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The Ultimate Alaska Cruise Guide

John Hopkins Glacier, Alaska

Alaska attracts worldwide visitors by its unforgettable scenery, untouched beauty, and abundance of wildlife. In a universe where concrete jungles are swallowing the natural habitat, Alaska is still wild and pristine.

Whether you’re planning a cruise to Alaska to see the northern lights, experience the spectacular glaciers, or climb the rugged mountains, an Alaska cruise will leave you speechless.

If you plan a trip to the Last Frontier, this comprehensive Alaska cruise guide will help you better prepare for a fantastic adventure and is packed full of cruising tips. Are you prepared to be wowed by Alaska’s beauty?

Alaska is a big state, twice as big as Texas. It also has more coastline than all the others combined. That’s hard to believe. Nearly one-third of Alaska lies inside the Arctic Circle, and during the summer, the sun never sets in some places.

Thanks to the introduction of the cruise ship, passengers have the best way to see Alaska. What better way to experience a little piece of glacial paradise and the serenity of untouched spaces than an inside passage cruise?

Whether you choose a northbound Alaska glacier cruise or a southbound Alaska cruise, it’s a vacation you won’t soon forget. Alaska has risen to the number one cruise destination of choice in the cruising industry. After my first visit, I understood why.

Alaska Cruise Season

The Alaska cruise season is relatively short, from May until September, although some cruises start as early as April, and the last ship leaves as late as October.

June, July, and August are the most popular months as the temperatures are warmer and the chances of viewing wildlife increase.

During spring, wildflowers are plentiful along the Inside Passage, and you’re more likely to see larger animals migrating. June is an optimum time to see glaciers’ calving. It is also the best month to see marine mammals such as whales, seals, and dolphins.


Deciding to cruise Alaska starts with planning and pricing. When deciding to sail to the frozen north, many ask when the best time to cruise is?

If it’s your first time sailing, instead of choosing a cruise line, pick the best cruise itinerary that suits your needs. Then find a cruise line that sails there.

The first decision to make is which itinerary to sail. Overall, there are four options for cruising:

a humpback whale near Juneau
Humpback whale in Juneau, Alaska
  1. A roundtrip 7-day Alaska cruise from either Seattle or Vancouver where the cruise ship sails halfway and back to the same port.
  2. A 7-day one-way cruise to Alaska from Vancouver, or vice versa.
  3. A 10+ day cruise and land itinerary includes the second option, a 7-day cruise combined with a 3+ day land excursion to Denali National Park.
  4. A longer return cruise from a California port. 

I have sailed six inside passage cruises in 13 years, three times as a 7-day return cruise from Vancouver. I have done the one-way cruise to Alaska and back again. I’ve also enjoyed a 10-day cruise on Cunard Queen Elizabeth.

Alaska Cruise Pricing

Unlike the Caribbean, where cruises are inexpensive and plentiful, Alaska cruise pricing may give you sticker shock. While shopping for your holiday, don’t book by price alone.

Paying more for the itinerary you want is worth every extra dollar you spend. Alaska cruise deals are the result of less favorable Alaska weather or a less desirable route.

If you only plan to sail once, make sure you choose the itinerary that best suits you.

Alaskan cruise cost varies by month, which company you sail with, and itinerary. Cruise lines like Regent, Silversea, and Disney are the most expensive. I sailed my first with Celebrity Cruises to Alaska.

But I’ve also cruised with Holland America, Cunard, Royal Caribbean, and Princess Cruises twice. Other cruise lines that sail to Alaska include Viking, Carnival, Oceania, and Norwegian.

As Alaska has become more popular, you’re not likely to find many cheap cruises from Vancouver or Seattle. While there are more Vancouver cruises than from Seattle, you’ll only score a discount if you’re able to cruise a drop-and-go, sail the shoulder season, or on an older ship.

Alaska Cruise Weather

Alaska cruise ships sail from May to September. You really can’t go wrong sailing in any of these months given that you will experience the maximum amount of daylight to enjoy scenic views.

On June 21st, the longest day of the year, Fairbanks is blessed with 22 hours of daylight. However, Anchorage and Juneau are not far behind with 19 and 18 hours, respectively.

Alaska cruise weather ranges from 55-65F (13-18C), with May and September being about 10 degrees cooler.

It’s important to note; that it rains a lot in Alaska, although May being the drier month, has only a 25% chance of rain. The rain comes more frequently as the summer progresses, so by August, the probability of precipitation increases to over 50% on any given day.

With unpredictable weather, it’s often difficult to know what to pack for an Alaska cruise. So, I prepare for every kind of weather, from rain and freezing temperatures to hot and heatwave conditions. 

Having cruised to Alaska four times, I can safely say, pack a variety of clothing and plenty of layers. During my first trip in the third week of July, it rained every day even though Vancouver experienced a heatwave a little further south.

I lucked out the other three times with glorious sunshine and warm weather. So, pack everything from a bathing suit and shorts to a Columbia 3-in-1 jacket, hat, gloves, and scarf for glacier viewing. Remember your compact umbrella and sunglasses too. And believe me, you’ll use it all!

Alaska Cruise Port Guide

An Alaska itinerary can include stops in Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, and sometimes Sitka, Haines, and Icy Strait Point. Longer cruises or ten days or more or itineraries repositioning to Japan may also port at Kodiak Island or other uncommon towns.


Sitka is a tiny town located on Baranof Island in southeast Alaska. It is one of the oldest Alaskan cities having first been occupied by the Tlingit Indians 8,000 years ago.

With a population of around 9,000 people, Sitka tours can include various things to do for a first-time visitor. I remember arriving in Sitka for the first time, and the town felt like it was way off the grid.

Depending on the number of cruise ships in town, Sitka could be a tender port. It was the day I visited. I started with a walk through the town, which holds so much history as 22 buildings are on the National Historic Register.

Along the shoreline of Sitka Sound, I couldn’t help but notice the impressive views of the snow-capped Mount Edgecumbe in the distance. It resembles Mount Fuji.

As I continued walking, it was hard not to notice the lush green rainforest that encompasses Sitka. Sitka is a place that gets plenty of rain, and the day I arrived was no different. 

Wearing my trusty waterproof jacket, my spirits were not dampened by the rain or prevented me from exploring this picturesque fishing town.

Everyone that stops in Sitka visits the totem poles in Sitka Nationalpiri Historic Park. The park maintains and interprets a Tlingit Indian Fort site and an 1804 battle between the Russians and the Tlingits.

The majority of cruise passengers visit the totem poles in Sitka National Historic Park. The park maintains and interprets a Tlingit Indian Fort site and an 1804 battle between the Russians and the Tlingits.

Viewing these historic totem poles, it’s evident that rain elements have taken their toll on the poles’ paintwork.

For nature lovers, the Alaska Raptor Center is a must. The Alaska Raptor Centre’s goal is to rehabilitate injured birds of prey in the hope of returning them to the wild.

However, those that never recover enough to venture out remain at the outdoor display area for visitors to enjoy.


Juneau, the capital city of Alaska, is a unique city in that glacial mountains landlock it. It is the only city you will visit by a cruise ship that feels like a “city.” Juneau can accommodate more vessels than any other port and all within the downtown area.

All of the others have a small-town feel to them. It’s, so city-like that it has both a Walmart and Costco, although neither is within walking distance of the cruise ship terminal.

Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska
Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau

This capital city is eye candy with its magnificent towering mountains, cascading waterfalls, and picturesque glaciers. If you’re a wildlife lover, Juneau offers the best selection of tours to see Alaskan wildlife.


Visitors commonly spot mountain goats on the rugged crags above Juneau. Seals, humpback whales, orca, sea lions, and porpoises are all common mammals detected in the waters around Juneau.

Other creatures that are plentiful include salmon, bears, deer, and eagles.

Juneau shore excursions are plentiful and offers many bucket list experiences. However, the hardest decision is choosing which one to take during your one day in port.

I have gone on a Juneau whale-watching tour twice, and it’s been magnificent each time.

If you’re adventurous and have no budget, consider one of many Juneau helicopter tours. Dog sledding on Herbert Glacier in Juneau was my most memorable port excursion and also the most expensive.

If the glacial viewings from your cruise ship aren’t enough, take a short bus ride to Mendenhall Glacier. This spectacular glacier is close to downtown Juneau and is highly worth a visit.

There’s something so special about seeing huge icebergs floating down the river there.

Mendenhall Glacier is often a great place to see roaming black bears. If you’re feeling energetic, take the easy, flat trail to Nugget Falls. You’ll feel its power at the end of the walk and enjoy a fantastic waterfall.

A day in Juneau isn’t quite enough to experience all it has to offer, but that’s all you’ll have if you’re visiting by cruise ship.

However, if you’re sailing a back-to-back 14-day Alaska cruise (as I did), you’ll probably have two days in this picturesque city. Maximize your days by booking different shore excursions northbound and southbound.


Ketchikan, Alaska welcome sign
Ketchikan, Alaska welcome sign

Alaska’s first city also boasts the title of being the southeasternmost city in Alaska. With a population of just over 8,000, Ketchikan has a small town, homey feel to it.

Like most of the other towns and cities along the coast, its economy is based around the fishing industry. Forestry and tourism also provide for a bustling marketplace.

If fishing is your thing (not mine), try your hand at salmon fishing on the Stedman Bridge near Creek Street. The salmon are usually so plentiful here, and you can see them in the creek as you walk along the riverbank walkway.

No visit to Alaska is complete without a visit to Creek Street, a former red-light district. During my visit, I re-lived the town’s historical past at the world-famous Dolly’s House Museum.

Here, the locals dressed in period costumes invited me to watch an inexpensive and entertaining video on their red-light district’s history. Although a bit cheesy, the women entertainers were a hoot!

Creek Street, Ketchikan. A picturesque port day on an Alaska cruise
Creek Street, former red-light district, Ketchikan

Ketchikan is also known for having the largest number of totem poles in Alaska. The Totem Heritage Center houses some ancient totem poles and also offers a class in Native Arts. 

Most tourist attractions in Ketchikan are near the cruise ship terminal, so you don’t need a rental car. Instead, explore Ketchikan on a self-guided walking tour.


With 2,000 to 3,000 residents, Haines is a tiny little town in the northern part of the Alaska panhandle. Even though it’s a small town, it has two grocery stores, restaurants, a few museums, and campgrounds for the summer seasonal travelers.

Cleaning salmon, Alaska
Cleaning a fresh catch of salmon

Haines borders Glacier Bay National Park, where I have cruised several times. If you’re into hiking and back-country wilderness exploration and want to escape the crowds in the busier ports, this is the town for you.

Remember to bring your compact binoculars, because you can scour the hills and the skies for goats and eagles. From October to February, Haines experiences the largest concentration of eagles globally, although this is not cruise ship season. 

Alaska cruises sailing in August and September have the best opportunities to see brown bears feasting on salmon as they swim up the river to spawn. 

The Davidson Glacier, being close in proximity to Haines, offers visitors an excellent option for a day outing and another incredible glacier viewing.


When I arrived in Skagway, I thought I had been transported back in time to a western movie set or gold mining town. Well, I was half right.

The town of Skagway came about during the gold rush era, and much of its old town charm has not changed. Visitors can relive the gold rush era by panning for gold and learning its pioneers’ history.

Main street in Skagway, Alaska
Skagway, a Goldrush town in the 49th state

Skagway is a tiny community of just a few blocks, but don’t be deceived by its intimate size. There was plenty to do in Skagway, and my one day was not enough to scratch the surface of what it had to offer.

During my first visit, I took some time to walk the town because its buildings and shops have so much charm. As I ventured through town, I noticed a building that looks like a bunch of sticks.

This incredible, unusual façade stands out like a sore thumb with its almost 9,000 pieces of sticks and driftwood covering. The giant letters of “A” and “B” stand for Arctic Brotherhood, the fraternal organization formed in 1899.

In town, the Days of 98 Shows offers a cheesy show depicting the notorious outlaw Soapy Smith’s life. Renowned for opening businesses with the sole intent of robbing customers, Soapy eventually died in a shootout on the Juneau Wharf in Skagway.

The Days of 98 colorful musical features ragtime music, can-can dancers, and silly humor.

By far, the most popular port excursion is the White Pass train tour from Skagway. Offering one of the most picturesque train rides globally, train passengers travel into the mountains and over wooden bridge trestles.

Icy Strait Point

Unlike all other cruise ports owned by cities, Icy Strait Point is a privately-owned tourist destination. It was created strictly for cruise ship passengers.

Located on Chichagof Island, it is just outside the small fishing village of Hoonah, Alaska. Relatively new as a cruise port, Icy Strait Point welcomed its first cruise ship passengers in 2004.

While some of the cruise lines now sail here, it can only accommodate two ships a day.

Many are drawn to Alaska for its unforgettable scenery, untouched beauty and magnificent wildlife. In a world where the natural habitat is being swallowed by concrete jungles, Alaska is still untouched and wild. This complete Alaska cruise guide discusses itinerary, cruise ports and Alaska weather. #alaska #alaskacruise #alaskatravel #alaskaweather

They are plenty of Icy Strait Point excursions in this small town. For adventure seekers, why not soar through the air at the ZipRider Zip Lines? Take in the magnificent views from the top of Hoonah Mountain before you prepare for the ride of a lifetime.

The ZipRider features six 5,330-foot zip lines, which drop an incredible 1,330 feet as you ride them. Since there are six side-by-side zip lines, this is the perfect activity for families or larger groups if your budget can afford it.

There are plenty of excursions available for wildlife lovers for viewing coastal brown bears, eagles, and humpback whales. Other tours include ATVs, kayaking, biking, hiking, fishing, and visiting a cannery museum.

Glacier Viewing

Sailing in Glacier Bay National Park, on an Alaska cruise
Sailing in Glacier Bay National Park, on an Alaska cruise

Alaska glacier cruises visit one or maybe two glacier bays or fjords. These include Glacier Bay National Park, Endicott Arm, Tracy Arm Fjord, Hubbard Glacier, and College Fjord.

It’s good to remember that port day in Juneau offers the opportunity to see Mendenhall Glacier. Glaciers are what draw many travelers to Alaska, and viewing is right from the cruise ship.

With a wide choice of Alaska itineraries, a great choice for glacier sightings is Glacier Bay National Park. While Hubbard is the biggest and more spectacular, Glacier Bay provides multiple glacier viewings.

While I have been on a Glacier Bay cruise many times, the weather has always co-operated with clear blue skies and no rain. If glacier calving is high on your bucket list, the best time to go on an Alaska cruise is the month of June. 

If you’re undecided between Glacier Bay and Hubbard, consider booking a back-to-back itinerary that often includes both. Alternatively, if you prefer a fjord experience, both Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm are great choices.

These Alaskan fjords are breeding grounds for harbor seals, which lay on the icebergs soaking up the sunshine.

Alaska Souvenirs

Rarely does anyone travel to Alaska without purchasing at least one Ulu knife. An Ulu is an all-purpose knife traditionally used by Inuit, Yupik, and Aleut women. 

Traditionally, early settlers constructed Ulu knife handles from muskox horns, walrus ivory, or caribou antler with a slate cutting blade. But today’s knives are made from caribou antlers with steel blades.

With the ban of traditional ivory, mammoth ivory has become popular Alaska cruise souvenirs. While the woolly mammoth died out more than 10,000 years ago, tusk hunters find their bones, teeth, and giant curving tusks in abundance in Alaska.

In fact, Alaska contains the most amounts of mammoth remains in the United States. A variety of purchasable items are available, from carved ivory statues to necklaces, beads, and earrings.

With the Klondike Gold Rush’s early beginnings, let’s not forget the gold flake jewelry souvenir. Make shops offer small glass vials filled with water and a few flakes of 24K gold leaf.

You may also want an Alaska cruise t-shirt to commemorate your cruise vacation. I have seen many large families or groups of people wearing the same t-shirt, which adds a fun element to your trip. In Ketchikan, be sure to visit Soho Coho.

The store sells comical t-shirts depicting the artwork of Ray Troll. His style is unique, and his fish humor is memorable.

Let’s not forgot the salmon and crab. Should you book a fishing excursion, some companies will clean, package, freeze and ship your catch for you. So, when you arrive home, your Alaskan catch will be waiting for you.

Aurora Borealis

If you plan to visit Alaska to view the northern lights (aurora borealis), you need to be away from the cities’ bright lights.

Since you can only see the aurora borealis at night, visit your viewing spot during times of complete darkness, with the optimum times being September to April.

The northern lights are the result of charged particles from the sun hitting the earth’s atmosphere.

While visitors can view the northern lights anywhere in Alaska, do note the unpredictability of the aurora. The best place for sightings is Fairbanks, with an average of 243 days of the year.

Aurora Borealis, Alaska
Aurora Borealis, Alaska

Ideally, the sky needs to be clear of clouds to see the northern lights. If you want to check on the forecast, this online site has updated aurora borealis projections.

Hiking in Alaska

If you plan to do any hiking in Alaska, please note that mosquitoes can be rampant at certain times. Alaska’s ever-prominent rainfall creates a perfect environment for mosquito heaven.

Unfortunately, I learned this the hard way on a hike and river rafting trip in Skagway. I was almost eaten alive on the Chilkoot Trail, and the tour guide’s environmental bug repellent didn’t work.

However, now I remember to pack a mosquito repellent, and I suggest you do the same. To avoid being bitten, wait until August to travel. By August, the frost will have helped to kill some of the mosquitoes.

Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Skagway, Alaska
Klondike National Historical Park

When hiking in Alaska, remember you’re in bear country. It’s advisable not to walk alone and to carry a bear bell and bear spray.

Who Should Take An Alaskan Cruise?

Alaskan vacations are suited to those who enjoy the outdoors and appreciate nature, regardless of the weather. Unlike its southern destinations, it’s the polar opposite of a day at a Caribbean beach.

However, if you love history and culture, the Alaskan ports offer this and much more.

While Alaska cruises are associated with an older crowd, it’s suitable for all ages. Should you have limited mobility, Alaska offers the perfect cruise vacation because much of the scenery is viewable from the ship.

While the Gold Rush brought the people in 1898, today, visitors come for the majestic mountains, incredible glaciers, and the abundance of wildlife. Oh, and let’s not forget the fantastic salmon and Alaska king crab legs.

Whether you plan one Alaska cruise or are sailing again, this jaw-dropping place offers human solitude and solitary wilderness that is rapidly disappearing in our present-day world. Is a cruise to Alaska worth taking? Most definitely, YES!

If you never make it to the Last Frontier, at least through the power of the internet and this Alaska cruise guide, you get to live every moment visually and by the words in this post.

I hope this post answers some of your questions about sailing to Alaska and helps you better prepare yourself for a spectacular vacation ahead.

Happy sailing ~ Karen