Thinking of a unique first-time cruise to Alaska but not sure what’s so different about the small ship experience? Been on an Alaska cruise in the past and looking for a more intimate experience? Below are some tips to help you figure out if small-ship cruising in Alaska is right for you.
Timing Tip: Even though most Alaska small ship cruises depart in June, July, and August, most travelers plan well ahead with March being the end of the peak booking season. In case you need extra incentive to book now, keep in mind that increased demand and decreased inventory (former operator Cruise West is no longer in business) might mean that some would-be cruisers might miss out on this amazing experience.
Generally, a "small ship" cruising in Alaska is anything with about 200 passengers or less. If you’re going this route, we suggest a ship that maxes out in the 20- to 60-passenger range. Here are some of our favorites:
Recommended Fodor’s Video
- Lindblad: National Geographic’s Sea Bird and Sea Lion are sailing at full capacity with 62 passengers.
- Fantasy Cruises: The Island Spirit ship holds a max of 32 (we’ve been to small family reunions with more people).
- American Safari: Ultra-lux ships hold 36, 22, and 12 (12!).
Choose This Type of Cruise If
You like meeting new people…
A limited number of cruise mates means more opportunity to bond with fellow passengers. Ships will still sail if not filled to capacity, so you might luck out and have an even more exclusive-feeling cruise than you’re paying for. An added bonus: unlike family reunions, in our experience small-ship cruise passengers tend to respect each other and avoid conflict, since it’s in everyone’s best interest. Besides, the sort of people who visit Alaska are too in love with all the amazing scenery to waste time being persnickety.
. . . But you also enjoy quiet solitude
Unlike larger cruise ships, small ships can spend the night in any of a number of small protected anchorages around the Alexander Archipelago in the Inside Passage. They turn the engines off at night, which allows you a more restful night’s sleep and a more tranquil morning, sipping your coffee in a deck chair mere yards from mist-enveloped Sitka spruce in a cove, most likely all to yourself.
You want to explore ports of call that are off the beaten track
Ketchikan? Skagway? Juneau? Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. On small ship cruises, a whole new shallow-draft world is your oyster—though you’ll have to share with the otters. Onboard the Island Spirit, a high slack tide means you can sail through Ford’s Terror, part of the Tongass National Forest (the largest old-growth temperate rain forest in the world). Hummingbirds know the Island Spirit’s Captain Jeff Behrens keeps the top deck’s bird feeder full, so when you get tired of kayaking thisclose to the friendly porpoises, you can practice your action photography skills. The smallest of the small line ships, including Island Spirit and some American Safari’s ships, will steer into Warm Springs Bay, where you’ll find hike-in hot springs that hover at 107 degrees.
You like eco-friendly experiences
Small ships break for wildlife (and recycle for them, too).When a mama bear and her cubs appear on shore for dinner just as you’re sitting down to yours, the chef will keep the meal warm while the captain organizes an impromptu skiff ride to get you the perfect photo op. What’s more, smaller boats, simply by default of size, tend to do a better job controlling the amount of food waste they produce, and have an easier time properly dispose of recycleables (though big ships, to their credit, have also made strides in recent years). With 32 onboard instead of 3,200, a small ship will strain a port’s resources far less—a good thing when you stop in at tiny, fascinating Five Finger Lighthouse north of Petersburg, as the Island Spirit does. The lighthouse keeper Ed loves visitors—and any extra fresh-baked cookies your onboard pastry chef might have around.
Don’t Choose This Type of Cruise If
You have a limited budget.
I’m sorry, repeat that price tag? It’s true that a small cruise ship experience means, in general, paying more than you would for a trip on a large cruise ship. Rates on Lindblad’s Sea Lion or Sea Bird, for example, start at just shy of $6,000 per person for an 8-day cruise in 2011. But these rates are uniformly all-inclusive, so you can take that after-dinner kayak ride without thinking about how the extra excursion will affect your wallet. Alcoholic drinks are part of the deal, too (though PUI—paddling under the influence—is frowned upon). When you do eventually make a port call, often only on the first or last day of your trip, any tours or transportation are likely to be included. A popular small-ship port is Sitka, where you’ll visit the renowned Alaska Raptor Center, Sheldon Jackson Museum, and the truly fantastic Sitka National Historic Park.
You need your gambling fix
Pack your cribbage cheat sheet and brush up on your Scrabble skills, because evening entertainment is of the make-your-own variety. Not that that’s a bad thing; you’ve likely chosen Alaska as your destination because you want to sit out on deck and listen to the loons welcome the 10 o’clock dusk, not take in a Broadway show. If you tire of watching nature or shuffling the pinochle deck, curl up on one of the couches in the lounge and catch the nightly movie (Alaska-themed, of course), or strike up a conversation with a crew member—their enthusiasm for the state is contagious.
More on Alaska Cruises
- Tips to Choose Your Alaska Cruise
- Major Cruise Line Reviews
- Slideshow: Top 10 Alaska Cruise Experiences
Photo Credits: Kayakers and bear Courtesy Adam Hauck