Booking an Alaska cruise? Know your cruise lines and best time to go
An Alaska cruise will get you up close and personal with a glacier — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark
With so much natural beauty, Alaska is the perfect cruise destination, providing panoramic views as you sail. Boasting breathtaking scenery, wildlife sightings, and, of course, an abundance of food and activities, it’s no wonder cruise ships are predicted to bring over 1.6 million passengers to Alaska this year, according to the Alaska Cruise Association.
This bucket list trip gets you up close and personal with stunning glaciers, humpback whales and, if you’re lucky, bears catching fish — all while relaxing on your ship’s deck or your private balcony.
As you start to plan your own Alaska cruise, we’ve answered some of your most-pressing questions so you can book your trip and start sailing.
What is the best month to go to Alaska on a cruise?
There’s always something to see on an Alaska cruise — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark
The Alaska cruise season typically runs from late May through early October, giving you a pretty short window to take your trip. Thanks to longer, sunnier days, July and August are considered peak months, but along with higher temperatures, expect higher prices.
Don’t shy away from booking a cruise to Alaska in September, when you’re actually more likely to see the Northern Lights. Many cruise lines will even let you sign up to receive a phone call or a knock at your stateroom door if the aurora borealis starts dancing through the sky in the middle of the night — so you don’t have to stay up just in case there’s a sighting.
Where do you stop on an Alaskan cruise?
View of Glacier Bay from the deck on Royal Princess — Photo courtesy of Amber Redmon
Considered one of the most beautiful routes in the world, the Inside Passage — which encompasses hundreds of miles between Puget Sound, Washington and the Gulf of Alaska — is also the most popular Alaska cruise itinerary. It’s one of the few routes with water that’s deep enough for cruise ships to get close to steep mountains and glaciers, yet tranquil enough to ensure smooth sailing.
The Inside Passage ports traditionally include Skagway, Ketchikan and Juneau, and you’ll be able to choose from a variety of shore excursions in each port. You can go dog sledding, panning for gold and whale watching. You’ll want to take a ride back in time on the charming White Pass & Yukon Route Railway, where you’ll learn about the fascinating history of Alaska and the Gold Rush.
Most cruise ships will also make a special stop or two for guests to admire one of Alaska’s estimated 100,00 glaciers, including Glacier Bay, and it’s a real highlight of the trip.
Glacier Bay is special because it’s a World Heritage Site and a national park, and it covers 3.3 million acres of raw beauty. Cruise lines will often bring Alaska park rangers and other experts onboard to tell you all about this incomparable place. It’s truly magical.
Another Alaska cruise option is crossing the Gulf of Alaska. You’ll still get to experience much of the Inside Passage itinerary but will often substitute Hubbard Glacier, the longest glacier in Alaska, for Glacier Bay. The biggest difference between itineraries is that the Inside Passage usually cruises round-trip from Seattle or Vancouver, while the Gulf crossings require you to fly one way to/from Anchorage and the other from Seattle or Vancouver.
What is the average cost of an Alaskan cruise?
Views of Alaska — Photo courtesy of Getty / Dennis Laughlin
An Alaska cruise can cost anywhere from $50 per day per passenger to more than $500, depending on the cruise line, the month you’re traveling, the length of your cruise and the location of your cabin.
An inside cabin with no window will always be the least expensive way to go, but a private balcony lets you spot whales and bald eagles without the crowds. Although cruises to Alaska are expected to sail at or close to capacity this year, be on the lookout for last-minute deals that can score you a bargain.
Do I need a passport for an Alaskan cruise?
View from the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway in Skagway — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark
Usually, you don’t need a passport for an Alaska cruise that stays in the United States. However, all cruise lines require proof of citizenship and recommend carrying your passport in the unlikely chance that there’s an emergency and you end up in another country.
If your Alaska cruise itinerary includes Canada, you will need to have your passport with you to enter.
Which cruise line is best for Alaska?
View from my balcony on Celebrity Millennium — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark
With more than 20 cruise lines heading to Alaska – many of which won USA TODAY 10Best’s Readers’ Choice Awards – the real question is which cruise line is best for you?
As longtime Alaska experts, Princess Cruises and Holland America Line are always great choices, offering something for everyone. If you’re bringing the kids, opt for Disney Cruise Line, but if you’re looking for a more sophisticated, adults-only atmosphere, Viking is the way to go. Regent Seven Seas will appeal to luxury seekers while those on a budget should look at Carnival Cruise Line.
Large ship enthusiasts will love the endless activities offered on Royal Caribbean Cruises, but for those who crave a smaller, more intimate ship, Seaborn Cruise Line is a good option, holding just 450 passengers and letting you see spots bigger ships just can’t get near.
What is a land and sea cruise?
Wildlife in Denali National Park — Photo courtesy of twildlife / Getty Images
The best of both worlds, a land and sea cruise combines your cruise with a pre- or post- land tour. Called a “Cruisetour,” this gives you a chance to see more of the state and explore places you couldn’t see from the water. Princess Cruises is a real leader in this area, operating Princess Wilderness Lodges, where you’ll stay each night.
Guides will take you into magnificent Denali National Park, where you’ll look for the big five (moose, bears, caribou, Dall sheep and wolves). Don’t be surprised if a grizzly walks right by your bus!
On a clear day, you’ll be treated to jaw-dropping views of Denali (which used to be called Mt. McKinley), the highest mountain peak on the continent. Your Cruisetour will also take you into the charming town of Talkeetna, whose mayor is a cat. Really. You’ll take a scenic railroad ride and cruise along the Chena and Tanana rivers on the last remaining Alaska sternwheeler.
A Cruisetour is an amazing experience. If you have the time and budget, do it. It’s a trip you’ll never forget.