Alaska is one of cruising's showcase destinations. Itineraries give passengers more choices than ever before—from traditional loop cruises of the Inside Passage, round-trips from Vancouver or Seattle, to one-way Inside Passage–Gulf of Alaska cruises. Which cruise is right for you depends on numerous factors, notably your budget, the size and style of ship you choose, and the itinerary.
Cruise ships typically follow one of two itineraries in Alaska: round-trip Inside Passage loops and one-way Inside Passage–Gulf of Alaska cruises. Itineraries are usually seven days, though some lines offer longer trips. Tip:
Keep in mind that the landscape along the Inside Passage changes dramatically over the course of the summer. In May and June, you'll see snowcapped mountains and dramatic waterfalls from snowmelt cascading down the cliff faces, but by July and August most of the snow and some waterfalls will be gone.
Round-Trip Inside Passage Loops:
A seven-day cruise typically starts and finishes in Vancouver, British Columbia, or Seattle, Washington. The first and last days are spent at sea, traveling to and from Alaska along the mountainous coast of British Columbia. Once in Alaska, most ships call at a different port on each of four days, and reserve one day for cruising in or near Glacier Bay National Park or another glacier-rich fjord.
One-Way Inside Passage–Gulf of Alaska Itineraries:
These cruises depart from Vancouver, Seattle, or, occasionally, San Francisco or Los Angeles, and finish at Seward or Whittier, the seaports for Anchorage (or vice versa). They're a good choice if you want to explore Alaska by land, either before or after your cruise. For this itinerary, you'll need to fly into and out of different cities, which can be pricier than round-trip airfare to and from the same city.
Small-Ship Alaska-Only Itineraries:
Most small ships and yachts home port in Juneau or other Alaskan ports and offer a variety of one-way and round-trip cruises entirely within Alaska. A typical small-ship cruise is a seven-day, one way or round-trip from Juneau, stopping at several Inside Passage ports—including smaller ports skipped by large cruise ships.
Small-Ship Inside Passage Repositioning Cruises:
Alaska's small cruise ships and yachts are based in Juneau throughout the summer. In September they sail back to their winter homes in the Pacific Northwest; in May they return to Alaska via the Inside Passage. These trips are usually about 11 days and are often heavily discounted, because they take place during the shoulder season.
Although mainstream lines stick to the popular seven-day Alaskan itineraries, some smaller excursion lines add more exotic options. You can also create your own itinerary by taking an Alaska Marine Highway System ferry to ports of your choosing.
Most cruise lines offer the option of independent, hosted, or fully escorted land tours before or after your cruise. Most lines offer cruise tour itineraries that include a ride aboard the Alaska Railroad.
Do-It-Yourself Land Segments:
Independent travel by rental car or RV before or after a cruise is another option. Passengers generally begin or end their cruise in Anchorage, the most practical port city to use as a base for exploring Alaska.
Booking Your Cruise
As a rule, the majority of cruisers plan their trips four to six months ahead of time. It follows then, that a four- to six-month window should give you the pick of sailing dates, ships, itineraries, cabins, and flights to the port city. If you're looking for a standard itinerary and aren't choosy about the vessel or dates, you could wait for a last-minute discount, but they are harder to find than in the past. Tip:
If particular shore excursions are important to you, consider booking them when you book your cruise to avoid disappointment later.
When to Go
Cruise season runs from mid-May to late September. The most popular sailing dates are from late June through August, when warm days are apt to be most plentiful. In spring, wildflowers are abundant, and you'll likely see more wildlife along the shore because the animals haven't yet migrated to higher elevations. May and June are traditionally drier than July and August. Alaska's early fall brings the splendor of autumn hues and the first snowfalls in the mountains. Animals return to low ground, and shorter days bring the possibility of seeing the northern lights. Daytime temperatures in May, June, and September are in the 50s and 60s. July and August averages are in the 60s and 70s, with occasional days in the 80s. Cruising in the low and shoulder seasons provides other advantages besides discounted fares: availability of ships and particular cabins is greater, and ports are almost completely free of tourists.
Average fares for Alaskan itineraries vary dramatically depending on when you sail, which ship and grade of cabin you choose, and when you book. Published rates are highest during June, July, and August; you'll pay less, and have more space on ship and ashore, if you sail in May or September.
Whenever you choose to sail, remember that the brochure price is the highest fare the line can charge for a given cruise. Most lines offer early-booking discounts. Although these vary tremendously, many lines will offer at least 10% off if you book ahead of time, usually by the end of January for a summer cruise. Sometimes you can book a discounted last-minute cruise if the ship hasn't filled all its cabins, but you won't get your pick of ships, cabins, or sailing dates. However, since most cruise lines will, if asked, refund the difference in fare if it drops after you've paid your deposit and before you make your final payment, there's little advantage in last-minute booking.
Single cabins for solo travelers are nonexistent on most ships; taking a double cabin can cost as much as twice the advertised per-person rates (which are based on two people sharing a room). Some cruise lines will find roommates of the same sex for singles so that each can travel at the regular per-person rate.
Cruise fares typically include accommodation, onboard meals and snacks, and most onboard activities. Not normally included are airfare, shore excursions, tips, soft drinks, alcoholic drinks, or spa treatments. Port fees, fuel surcharges, and sales taxes are generally added to your fare at booking.
More on Alaska Cruises
Photo Credits: Kayakers courtesy American Safari Quest cruises, Train car and cruise ship courtesy Frank Flavin / Alaska Travel Industry Association, Prince William Sound Glacier courtesy Frank Flavin / Alaska Travel Industry Association