Holland America Line and Princess Cruises have been sailing Alaska longer than any other cruise lines and are the undisputed mass market leaders in this market. Both claim deep roots in the region, have contacts with local companies other cruise lines don't have and operate their own accommodations throughout the state to best serve their cruise tour passengers. They also have the most ships in the region of any of the major cruise lines.
Holland America Line first began sailing Alaska in the 1960s and launched its land operations there in 1970 when it partially acquired local tour company Westours, which had been operating in the state since the 1940s. Princess Cruises' first Alaska season was in 1969, and the line began running its land-based tours in 1972.
To help you decide which cruise line is the best choice for your Alaska cruise or cruise-and-land tour, Cruise Critic has compared Holland America versus Princess in regard to the Alaska-specific onboard experience, cruise itineraries along with prices, cruise tour itineraries and prices.
All Alaska cruises offer beautiful scenery, including stunning and ever more frequently calving glaciers, as well as a chance to see wildlife and learn about native cultures. Additionally, Holland America Line and Princess both try to put the state's history into context and bring Alaska to life for passengers through a variety of onboard activities.
When possible on Holland America's Alaska cruises, passengers benefit from the presence of an onboard naturalist, who gives themed talks throughout the sailing as part of the line’s Explorations Central programming. Videos, including some from BBC Earth, are available on stateroom TVs, adding to the immersive experience. Visits to Glacier Bay include a park ranger and locals onboard the ship for the duration. At the onboard Culinary Arts Center, cruisers can explore the flavors of Alaska in cooking classes. Alaskan cuisine served onboard includes salmon and crab, as well as Alaskan beers and wines.
Princess raises the bar on Alaska immersion, however, through its multipronged North to Alaska program. Like on Holland America sailings, when possible, Princess Alaska ships feature a naturalist who gives lectures throughout the cruise and a guest park ranger during Glacier Bay sailings.
Cruises may also have Alaska notables like an Iditarod runner or, on special occasions, a cast member from Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch" TV show. (Princess Cruises has a partnership with the Discovery Channel called Discovery at Sea.) Alaskan cuisine includes king crab, salmon and halibut burgers. The onboard steakhouse adds a North to Alaska tasting menu to its offerings with a variety of Alaskan specialties.
For kids, Princess offers Alaska-themed activities like learning to become a junior park ranger while getting to know the 49th state's national parks and wildlife. Other activities might include panning for gold and playing games based on Alaska-centric TV shows like the "Deadliest Catch."
Alaska is so vast, cruisers have several options when it comes to cruise ports, as well as inland choices on the land portion of a cruise tour.
When looking at Holland America versus Princess' Alaska cruises, you will find both companies offer a handful of round-trip seven-night itineraries, departing from Seattle or Vancouver, British Columbia. Both also offer seven-night one-way routes between Vancouver and Whittier, which is within a few hours' driving distance to Anchorage (the closest airport). Transfers are available or you can take train rides that are offered by both lines between the airport and the port. Whittier is primarily used to get on and off the ship, and the train for the cruise tours stops right there.
Most Alaska cruises visit Juneau and/or Ketchikan, and many go to Skagway. If you want to see Glacier Bay, check carefully, as not all sailings go there (some substitute Hubbard Glacier, College Fjord or Endicott Arm/Dawes Glacier; while all are gorgeous, only Glacier Bay is a national park).
Ports that pop up on various sailings include Sitka and Icy Strait Point. If you leave from Seattle, you will stop in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, to fulfill U.S. government requirements. Longer voyages might include a stop in Haines, Valdez, Kodiak, Wrangell, or Prince Rupert.
Like Holland America, Princess offers 7-night one-way cruises between Vancouver and Whittier, all of which include Glacier Bay National Park. Round-trip cruises come in a variety of lengths, ranging from four-night samplers to eleven days. These round-trip cruises originate from Seattle and Vancouver, as well as 10- and 11-night sailings from San Francisco. Some round-trip cruises include the Glacier Bay National Park, but many do not.
Princess is also the only one of the two cruise lines to offer an open-jaw itinerary that starts in Vancouver but ends in Seattle (and vice versa). This itinerary includes stops in Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Victoria, as well as scenic cruising in Endicott Arm.
The array of Holland America itineraries can make you crazy trying to decide which one you want to do. For most people, the big deal is whether the cruise visits Glacier Bay National Park, which is an 8-hour visit, with the ship slowly cruising through the waters of the park. A park ranger and locals will be onboard for the duration.
Here are the basics to get to Glacier Bay on HAL: All Holland America one-way 7-night cruises include Glacier Bay. Some round-trip cruises (7-night and 14-night) include the national park, but some do not. The line’s 28-night round trip includes Glacier Bay.
Pricing for round trip seven-night cruises, either from Seattle or Vancouver, are similar for the two lines. Peak-season prices start at a little over $100 per person per night for inside cabins and between $200 and $300 per person per night for balcony rooms. Small suites begin at $300 per person per night and go up from there.
Both lines have lower prices in May and September, but Princess typically drops shoulder season fares more drastically than HAL. And let’s not forget the short Alaska Sampler cruises offered only at the beginning and end of the season by Princess. They can be real bargains. Princess offers Plus and Premier pricing options, which include Wi-Fi, drinks, and gratuities, among other things. Holland America often runs pre-season specials to add those things to their Alaska fares.
Both Holland America Line and Princess Cruises offer similar pre- or post-cruise land packages, called cruise tours. Holland America's cruise tours can run anywhere from 9 to 18 nights, while Princess' tours are 10 to 15 nights long. Land transportation for both lines is a combination of trains and motorcoaches.
Most Holland America cruise tours consist of a 7-night one-way cruise (all if which include Glacier Bay), with land tours of various lengths either before or after the cruise. However, there are a few tours that consist of shorter three-or four-night cruises combined with five or six nights of land travel. These may or may not include Glacier Bay, so check closely if the national park is tops on your list.
HAL’s cruise tours all include some organized tours, specifically, a wilderness tundra tour into Denali National Park. Additional excursions are always available during the land portion of the cruise tour. Meals are on your own.
Princess cruise tours are divided into four categories with varying levels of inclusions of scheduled activities. Cruise tours labeled as “On Your Own” are the least inclusive and are primarily only transportation and accommodations. The most inclusive Princess cruise tours are those designated as Connoisseur Escorted, which include activities as well as some meals. Two additional choices include some scheduled activities along with some free time, but no meals.
One big distinction between the two lines’ cruise tours are the off-the-beaten-path destinations visited on select itineraries. Holland America runs tours that include visits to Dawson City and Whitehorse, both in Canada's Yukon territory. Princess takes passengers to the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge, a remote outpost at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula near the Gulf of Alaska, and Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge, located along the edge of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Southeastern Alaska.
The lines also differ in the locations and types of accommodations used on land tours. Holland America sticks primarily to cities, and overnight stays are in Westmark-branded hotels in Anchorage, Dawson City, Fairbanks and Skagway. Near Denali National Park, Holland America passengers stay at the Westmark McKinley Chalet Resort, which is less than 3 miles from the entrance to the park. Westmark Hotels are owned by Holland America Line.
Princess' accommodations (except in Anchorage) have a slightly more rustic feel. All overnight stays are in lodges (think modern resort in an oversized log cabin): the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge in Talkeetna, the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge, the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge, the Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge and the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, which is less than a mile from the entrance to the national park.
Holland America's cruise tours are slightly more expensive than cruise tours offered by Princess. Both have prices that start as low as $100 per person per day when you choose an inside cabin for the cruise portion. Balcony cabins bump the per day price up to $150 per person during shoulder seasons and as high as $300 per person per day during peak seasons.
Princess’ On Your Own options help keep prices down for those who don’t need a lot of handholding. The cost difference between that option and the fully escorted choice can be hundreds of dollars per person.
The current audience for Holland America ships is a slightly older demographic, though families are a bit more common on Alaska sailings than the line's other itineraries. People looking for more programming and entertainment should choose one of the line's newer ships, which have Music Walk venues like Billboard Onboard (think Duelling Pianos) and the amazing B.B. King's Blues Club. Holland America does have a robust children's program for families, so the line may be best suited for multigenerational groups, as well as seniors traveling alone, with partners or with a group of friends.
With a younger demographic and an active onboard atmosphere, Princess Cruises may be better suited for couples under the age of 65, as well as active families. Those with young kids will find a better onboard experience for their little ones with the North to Alaska kids programming, though it is worth noting that Holland America's newer, larger vessels are attracting a somewhat younger audience than in the past.