End of Season Alaska Cruises: Are They Worth It?
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Alaska is a primarily summer destination; over 90% of people visit Alaska during the summer season between the end of May and mid-September. And 50% of those people take an Alaska cruise. This means that cruising during the summer is a very popular – and pricey – activity, and will probably give you some sticker shock even if you find a good deal.
To avoid the crowds and costs, some mega-ship cruise companies have begun offering “end of season” Alaska cruises, which take place after the main summer season. But are these Alaska cruises in September and October a good idea? What do you need to know before booking an end of season Alaska cruise?
I’ve been fortunate to take three Alaska cruises (so far): one in early May, one in June, and one in September. While I haven’t done an end of season Alaska cruise personally, that’s for good reason: I don’t recommend them and don’t want to take one. (Though if any of the cruise companies would like to invite me to come try one and change my opinion, I’m happy to give it a shot and update this post to be a better resource!)
In this post, I’ll cover the basics of “end of season” Alaska cruises, to help you decide if the timing of these cruises will be right for you, given other considerations you might not be aware of with these itineraries.
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the Lingít Aaní (traditional lands) of the Tlingit people. 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.
What is an “End of Season” Alaska Cruise?
Historically, the Alaska cruise season only used to run from Memorial Day through Labor Day – more or less. In the past few years though – especially since the pandemic – cruise companies have scheduled the days of their final departures in Alaska later and later – now you’ll see cruises running all the way through Halloween, almost two months later!
The more strict definition would therefore say that the “end of season” is after Labor Day; when I say “end of season” in Alaska, I would actually define that “end” as when Denali National Park closes for the season up in the Interior – this is usually mid-September. (In 2023, the final Tundra Wilderness Tour runs on September 14.)
So the “end of season” window in Alaska is from mid-September through the end of October; an “end of season” Alaska cruise is any cruise that departs in mid-September or later. This is also what I typically consider the late autumn/early winter season.
In 2023, here are the itineraries that I consider to be “end of season” for each cruise company:
- Carnival Cruises is offering a 7-day round-trip cruise from Seattle aboard the Carnival Spirit departing September 12th.
- Celebrity Cruises has two late-season cruises scheduled: their Alaska Dawes Glacier, departing September 15, and their Alaska Hubbard Glacier, departing September 17.
- Holland America has over 40 cruises running in September, including two dozen after mid-September.
- Princess Cruises is running a dozen different itineraries after mid-September.
- Royal Caribbean also has almost two dozen September cruises, including about half after the mid month.
And hands down the most audacious is Norwegian Cruise Line, who has end of season Alaska cruises departing as late as October 22, 2023.
There also “early season” Alaska cruises, which set out from May 1st and later. I also cover these at the end of the post, if you’re trying to decide if one of those might be a good idea.
Weather During the End of Season in Alaska
To illustrate how the weather differs at the end of the season compared with the peak season, I’ve pulled data using Juneau as a representative community for the entire Inside Passage. However, it’s worth noting that many communities have more dramatic weather than Juneau, which is relatively sheltered and in the middle of this waterway. If you look at data for communities like Skagway and Sitka, the seasonal changes are even more dramatic (in temperature for Skagway and rainfall for Sitka).
Here’s the average daily average temperature in Juneau for the past five years:
|Month||2022 Avg. Temp||2021 Avg. Temp||2020 Avg. Temp||2019 Avg. Temp||2018 Avg. Temp|
The differences between these average temperatures in September (49-51°F) and October (41-45°F) with the average in July (58°F) might not seem like much, but it’s definitely enough to go from layering up to wearing all your layers.
Similarly, the Inside Passage gets wetter as the season goes on:
|Month||2022 Avg. Rain||2021 Avg. Rain||2020 Avg. Rain||2019 Avg. Rain||2018 Avg. Rain|
Juneau gets 50-100% more rain in the autumn than in the summer – so your chance of clear days is much better in the middle of the summer season compared with the end of the season.
Cons of End of Season Alaska Cruises
If you can’t tell, one of the main considerations when planning an end-of-season Alaska cruise is the weather – hence dedicating a whole section to it. But there are some other things I think are major strikes against these itineraries, and why I don’t recommend booking them.
- Many experiences are closed/unavailable. The typical Alaska summer season pretty much ends state-wide when Denali shuts down. This is when the seasonal employees head home, restaurants and hotels close, and tours stop operating. If you’re thinking a September or October Alaska cruise will have the same opportunities to try activities like flightseeing, glacier hiking, or whale-watching boat tours, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
- Less of what you spend goes into the local economy. One of my big complaints about the large cruise companies in general is how little of what you spend ends up in the small Alaskan businesses you see in each port; this is even more the case for end of season Alaska cruises. Because most businesses are not open, the tours that are offered are likely to be operated by the cruise company themselves – lessening the economic benefit of cruising further.
- Wildlife isn’t as active. As winter sets in across Alaska, wildlife and sealife are not as likely to be seen. For example, grizzly bears go into hibernation and humpback whales migrate south to Hawaii for their feeding season. If seeing wildlife is a key item on your Alaska bucket list, an end of season Alaska cruise is not the way to accomplish that.
- Some areas become inaccessible. I mentioned it already, but Denali National Park closes in mid-September – in part because that’s around the time when the snow flies and the road becomes increasingly impassible. Winter weather affects many parts of Alaska as the autumn progresses; some glacier experiences, hikes, and other natural wonders might be dangerous to reach, and are thus not something you can do during your cruise – even if there is a tour operator who wants to offer an excursion.
- The weather sucks. Even by Alaskan standards, the weather in September and October in the Inside Passage is not great. It’s colder, wetter, more overcast, and just less generally enjoyable. If you’re booking a balcony cabin hoping to enjoy your morning coffee out there each day, be sure to pack a raincoat!
Pros of End of Season Alaska Cruises
So if it’s colder, wetter, and very little is open, why do cruise companies even schedule end of season Alaska cruises? There are some pros that make it appealing to certain visitors:
- End of season Alaska Cruises are cheaper. Cruise companies discount these itineraries, since they know they aren’t as in-demand or appealing to travelers.
- There are far fewer crowds at the end of the season in Alaska. If your travel nightmare is one with crowds of people, I’m not sure why you love cruising… But also, you can cruise at the end of the season to avoid that experience.
- The ships are dry and warm. If you love cruising, you might just want to spend time on the ship at a good price and enjoy the scenery when it’s visible through whatever weather you can see through ship windows from your nice, cozy spot inside.
- There’s a chance to see the northern lights. One big appeal for late-season Alaska cruises is the chance to see the aurora, which is generally visible from mid-September onward in the Inside Passage. While there’s no guarantee as it’s still quite early in aurora season, it’s certainly possible in a way that it’s not for summer cruises.
Should You Take an End of Season Alaska Cruise?
So given all those pros and cons, what is my final recommendation: are end of season Alaska cruises worth it?
For me? No, I would not book an end of season Alaska cruise nor recommend one for the vast majority of people visiting Alaska. There are too many aspects that make it not a great experience by the standards I have for my readers. While they are cheaper, I don’t believe you’ll really experience the magic of Alaska on an end of season cruise – especially if it’s your first trip. Please trust me and adjust your travel plans to make it an unforgettable trip for all the good experiences you have on an Alaska summer cruise (not any of the potentially/inevitable bad ones you might have on an end of season cruise).
If, however, you are a die-hard many-time cruiser and just want to spend time on the ship, (potentially) seeing some beautiful scenery out the window, these cruises could be a good option.
What About Early Season Alaska Cruises?
If you’re sold on not taking an Alaska cruise in late September or October, awesome – but how about those early season cruises that happen between the beginning of May and Memorial Day when the season “officially” kicks off?
I actually love this timing for Alaska cruises, and they have many of the pros that end of season Alaska cruises do (like lower costs and fewer crowds). If you’re looking to save and open to a less conventional/crowded Alaska cruise, take a look at those early-to-mid May dates and I think you’ll be pleased.
(I took an Alaska cruise during the second week of May in 2017 with Uncruise and while it was still chilly and not as many experiences were open in each port, it was an amazing trip.)
Have any other question about early or end of season Alaska cruises? Let me know in the comments below!
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