The Best Time to Cruise Alaska

Cruise ship.
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The best time to cruise Alaska is in May or June, at the beginning of the cruise season. Alaska’s cruise season has always been short, peaking quickly at the height of the summer months and then done by early fall. But as the destination has grown in popularity, the season has extended, and there’s a definite sweet spot to target. In May and June, the days will be at their longest, the weather (although still unpredictable) will generally be its sunniest and driest, and the range of excursions and options at their most plentiful.

With that in mind, Alaska is still a dynamic destination—no one snapshot of time during the year is guaranteed to encompass all this state has to offer. There are always tradeoffs. Visit too early in the summer, and you'll miss the salmon runs (and the bears that come to feed on them); visit too late, and much of the wildlife that attracts summer visitors will have either started retreating for warmer climes or begun looking for a den to hibernate in for the winter.


Alaska’s weather is unpredictable, to say the least. There are days throughout the year when there can be a temperature swing of a hundred degrees on opposite ends of the state—50 degrees Fahrenheit in Sitka and 50 degrees below zero in Fairbanks, for example. May can be one of the finest months across Alaska, as daylight reaches near-summer heights, while June is even nicer, with the last chill of the arctic winter departing for the season.

The Official Visitors Guide for Juneau playfully uses a raindrop graphic for every month in the calendar (in Southeast Alaska it’s never a question of whether it will rain, but how much it will rain). Wetter weather often sets in during the month of July, getting progressively wetter going into autumn. Juneau averages 15 days of rain in June, reaching 21 days of rain by October. In Anchorage and the northern part of the state, the rain often turns to “termination dust”—i.e. snow—as early as late September.


The Alaska cruise season begins in mid-May, but it doesn’t reach full swing until after Memorial Day. Sailings departing earlier in the season will less frequently be sharing berth space in port with numerous other ships, meaning that crowds in the ports will be somewhat lighter. Later in June and through July, visitors will find themselves at the peak of the short season, when the maximum amount of cruise ships and land visitors all pour into small town centers and cycle through popular tourist attractions on a relentless schedule.

People In Zodiac By Sea Against Trees
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Tourist Attraction Availability

The maxim on Alaska cruises is that it’s best to book ahead to guarantee prime spots on shore excursions—although, with fewer travelers vying for slots in the shoulder seasons of May and September, that availability tends to sell out later. Wildlife tours, for example, popularly sell out of their early morning slots early, as this is an ideal time to see the wildlife before it gets exasperated with the streams of tourist buses and boats.

Offered by Princess Cruises and Holland America Line, fishing excursions that allow guests to have their catch prepared and served to them onboard the ship also sell quickly. Cruise goers set on this experience should check frequently with the cruise line regarding the anticipated permitted fishing season, as the catch is strictly limited or sometimes prohibited early on during the run, and the state’s regulations change frequently based on observed conditions.

When planning your cruise, the weather should be a consideration for many shore excursions. For example, flightseeing via fixed wing or helicopter is a popular way to see glacier fields and spectacular mountain vistas, but small aircraft are sensitive to weather conditions. Choosing to cruise during the dryer months of May and June can help give you a better chance at participating in these weather-dependent excursions, although of course there’s never a guarantee.


Alaska cruises are popular with multi-generational groups, and as such, North American school schedules tend to dictate pricing peaks. Price-conscious travelers will generally find price breaks before Memorial Day or after mid-August, when schools in many parts of the country will be in session.

Cruisers planning to sail from mid-June through mid-August should start looking at sailings up to a year in advance, particularly if there are stateroom or itinerary preferences (popular sailings that include stops in Glacier Bay or Icy Strait Point book quickly).

Another time to book is during the “Wave Season” during the first two months of the year, when cruise deals abound for all destinations. Alaska cruisers can also find good last-minute deals just a few months prior to summer departures, although the best availability for these deals is often during the May shoulder season, or for the last remaining staterooms or cruise tour slots for sporadic dates throughout the summer months. Last-minute deals are also most common on large-ship lines, including Cunard, Celebrity, Carnival, and Royal Caribbean.

Cruisers booking small-ship cruises like Uncruise Adventures or the Indigenous-owned Alaskan Dream Cruises should also plan to book far in advance, as the small capacity of the ships often limits availability on popular sailings.

Humpback Whale Tail With Icy Mountains Backdrop Alaska
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The Best Time for Whale Watching

It depends on the species. Gray whales can be seen in Alaska waters as early as April. Orcas tend to migrate to (and concentrate in) Southeast Alaska in May and June, while humpback whales are at their peak in June and July. Beluga whales come later in the summer, following the salmon runs in Southcentral Alaska; the best place to see them is around Cook Inlet and the Gulf of Alaska from mid-July through August.

The Best Time for Viewing the Northern Lights

Generally considered a winter activity, the northern lights (or aurora borealis to be technical) are actually present in the upper atmosphere year-round—it’s just too light to notice them during the endless, sunny days of the Arctic summer. By August, it’s dark enough during the night to see the northern lights, and cruises in September afford the best chances with longer, darker nights—although it’s worth noting that September is one of Alaska’s rainiest months, so there’s more chance of cloud cover. That said, the routing of cruise ships away from shore and the light pollution of major cities affords some of the best conditions for northern lights spotting.

Key Events & Festivals

If you're extending your time in Alaska and planning a pre- or post-cruise itinerary, or you're simply looking for fun things to do at your ports of call, these are the top events and festivals to check out during peak Alaskan cruise season.


  • In Anchorage, Summer Solstice is observed with a festival, which also coincides with Pride and Juneteenth, making the entire week feel like an endless parade. Visitors to Fairbanks—where the solstice day is a full 24 hours—will find a street festival and baseball game.
  • Pride events can be found throughout Alaska in June, even in tiny Skagway, which has a year-round population of just 1,200.
  • The Sitka Music Festival takes place through the month of June, with concerts and intimate chamber performances by visiting and local musicians.


  • Every July 4 in Seward, competitors run a marathon, Alaska style—that is, up the side of the aptly named Mount Marathon. Throngs of crowds gather to watch and cheer on their favorites.
  • Independence Day is observed throughout Alaska with fireworks and parades, most notably in Anchorage.
  • Forest Fair is traditionally held in Girdwood, a progressive resort community south of Anchorage, the weekend after Independence Day.


  • Off the cruise ship track (but worth a visit for visitors ending their trips in Anchorage with a day or two to spare), the Alaska State Fair is a supremely local gem, with famously gigantic vegetables, local arts and crafts, and a carnival midway that could be plucked right out of any all-American town.
Frequently Asked Questions
  • What are the best months go on an Alaskan cruise?

    May and June are the best months to go on an Alaskan cruise, as the weather will be at its warmest and driest, and you'll have the widest range of shore excursions available.

  • What is the best month to see whales on an Alaskan cruise?

    You can spot whales from April through August, although the type of whale you'll see will greatly depend on the month. Gray whales, for instance, can be found in April, while orcas appear around Southeast Alaska in May and June. In June and July, you can watch humpback whales, while beluga whales pop up in Southcentral Alaska from mid-July to August.

  • What is the best time to see the northern lights on an Alaskan cruise?

    The best time to see the northern lights is in August and September, as the nights get longer and darker heading into winter. However, keep in mind that September is a particularly rainy month, so there's a chance that it will be too cloudy to see them.