Alaska from a cruise ship

Alaska cruises top many a seafarer's bucket list, offering exposure to jaw-dropping scenery, rugged pursuits like dogsledding and hiking, and up-close encounters with fauna that include bald eagles, moose and whales -- not to mention some of the freshest and tastiest salmon and king crab legs found anywhere. Add to that perks such as included gratuities, free alcohol, gourmet food, impeccable service, access to butlers and concierges, fewer fellow passengers and more intimate, personalized shore excursion experiences, and a luxury Alaska cruise can be an incredible vacation.

Below, we'll tell you what, exactly, luxury Alaskan cruises are, which lines offer them and what sets the offerings of those lines apart from what you'll find with more mainstream lines.

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Why Choose a Luxury Alaska Cruise?

In Alaska, where the scenery and sights are larger than life, there's a huge benefit to being on a small ship. Because luxury cruise ships are smaller and carry fewer passengers than mainstream vessels, you won't have to jostle through crowds to snag a prime viewing spot on deck when whales are breeching in the distance, and it's likely that your shore excursion groups will be smaller, leading to a more personalized experience.

Luxury ships often call on more off-the-beaten path places, too. For example, Lindblad has Petersburg on its Alaska itineraries, which isn't a stop that's common to most mainstream lines, and the smaller-sized luxury ships are able to get closer to glaciers than their mainstream counterparts. Additionally, many luxury Alaska cruise lines offer land-based add-ons, allowing passengers to explore the state more in depth, visiting places like Denali National Park; Nome; Paul, St. Matthew and St. Paul islands; and other out-of-the-way locations.

On a general level, luxury cruises are more inclusive, often providing soft drinks, alcohol, alternative dining, in-room extras, tips and even some shore excursions in their fares, while mainstream lines charge extra for them. The quality of food and accommodations is superior to that of non-luxury lines, as well. Further, a higher-than-average crew-to-passenger ratio means cruisers can expect stellar service, which incorporates small but appreciated touches that might include the company of gentleman hosts for women sailing alone, hot beverages at the gangway after chilly days in port or teams of local experts and photographers brought onboard to help you learn and experience as much as possible about the Last Frontier.

As a result, luxury cruise pricing is higher than what you'd pay for an average voyage, but you're paying for a better overall experience. Want to dine at a fancy restaurant with no added fees? Done. Feel like chartering a private helicopter for a once-in-a-lifetime flight that lands on a glacier? Not a problem -- the onboard concierge will make arrangements.

Finally, if a more adult experience -- read: a small number of kids onboard -- is what you prefer, you're in luck. Alaska cruises draw fewer children than Caribbean sailings; luxury Alaska cruises draw even fewer.

A Regent Alaska cruise

Alaska Luxury Cruise Lines

Although several luxury lines sail in Alaska, they don't always offer consistent voyages in the region. A handful, in fact, offer Alaska port calls as part of longer itineraries that incorporate other cruise destinations like Asia or Russia. (Also, be aware that Alaska cruises have a short season, offered only from May through September.)

Crystal Cruises, Oceania Cruises, Ponant, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line and Silversea Cruises all offer regular sailings to Alaska, ranging from seven to 15 nights. In addition, Crystal and Regent each offer longer sailings (upwards of 20 nights) that include calls on Alaska ports.

High-end expedition lines in the area include Un-Cruise Adventures and Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, which offer seven- and eight-night sailings, respectively, focused on nature and culture. Expedition cruises generally focus more heavily on destination immersion via onboard lectures and enrichment, as well as more rugged adventures ashore that involve getting up close and personal with local animal and plant life. Additionally, the accommodations aboard expedition vessels are generally more spartan, with fewer onboard amenities and less of a focus on glitzy decor.

Mainstream Luxury in Alaska

If large ships with robust entertainment programs and extensive children's programs are more your cup of tea (or that of your traveling party), you can still enjoy a luxury Alaska vacation. Several mainstream lines offer top-of-the-line staterooms or suite complexes that allow for exclusive access to higher-level perks that usually come standard on luxury cruises. Those perks might include access to concierge and butler services, free alcoholic beverages, in-cabin treats, preferred seating in the theater, special lounge access, invitations to exclusive parties, private dining in dedicated restaurants, spa amenities and special, complimentary access to private pool areas onboard.

Holland America Line and Princess Cruises are regarded as the Alaska experts, with the most ships in the region and years of experience under their belts. Holland America's suite occupants get perks like exclusive breakfasts, free laundry and dry cleaning, priority boarding for tenders and access to a private lounge that stocks snacks throughout the day. Spa-lovers can choose to book dedicated spa cabins, which offer in-room yoga mats, healthier menus for in-room dining and access to a concierge who can arrange spa treatments (for an additional cost). Princess treats its suite occupants to in-cabin DVD players, a private concierge lounge, complimentary laundry and dry cleaning, and a one-time mini-bar setup.

Meanwhile, Norwegian Cruise Line offers suite passengers and those booked in The Haven suite complex access to a private restaurant, exclusive pool area and cocktail bar. Other extras include pillow-top mattresses, priority seating at shows, priority boarding for tenders and the services of a concierge and 24-hour butler.

Celebrity Cruises' take on the mainstream-gone-luxury concept is Suite Class. Those booked in Suite Class cabins have access to Michael's Club and Luminae, a dedicated restaurant; premium beverage packages; unlimited specialty dining; complimentary Internet access; free mini-bar setup; and concierge services.

Helicopter over Alaska

Luxury Experiences in Port

Whether you're on a luxury Alaska cruise or not, you can have luxury experiences in port. Due to Alaska's amazing scenery and climate, the region brings with it some of the most expensive shore excursion options. These include flightseeing -- checking out breathtaking aerial views by private plane -- and heli-hiking, which takes passengers hiking on glaciers or tundras via helicopter. These tours can range from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000 for two people in some cases, but they're solid choices if you want to spare no expense when making your cruise a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

However, luxury lines kick the offerings up a notch with more exclusive, immersive and tailored experiences like private cars for hire so you can plan your own day in port (drive the Yukon Highway, check out a remote lodge, etc.) and volunteer opportunities in local communities.