Cruises to Alaska
The 49th State, the largest in the U.S., is perfect for cruisers, with numerous opportunities to appreciate its vast natural beauty. Sail along the Inside Passage to visit the immense ice formations of Glacier Bay and Icy Strait, as well popular ports such as Ketchikan, Skagway and Juneau, the only U.S. state capital that’s not accessible by car. Or travel further north to the Kenai Peninsula and nearby Anchorage, a perfect jumping off point for cruisetours to Denali, Fairbanks and Canada’s Yukon. Maybe you’ll see a bear!
Alaska Cruise Tips
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 of Tlingit (pronounced KLING-kit) Indian culture, while Skagway is Gold Rush-era oriented. Petersburg’s theme is Norwegian, Valdez’s is the Alaska Pipeline (it’s the southernmost terminal), and Sitka’s is Russian.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 miles 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 is the weather. By booking an Alaska cruise, travelers are trading a week of hot weather at home for the possibility of grey or rainy days and chilly midsummer temps. Helicopter and floatplane tours are regularly canceled for 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 runs from May to September, with high season typically June through August. However, the best time to go is rather subjective.
June, July and August are the warmest months (highs: 50’s – 70’s), but they also 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 the best bets if you want to go fishing as a shore excursion.
May and September offer cheaper cruise fares and fewer crowds; however, 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 months in the Inside Passage region, but you may find snow on the ground — great for scenic photos, less ideal for hiking. September offers the best possibility for catching 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, Denali National Park has been known to close in September due to snow.
Alaska Cruise Lines
The two biggest Alaska operators are Princess and Holland America, but nearly every major cruise line has at least one ship in Alaska each summer. You can also choose from luxury cruises on smaller ships and expedition cruises that focus more on up-close-and-personal nature and wildlife encounters.
Alaska Cruise Itineraries
You can choose from a few basic itineraries in Alaska.
Inside Passage: These seven-night voyages sail roundtrip, typically from Seattle or Vancouver, making air travel arrangements easier and usually less expensive than they are for one-way cruises. The Inside Passage is a sheltered waterway between Pacific Coast islands that lends itself to calm, scenic cruising. The main ports of call are Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan, but some ships stop in Icy Strait, Haines or Petersburg; sailings from Seattle must call on a Canadian port (typically Victoria or Vancouver).
Gulf of Alaska: The gulf itinerary is a seven-night one-way cruise between Seattle/Vancouver and Seward/Whittier, the gateway ports for Anchorage. 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. To get between Anchorage ports — located on the stretch of water north of Glacier Bay and the south side of the Kenai Peninsula — and either Seattle or Vancouver, it is necessary to pass along the Inside Passage coastal strip. A typical Gulf of Alaska cruise will probably include the likes of Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway, as well as Sitka.
Longer Sailings: A few lines offer 10- to 14-night Alaska cruises, often roundtrip or one-way from San Francisco. Holland America offers a two-week trip that actually docks in Anchorage, with options for long day trips into the interior.
Expedition Cruises: Cruisers can opt for a different kind of trip on the smaller expedition vessels of lines like Un-Cruise Adventures 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 Indian village of Kake, Wrangell Narrows and a dozen 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.
Alaska Cruise Port Highlights
Ketchikan, Alaska. Creek Street is the main attraction there. 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 and Misty Fjords, as well as fishing trips. Be prepared: It’s one of the rainiest cities in the U.S.
Juneau, Alaska. In Alaska’s capital, you can kayak, canoe or hike close to the 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.
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, the narrow-gauge White Pass & Yukon railroad is a must for cruise passengers. It follows 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 shops.
Sitka, Alaska. This was once home to the Tlingit Indians, before the Russians moved in. Many remnants of Alaska’s Russian (St. Michael’s Cathedral, the Russian Bishop’s House) and Tlingit (Clan House, Totem Park) past 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, Hubbard Glacier, Glacier Bay, College Fjord or Sawyer Glacier. 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.
- Learn More About Alaska Cruises.
Alaska Cruise Tips
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. You can tour on your own or book a cruisetour that combines a cruise and a three- to seven-night land tour. Popular destinations include Denali National Park (for wildlife viewing), Talkeetna (best place for Mt. McKinley views) and Fairbanks (Alaska pipeline). Cruisetour land packages are also available to the Kenai Peninsula, Arctic Alaska and Canada’s Yukon Territory.
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 roundtrip cruises from Seattle that spend two days cruising in the open ocean.
- Read More on The World’s Roughest Waters for Cruising.
Weather is unpredictable in Alaska. Even on warm days, it can be quite cool cruising by a massive glacier. The trick is to dress in layers of clothing so that you can peel off 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. Be prepared for bugs, too.
To minimize joining the masses during high season, select a ship that sails an off-schedule (midweek departures are often a good indicator) itinerary.
10 Pictures of Alaska Cruise Wildlife
Editor’s Note: You may notice that we don’t mention one of Alaska’s best-known animals, the moose, in the following slideshow; that’s because you’re unlikely to see one in the Inside Passage. If moose are high on your must-see list, consider adding a Denali land excursion to the beginning or end of your trip.
Imagine a cruise to Alaska, and many things probably spring to mind: massive blue glaciers, colorful Native American totem poles, snow-capped mountains shrouded with mist. But for many cruisers, there’s one Alaskan sight that rules them all: wildlife.
Armed with a warm coat, waterproof rubber boots and our trusty binoculars, my travel partner and I set out to track down as many species as possible during a weeklong cruise aboard Lindblad Expeditions‘ National Geographic Sea Lion. This 62-passenger expedition ship is built for up-close encounters of the animal kind, with four Zodiac landing craft that take passengers along uninhabited shores where bears forage and bald eagles build their nests. The itinerary includes a cruise through Glacier Bay National Park, where protected islands shelter nesting sea birds, and an anchorage in the nutrient-rich waters of the Inian Islands, where at one point there was so much wildlife around us that we weren’t sure where to look: at the bald eagles circling overhead? At the sea lions grunting on the shore? At the sea otter swimming past with its shellfish lunch on its belly?
Alaska expedition cruises offer another key benefit for wildlife-watchers: a staff of naturalists that lead interpretive nature walks, help cruisers spot animals from the observation deck and give evening talks about the local fauna. The naturalists allow you to go from merely seeing wildlife to learning about it.
Prefer big-ship cruising? Bring your binoculars on any Alaska cruise, no matter how big the ship, and you can spot wildlife from the outer decks or your balcony. Many shore excursions take passengers to wilderness areas, as well, in the hopes of spotting whales, bears and other northerly creatures — even if you’re not on an expedition sailing.
Start the slideshow above for a checklist of 10 amazing animals to seek out on an Alaska cruise.
–By Sarah Schlichter, Senior Editor of Independent Traveler
You’ve got to have strong binoculars (or strong legs!) to get a close look at these shaggy beasts, which spend their lives precariously perched on high, craggy cliffsides. The lone mountain goat sighting on our Lindblad cruise came as we made our way up Glacier Bay, where an eagle-eyed naturalist from the expedition staff pointed out a couple of small white dots moving across a gray cliff. Through binoculars and the ship’s viewing telescope, we could make out a nanny goat and her kid foraging on the sparse grass. Besides Glacier Bay National Park, mountain goats can be found throughout Southeast Alaska, including the Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway areas.
Photo: IPK Photography/Shutterstock
If all you can see sticking out of the water is an inquisitive, whiskered face at one end and furry brown feet at the other, you’ve probably spotted a sea otter. These cuddly-looking sea mammals swim mostly on their backs, using rocks to break open shellfish on their bellies. We saw about a dozen otters near the Inian Islands, including a mother cradling a baby on her chest. It’s fun to watch the otters tumbling in the water and using their paws to groom themselves, which they do frequently — they’ve got no blubber, so they rely on their luxuriantly thick fur to keep them warm. You can spot otters in shallow coastal waters throughout Southeast Alaska.
Photo: William Gottobrio
With their distinctive colorful beaks, puffins are one of the most easily recognizable sea birds in Southeast Alaska. As sea birds, they are much more comfortable in the water than in the air; we had to laugh as we watched the struggle of one bird as it attempted to take flight from the water, powered by a frenzied flapping of wings and churning of feet. Avid birdwatchers should bring their binoculars to the protected islands of Glacier Bay National Park, which provide a summer nesting ground for both tufted and horned puffins, along with other local seabirds, such as glaucous-winged gulls, pigeon guillemots and oystercatchers.
Photo: Robert Prady/Shutterstock
Steller Sea Lions
As our Zodiac zipped through the waters of the Inian Islands, we heard the colony of Steller sea lions before we saw them. This is not the friendly, high-pitched barking noise we’d heard from California sea lions — imagine a cross between a mooing cow, a grunting pig and a croaking bullfrog, and you’ll come close. Stellers are larger than their Californian cousins, with the massive, barrel-chested males weighing more than a ton. Although their numbers are declining in other parts of the Pacific, they’re plentiful in Southeast Alaska — we saw them not only in the Inians but also on a buoy outside the fishing village of Petersburg and on Glacier Bay’s South Marble Island, a popular gathering point for nearly 500 of these magnificent animals.
Photo: William Gottobrio
The wakeup call came an hour earlier than usual, at 6 a.m. “We’ve been following a pod of orcas for 40 minutes,” announced our expedition leader. Those of us willing to drag ourselves out of bed at that hour were rewarded with the only orca sighting of the trip: about half a dozen of the black and white creatures surfaced so close to the ship that we didn’t even need binoculars. Despite their name, orcas technically aren’t whales — they’re the largest members of the dolphin and porpoise family. They roam in pods throughout the cool, nutrient-rich waters of Southeast Alaska, but are less prevalent — and thus harder to spot — than the more common humpback whales.
The most common response to harbor seals spotted on our expedition was a resounding “Aww!” Our early-June sailing fell during the spring pupping season, so we saw quite a few mama seals lying on the ice beside their babies, like so many fat brown sausages. Harbor seals swim into glacial fjords like Tracy Arm and Glacier Bay each year for pupping, using the icebergs that break off of the receding glaciers to give birth. Though cruise ships must keep their distance to avoid disturbing the new pups, we enjoyed a few close encounters with swimming adult seals, who popped their heads out of the water to cast a curious glance at our Zodiac, as though wondering who these strange two-legged creatures might be.
Photo: William Gottobrio
After a week in Alaska, you might wonder why bald eagles were ever on the U.S. endangered species list. There are an estimated 30,000 bald eagles throughout the state, and we spotted at least one every day — soaring overhead, swooping down to pluck a fish from the water or surveying their surroundings from large nests in trees along the shoreline. Though the bald eagle population in Alaska is much healthier than it used to be, these large birds still face threats, mostly from humans. The Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka, which sees many cruise ship visitors, treats eagles and other birds who have been hit by cars, flown into power lines or been otherwise injured.
Photo: William Gottobrio
Our June Alaska expedition was too early in the season for us to see any salmon — well, except the ones that appeared on our plates at dinnertime! Schedule your cruise sometime between late July and early September for the best chance to see salmon feverishly launching themselves upstream (as well as the brown bears and bald eagles that feed on them). Salmon are an important food source for bears in particular, as they try to fatten themselves in preparation for their winter hibernation. Of the five types of Pacific salmon, the ones most commonly seen spawning in Southeast Alaska are the pinks (humpback) and reds (sockeye).
There are two types of bears native to Southeast Alaska: brown and black. (Or three, if you count the all-too-common “rock bear” — that large round lump on the shoreline that has you gesturing excitedly until you peep through your binoculars and realize that, alas, it’s just another boulder.) While bears are a coveted sighting on any Alaska cruise, they’re most safely spotted from the water or a protected viewing area in a preserve. On our expedition, we always hiked in “bear-safe” groups of five or more people and made plenty of noise when entering the forest so we didn’t stumble accidentally upon any furry predators. Bears are commonly spotted along the shoreline throughout the spring and summer, but to watch them feed at salmon streams, time your cruise for later in the season (late July through early September).
Photo: Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock
“Look, there’s a blow!” Out streamed the passengers onto the observation deck. Up went the binoculars. Click-click-click went the cameras. We spent many hours of our cruise watching avidly for those trademark humps to breach the surface, followed by the flukes sliding gracefully back into the sea. Of all the “charismatic mega-fauna” we saw in Alaska (to use our expedition leader’s term), the humpback whale was perhaps the most anticipated — and, happily, one of the easiest to spot. More than 500 humpbacks spend their summers in the waters of the Inside Passage, bulking up before their winter migration to the tropics (where food is scarce). When watching humpback whales, pay attention to the pattern on each fluke — like fingerprints on humans, each one is distinct.
Photo: Sarah Schlichter