8 Things to Consider When Booking an Alaska Cruise

Cruise ship in Alaska port
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Alaska is a dream destination for many travelers, and a majority of the state’s annual visitors arrive on a cruise ship. Those who cruise Alaska’s Inside Passage marvel at calm waters and spectacular scenery as the ship glides through protected waterways. Along the way, you may see whales, orcas, dolphins, and a host of other marine life from the comfort of your deck chair.

The ships come in a dizzying array of sizes and price points, and the itineraries can combine innumerable ways so that the planning can appear daunting. To help make things easier, here are a few things to know ahead of planning your journey.

The Best Time to Take an Alaskan Cruise

The best time to go depends on whether you're aiming for ideal weather or smaller crowds.

Alaska’s tourism season is short, starting in mid-to-late May and typically buttoning up by the end of September. Volume peaks in June and July, with most destinations seeing the fewest crowds before Memorial Day or later in August.

The weather in Alaska is always unpredictable, but is generally at its warmest and sunniest during the peak months. May can be cool to mild, and chances of rain increase from mid-August onward; as the days begin to rapidly shorten this time of year, temps also begin to cool.

The Best Time to Book an Alaskan Cruise

Book ahead for selection, wait for bargains.

Conventional wisdom for Alaska cruises is to book a year in advance—particularly for travelers who want the best selection of sailing dates and cabins during the June/July peak season. Bargain hunters who are more flexible can often snag deals during the “Wave” booking season in January and February, when cruise bookings for all destinations peak; last-minute deals can also be found as late as June.

Cruise lines tend to price higher for early bookings, with included add-ons like onboard credits or prepaid gratuities to entice buyers. Last-minute offers, on the other hand, are typically cruise-only. It also pays to monitor fares after the initial deposit—many cruise lines will honor lower fares after the initial booking as long as the final payment hasn’t been made. However, lower fares may not come with the same included amenities originally applied.

One-Way or Round Trip?

With a few exceptions, large-ship Alaska cruises typically operate one-way from Whittier or Seward to Vancouver, or round trip from the West Coast ports of Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, or Los Angeles.

Round-trip itineraries are a great way to avoid the often higher airfares associated with flying to different airports to embark and disembark the ship, but that convenience often comes with a higher cruise fare.

Round-trip itineraries are also geographically limited to the Inside Passage, while one-way itineraries cross the Gulf of Alaska and offer additional scenic cruising in College Fjord or Hubbard Glacier. Travelers who are interested in touring Southcentral and Interior Alaska by land before or after their cruise should book a one-way itinerary. 

Cruise or Cruisetour?

Many large-ship lines—including Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, and Royal Caribbean—have significant land operations in Alaska and offer cruisetours, a combination cruise and land tour for a single price.

Specifics vary by company, but in general, cruisetour guests will seamlessly transition between their cruise ship and land, traveling via narrated rail or motorcoach to company-owned lodges. At the lodges, guests can continue booking excursions and activities, similarly to how they would during their cruise. The one major difference is that unlike the more all-inclusive pricing onboard the ship, the land portion of most cruisetours generally doesn't include meals (although some “deluxe” or “fully escorted” itineraries do).

Cruisetours are ideal for travelers who don’t mind a set itinerary and prefer not to deal with the logistics of booking transportation and accommodations (which can be scarce and expensive during peak season) on their own. It’s also worth noting that the cruisetour experience can be difficult to duplicate for individual travelers, as the large cruise companies tend to dominate the landscape for transportation and lodging options, particularly in Denali National Park.

Cruisetours are not the best choice for travelers who prefer to travel away from groups or want flexibility with their schedules. Itineraries often run at a vigorous pace, with some early morning starts and evening arrivals when traveling between cities. It’s also worth noting that the accommodation options at or near Denali National Park are not luxury resorts—they’re wilderness lodges providing what is best described as a “better-than-modest” standard of accommodation.

Travelers wishing to continue their land tours in Alaska should strongly consider purchasing cruise line transfers between Anchorage and Whittier or Seward; cruise passengers comprise virtually all of the traffic between those cities, and alternative options for transfers are extremely limited. Outside of cruisetour packages designed to funnel cruise ship passengers directly to top attractions, most individual touring in Alaska will begin and end in Anchorage—not in the smaller cruise ports.

Cruise ship near the Hubbard Glacier and snowcapped mountains near the elias chain and the Yukon territory - Alaska, USA
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What Sights Should I Hold Out For?

Most of the top scenic attractions on cruises are capacity limited. Glacier Bay National Park, the banner destination for scenic glacier cruising, cannot accommodate all the large cruise ships each season. So, if Glacier Bay is a must, be sure to select a cruise that features it.

That said, the limited number of Glacier Bay entrance passes means that cruise lines have started calling at Hubbard Glacier and Tracy Arm for scenic cruising, and port calls at gems like Sitka are growing in popularity after years of downturn.

Denali National Park is a major draw for many visitors, but it’s also worth exploring alternative options such as the Kenai Peninsula, Copper River Center (both available on many cruise tours) or Katmai National Park (often booked as a separate add-on from Anchorage).

Should I Book an Outside Cabin or Balcony?

That’s a never-ending debate among veteran cruisers, but if there’s any destination that seems tailor-made for balcony staterooms, it’s Alaska. A significant portion of the time spent cruising in Alaskan waters is incredibly scenic. Book on the starboard (right) side of the ship for northbound itineraries, and on the port (left) side of the ship for southbound itineraries.

Another benefit to balcony staterooms is that travelers can step outside to gauge the weather when dressing for their day. Alaskan weather patterns can be deceptive—viewed through a window, a crisp sunny day can appear warmer than it really is, or a stiff breeze requiring a windbreaker may not be readily apparent.

Big Ship or Small Ship?

Ships sailing in Alaskan waters range from the newest megaships from the world's largest cruise lines to intimate expedition ships that can squeeze through narrower passages and transport passengers to deserted island beaches. On these smaller ships, the destination (and conversation about it) is front-and-center in the onboard experience; however, expedition vessels, while comfortable, lack many of the amenities of large cruise ships. Travelers who simply can’t live without an onboard casino or that chic wine bar are better off booking the larger ship.

An added benefit of small-ship cruises is that cruisers can usually leave their passports at home—the ships are often American-built and flagged, meaning they’ll depart from Alaskan ports and aren’t required to make foreign port calls.

Is a Pre- or Post-Cruise Hotel Room Necessary?

For travelers arriving or departing from Anchorage, almost always. Northbound sailings dock early in the morning, and passengers headed directly for the airport can often get there within a few hours. However, most flight departures from Anchorage for destinations further than the U.S. West Coast are in the early morning (too early for cruise ship arrivals) or around midnight, leaving a full room-less day in the city.

Even the post-arrival excursions that many cruises offer don’t eat up much time, so guests are often stuck in the ticketing lobby at the airport hours before their flight with all their checked luggage in tow (airlines can’t accept checked bags more than a few hours prior to departure, for security reasons).

Hotel rooms in Anchorage are expensive in the summer, but cruisers with more than a few hours to kill may appreciate overnighting in Anchorage (which has much to see and do) and departing at their preferred time the next day.

For departures from West Coast gateways, it’s easier to arrive the day of departure and go straight to the ship, but it’s almost always a good idea to fly in the night before to account for the possibility of delays. Arriving in West Coast ports is much easier than arriving in Anchorage, as there are typically flights available throughout the day.