First Time Guide to Cruising Alaska

First Time Guide to Cruising Alaska

Embarking on your First Time Alaska Cruise is an adventure like no other. This Guide to Cruising Alaska will provide you with everything you need to know to help you make your decision on who to cruise Alaska with the first time and to also make the most of your Alaska Cruise.

From choosing the best itineraries to exploring must-see destinations, we’ve got you covered. Discover tips and tricks to ensure your journey through Alaska’s breathtaking landscapes is nothing short of extraordinary.

Introduction Guide to Cruising Alaska

An Alaska cruise is not like any other cruise you may have taken in the past, or considered taking; it’s an adventure filled with awe-inspiring scenery, fascinating wildlife, and the rich cultural heritage of the last true frontier of America. Unlike any other cruise destination, Alaska offers a unique blend of natural beauty and thrilling experiences that appeal to a wide range of travellers.

Best Time to Cruise to Alaska

Due to its climate and remoteness, there is a cruise season for Alaska, typically it runs from late April to early October. The best time to cruise largely depends on what you want to see and do, as the wildlife and landscape can vary rapidly.

May and June offer longer days and blooming wildflowers, while July and August are ideal for wildlife viewing. September cruises often feature stunning autumn foliage and fewer crowds.

Our first Alaska Cruise Onboard Holland America Line Konningsdam – May 2023

Choosing the Right Cruise Line

Choosing the right cruise line can significantly impact your Alaska cruise experience. Holland America and Princess Cruises are renowned for their extensive Alaska itineraries and land-and-sea packages. They offer numerous excursions and activities that cater to all interests and age groups. They also visit what is often referred to as the crown jewel of Alaska Glacier Bay, which most of the other cruise lines do not visit.

Other options include Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Celebrity Cruises, each offering unique features and amenities, especially for those who are looking for a multi-generational cruise to Alaska, these lines offer a more contemporary style of cruising than Holland America or Princess.

You will also find small luxury lines offering sailings such as Oceania, Regent and Seabourn, those lines offer smaller ships, so can tend to get closer to the wildlife, they also offer exclusive excursions that the other lines will not be able to get access to.

When is Best to Book an Alaska Cruise

Timing your booking can make a significant difference in both cost and availability. Here are some strategies to consider:

Booking Early:

  • Benefits: Early bird deals often offer the best prices and the widest selection of cabins. Booking 9-12 months in advance can secure lower rates and early booking perks like onboard credits or free excursions.
  • When to Book: Consider booking your Alaska cruise as soon as the itineraries are released, usually 12-18 months ahead.

Last-Minute Offers:

  • Benefits: If you have flexible travel dates and are not particular about cabin location, last-minute deals can offer significant savings. These are usually available 1-2 months before the departure date.
  • Risks: Limited choice in cabin selection and potentially higher airfare if flights are not booked early.

Wave Season:

  • Benefits: Occurring from January to March, wave season is a prime time for cruise deals. Cruise lines often offer promotions such as reduced deposits, free upgrades, and extra perks during this period.
  • When to Book: Keep an eye on deals during wave season to take advantage of these special offers.

Shoulder Season:

  • Benefits: Booking during the shoulder seasons of late April to early May and late September to early October can result in lower prices and fewer crowds.
  • Considerations: Weather can be more unpredictable, but this period can still offer a fantastic experience with unique opportunities like seeing the Northern Lights.

Inside Passage vs. Gulf of Alaska

The Inside Passage and the Gulf of Alaska are the two main routes for Alaska cruises.

The Inside Passage would be our top suggestion for a first-time cruise to Alaska as it’s known for its protected waters, stunning fjords, and frequent port stops to highlights of Alaska such as Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan. Alaska Inside Passage sailings tend to be around 7 nights, so perfect for those looking for a pre or post-cruise visit to Seattle, Vancouver and onwards to bucket list destinations like Banff National park.

The Gulf of Alaska route typically includes more open water sailing and visits to Anchorage and other northern destinations, providing a broader view of Alaska’s vast landscapes, and offering a higher chance to experience the more remote parts and less travelled regions of Alaska. This is a fantastic choice for a once-in-a-lifetime Alaska Cruise, but typically we find this is a route taken by those who fall in love with Alaska after an Inside Passage and want to head back to explore more.

© Holland America – 7 Night Inside Passage

Departure Ports: Vancouver vs. Seattle

Vancouver and Seattle are the primary departure ports for Alaska cruises. Vancouver, Canada offers a scenic start with its beautiful harbour and easy access to the Inside Passage.

Seattle, USA provides convenient connections for UK travellers and a lively urban scene to explore before or after your cruise. Both ports have their unique advantages, so choose based on your travel preferences and logistics.

One thing to be aware of, is if you prefer the larger, more contemporary cruise lines and ships, such as Celebrity Edge, Royal Caribbean Quantum of the Seas and Norwegian Bliss tend to sail from Seattle rather than Vancouver due to the larger cruise port.

Vancouver does offer some wonderful small to midsize ships, and it is better positioned to start an Inside Passage cruise, with ships from well-loved cruise lines such as Holland America, Cunard, Princess and smaller ships by Royal Caribbean.

The majority of Alaska cruises are seven days long, but there are also extended options and land-and-sea packages called Cruise Tours available and packaged by the cruise lines themselves.

Standard itineraries include stops at Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, and Glacier Bay or another glacier destination. Extended cruises might include additional ports like Sitka or extended time in major ports, offering deeper exploration opportunities.

Essential Packing Tips for an Alaska Cruise

Packing for an Alaska cruise requires some careful planning. The weather can be unpredictable, ranging from heavy rain, and cold snowfall, to bright sunny days, so layers are essential. Include waterproof outerwear, comfortable walking shoes, and warm accessories like hats and gloves. Binoculars and a good camera are also must-haves for wildlife viewing and capturing the stunning landscapes.

You will spend a lot of time inside the ship on an Alaska Cruise, but to make the most of your scenic cruising days and glacier visits, you will want to wrap up warm and head outside, even if only on your balcony to get the best views, so have options to wrap up warm for sure.

Onboard Experience

The onboard experience on an Alaska cruise varies by cruise line and is tailored to enrich your journey. The various cruise lines will offer extensive educational programmes about the region’s wildlife and culture. On our Holland America Cruise, during our day cruising Glacier Bay, a park ranger was brought into the ship and offered a live commentary as we sailed around the various glaciers. There were also shopping and port talks, as well as wildlife experts brought onto the ship.

This is in addition to the traditional cruise amenities you would expect like pools, spas, and diverse dining options. We would suggest looking for a cruise line that offers an indoor solarium or covered pool if you have your heart set on enjoying the lido deck while exploring Alaska.

Holland America Konningsdam offers a retractable roof that was able to be opened on our warmer days and then closed as the weather takes a colder turn.

Holland America Line Konningsdam – Main Pool with open retractable roof

Shore Excursions: Must-Do Activities

Shore excursions are the highlight of any Alaska cruise. We underestimated just how important is maybe to book excursions whilst visiting Alaska, and felt like we may have missed out.

Whale watching in Juneau, riding the historic White Pass and Yukon Route Railway in Skagway, and exploring the Misty Fjords National Monument in Ketchikan are just a few of the must-do activities. These excursions provide an up-close look at Alaska’s natural beauty and wildlife.

You also can’t forget the famous loggers when visiting Ketchikan, we sadly missed them as we didn’t book in advance, so make sure you book in advance.

Cruise ship excursions offer the best protection and flexibility, but they can be expensive, so we also recommend taking a look at Viator, who offers flexibility and often the same tours for less, just make sure you leave enough time to make it back to the ship if you book a tour independently.

Exploring Juneau

Juneau, the capital of Alaska, is a hub of activity and adventure. Visit the Mendenhall Glacier, take a tram ride up Mount Roberts, or go whale watching in the nearby waters. Juneau also offers excellent opportunities to learn about Alaska’s indigenous cultures at the Alaska State Museum.

There is very little to see and do in Juneau aside from explore the shops and cafes, or perhaps take the cable car for a panoramic view, of all the core ports you may visit in Alaska, this would be the one where we suggest you consider an excursion and explore beyond the main port.

That said, Tracy’s King Crab Shack is world Famous and must visit for those looking for authentic Alaskan Grab.

Discovering Skagway

Skagway is rich in Gold Rush history. Explore the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, take a scenic drive along the Klondike Highway, or ride the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway. Skagway’s charming downtown, with its historic buildings and shops, offers a glimpse into its storied past.

We we able to spend a few hours exploring Skagway without booking any tours, there are plenty of sites to see in the town, including several museums, including the Red Onion Brothel Museum, which we found interesting as it highlighted how real life was out on the American Frontier, but if we had to make one suggestion, take the White Pass Train, it takes you high into the mountains and offers wonderful views of the region.

Ketchikan Highlights

Known as the “Salmon Capital of the World,” Ketchikan was the highlight of our Inside Passage Cruise with Holland America, it has plenty of options for those who may want to self explore, we personally headed to the Totem Heritage Centre and spent the day exploring the various Indigenous cultures, there is also the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, but make sure you book in advance.

You could also explore the Misty Fjords by boat or plane, or enjoy a day of fishing or kayaking.

Glacier Bay National Park

A visit to Glacier Bay National Park is a highlight of many Alaska cruises. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to stunning glaciers, diverse wildlife, and pristine waters. Ships often spend a full day cruising the park, offering passengers breathtaking views and ample wildlife spotting opportunities.

Only two ships a day are allowed to enter Glacier Bay to help preserve the local wildlife, Holland America and Princess Cruises have booked the vast majority of the visits, so they would be the top choice for those who want to visit Glacier Bay, but other cruise lines do have limited visits each year, such as Norwegian Cruise Line, Disney Cruise Line and Cunard.

Hubbard Glacier vs. Dawes Glacier

There is much debate about which glacier is the best, many will say Glacier Bay, however, there is just as much passion for Hubbard Glacier and Dawes Glacier, two equally popular glacier destinations on Alaska cruises.

Hubbard Glacier is known for its massive size and active calving, where large chunks of ice break off into the water. Dawes Glacier, part of the Endicott Arm, offers a more intimate experience with its dramatic fjord setting and abundant wildlife, so regardless of your cruise line choice, or glacier visit, you are sure to have fantastic views and a bucket list experience.

Wildlife Watching in Alaska

Alaska is a wildlife enthusiast’s paradise. Depending on the season, you can see humpback whales, orcas, bears, eagles, and more. Bring binoculars and a camera, and keep a lookout from the deck or during shore excursions for the best wildlife sightings.

Also consider a cruise line that emphasises wildlife, Holland America for example invites naturists onto the ship to help guests spot wildlife, as well as park rangers. Whilst never guaranteed, you will have a higher chance with an expert onboard helping you spot the local wildlife.

Cultural Insights: Indigenous Heritage

Alaska’s indigenous cultures are a vital part of the state’s heritage. Visit local museums and cultural centres to learn about the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples. Look for opportunities to see traditional dance performances, art exhibits, and craft demonstrations.

The cruise lines will often drop literature into your cabin with guides on how to visit the local indigenous culture centres when in port, but there is also a fantastic section on the Travel Alaska website about the Native cultures of Alaska, as well as the US national parks Website.

Unique Souvenirs and Shopping Tips

Shopping for souvenirs in Alaska can be a lot of fun. Yes, there is a wide range of generic “I am Here” mass-produced souvenirs for those who have the fridge space, but you can also look for locally made crafts, such as hand-carved totem poles, Native art, and Alaskan jewellery.

We purchased local art and tree ornaments at every port visit and didn’t struggle to walk beyond the generic mass market souvenir stores to find local authentic art. Be wary of imported items that aren’t authentic to the region. Supporting local artisans helps preserve cultural traditions and contributes to the local economy.

The local native communities also love to share their culture with respectful tourists, so don’t be afraid to purchase any authentic artwork and souvenirs you find, a good store will proudly have the hallmark of the artists displayed on, or near the products.

Dining and Cuisine on an Alaska Cruise

All cruises are full board, offering a plethora of choices for your breakfast, dinner and lunch. However, when cruising the Alaska region you can expect your cruise to enhance their core dining offerings with local flavours. Expect the daily menu to change and offer Fresh seafood, including salmon, crab, and halibut.

Many cruise lines feature Alaskan dishes in their onboard restaurants, and you can also find excellent local eateries in port towns. You will find that the more premium your cruise, the more influence you will find on the menus by the Alaska region.

Gala Menu – Holland America Line Konningsdam

Tips for Families Cruising to Alaska

An Alaska cruise can be a fantastic family holiday. Many cruise lines offer kid-friendly activities and excursions, such as wildlife safaris, gold panning, and interactive educational programmes. The level of “kid friendly” will depend on the cruise line you choose.

Royal Caribbean, Disney Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line as always will offer several spaces beyond the kid’s clubs to ensure kids of all ages are suitably entertained whilst cruising Alaska. However, even lines that are deemed more seasoned sailor-friendly such as Holland America, Celebrity and Cunard offer world-class kid’s clubs and enrichment programs that will ensure the kids come away loving Alaska just as much as the adults.

Make sure to pack appropriately for all ages and consider booking excursions in advance to ensure availability.

Budgeting for Your Alaska Cruise

Budgeting for an Alaska cruise involves more than just the cruise fare. Consider additional costs for excursions, speciality dining, gratuities, and travel insurance. Look for package deals and book early to take advantage of discounts and promotions.

Our biggest regret from our Alaska cruise was not budgeting enough for excursions, the ports are nearly the starting point for your Alaska Adventure, and although some ports do offer enough to fill a day, some are limited, and you will likely want to spend some money on prebooked, or locally booked excursions to make the most of your time in Alaska.

Health and Safety Tips

Staying healthy and safe on your Alaska cruise is crucial. Dress in layers to adjust to changing weather, use sunscreen even on cloudy days, and stay hydrated. Follow wildlife safety guidelines during excursions, and familiarise yourself with the ship’s health services and emergency procedures.

Alaska is a remote region, and whilst the ships dock in populous towns and cities, a short walk can bring you to the outskirts quickly, and the desire to hike or walk the unproven trail on the hunt for wildlife could take a wrong turn quickly, so ensure you are aware of your route and vigilant.

Photography Tips for Alaska

As one of the world’s most beautiful destinations, Alaska’s stunning landscapes and diverse wildlife make it a photographer’s dream. Bring a good quality camera with a zoom lens to make the most of it, and consider a waterproof case for excursions. Take advantage of the natural light during long summer days, and be ready to capture spontaneous wildlife moments.

Many of the cruise lines will offer photography classes, for both professional cameras, as well as mobile phones, to help you capture the many beautiful landscapes you will be visiting, so be sure to look for them if you want to take the best photos while visiting Alaska.

Adventure Activities in Alaska

For adventure seekers, Alaska offers a wide range of activities. Go hiking on scenic trails, kayaking in glacial waters, or zip-lining through lush forests. These activities provide a thrilling way to experience Alaska’s natural beauty up close, and your cruise line will have many options that can be booked via them, but you can also consider alternatives like Viator.

Relaxation and Wellness

Even amidst all the adventure, there are plenty of opportunities to relax and rejuvenate. Many cruise ships feature spa services, wellness programmes, and quiet spaces to unwind. Enjoy a massage, soak in a hot tub with a view, or participate in a yoga class on deck.

Environmental Considerations

Alaska’s pristine environment requires responsible tourism practices. Many cruise lines are adopting eco-friendly initiatives to minimise their impact. Support these efforts by following environmental guidelines, reducing waste, and participating in sustainable excursions.

Making the Most of Sea Days

Sea days on an Alaska cruise offer a chance to relax and enjoy the ship’s amenities. Attend educational workshops, join in on activities, or simply find a quiet spot to take in the views. Sea days provide a perfect balance to the busy port days filled with excursions.

Nightlife on an Alaska Cruise

While Alaska cruises are more about the daytime scenery and excursions, there are still plenty of nightlife options. Enjoy live music, theatre performances, or a quiet drink in one of the ship’s lounges. Some ships also offer late-night shows and themed parties.

The tone of the entertainment will vary by the cruise line you book, so it’s just as important to consider the cruise line, as much as the cruise route when visiting Alaska. However that said, it’s one of the few regions you can cruise, where we would say the route and enrichment program should take a higher priority over some ship facilities, you are here to see Alaska after all, so ensure you choose a ship that makes the most of that.

Planning a Pre- or Post-Cruise Stay

Extend your Alaska adventure with a pre-or post-cruise stay in Vancouver or Seattle. Explore Vancouver’s beautiful parks and diverse neighbourhoods, consider extending your cruise with a trip on the incredible Rocky Mountaineer or enjoy Seattle’s vibrant waterfront and iconic landmarks. Both cities offer a wealth of attractions and activities to complement your cruise.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best time of year to cruise to Alaska? 

The best time is from late April to early October, with peak wildlife viewing in July and August.

Do I need a passport for an Alaska cruise? 

Yes, a valid passport is required for all Alaska cruises, even those that start and end in U.S. ports.

What should I pack for an Alaska cruise? 

Pack layers, waterproof clothing, comfortable walking shoes, binoculars, and a good camera.

Are shore excursions included in the cruise fare? 

Shore excursions are typically not included and should be booked separately, either through the cruise line or independently.

Can I see the Northern Lights on an Alaska cruise?

The Northern Lights are usually visible from late September to early April, which is outside the typical cruise season.

Is Alaska a good destination for families? 

Yes, an Alaska cruise offers a variety of family-friendly activities and excursions that cater to all ages.

Conclusion – First Time Guide to Cruising Alaska

An Alaska cruise is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that offers unparalleled natural beauty, rich cultural heritage, and endless adventure opportunities. By choosing the right cruise line, packing appropriately, and planning your excursions, you can ensure a memorable and enriching journey through one of the world’s most stunning regions. Happy cruising!

Book your Alaska Cruise with Magical Traveller

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