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For many people, an Alaska cruise is a dream vacation. After saving for years, they finally make the decision to go – and then realize there are a lot of decisions to make in the process. Choosing a company, itinerary, cabin class, excursions… the list of decisions goes on and on, and often leads to overwhelm or decision fatigue.
Luckily, I’m here to help. I worked for Holland America Line for three years while growing up in Alaska, and I’ve been on two Alaska cruises myself. I’ve learned a thing or two about how to navigate the (figurative) waters and book an Alaska cruise. (I’ve also navigated the literal waters, or at least my captains have!)
In this post, I’m going to give you a ton of information about how to book your own Alaska cruise. It might seem overwhelming, but it’s meant to help cut through the plethora of other resources out there to help you make decisions, book an Alaska cruise, and rest easy knowing you’re going to have an unforgettable experience. Set sail with me in this post and after reading, you’ll be all ready to set sail yourself.
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is primarily the Lingít Aaní (traditional lands) of the Tlingit peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Popular Alaska Cruiseports to Visit in 2022
Like most cruise destinations, there are only certain places where cruise ships – large or small – can make port. However, there might be more Alaska cruise ports than you’d expect – especially depending on the size of ship you cruise on. In 2022, you can expect to make port in several of these Southeast Alaskan communities:
These are all marked in teal on the map above, to give you a sense of where they’re located throughout Southeast Alaska (also known as the Inside Passage).
At their southern end, Alaska cruises typically start from Seattle or Vancouver; many also make port in Victoria (British Columbia). However, nobody’s quite sure if Canada will allow cruise ships in 2022 (they did not in 2021, requiring special permission through the “Alaska Tourism Restoration Act” to bypass Canadian ports and avoid paying taxes). Up north, cruise ships make port in Seward or Whittier.
You won’t visit all of these ports on your Alaska cruise; you’ll typically visit one southern port, 2-4 ports in the Inside Passage, and one northern port. There are also some cruises that depart and return to Seattle (or Vancouver) meaning you’ll only visit Southeast Alaska on your Alaska cruise.
If you’re on a smaller ship (which is what I recommend), there are a number of smaller port communities you can visit. These include Wrangell, Petersburg, Kake, and Yakutat. I’ve marked these on the map above in orange. There are also some even lesser-visited ports like Valdez and Prince Rupert (BC).
Northbound or Southbound: Which Way to Cruise in Alaska
As I mentioned, most people cruise one of two directions: northbound or southbound. It might seem irrelevant – after all, cruises in both directions make the same ports of call – but I think there’s a lot to consider in the decision.
Personally, I recommend sailing northbound.
Even if you’re not planning to extend your trip with a land tour/Alaska itinerary, a northbound cruise is a great way to let Alaska unfold before you: you’ll start in Washington (or BC) and make your way to Alaska, rather than flying to Alaska right off the bat.
I especially recommend sailing northbound if you do plan to stay and visit Alaska by land after your cruise. You can disembark in Seward or Whittier, explore each small town for a day or two, then catch the Alaska Railroad to Anchorage to begin your adventure.
So the short answer: cruise northbound. There’s one decision made easy for you!
How to Choose Your Alaska Cruise Itinerary
Though you now know you’re cruising northbound, there’s still a huge decision to make: which Alaska cruise itinerary should you choose? Over two dozen companies offer Alaska cruises, and they all do it a bit differently.
I’m not saying it will be easy or quick, but here are three steps you can take to narrow down your search.
Step 1. Choose Your Ship Size
The most important question you need to ask yourself is: how big of a ship do I want to be on for my Alaska cruise?
For most cruises (worldwide), you have five choices:
- Mega-Ships: 3,500+ Passengers
- Large Ships: 2,500–3,499 Passengers
- Midsized Ships: 1,500–2,499 Passengers
- Small-Mid Ships: 800–1,499 Passengers
- Small Ships: 799 Passengers or Fewer
However, in Alaska, those categories aren’t quite so accurate. Instead, I’d categorize ships as:
- Mega-Ships: 2,000+ Passengers
- Midsized Ships: 500-2,000 Passengers
- Small ships: 500 Passengers or Fewer (but it’s really more like 150 or fewer)
As you might imagine, everything about your experience varies a ton depending on the size of the ship you choose. Do you want it all-inclusive on the ship and love being in big crowds (do you love amusement parks?)? Midsized or mega-ships will be better for you. Are you looking for an immersive, intimate experience? Small ships are the way to go.
Personally, I don’t think a midsized or mega-ship gives you a real Alaskan experience; yes, you get to visit Alaska, but you don’t really experience it due to the ship size and number of people on the ship with you. If you want to experience Alaska the way I think it should be experienced, look at smaller ships.
Step 2. Choose Your Travel Style
Once you’ve identified which size ship you want to cruise to Alaska on, the next thing to consider is your travel style.
Are you more interested in luxury experiences? Open to roughing it?
Do you want more time in nature, to experience Alaska culture, or a blend of both?
How important are amenities like alcohol and wifi to you?
Who else are you traveling with? Kids? Folks with limited mobility?
All of these factors play into which cruise lines will best fulfill your desires on your (theoretically) once-in-a-lifetime Alaska cruise.
Broadly speaking, here is some of my guidance on these issues:
- Midsized and small ships are great for travelers who love a bit more luxury, unless you’re splurging on a cabin upgrade on the mega-ships.
- There are more rustic options, especially among the small-ship cruise lines.
- Almost all itineraries accommodate both wilderness and culture, though they can vary between companies. For example, I found that Uncruise is more oriented toward wilderness and Alaskan Dream Cruises has itineraries that are much more culturally oriented.
- If you’re traveling with kids, look at the major mega-ship cruise lines, especially Disney. You won’t really experience Alaska as the programming on these ships is on-ship oriented, but the family will have a great time.
- If you (or someone in your party) has mobility issues, you’ll be pleased to hear that all cruise lines offer options to accommobate those with limited mobility.
Step 3. Look at Ports/Excursions to Make a Final Choice
Once you’ve narrowed it down to 1-2 specific cruise companies, you can start to look at itineraries and the ports of call they make. The list I mentioned above will already be constrained by the size of the ship and company you choose, so then it’s a matter of choosing between specific options.
Will your other ports be small Alaskan communities or natural wonders like Misty Fjords National Monument or Glacier Bay National Park? Or maybe a blend of both?
The reality is that I believe you can’t really go “wrong” in choosing an Alaska cruise itinerary. Even if you book a mega-ship cruise and stay on the ship the whole time, you’ll still get to at least see some of this amazing place. I personally think there are better ways to visit Alaska, and that small-ship cruising is the way to go – but to each their own!
9 Reasons to Book a Small Ship Alaska Cruise
Speaking of small-ship Alaska cruising, hopefully you’ve gotten the point that this is my preferred way to cruise in Alaska – and the way I recommend to everyone when they ask my opinion. Small ships are an incredible way to see Alaska for a number of reasons, which I want to touch on briefly.
1. Ability to Visit Smaller Ports in Southeast Alaska
As I mentioned in the first section of this post, not all ships can visit all ports in Alaska. Only smaller ships can make port in the small Alaskan communities and visit the narrow fjords and waterways in certain parts of the Inside Passage. If you want to have the most options about which ports to visit, small ship cruises are the way to go.
2. Flexible Itineraries for Wildlife & Weather
The midsized and mega cruise ships know their itineraries and are pretty much set when they embark on their Alaska cruise routes. It takes serious weather to force a diversion, and they don’t dawdle much for experiences like wildlife or glacier viewing. There’s a timeline to stick to – and profits to consider!
Small ship cruises, on the other hand, are almost entirely flexible. The captain can make decisions each day and rearrange the itinerary as much as he sees fit. Bad weather in Glacier Bay? Detour for a few days. A giant group of humpback whales? Let’s spend a few hours here and less time somewhere else.
3. More Intimate Experience
As you might imagine, the experience on a small ship is inherently more intimate. The common spaces on small ships are cozier and more comfortable; they begin to feel like “your” space almost immediately.
There are fewer staff, of course, but the ratio of staff-to-passenger stays about the same between the bigger ships and small ships.
Best of all, you really get to know the staff, including the captain, and many small ships have an open bridge policy. (Meaning you can visit and spend time on the bridge unless the crew is dealing with a situation.)
4. Easier to Make Friends
Unlike bigger ships where you might not even know the folks in the cabins next to you, small ship cruising creates one big family of guests. You’ll share dinner tables with other cruisers, toast at the bar together, hop on the skiff with them, do a polar plunge together, and so on. In my case as a younger traveler, I almost always get adopted by an older couple and showered with sage advice.
And yes, you’ll know your cabin neighbors in every direction.
5. Better Whale & Wilderness Experiences
Smaller ships are less disruptive to wildlife and the environment, giving you the chance to get much more up-close and personal with them. Every time I’ve been on a small ship, I’ve had incredible animal encounters, from the humpback whale we met off the coast of Maui to the moose (and wolf tracks) we spotted on a beach in a wilderness cove beach.
The big ships literally scare the animals away. The small ships don’t.
6. No Wifi
Disconnecting from our digital world is hard, especially for someone like me who works online. But it’s also really good for our mental health and happiness… so force yourself into a dopamine detox on one of the small ships.
While bigger ships have wifi and allow you to stay connected the entire trip – yes, that means work emails alongside sharing your adventure on social media – small ships generally don’t have wifi and allow you to disconnect, look up from the screen, and soak in the beauty of Alaska.
7. No Lines, No Crowds
I’ll be clear (in case it wasn’t obvious): I am not a crowds and lines kind of person. (Can you imagine how much fun I am at TSA???) I don’t love amusement parks, and will happily pay more to avoid feeling like cattle during an experience I want to enjoy.
So for me, the idea of cruising through Alaska with 2,000+ of my new not-best friends sounds awful. Lining up for the bar or buffet? No thanks. Slow shuffling every time I want to get off the boat? Nope, I’m good.
Small ships aren’t like that. With so few guests, lines literally aren’t a thing. There are no crowds. It’s freakin’ great.
8. Culturally Immersive Experiences
In line with the last point, it’s hard to have a true cultural experience when you’re being shepherded around on motorcoaches. Instead, small ship cruises arrange with local tour operators to provide these kinds of experiences to only the passengers on the boat – which often means a group smaller than many college classes.
Just imagine listening to a woman sing in her native Tlingit tongue, learning about carving from a man who doesn’t need a mic to be heard in the back, or hearing the history of Alaska Native schools from a woman whose mother attended them. These are the types of culturally educational experiences that change you as a traveler.
9. The Cost is Competitive to Mega Ships
The biggest argument I see against small-ship cruising is the cost, but that’s just not accurate. If you make smart decisions in choosing a cruise itinerary, your Alaska cruise costs about the same whether you’re on a big ship or a small one.
For comparison, I chose two popular cruise providers for Alaska. I am comparing their prices and UnCruise Alaska prices currently listed for May 2020 cruises, similar to the one I did.
|Cruise Company||Base Price*||Avg Excursion Price**||Avg Drink Package||Avg Spa Treatment||Total|
|Major Cruise Company A||$1000||$1250||$80||$150||$2480|
|Major Cruise Company B||$1150||$1250||$55||$150||$2605|
**Based on an average of $250 per excursion across 5 average ports per cruise
While there is a difference, it’s not as much as it might seem; small ship cruises generally include the entire cost up front, while mega-ship companies nickel and dime you before you’re even on the boat. It’s the cost of those extra excursions that especially reduce the “budget-friendliness” of big cruise ships.
Planning Tips to Finalize Your Alaska Cruise
No matter which size of ship or Alaska cruise itinerary you choose, I have a few extra planning tips to help you have a great time.
Plan Your Port Excursions in Advance
This one only applies if you’re on a larger ship that requires you to choose and book your own port excursions during your Alaska cruise. Please, please don’t wait to book your port excursions once you’re on the boat. You’ll end up missing out, as the vast majority of people book theirs online.
Instead, use these handy guides to see which excursions I recommend and book yours in advance too:
If you want a cheat sheet, I have a list of (what I consider to be) the best Alaska cruise excursions in each port. I also have a helpful guide of tips on choosing Alaska cruise excursions to help you pick unique, well-priced tours.
Book Your Flight Home after 3pm
Isn’t waking up on the disembarkation day of your cruise the literal worst? It’s always SO early and such a rude reminder of returning to normal life.
Speaking of early morning disembarkation, this advice applies no matter which port you disembark at (Seward, Whittier, Vancouver, or Seattle). If you’re planning to fly home on the same day as your cruise (rather than staying to explore more of Alaska), give yourself plenty of time to get to the airport.
While it might seem like you’ll have plenty of time since most ships get you up almost before the Midnight Sun, it takes a while to get off the ship, travel to the airport, and make it through TSA on cruise days (remember, the majority of people are also leaving at the same time!).
Instead, take the stress off and book a later flight home. Aim for 3pm at the earliest, but you could book a later red-eye instead and have the whole day to get a taste for Alaska.
Pack for Every Weather
Alaska weather is dynamic – it changes quickly and dramatically. The forecast is almost always worse than the weather turns out to be – except when it isn’t. This might be super intimidating and leave you uncertain about what to pack for your Alaska cruise.
Luckily you don’t need to pack your whole closet to be prepared. Alaska is a casual destination, so your daily clothes at home will be sufficient for almost every occasion. Then just keep in mind these Alaska travel essentials and take a look at my Alaska cruise packing list and you’ll be set.
One last item you might want to pack – especially if you’re cruising on a bigger ship – is your own binoculars. Most of the small ships provide binoculars for every guest but big ships do not.
I’ve got a handy guide on the best binoculars for Alaska cruises to help you choose a great pair balancing budget and performance.
Do you have any other questions about how to book an Alaska cruise in 2022 – or later? Let me know in the comments!
Keep Planning Your Alaska Cruise!
My eBook, Alaska’s Best Cruise Excursions, will help you wade through all the excursions in each port to make the best choice for each stop on your Alaska cruise itinerary.
Get your copy for just $9.99!