Complete Guide to Taking an Alaskan Cruise (What It’s Like)

When it comes to cruising, there is nothing quite like sailing to Alaska. It’s difficult to explain exactly what it’s like to sail to the 49th state, surrounded by mountains, wildlife, and amazing natural beauty. That’s because no matter how many photos or videos you see, it simply doesn’t do it justice.

Cruising Alaska
Thinking of taking a cruise to Alaska? We’ve covered what you need to know before you sail, including what it’s like.

Maybe you’ve sailed the Caribbean, but we can tell you that the experience of sailing Alaska is completely different in what you see, the experience onboard, and even your other passengers. In fact, there are many people who may not have any interest in cruising, but do consider taking a trip to Alaska.

Whether you’ve sailed dozens of times or never stepped foot on a ship, there’s plenty to know about taking a cruise to this part of the world. Below, we cover a cruise to Alaska from bow to stern, including everything from costs to tips and much more.

Answered: Why Take an Alaskan Cruise

First things first, why take an Alaskan cruise? What’s so special about sailing to this part of the world? And if you’re interested in seeing the state, why not just visit by taking a flight?

Let’s start with why you would want to visit Alaska in the first place. No matter where you’ve traveled before, there’s little doubt that the landscape of Alaska compares — or beats — anything you’ve ever seen.

The state is one of the last unspoiled places in the United States. Mountains rise literally out of the water. Wildlife, including whales and bald eagles, are abundant. Even glaciers are a regular sight on many cruises.

In short, Alaska is one of those “bucket list” destinations that just doesn’t have an equivalent. It has to be seen to be believed.

There’s little argument that Alaska is a must-see destination for many people… and there is no better way than by cruise ship.

That’s also where taking a cruise offers a better experience than a traditional vacation.

Unlike places in the continental United States, much of Alaska is not easily accessible via car. That means seeing multiple locations — even if they are relatively close to each other — often means traveling by plane or boat.

With a cruise, you have the ability to easily travel between different ports of call, allowing you to see much more in a short time. Being on the water, you’re also able to get up close to the scenery.

Most cruises in the Caribbean are in port for the day, and then head to sea each evening — meaning there isn’t much to see in between. In Alaska, even when you’re sailing, there’s still plenty to experience. The Inside Passage, which is the inner route that takes you all around the southeast of Alaska, takes you right next to the stunning landscape all day long.

In other words, if you’ve ever wanted to experience the state, there is no better way to do it than by cruise ship.

The Atmosphere on Board

There is a definite difference in the atmosphere when you sail to Alaska versus the Caribbean. Alaska is much calmer and less “party.”

One major difference of a cruise from Alaska compared to other cruises is the atmosphere onboard.

Head to the Caribbean and you’re likely to have a big sail away party, pumping music, free-flowing drinks, dancing, and more. And while there’s plenty to do on the ship when sailing in Alaska, the atmosphere is decidedly more subdued.

In part, this is due to the weather. While we wouldn’t describe sailing to Alaska during the summer season as “cold,” there are definite chilly moments. For example, it might be 75 and sunny one day, but other days it might be 50 degrees and raining. Especially if the ship is sailing (which creates a strong breeze), then this isn’t exactly “hang out and party at the pool” weather!

As well, you’ll find a different crowd on a trip to Alaska than a trip to the Caribbean. Now, you might be under the impression that Alaskan cruises are filled with older passengers. While older passengers are well represented, you’ll likely find the crowd remarkably diverse. All ages are on the cruise, and passengers from all over the country and the world.

That said, we’ve found the crowd does have fewer young adults that make a trip to the Caribbean more lively. All in all, expect an atmosphere that’s a lot quieter than what you would see on a four-day cruise from Miami.

Cost of Sailing Alaska

Expect to spend a little more cruising Alaska than cheaper getaways to the Caribbean, although the price difference isn’t that wild.

One thing that cruising is known for is offering great value. Instead of paying for airfare, a hotel room, entertainment, food, and more, it’s all included in one price that’s typically much lower than all of those put together. (Though since the return of cruising, prices have definitely moved higher.)

That’s definitely the case for Alaska, where the cost of arranging travel to all the ports you visit would be considerably higher for most people than taking a cruise. That said, in general you’ll find that a trip to Alaska will be more than a cruise to the Caribbean.

Cruises to Alaska can vary greatly, but even a good deal will typically be $600-$700 per person as a minimum for an interior cabin. Trips during the peak months can start higher than that. Of course, then you have port fees and taxes, as well as gratuities, onboard spending, and more.

Remember that most trips last a week, meaning there aren’t many opportunities for inexpensive, short getaways like you see from ports in Florida. As well, you have to factor in things like shore excursions, which tend to cost more than on a cruise to elsewhere.

And then there’s also the cost of airfare. Most cruises to Alaska depart from Seattle or Vancouver. Since most of the country lives far from these ports, you’ll have to consider airfare and transportation to the port.

All told, we think $2,000-$2,800 per person for a 7-day cruise to Alaska is a good estimate — not including airfare. You can cruise for less (or more), but this should give you an idea of what you’ll pay. For a more detailed breakdown on costs, read our article here.

Departure Ports

As mentioned, if you’re cruising to Alaska then you’re most likely departing from one of two port cities: Seattle or Vancouver.

Seattle (Pier 66): Located in the heart of downtown Seattle, Pier 66 is the starting point for cruises from Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania, and Regent Seven Seas. The centrally located port is convenient in that it’s easily reached by public transportation, making it relatively simple to get there from the airport.

Seattle (Pier 91): A few miles north of Pier 66, Pier 91 is where most cruises depart from the city. Here you’ll find names like Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Princess and others setting sail. It’s on the northern side of downtown, offering a great view of the city as you depart to head north. The facility is a little harder to get to, and you’ll need a ride like a taxi or Uber.

Vancouver (Canada Place): The last of the “big three” terminals that bring the most passengers to Alaska, Vancouver’s Canada Place sits right on the edge of downtown. From here, you’ll sail around Vancouver Island before heading up to Alaska. For those from the U.S., flights to Vancouver tend to be more expensive, which is something to keep in mind when searching for cruises.

Ports of Call in Alaska/Canada

Towns like Juneau and other Alaskan ports cater to tourists, but aren’t complete “tourist towns.”

There are a number of places that you can visit on an Alaskan cruise, with most week-long trips working in a visit to four ports and viewing a glacier from the ship. So you can take multiple cruises before you hit all the available ports of call. Below we’ve highlighted some of the most common ports.

Ketchikan: The closest Alaskan port to the continental United States, this town is still a healthy 700-mile cruise from Seattle. Here you’ll find a downtown that’s near the docks in what’s known as the “Salmon Capital of the World.” There’s also a good bit of native history, including a number of areas to see totem poles (both original and recreated). But be sure to bring a rain coat — the area is essentially a rainforest, receiving more than 150 inches of rain per year!

Sitka: Sitting protected in Sitka Sound on the west side of Baronof Island, Sitka offers up a lot of history to visitors. First it was the home to native peoples prior to Russians arriving in the fur trade. But it was also here that the Russians handed over Alaska to the United States in the mid 1800s. Today you can tour the quaint town and still see signs of Russian and native influence, including St. Michael’s Cathedral and Sitka National Historical Park, complete with countless totem poles. (See our guide to Sitka here.)

Skagway: Possibly the farthest north you’ll go on most cruises, Skagway’s claim to fame was as a starting point to head to the Yukon during the gold rush. Today, it’s kept that feel with a small but bustling downtown that looks right out of the turn of the century. Except today, it most definitely caters to tourism, with all sorts of storefronts and restaurants. One popular excursion is to take a train up into the mountains where the scenery is amazing. (See our guide to Skagway here.)

Juneau: Alaska’s capital city, Juneau sits at the base of Mt. Juneau and Mt. Roberts. The town is split into two sections, with ships docking in downtown. From here you can take an excursion to see the Mendenhall Glacier, explore the city (including a visit to the capitol building), grab a bite to eat, or do some souvenir shopping, and more. We like that there’s a real city here — not just a spot built for tourists.

Victoria: Due to U.S. law, a foreign vessel (which most cruise ships are) must make a stop at a foreign port before returning to the United States. If sailing from Seattle, that stop is usually in the city of Victoria, British Columbia. Here you’ll find a gorgeous city that’s a must-see. We’d recommend doing some sort of tour to be able to see all the sights quickly, followed by a stop in the downtown harbor area to see the Legislative Assembly building, the Empress Hotel, and the Royal BC Museum.

Arms & Glaciers: In addition to actual ports of call, many ships work in a sailing tour through an arm of a fjord and a view of a glacier. Here, the walls of the mountains narrow even more, putting you right in the middle of the beauty of Alaska. Then, you get to see a glacier at the end of the cut, along with ice in the water along the way. It’s a neat experience you can only get a few other places on the planet.

Excursions in the Last Frontier

On an Alaskan cruise, you can see glaciers, view wildlife, pan for gold, eat, drink, or just see the sights like Victoria, British Columbia.

What can really set a cruise to Alaska apart from any other cruise you’ll take are the shore excursions. It’s no exaggeration to say that excursions in Alaska allow you to do things that you simply can’t do anywhere else.

Glacier Tours: Many cruises to the state offer a route that takes you past a glacier on the ship (it will be listed on the itinerary). Even so, one popular thing to do is go explore the glacier in an up close and personal way. This can include everything from helicopter rides that land on the ice to kayak trips to the foot of the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau.

Wildlife Viewing: Whales, eagles, and bears? Alaska is famous for its wildlife and there’s no shortage of viewing opportunities no matter what you want to see. Just cruising between ports you might see whales, but there are also excursions that take you whale watching in hot spots. Bald eagles can be seen in the wild, but Sitka provides a sanctuary where you are guaranteed to see them. There is also a sanctuary to get a look (safely) at bears.

Sightseeing Tours: Of course, the reason you go to Alaska is to see the sights, whether it’s touring an amazing natural landscape or a historic city (or most likely, a combination of both). Any port you dock will offer some sort of tour of the area, ranging from walking to a motor coach to a train ride. These are typically affordable and a great way to see a lot of things in a short period of time.

You can check your cruise line’s list of excursions to see what your options are. In addition, you can also play it by ear. The ports you visit will have booths setup on land where you can go and explore your options — so don’t feel like you have to book something on the ship.

Tips & Things to Know About Sailing Alaska

While we have a full list of dozens of tips and things to know about sailing to Alaska, below we cover some of what we think are the most important items.

Be Ready for Long Daylight Hours (Messes With Your Sleep)
Maybe you “know” that daylight hours during the summer in Alaska are long. It’s another thing to experience it. Depending on the month you visit, the sun can rise as early as 4 a.m. and not go down until closer to 11 p.m. That means you end up getting up earlier and staying up later. After a few days, don’t be surprised if the lack of rest catches up with you.

Indoor spaces on the ship are important as the weather isn’t always inviting outside.

Be Selective on the Ship You Sail (Indoor Areas Are Important)
Perhaps nowhere is it more important to pick the right ship for your cruise than when cruising Alaska. Here, weather is such a big factor. Days can range from 75 degrees and sunny to 45 degrees and rainy. That’s why we suggest a larger ship with more covered spaces, such as indoor pools and covered recreation areas. These provide more areas to enjoy instead of feeling “stuck” inside the ship while you’re sailing.

Dressing Can Be Hard (Layers Are a Must)
Keeping in the theme of weather, you’ll likely find that it’s a little harder to dress for Alaska. When it’s warm and sunny, it is literally t-shirt and shorts weather. But cool and rainy… along with wind while the ship is moving? You’ll want to be bundled up with a hat, gloves, and jacket. And sometimes, those two can occur on the same day. It’s well-known, but dressing in layers is a must when you head to Alaska.

Excursions Are Pricey (But Worth It)
Excursions were mentioned above, but we didn’t mention price. If you’re used to sailing the Caribbean, be prepared for sticker shock. The outings here are typically much higher priced than elsewhere. You can still find things to do under $100 per head, but most trips run at least $150 in our experience, with high-end excursions like helicopter tours running $300+ per person.

Don’t Miss the Scenery Between Ports
Sail to the Caribbean and the schedule is typically stop in a port, enjoy the day, and then get back on the ship. Once the ship departs, there’s not much to see as you sail to the next port of call. In Alaska, there’s always something to see… and it shouldn’t be missed. Whether it’s sailing next to mountains or doing some whale-spotting as the ship cruises, there’s quite a bit to experience even between ports.

Balconies Are Worth It, But Don’t Fret
Yes, if you’re going to get a balcony cabin, then Alaska is a great place to do it. There’s plenty to see the entire trip, and it’s nice to be able to simply step out on the balcony to take in the view.

But even if you don’t get one (they are more expensive), you will have plenty of opportunity to see the scenery. Ships have lots of open deck space for you to watch the mountains and water go by, so it’s not a huge loss if you don’t have your own private balcony. As well, with the long daylight hours, an interior cabin (which gets plenty dark) may help you sleep better.

If You’re On the Fence About Alaska… Book it. You Won’t Regret it
Finally, if you’re still wondering if you should or shouldn’t take that cruise to Alaska, we say do it. It certainly can be a large amount of money to spend. But personally, sailing to Alaska is unlike any other cruise we’ve taken. It’s a chance to experience a landscape you can’t really visit any other way. You get to see and do things that you just don’t get anywhere else. We have yet to hear anyone be disappointed with a cruise to Alaska. It’s doubtful that you would be the first.

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