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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.
This post was originally written in November 2021, and was updated most recently in February 2023.
Popular Alaska Cruiseports to Visit in 2023
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 2023, 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).
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 in 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.
I actually have an entire post about how to choose the right size cruise ship for your Alaska cruise, if you want more advice.
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 accommodate 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!
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.
*If you are starting or ending your Alaska cruise in Seattle, I have a special post written just for you – to help you make the most of your time in the Emerald City before or after your cruise.
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!