Cruise Ships Are a Fantastic Way to See Alaska, Part 1
They're a convenient and affordable way to see an absolutely incredible part of the world.
The U.S. state of Alaska is an absolutely incredible part of the world. Before Brent and I visited for the first time back in the 90s, we had simply never seen vistas so vast and unspoiled, and wildlife so abundant.
But because Alaska is so large, it’s very difficult to get around, and the weather is often cold and wet, which makes the tourist season ridiculously short. As a result, travel to and around Alaska is outrageously expensive.
One solution? Take a cruise ship to Alaska, which will enable you to see the wonders of the islands, sea passages, and fjords of Southeast Alaska — and if you can afford it, you can then travel onward via bus or train into the interior of Alaska, to see Mount Denali and more.
Since we used to live in Seattle, Brent and I have taken many cruises to Alaska. On our most recent trip, in August of this year, we decided it was time to share our perspective — to help you decide if an Alaskan cruise is right for you, and also give you the tips we’ve learned to make your cruise as great as possible.
This will be a two-part series. In Part One, we’ll take an “overall” look at Alaska cruises, and in Part Two, we’ll do a deep dive into the six most popular ports-of-call and the various fjords and glaciers where cruise ships tend to stop for viewing.
What You’ll See
It really is hard to overstate Alaska’s natural beauty and the abundance of its wildlife. You’ll see mountains, glaciers, and fjords right from the boat itself, and you’ll almost certainly see whales too — humpbacks and belugas in July and August, and orcas year-round, but especially when the salmon are running.
Speaking of salmon, Alaska is home to five different species, which all spawn at different times of the year, but throughout the tourist season, there’s usually at least one species choking the various rivers in the different ports-of-call.
During our most recent trip, we saw thousands of salmon and halibut; humpbacks and orcas; harbor seals, otters, and sea lions; and puffins, eagles, and oyster catchers. On our tours and excursions, we saw more whales, and, yes, even a black bear on shore. You might also see moose and grizzly bears.
With eighteen-plus hours of daylight during the cruise ship season, you aren’t very likely to see the Northern Lights, but you should see one another sight that’s almost as spectacular: glaciers calving.
And depending on which cruise you choose, you might see this right from the cruise ship itself.
Why a Cruise?
Just as it’s hard to overstate Alaska’s beauty, it’s also hard to overstate how incredibly expensive Alaska is. Because it’s so vast and so remote, it’s a hard place to get resources too — and that’s reflected in prices.
And because the tourist season is so short, prices are further elevated: very few tourists come to Alaska in winter, so the state’s tourist industry must make all its money — and pay for its complicated infrastructure — in the span of a few short months.
One estimate is that a typical Alaska vacation costs about $400 USD per person per day.
This is where a cruise comes in. The price of an Alaskan cruise is not usually any more expensive than one anywhere else in the world, and we think it’s very easy to spend less than $800 per couple. We generally cruise for somewhere between $120 to $180 USD per day total for the both of us (for an interior cabin, including tips, fees, and port taxes; $200+/day for a balcony).
That said, while the cruise itself may cost the same, the on-shore excursions will be far more expensive than in other parts of the world, and even the local attractions and tours will be shockingly expensive.
For example, a single ticket on the admittedly beautiful Skagway’s White Pass & Yukon Route Railway starts at an eye-popping $142 USD per person. For a three-hour ride!
Where You’ll Leave From — and Where You’ll Go
Cruises to Alaska usually leave from one of two cities: Seattle in the United States or Vancouver in Canada.
Travel proceeds up through the Inside Passage, which is the name for the network of “inside” passages between the mainland and the islands and fjords of upper North America.
The cruise ships stop at about six different ports-of-call in Southeast Alaska, which is lower tip the state and is itself a series of islands and bays.
Whether you leave from Seattle or Vancouver depends on your personal preference — as well as price and your choice of cruise line.
We don’t recommend the “mega” cruise ships — we prefer smaller ships anyway, and a very large ship will also limit your access to certain ports-of-call. But if you prefer the really large ships, you’ll have to leave from Seattle, as Vancouver doesn’t have the capacity for them.
One other thing to consider regarding a Seattle departure: it will almost certainly stop in Vancouver or Victoria, Canada, as its first port of call. And those cities are fine, but if you’re taking an Alaskan cruise, you might want to concentrate on ports in Alaska.
Some cruises go north to Alaska and back all in a single week, while other cruises take a single week to go one direction — in which case, you can take the same boat back to your starting point, and it becomes a two-week cruise (but usually duplicating the same ports-of-call).
Whether you do a one or a two-week cruise, we think it’s best to return to wherever you started. It’s not especially convenient getting to the airport in Anchorage from the closest cruise ship terminal (in Seward), and overnight lodging and/or the cost of a flight out of Alaska can be, yup, really expensive.
Tours, Excursions, and Add-Ons
As we said, there’s plenty to see right from the deck of your cruise ship, but of course to get a better, closer look at Alaska, you’ll probably want to book some tours and excursions: sight-seeing excursions, salmon bakes, bear-viewing, zip-lining, hiking, biking tours, and the like.
Again, these activities can be really expensive, especially if you book through the ship. And they can be, well, quite hokey — leaning into the “Alaska” theme. This is not bad, but expect a lot of “Wild West” and “Yukon Gold Rush”-type stuff.
On the plus side, cruise ship tourism provides many Native communities with stable incomes.
You’ll always get a better deal booking directly from on-shore tour operators in advance of your landing. But even these independent options will be expensive. And there is always a risk of your cruise ship changing its itinerary at the last minute — for various reasons, these things happen. Unfortunately, if you wait to book your independent tour until after you land, it may very well be sold out, especially in July or August.
If something is absolutely “must-see” — if, for example, you really want to kayak near a glacier or see grizzly bears — book a tour early through the cruise line itself.
But do keep in mind that most Alaskan ports-of-call are fairly small towns and cities, which means you can also have access to wilderness simply by walking (or taking a taxi or rideshare) to some fairly spectacular hiking trails only a couple of kilometers from the boat. Several stops also have trams or gondolas that will whisk you directly to the tops of nearby mountains.
Finally, an Alaska cruise is often just the starting point for many people’s Alaska trip. Almost all cruises start in Seattle or Vancouver, but they end in Seward, which is the port closest to Anchorage. From Seward, it’s very easy to catch a bus or train to Anchorage and beyond.
Anchorage isn’t much, but the “crown” of Alaska is majestic Mount Denali and the surrounding Denali National Park. And since travel within the park is mostly restricted to buses, a train really is the perfect way to get to the park itself.
Consider the Weather
Alaska’s high season is mid-June through early September. The shoulder season is May, early June, or late September. You can sometimes get a cruise in October or April, and you might get survivable temperatures, but it will be cold — and you’re taking a real chance that it might be outright miserable.
Even in summer, don’t expect the fun-in-the sun of a Caribbean cruise. The temperature will probably be in the 75 F/24 C range, and 60 F/15 C, and clouds and rain are not out of the question.
June is the driest month, but July is the warmest. As summer goes on, Southeast Alaska gets more rainfall, not less. But the longer you wait in summer, the warmer the glaciers, and the more spectacular their calving will be.
If you insist on being warm, go in July or August. But even in summer, you probably won’t be using the ship’s swimming pools.
Which Cruise Line Should You Choose?
There are currently at least 37 different cruise lines in the world, and at least 21 of those lines sail to Alaska. Which is best for you?
In some ways, the cruise ship experience is the same on every ship: small-ish cabins, dinners on white tablecloths, lots of bars and live music, and reading on deck-chairs. But there are definitely differences in price, targeted demographics, and the general vibe of the ship.
For what it’s worth, when cruising to Alaska, we prefer Holland America, which is a solidly mainstream company with smaller boats and an older, child-unfriendly vibe. We also think the food is better.
Click here for Part 2 of our series on cruising Alaska — with a deep dive into the five most popular ports-of-call and the area’s various fjords and glaciers.
This article is paid-subscriber only, and if you don’t already have access, here is a discounted upgrade offer:
Brent Hartinger is a screenwriter and author. Check out my new newsletter about my books and movies at BrentHartinger.com.
Brent and Michael Are Going Places is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.