How Alaskan Cruises Differ From Caribbean Cruises (And It’s NOT Just Colder)

Sailing Alaska is unlike any other cruise you will take. Even if you’ve taken dozens of cruises to the Caribbean, Europe, or elsewhere, it’s vastly different when you sail to this part of the United States.

Cruise ship departing Skagway, Alaska
Cruising Alaska may feel familiar if you’ve sailed other places before, but there are lots of differences you should know about before you get on the ship.

From the weather to schedules to excursions, and even the atmosphere on the ship, it’s not the same experience when heading to Alaska compared to a Caribbean cruise. To help you prepare, we’ve rounded up some of the biggest changes that you need to know about before you sail to one of the most remote and scenic places on the planet.

The Vibe Onboard Is Different

If you’ve sailed the Caribbean on a major cruise line, then you know that the vibe is normally festive. There are big sail-away parties, drinks and cocktails flow freely, music is pumping poolside, and it’s generally a party.

Cruising to Alaska? The vibe is much more subdued. While we haven’t sailed every cruise line, when we did sail, there was no big poolside party, conga lines, or thumping dance music. Instead, people just lined the rail to watch the view as the ship began the journey.

It’s more of the same during the cruise. There are still events like dance parties and “Sexiest Man Competitions,” but in general the atmosphere is less of a party.

Ship Design Matters Much More

Indoor pool on a cruise ship
Having indoor places to enjoy, like this swimming pool, can make the trip so much more enjoyable.

Head to the Caribbean and what really seems to matter is that you have plenty of space around the pool. On cruises to Alaska, however, the design of the cruise ship is much more important.

Weather is a major player when sailing to Alaska. Days can be gray, cold, and rainy or bright, sunny, and warm. Even on warm days, however, if the ship is sailing or the wind is blowing, then it can be chilly.

That means having a ship with indoor areas is ideal. This includes things like indoor pools and activities. For example, Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas has an indoor pool, the indoor Solarium, and the SeaPlex that is essentially an enclosed sports arena with lots to do.

Having these options means no matter the weather, there are places where you can go and enjoy during the cruise while still being comfortable.

Excursions Run Expensive

Part of the big appeal of Alaska is seeing scenery and nature that you just won’t see back home. It’s popular to book an excursion that will allow you to do things that are impossible anywhere else. Things like kayaking near a glacier or going whale watching are popular.

We do recommend people do some of these excursions, but you should know that they will likely be more expensive than you’re used to seeing.

It’s not unusual for these day trips to run into the hundreds of dollars. There are a few less expensive options here and there that are usually simple bus or walking tours. However, in general excursions seem to start at around $150 per person and go up from there.

That’s considerably more than the lower prices you usually see in the Caribbean.

Boarding Can Be Long

Despite arriving later in the boarding window, we were surprised at how long the line was to get on the ship in Seattle.

The longest we’ve ever waited to board a ship? It was more than an hour when sailing from Seattle. And that was after waiting until late in the boarding time to get to the pier.

Typically if you sail from a place like Miami or Fort Lauderdale, the boarding process is so well-oiled that it seems like you barely have to stop between the time you walk into the terminal until you walk onto the ship.

In Seattle, it was a different story. Arriving around 2:30 p.m. to board, we were shocked to see a line of hundreds waiting to even enter the terminal. Then there was a line inside the terminal to get to security. And then another line after security to be checked-in.

We can’t say it’s every cruise, but the staff we talked to made it sound completely normal.

Port of Call Times Are Much Different

Dockside in Juneau
Some ports of call may see you arrive in the afternoon and then leaving that night.

Head to a port and you expect to get there early in the morning and leave in the evening. For some ports of call, that is the case. In other situations in Alaska, you’ll have port times that are drastically different.

For instance, maybe you’ll arrive at 1 p.m. and then depart at 8:00 p.m. Or even a stop where the ship arrives at 4 p.m. and then all aboard is 9:30 at night.

Longer daylight hours up north make this more feasible, but it’s still a bit different if you are used to sailing in the Caribbean or elsewhere. Just know that your schedule isn’t always as regular as you might see on a cruise to somewhere else.

Dressing Is Hard to Get Right

There’s not much that’s tough about cruising, but one of the bigger challenges is figuring out what to wear when you sail Alaska. That’s because the weather can change quickly, and even if it doesn’t, your comfort can still change from hour to hour.

Take, for example, a perfectly clear and sunny day. In that case, the temperature can rise into the 70s and with plenty of sunshine, it can literally be t-shirt and shorts weather. But if you go into the shade or if the wind blows over the colder mountains or water, then it can instantly turn chilly, meaning you’ll want to cover up. It’s the same with days that can start chilly and gray, but then clear up, making it warmer.

Our advice is even if it looks clear when you leave the ship, always bring a jacket and always bring something to cover your head.

Inside Areas Can Get Crowded

One drawback of having weather that’s not the best for lounging poolside means that the traffic patterns around the ship are different. Normally people would be out in the sun on the pool deck on a nice afternoon. In Alaska, those people are looking indoors for things to do. That means there are definitely more people in the interior spaces of the ship than you might be used to seeing.

Of course, if you’re used to taking a Caribbean cruise, times like the evening will see people move from outdoors to the indoors on the ship. So bigger crowds at some times isn’t out of the ordinary. It’s just that in Alaska they are more common during the mornings and afternoons.

The Entire Day Is an Experience, Not Just Ports

Inside Passage in Alaska
Sailing from port to port lets you see some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet, no matter the time of day.

You might be used to a certain type of routine on a cruise. You visit a port, then it’s out to sea and there’s nothing much to see until you reach the next port of call.

When sailing Alaska, that’s not the case. After the first day at sea that heads up to the state, each subsequent day is filled with scenery that’s right outside your window. Cruising around from port to port in Alaska, you’re almost always within a short distance from land.

So from the time you open your curtains in the morning until you go to bed at night, there’s always something to see. Maybe it’s mountains passing by your window, or spotting whales and other wildlife. Don’t think that you’re just killing time until you reach port.

Long Daylight Hours Can Mess With You

This shot was taken at 10 p.m. in the evening. We found ourselves staying up longer than usual due to the sunlight, and after a few days, it took a toll.

It’s hard to explain the impact that being so far north can have on your internal clock. In fact, you might not notice it for a few days.

Being so far north, the days are long. The sun can start to shine before 5 a.m. and it doesn’t set until 10:00 p.m. or later. Without the rhythm of a normal day, you might find yourself waking up earlier and going to bed later than you’re used to doing back home. And on top of that, don’t forget about any time difference between Alaska and where you live. The state is four hours behind the Eastern time zone

In our experience, these longer days and time change seem to catch up with you after three or four days. By that time, you might find yourself suddenly crashing in the evening.

The Scenery Is More Spectacular Than You Think

Alaskan scenery
No matter how many pictures or videos you see, it won’t do the landscape the justice of seeing it yourself.

The main reason to go to Alaska is to see the scenery and landscape that this part of the world offers. But we can tell you personally that no matter how many photos or videos you see, it does not do Alaska justice.

When you sail into a port in the Caribbean, the ship is usually the biggest thing and the highest point for miles. In Alaska, you are dwarfed by mountains that aren’t just here and there. They literally surround the places you’ll visit.

It all adds up to a landscape that you can’t just experience through pictures. You have to be there to get the full scope as it’s even more amazing than you think.

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