From the mountains to the glaciers, Alaska is unlike anywhere else in the world. One of the best ways to experience this incredible state is on a cruise ship. On an Alaska cruise, you will have the chance to see Alaska’s unspoiled wilderness, wildlife, and small towns. However, to make the most of your experience, you will need to do some planning. This ultimate Alaska cruise planning guide will provide you with the information you need to get started on planning the adventure of a lifetime.

The Basics

The first step to take is to make some basic logistical decisions. You will need to decide when to go, where to go, what size ship you prefer, whether to include a land tour, what your budget is, and how much time you have to spend.

Blue Glacier Mountains
Blue Glacier Mountains

You will also need to think about what kind of experience you are looking for in your cruise. Do you prefer a casual atmosphere or the comforts of an upscale luxury experience? Are you looking for a family-friendly cruise or one geared towards adults? What type of cabin do you want to stay in? Finally, you will need to plan how you will get to start of the cruise. Most Alaska cruises depart from Seattle, Vancouver, or Seward.

When will you go?

Cruise season in Alaska runs from mid-May to mid-September. Some smaller ships start up in late April. May and September are the shoulder seasons when you will find lower rates, more discounts, and fewer crowds. In May, the weather is dry and warm, and daylight hours are long. You will see blooming wildflowers and plenty of wildlife. September is still warm, but not as dry. You will see the leaves changing colors, wildlife, and you might even see the northern lights.

Alaska Cruise Ship
Alaska Cruise Ship

The summer months, June through August, are the warmest, with temperatures ranging from 50-80 degrees Fahrenheit. Daylight hours are long, especially in June, which is also the driest of the summer months. The summer is the most popular time for Alaska cruises so be sure to reserve your spaces early. Whenever you decide to go, remember that the weather in Alaska is unpredictable so you should be prepared for anything.

Booking your Cruise

Once you have decided on the basics, it will be time to book your cruise. You can either booking it yourself online or use a travel agent. If you use an agent, be sure to pick one who has experience booking cruises. Both small and large ship cruises can be booked through an agent.

The further in advance that you book your cruise, the better chance that you will get good deals and be able to secure all of the excursions that you want. Planning your land activities and excursions in advance are highly recommended, especially in the summer months, because they do fill up.

In general, you can expect cruise fares to include transportation, lodging, dining, entertainment, and housekeeping. Extra costs to factor in might include taxes, fees, insurance, airfare, excursions, tips, alcohol and soft drinks, spa treatments, photos, and internet access.

To keep costs down, be sure to book in advance and take advantage of discounts for groups and special rates for kids. Small ship cruises generally do not offer as many discounts as large ship cruises. You might save money by booking your air travel through the cruise line. Also, be sure to look for a flexible cancellation policy, especially if you think you might need to change your plans at the last minute.

Choosing a cabin

Cabins come in all shapes and sizes, from tiny rooms with bunk beds to luxurious multi-room suites with balconies and hot tubs. You can choose from suites, deluxe, superior, standard and economy accommodations. Large ship cruises cabins are more elaborate than small ship cruise cabins. If you plan to spend most of your time on deck looking for scenery and wildlife, a small cabin will be sufficient. If you plan to spend more time in your cabin, then you will want something more roomy and elaborate

What are the different types of Alaska cruises

With many different types of Alaska cruises to choose from, you should have no trouble finding one that is right for you. Alaska cruises vary in terms of routes, ship sizes, amenities, and whether land tours are included. Here are some descriptions of the different types of Alaska cruises that are available.

Round-trip Inside Passage Cruises

One of the most popular cruise routes in Alaska is the Inside Passage, a narrow strip that runs through Southeast Alaska protected by islands on the western side. Locals call it “the Panhandle,” and it runs from the Canadian border in the south to the Gulf in the north. You will cruise by islands stopping at mainland coastal communities such as Ketchikan, Wrangell, and Petersburg. The islands on the western side protect the ship from the sea’s rough waters minimizing seasickness.

Most Inside Passage cruises include visits to the capital city of Juneau, Russian influenced Sitka, the center of Tlingit and Haida Native cultures, Ketchikan, and the home of the 1898 gold rush, Skagway. You will also have opportunities to visit rainforests, mountains, inlets, glaciers, and to see wildlife and marine life.

Glacier Mountain Range
Glacier Mountain Range

Inside Passage, cruises are round trip, beginning and ending at the same port. They usually last seven nights and start in Seattle or Vancouver. An Inside Passage cruise is a good choice for travelers with limited time and budgets.

Northbound or Southbound Gulf of Alaska Glacier Cruises

If you want to explore the Gulf of Alaska, these cruises are for you. Concentrating on the area from north of Glacier Bay to the Kenai Peninsula, Gulf of Alaska cruises usually include the Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet, Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, the Alyestka Resort at Girdwood, the Matanuska and Susitna Valleys, and the Alaska mountains.

Seward or Whittier are the main ports. You will also visit some of the Inside Passage ports such as Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, and Skagway. The Gulf route lasts about seven days and travels one way, northbound or southbound from Seattle or Vancouver to Seward or Whittier or vice versa.

A Gulf cruise will take you through glacier-lined College Fjord, to Harvard Glacier where you can see and hear the sounds of ice chunks calving into the water, and to the gigantic, six-mile Hubbard Glacier, Alaska’s longest. Since Gulf cruises travel one-way, you will get to see more of Alaska’s scenery in the same amount of time.

Small ship cruises

If you want an up close and personal experience of Alaska’s natural beauty, a small ship cruise might be just what you’re looking for. Small ships are ideal if you prefer a casual setting and want to avoid the crowds.

On a small ship cruise, you won’t find glitzy entertainment, elaborate dining options, and luxurious amenities. The cabins will be small and simple, and there will be only one dining area for everyone. Small ships are not a good choice for people with mobility issues because they don’t have elevators or stabilizers. They also tend to be more expensive and offer fewer discounts.

All of this is balanced by the unique experience that is offered by a small ship cruise. Because they are smaller, lower down, and more flexible, they will take you to places that larger ships can’t reach. On a small ship cruise, you will visit narrow fjords, uninhabited islands, and smaller ports, getting more intimate views of cliffs, birds, icebergs, waterfalls, and wildlife from sea level.

Depending on the cruise, some will make frequent stops at ports while others will focus on exploring nature. Some include a few outdoor experiences such as hiking and kayaking, while others are more intensely focused on hiking and kayaking adventures. What these cruises lack in entertainment, they make up for in education. Most small ship cruises include informative lectures and video presentations, which will teach you about Alaskan wildlife, history, and culture.

On a small ship cruise, the focus will be on immersing yourself in the Alaska experience. With fewer people and a more flexible schedule, you will be able to spend more time exploring waterways, channels, glaciers, and wilderness. With open seating at meals, you will get know and connect with your fellow passengers much more than you would on a big ship.

Big ship cruises

Big cruise ships have a lot to offer if you prefer a resort atmosphere but still, want to see Alaska. Big ships come in various sizes ranging from midsize and to megaships. Megaships, with upwards of 2000 passengers or more, are full of amenities from casinos, fitness centers, spas, swimming pools, shows, restaurants, nightclubs, movie theaters, shops, and kids playrooms. Some of the lines that offer megaships include Carnival, Celebrity, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise, Holland America, and Disney Wonder.

Midsize ships are a great option if you are looking for something in between. Some mid size ships are Regent Seven Seas’ Seven Seas Navigator, Silversea Cruises’ Silver Shadow, and Holland America’s Veendam, Amsterdam, Volendam, Zaandam, and Statendam. These ships provide a range of facilities, cabin sizes, and dining options, but can seem more crowded than small ships or megaships.

Big ship cruises offer dozens of choices for excursions at each port. However, they cannot sail into narrow passages or shallow water ports or slow down for wildlife. When you stop in small towns, cruise passengers will overwhelm them, so you won’t get to experience Alaska’s communities or interact as much with the locals.

All-inclusive Alaska luxury cruises

These upscale all-inclusive cruises offer the best of all worlds. You will travel on small, intimate ships that offer personalized service, visit off-the-beaten-path destinations, and indulge in gourmet cuisine. The accommodations are in luxurious balcony suites. If you are looking for the cruise of a lifetime, you might consider splurging on one of these luxury cruises.

Alaska cruise-tours

An Alaska cruise-tour combines a cruise with a land tour, which can be added on either before or after the cruise. If you will only have one chance to visit Alaska, you might want to consider one of these combined packages. Some land tours that can be combined with a cruise are 3-5 night tours of Anchorage, Denali, and Fairbanks and 5-7 night tours of Yukon, Anchorage, Denali, and Fairbanks. Cruise tours are a great way to see both the coastline and the interior of this incredible state. Holland America, Princess, and Royal Caribbean/Celebrity offer big-ship cruise-tour packages, or you can design your own.

Shore excursions

Shore excursions that take you off the ship to explore the sights are a highlight of any Alaska cruise. Although they are not usually included with fares, they are worth the extra cost. Possible shore excursions include helicopter tours, train rides, whale watching, white water rafting, catamaran rides, dog sledding, historical and cultural tours, kayaking, fishing, rock climbing, zip lining, scuba diving, and horseback riding. With so many shore excursions to choose from, there is something for everyone. The only problem will be how to narrow it down to just a few choices.

What to bring

To make your cruise to Alaska fun and hassle free, it is important to plan carefully. Be sure to have your travel documents ready well in advance of your trip and to book your excursions ahead of time. To prevent illness and seasickness, be sure to drink plenty of bottled water, to wash your hands frequently, and to bring motion sickness pills and wristbands. Remember that the weather is unpredictable, so be sure to bring warm clothes, hats, gloves, and rain gear. Other things to bring include formal and casual clothes, hiking boots, a swimsuit, sunscreen, a backpack, a camera, and a travel charger.


If you plan your trip well, your cruise in Alaska will be an unforgettable experience. As Alaska becomes an increasingly popular cruise and tourist destination, the options are expanding all the time. By asking the right questions and doing your research, you will have no trouble planning a cruise that will be fun, exciting, and full of adventure.