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Alaska is an intriguing, culturally diverse destination with thousands of miles of scenic coastline that make it a natural draw for cruise ships. Each of the ports offers a different perspective on life in the most northerly U.S. state. Ketchikan is a center for native Tlingit culture, Skagway is Gold Rush-era oriented, Petersburg reflects its Norwegian heritage, while Sitka touts Russian and Alaska Native ties.
Cruise travelers enjoy the history and the frontier ambience of the 49th state, but its wildlife and scenery are the main attractions. Towering mountains, massive glaciers, tranquil (and sometimes turbulent) waterways, countless acres of rainforest and Arctic tundra are the magnets for cruise passengers. Whales, eagles, bears, moose, seals and seabirds may be seen from your ship, in port or on a shore tour.
Alaska's biggest shortcoming can be the weather. By booking an Alaska cruise, travelers are likely to be trading in a week of warmer weather at home for the possibility of gray or rainy days and chilly midsummer temps -- though sunny days with warm temperatures and blue skies are not out of the question. Still, helicopter and float plane tours can be canceled due to imperfect conditions, and no tour can guarantee wildlife viewings. But, if you're willing to be flexible and take your chances, a visit to Alaska will not disappoint.
Best Time for Alaska Cruises
The Alaska cruise season typically runs from late April to early October, with high season normally falling between June through August. However, the best time to go is rather subjective.
June, July and August are the warmest months (with highs ranging from the 60s to 70s in most of the state), but July and August, especially, can be quite rainy. The further into the summer you are, the better your chances of seeing wildlife on the various expeditions; these months are also the best bets if you want to have a variety of fish to reel in on a shore excursion.
May and September offer cheaper cruise fares and fewer crowds; however, due to more unpredictable weather, shore excursions have a greater chance of being canceled than they do in high season -- especially boat and helicopter tours. May is one of the driest sailing season months in the Inside Passage region, but you may still find snow on the ground -- great for scenic photos, less ideal for hiking.
September offers the best possibility for cruisers to catch the Northern Lights, as well as great end-of-season shopping deals for souvenir-hunters. However, at this time, the Gulf of Alaska is the choppiest and not recommended for travelers who get seasick. Also, certain sections of the access road to Denali National Park have been known to close in September due to snow.
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Alaska Cruise Lines
Lines regularily sailing to Alaska include Carnival, Celebrity, Cunard, Disney, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean.
You can also choose from luxury cruises on smaller ships, including Oceania, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, Silversea, Viking Ocean and Windstar; or more rugged expedition cruises like Alaskan Dream Cruises, Lindblad, and UnCruise Adventures that focus more on up-close-and-personal nature and wildlife encounters aboard even-smaller ships.
Alaska Cruise Itineraries
You can choose from a few basic itineraries in Alaska.
Inside Passage: These typically seven-night voyages often sail round trip, usually from Seattle or Vancouver, making air travel arrangements easier and generally less expensive than they are for one-way cruises. The Inside Passage is a sheltered waterway between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland, extending into Alaska, that lends itself to calm, scenic cruising.
The main ports of call on these sailings are Juneau, Skagway, Sitka and Ketchikan, but some ships stop in spots like Icy Strait, Haines, Wrangell or Petersburg; sailings from Seattle must call on a Canadian port, typically Victoria or Prince Rupert.
Also noteworthy: sailings from Vancouver tend to traverse more of the Inside Passage, with a full day of sailing this scenic region. Voyages departing from Seattle tend to favor the open (and often bumpier) expanse of the Pacific Ocean.
Gulf of Alaska: Gulf of Alaska voyages are typically a seven-night one-way cruise between Vancouver and Seward or Whittier, the gateway ports for Anchorage. Itineraries here reach farther north and have better access to Anchorage, Alaska's biggest city. These also serve the many land-based cruise tour offerings that visitt Denali National Park, the Kenai Peninsula, and overland destinations like Fairbanks and Talkeetna.
Would-be cruisers sometimes mistakenly believe that a Gulf of Alaska itinerary does not offer passengers the opportunity to visit the Inside Passage ports. It does. A typical Gulf of Alaska cruise will typically include stops in Sitka, Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan, while some will also call on more off-the-beaten-path ports like Icy Strait Point and Haines. Almost all will include a visit to Hubbard Glacier and spend some time scenic cruising in College Fjord.
Longer Sailings & Repositioning Cruises: A handful of cruise lines -- mostly small ship and luxury lines like Cunard, Seabourn and Windstar -- offer voyages ranging from nine to 14 days in length, typically all of which depart from Vancouver.
Mainstream lines have, in the past, begun offering longer sailings to Alaska from more southern U.S. ports of call like San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Don't forget about repositioning cruises: sailings in May and September offer the opportunity to sail between Asia and North America. These transpacific journeys frequently include a full Alaska sailing, complemented by stops in Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula and Japan after the ocean crossing.
Expedition Cruises: Cruisers can opt for a different kind of trip on the smaller expedition vessels of lines like UnCruise Adventures, Alaskan Dream Cruises and Lindblad Expeditions. These cruises typically focus more on nature and wildlife, rather than the big-name ports.
The advantage of these small ships is that they can go to places that the big boys can't -- for instance, the Alaska Native village of Kake, Wrangell Narrows and other tiny inlets too shallow for the mega-ships. The ships have the maneuverability to follow aquatic wildlife (within legal limits) when it's spotted. Many also employ Zodiac rafts, kayaks and hiking trips to bring passengers closer to glaciers and creatures.
Luxury lines like Seabourn also offer expedition-style components and tours onboard their sailings.
Alaska Cruise Port Highlights
Ketchikan, Alaska: Creek Street one of the town's main attractions. 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, Misty Fjords, and Totem Bight State Park, as well as fishing trips and crab-feasts. Be prepared: It's one of the rainiest cities in the U.S and proudly boasts a "rain gauge" on its main cruise dock.
Juneau, Alaska: In Alaska's capital, you can kayak, canoe or hike close to nearby 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 and distilleries are on hand, 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 local shops, breweries and restaurants.
Sitka, Alaska: Sitka offers a unique cultural melting pot for both Alaska Native and Russian-descent populations. Many remnants of Alaska's Russian heritage (St. Michael's Cathedral, the Russian Bishop's House) and Tlingit (including a clan house and totem-filled park) 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.
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, particularly in Glacier Bay.
Beware that conditions can sometimes interrupt the ability to reach the glaciers, particularly in Tracy Arm Fjord. Large ships are frequently turned around at the mid-point of the channel due to fog or ice conditions, while smaller vessels (think: Silversea and Seabourn) can sometimes sneak through.
Even if you don't reach the North and South Sawyer Glaciers, Tracy Arm Fjord is spectacular scenic cruising in its own right.
Learn more about Alaska Cruises.
Alaska Cruise Tips
Consider a cruise tour. Alaska has much to offer that can only be experienced by touring ashore, either before or after your cruise. The one-way Gulf itineraries lend themselves more readily to Alaska touring, as they begin or end in Alaska. 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. Popular destinations include Denali National Park (for wildlife viewing), Talkeetna (best place for Denali views and cool eats) and Fairbanks (think: Alaska pipeline). Cruise tour land packages are also available to spots like Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula and Canada's Yukon Territory.
Spring for a balcony cabin. Everyone wants to see the scenery, and having your own little enclave of deck space can really come in handy for days when scenic cruising is at its highest peak, like during sailings in Denali National Park or scenic cruising the Inside Passage or Tracy Arm Fjord. This is particularly true on big ships. Folks in inside or oceanview staterooms will still have a good time, but not having to jostle at the railing for space on the ship's upper decks can be a real bonus.
Seasick prone? Beware. A word of caution: If you are going to run into choppy seas, it's more likely to be in the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska than in the largely protected stretch of the Inside Passage. If you're concerned, book a northbound cruise so you'll cruise the Gulf at the end of the trip when you have your sea legs. If you get seasick easily, also think twice about round trip cruises from Seattle (or from other spots in the continental U.S.) that spend days cruising in the open ocean.
Read more on The World's Roughest Waters for Cruising.
Weather is unpredictable in Alaska. Temperatures can change considerably from one destination to the next, and even on otherwise warm days, it can be quite cool cruising by a massive glacier or when the sun dips behind a cloud. The trick is to dress in layers of clothing so that you can peel off (or add on) slowly as the thermometer dictates. You will want to pack a bathing suit and a very warm fleece jacket -- and you'll likely wear both at different times.
Waterproof clothing, from jackets to shoes to pants, is never a bad idea for those looking to explore away from the main tourist streets.
Trekkers who want to explore the State's backcountry should be prepared. A waterproof backpack with bug spray, bear spray, bottled water and snacks is practically a necessity in the State. Come prepared, and always check trail conditions with locals or tourist information centers first before setting out.
Bug spray is a must for all travelers. The mosquito is often jokingly referred to as the state bird, and for good reason: the ubiquitous little pests are everywhere, and love to take a chunk out of well-fed cruisers primarily at dawn or dusk.
Avoid the crowds. To minimize joining the masses during high season, consider a shoulder-season sailing (in late April, May or September), or select a ship that embarks midweek. Saturday and Sunday cruise departures tend to be busiest during the summer months, particularily for families wtih children.