Alaska Cruise Advice
Updated: Aug 12, 2020
Looking for Alaska cruise advice? There are lots of things to think about when booking a cruise to Alaska. I’ll help compare some of the pros and cons here and give you the advice I always give my friends and family when they are talking about booking an Alaska cruise.
Why Should I go to Alaska?
Where do I even start with this response? Growing up in Kansas, I spent some time in my childhood and in my adulthood visiting the Rocky Mountains, in Colorado. To put it in perspective, if you’re in Denver (the “Mile-High City”), you’re sitting at approximately 5,300 feet above sea level (give or take a few hundred feet in either direction, depending on where you are in the city). In Denver, you’re not even into the Rockies yet (see topography map below). When you head west, out of Denver and start getting into the Rockies, the views and peaks of 14,000 feet are incredible, right?
Denver topography Source: Google Maps (2019)
Now, let’s talk about the topography in Alaska. . . when you’re driving along a coastal highway or sailing alongside land on a cruise ship, you’re hanging out at sea level. When you look up, you’re staring at those same 14,000 peaks, but they’re actually 14,000 feet above you. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my life and I have difficulty finding the right words to describe it. Photos don’t do it justice, but I’ll share a couple here that might try (note, these photos were taken in 2014, from my cell phone camera, so they’re not my best work).
Need more reasons?
Alaska cruises depart during a perfect time of year in Alaska. While many of us in the lower 48 are baking in the sun with temperatures hovering around the century mark, Alaska is a lovely escape, with temperatures ranging from “perfect” to “ideal” when you hit that sweet spot right in the middle of the summer.
Alaska has activities you just can’t do anywhere else. When we first traveled there, we did a rafting trip down a glacial river, rode on a zodiac, past icebergs, and landed on the banks of an island where we hiked through a rain forest, saw bears, looked almost straight down on top of our cruise ship from 4,000 feet above, watched salmon swimming upstream, panned for gold, crossed the US border, into the Yukon Territory, and took photos in front of more than one glacier. Alaska is like no other place in the world.
Are Alaska Cruises just for Retirees?
Nope. Josh and I took our first Alaska cruise when he was 35 and I was 32. We were definitely not the youngest on the ship and didn’t even feel exceptionally young. We’re used to cruising and that sailing happened to be on Holland America, so it wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary for us to be sailing with mainly retirees. Yes, our fellow passengers skewed slightly older than they probably would have if we’d been sailing Carnival or Royal Caribbean, but the general population wasn’t noticeably older than it had been on any other line we’d sailed on.
When is the right time time to sail to Alaska?
An Alaska cruise will not be cheap. . . but it will be worth every penny! When you’re looking at Alaska sailings, you’re probably going to notice that some of the available sailings are significantly less expensive than others. There’s a good reason for this. The less expensive sailings typically happen very early in the season (May) or very late in the season (September). You probably don’t want to be on these sailings. It will be cold, the landscape won’t be green, and you’re more likely to encounter rough seas.
The sweet spot I recommend for an Alaska cruise is any time between the first week of July and the last week of August. Temperatures will average in the 60s during those months, whether you’re in Juneau or in Anchorage and it will be a fantastic respite from the 100s you’d likely be experiencing back at home.
Which cruise line should I choose for my Alaska cruise?
When reading advice on cruise lines in Alaska, you’re going to see a lot of strong opinions. Based on those opinions, when my parents first sailed to Alaska, they did so on Princess. They also left on the first sailing of the season and encountered seas they compared to those shown on the “Deadliest Catch” reality series on TV.
Our first cruise to Alaska was on Holland America, a line that we have a very high opinion of. Holland America skews older than some other American cruise lines. You’re not going to find water slides and dance clubs that are open till the wee hours of the morning, but you will find a Culinary Arts Center, sponsored by America’s Test Kitchen, where you get to do cooking classes with the ship’s culinary staff. You’ll also find a jazz club inspired by BB King, and smaller ships, where you can truly relax and enjoy the scenery.
Honestly, with all the ships, including brand new ships, sailing to Alaska right now, I don’t know that I would recommend one line over any other. You could choose the Norwegian Bliss or the Norwegian Joy, two brand new ships with incredible amenities and lounges built specifically for viewing the Alaska scenery. Or, how about the Royal Caribbean Ovation of the Seas sailing with nearly 5,000 other people, on the 11th largest cruise ship in the world. You can even sail to Alaska on a Carnival ship, if you’re looking for more of a party.
Princess tends to be known for their Alaska cruises, and we would highly recommend Holland America. That being said, we’ll be sailing back to Alaska again, in July of 2020, on the Norwegian Jewel.
I truly believe that, for an Alaska sailing, the most important part is the itinerary. So. . .
Which itinerary should I choose in Alaska?
This is probably your most important choice when booking an Alaska cruise. Alaska isn’t cheap, so you want to make sure you’re seeing all the best things when you book your cruise. Not all Alaska itineraries are created equally, so here are some of my best recommendations:
If you start or end your cruise in Vancouver, you will likely have the opportunity to sail through the Inside Passage, which is truly incredible. At points, it feels like you’re sailing 20 feet from the shore, on either side of the ship. It gives you the opportunity to see wildlife and waterfalls from an angle you’ll never be able to recreate.
Glacier Bay National Park
Another itinerary element I would look at is whether or not the ship goes to Glacier Bay. Only a couple of ships are allowed into the Bay each day and it’s spectacular to experience. Most people never have the opportunity to visit Glacier Bay National Park. Most of those who do, arrive on a cruise ship.
Note that Glacier Bay isn’t going to be a place you stop and get off the ship, but a day of sailing through the scenery of one of the most beautiful places on the planet is completely worth being on the ship the whole day.
We were lucky enough to sail in the morning after a fairly significant (no damage though) earthquake, so we got to see lots of mini icebergs that had calved from the glaciers in the park overnight.
Northbound or Southbound, Not Round Trip
I also recommend doing either a northbound or southbound sailing. The Kenai Peninsula, near Anchorage is breathtaking and most round trip itineraries in and out of Seattle and Vancouver don’t go this far north. If you sail into or out of Seward, I would recommend doing some kind of tour between Seward and Anchorage. It takes a couple of hours to drive there, if you’re not making any stops, but there are tons of things to stop and see along the way, so taking some extra time and seeing all you can is one of my top recommendations. Exit Glacier is right on the way from Seward to Anchorage and you can take a short, very easy hike, and find yourself standing right next to the glacier.
When you do a one-way sailing, you have the opportunity to see much more because you’re not turning around half-way up the coast.
What kind of cabin should I choose for my Alaska cruise?
Alaska is one of the places I recommend going big or going home. Yes, you’ll be able to see everything you need to from an upper deck, but there’s nothing like waking up in the morning, pulling back your shades, and watching the Alaskan wilderness float by, while still in your jammies. I recommend a balcony for Alaska. If you’re sailing with friends or family members, get a balcony on one side of the ship while your travel companions get one on the other side of the ship. This way, you’ll always have the opportunity to see what’s happening on both sides, from the comfort of a private balcony, without having to fight for prime viewing on the upper decks.
If you can’t afford a balcony, don’t worry. Inside cabins are fine for any cruise, even Alaska. You’ll be able to leave your cabin and hang out in the public areas and you’ll be able to see everything everyone else will. You’ll just have to put on clothes first.
Should I extend my Alaska cruise with a land tour?
We didn’t extend our first Alaska cruise, back in 2014. Ever since, we’ve wished we had. While driving to Anchorage, from Seward, we were able to catch a couple of glimpses of Denali. Those views left us longing to see it up close. If you have the means, definitely add on the land tour. In order to book a land tour, you’ll have to book a one-way cruise. You can typically do the land tour before the cruise, if you’re starting in Seward, or after the cruise, if you’re ending in Seward. We’ve always regretted not doing it the first time.
Should I book an Alaska cruise?
Yes, of course! You’re going to love Alaska. It was the first cruise we ever did where we knew right away it was one we would do again. It’s like nothing you will ever experience in the lower 48. Bon Voyage!
P.S. If you’re interested in booking your first cruise or you’d just like to learn more about cruising, in general, check out my other cruising blog post, “So, You’re Interested in Booking Your First Cruise“.