Alaska is a culturally diverse and interesting destination with a scenic coastline that draws cruise ships. The various ports, such as Ketchikan, Skagway, Petersburg, and Sitka, each offer a unique view of life in the most northerly state of the US. Though Alaska has a rich history and a frontier feel, the primary attraction for cruise travelers is its wildlife and scenery. From towering mountains and massive glaciers to peaceful and sometimes tumultuous waterways, acres of rainforest, and Arctic tundra, these wonders of nature attract cruise passengers. On a cruise to Alaska, you may spot whales, eagles, bears, moose, seals, and seabirds from the ship, on shore, or on a shore tour.
The downside of Alaska is the weather. When you book an Alaska cruise, you are trading a week of warm weather at home for the chance of grey or rainy days and chilly midsummer temperatures. Helicopter and float plane tours are often canceled due to weather, and no tour can guarantee wildlife sightings. However, if you are willing to be flexible and take your chances, a visit to Alaska will not disappoint.
Best Time for Alaska Cruises
The Alaska cruise season runs from late April to September, with June through August as the peak season. However, the best time to go is subjective. June, July, and August are the warmest months, but July and August can be quite rainy. The further into the summer you go, the better your chances of seeing wildlife. May and September have fewer crowds and cheaper fares, but weather conditions are more unpredictable. May is a dry sailing season month in the Inside Passage region, but there may be snow on the ground. September offers the best opportunity to see the Northern Lights and great end-of-season shopping deals, but the Gulf of Alaska is the choppiest during this time and may not be suitable for travelers who get seasick.
Alaska Cruise Lines
Princess and Holland America are the two largest Alaska cruise operators, but nearly every major cruise line has at least one ship in Alaska each summer, including Celebrity, Carnival, Disney, Norwegian, and Royal Caribbean. Luxury and expedition cruises are also available.
Alaska Cruise Itineraries
There are several basic itineraries in Alaska, including the Inside Passage, the Gulf of Alaska, longer sailings, and expedition cruises. The Inside Passage is a sheltered waterway between Pacific Coast islands that is perfect for scenic cruising. The Gulf itinerary is typically a one-way cruise between Seattle/Vancouver and Seward/Whittier, offering access to Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula, and regional glaciers. Longer sailings are also available, as are expeditions that focus more on nature and wildlife. Small ships can take you to places that big ships can’t, such as the Alaska Native village of Kake and Wrangell Narrows.
Alaska Cruise Port Highlights
- Ketchikan, Alaska: The most notable attraction is Creek Street, which was once the city’s red-light district. Nowadays, it is home to various quirky shops and restaurants overlooking the water, where canoeists and salmon can be seen. Ketchikan is also the starting point for scenic tours of the Tongass National Forest and Misty Fjords, as well as fishing trips. Visitors should be aware that it is one of the rainiest cities in the United States.
- Juneau, Alaska: As Alaska’s capital, Juneau offers visitors the opportunity to kayak, canoe, or hike near the Mendenhall Glacier. The Mount Roberts Tramway offers breathtaking views and hiking trails. For a lively experience, the Red Dog Saloon offers honky-tonk music and hearty food. In recent years, the local culinary scene has expanded, and there are some excellent breweries to try as well.
- Skagway, Alaska: Skagway was established in the late 19th century as the nearest entry point for prospectors seeking gold in the Klondike. A train ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, which follows the same route that the gold-seekers took, is a must-do activity for cruise passengers. In town, visitors can take a Gold Rush history tour or shop at various stores.
- Sitka, Alaska: Sitka is home to a diverse mix of Alaska Native and Russian-descendant populations, making for a unique cultural blend. There are many remnants of Alaska’s Russian and Tlingit heritage in Sitka, including St. Michael’s Cathedral, the Russian Bishop’s House, and a clan house and totem-filled park. Visitors can also check out the Alaska Raptor Center, a nonprofit facility that cares for injured birds of prey, particularly American eagles.
- Scenic cruising: A crucial part of any Alaska cruise is scenic cruising. In addition to the Inside Passage, ships may stop at Tracy Arm/Sawyer Glacier, Hubbard Glacier, Glacier Bay, or College Fjord. To fully appreciate the glaciers, aquatic life, birds, and stunning scenery, visitors should bring warm outerwear and binoculars. Some ships may even have naturalists on board to provide commentary.
Alaska Cruise Tips
- Consider taking a cruise tour – Many of Alaska’s attractions can only be experienced by touring ashore. One-way Gulf itineraries are great for touring, and you can book a cruise tour that combines a cruise with a land tour.
- Be aware of seasickness – The open waters of the Gulf of Alaska can be choppy, so if you are prone to seasickness, consider booking a northbound cruise or avoiding roundtrip cruises that spend several days in the open ocean.
- Expect unpredictable weather – Temperatures can vary significantly from place to place, so it’s best to dress in layers. Pack a bathing suit and a warm fleece jacket, and be prepared for bugs.
- Avoid peak season crowds – Consider sailing during the shoulder season (late April, May, or September) or choosing a midweek embarkation to avoid large crowds.