Arguably one of the most popular cruise destinations on the planet, Alaska's glaciers, wildlife, and scenic waterways draw a million people each year to port cities from Ketchikan to Anchorage. Operating within a small window between late April and September, demand is high for Alaska cruises, particularly those offering programs to explore the historical and cultural aspects of the 49th state.
With both large and small ships available for passengers eager to experience Alaska's vast landscape, making careful financial and calendar-based decisions about booking dates is critical, especially for those travelers wanting to try as many activities as they can, in as many places as possible.
One viable option is an early-season Alaska cruise, beating both crowds and high prices for the sake of authentic Last Frontier adventures.
GoTip: Alaska cruisers should be aware of several sacrifices they may have to make for the sake of early-season trips. Some airlines offering seasonal service to and from Alaska may not yet be in operation, so ticket prices may be higher since the summertime competition hasn't arrived yet. Additionally, while most major tour operators are open for business, some smaller companies are still underway, so check carefully dates of your arrival and departure, particularly in the category of land-based travel.
Still think spring is the best time to cruise Alaska (and many people do)? Here's what you'll get.
1. Better prices. Cruise lines want to fill up ships since they're sailing anyway up the Inside Passage, and you can get a great deal on cabins, often with a verandah upgrade, all the better to view those glaciers and whales.
Some companies also offer valuable onboard credit, up to $200 or more, a valuable commodity for sea days. Land tours also can be bundled into many cruises, taking away the hassle of arranging your own transportation once you reach your disembarkation point and want to see more of the Great Land. Some cruise lines, like small UnCruise Adventures based in Seattle, offers credit for passengers embarking upon their inaugural sailing from Fisherman's Terminal each spring, sailing to Juneau as early as mid-April.
This 12-day cruise wanders along Washington's San Juan Islands before ducking into the famous Inside Passage, and is an excellent introduction to the beautiful rainforests of the Pacific Northwest.
2. Fewer crowds. Alaska port cities, particularly Ketchikan and Juneau, are positively choked with people in the high-season months of June through August. Visiting in late April or early May provides a breath of fresh air for those wanting to walk down the local sidewalks without bumping into people right and left. Popular attractions and sights like Mendenhall Glacier or whale-watching cruises will be less crowded as well, leaving you more space to ogle at these wonders of nature. Most families hesitate to travel before the final days of school, so if cruising with kids is not your preferred way to see Alaska, early in the season is probably the best.
3. Cheaper land stays and plays. Planning to explore independently before or after your cruise? Early-season deals around Alaska abound, covering everything from Alaska Railroad tickets to overnight accommodations at many hotels and lodges. An exellent purchase before your trip is the Alaska TourSaver book, a coupon booklet filled with 2-for-1 deals across the state.
Possibilities are endless, and all one needs is a sense of adventure and an open calendar.
4. Unique weather. Spring in Alaska is known affectionately (or not) as the "bipolar season," when brilliant sunshine, falling rain, or blowing snow (and sometimes all three) make for an interesting adventure. When travelers pack appropriately and come prepared for any weather at any time, this Alaska characteristic can be one of the best parts about a trip. Mountains are snow-capped, glaciers are sparkling, and icebergs bob upon the water. On land, skiing is still possible in some locations to the north, and the occasional snow shower provides visitors with something to talk about upon returning home.
5. Active wildlife. Come April, Alaska's animals are beginning to shake off a long winter by stretching their legs and feeding on the new growth beginning to pop up around the state, especially in Southeast Alaska, where temperatures are generally more moderate.
Look for black and brown bears on grassy hillsides and beaches; moose browsing along willow groves; eagles swooping along shorelines; and gray, humpback, and orca whales feeding on herring, krill, and salmon.