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Alaska Cruising Guide: Everything You Need To Know About The Last Frontier

I think cruising in Alaska should be on everyone’s bucket list. Alaska is one of the most unique and beautiful places I’ve ever been, and it is truly unbelievable that it’s in the USA. The culture and scenery here is unlike anything else you’ll see in the world. Alaska can be quite difficult to travel to and navigate around, which is why I highly recommend cruising! I cruised the Inside Passage a few years ago with my family and am SO glad I did since the Last Frontier is one of the hardest states to cross off while visiting all 50 states. This travel guide is going to cover everything you need to know about cruising in Alaska, including the best month to cruise Alaska, cruise deals to Alaska, and the best boats for cruising.

The Best Month To Cruise Alaska

Most major cruise lines operate Alaskan sailings from May – September, except for Holland ships which do sail from late April through October. Not only would it be unenjoyable for guests to visit the Inside Passage in the winter months, it would be dangerous! Cruises to Alaska don’t occur during the winter months since the dark and cold aren’t ideal for cruisers. The wonders of Alaska really are the scenery, culture, and wildlife. During these months, when it’s dark for most of the day, it would be hard to truly enjoy the wildlife and locals. Plus, it would be absolutely frigid!

You should consider an Alaska cruise in August. Daytime average high temperatures are in the low- to mid-60s in August and lows are in the upper 40s and lower 50s. A little bit chillier than June and July, but also a little less crowded in the ports! Plus, you can soak up a full 15 hours of daylight during this time of year.

Alaska’s bears are still in full view throughout August as they search for salmon and berries, which are in peak season in August. Bald eagles can also be spotted near salmon-spawning streams in August.

The Best Boats For Cruising In Alaska

Several of the world’s major cruise lines offer Alaskan itineraries. My family and I chose to visit with Royal Caribbean and were on board the Radiance of the Seas. The other best boats for cruising in Alaska include Norwegian, Holland America Line (the only cruise line to offer sail dates from late April – October!), and the Celebrity Solstice. My sister and I took a Mediterranean cruise with Celebrity a few years ago and LOVED it, so this one is a top recommendation!

Alaska cruising guide

The Radiance of the Seas was the perfect size where it didn’t feel too busy, but also had a lot of family-friendly activities. On board, you can find a rock climbing wall, a spa & fitness center, outdoor movie nights, and mini golf. The best boats for cruising all have a plethora of activities for guests to enjoy during sea days and also nightly entertainment offerings.

Alaska cruising guide

How Do I Choose The Best Boat For Cruising?

Since so many of the cruise lines offer similar Alaskan itineraries, I recommend looking at the ships themselves to determine the best boat for cruising! Each ship has a unique layout and are various sizes. Be sure to look at the amenities so you stay entertained at sea days. You should also take into account the following factors:

Cruise Deals to Alaska

It’s harder to get a cruise deal to Alaska because it’s impossible to travel during an “off season”. Since Alaska’s climate can be so intense in the winter months, boats only cruise the Inside Passage from May – September. Therefore, you can’t be as flexible with your dates.

What you can do, however, is plan in advance. It’s a known fact in the cruising industry that the earlier you book, the better rate you’ll get. To get the best price, you should plan to book right when the sailing opens for sale. This means planning way in advance, as many cruise lines open their reservations 2-3 years before departure.

Pro-tip: After comparing a few different itineraries and departure dates, it seems like you can expect to pay around $1,200 per person for a cruise to Alaska.

The Size of the Ship

I’ve been on cruises with as few as 700 passengers and on an Eastern Caribbean cruise with over 6,000. The larger ships have a lot more to do on-board, but they definitely feel more crowded and a bit chaotic (expect loads of children!). A smaller ship would be more enjoyable for Alaska, and there will probably be less extended families on this type of vacation since it’s less kid-friendly than a Caribbean cruise. The best boat for cruising in Alaska would be a mid-size ship. The Radiance of the Seas carries about 2,500 passengers.

Alaska cruise

Ports Visited

There may also be slight variations in ports visited among the cruise lines. I think it’s key to stop at Juneau since that is the capital of the state of Alaska. Anchorage is a major city to end in since it’s the perfect gateway to Denali National Park and exploring more of in-land Alaska. Cruising the Inside Passage of Alaska will allow you to see sights that only boats can access. We also saw Hubbard Glacier from the cruise deck during our trip.

Visiting the Hubbard Glacier on a Alaska cruise

The Inside Passage is the main route for cruise ships departing from Seattle, Los Angeles, and Vancouver from May – September. It stretches 500 miles along the Pacific Ocean and boasts wildlife-filled fjords, tidewater glaciers, and lush island scenery. The Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest (and one of the largest temperate rainforests in the world!) covers the majority of the Inside Passage.

The Hubbard Glacier is 76 miles long and 7 miles wide. It’s the largest tidewater glacier in North America and has been nicknamed “White Thunder” for the crashing sounds it makes when massive chunks of ice break off into the bay. When you visit this unique “port”, don’t forget to look up! More than 200 specific of birds can be seen in this area. You’ll want to bring a camera with a good zoom lens to best capture the sights.

Pro-tip: Alaska is home to the majority of the national parks in the US. There are 16 of them! While it would be nearly impossible to hit them all during your trip, you could certaintly try to visit a few. Denali is one of the most visited in Alaska.

Departure Port

The last factor to consider when choosing the best boat for cruising are the departure and arrival ports. Like I mentioned above, we loved ending in Anchorage so that we could explore more national parks and enjoy some hiking and wildlife. You should do this too!

Alaska cruises depart from Seattle, Los Angeles, and Vancouver, British Columbia. I recommend boarding your ship in Vancouver! This was a great way to see a new international city and explore a different region of Canada. Below are a few travel tips for Vancouver.

Alaska cruise

What To Pack For An Alaska Cruise In August

I definitely recommend cruising the Inner Passage during the summer months, specifically August as I mentioned above. Summer temperatures around the Alaskan panhandle average around 60 F, but can jump into the low 80s or unexpectedly drop into the 40s at night! The key for packing for Alaska is to pack in layers. I remember feeling quite chilly in the morning hours and warm under the summer sun around mid-day.

Also, be sure to pack rain boats since the summer months do bring some rain to the state of Alaska. Basic hiking gear is also key for this trip since you’ll be spending so much time outside.

A Vancouver, B.C. Tourism Guide

If your cruise departs from Vancouver, I highly recommend flying in a day or two early to enjoy this glorious Canadian city. Plus, if you’re flying in from the east coast or another country, it may be nice to adjust to the west coast time zone!

This multicultural city offers a bit of everything: it’s a big city surrounded by sky-high mountains and Pacific Northwest coastline.

There are a few can’t-miss sights in Vancouver, including Stanley Park and Capilano Suspension Bridge Park. Stanley Park stretches over 1,000 acres across the city, making it one of the largest urban parks in North America. There are various ways to explore the sights in the park, which include hiking trails, the beach front, horse-drawn carriage rides, and visiting the Brockton Point totem poles. Be sure to walk or run along the Seawall too—which has the downtown Vancouver skyline in the backdrop.

Fun fact: The 2010 Winter Olympics were held in Vancouver, so you can see some of Olympic Village near Stanley Park! A lot of the infrastructure is still in place, so definitely spend some time here as well.

Stanley Park in Vancouver, Canada

Be sure to spend some time in Gastown, which is full of 20th century brick buildings. There are dozens of fantastic restaurants here. Vancouver’s cultural diversity shines through in its unique culinary scene, especially in the assortment of Asian cuisine!

If you’re in Vancouver for more than a day, you must take the scenic ferry ride to Victoria, the capital of British Columbia. I haven’t been here yet myself, but Victoria Public Market is an excellent dining and shopping spot!

Alaska Cruising Guide: Ketchikan

Ketchikan will definitely be a port you visit on an Alaskan cruise. It’s a city facing the Inside Passage, making it a popular spot to stop in along the state’s coast. Aside from being home to wildlife such as black bears and bald eagles, it’s also known for the nearby Misty Fjords National Monument and its totem poles on display around town.

Totem poles are carved and painted logs, which are mounted vertically as monuments and are constructed by the First Nations peoples of the Pacific Northwest. They represent and commemorate ancestry, histories, people, and events that took place along the Northwest Coast of the US and Canada.

Most Alaskan cruising guides include one day in Ketchikan, giving cruisers enough time for 1-2 excursions while in port. Aside from soaking up the nature and wildlife, I recommend visiting Totem Bight State Park. In this park, you can learn about Alaskan Native culture and see the world’s largest collection of 19th century totem poles. The Totem Heritage Center, Saxman Totem Park, and Potlatch Park also feature locally made totem poles.

What to see on a Alaska cruise

Soak up coastal Alaska by visiting the 100-year-old Guard Island Lighthouse, which you can see from the North Tongass Highway.

Lastly, be sure to stroll along Creek Street Boardwalk— the historical part of Ketchikan, right near the city’s downtown.

What to see on a Alaska cruise

Alaska Cruising Guide: Juneau

Alaska’s remote state capital is surrounded by snowcapped mountains, wildlife, misty rainforests, and massive glaciers. The picturesque downtown area is surrounded by mountains—most notably: Mount Juneau and Mount Roberts, and is the perfect place for boutique shopping and to visit historic landmarks. You can find the Alaska State Museum here!

Prefer more time at sea? Head into Auke Bay Harbor for whale watching. Want to get your steps in? Trek to nearby Mendenhall Glacier. Start at the Visitor Center for information about the glacier, a short video, and an overlook. Several nearby trails provide additional viewpoints. The most popular hiking trail in this area is the Nugget Falls Trail, which is only 2 miles round trip but will bring you to the base of a roaring waterfall.

Feeling adventurous? You can soak up views of the glacier and icefield from above on a flight seeing tour. OR, you can actually go dog mushing on the glacier itself. There is really something for everyone here, so make sure to build a visit into your Juneau itinerary.

Pro-tip: Yes, you CAN go dog mushing during the summer months in Alaska! You won’t sled through snow, but dogs can pull you on a cart with wheels through the Alaskan forest. We did this and it was such a memorable part of our trip.

In terms of food, Juneau is scattered with local pubs and cafes. The seaside capital is known for its seafood and beer! Be sure to try the Alaskan Brewing Company’s Alaskan Amber or Smoked Porter.

What to see on a Alaska cruise

Alaska Cruising Guide: Icy Strait Point

Icy Strait Point is one of the smaller ports covered on this Alaska cruising guide. It’s a tiny port admist the vast Alaskan wilderness within the town of Hoonah, making it the perfect place for adventure activities during your visit. It’s one of the best spots in the region for fishing, whale watching, and also has THE longest zipline in the WORLD.

The ZipRider is the world’s longest zipline. Brave riders can enjoy amazing views of the forest (and your cruise ship in the harbor below!) as you race from the mountain peak at 60 miles per hour. If you’re up for the thrill, I highly recommend building this into your day in Icy Strait Point.

There’s so much culture to experience in this region of Alaska too. If you visit the Native Heritage Center Theater, you can watch members of the Tlingit Dancers troupe tell the story of their tribal heritage through song and dance. Similarily, you can explore Hoonah—Alaska’s largest Tlinglit village.

Pro-tip: Don’t forget to buy a local souvenir before boarding the ship! Just steps from the dock are the historic Cannery Shops—the perfect place to shop for authentic Alaska gifts.

Icy Strait Point in Alaska

Alaska Cruising Guide: Skagway

Skagway embodies the true spirit of Alaska. Surrounded by dramatic mountaintops, this Alaskan cruise stop has one of the most charming downtowns of the trip! The downtown streets are studded with historical buildings to browse. 

Pro-tip: Visit the Alaska Fudge Company to try local walnut fudge! I still think about it years later. While looking for souvenirs, check for the “Made in Skagway” logo.

Skagway is most famous for its gold rush activity. It was once the starting point for gold stampeders heading for the promised land of the Yukon.

Pro-tip: Want to learn more about the gold rush era? Head to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.

One of the most unique experiences to enjoy in Skagway is to ride the vintage train along the same trail fortune seekers embarked on in the 1800s. Prepare to be blown away by the Alaska scenery as you pass through the Yukon Route and White Pass. Along the way, you’ll see Bridal Veil Falls, Dead Horse Gulch, and Glacier Gorge… so get your cameras ready!

Feeling extra adventurous? Chilkoot Trail encompasses 33 miles of hiking trails. Walk a few of them like the Klondike stampeders did years before. This area is known as the “world’s longest outdoor museum” since there’s so much to see along the trek from Skagway to Dyea.

Best boats for cruising in Alaska

Alaska Cruising Guide: Seward

After a day at sea or two, your ship will continue to travel west to Anchorage, stopping in Seward. Some cruise itineraries disembark in Seward as well. Seward is another port city located in southern Alaska, located on the Kenai Peninsula. It’s a gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park. This area is surrounded by peaks and is home to whale and porpoise populations. Be sure to visit the Alaska Sealife Center, the state’s only public aquarium, while you’re here to enjoy the seals and puffins!

Looking to shop? Take a stroll down 4th Ave in the downtown to check out the local boutiques. A lot of restaurants are located along this road too.

Alaska Cruising Guide: Anchorage

A lot of Alaskan cruise itineraries will wrap up in Anchorage. Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city. It’s located in the south-central part of the state on the Cook Inlet and is known for its cultural sites and for being the gateway to nearby wilderness areas including Kenai and Talkeetna.

We didn’t spend too much time in Anchorage after our cruise ended because we made our way inland. Anchorage is worth spending 1-2 days in before continuing inland to Talketna and Denali National Park. Here are a few can’t miss sights for the city:

  • Visit the Alaska Native Heritage Center: One of the best places to learn about the plethora of Alaska Native traditions and languages. Anchorage is located where the Native Village of Eklutna and the Dena’ina Athabascan people have lived for centuries. Learning about these distinct Indigenous groups and their unique lifestyles and histories is a big part of any visit to Alaska.
  • Ride the Alysia Tramway: This tram brings visitors up 2,000 feet over Mount Alyeska, where 7 glaciers are visible.
  • Enjoy Alaskan Art & Shopping: Shopping in Anchorage is tax-free… enough said!

Extending Your Alaskan Cruise: Exploring The Interior

If your cruise ends in Anchorage—which many of them do, I recommend extending your trip to explore the interior of the state. 

Traveling from Anchorage to Talkeetna

Riding the Alaskan Railroad is the easiest and most scenic way to travel from Anchorage to Talkeetna. The train ride is about 3 hours long and most of the carts have domed, glass roofs so you can enjoy the views along the way.

Pro-tip: Be sure to check the schedule and grab your tickets in advance!

Alaska cruising guide

Staying in Talkeetna, Alaska

You must stay in Talkeetna for a few days! This historic village is the gateway to Denali National Park. It offers a lot of recreational activities to enjoy, including fishing, float trips, hiking, dog mushing, ATV tours (we did this and LOVED IT!), zip lining, along with unique lodging options, art galleries, gift shops, craft breweries, and of course— year-round hospitality!

ATVing in Alaska

We stayed at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge. This iconic hotel is located just one mile from the center of town and also overlooks Denali Mountain and National Park, so I recommend it. Plus, its a seasonal, rustic-modern lodge, so it truly felt… Alaskan.

Nearby Mount McKinley, also known as Denali Peak, is the highest mountain peak in North America, with a summit elevation of 20,310 feet above sea level.

Visiting Denali National Park

Denali National Park and Preserve encompasses 6 million acres of Alaska’s interior wilderness. With terrain of tundra, forest, and glaciers, the park is home to wildlife including grizzly bears, wolves, moose, caribou and Dall sheep. Popular activities in summer include biking, backpacking, hiking, and mountaineering.

There are a variety of tours offered here that range in physical activity. If mountaineering isn’t your first choice, there are also bus tours! When we were here, we went scouting for the park’s “big five” animals, and stopped at various overlooks to soak up the views. We probably spent 1-2 days in the park total, using Talkeetna as a home base. Of course, there is SO much more to see here, but this is the most popular way to visit during the peak tourism season.

Visiting Denali is such a great way to wrap up your time in Alaska. Plus, it’s fairly convenient to return to Anchorage by train and catch a flight home from the Anchorage International Airport.

Pro-tip: Private cars aren’t allowed past Mile 15 of the Park Road, so I really recommend a bus tour. Plus, the buses offer narrations from a trained naturalist.

That’s all for my Alaska blog post! Although I did this trip a few years ago with my family, I’ve seen Alaskan cruises gain more popularity in recent years and couldn’t recommend it more! It’s such a unique trip and is a great way to explore the state. Who knows, maybe you’ll be motivated to visit more of the US after you explore Alaska… and even start a 50 states challenge of your own!

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