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 are 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.
Table of Contents
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.
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 and are usually part of a trans-Pacific cruise.
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 (check out the independent excursions), 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.
Boomer Travel Tip
Check for best Alaska cruise prices here.
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 or Seabourn 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 a fall crossing aboard Regent Seven Seas Mariner, 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 and Juneau 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 take an Alaskan cruise?
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 helping you experience 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. Take note that Regent and Silversea now include excursions in their all-inclusive price, although you will still need to pay for more elaborate excursions like exploring glaciers by helicopter.
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, the cost of drinking water, anticipated drink purchases (alcohol and sodas), 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, Silversea, or Seabourn expedition ships. 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. Read more of my tips on what to pack for an Alaska cruise.
- Pre or post Alaska land adventures are well worth adding to the itinerary, especially to Denali!
Boomer Travel Tip
Visit our Alaska Travel Planner page before your trip.
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 Kayak 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 and 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.
- We also check out the cruise information and reviews at CruiseCritic.
Boomer Travel Tip
MedjetAssist Members who are hospitalized 150 miles from home receive medical transport to a home-country hospital of choice. Memberships from $99.
What to wear on an Alaska cruise
Do you need help packing for your Alaska cruise? Check out my Alaska cruise packing tips.
Here’s a packing list that should cover a 2-week cruise in Alaska. Feel free to print this out. One of these days, I’ll create a fancy downloadable for you (once I learn how) so stay tuned.
- 1 pair water resistant safari pants. On 14-day Alaska cruises, make this 2 pair of safari pants.
- 1 pair jeans for on the ship or walking around ports. Don’t wear jeans on active excursions, especially if you’ll be around water or where it might rain. Nothing is worse—or colder—than wearing soggy, wet jeans.
- 2 safari shirts that go with safari pants or the jeans. On warm days, roll the sleeves up.
- 2 long-sleeve crew-neck shirts (or turtlenecks) to layer underneath safari shirts or to wear with a quilted vest. Or make this one long-sleeve crew-neck shirt and one short-sleeve solid color tee, just in case the weather is warmer than you think it will be.
- Quilted sleeveless vest for layering with a long-sleeve shirt over jeans or safari pants.
- Fleece jacket, choose a colorful one for showing up against snow scenes in photos.
- Water-resistant jacket, same advice as for the fleece jacket—color rules!
- 1 set of thermal underwear. You probably won’t need these however they don’t take up much room so pack them anyway.
- Gloves, glove liners, hat, neck warmer, warm socks
- Shoe covers that have treads. Wear them on wet, muddy excursions or in port when it’s raining.
- Lightweight hiking shoes that can also be used for walking laps on deck. You can also use these for the gym in a pinch. Wear these shoes on travel day.
- Comfortable pants/top for travel day (wear them to and from the cruise). This can double as an extra outfit for on the ship or port days.
- Two pair of pants: black and another color. Gray is good. Or if you’re in a summery mood bring white ones.
- Five tops—make one a cute summer sweater— that go with both pair of pants, which makes ten outfits. On a 14-day cruise, repeat 3 of your favorite looks. For 1-week Alaska cruises, three tops will do.
- 1 pair of shoes that will go with all outfits. Pewter flats are a great choice if you can find them. And, if you do, let me know as my Cole-Hahn favorite pewter shoes are almost worn out.
- Optional: 1 pair of fancier black pants and sparkly top with appropriate shoes for formal night.
Expedition cruisers might consider bringing a heavier jacket, but check with your cruise line, first. Many small ship luxury expeditions provide a jacket to passengers.
Of course you’ll need room in luggage to bring it home. Alan and I always forget that part, which is why you’ll see us wearing ours through the airport.
Don’t forget these must-have items for an Alaska cruise
- Bathing suit for the hot tub, yes you’ll enjoy a soak while admiring the scenery. You’ll probably want to pack a coverup, or wear a t-shirt over your suit that can double as a workout top.
- Flip-flops or sandals for walking to and from the hot tub (or pool). Make them cute enough to double as daywear or nightwear shoes, especially if the weather surprises you with a warm spell.
- Baseball hat or sun hat for lounging on deck, on your balcony, or on a sunny wildlife watching excursion.
- 1 pair pajamas. I cheat here by wearing a t-shirt and shorts that I can also use in the gym. If they become sweaty, hand wash with TSA-approved laundry packets. Using the ship’s laundromat is another option, if your ship has one. That’s Alan’s job.
- Sunscreen to protect your skin from bright sun reflecting off snow.
- Insecticide repellent towelettes for those pesky gnats, flies and mosquitos.
- And don’t forget your underwear. I’m leaving the amount and type up to you.
If you’re worried about sweaty clothing or spilling food on clothing, bring a package of laundry packets for hand washing clothes. That’s what I do. Of course that means the clothing that you bring should wash easily by hand, dry quickly and require no ironing.
If you’re cruising on an Alaska expedition ship, reduce this list by one pair of pants and 2 tops. The relaxed style of expedition cruising means you will wear less. Some adventure cruises are so busy that you’ll find yourself wearing safari pants and a top to dinner because there isn’t time to change clothes.
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