How to Choose an Alaska Cruise
About half of Anchorage travelers take a multi-day cruise as part of their Alaska travels. If your plans include a cruise, this guide can help select one right for you and ensure you don’t miss out on the best of Alaska before or after you sail.
Go for the Gulf
One-way cruises are the best option. You’ll be able to stop in Southeast Alaska towns like Juneau and Ketchikan, as well as Glacier Bay National Park, and also cross the Gulf of Alaska into the Southcentral part of the state. You’ll also experience things not seen on round-trip sailings, like Hubbard Glacier and Prince William Sound. A one-way cruise is the only itinerary that includes the dozen glaciers in College Fjord. It also gives you more flexibility to explore Alaska by land, and reach spots that aren’t part of any day aboard ship.
When to Visit Alaska on a Cruise
Cruise season in Alaska begins in May and ends in September. The schedule sometimes includes a few sailings in late April or early October as well.
There are only minor differences in weather by month. Temperatures are warmest in July and August, but even in May you can expect temperatures in the mid-50 and mid-60s. Anchorage is also much drier than other parts of Alaska, the wettest month, August, only still only averages about 10 rainy days. You might also find a little extra elbow room and a few deals in May, early June and September.
Late summer sailings have one other tantalizing prospect: by late August, the skies of Alaska are once again dark during the night. That means aurora viewing is a possibility.
Choose an Alaska Cruise Line
Just about every line offers sailings to and from the Anchorage area. From big ships to small vessels, luxury sailings and adventure-oriented expeditions, there’s something for everyone. Azamara, Cunard, Crystal, Celebrity, Holland America Lines, Norwegian, Ponant, Princess, Regent, Royal Caribbean, Silversea, Windstar and Viking Ocean Cruises all have offerings in this part of Alaska.
Northbound or Southbound?
One-way cruises typically sail between Vancouver, British Columbia, and the ports of Whittier or Seward, just south of Anchorage. There are sailings that begin in Alaska, and sail south to Vancouver, and others that begin in Vancouver, and sail north to either Whittier or Seward.
There’s no difference in northbound and southbound itineraries. The stops along the way are the same no matter which you choose, so it’s really about personal preference, and which lines up best with your travel plans.
Ashore in Alaska
In either case, one end of the voyage will be Seward or Whitter, Alaska. Both port towns use Anchorage to start the trip in Alaska, or as the final point before heading home. Princess uses Whittier, and all other lines use Seward.
Anchorage is also a great jumping off point for the land portion of the trip. The city is surrounded by national parks, has great attractions and food, and lots of trails and tours. You’ll be able to see more of the state, visit iconic national parks like Denali and Kenai Fjords, venture further from the docks, sample local foods, and have opportunities to meet more Alaskans in everyday settings.
Cruise Tour or No?
You can arrange land tours through the cruise company, or get a local’s feel by spending the time independently. If you like a structured schedule, and enjoy having a set plan, getting a land package through the cruise company can keep things simple. If you’d rather pursue an individual interest, break away from the group, or want the freedom to make things up as you go, independent travel can unlock some overlooked gems.
Insider Tips for Alaska Cruises
- Transfer day is a sightseeing day – The trip between Whittier or Seward and Anchorage travels one of the most scenic stretches of road in the state. You’ll cross the mountains and follow the coast of Turnagain Arm. Transfers are typically by motorcoach, private shuttle or train, but this is far more than getting from A to B. Keep your camera at the ready, and don’t be surprised if you spot wildlife and incredible natural landscapes along the way.
- Day cruises get even closer to glaciers – It’s worth adding a day cruise either in Prince William Sound or Resurrection Bay/Kenai Fjords. These nimble vessels are able to slip into smaller spaces than the big ships, better navigate to sea lion haulouts, bird nesting areas and whale watching hot spots in the moment, and get closer to glaciers and then linger in silence. These incredible sights also makes day cruises a great option for independent travelers as well. If spending nights aboard a ship doesn’t appeal to you, day cruises are a great way to sample the marine ecosystem and keep the start of each day on solid ground.
- Anchorage as flightseeing capital – Anchorage isn’t just the spot to catch the flight into or out of Alaska. With a huge concentration of pilots and small aircraft, it’s also a prime spot for sightseeing tours by air. Flights from Merrill Field or Lake Hood in Anchorage take off for glaciers in the nearby Chugach Mountains, the waters of Prince William Sound, or even circle Denali by air.
- Animals up close – It’s tough to spot land animals from the decks of a ship. Attractions like the Alaska Zoo and the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center introduce Alaska’s iconic animals. Of course, there are plenty of opportunities in the wild. Moose browse trailside in Anchorage. Salmon swim in streams like Ship Creek. Belugas cruise for fish in Cook Inlet. Dall sheep scramble along rocky cliffs in the Chugach Mountains. The key to seeing them is time on land in and around Anchorage.
- Deeper understanding of culture and history – Spending time in Anchorage can also mean a better understanding of what you’ll see elsewhere on travels in Alaska. As the state’s most populous city, cultural institutions like the Anchorage Museum and Alaska Native Heritage Center tell the story of Alaska, not just the city. A day spent in these top attractions puts what you’ll see in other ports of call in context.