How to Pick an Alaskan Cruise

So you want to cruise to Alaska! What an incredible place. Last year there were a record 1.3 million cruise visitors. (Per Travel Weekly) Having been to Alaska many times over the last ten years I have developed a love for Alaska. It feels a bit like going back to a summer camp that you once went to. You know where things are and the streets are lined with memories of years past.

Amazing 2:00am sunset outside Kodiak

In Alaska you will find eagles and glaciers, whales and bears, as well as all of the jewelry shops and tourist shops you could ever hope for. Picking out which Alaskan cruise is for you is far more than simply picking out which cruise line to go on – it is figuring out if you want to see the inside passage, if you want some small ports mixed in or if you want to see the tourist side of Alaska, brought about by the million plus cruise visitors. When picking a cruise you want to think about what you are looking for in a cruise. Adventure? Comfort? Vacation and Pina coladas? This post will focus on itinerary choices versus cruise line choice. My experience sailing in Alaska is with Holland America Line, and while Holland America Line might not be the right choice for everyone, I have been able to see a tremendous amount of Alaska through cruising with them. However, all of the major cruise lines are sailing to Alaska including Carnival, Celebrity, Disney, Holland America Line, Norwegian, Princess, Royal Caribbean, as well as luxury lines such as Cunard, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, Silversea, Oceania Cruises, Windstar Cruises, as well as expedition cruises with National Geographic, and international lines such as Hapag Lloyd, Hurtigruten, Ponant, Scenic, and Viking. So, whichever cruise line you have found that you like for you and your family, they likely will sail to Alaska. And, if you really want to be overwhelmed by your choices for Alaskan cruising, take a look at this calendar showing every ship going to Alaska for the summer.

Cruises to Alaska typically start in early May and will run through until September. Remember that the beginning of the season and the end of the season typically have more volatile weather and less kids onboard (schools aren’t out yet), but they might be less expensive as they are on the edge of the season.

When picking an Alaskan cruise I have found that there are five main types of cruises offered by the major cruise lines to choose from:

  • One week Seattle round trip
  • One week Vancouver round trip
  • One week from Vancouver to either Seward or Anchorage and it’s opposite, from Seward or Anchorage back to Vancouver
  • Longer than one week, roundtrip out of either Vancouver or Seattle
  • Longer than one week, roundtrip out of either San Francisco or Los Angeles
  • **please note this is not a comprehensive list of all types of cruises sailing in Alaska, but rather generalizations of the offerings by the major US market cruise lines. The more specialized and luxury cruise lines, the more additional offerings they may have. For instance, this itinerary offered by National Geographic, starting at $6,490 features 8 full days in Alaska.
From my second summer in Alaska, 2012

Each of these journey’s will offer you a glimpse into Alaska. You will see a glacier and you will hear the “white thunder” the name for the sound that the ice makes when it hits the water after breaking off, also known as calving. But, if you aren’t careful of the three Alaskan ports you go to, two will be filled with 4+ cruise ships daily and when you get off the ship you will be met by Diamonds International and given a strong dose of cruise ship tourism lacking in a feeling of authenticity. These ports are still important, and there is still plenty to do in each of these ports, but you’ll need to know what to do to get away from the other 8,000-13,000 cruise passengers for that day. I’d recommend either hiking or saving some money for shore excursions. Given these cities only have about 40,000 people to begin with, for most people they will still feel like a town, but once you get to some other cities in Alaska you start to realize just how commercialized they have been.

Based on itineraries alone, here are my thoughts on the main types of Alaskan cruise itineraries.

m/s Oosterdam in Ketchikan
  • One week roundtrip out of Seattle:
    • Best for: Families or first time cruisers that want a taste of Alaska without needing to wear hiking boots every day
    • Will likely stop in Juneau, Ketchikan, and either Sitka or Skagway, some are also now stopping in Icy Strait Point
    • Will go to one of the three main glaciers: Hubbard Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, or Tracy Arm
    • Will have a stop in Victoria, B.C.
    • Advantage: This is a great taste of Alaska. It’s roundtrip out of Seattle so if you are from the U.S. you won’t have to go through immigration at the airport and you are going from the same airport both times.
    • Disadvantage: The two most touristy ports – Juneau and Ketchikan are some of the main ports of this itinerary. This is fine – but budget to do shore excursions to really get your value out of these ports.
  • One week roundtrip out of Vancouver:
    • Best for: Families, new cruisers, but specifically those that want to stay close to land and have a lot of scenic cruising.
    • Will likely stop in Juneau, Ketchikan, and Skagway, maybe Haines
    • May have two glacier days, at either Hubbard Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, or Tracy Arm
    • Will cruise the inside passage – greater chance of seeing orca whales from the ship and overall more “scenic” cruising.
    • Advantage: With no need to stop in Victoria, B.C. there is more time for the ship to focus it’s attention on cruising in Alaska. This means you will get more scenic cruising, likely either an extra Alaskan port or an additional glacier day.
    • Advantage: There is another option where you are on the cruise until Skagway, and then do an overland tour. If you want overland and cruise but don’t have quite as much time, this is a great choice for you.
    • Disadvantage: You are flying in and out of Vancouver. If you are unfamiliar with traveling internationally this could cause stress for you. It doesn’t need to though and flying into Canada could be a great way for you to get used to flying out of country. It is the same airport in and out so luckily it will be familiar going both ways.
  • One week from Vancouver Northbound, or it’s opposite, Seward or Anchorage Southbound
    • Best for: Those that also want to do a land based tour and those that want to see just a touch more than just southeast Alaska.
    • Sample Itinerary on Holland America Line’s Noordam
    • This cruise is designed to be combined with an overland tour going up to Denali National Park. To get the best Alaskan experience this is recommended.
    • Port stops likely: Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway/Haines, plus disembarking in Seward/Anchorage
    • Glacier day at either Hubbard Glacier, Glacier Bay, or Tracy Arm
    • Scenic Cruising Inside Passage
    • Advantage: Can be combined with an overland tour and you get a great depth of Alaska
    • Sample Itinerary with Overland Tour on Holland America Line’s Westerdam
    • Disadvantage: Embark and disembark in different ports. Longer flight either to the ship or home unless you do an overland tour.
  • Longer than one week roundtrip out of Seattle or Vancouver
    • Best for: Those that want to see more of Alaska without having to pack and unpack for a land tour.
    • Someone wanting to go on a great fishing tour in Homer.
    • Not so much for: Families. While there may be some children on board there will be quite a few less because it is a two week cruise (harder for parents with school age kids to get away). Also, the HAL ship doing this run this coming summer doesn’t offer kids programs anymore.
    • Sample Itinerary on Holland America Line’s Maasdam
    • My personal favorite of the Alaskan cruises
    • Up to seven Alaskan ports: Homer, Kodiak (although less popular this coming year), Anchorage (and properly Anchorage, not docked in Seward), Valdez, Icy Strait Point, Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan
    • Typically Two Scenic Cruising Days: Hubbard Glacier, Tracy Arm
    • Vancouver Roundtrip includes inside passage scenic cruising
    • The Holland America Line itinerary for this summer also includes scenic cruising at Misty Fjords outside of Ketchikan.
    • Advantage: So many Alaskan Ports and scenic cruising! A great chance to get to see some of the smaller sides of Alaska all while only having to pack and unpack once!
    • Disadvantage: No overland tour to Denali and it takes a full two weeks.
  • Longer than one week out of California Ports (San Fransisco, Los Angeles)
    • Several cruise lines have expanded has expanded into offering Alaskan cruises from the Californian ports of Los Angeles and San Fransisco
    • Sample Itinerary: 10 Days out of San Fransisco on the Star Princess
    • Sample Itinerary: 10 Days out of San Fransisco on the Carnival Miracle
      • 3 Alaskan Cruise Ports and one scenic cruising day at Glacier Bay
      • One day in Victoria, B.C.
    • Sample Itinerary: 14 Days out of Los Angeles on the Golden Princess
      • 5 Alaskan Ports and one scenic cruising day at Glacier Bay
      • One day in Victoria, B.C.
    • Advantage: Roundtrip out of California! Much more convenient for a lot of people.
      • Great for someone looking for “vacation” – more sea days!
    • Disadvantage: While these are longer cruises they don’t offer more Alaska for the extra time.
m/s Amsterdam in Homer, Alaska

Everyone should go to Alaska. It is truly beautiful. However, as you should with any cruise, do your research and make sure you are going on the right one for you! If you don’t like being around kids, going on a one week Alaskan cruise in July is the wrong choice. If you want to do a lot of scenic cruising (like the inside passage for instance) and you chose thr one week out of Seattle it is the wrong choice. I say these things because I have met the passengers that are onboard lamenting these very facts. Or, hating the rain but choosing any Alaskan cruise in September! While it might rain any of the year, in September you have a really good chance at crappy weather, so yet again, due to a lack of research, it is the wrong choice.

There is an Alaskan cruise that is the right fit for you! Do your research and get out there and make friends with a whale!

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