Alaska's Inside Passage is arguably one of the greatest cruise routes on earth. It's certainly the most popular within Alaska thanks to its diversity and incredible wildlife.
Whilst the majority of visitors book aboard a major cruise line, it's the smaller expedition boats that allow you to really get close to nature and explore the unique landscapes. Saying this, if you love your comforts and you're not concerned about getting ashore too often, then a large cruise ship is probably the way to go. Click here for more tips.
To help you decide what ship will suit you, when to go and what itinerary you should choose, we have put together this ultimate guide. Please use our quicklinks below if you know what section you wish to read.
The Inside Passage of Alaska is a network or coastal islands that form multiple passages along the coast. These islands and passages were historically used as a buffer from the North Pacific Ocean.
Extending 500 miles down Alaska's coast, the Inside Passage continues into British Columbia, Canada, before joining the northwestern area of Washington state. The region is a warren of islands and bays that boast incredible glaciers, epic waterfalls, misty fjords and amazing wildlife. Because of this, it is a hugely popular cruise destination.
Thanks to a lack of roads and infrastructure, cruising is really the only way to explore this unique area in any sort of detail. During the Klondike Gold Rush, the Passage was used a calm route to ferry prospectors northward in search of their fortune. Nowadays, over 35,000 cruise ships sail the Passage and, during Summer, it can almost get clogged!
The Alaska section is generally considered to be the most spectacular thanks to it's large glaciers and diverse wildlife such as bears and orca. Most large cruise line itineraries tend to be either round-trips from Vancouver or one way trips through the Inside Passage and onto the Gulf of Alaska. However, the exact route changes significantly depending on who you sail with and what time of year.
Expedition-style cruises tend to begin in Juneau and finish in Sitka - or the reverse. Because expedition cruise are becoming so popular, there are now countless itineraries on offer. These smaller boats have much more freedom of movement which means that the itineraries vary quite considerably from boat to boat.
To help you find your perfect cruise, we have answered the most frequent questions we get regarding the Inside Passage below.
The main cruise for Alaska's Inside Passage occurs from March through to September when the weather is warmest.
During Winter cruises do not run thanks to the long hours of darkness and bleak weather. You can see the Northern Lights here in this period.
Although cruises only depart in Summer, when you choose to sail during this period will have an effect on what you see. Below we discuss in more detail.
During the early months from March to May, the peaks are covered in snow and you'll see plenty of waterfalls as the ice melts in vast quantitates. Although by no means the warmest months, May is actually the driest. This is a great time to see whales thanks to the Pacific herring migration. Hungry bears, having just woken up from hibernation are also active, especially along the shore lines.
The high summer period of June and July provides passengers with the warmest weather. The days are also the longest during this period, making it ideal for photographers seeking long golden hours. Whales are active and the waters are clear and shallow. Expect a fair amount of bugs though!
The later part of the season provides wonderful fall colours. This is especially true if you plan on visiting Denali National Park at the same time. Wildlife is also prevalent during this period as the animals try to fatten up for migration and hibernation.
Deciding what ship you wish to sail on is paramount as it will affect your cruise experience considerably.
Alaska Inside Passage cruise are hugely popular, therefore, there is wealth of ships to choose from!
There are three types of cruise ships that ail the Inside Passage; motor yachts, expedition vessels, and cruise ships. Blow we have given an overview of each, and noted their pros and cons.
Generally motor yachts carry anywhere between 12 and 50 passengers.
By far the smallest type of cruise boats on offer, motor yachts give you a very it inmate experience.
People often say that getting to know their fellow passengers is one of the best parts!
Small motor boats can also make landings where bigger boats cannot. This means you'll get maximum time ashore.
The downside is of course space and motion. The former is not a major issue thanks to the protected waters. However, there are very few facilities onboard.
Expedition ships are the next level up in size and comfort.
Carrying between 60 and 200 passengers, there is plenty of options when it comes to cabin sizes.
Expedition ships will also have more guides and you'll get dedicated lecture rooms, zodiacs and kayaks.
Generally speaking you'll get plenty of time ashore, but more important, you'll get plenty of zodiac trips.
The downside of expedition ships is price. Because you'll have dedicated naturalist guides and visit places that are unacsessible to most, the price will be higher.
Because the Inside Passage is so popular, almost all the main cruise lines sail here. Carnival Cruises, Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, and Regent Seven Seas are just some of the big names.
Because of the sheer number of passengers, these itineraries are generally cheaper and offer epic facilities and entertainment onboard.
However, their size is also their downfall when it comes to shore landings and wildlife watching. You'll only be able to make port at the large towns and cities and you certainly won't be taking an zodiac or kayaking trips to look for wildlife.
Because there is such a range of ship, prices for Alaska Inside Passage cruise can differ quite substantially.
Other factors that will affect your costs include itinerary length, cabin choice, operator and quality of ship.
For the cheapest option, you'll have to take a short cruise aboard a main line cruise from Vancouver. For a basic cabin, prices start around $1,000 depending on when you sail.
For a similar length 7 day itinerary aboard an expedition ship you should expect to pay in the region of $3,000 for a basic cabin. For longer 2 week itineraries you should expect to pay double. These prices are based on shared cabin prices. For suites you will need to pay considerably more.
Beside the main cruise cost, there are also a number of other cost factors to consider.
Many of the main line operators will charge solo travellers a supplement fee for a single cabin.
Expedition ships will try and find you another solo traveler of the same sex to share with. This is not guaranteed though and you may have to pay the extra.
For people on main line cruises, you will need to factor in costs of reaching either Vancouver, Seattle or Washington as these are the major departure ports.
For people on expedition cruises, you will need to get to either Juneau or Sitka (this does change occasionally).
We usually suggest putting aside at least $5-700 for flights.
Visas only relate to people not from the U.S. However, for people from the U.S, you will still need to consider extra costs like hotels, laundry, drinks etc.
Tipping is also a much talked about point. Generally the rule is $12-15 per person, per day aboard a large cruise line. This is often slightly more on an expedition ship.
Due to the amazing landscape of the Inside Passage, there is an abundance of wildlife. Many people scream with delight when a whale appears, or a brown bear is spotted on the shore line!
Although you're unlikely to see all the species on offer during your cruise, especially on larger cruise ships, you're certain to see some of them. For people who want to cruise the Inside Passage just to see the wildlife, you'll want to take an expedition-style cruise.
Below is a list of the star species and where to see them.
Humpback, beluga, grey and killer whales are seen frequently within the Inside Passage cruises. There are numerous killer whale pods and they love to ride the bow waves of your cruise boat. Humpbacks are also very common and are frequently seen breaching.
Can be spotted anywhere, although good places include San Juan Islands, Washington, Vancouver Island, and the waters around Seaward and Juneau.
Diving over 1,500 feet, Harbour seals are fantastic swimmers. They are also lovely creatures to watch as they laze out in the sun. Harbour seals are responsible for bringing the first white settlers to Alaska during the 1700s, thanks to their fur coats.
Harbour seals can literally be seen anywhere throughout the Inside Passage.
Dall's, Harbour and Pacific White-sided dolphins are seen frequently in the Inside Passage. They love to ride the bow wave of boats and you can often see several species traveling together in large pods. It's also not uncommon to see orca with them.
Like most marine creatures, dolphins and porpoises can pop up at any moment during your cruise. There is no particular spot.
There are two types of bear found in Alaska's Inside Passage - Brown bear (grizzly) and the black bear. Both types are seen quite frequently, especially early and late in the season. If your main goal is to see bears, you may want to consider visiting Katmai National Park.
Found in most places throughout Alaska's Inside Passage. You often see them swimming from island to island! You won't see them on the islands south of Frederick Sound.
Although commonly seen duirncruises, especially lying on their backs, sea otters were almost hunted to extinction, until in 1911, a treaty was signed to protect them. Sea otters are a favourite of many passengers and watching them crack open oysters and shellfish is great.
Can be found throughout the Inside Passage right down to British Columbia and Washington.
The United States’ national symbol, the bald eagle has its stronghold in Alaska. Very commonly seen during most Inside Passage cruises, bald eagles can often be seen in groups. In fact, season fish runs means that thousands sometimes gather.
Can be seen anywhere through the waterways and passages.
Weighing up to 1,600 pounds, moose are lovely large creatures that are easily seen in Alaska. You can literally spot them on any walk or near any town. However, then tend to stay deeper inland.
Although they do inhabit certain parts of the Inside Passage, they are not frequently seen along the coast.
A staple diet of many Alaskan creatures (including its human residents), salmon are great to watch, and even more fun to fish for! The king, silver, pink, chum and red can all be found here.
Most rivers within the Inside Passage will have salmon. Sitka Sound provides all 5 species, and Chilkat Inlet, Lake, and River is also a good location.
Found on every major islands along the Inside Passage except Baranof, Admiralty, and Chichagof islands. Wolves are often seen padding slowly along the shore lines hunting for food.
Can be seen on all the major islands and coastlines.
Not only will you see amazing landscapes and wildlife during your cruise, you'll also have the opportunity to do some awesome activities and shore excursions. Please bare in mind that only certain itineraries offer these activities. Most of the time you will have to book these activities separately before or after your Inside Passage cruise. Alternatively, you can take a cruise tour itinerary.
Most expedition-style cruises will offer kayaking as an added extra. This is a great idea as you'll be able to explore areas of the Inside Passage otherwise cut off to your ship. If you're lucky a whale or dolphin will appear near you!
Because the wildlife is so variesd, there are plenty of wildlife safaris on offer throughout the Inside Passage. Most of the have a focus on whales, but you'll spot numerous species. Expedition style cruise offer these safaris as standard.
Many of the major towns within the Inside Passage like Sitka and Juneau offer seaplane and helicopter trips. Although quite expensive, you'll get the best views in all of Alaska! Particularly good when flying over glaciers.
It may sound strange, considering the temperature of the waters, but snorkelling is certainly an option. Mainly conducted around Ketchikan, this is a great way to explore the marine life up close. You might even bump into a whale!
Photographers will absolutely love the Inside Passage. The light shines beautifully, especially at sunset and the snow-peaked backdrops are a wonderful setting for landscape shots. Wildlife photographers should take an expedition cruise. z
Hikers will love the Inside Passage and temperate rainforest climate. Explore the hidden inlets and take walks up into the surrounding hills for amazing views back down upon your ship. Hikes are more common with expedition cruises.
Salmon fishing is a great fun activity offered by many cruise lines. You'll head out on a small fishing boat and try and reel in some salmon. If you're successful, you can take the fish back to the ship and have it prepared for you!
Many people who take cruises to the Inside Passage also combine their cruise with an added land trip. The most popular option by far is Denali National Park. Best during Autumn, the park is home to wolves, bears, reindeer, moose, Dall's sheep and much more.
One of the most fun activities you can do after or before your Inside passage cruise is dog sledding! Frequently offered around Skagway, you'll absolutely fall in love with the friendly and hard working dogs pulling your sled along.
Glacier Bay was, until the late 1800's, inaccessible thanks to a wall of ice one mile high. These days the National Park offer a finite number of permits each day for people to witness this beautiful bay and all of its wildlife.
Located on the seaward side of the Inside Passage, Sitka is the former capital of the Imperial Russian settlers in Alaska. It's Russian history can be seen throughout the picturesque town as you make your way through its streets and museums.
Although the town itself is pretty enough, it's the activities offered here that make this a great spot. Visit the gold museums, take a dog sled trip or ride aboard the famous White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad.
Located just south of Juneau, Tracy Arm is an enormous fjord that holds number of epic glaciers! Not all cruises stop here, so you may have to take a seaplane trip over the fjord to get unfogetoabble views.
Located between Skagway and Whittier, this relatively isolated area is home to the largest Glacier of the Inside Passage. Hubbard Glacier is probably the best place to see a glacier carving, especially in high Summer.
Discover the ‘salmon capital of the world! Whilst the town itself has little to offer, the salmon fishing opportunity are second to none. This is also one of the best places to see bald eagles that gather to feast on the salmon.
Juneau is the capital of the Inside Passage and there are plenty of shops and museums to keep you busy. Most expedition cruises depart from here, as do seaplane and helicopter tours.
Famed for its bald eagle gatherings that can reach into the thousands! However, this happens in November generally. Although few cruises stop here, there are some great river cruises to be had.
Although the point is nothing to write home about, its wildlife is! The waters round the point are home to many species of whale. Humpbacks and orca in particular are spotted regularly here throughout the cruise season.
There are essentially three options when it comes to Alaska's Inside Passage itineraries. You can either take a round-trip, a one way trip, or an itinerary that starts and finishes within the Passage itself.
Inside Passage round-trips are generally offered as 7 day itineraries aboard the major cruise lines like Princess, P&O etc.
These cruises almost all start in either Vancouver, British Colombia, or Seattle, Washington. The first and last section of these cruises are conducted at seas as you travel along the British Colombian coastline.
Once in the Inside Passage, almost all of these main line cruises visit the same ports during the 4 days you have in the region. These are generally Glacier Bay, Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan.
One way cruise are generally offered only once a season as they are typically repositioning cruises.
Like the round trips, these typically depart from Seattle or Vancouver, however, they also depart from San francisco or Los Angeles occasionally . Both the later tend to be slightly longer itineraries (around 2 weeks).
One way Inside Passage cruises almost always end in either Whittier or Seward, near Anchorage. These itineraries are ideal for seeing more of the Alaskan coastline than you otherwise would. They're also great of you want to do a land-based tour either end.
Cruises that start and finish within the Alaskan Inside Passage region tend to be small boat cruises or expedition cruises.
These cruises range from 8 - 15 days depending on the route and ship. Most begin and finish in either Juneau or Sitka and visit the main highlights and more.
Although your ship won't have the same facilities offered on the main line cruises, you will explore the Inside Passage in more detail and make far more landings. The exact route of these cruises changes from ship to ship and can often change last minute if wildlife is spotted somewhere else.
During the Summer period it can still be quite cold within the Inside Passage, especially around the shoulder months.
Showers, mist and wind is common and you'll need the appropriate warm clothing. Standing on deck, particularly at night can get even colder, so make sure you are prepared for this.
Below we have written a quick overview, but if you would like a more detailed packing list, please hit the button.
Clothing: Although it will often be sunny, you'll still want a good waterproof jacket and parka for the cold mornings and nights.
Gloves: You'll be okay without gloves, but we still recommend them, especially if you plan to sit on deck and watch wildlife. Your hands will get very cold after a while.
Sunglasses: Watching the ocean in bright sunlight is quite damaging for your eyes. Make sure you wear sunglasses to protect them.
Footwear: You'll want some good hiking boots, as well as some comfy walking shoes for the ship. Expedition cruises will require muck boots for wet landings.
Bags and Daypacks: A good day pack is essential for keeping your valuables, water bottle, camera etc. in when you go ashore.
Important Accessories: Remember to bring items such as plug adaptors, water bottle, bug spray, ear plugs, kindle etc.
Insurance is highly recommended on all Alaska Inside Passage cruises. Please use the quick calculator below to get a quote with our recommended specialist. For a detailed page on cruise insurance, click here.
Below is a short video by UnCruise Adventures, demonstrating some of the delights to be seen in the Inside Passage of Alaska.