How to Choose the Best Alaska Cruise for You

You might get this view as your ship enters Juneau, Alaska

How do you choose the best Alaska cruise? Alan and I are often asked that question. Our answer? It depends—on the itinerary, when you would like to cruise in Alaska, which cruise line you prefer and the type of Alaska cruise experience you’re seeking.

Before I offer my boomer travel advice for cruising to Alaska, let’s set a few parameters. Alan and I prefer small ship luxury cruises. And given the choice, we’ll pick Alaska itineraries with off-the-beaten-path ports that provide the opportunity for active Alaska cruise excursions over well-known, but crowded, Alaskan ports. But if this is your first cruise to Alaska, don’t miss the main ports. You need to experience them at least once in your life.

A whale flips his tail on an Alaska cruise. It's just one of the sights you'll see cruising to Alaska.

A whale flicks his tail on an Alaska cruise

Which is the best Alaska cruise route?

The hallmark of a good real estate deal is location, location, location. The same holds true for where to cruise in Alaska. Itinerary is the number one consideration when we’re booking a cruise.

Most cruise lines visit Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway on a round-trip journey along the Inside Passage that originates in Vancouver or Seattle. This is a good option of you’re prone to seasickness as the waters of the Inside Passage are mostly calm.

Gulf of Alaska cruises usually run from Vancouver to Seward/Whittier or vice versa. Ports typically include Sitka, Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan with a day in the Inside Passage. And because the ship leaves the protection of the Inside Passage, you may experience rougher seas—or not. If you do, here’s my favorite sea sickness remedy.

Alan and I give the nod to Alaska cruises that include Sitka, easy to explore on your own, and Kodiak Island, we went hiking, two of our favorite Alaska ports. Most of the small, luxury cruise lines offer Sitka as a port as well as Holland American and Celebrity. Cruises that stop at Kodiak Island are harder to find.

Hubbard Glacier close up

Yes, you, too, can take a photograph like this. And you don’t need a lot of fancy lenses. Use this camera. I do!

All Alaska cruises offer scenic cruising in addition to the Inside Passage. Look for itineraries that include a day in Glacier Bay National Park (not all cruise lines have access). Visiting Hubbard Glacier, College Fjord or Tracy Arm are other scenic cruise day options worth considering.

If you’ve cruised in Alaska before, or if you prefer waking up to the quiet of a bay in the Inside Passage, UnCruise offers a different take on an Alaska cruise vacation with choices that fit both moderate and luxury travel budgets. Alan and I enjoyed an UnCruise small ship adventure focused on outdoor activities while exploring the bays, fjords and glaciers of Alaska. You won’t find many ports on UnCruise itineraries with the exception of a few smaller ones like Wrangell and Petersburg. The adventure cruise line uses Juneau and Ketchikan as embarkation and disembarkation ports.

Another option is to book a long cruise that crosses the Pacific beginning or ending in Vancouver and ending or beginning in Hong Kong, Singapore or other Asian ports. These itineraries offer the best of Alaska cruising combined with off-the-beaten-path ports like Dutch Harbor and beyond into Asia.

When Alan and I cruised from Vancouver to Singapore on Regent Seven Seas Mariner on a fall crossing, the itinerary included typical Alaskan ports combined with Kodiak Island, Sitka and Dutch Harbor. In spring 2018, we’re cruising on Seabourn Sojourn from Hong Kong to Alaska where we’ll not only visit Kodiak Island again, but will finally explore the waters of Glacier Bay National Park.

I’m seeing Victoria, Vancouver Island; Prince Rupert, British Columbia; and Icy Straight (only one cruise ship per day allowed to dock here), Alaska, appearing in some cruise itineraries. Keep this in mind if you’re looking for new-to-you experiences on a second, third or even fourth cruise in Alaska.

Cruising on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry is an off-the-beaten-path option for best Alaska cruise.

Cruising on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry may not be fancy but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

And if you’re really looking for off-the-beaten-path Alaska cruising—and don’t mind bare bones accommodations—the Alaska Marine Highway ferry offers a plethora of routes. We combined a 5-night cruise from Haines, Alaska, to Bellingham, Washington, with an Alaska Highway road trip. But you don’t have to be driving to enjoy this journey.

When is the best time to cruise in Alaska?

We prefer cruising to Alaska in the fall toward the end of the season. You’ll escape insects and crowds on an autumn visit, but shoppers may find that boutiques and gift stores are either closed already or offering limited merchandise. Spring is another good time for an Alaskan cruise, with the promise of drier weather and fewer crowds (some stores won’t open until Memorial Day). In both fall or spring—known as shoulder season—discounted fares are a possibility.

Of course if you’re traveling on a multi-generation Alaskan cruise, with work and school schedules to accommodate, summer may be your only choice. This is when an UnCruise adventure makes especially good sense for those traveling with tweens and above, since the line skips typical ports in favor of showing you wild Alaska. But, no matter which line you choose, expect rainier weather, especially in July and August.

Which cruise line is best for Alaska?

Here’s another loaded question because the best Alaska cruise ship depends on size preferences, budget and experiences offered. Alan and I appreciate the all-inclusiveness of small luxury cruise lines like Silversea or Seabourn—Regent and Crystal also fall into this category. Since everything, except excursions and spa services, are included in the price, we know exactly how the cruise will fit our budget. And, because the ships are smaller, lesser-known ports are sometimes included, not to mention exemplary personal service that leads to some unique shipboard and shore side experiences.

But not everyone can afford that luxury. If you’re cruising on mainstream ships with a-la-carte prices, be sure to predict costs by totaling up tips, anticipated drink purchases and other charges before deciding on a cruise. You may be surprised that the small ship luxury cruise you thought you couldn’t afford moves to the top of the list.

If you’re cruising with kids and/or grandkids, a luxury cruise is definitely going to strain the budget. Based upon recommendations from friends and family, Princess or Holland America are good choices for multigenerational Alaska cruises. Disney has also started sailing in Alaska, which makes an excellent option if you’re cruising with very small children. Of course active teens will appreciate the adventure of an UnCruise experience.

When it comes to an Alaska adventure or expedition cruise, Alan and I choose UnCruise or a Silversea expedition ship. Walking on glaciers, stand-up paddle-boarding, or kayaking in Misty Fjords introduces you to the wild, unspoiled Alaska of your dreams.

Taking photos is part of the fun on a cruise to Alaska. Discover the best Alaska cruises with our tips.

Taking photos is part of the fun on an Alaska cruise.

More tips to make your Alaska cruise the best

The best Alaska cruise is the one that meets your needs. But keep these tips in mind when making up your mind about where and when to cruise in Alaska:

  • Popular ports will be crowded with other cruise tourists. At CruiseTimeTables, check which ships will be in port so that you can plan accordingly.
  • With prior research, ports like Sitka and Ketchikan are easy to explore independently.
  • Adventure experiences are best booked beforehand either with your cruise line or through a reliable independent company. Popular experiences book up early.
  • In crowded ports like Ketchikan, opt for an excursion that takes you out of town away from the crowds. We enjoy the floatplane tours over Misty Fjords.
  • Large ships offer adventure excursions, too, and are a good way to escape a port crammed with other cruisers.
  • Alaska cruises are packed with ports and experiences. You may find that there’s little time for shipboard life or late-night fun (at least if you’re boomers like us, who need their sleep for all that daytime adventure).
  • As much as I enjoy formal nights, Alaska cruises are too filled with action to worry about formal gowns or tuxedos. Women will find that black pants combined with a glitzy top and sparkly shoes will more than fit the dress code. A sport coat, tie optional, and nice khaki pants will work for men. And if you’re on an adventure cruise, forget all about formal dressing.
  • Pre or post Alaska land adventures are well worth adding to the itinerary.

Like everything in life, advice for the best Alaska cruise changes with time. So, if you’re an avid Alaskan cruiser, bookmark this page for updates. And sorry if I haven’t mentioned your favorite Alaska cruise line as I only write from first-hand experience. However the travel tips still apply no matter which Alaska cruise you choose.

Planning a trip to Alaska? Start with at our Alaska Travel Planning page.

Do you have tips to add to our best Alaska cruise advice?Come join the conversation at the My Itchy Travel Feet page on Facebook. Or send us an email with your thoughts.

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