Three Basic Alaska Cruise Itineraries

Cruising Alaska - Ways to See Alaska

Glacier Bay in Alaska
••• Glacier Bay in Alaska. Alaska (c) Linda Garrison

Alaska has been a cruise lovers' favorite for many years, and most cruise ships use one of three basic Alaska cruise itineraries. Many cities and sites are inaccessible by road in the 49th state, and a cruise ship provides passengers with a view of many natural wonders and parts of Alaska that cannot be seen on a land vacation. For example, Juneau, Alaska's capital, cannot be reached by land. Visitors must take a ferry, cruise ship, or arrive by plane.

Juneau is almost always included as a port of call on cruises of Alaska's Inside Passage. 

Most Alaska cruise visitors are ages 45-65, and over 30 percent have cruised to Alaska before. It's a deservedly popular place to sail.

One million cruise passengers sail Alaskan waters during the short 5 month cruise season, and it is one of the top five cruise destinations for US travelers. This number represents over half of all the visitors to Alaska. It is interesting to compare Alaska to the less than 40,000 who visit Antarctica during its short cruise season. About 15 cruise lines send more than 40 diverse ships to Alaska each summer, ranging in size from 12 passengers to over 2600!

Three Basic Itineraries to Alaska

When planning your Alaska cruise, you will have over 30 Alaska ports of call on three basic itineraries to choose from:

  • Inside Passage. Ships sail roundtrip from Vancouver, Seattle, or San Francisco to the southeast panhandle of Alaska. This area of SE Alaska is often called the Inside Passage, which is a protected sea route along the western coast of North America. The Inside Passage stretches for about 950 miles from Seattle along the coast of British Columbia and to the northern part of the Alaska panhandle near Haines and Skagway, Alaska.

    Cruise ships often sail the Inside Passage because the waters are calm, the scenery spectacular, and the ports interesting. Cruises embarking in San Francisco, Seattle, or Vancouver and visiting ports such as Juneau, Ketchikan, and Skagway are considered "Inside Passage" cruises.

    Cruises usually include stopovers in Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway, and the famous Glacier Bay National Park, home of 16 magnificent glaciers. Sailing roundtrip often makes your airfare cheaper since you embark and disembark in the same port.

    Small cruise ships are primarily based in the Inside Passage of Alaska because the waters are much calmer and the distances are not as far. Small ships like those of Un-Cruise Adventures, The Boat Company, and Lindblad Expeditions usually sail from Juneau or Ketchikan. Only ships that are flagged in the USA can sail in Alaska without visiting a Canadian port; others must stopover in Canada at ports like Victoria or Vancouver.
  • Gulf of Alaska. Working north from Vancouver, the south central coast of Alaska is added to the Inside Passage for Gulf of Alaska cruises. Ships sail one-way between Vancouver or Seattle and Seward, the closest port to Anchorage. Your embarkation and disembarkation points are different, but you have the opportunity to see much more of Alaska's spectacular scenery, including the glacier-clad Gulf of Alaska and the Hubbard Glacier. Large and mid-sized ships often cruise this itinerary since the waters of the Pacific Ocean are sometimes more rocky than the quiet waters of the Inside Passage.

  • Bering Sea Cruises. Expedition ships sail this historic sea between North America and Asia. Most of the larger, mainstream cruise lines do not venture this far north.  Some mainstream and luxury ships sail the this northern route when repositioning between Alaska and Asia. 

Many cruise lines offer cruisetour packages to "add-on" to your cruise. These packages can last anywhere from a couple of days to over a week, and include visits to inland Alaska, such as Denali National Park, home of Mt. Denali (also known as Mt. McKinley). Cruise lines also offer extensions to the Yukon Territory of Canada and Fairbanks, which is north of Denali National Park. When planning your cruise, you might want to think about staying a few extra days to experience more of this magnificent part of North America. Whichever Alaska cruisetour or cruise itinerary you choose will be sure to be a memorable one!