Rush; it was the place prospectors converged more than a century ago to seek their fortunes in the snowy mountains about the town. From Skagway, take a ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route narrow-gauge railway (the same one that took prospectors to the Yukon gold fields 100 years ago), or sign up for the mostly downhill 15-mile bike ride along the scenic Klondike Highway with endless views of snowcapped peaks.

What to Do in Ketchikan:

It might be the rainiest port of the Inside Passage, but don't let that stop you from checking out Ketchikan's totem poles, salmon, and flight-seeing opportunities over the Misty Fjords National Monument. From Ketchikan, the Misty Fjords flight-seeing tour will give you aerial views of rocks rising 3,000 feet from the sea. The grand finale is when the floatplane actually lands on a wilderness lake for a quick look around. Juneau is also a great port for flight-seeing tours, many flying over the nearby ice fields.

What to Do in Seward:

One of the ports located in the Gulf of Alaska, Seward is a great port for exploring the outdoors. A mountain biking tour of the area will take you past Fort William H. Seward and then on through the natural beauty of the Chikat River estuary.


What should I pack for a cruise to Alaska?

packing for alaska cruise

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When it comes to packing for a cruise to Alaska, here are the most important things to remember: wear layers and pack rain gear. Temperatures can fluctuate 20 degrees in a day (from the 50s to the 70s) and rain is frequent, especially in ports like Ketchikan. Rarely are excursions canceled due to weather, so be prepared for anything. Also pack gear that you would wear to go hiking, such as waterproof hiking boots and pants. If you know you want to go halibut fishing, pack an extra set of waterproof clothes because you will certainly smell of fish once you're done. If you're more of a fly fisher, pack a mosquito net for your head (you can thank us later).

One thing cruisers tend to forget in Alaska is binoculars. Carry them with you at all times, both on and off the ship. And if you're a light sleeper, pack an eye mask. It never really gets dark in Alaska in the summer, which is why it has been nicknamed the land of the midnight sun.

Pack a backpack, and carry it with you when you get off of the ship. Most of the excursions are active, so you'll want to carry water and have a place to store your clothes once the temperatures start warming up.


Big Ships vs. Small Ships in Alaska

choose alaska cruise ship

Photo by Holland America Line

Small ships (including those of Un-Cruise Adventures, Alaskan Dream Cruises, and Lindblad Expeditions) can nip into secluded bays, narrow fjords, and shallow spots (including Misty Fjords, Tidal Inlet, Icy Strait, South Sandy Cove, and more) the mega ships couldn't dream of getting into; in some cases you'll be able to literally lean over the railing and touch a fjord wall or a bobbing bergy bit. Small ships are an intimate way to experience Alaska and the best way to spot wildlife grazing along the shoreline of the Inside Passage.

On the other hand, while large ships can't get as close to the shoreline, they're so jam-packed with things to do onboard (from spas, casinos and kids playrooms to movie theaters and ice-skating rinks) that they're a destination in and of themselves. Many cruise lines in Alaska also have an onboard naturalist who teaches cruisers about the ports and areas they're cruising by.


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