Updated 09.13.2018: How do you choose the best Alaska cruise? As boomer travelers, Alan and I are often asked that question. Our answer? It depends—on the itinerary, when you would like to cruise in Alaska, which cruise line you prefer and the type of experience you’re seeking.
Before I offer my boomer travel advice for how to choose an Alaskan cruise, let’s set a few parameters. Alan and I prefer small ship luxury cruises. Given the choice, we’ll pick Alaska cruise routes with off-the-beaten-path ports that provide the opportunity for active cruise excursions over well-known, but crowded, ports.
But if you’re first time cruisers to Alaska, don’t miss the main Alaskan cruise ports. You need to experience them at least once in your life. In most cases, it’s easy to choose off-the-beaten-path excursions that avoid the crowds.
Which is the best Alaska cruise itinerary?
The hallmark of a good real estate deal is location, location, location. The same holds true for where to cruise in Alaska. Itinerary is the number one consideration when we’re booking an Alaskan cruise. And you have many choices.
Round trip Inside Passage cruises to Alaska
Most cruise lines visit Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway on a round trip Inside Passage cruise that originates in Vancouver or Seattle. This is a good option if you’re prone to seasickness as the waters of the Inside Passage are mostly calm. Usually 7-day-itineraries, these cruises offer no opportunity for pre or post cruise adventures in Alaska.
Gulf of Alaska cruises
Gulf of Alaska cruises usually run from Vancouver to Seward/Whittier or vice versa. Ports typically include Sitka, Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan with a day in the Inside Passage. You’ll either fly into or out of Anchorage depending on the itinerary. And you’ll have the opportunity for land adventures either pre or post cruise.
Because the ship leaves the protection of the Inside Passage, you may experience rougher seas—or not. If you do, here’s my favorite sea sickness remedy.
Alan and I give the nod to Alaskan cruises that include Sitka—easy to explore on your own—and Kodiak Island—we went hiking—two of our favorite Alaska ports. Most of the small, luxury cruise lines offer Sitka as a port as well as Holland American and Celebrity. Cruises that stop at Kodiak Island are harder to find.
All Alaska cruises offer scenic cruising in addition to the Inside Passage. Look for itineraries that include a day in Glacier Bay National Park (not all cruise lines have access). Visiting Hubbard Glacier, College Fjord or Tracy Arm are other scenic cruise day options worth considering.
I’m seeing Victoria, Prince Rupert, and Icy Straight (only one cruise ship per day allowed to dock here), appearing on some cruises to Alaska. Keep this in mind if you’re looking for new-to-you experiences on a second, third or even fourth cruise in Alaska.
Small expedition ship Alaska adventures are fun, too
If you’ve cruised in Alaska before, or if you prefer waking up to the quiet of a bay in the Inside Passage, UnCruise offers a different take on an Alaska cruise vacation with choices that fit both moderate and luxury travel budgets.
Alan and I enjoyed an UnCruise small ship adventure focused on outdoor activities while exploring the bays, fjords and glaciers of Alaska. You won’t find many ports on UnCruise itineraries with the exception of a few smaller ones like Wrangell and Petersburg. The adventure cruise line uses Juneau and Ketchikan as embarkation and disembarkation ports.
Silversea expedition ships offer a luxurious adventure option. Some itineraries cruise in and out of Nome with routes that explore Dutch Harbor, Far-east Russian ports and Wrangell Island.
Book a longer luxury cruise that travels to Alaska
Another option is to book a long cruise that crosses the Pacific beginning or ending in Vancouver and ending or beginning in Hong Kong, Singapore or other Asian ports. These itineraries offer the best of Alaska cruising combined with off-the-beaten-path ports like Dutch Harbor and beyond into Asia.
When Alan and I cruised from Vancouver to Singapore on Regent Seven Seas Mariner on a fall crossing, the itinerary included typical Alaskan ports combined with Kodiak Island, Sitka and Dutch Harbor. In spring 2018, we cruised on Seabourn Sojourn from Hong Kong to Alaska where we visited Kodiak Island again.
Ride the Alaska Marine Highway
And if you’re really looking for off-the-beaten-path Alaska cruising—and don’t mind bare bones accommodations—the Alaska Marine Highway ferry offers a plethora of routes. We combined a 5-night cruise from Haines, Alaska, to Bellingham, Washington, with an Alaska Highway road trip. But you don’t have to be driving to enjoy this journey.
When is the best time to cruise Alaska?
We prefer cruising to Alaska in the fall toward the end of the season. You’ll escape insects and crowds on an autumn visit, but shoppers may find that boutiques and gift stores are either closed already or offering limited merchandise.
Spring is another good time for an Alaskan cruise, with the promise of drier weather and fewer crowds (some stores won’t open until Memorial Day). In both fall or spring—known as shoulder season—discounted fares are a possibility.
Of course if you’re traveling on a multi-generation Alaskan cruise, with work and school schedules to accommodate, summer may be your only choice. This is when an UnCruise adventure makes especially good sense for those traveling with tweens and above, since the line skips typical ports in favor of showing you wild Alaska.
No matter which line you choose, expect rainier weather on a summer Alaska cruise, especially in July and August.
Which is the best cruise line for Alaska?
Here’s another loaded question because the best Alaskan cruise line depends on size preferences, budget and experiences offered.
Luxury cruises to Alaska
When it comes to a luxury Alaska cruise, you’ll find plenty of choices. Well known luxury lines like Crystal Cruises, Regent, Silversea, Seabourn, and Ponant cruise in Alaska. But you’ll also find more affordable boutique lines such as Viking and Oceania.
Alan and I appreciate the all-inclusiveness of small luxury cruise companies like Silversea or Seabourn. Since everything, except excursions and spa services, are included in the price, we know exactly how the cruise will fit into our budget. Slightly larger, but still all-inclusive, Regent and Crystal are also good choices.
Because the ships are smaller, lesser-known ports are sometimes included, not to mention exemplary personal service that leads to some unique shipboard and shore side experiences. To learn more about traveling on a luxury cruise, check out our Luxury Cruise Planner for Boomers.
Budget-friendly Alaska cruises
Not everyone can afford luxury travel, which is why larger, mainstream cruise ships offer such good value. And you can usually find the best Alaska cruise deals on these types of cruise lines.
If you’re cruising on mainstream ships with a-la-carte prices, be sure to predict costs by totaling up tips, anticipated drink purchases and other charges before deciding on a cruise. You may be surprised that the small ship luxury cruise you thought you couldn’t afford becomes an affordable splurge.
Best Alaska Cruise for Families
If you’re cruising with grandkids, a luxury cruise is definitely going to strain the budget. Based upon recommendations from friends and family, Princess or Holland America are good choices for multigenerational Alaska cruises.
Disney has also started sailing in Alaska, which makes an excellent option if you’re cruising with very small children. Of course active teens will appreciate the adventure of an UnCruise experience.
Expedition cruise ships with Alaska itineraries
When it comes to an Alaska adventure or expedition cruise, Alan and I choose UnCruise or a Silversea expedition ship. Walking on glaciers, stand-up paddle-boarding, or kayaking in Misty Fjords introduces you to the wild, unspoiled Alaska of your dreams.
More tips for the best cruise to Alaska
The best Alaskan cruises for seniors (yes, they’re boomers too!) is the one that meets your needs. But keep these tips in mind when making up your mind about where and when to cruise in Alaska:
- Popular ports will be crowded with other cruise tourists. At CruiseTimeTables, check which ships will be in port so that you can plan accordingly.
- With prior research, ports like Sitka and Ketchikan are easy to explore independently.
- Adventure experiences are best booked beforehand either with your cruise line or through a reliable independent Alaska tour guide company. Popular experiences book up early.
- In crowded ports like Ketchikan, opt for an excursion that takes you out of town away from the crowds. We enjoy the floatplane tours over Misty Fjords.
- Large ships offer adventure excursions, too, and are a good way to escape a port crammed with other cruisers.
- Alaska cruises are packed with ports and experiences. You may find that there’s little time for shipboard life or late-night fun (at least if you’re boomers like us, who need their sleep for all that daytime adventure).
- As much as I enjoy formal nights (have you seen my tips on cruise wear for over 50 women?), Alaska cruises are too filled with action to worry about formal gowns or tuxedos. If there’s a formal night, and there may not be, women will find that black pants combined with a glitzy top and sparkly shoes will more than fit the dress code. A sport coat, tie optional, and nice khaki pants will work for men. And if you’re on an adventure cruise, forget all about formal dressing.
- Pre or post Alaska land adventures are well worth adding to the itinerary, especially to Denali!
Like everything in life, advice for the best cruises to Alaska changes with time. So, if you’re an avid Alaskan cruiser, bookmark this page for updates. Better, yet, subscribe to our weekly updates at the bottom of this page.
And sorry if I haven’t mentioned your favorite Alaska cruise line as I only write from first-hand experience. However the travel tips still apply no matter which Alaska cruise you choose.
Start your planning with our Alaska cruise tips
Alan and I are total geeks when it comes to travel planning. We don’t leave anything to chance. Here are the tools that we use when planning a cruise to Alaska.
- We use Skyscanner to find the best flight deals, then compare prices directly at the airline’s website.
- For hotel searches for before or after the cruise, we compare prices at Hotels Combined and then read the reviews at TripAdvisor. Remember to ignore the best and worst ones as the truth is always in the middle.
- To find independent cruise excursions, we start at Viator.
- Cruise Critic is our go-to cruising source for reading more about Alaska cruises. And their boards are a great place to meet fellow travelers on your cruise.
Planning a trip to Alaska? Start with at our Alaska Travel Planning page.
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