Planning an Alaskan cruise? Even if you’ve taken a regular tropical cruise before, preparing for a trip to Alaska is completely different than any other vacation you might take. From the weather you’ll experience to what you do on shore, there are a lot of differences from your typical cruise.
To help you prepare, Cruzely has pulled together dozens of our most helpful tips and things to know about sailing to the last great frontier. From packing to selecting the right ship to when to sail, we’ve got everything covered.
Long Daylight Hours Impact Your Sleep
If you haven’t spent time this far north, be ready for long days. In Alaskan ports, the sun can rise around 4 a.m. and set after 10 p.m. Without the rhythm of a normal day that we’re used to farther south, you will likely wake up earlier than you are used to and go to bed later.
That’s on top of any time difference between Alaska and where you live (it’s four hours behind the East Coast).
You might find that after three or four days, the long days catch up with you and you end up crashing early to make up for lost sleep.
Be Ready for Odd Alaska Port Times
Head on a Caribbean cruise, and the schedule is familiar — show up to the port of call early in the morning and you’ll depart in the evening. Some ports are like that in Alaska, but not all. For instance, you might actually show up in the afternoon and then leave later in the evening. And instead of having a full day in port, sometimes you just have a few hours.
Take a look at a recent schedule to get an idea of what you can expect:
Uber/Lyft/Taxi Are The Easiest Options to the Seattle Port
Flying in for your cruise? Many people are, which leaves the question of how to get to the port. If cruising from Pier 66, then you can take a train from the airport station to Westlake Center. Then it is a 15-minute walk over to the cruise terminal. If sailing from Pier 91, there isn’t an easy public transportation option.
Most people will find it far easier just to catch an Uber/Lyft or a taxi from the airport. Not only does this minimize the amount of walking with luggage, but it also means a direct ride to the port, and you don’t have to worry about figuring out public transportation schedules. Expect a ride to run about $50-60 each way.
There Are Different Ports in Seattle (Be Sure You Have the Right One!)
Head to a cruise port in most cities and there is one port with multiple different terminals. If sailing from Seattle to Alaska, it’s a bit different. The two main piers are Pier 66 and Pier 91. These two spots are about two miles away from each other.
Pier 66 is near downtown and is home mainly to Norwegian Cruise Line ships. Pier 91 generally serves other cruise lines. Your cruise line will let you know which terminal you’ll sail from in your booking documents.
Book a Ship With Somewhere Warm to Swim
Sure any cruise ship you select is going to have hot tubs for passengers. But we suggest looking for those that have a solarium or other covered spots with pools. Only a few ships have them, but covered pools are a great spot to be able to relax and swim while staying out of the chilly air that can accompany a cruise to Alaska.
Don’t Forget to Pack Binoculars for Alaska
One thing that’s very different from a Caribbean cruise is the scenery on an Alaskan trip. That’s why it’s always a good idea to pack a pair of binoculars to take in the sites from both the ship and the shore during ports of call. The good news is that a pair of binoculars doesn’t have to be big or expensive. You can find an affordable pair on Amazon that won’t take up a ton of space in your luggage.
Sail on a Ship With Plenty of Indoor Things to Do
So much of taking an Alaskan cruise is about the scenery, but you can’t spend all your hours outside watching nature go by. That’s why it’s a good idea to book a ship that has a lot of indoor activities and things to do. Given that the weather in Alaska can be rainy and cool (especially with the wind when a ship is sailing), indoor things to do give you a chance to have fun while also staying out of the weather. In general you can find a lot more to do on the bigger and newer ships — say those built in the past 10-15 years.
Layer Your Clothes During the Day
When you’re out and about in Alaska, be sure to layer the clothes that you wear. Temperatures can range 40 degrees in a day, as well as dealing with different elevations, rain, clouds, and sun.
To be sure you’re prepared for anything, layering your clothes can give you options for when it warms up or it cools down. A base layer is a good idea, along with some outerwear in case of weather.
No, It’s Not Always Freezing (Weather Can Be Great)
If you think of Alaska, you might think of the cold… but you’d be surprised. Yes, there can be cold, damp, and breezy days. But many days are also very mild with lots of sun. For instance, during a recent Alaskan cruise, we saw grey skies with temps in the 40s while sailing, but then days in port were full of sun and in the 70s.
Don’t Forget the Sunscreen
If you are sailing to The Bahamas or Mexico you know to pack sunscreen. But an Alaskan cruise? One of our best tips is to pack sunscreen here as well. During the summer the days are long with a lot of opportunity to get burned if it’s clear out — especially with sun reflecting off of the water. Bring just as much as you would for the Caribbean and put it on just as often on exposed areas.
Be Prepared for Expensive Excursions
When you sail to Alaska, shore excursions are a must. While you can explore around the port of call on your own, excursions give you a chance for everything from viewing glaciers to panning for gold, to sightseeing to whale watching. The things you can do in Alaska on a shore excursion are unlike what you can do anywhere else.
Just be prepared for some sticker shock. Many excursions run into the hundreds of dollars, compared to offerings on Caribbean cruises that are typically much cheaper. Also, be sure to book as early as possible for the most choice.
Sailing From Vancouver to Alaska? Flying to Seattle & Taking the Train May Save Money
While Seattle is the big departure port for Alaskan cruises, a fair number also sail from Vancouver, Canada. The issue here is that for many in the United States, a plane ticket to Vancouver can be hundreds more than the same ticket to Seattle. This is despite the fact that the two cities are just over a hundred miles apart.
If you find this situation, it can be much cheaper to book the flight to Seattle and then take one of the many services between the two cities. For example, the four-hour train ride from Seattle to Vancouver only cost us about $40 when we took it.
Don’t Forget Cruise Insurance
Think of all the recent headlines regarding travel and health and then add on all the everyday occurrences like missing a flight or getting hurt or sick. Yeah, having some travel insurance can give you peace on mind.
If you’re taking any vacation, but especially a trip to remote regions like Alaska, getting insurance for your trip is a no-brainer.
Book a Seattle Hotel with a Shuttle to the Port
Many people fly into the area to take their cruise. That means transportation is always a big issue. While Uber, Lyft, and taxis are abundant in Seattle, there are a number of hotels that can also make things easier. To attract cruise customers, some hotels in Seattle have cruise shuttles that will take you to the port when it’s time to board. Simply stay a night and your transportation is taken care of for you.
You’ll Find the Cheapest Fares in May and September
The height of the Alaskan cruise season runs the summer, but most ships start sailing May and don’t finish up the season until September. Those May and September trips — when families that have kids in school can’t sail — are usually cheaper due to lower demand. You can find the same cabin on the same trip for hundreds of dollars less by sailing during one of these months versus the height of summer.
Your Phone Will Likely Work in Port
One issue with sailing on most cruises is that your phone doesn’t work. If sailing to Alaska, there is at least a chance (depending on your carrier) that you’ll have your normal cell service when in port. Since Alaska is part of the United States, your cell service provider may also offer service in this area with any additional charges. Check with your provider for a current map, or see our article here.
Reserve Onboard Activities and Restaurants Early for the Most Options
Often you can reserve activities and the specialty restaurants on the ship online ahead of time. If you can, do this. If not, look to reserve the moment you get on the ship. Times for the best restaurants and the hottest attractions fill up quickly because they are so popular. Unless you like doing things really early in the day or late at night, reserve as soon as you can.
Balconies Offer Amazing Views… But Are Chilly
Just about everyone will tell you to spring for the balcony cabin on an Alaskan cruise, and for good reason — the views can be spectacular. But just remember that things can get pretty chilly on those balconies. With the ship underway there is a constant breeze blowing, combined with already cool temperatures. So you can definitely take in the views, but you might not be sitting on the balcony as much as you think.
Observation Areas Are Perfect for Alaska
Some ships — like the Norwegian Joy — have observation areas. On the Joy and sister ships like Encore, there is the Observation Lounge and it is a multi-story sitting area with large windows that provide a sweeping view of the surrounding scenery. If the weather is an issue, it’s always warm and dry in this spot. Sailing ships with indoor observation areas looking out on the scenery are ideal.
Price Shopping for Your Alaskan Cruise? Prices Are the Same Across Sites
You can make your head spin by searching site after site for the best cruise deal. And while many promise low fares, we’ve found that the prices are almost always the exact same whether you go to the cruise line’s website. What might change are the incentives to book. So one site might charge $1,000 for a cruise, but have $50 in onboard credit. Another might have the same trip for $1,000 as well, but with $100 in onboard credit. All told however, the differences are usually small.
One site that can be a little different is CostcoTravel.com if you’re a Costco member. They often offer cash you can use in the store as an incentive. See our article on the best websites to book a cruise here.
Don’t Forget a Nightlight
If you’re sailing in an interior cabin, then do yourself a favor and pack a nightlight right now. You know that interior rooms don’t have windows, but you might not realize just how dark it gets. Without any light, getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night is tough in an unfamiliar cabin. The alternative is to turn on the cabin lights, which will wake your partner up. A cheap nightlight on Amazon is worth its weight in gold.
Cabin Fans Add Some Ventilation and White Noise
If you’re the type of person who has to have white noise and/or some airflow to help you sleep, then you should know that cruise cabins don’t have fans or vents. You can bring your own, however. You can pick up a cheap fan on Amazon for about $20 that won’t take up too much space in your cabin. If you get warm or simply like having some airflow, it’s a great thing to pack with you.
Plug-In Adapters Are a Must
The good news is that cruise ships are getting more generous with plugs in the stateroom cabins. Not only do they now include more on newer ships, but they also include USB charging ports. Still, many older ships have two or sometimes just a single outlet in the cabin. That makes it hard to charge devices. A cheap power adapter can plug in and give you several plugs where there used to only be one. Just don’t pack one with a surge protector as they aren’t allowed on ships.
Use Your Cabin Safe
Every cabin you sail will have a small safe, usually tucked into the closet or in the cabinets. While it’s not that big, it’s an easy way to store your valuables — passports, keys, cash, and more. Be sure to use the safe whenever you leave the cabin. While theft is rare, there’s no sense in making things any easier for someone with sticky fingers.
Do The Math Before Buying a Drink Packages
Drink packages make things extremely simple. You pay one price and get to drink pretty much anything on the ship for no additional charge. That said, they aren’t always the best deal, depending on how much you’ll drink. For instance, you have to purchase the drink package for every day of the cruise, even when you are in port and unlikely to use it that much.
To make things simple we have a drink package calculator here that can give you a better idea of the package is worth it for you. Just keep in mind that the vibe on an Alaskan cruise may not lend itself as much to drinking as it would on a Caribbean trip.
Some Cruise Lines Are Cheaper Than Others for the Same Sights
No one would argue that some cruise lines offer more luxury or nicer ships than others. But if you’re most interested in seeing Alaska — and not the ship — then most cruise lines offer similar routes. In other words, you can see the same sites as someone paying double or triple what you paid by going with a cheaper line. In particular, we’ve found in the past that Holland America has fares that are often inexpensive compared to rivals.
Do the Math on Balconies Versus Interior
If you can afford it, it’s preferable to sail on a balcony versus an interior cabin. But there is a lot of demand for these rooms and the prices can be significantly higher than an interior cabin.
While a balcony is nice, it’s not like there aren’t places around the ship to take in the scenery. In other words, if the price difference it outrageous, book the interior cabin, save the cash, and still get to experience 95% of what passengers with a balcony get to see, just not from the comfort of your own room.
Don’t Be Afraid to Pack Plenty
You’re going to be bound by airline restrictions if you fly into the port, but if not, don’t be afraid to overpack for your trip. Alaska can throw a lot of different weather at you in a short period of time, meaning different clothing is needed. Add in things like elegant night and you’ve got something else to pack for. Meanwhile, it’s not so easy to run out and get anything you might have forgot at home. Cruise lines don’t charge for baggage, so bring pretty much as much as you want.
Be Ready to Pay to Park
Driving into Seattle for a cruise to Alaska? Be forewarned that parking during your trip is expensive. Rates are $30 per night to park at the ports. Given the location of the terminals, there also aren’t many spots around for independent parking. You can stay at a hotel offering a parking package, but other than that there aren’t many ways to get around the parking fee if you’ve got to leave your car somewhere.
No, Marijuana Isn’t Legal on the Ship (But Is in Alaska Ports)
Sailing from Seattle to Alaska? One quirk is that recreational marijuana is legal in both states. However, it’s a bad idea to bring it on the ship, and it is against the rules. Cruise ships follow federal law, which says pot is illegal. Plus, the ship travels internationally, making it an even worse idea to bring marijuana or even CBD products.
Instead, just enjoy in ports if you want to partake and leave the rest on land.
Always Fly Into Port the Night Before
Flying in for your cruise? Then the most important piece of advice is to fly in the day before your ship departs. These days between weather, mechanical issues, and even computer shutdowns, there are way too many instances of flights getting delayed. Fly in the morning of your trip, and a delay could mean you miss the entire cruise. Give yourself peace of mind and fly in the day before.
Wait Until Port to Pick Up Anything You Forgot
It’s inevitable that you’ll think of something that you forgot to pack while on the ship. It’s just the way things are. If this happens to you, we’d suggest waiting until you get into port to pick up whatever you needs. Cruise ships sell staples — everything from candy bars to cough medicine — but there is an insane markup on the prices. You’ll save money and have a wider selection if you wait until the ship ports. There will be a small store or two where you can pick up sundries.
Download the Cruise Line’s App
All the major cruise lines now have apps that you should download before you board the ship. Why are they so important? These apps are full guides to the ship and everything on board. In your pocket you can have a full map of every deck, a complete list of every activity, opening and closing times, port information, and can even check the summary of your onboard spending account. In short, the apps are extremely valuable to passengers. The best part is they are free to download and use.
Always Wait For People to Get Off the Elevator First
Elevators are the heart of ship and you’ll likely ride them several times a day. One annoying habit is that many cruisers like to crowd around the doors to get on. That means those trying to get off the elevators are stuck while those wanting to get on move out of the way. Just keep things simple and make sure there is no one else exiting before trying to get on your elevator.
Don’t Forget Your Swimsuit
Sure in Alaska you aren’t going to the beach, but there are still opportunities to take a dip. From the pools on the ship (hopefully covered) to hot tubs that are nice and warm during a cool Alaskan night, you’ll definitely want to pack that swimsuit. You might use it more than you realize.
Get Your Cash Beforehand (ATMs Are Expensive)
You likely want to bring some cash on your cruise. It’s best to grab it before you head to the ship. On the cruise ship there are cash machines, but expect to pay dearly. Charges of $6 to get out cash are normal. Save the money and bring cash from home. Not sure how much to bring? Here’s some advice on how much cash to bring on a cruise.
Bring Your Wine or Champagne
Cruise lines don’t let you bring beer or liquor on the ships. But they do allow you to bring a bottle or two of wine of champagne. If you drink these beverages, then take advantage of the perk. Consider that a moderate bottle of wine in a grocery store can cost $10-12. Meanwhile, a glass of wine on the ship can be $10-12. In other words, that bottle you bring can save you a small fortune compared to drinking on the ship.
Payouts in the Casino Aren’t that Great
During your trip there will be plenty of time to try your luck in the ship’s casino. Now it doesn’t take a genius to know that any time you gamble the edge always goes to the house. On a cruise ship that edge can be even larger. Payouts are notoriously low on the ships, including blackjack that pays 6-to-5 and video poker with low returns. If you still want to gamble ,there’s nothing wrong with that but just know that the chips are stacked against you.
Sunglasses Are a Must-Have in Alaska
Again, you might be surprised at times by the sun in Alaska. While there can be some overcast days, those sunny days can hit hard. Just because you’re not going to the Caribbean doesn’t mean you can leave the sunglasses at home.
Invest in a Camera With a Zoom
These days almost all of us use our phone as our camera. While phone cameras are great for most shots, they often lack in the zoom capability. If you want to spot wildlife in Alaska and catch a snapshot, then you’ll want a decent camera with a zoom feature. This will allow you to get stunning pictures of the beauty of Alaska, even if you are quite a distance from your subject.
A Cheap Poncho Keeps Your Prepared
We’ve covered that it can rain in Alaska. That’s why we suggest packing several of those inexpensive plastic ponchos. They fold up into a small square so that they take up hardly any space in your luggage. Even so, they can unfold and be worn to keep you drier in a downpour. Pack several for each person in your party because once you used them you aren’t going to want to try to dry them out and fold them up again.
Sail Late in the Season For the Best Chance of Northern Lights
The Northern Lights can occur year round, but the long days during the summer mean that your chances of seeing them are less. If you sail late in the season (late August or September), then the days start getting shorter. That leaves a longer — and darker — time for you to be able to see the spectacle. There’s still no guarantee you’ll get to see them, but it will increase your odds.
Crowds Are Smaller in the Shoulder Season
Want to sail with fewer crowds and ships? Look to set sail in the early part of the season (May) or the later part of the season (late August-September). With school back in session, fewer families can take a week off to sail to Alaska. Meanwhile some ships either aren’t sailing yet or have moved on for the season. That can mean fewer people in ports of call.
Different Cruise Lines Appeal to Different Passengers
While the cruise lines often sail similar routes and see similar things, there is a difference between the cruise lines and what they offer passengers. Some passengers are simply looking for the cheapest fare while others want to highest-level of luxury. Still others want to sail the biggest and newest ships. There’s no doubt that different ships will have different experiences, so do your research before booking to find the line that best fits your style.
Yes, You Need a Passport or Birth Certificate to Cruise to Alaska
If you’re sailing from the United States… and sailing to another U.S. state… why do you need a passport or birth certificate to travel? Cruises stop in Canada for at least one port of call to satisfy requirements put on them by U.S. laws. That means you technically leave the U.S., sail to a foreign country, and then re-enter.
It’s best to have a passport, but if your cruise starts and ends in the same port you can travel with a government-issued birth certificate. For more on details about sailing with a passport or birth certificate, see our article here.
Expect to Spend More on an Alaskan Cruise
One of the big draws of cruising is that it can be a cheap vacation. Head to the Caribbean for a few days and you might find a fare as little as $200 per person. That’s not the case for Alaskan cruises. Expect to spend significantly more.
Most trips for a week start at $500 per person for the cheapest rooms in the shoulder seasons. Peak times to sail see prices start at $800 or more for an interior cabin. Add in port fees and taxes, gratuity, and charges for double occupancy, and you can expect to spend $2,000 at a minimum. Don’t forget the cost of flights to the port as well and excursions, which are a must.
Have questions about sailing to Alaska? Let us know in the comments below.
More on Cruising Alaska:
- Can I Use My Phone? Guide to Cell Phone Access on an Alaskan Cruise
- 29 Must-Have Things to Pack for an Alaskan Cruise (11 You’d Never Think Of)
- Are Alaskan Cruises Worth It? Absolutely, and Here’s Why…