Alaska welcomes well in excess of 1 million cruise passengers every year, and it's easy to see why. The sheer beauty and diversity of the landscape, not to mention the wildlife, makes this part of the world almost unbeatable.
Because of its popularity however, there are literally endless itineraries, ships and operators to choose from. Both major cruise lines and expedition operators sail Alaska, making it somewhat difficult to choose the right cruise.
To help you through the quagmire of choices, we have put together this guide to answer the most frequent questions we get from readers. This includes elements such as best time to cruise, what ship to choose, best places to see wildlife, activities available and much more.
Please use our quicklinks below if you know what section you want, otherwise just read on.
The most northerly state of the U.S is teeming with cultural diversity, wildlife and epic adventures. Dominated by water, Alaska is home to approximately 3,000 rivers, 3 million lakes, and 34,000 miles of coastline! More than half the world's glaciers can be found in Alaska.
Although cruising is without doubt the most popular way to see this beautiful region, land based expeditions are also popular thanks to the mountainous terrain. 17 of the 20 highest peaks in the United States are located in Alaska, including the highest peak in North America - Mount Denali.
Towering mountains, enormous glaciers, lush rainforests, bleak Arctic tundra and stunning waterways draw cruise goers to this lovely state year after year. For nature lovers there is something around every bend. Whales, grizzlies, seals, eagles, moose, and thousands of seabirds make their home here.
America’s last frontier offers numerous itineraries, however, most include Alaska's Inside Passage. Stretching along the southeast coast of Alaska, the Inside Passage is a beautiful region of wildlife-filled fjords and green islands that have been forged by glaciers over millions of years.
More adventurous itineraries take in the Aleutian Islands to the far south. Waters here can be far more choppy and passengers who suffer from sea sickness may wish to consider this. For the real adventure lovers, a few expedition itineraries will sail on from Alaska to the Russian Far East, visiting the wildlife-rich Wrangel Island where polar bears can be seen in large numbers.
Cruise itineraries on the larger cruise lines depart almost exclusively from San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver, whilst smaller expedition ships often depart from Alaska itself. Although in the past the major cruise lines have been prevalent, expedition-style cruises are fast catching on as they give passengers the chance to explore more areas and get closer to the wildlife.
Because of weather and ice conditions, Alaska can only be sailed during the Summer months.
The high season runs from June to August when the temperatures are at their warmest. However, cruises also depart in the shoulder months around April/May and September.
Land based tours are common in Winter thanks to the Aurora Borealis, which can be seen an average of 243 days of the year!
Summer is the high period for all cruises. This is largely due to the temperatures which can reach into the 70s on good days.
The high Summer period is also best for wildlife viewing as the many species are in full swing. There is also more optional activities during this time thanks to the warmer weather. Because its the peak season though, prices are also at their peak.
Frustratingly, rain is still common during these months and some excursions like helicopter tours are often cancelled. If you want guaranteed good weather, we suggest cruising somewhere else such as South America or the South Pacific Islands.
The shoulder months are generally April/May and September. However, some expedition cruises also depart in March.
Whilst temperatures are colder, May is actually the driest month of the year on average. Cruises are also cheaper at this time and you can snag yourself some great deals.
The weather is more unpredictable and many shore-based excursions have the potential to be cancelled. Saying this, whale watching is often at its best early in the season.
September gives you the chance to see the Northern Lights - if you're lucky and conditions align!
Because Alaska cruising is so popular, there is a wealth of ships to choose from. to narrow down your search, you'll first need to decide on the type of ship you want to sail on.
Below we have listed the three types of ship to choose from - motor yachts, expedition ships, and main line cruise ships.
Each type offer a very different cruise experience and it's important to know the differences prior to booking.
Motor yachts are the smallest type of boat on offer.
Generally carrying less than 50 passengers, motor yachts offer an intimate experience.
Because of their small size, you'll be able to visit incredibly small bays and inlets. You'll also be able to follow wildlife (within reason) much more easily than larger ships.
The negative side is of course space and amenities. Cabins won't be huge and there are few entertainment facilities onboard.
Great for people just interested in experiencing nature.
Now becoming hugely popular, expedition-style ships find a get balance between main line shops and smaller yachts.
Expedition ships range from roughly 80 - 250 passengers and can sail regions of Alaska cut off to major cruise lines.
You'll get dedicated naturalists and guides onboard who will give lectures and guide you to the best wildlife watching spots.
You'll also get daily zodiac trips and shore landings in small ports where few passengers ever visit.
Great for people looking for an adventure. This does come at a more expensive price though.
Almost every main line operator sails Alaska. These include Princess Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, Holland America Line, Carnival, and Regent Seven Seas.
There is little say here that won't already have been said. These cruise ships are fantastic for entertainment and price, but lack versatility because of their size.
With over 3,000 passengers onboard, you will only be able to make several port landings and you won't be able to get anywhere near as close to the wildlife as you would onboard an expedition vessel.
Alaskan cruise costs vary considerably depending on factors such as itinerary, ship and cabin choice.
For an expedition-style ship cruising the Inside Passage itinerary for 7 nights, prices start around $3,000 and go upwards from there. Occasional deals can be caught around the shoulder months.
For larger main line operators cruising the Inside Passage, prices start around $1,000 for a basic cabin and no added extras.
For a great two week experience, prices will be doubled at least. For expedition cruises that visit the Aleutian islands, you should expect to pay upwards of $8,000.
Beside the main cruise cost, there are also a number of other cost factors to consider.
Many of the main line operators will charge a supplement fee for solo travellers.
Expedition cruises will often cater to solo travellers by finding another solo passenger to share with. Otherwise, you will have to pay for a single room which can be expensive.
One of the biggest costs associated with cruising are the flights.
For America travellers, this won't be so bad, but for European travellers, the cost of flights can be quite high.
It also depends where you cruise from. Expedition cruise often depart from Alaska which can add even more costs. Main line cruises will depart from large cities like Vancouver and San Francisco, which will be cheaper to fly into.
We suggest budgeting $500-1,000.
Although American citizens do not require a visa, foreign travellers will.
You will also need to think about hotel costs, laundry costs, alcohol costs etc. Many operators will include these things, but you have to check prior to booking as it's by no means universal.
There will be many activities on offer during your cruise (see further below for our activity section). All these activities will cost extra and you will need to book ahead to avoid disappointment.
The Inside Passage is included in over 90% of Alaskan cruise itineraries. In fact, if you want to visit another region of Alaska, you'll need to take a special expedition cruise itinerary.
Whilst almost every cruise itinerary unfolds within the Passage, there are actually numerous routes and ports that can be explored (depending on ship).
Larger cruise lines can only stop at the major ports such as Juneau, Seaward, Ketchikan, Skagway, Icy Straight, etc.
Expedition cruises visit numerous other ports. This also means you can choose Northern and Southern itineraries, depending on the area of the Passage you wish to explore. On longer itineraries, you can explore the whole Passage!
Discovered by explorer James Cook in 1778, Prince William Sound is a rugged frontier, ideal for expedition lovers.
Surrounded by the second largest forest in the United States - the Chugach National Forest, the Sound is an oasis of calm water protected by 3,800 miles of coastline.
Wildlife in this region thrives. Whales, seals and sea otters are seen daily int e water whilst both black and brown bears can be seen along the coastline.
The Sound holds the densest concentration of tidewater glaciers on the planet, giving passengers a unique view into the fragile environment of Alaska.
Katmai National Park is without doubt one of the most famous and best spots to see grizzly bears.
A number of itineraries each year set sail for this peninsula, often in conjunction with the magnificent Kodiak Island.
If you're after bears, this is the itinerary for you. Your guides will take you ashore to get the best possible views of bears hunting for salmon.
On some cruises, 12 bears at once have be seen. Very few pole get the opptutinity to witness this feeding event and you will certainly get some epic pictures. This option is only offered on expedition cruises.
Incredibly beautiful and diverse, the Aleutian Islands make up a chain of 69 islands, stretching down the southern tip of Alaska.
Like Katmai, only a handful of expedition cruise itineraries visit this part of the world each year.
The volcanic islands form the northernmost part of the Pacific Ring of Fire and are the mot active on earth. However, the incredible wildlife watching opportunities are what draw most passengers here.
Whales, seals, and grizzly encounters are frequent and you can expect to get very close to the action.
A number of Alaska cruises also visit the Russian Far East. These are only offered by expedition operators and cost a considerable amount.
What you get though is one of the most epic cruise itineraries on earth. You'll visit islands that few people have ever seen and witness not only brown and black nears, but also polar bears.
The itinerary is truly epic - you'll visit Prince William Sound, explore Katmai National Park, and the Aleutian Islands before heading deep into the Russian Arctic.
Here you will visit Wrangel Island, one of the most wildlife-rich islands on earth.
Although not as popular as the Southern Passages, there are occasional Northern Alaska itineraries on offer.
This incredible itinerary is probably the greatest cruise on earth. Stretching from Greenland to Alaska, you'll visit countless islands, meet diverse cultures, and witness wildlife on a grand scale.
The Northwest Passage can only be done during high Summer and costs a considerable amount with prices starting around $20,000.
The coasts of Alaska are an absolute hotspot for wildlife watching. The diverse landscapes creates an even more diverse array of wildlife and marine species.
The further afield you venture, the more you'll see. For example, standard Inside Passage itineraries will have no chance of seeing Walrus or Polar bear, whilst some longer expedition itineraries might. Always check with your specialist prior to booking, especially if there is a particular species you wish to see.
Below is a quick overview on the most commonly seen species on Alaska cruises.
Whales are hugely common throughout Alaskan waters. Humpback, beluga, grey and orca are seen frequently. The most popular is the orca (although not technically a whale) which can be spotted anywhere throughout the Inside Passage.
Black and brown bears are seen frequently on cruises, especially itineraries that take in Katmai National Park. However, both species can be seen almost anywhere within the Inside Passage. Polar bears can only be seen in Northern Alaska. For best viewing, cruise during the salmon run.
Harbour seals are great to watch as they can pop up at any moment. Well adapted, the seals can dive down to 1,649 feet! Harbour seals can be seen anywhere from Dixon's Entrance right up to the Aleutian Islands and beyond.
Watching a salmon run is totally unforgettable, particularly if there is a grizzly trying to grab them! Salmon runs generally occur in June and late July, but this does vary year to year. You can also try your hand at salmon fishing should you wish.
Moose are hugely pervasive throughout Alaska, even in towns. On most shore excursions you should keep your eye out for these lovely creatures. They won't run away and you should be able to get some nice photo opportunities.
Walrus are very charismatic creatures and great fun to watch hauling out on the rocks and ice. Although you can't see these creatures on any Inside Passage cruise, they can be seen on the northern side of the Aleutian Islands.
With roughly 40,000 bald eagles living in Alaska, more than half of America's population reside here. Typically residing along coastlines and rivers, bald eagles can be spotted anywhere. Just look out for the huge wingspan!
Sea otters are commonly seen throughout the Inside Passage. A favourite of many passengers, sea otters can often be seen relaxing on their backs, taking in the sun. Sea otter do not range fa so your guides should have a good idea where to seen them.
The Pacific white-sided dolphin is commonly seen on cruise voyages, often using the bow tide to catch a ride on. Often seen in huge multi-species pods that can include Harbour porpoises and orca.
Whilst the above mentioned species are quite commonly seen during an Alaskan cruise, there are a host of species that are far rarer to spot. This can be due to the fact that they inhabit areas further inland, or simply that they are rare or shy creatures.
Wolves: Shy creatures that are rarely seen. Best spotted along the Denali Road.
Polar bear: Only possible to see in Northern Alaska or on a itinerary that also visits the Russian or Canadian Arctic.
Caribou: Although fairly common, the migratory caribou inhabit the tundra grasslands, only accessible via plane or long car journey.
Dall Sheep: Quite common but difficult to spot as they inhabit steep cliffs and tend to look like white dots from below. Best seen at Windy Point.
Alaska is a hotbed for activities and most cruise operators will offer numerous extra excursions or local activities to participate in. If you want to do loads of shore excursions, it may be worth considering a cruise tour package.
Please note that most activities will not be included in your price. Activities are also weather dependent, itinerary dependent and often require added insurance. Below is an overview of the most popular ones on offer.
Kayaking is offered on most itineraries at an extra cost. We always advise you do this as it's a great way to explore the Inside Passage in more detail. You can paddle tiny inlets and get some great close-up photos of wildlife.
Obviously one of the major highlights of all Alaska cruises is wildlife watching. expedition cruise are particularly good for this as your guides will show you the best spots and be able to track the animals in zodiacs.
If there are any fisherman (or fisher-woman) among you, this is a popular activity offered by many cruise lines. Take a small boat out and reel in a couple of salmon. You can then take it back to the boat and prepare it for dinner!
Although the waters are by no means warm, snorkelling is offered on select itineraries around Ketchikan. Take a 2 hour guided tour in the bay and see what you find. If you're very lucky you'll come across killer whales!
Many photographers take Alaska cruises to get close to the amazing wildlife. Although you'll get some great shots on most cruises, there are special photographic expedition cruises. These will include dedicated photography guides onboard.
When you make port you'll have plenty of opportunities to go hiking. Expedition cruise will have more shore landings and, therefore, more hikes. If you're serious about hiking then you can travel to Juneau icefield and hike across one of the glaciers!
Several of the larger ports offer seaplane and helicopter trips to get the ultimate view of the glaciers. Yes, these flights can bee expensive, but they are once in a lifetime trips that you'll never forget!
Several of the ports, including skagway offer the chance to dog sled. This is very popular due to how fun it is. The dogs are absolutely gorgeous and you'll be taking photos of all of them.
Before or after your cruise there is often the opportunity to co bine a land tour into your trip. A popular option is Denali National park where you can see bears, wolves, and much more.
Although you will be travelling in Summer, warm temperatures are not guaranteed.
In fact, out at sea with the wind blowing against you, you'll definitely want a good coat or parka.
The nights are also very cold, especially in the shoulder months and having the appropriate clothing is paramount. Below is a quick overview of the items you should consider in your packing list.
Clothing: The cold wind and low night temperatures means that you may want to bring several layers of clothing. This includes a windproof jacket and thermal base layers.
Gloves: If you feel the cold or plan to go hiking near a glacier, you may want to consider bringing a good pair of gloves. Photographers may want some thin, liner gloves.
Sunglasses: It will surprise you how bright the sea can be, especially when wildlife watching. Wearing a good pair of UV sunglasses is the best way to combat this.
Footwear: If you're taking an expedition cruise you'll want a pair of high-calf waterproof boots for wet landings via zodiac. Make sure they have a good grip!
Bags and Daypacks: When ashore you'll want to rake some key items with you such as wallet, gloves, camera etc. Having a good backpack will be vital for this.
Important Accessories: Remember to bring sunglasses, sun cream, ear plugs, kindle, water bottle.
One of the most famous landmarks in Alaska and for good reason. Ringed by mountains, the majestic 65-mile-long fjord is a UNESCO world heritage site. Watch as the Margerie Glacier calves 100-tonne icebergs into the water while seals and orca swim nearby.
Skagway came to prominence in the 1800's thanks to the Klondike gold rush. Take a gold tour around town, pan for gold in the local streams or take the iconic White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. The train follows in the footsteps of the gold seekers along a stunning trail.
Kodiak Island is a beautiful island just off the Aleutian coast. Here you can find Kodiak bears, take long hikes, visit museums, go fishing, play golf, or take a seaplane tour. Only available on special Katmai itineraries.
Although not as well known as other sites within the Inside Passage, the Hubbard Glacier is simply magnificent. Located between Skagway and Whittier, the Hubbard Glacier is the largest and and most active glacier in Alaska. Throughout the entire summer you can see it calving!
Located just south of Juneau, Tracy Arm is one of the biggest fjords within the Inside Passage. Many of the larger ships do not visit, so check your itinerary. If not, consider a separate trip from Juneau by car, helicopter, or seaplane. You don't want to miss this beauty!
Although few itineraries actually call here, Sitka is without doubt one of the most picturesque towns in Alaska. The town is a melting pot of Alaska's Russian and Tlingit cultures that once inhabited the region. A beautiful day can be spent here just exploring.
Katmai National park cannot be accessed except by seaplane or boat. Because of this, the bear population thrives. If you've ever seen a stunning picture of a grizzly by a waterfall with a salmon it its mouth, the chances are it was taken at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park.
Unimaginably stark and bleak, the Aleutian Islands are home to some of the most active volcanoes on our planet. The East Borough is an untamed barren wilderness of smoking craters, rich wildlife and cultural heritage.
The Arctic coast of Alaska is a stark tundra of snow and ice, a last frontier where wildlife meets humans. Discover the local communities and how they live side by side with one of nature's great predators - the polar bear.
Insurance is mandatory on all expedition cruises to Alaska. Please use the quick calculator below to get a quote with our recommended specialist. For a detailed article on cruise insurance, please click here.
Below is a short video by National Geographic, demonstrating some of the delights to be found on an Inside Passage cruise.