An Alaska cruise is high on many travelers' bucket lists. From ports that offer diverse culture and history to thousands of miles of breathtaking coastline, calving glaciers, towering mountains and wildlife in every direction, America's last frontier has a lot to offer all types of travelers, including cruisers.
But booking an Alaskan cruise can be complicated. There are numerous factors you need to consider for a cruise to Alaska, including the best time of year, costs, itineraries, which line to choose and which destinations matter most to you. Then there's the unpredictable Alaska weather on top of it all.
To help you make sense of it all, we've rounded up everything you need to know about cruising Alaska, the 49th state.
We hear it all the time: “When is the best time to cruise Alaska?” Well, it depends. The Alaska cruise season typically runs from late April through early October. High season falls between June and August.
The cost of an Alaskan cruise, of course, rises during high season and will be less expensive before and after those months during shoulder season.
June, July and August are the warmest months in Alaska. Highs range from the 60s to 70s in most of the state. However, July and August can be rainy.
Wet weather aside, late summer months bring the best chances of seeing wildlife on expeditions. These months are also your best bet if you want active fishing trips on a shore excursion.
You're in luck if you're hoping to see whales on your Alaska cruise, as the majority of the cruise season coincides with whale season. Humpback whales can be found in the waters of the Gulf of Alaska and are some of the most frequently spotted, though you may also see orcas and gray whales as well.
Your overall best bet for whale watching in Alaska is May through September.
Prices for Alaskan cruises are lower in April, May and September. Crowds will also be smaller. Due to unpredictable weather, though, there’s a risk of shore excursions being cancelled -- especially boat and helicopter tours.
May is one of the driest months in the Inside Passage, but you may still find snow on the ground (which is great for scenic photos, but less ideal for hiking).
September offers the best possibility for cruisers to catch the Northern Lights in Alaska. They are generally visible across the state, so any itinerary will likely do, though you'll have the best show in less populated areas like Denali National Park. You'd also do well to look at the moon cycles, as a full moon can drown out the Aurora Borealis.
If you are cruising in Alaska during the Northern Lights season, note that the Gulf of Alaska is choppiest in September and not recommended for travelers who get seasick. Also, certain sections of the access road to Denali National Park may close in September due to snow, so check your itinerary if that's your preferred Northern Lights viewing spot.
An Alaska cruise costs anywhere from $500 to $8,000 or more during high season. Cheaper fares can be usually found on mainstream lines like Royal Caribbean and NCL, while Cunard, Disney and Seabourn will be more expensive.
In other words, Alaska can be one of the more affordable bucket-list destinations to reach by ship, especially when compared to other remote cruise destinations like Antarctica and the Galapagos.
You'll need to set aside a good chunk of money to spend on shore excursions when you're in Alaska. They can be incredibly expensive when compared to experiences in the Caribbean or Mexico.
If you're happy with a couple of historic tours and a guided hike, you could likely budget $500 or less per person for shore excursions in Alaska. But if once-in-a-lifetime Alaska experiences like helicopter rides and flightseeing in Ketchikan are more your speed, you'll need to triple that amount -- or more.
You'll find the best deals on an Alaska cruise by looking for sailings during shoulder season months: late April, May and September.
Holland America and Princess are the biggest mainstream lines for an Alaska cruise. But you'll also see Alaska itineraries from Carnival, Disney, Norwegian (NCL) and Royal Caribbean, which gives you an array of price points to consider.
Luxury cruises to Alaska on smaller ships can be a great option for those looking to pair remote wilderness with a bit of pampering. Your best high-end bets are Oceania, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, Silversea and Windstar.
If you’d like a small ship cruise to Alaska, but crave a bit more adventure, expedition cruises might be more your speed. Check out lines like Alaskan Dream Cruises, Lindblad and UnCruise Adventures, which focus on immersive nature and wildlife experiences. The vibe onboard these ships is also more personalized due to their limited capacity.
Featured Article: 8 Reasons to Sail to Alaska with Princess Cruises.
You’ll want to carefully consider Alaska cruise packages and itineraries as the scenery, price and length of time all vary considerably. The best Alaska cruises manage to combine epic nature with local flavor, and the following options all offer that mix with some variation.
The Inside Passage is a sheltered waterway between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland that extends north to Alaska. It's known for calm waters and excellent scenery (often including Glacier Bay).
Embarking and disembarking in Seattle or Vancouver can make air travel easier and cheaper than one-way Alaska cruises, which require flights to smaller, more expensive airports in Alaska.
An Alaska cruise from Seattle will visit the Inside Passage but tends to favor the open (and frequently bumpier) Pacific Ocean. Sailings from Vancouver tend to traverse more of the Inside Passage and spend a full day sailing this scenic region.
The main ports of call on Alaska Inside Passage cruises 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.
Alternatively, Gulf of Alaska cruises are typically seven-night, one-way itineraries between Vancouver and Seward or Whittier, the gateway ports for Anchorage and northern destinations in the state.
Gulf cruises also serve the many land-based tour offerings that visit Denali National Park, the Kenai Peninsula, and overland destinations like Fairbanks and Talkeetna.
Cruises through Alaska's gulf also tend to pass through the Inside Passage, with typical stops including Sitka, Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan. Some will also call on more off-the-beaten-path ports like Icy Strait Point and Haines.
Almost all Gulf of Alaska cruises visit to Hubbard Glacier and spend some time scenic cruising in College Fjord.
Cruisers can opt for more in-depth wilderness itineraries on smaller expedition lines like UnCruise Adventures, Alaskan Dream Cruises and Lindblad Expeditions. These cruises in Alaska focus more on nature and wildlife, rather than the big-name ports.
The advantage of small ships is that they're more nimble than big ships, putting destinations like the Alaska Native village of Kake, the Wrangell Narrows and other tiny inlets within reach.
These ships can also more easily follow aquatic wildlife (within legal limits). Many expedition cruises to Alaska also employ Zodiac rafts and offer kayaks and hiking trips to bring passengers closer to glaciers and creatures.
A handful of cruise lines -- mostly small ship and luxury lines like Cunard, Seabourn and Windstar -- offer Alaska cruises ranging from nine to 14 days in length (generally departing from Vancouver). Mainstream lines have also started offering longer cruises to Alaska from southern West Coast ports like San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Major lines offer sailings in May and September between Asia and North America as lines shift their itineraries. These transpacific journeys frequently include a full Alaska sailing plus stops in Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula and Japan after the ocean crossing.
Ketchikan, Alaska: Scenic tours of fjords and amazing fresh seafood are all close at hand in the historic Alaskan town of Ketchikan. Check out Creek Street, which was once the city's red-light district, and is now lined with funky stores and restaurants overlooking canoeists and leaping salmon.
Ketchikan is also the gateway for Tongass National Forest, Misty Fjords and Totem Bight State Park. But 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: Expecting to see glaciers on your Alaska cruise? Well, you're in luck in Juneau. You can kayak, canoe or hike to Mendenhall Glacier from town on your own or as part of guided tours.
If you'd like an assist with your outdoor adventures, the Mount Roberts Tramway climbs 1,800 feet above Juneau for gorgeous views. Those who'd prefer man-made experiences can check out honky-tonk at the raucous Red Dog Saloon or dip into any of the microbreweries and distilleries all over town.
Skagway, Alaska: Skagway is a gold rush town where 19th-century history is everywhere. Today, a train ride along the narrow-gauge White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad follows the staggeringly photogenic pass that gold-seekers took on foot to the Canadian border.
In Skagway proper, take a gold rush history tour or spend your own gold at the various local shops, breweries and restaurants.
Sitka, Alaska: Sitka is a unique cultural melting pot with descendants of Alaska Native peoples and Russians both leaving their mark on town. Remnants of Alaska's Russian heritage include St. Michael's Cathedral and the Russian Bishop's House while the Tlingit community's clan house and totem-filled park are also in town.
The Alaska Raptor Center is another highlight and heals injured birds of prey like eagles.
Tracey Arm Fjord, Sawyer Glacier, Glacier Bar and College Fjord: A key part of any Alaska itinerary is the scenery itself, and there's plenty of it on most itineraries outside of ports of call. In addition to the Inside Passage, ships may visit Tracy Arm/Sawyer Glacier, Hubbard Glacier, Glacier Bay or College Fjord, all of which are perfect spots for those envy-inducing pictures you'll be taking.
Want to get an even bigger taste of Alaska's natural wonders? Consider a cruise tour. One-way Gulf of Alaska itineraries are the best option for 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) or Talkeetna (best place for Denali views and cool eats). Cruise tour land packages are also available to spots like Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula and Canada's Yukon Territory.
While you might not be sunning yourself to a stunning shade of bronze on an Alaska cruise, you and everyone on board will want to take in the scenery. That makes having your own balcony a prime piece of real estate, especially near Denali National Park, portions of the Inside Passage or Tracy Arm Fjord. This is particularly true on big ships.
Temperatures in Alaska can change considerably from one destination to the next. That includes warm days, where even being near a glacier or a passing cloud (or socked-in rain) can make things chilly.
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 combating the Alaskan weather.
Seas in Alaska are choppiest on Gulf of Alaska itineraries where waters are open. Alternatively, Inside Passage cruises in Alaska tend to be calmer as the waters are protected.
If you're intent on a Gulf of Alaska cruise, book a northbound route 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 that spend days cruising in the open ocean.
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.
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.
Check out our list of the [10 Must-Pack Items for an Alaska Cruise]((/articles.cfm?ID=1255) for more information on packing necessities on your Alaskan cruise.
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, particularly for families with children.
Some ships will have naturalists onboard, particularly in Glacier Bay. Conditions can sometimes prevent ships from reaching the glaciers, particularly in Tracy Arm Fjord.
That's especially true of large ships, so consider a small ship for cruising to Alaska, like UnCruise or Silversea, if those glaciers are high on your must-see list.