Alaska Cruise Ships: Choosing The Right Option

Alaska cruise ships

In this golden age of Alaskan cruising, there are countless Alaska cruise ships to choose from. These range from mega vessels carrying over 4,000 passengers to small yachts carrying less than 10. 

With so many options to choose from, how do you decide on the best option to suit you? It's certainly not easy and does require a lot of research. You need to consider itineraries, when to sail, costs etc. It's well worth it though as picking the right ship will have a big impact on your cruise experience.

Each ship and operator caters to different clientele and you can often feel a little out of place if you choose poorly. For example, if you want a relaxed cruise experience without kids and constant activities, then you should avoid lines like carnival or Disney. If however, you love photography and getting close to the wildlife then your best option is to sail onboard an expedition cruise ship.

Below we discuss each option from mega cruise to small yachts and the pros and cons of each. At the bottom of the page you will also find our top tips section for choosing the right Alaska cruise ship.     

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Main Line Cruise Ships

Alaska cruise ships 1

Main line cruise ship are by far the biggest vessels to sail in Alaska. They are also the most popular. These large ships offer a traditional cruise experience that you would encounter in the Mediterranean or the Bahamas.

Most mega ships carry between 2,000 and 4,000 passengers. Depending on the cruise line and ship you choose, this many people can often feel crowded. This is why it's good to look at the space-to-passenger ratio as each ship is different. 

The mega cruise lines are known for their facilities and entertainment. No matter who you sail with, you'll find large pools, cinemas, theatres, restaurants, spas, boutique shops, and much more onboard. 

Most of the large cruise companies operate within Alaska including Disney, Holland America, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian etc. For information on choosing the right cruise line, please click here.

Certain lines like Carnival and Disney cater very well towards children with targeted activities and games dotted around the ship. If you want maximum time ashore though, large cruise lines are not the best route. There are no zodiac trips, no kayaking and the only shore excursions you'll do will take place near the major ports. However, if you want, you could also book a cruise tour.  

There are also a number of luxury operators available in Alaska including Silver Sea, Seabourn and Crystal Cruises. All offer smaller ships with less than 800 people. Although the space-to-passenger ratio is exceptional, these cruises are costly and don't cater to children that well.   


  • Good prices
  • Excellent facilities
  • Great food options
  • Very little motion


  • Can feel crowded sometimes
  • Not much time ashore 

Editors Pick

We think Celebrity Cruises are excellent. The staff are attentive, the space-to-passenger ratio is one of the best in the industry, and the whole ship has an upmarket feel without costing excessive amounts. The half acre of real lawn on the top deck is a real draw card, as are the wine bars! 

Expedition Cruise Ships

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Expedition cruise ships in Alaska are becoming more and more popular in recent years. This is mainly due to the fact that they allow closer viewing of the magnificent wildlife on offer here. 

To do this, they provide dedicated naturalist and photography guides who take you out daily on zodiac trips and shore excursions to search for animals like bears, moose, eagles etc. 

Expedition ships are far smaller than mega cruises and generally carry between 40 and 100 passengers. These cruise are geared towards seeing as much wildlife as possible. Although most expedition cruise stay within the Inside Passage, there are plenty of itineraries that explore further north around the Aleutian Islands, Katmai and Kodiak Island. You can even sail to Wrangel island in the Russian Arctic from Alaska.  

Because they are smaller, there are fewer queues when going ashore. However, there are also far less facilities onboard compared to the major cruise line ships. At best, there will be one bar, one dining area, a small library, lounge, and lecture room. Expedition ships generally have great viewing spaces though which gives you best chance of watching the wildlife through your binoculars or camera. 


  • More time ashore
  • Zodiac trips
  • More wildlife watching
  • Kayaking included (generally)


  • Less facilities
  • More costly (generally)
  • More ship motion

Editors Pick

The National Geographic Quest (pictured above) is a great option for people wanting a great wildlife adventure with very experienced guides, naturalists and photographers. Although quite expensive, the knowledge of the people guiding you more than makes up for this, as does the quality of ship and its facilities. 

Small Cruise Yachts

Small cruise yachts are the least common option, but certainly worth considering. Generally carrying between 8 and 30 passengers, these yachts give you an intimate experience that is hard to match elsewhere. 

Yes, the space is limited, cabins are fairly small, and you'll only find a small lounge/diner area, but you also get more time ashore than any other type of Alaska cruise ship. 

Because there are so few passengers, you won't be queuing to go ashore and you'll get more one to one time with your guide. Another positive is, due to the small size of the boat, you can reach small inlets and shallow bays that other larger cruise ships cannot. 


  • Able to visit all areas
  • No queues
  • Lots of shore excursions
  • Nice intimate experience


  • Not many facilities
  • Not very spacious
  • Limited choices

Editors Pick

The Safari Quest is commonly considered to be one of the best and most luxurious small yachts operating in Alaska - she even boasts a jacuzzi! She is quite pricey, but with only 22 people onboard, you get top service and quality. 

Top Tips When Choosing 

Now you know the difference between the different types of Alaska cruise ships, there are some other things you'll need to consider prior to booking. To read our page on Alaska cruise tips, please click here


Seasickness can be a real issue for people who suffer from severe motion sickness. Although the waters throughout the Inside Passage are fairly calm, there is always going to be some slight motion at some point. 

If you do suffer from motion sickness the best thing to do is book onto a mega cruise ship - the larger the better. Large cruise ships are often stabilised and feel far less motion than smaller ships. You should also book a cabin low down if possible.


Most cruise guides on expedition ships are great in Alaska. However, the more expensive cruises will employ more qualified and experienced guides. Whilst this is no guarantee of charisma, it does guarantee that all your questions will be answered!  

Read Reviews

There are so many review sites these days that it makes sense to read the reviews of the cruise ship or operator you're planning on cruising with. Please take these reviews with a grain of salt. More people write reviews to complain than they do to praise. Often a bad review stems from the passenger choosing a ship that did not suit them. 

Know The Clientele

As mentioned above, each cruise line tends to focus on different elements. Knowing what that is will be paramount to you choosing the right Alaska cruise ship. For example, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean offer budget trips, Carnival focus on sport activities, Disney focus on kids, Celebrity focus on professional couples, Holland America focus on an older clientele. 

These are of course generalisations, but it is still worth noting and taking into consideration when booking your cruise. 

Book Early

This especially applies on expedition ships and small cruise yachts. Because there are far less passengers onboard, these cruise ships tend to book out very early in the season, if not before. We always suggest booking as early as possible, but at least 12 months in advance is advisable. 

Get a Cruise Quote!

Expedition Cruise do not sell tours, we simply provide impartial advice. If you would like an exact quote with our recommended specialist click Get a Quote.


If you have any queries or questions regarding Alaska cruise ships, please feel free to contact us or leave a comment below.

Thank you and happy travels!

Expedition Cruise Team

About the Author Burnham Arlidge

Burnham started his career as a professional tennis player before retiring due to injury. Since then Burnham has thrown himself into adventure travel. He has cruised to some of the most iconic and obscure parts of the planet.

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