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Alaska Cruise Guide: Itineraries, Tips, And Planning

Planning a first and bucket list Alaska cruise vacation can be challenging. With various itineraries, cruise lines, ports of call, and glacier choices, how to decide? If this sounds like your dilemma and you’re overwhelmed, this Alaska cruise guide will help with the decision making.

In this informational guide, learn about the Alaska ports, embarkation options, weather, and cruising tips.
By the end of this article, readers will have a better understanding of how to prioritize their choice of glaciers, ports, and excursions.

So, whether you’re planning a cruise to Alaska to see the northern lights, savor the tidewater glaciers, or look for wildlife, an Alaska cruise promises an unforgettable adventure.

Cruising in Glacier Bay National Park

Cruising Vs. A Road Trip?

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

Thanks to the introduction of the cruise ship, passengers have the best way to see Alaska. Traveling by road doesn’t give access certain places like Juneau, Sitka, and Icy Strait Point.

Cruise ships provide passage to Tracy Arm, Glacier Bay National Park, and Hubbard Glacier. However, when taking an Alaska cruise from or to Vancouver, passengers can add on a cruise tour, providing the best of both worlds.

Choosing a northbound Alaska glacier cruise or a southbound Alaska cruise promises a memorable vacation. Alaska has risen to the top cruise destination in the industry. After my first visit, I clearly saw why.

Alaska Cruise Season

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

When choosing a month to take an Alaska cruise, June, July, and August are the most popular. They generally enjoy warmer temperatures, and the chances of viewing wildlife increase. However, expect to pay top dollar for itineraries in peak season.

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During spring, wildflowers are plentiful along the Inside Passage, and larger animals are migrating. May is my favorite time to go, for fewer crowds, better pricing, and drier weather.

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. July and August bring the salmon runs. With salmon come the bears who enjoy an easy meal in rushing rivers.

September Alaska itineraries are best suited to those who want to see the aurora borealis and don’t mind the wetter weather. Since the northern lights are unpredictable, they could appear any month, although the chances are minimal.

How To Choose The Right Alaska Itinerary?

Deciding to cruise Alaska starts with planning and pricing. Everyone has a different priority. Is it budget first or a voyage to Glacier Bay?

For first-time Alaska cruisers, pick the best cruise itinerary first and choose a cruise line second. Then find a vessel 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. These often sail the inside passage.
  2. A 7-day one-way cruise to Alaska from Vancouver to Whittier or Seward, or vice versa, sail to the Gulf of Alaska. Since one-way cruises travel further, guests could see College Fjord and other small towns.
  3. A 9+ day cruise and land itinerary, which includes the second option, a 7-day cruise combined with a 2+ day land excursion to Denali National Park.
  4. A longer return cruise from San Francisco. 

Many Americans prefer a roundtrip cruise from the United States because they prefer a domestic flight. Also, as a closed-loop cruise, they won’t need a passport. However, there’s no option to do a land tour.

Those sensitive to motion sickness, should select an inside passage cruise as they generally offer calmer seas.

Itineraries to and from Vancouver cruise between the mainland and Vancouver Island, providing a more picturesque, and smoother sailing.

Residents of California may choose a roundtrip sailing from there. These are ten days or more due to the extra distance to reach Alaska. It should be noted that the waters along the coast are notoriously rough. So, be prepared for a rocky sailing.

Alaska Cruise And Land Tour

While cruises explore the coastal towns, by adding on a cruisetour provides a contrasting inland experience. Cruise lines’ tours start at nine days or more. The longer itineraries spend more time in Denali National Park.

Denali, Alaska

Land tour cruise packages start or end in Anchorage or Fairbanks. Anchorage provides more options for flights to get home.

These cruisetours include accommodation in more than one place and transportation between the areas. Stops could consist of any of the following: Talkeentna, Alyeska, Copper River, Kenai Peninsula, Anchorage, Fairbanks, Whitehorse, and Dawson City.

It’s important to note the land portion does not include meals, although guests may enjoy a complimentary breakfast. Most tours are not included, so factor that into the cost.

Alaska Cruise Pricing

Unlike the Caribbean, where cruises are inexpensive and plentiful, Alaska cruise pricing may give you sticker shock. When doing an online comparison, don’t book by price alone.

Paying more for the ideal itinerary is worth every extra dollar. Alaska cruise deals result from less favorable Alaska weather, a less desirable route, or short port times.

If it’s a bucket list one-time event, choose the best itinerary regardless of the cost.

Alaskan cruise cost varies by month, cruise line, and itinerary. Cruise lines like Regent, Silversea, Viking, and Disney are the most expensive. 

As Alaska has become more popular, it’s hard to find inexpensive cruises from Vancouver or Seattle. 

While there are more options from Vancouver than from Seattle, discounted itineraries are usually only offered on a drop-and-go, ones in the shoulder season, or on an older ship. I often cruise in the shoulder season, and been on older vessels, and the experience is still fantastic.

Alaska pro tip: Be prepared to pay more for shore excursions than the cruise fare.

Alaska Cruise Weather

Alaska cruise ships sail from May to September. Sailing in any of these months ensures the maximum amount of daylight for enjoying scenic views.

On June 21st, the longest day of the year, Fairbanks is blessed with 22 hours of daylight. However, Anchorage and Juneau are just slightly behind with 19 and 18 hours, respectively.

The weather in Alaska 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, knowing what to pack for an Alaska cruise is often difficult. So, I prepare for every kind of weather, from rain and freezing temperatures to hot and heatwave conditions. 

Having cruised to Alaska multiple times, I suggest packing for three seasons and taking 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 always wear Vessi shoes because they are 100% waterproof, vegan, lightweight and washable. I love Vessi runners, that I wrote a full Vessi shoe review.

Wearing a waterproof Columbia jacket and Vessi shoes

I lucked out the other cruises 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 a compact umbrella and sunglasses too. 

Which Cruise Line Is Right For You?

Choosing the right cruise line comes down to personal preferences. Is cruising with children and seeking a vessel with numerous kid activities a priority? If so, Disney caters the best to families with small children but comes at a premium price.

Royal Caribbean and Norwegian’s larger vessels have race cars, laser tag, bumper cars, sky diving wind tunnels, and much more for teenagers and young adults.

North Star on the Quantum of the Seas
North Star on the Quantum of the Seas

Individuals in their 60s might seek a more intimate cruise with fewer children. The best choices are Cunard, Seabourn, Viking, and Holland America Line.

Princess Cruises or Holland America are top picks for cruise and land tours, as they have been cruising to Alaska the longest.

For a small ship experience, considering an itinerary with Uncruise is advisable.

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.

Each town offers something unique, so it’s important to evaluate each one and decide the best ports for your itinerary.


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

Its fairly new cruise port in Sitka Sound, can accommodate two ships daily, and cruise passengers require a shuttle bus to reach downtown. With two vessels docked, the wait for a shuttle could be lengthy.

One time, the Quantum of the Seas and Holland Westerdam docked together. With 7000 passengers disembarking, I waited 45 minutes to an hour, for a port shuttle.

Sitka has a rich history, with 22 buildings on the National Historic Register. When the United States purchased Alaska in 1867, the signing occurred at Castle Hill in Sitka.

St. Michael’s Cathedral in Sitka
St. Michael’s Cathedral in Sitka

Sitka has a rich historical past as showcased at the St. Michael’s Cathedral, the Russian Bishop’s House, Sheldon Jackson Museum, and the Sitka Historical Museum.

History aside, Sitka overflows with natural beauty. On a clear day, I saw the impressive views of the snow-capped Mount Edgecumbe on the shoreline of Sitka Sound. It resembled Mount Fuji.

Sitka is home to a large sea otter population. Once hunted for their dense fur, they were put on the endangered list. Now protected, visitors can see these marine mammals on a shore excursion.

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

Totem pole at the Sitka National Historical Park
Totem pole at the Sitka National Historical Park

For nature lovers, the Alaska Raptor Center and Fortress of the Bear provide rehabilitation to injured and orphaned wildlife. While I visited both on a packaged tour, I wished I had more time at the bear sanctuary.


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

However, Juneau recently limited the number of ships effective 2024. Potentially, it could mean fewer hours in port.

This capital city is a visual delight with its breathtaking mountains, stunning waterfalls, and picturesque glaciers. For those who love wildlife, Juneau offers a wide range of tours.

It is common to spot mountain goats perched on the rugged cliffs above the city, while the surrounding waters are home to seals, humpback whales, orcas, sea lions, and porpoises.

The area is also abundant in salmon, bears, deer, and eagles, making it a haven for nature enthusiasts.

When it comes to excursions, one popular choice is a whale-watching tour that guarantees sightings of these magnificent creatures. I’ve done a few and seen humpback whales every time.

Alternatively, Juneau helicopter tours provide a thrilling experience. Another memorable experience for me involved dog sledding on the Juneau icefield, with my daughter. Be prepared to pay top dollar for this adventure.

Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska
Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau

If the glacial viewings from the cruise ship aren’t enough, take a short bus ride to Mendenhall Glacier. At the park, giant icebergs floating on Mendenhall Lake.

When the salmon are running, black bears frequent Steep Creek in search of an easy meal. My favorite activity is the hike to Nugget Falls. The trail is flat, easy to walk and at the end of the walk, I enjoyed the power of a thunderous waterfall.


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

Like most other towns and cities along the coast, its economy is based around the fishing industry. Fishing tours are plentiful with a chance to catch halibut and other fish species.

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

Walking Creek Street
Creek Street, former red-light district, Ketchikan

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

At Dolly’s House, 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!

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

Other popular tours include Misty Fjords National Monument and the Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour. Misty Fjords is accessible by boat or float plane. The float plane tours provide the quickest but most expensive option.

On the crab tour, we learned the aspects of crab fishing in the Bering Sea. The captivating stories gave us a better appreciation for crab fishing when eating crab legs.

Brian with a rock crab
Brian with a rock crab on the Bering Sea Tour


With 2,000 to 3,000 residents, Haines is a tiny town in the northern 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.

Haines borders Glacier Bay National Park, where I have cruised several times. This town suits those who like to escape the crowds in busier ports. Top activities include hiking and back-country wilderness exploration.

Remember to bring compact binoculars because scouring the hills and the skies, may result in goat and eagle sightings. 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, close to Haines, offers visitors an excellent option for a day outing and another incredible glacier viewing.


The town of Skagway came about during the Klondike 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 about its pioneers’ history.

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

In Skagway, take some time to browse the buildings and shops, which have so much charm. One notable building is one 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 “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 solely to rob customers, Soapy eventually died in a shootout on the Juneau Wharf in Skagway.

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

Traveling over a wooden trestle on the White Pass & Yukon Route train
Riding the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway

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. Brian and I did this tour and loved it!

Alternatively, rent a car and drive to Emerald Lake in British Columbia. However, this road trip requires a passport.

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 can only accommodate two ships a day.

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?

The ZipRider in Icy Strait Point
The ZipRider in Icy Strait Point

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 the budget allows.

Icy Strait Point features two gondola rides, one complimentary and the other paid. The paid gondola provides magnificent views from the top of Hoonah Mountain on a clear day.

Plenty of excursions are available for wildlife lovers to view coastal brown bears, eagles, and humpback whales. Its whale watching is rated one of the best. Other tours include ATVs, kayaking, biking, hiking, and fishing.

Without an excursion, the cannery museum and shoreline beach provides free activities for those on a budget. Strolling the beach, I found lots of sea stars and crabs.

Glacier Viewing

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

Blue ice at Hubbard Glacier
Hubbard Glacier

It’s good to remember that a port day in Juneau offers the opportunity to see Mendenhall Glacier. Glaciers 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 and Hubbard Glacier. While Hubbard is the biggest and more spectacular, Glacier Bay provides multiple glacier viewings.

If trying to choose between Glacier Bay and Hubbard, consider booking a back-to-back itinerary that often includes both. Alternatively, Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm are great choices a fjord experience

Shoulder Season Cruises

It’s advisable to avoid itineraries to Endicott Arm or Tracy Arm Fjord in April or early May. Early in the season, ice can block passage, preventing ships from reaching the Sawyer or Dawes Glaciers at the end of the fjords.

Although vessels sometimes enter the fjord, they may turn around halfway, limiting the viewing experience. In cases of heavy fog, the ship’s captain might decide against navigating the narrow passageway.

A rainy day in Tracy Arm Fjord
Cruising in Tracy Arm Fjord

The abundance of ice in the water can greatly impact your viewing day and prevent ships from getting too close. At Hubbard Glacier, I could view within ¼ mile on the Cunard Queen Elizabeth.

However, others couldn’t get any closer than 2 miles. Part of it may have to do with ice, although the captain’s confidence may also play a role.

Fjord Vs. Larger Glacier

While most cruise passengers prefer to visit Glacier Bay or Hubbard Glacier, consider a fjord cruise. The narrow passage of a fjord allows guests to view hundreds of waterfalls and granite cliffs.

It’s an opportunity to see mountain goats and various bird species. These Alaskan fjords are breeding grounds for harbor seals, which lay on the icebergs soaking up the sunshine.

Taking the Tracy Arm Fjord & Glacier Explorer will get guests much closer to the cascades and wildlife.

Aurora Borealis

To view the northern lights (aurora borealis) in Alaska, it’s essential to be away from the cities’ bright lights.

Northern lights in Alaska
Northern Lights in Alaska

Since the aurora borealis is only visible at night, visit the viewing spot during complete darkness. The optimum times are from September to April.

The northern lights result from 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.

Ideally, the sky must be clear of clouds to see the northern lights.

Hiking in Alaska

When hiking in Alaska, do 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.

Chilkoot Trail, Skagway
Chilkoot Trail, Skagway

However, now I remember to pack 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 keep the mosquitoes at bay.

When hiking in Alaska, remember it’s 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 native culture, outdoor activities, and wildlife viewing, regardless of the weather. Unlike its southern destinations, it’s the polar opposite of a day at a Caribbean beach.

While Alaska cruises are associated with an older crowd, it suits all ages. Alaska offers the perfect cruise vacation for those with limited mobility, 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 abundant wildlife. Oh, and let’s not forget the fantastic salmon and Alaska king crab legs.

Whether it’s a first cruise or are sailing again, this jaw-dropping place offers human solitude and solitary wilderness 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, readers get to live every moment visually and by the words in this post.

Sunset on a cruise ship in Glacier Bay, Alaska


Sunday 4th of June 2023

Karen this was a great blog on Alaska just what we were looking for so informative thank you 10 days to go xx

Forever Karen

Sunday 4th of June 2023

Thank you and enjoy your Alaska cruise!