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8 Great Reasons To Cruise To Alaska In May

Alaska has a shortened cruise season from late April to early October. These are the only months’ cruise ships can access bays with glaciers without ice blocking their passage. While late June to mid-August attracts the most visitors for the warmer weather, consider an Alaska cruise in May.

When looking for the best time to cruise to Alaska, many passengers avoid the shoulder season. They think it’s too cold or imagine there’s still snow on the ground in Alaska. Residents of Florida or Texas,  have good reason to believe it’s cold.

However, I prefer to travel in May, because I experience the awakening of the region. With the snow melting, the rainforests come alive, the wildlife welcomes new offspring, and the great migration begins.

Close up of Hubbard Glacier in May, during an Alaska cruise

Is May Too Early For Alaska Cruise?

There’s a misconception that the best time to cruise Alaska is summer. The Caribbean and Hawaii bring travelers for beach time, snorkeling, and lazy days in the sun.

Alaska, however, brings globetrotters to experience its vast undeveloped landscapes with stunning tidewater glaciers. Those traveling to Alaska in May, won’t experience the high daytime temperatures, but the chance of rain along the coastal areas is minimal.

Northern Alaska experiences the coldest temperatures. Since most people visit by road or cruise ship, they won’t hit the coldest spot much further south.

Princess Cruises and Holland America have the longest relationships with Alaska. By booking a one-way cruise with a land itinerary, guests enjoy the changing of the season in Denali. It’s a good time for wildlife viewing, and a chance to see the towering Denali.

At the beginning of May, there’s a chance to see the Northern Lights in Alaska’s interior. While the Aurora borealis isn’t guaranteed, hotels will often provide wake up calls should they appear.

Northern lights in Alaska
Northern lights in Alaska

Not all cruise ships have repositioned for the Alaska season in the early weeks. So, these weeks offer fewer crowds in ports, vessels sailing at lower capacity, and less chance of shore excursions selling out. With fewer cruise passengers boarding ships, the process of embarkation can be much quicker.

And with fewer ships cruising Alaskan waters, guests could find a better itinerary that could include Glacier Bay National Park. In fact, I prefer to cruise in May for this and other reasons.

What Clothes Do I Take To Alaska In May?

Since temperatures can fall to the 30s at night, the ideal cruise wardrobe should include warm and cozy items instead of fashionable and trendy. Although May and June are the driest months, I still recommend waterproof shoes and jackets.

If you can’t cruise in May because children are in school, packing for June may require fewer layers.

Dress warmly in layers and winter accessories. with an itinerary to Glacier BayHubbard Glacier, or one of the fjords. The outside temperature can feel a lot colder than what the thermometer reads.

Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park
Cruising Glacier Bay on a sunny day in May

Ships are air-conditioned, and while that’s refreshing in the Caribbean, I needed to pass on my shorts in favor of long pants. Alaska itineraries are less formal than warmer destinations. So, pack sweats, fleece, wool socks, and base layers, especially those from a warmer area. 

For formal nights, dark jeans and a sweater or nice blouse is acceptable by some cruise lines. Others, like Cunard, have a strict dress code. My husband and I prefer to go all out on “chic nights,” with him wearing a dark suit and I, a long gown or cocktail dress.

Cruises to the Last Frontier offers some unique Alaska tours. So, those booked to go helicopter dog sledding and trekking tours need a thick winter coat.

Coupled with a cozy hat, gloves, and a neck warmer, you’re guaranteed to leave Alaska with some incredible memories. The Alaska weather is unpredictable, so expect the unexpected.

So, here are some great reasons to cruise to Alaska in May.

Looking to book a May Alaska cruise?

Find it on Cruise Direct. It offers many deals on different lines and different departure cities.

1. May Offers The Cheapest Prices

July and August Alaska cruises command the highest prices due to warmer weather and kids being out of school.

However, travelers can score great deals on May itineraries if they’re trying to cruise to Alaska on the cheap.

North American cruises always offer the lowest prices in shoulder season. Alaskan cruises are generally the cheapest in May, followed by September sailings.

However, travelers couldn’t book an Alaskan cruise for almost two years during the pandemic. When the  Vancouver cruise port reopened, it welcomed the HAL Koningsdam as the first cruise ship post-pandemic. 

As the years have past, the demand for Alaska cruises have increased, causing prices to sky-rocket. However, I still regularly find great deals as the season opens.

Reid Falls, Skagway
Reid Falls gushing in May

Recent price drops allow me to cruise for less than I paid ten years ago. Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Royal Caribbean offer the best deals. Although, don’t expect to get bargain pricing with top lines like Disney and Celebrity Cruises.

Cruising before the children are out of school means scoring better pricing on airfare too. It’s no secret that summer holidays command the highest prices when flying.

2. Guests May Get Upgraded

Cruise ships sailing with a lower capacity of passengers, may offer complimentary upgrades to certain guests. Since Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Princess, and Norwegian have “bid for an upgrade” programs, those upgrade are more likely to come from Carnival or Holland America.

Guests invited to bid for an upgrade, could score a great deal on a better category stateroom. I have personally paid an extra USD 50 for a balcony from my interior cabin.

Since shoulder-season sailings don’t fill up fast, guests booking in early spring, have a wider choice of cabins.

3. May Itineraries Are Drier

A May Alaska itinerary sees the least rain, and it’s one of the top reasons I cruise in May. While the temperatures are cooler, I can enjoy Glacier Bay in the driest month without a high risk of a downpour. Spring cruises enjoy 16 hours of daylight in the coastal ports at the start of the cruise season.

Further north, Anchorage and Denali enjoy one hour more. While not as many hours as the summer solstice, 16 hours is still plenty of time to immerse myself in Alaska’s beauty.

LocationTemperatureRainfall
Anchorage47-55 F / 8-13 C0.7 inches / 1.8 cm
Juneau48-55 F / 9-13 C3.5 inches / 8.9 cm
Ketchikan48-55 F / 9-13 C8.7 inches / 22 cm
Sitka47-53 F / 8-11 C4.3 inches / 11 cm
Skagway50-59 F / 10-15 C1.3 inches / 3.3 cm

With average daytime temperatures in the mid-50s, packing lists should include those sweaters and fleece layers to stay warm.

As Alaska experiences its winter thaw, those planning to hike don’t need to worry about mosquitoes. Although, expect muddy trails as the melt progresses.

With long daylight hours and drier weather, mountains will still be frosted with snow. If the weather’s too brisk outside, watch the glaciers from the bow’s observation lounge.

Select a vessel with an indoor pool and hot tubs for those who like to swim. Most modern vessels have thermal spas, ideal for cold days in a fjord.

4. Wildlife Welcome New Offspring

May signals the beginning of spring in southeast Alaska. The bears are immerging from hibernation, and wildlife is welcoming new offspring. It’s also the best month to witness the migration, as herring, humpbacks whales, and birds move to Alaska for the warmer months.

Harbor seals spotted on an iceberg in Alaska in May
Harbor seals on an iceberg

One reason to cruise to Tracy Arm Fjord in May is guests could witness the miracle of life as harbor seals give birth on giant icebergs. Harbor seals give birth on giant icebergs at the terminus of South Sawyer Glacier. With new life come the bald eagles who swoop down to feed on the afterbirth.

Near the mouth of the fords, the hungry orcas wait in anticipation of an easy meal. It’s a brutal beginning for a newborn harbor seal in the north.

The salmon run begins during the last weeks, although not the heavy runs like those later in the summer months. In late May, the chances of seeing moms with their young increase as they forage for food.

Alaska whale watching tours are popular, and they never disappoint. The stronger humpback males arrive in Alaskan waters from Hawaii and Mexico in the early weeks. The females with their young follow later.

Humpback whale tales spotted on a whale watching tour in Juneau
Humpback whales migrate to Alaska in May

We always pack a pair of binoculars as we often see whales from our stateroom balcony. Those booked on a whale watching excursion, will see sea lions and bald eagles too.

I highly recommend the Deadliest Catch Tour, for the best eagle sighting opportunity. Rated as Ketchikan’s number one shore excursion, visitors see a frenzy of eagle feasting on herring.

It’s also a great shore excursion for those in wheelchairs or who can’t walk far because the Aleutian Ballad docks at the Ketchikan port.

5. May Is A Transitional Month

May, like September, brings transition. As the snow packs melt, the picturesque landscapes change from wintery scenes to a rebirth of life. While flowers aren’t in full bloom until June, the rainforests radiate in luscious hues of green.

Denali National Park opens in the third week of May, and its landscapes can greatly differ from those much further south.

A Misty Fjords waterfall
A beautiful Misty Fjords waterfall

Waterfalls are impressive in May, as melting snow creates gushing torrents. Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm Fjords are magnificent in May. I took the Misty Fjords boat excursion in May, which gave closer access to the cascades.

Another must-see waterfall is Nugget Falls in Juneau. A short hike accesses it in the Mendenhall Glacier recreational area.

In spring, wildlife are still donning their winter coats. As the weeks’ progress, bears, sheep, moose, and lynx will be shredding their coats to welcome the warmer weather.

6. You’ll See Snow Without Winter Weather

On my Hubbard Glacier cruise in May, the surrounding mountains were white with thick snow. The white landscape blended with the glacial ice to provide picture-perfect photos.

Hubbard Glacier, Alaska in May
In May, Hubbard Glacier is surrounded by snow-capped mountains

Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm fjords will also glisten with snow. However, when cruising in early May, ice often prevents cruise ships from accessing the glaciers. So, choose a late May itinerary instead.

In Skagway, journeys by train or vehicle into the Yukon in British Columbia will still have plenty of snow cover. The road trip to Emerald Lake may experience a significant temperature change, so dress accordingly.

Visiting Alaska in spring means finding snow on trails at the top of gondolas. So, when planning to hike at the top of Mt. Roberts Tram in Juneau or Icy Strait Point, wear the correct footwear. Even in July, I found patches of snow at the Mount Roberts peak.

7. Discounted Tours

After the Alaska cruise season has been closed for seven months, tour operators are eager to sell shore excursions again. If vessels are cruising with fewer passengers, guests can often negotiate discounts on port tours.

With humpback whales arriving to feed for the summer, whale watching tours never disappoint. While humpbacks are seen on almost every tour, travelers can view sea lions, bald eagles, orcas, and gray whales too. Lucky tour goers may even witness the incredible activity of bubble-net feeding.

Humpback whales bubble net feeding in Juneau
Humpbacks bubble net feeding in Juneau

The Tracy Arm Tour and Glacier Explorer get guests closer to the ice than a cruise ship for an unforgettable glacier tour. The small vessels can navigate through the ice-filled waters allowing passengers to feel the mist of nearby waterfalls.

8. There Are Fewer Children

If preferring to cruise on ships with fewer children, choose an itinerary in May. Families tend to cruise in July or August when the kids are out of school.

While children are present on all lines and at any time, sailing in spring increases the chance of having mostly adults. Stay clear of lines like Disney, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Royal Caribbean’s mega-ships which cater to families.

Final Thoughts

Since Alaska cruises command the highest prices, you’ll benefit from shoulder season prices by sailing in May. Guests will also enjoy the driest time, see fewer crowds, and sail on ships with empty staterooms.

Alaska itineraries in September also benefit from fewer crowds, lower prices, and a chance to see the northern lights. However, September brings lots of rain so you’ll need to pack for wet weather.

Dress to spend hours outdoors, and you’ll see humpback whales swimming along the shorelines making their way north for their summer feast. While it’s colder in May, Alaska radiates with beauty as the landscape reawakens from its hibernation state.

Cruising in Alaska in May and a ship docked in port

Joanne

Tuesday 23rd of April 2024

The "Yukon" is not in "British Columbia" The Yukon is a "Teritory" in Canada. British Colombia is a separate "province" in Canada. ( Reference to journeys from Skagway by train)

Karen Hosier

Tuesday 23rd of April 2024

Oops, good catch. It has been corrected.

Kathy

Tuesday 4th of April 2023

How is the weather for early June? Is a heavy coat essential?

Forever Karen

Sunday 9th of April 2023

Alaska's weather is unpredictable. It can be cold one day and hot the next. While you won't need a heavy jacket on port days, you'll need some warm layers on glacier viewing days.

Ed

Tuesday 28th of February 2023

Is a poncho useful for alaska. I don't have a waterproof jacket and have no need for one. Seems a poncho would fit over anything or multiple layers and allow freedom of movement. Doing alaska cruise in may.

Forever Karen

Tuesday 28th of February 2023

A poncho can work if you're used to cold weather and not cruising in the early weeks of May. May is a drier month, and the weather warms up significantly in the later weeks.

Sandy

Friday 3rd of February 2023

Great article! I have a cruise booked in May and now I'm even more happy we chose that time to go. Question - we will be in Skagway from 7am-8pm. Is it realistic to rent a car, drive to Whitehorse and spend a few hours at the Eclipse Nordic Spa? https://eclipsenordichotsprings.ca Will we have enough time?

Forever Karen

Friday 3rd of February 2023

Technically, it takes under 2-1/2 hours to drive to Whitehorse one way without stopping. However, most who make the drive stop in lots of places. So, plan to make the drive without stopping and add stops at places of interest on the return drive while keeping an eye on the time. Enjoy your cruise!

Lisa | Waves and Cobblestones

Monday 21st of November 2022

Seeing the Northern Lights is definitely a bucket-list experience for me. Are the chances of Northern Lights better in May than in the busier Alaska cruise months?

Forever Karen

Monday 21st of November 2022

There are better chances to see the Nothern Lights in the shoulder season. However, the Aurora Borealis is unpredictable, and you never know when you'll witness its beauty. I've been to Alaska several times in May and haven't seen them yet.