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How to Visit or Cruise Southeast Alaska in Summer 2021

How to Visit or Cruise Southeast Alaska in Summer 2021
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2020 and 2021 have taught us all to be agile when planning Alaska travel. Every time we think we have it under control, something major changes. Take, for example, the summer 2021 Alaska cruise season. Everyone thought it might happen until Canada confirmed their borders would not reopen until 2022. Mega cruise ships all make port in Canada to avoid certain U.S. taxes – if they can’t make that stop, they aren’t willing to pay the taxes and would rather not operate for the whole season! This photo pretty much sums up what that means:

Southeast Alaska Summer 2021 Cruise Ship

This caused a lot of people – cruise employees and travelers who already had cruise reservations – to feel another emoji: 😱

Never fear though: if you have your heart set on taking a cruise in Southeast Alaska this summer, or visiting the Inside Passage another way, it is still possible. You will need to arrange all of the logistics yourself, instead of having the cruise company take care of it. But thousands of people visit Alaska each year on their own; you can do it too with proper planning and some good organization.

Read on to learn how to visit or cruise Southeast Alaska in summer 2021. Don’t forget to check my Alaska travel guide too for tons of other resources.

Note: Please remember that we are still in an ongoing pandemic. While Alaska has reduced its mask and distancing mandates to “recommendations,” many communities in Southeast Alaska lack extensive medical infrastructure and can’t handle a COVID outbreak. If you choose to visit Alaska this year, do your part to keep your local hosts safe by wearing a mask and distancing.

Step 1. Decide Where You Want to Visit in Southeast Alaska

Southeast Alaska Definition Hero

Unlike visiting Southcentral Alaska, where your primary point of entry is usually Anchorage or Fairbanks by plane or Seward or Whittier by cruise, there are lots of places to visit in Southeast Alaska. You can choose which destination(s) you want to visit – and how you want to travel between them. Here’s a quick breakdown of your options.

Juneau, Ketchikan, or Sitka

Exploring Ketchikan

If you want to visit one or more of the bigger communities in Southeast Alaska, this is the easiest to do this summer. The larger communities of Juneau (the state capital, with neighboring Mendenhall Glacier), Ketchikan (the furthest south city, totem pole capital of Alaska), or Sitka (the historic capital, and cultural destination) are all served by daily flights on major air carriers including Alaska and Delta Airlines. There are also smaller communities such as Petersburg, Gustavus, and Yakutat that also have flights – some direct from Seattle, others non-direct passing through Juneau (usually) or Ketchikan (less often).

Here’s what I found when searching for air schedules this year:

Juneau

  • ~7 daily non-stop flights from Seattle to Juneau on Alaska
  • 1 daily non-stop flight from Seattle to Juneau on Delta

Ketchikan

  • ~4 daily non-stop flights from Seattle to Ketchikan on Alaska
  • 1 daily non-stop flight from Seattle to Ketchikan on Delta

Sitka

  • ~2 daily non-stop flights from Seattle to Sitka on Alaska
  • 1 daily non-stop flight from Seattle to Sitka on Delta.

Plus there are also multiple daily connecting flights to each of these destinations, and multiple daily and weekly flights between Juneau, Ketchikan & Sitka on Alaska Airlines.

All this to say: if you want to visit Juneau, Ketchikan, or Sitka this summer, it’s relatively easy to do so by flying.

Skagway, Haines, or other Smaller Communities

Skagway Cruise Excursions

Smaller Southeast Alaskan communities like Skagway, Haines, and Wrangell don’t have the same flight access as bigger towns – though you can certainly book a private charter if you want to fly to one of them.

Instead, the primary way to visit these communities is on the Alaska Marine Highway System, also called the Alaska Ferry. The Summer 2021 schedule is now available, so you can search through the schedule to see if you might be able to plan a trip that includes stops in these smaller communities.

Glacier Bay National Park

National Parks in Alaska - Glacier Bay

Glacier Bay National Park is one of the most popular places to visit in Southeast Alaska. Usually, it’s quite easy to visit on an Alaska cruise.

But as the larger cruise providers are all unable to operate this summer, it’s, harder to reach Glacier Bay than usual. The two ways to visit Glacier Bay this summer are on a flightseeing tour from Skagway or Haines, or on a small ship cruise, such as with Uncruise or Alaskan Dream Cruises. (Bonus: I just learned about John Hall’s Alaska Cruises & Tours Platinum Catamaran charter as another option too.)

Step 2. Decide How You want to Visit Southeast Alaska

Juneau Cruise Excursions - Seaplane Flight

Once you choose where you want to visit in Southeast Alaska, it’s time to decide how you want to travel between these places. Here’s an example:

If you decide you want to visit Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, and Glacier Bay National Park:

  • One way to do this is by flying to Ketchikan, then flying to Juneau, taking the ferry from Juneau to Skagway, and booking a flightseeing tour from Skagway to Glacier Bay and back. You’ll need to take the ferry from Skagway back to Juneau to fly home.
  • Another way to do this would be to find a small ship cruise from Ketchikan to Juneau (such as this one) and then take the ferry to Skagway and a flightseeing tour to Glacier Bay.
  • Or you could fly to Ketchikan, then to Juneau, then board a small ship cruise that takes you to both Skagway and Glacier bay (such as this one).

As you can see, there are lots of options – it all comes down to how you want to travel (plane? boat? combination of the two?) and your budget (can you afford multiple flights or a small ship cruise?).

Step 3a. Book Your Main Flights

Alaska Airlines Wing during Takeoff

No matter how you choose to travel within Southeast Alaska or the Inside Passage, you’ll need to fly to get there (and/or home).

There are two main carriers that service Southeast Alaska from the Lower 48: Alaska Airlines and Delta Airlines. As you saw above, Alaska offers many more options for flights in and out of cities like Juneau, Ketchikan, and Sitka. Flights from both airlines are generally pretty reasonable cost, too, especially between cities in Alaska.

Once you choose your entry/exit cities in the Southeast, you can book those flights.

Step 3b. Book Your Inside Passage Transport

Icy Strait Point Excursions - Glacier Bay Flight

After your main flights are booked, it’s time to book how you’ll get between places in Southeast Alaska.

“Island Hopping” Flights

As I just mentioned, you can book “island hopping” flights (flights between the different communities in Southeast Alaska) on Alaska Airlines – or book a private charter if you have the budget and want to visit somewhere that doesn’t have a regularly scheduled flight.

Alaska flies between Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan, Yakutat, Petersburg, and Gustavus (which is the community nearest to Glacier Bay National Park). You may need to pass through one of these cities to reach another though – such as Petersburg and Gustavus.

Flightseeing

Icy Strait Point Excursions - Glacier Bay - Joseph via Flickr
Photo credit: Joseph via Flickr

I always recommend booking flightseeing tours as early as possible because they’re popular. This year, that’s especially true since most are required or choosing to reduce capacity to ensure the health of all passengers.

In particular, if you want to book a flightseeing tour of Glacier Bay National Park, book it as soon as you work out your itinerary to reach Skagway or Haines!

Here are the Glacier Bay flightseeing tour companies I found:

Small Ship Cruise Options

UnCruise Alaska Review - Kayaking in Southeast Alaska with UnCruise Adventures

I think the easiest way to visit Southeast Alaska this summer is by taking a small ship cruise. I know it won’t work for every budget, but as I laid out in my Uncruise review, a small-ship cruise is actually comparable in price with mega ship cruises once you add in all of the excursions.

The two main companies cruising in Alaska this summer are Alaskan Dream Cruises and Uncruise. They offer very different but equally compelling itineraries depending on where you want to visit. Small ship cruising is a great way to visit some of the communities but also enjoy the wilderness of Southeast Alaska (away from crowds and big ships!) this summer.

Ferry (Alaska Marine Highway)

The ferry is another – albeit more complicated – way to cruise Alaska this summer. As I mentioned, the AMHS schedule for summer 2021 hasn’t been published yet, but I’ll update this section as soon as I can!

Step 4. Book Hotels & Other Activities

Exploring Juneau

After you’ve worked out the logistics – entry/exit flights, how you’re getting around, where you’ll be visiting – it’s time to book to book everything else. That means hotels, other tours, car rentals as needed (especially in Juneau if you want to visit Mendenhall Glacier), and so on.

While I’m not sure exactly which companies will be offering tours and at what price or capacity, here are some of the guides I wrote to the best excursions in each Southeast Alaskan city last year (they obviously changed for 2020 and again for this summer!):

You can use each of these posts to get a sense for which experiences and tours are offered and then research to find which ones you want to book.

Step 5. Have a COVID Testing Plan

Last but not least: start planning now for your Covid testing plan. Proving a negative Covid test result is not a requirement to visit or cruise in Southeast Alaska this summer, but it is a good idea! Learn more on the State of Alaska Traveler Information Page.

I strongly recommend planning now to get tested before you depart on your Alaska trip. As I’m planning my own trip to Alaska in July and again in September, this is what I’ll be doing. I want to wait on my test results in the comfort of my home, and know I’m good to go when I arrive.

There are a lot of questions about all of these new changes – and they only apply for this summer. Have other questions about visiting or taking a cruise in Southeast Alaska in summer 2021? Let me know in the comments or join me in my Alaska Travel Tips Facebook Community!

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My free Alaska eBook covers all the essential travel info you need to plan a safe, unforgettable trip in 2021.

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Brenda S Stoltzfus

Sunday 21st of March 2021

Hi Valerie,

Thank you for all this wonderful information. Do you know if most all the hotels, restaurants and excursions are fully open for business this summer 2021. My husband and I are very interested in seeing the inside passage but I think we would love flying into Anchorage and then spending 2-3 days at Denali and making our way down to Seward and then back to Anchorage. Its not what we would have hoped for when we began researching a trip this summer to celebrate our 45th wedding anniversary. I realize time is getting late for a end of June or early July travel date but we are not big cruise ship travelers, have done that in the past but would rather not be overwhelmed with so many people in the port cities, however, the Uncruise is not in our budget with all the other things we would want to do. I would like to be able to spend about 10 days. We are active and want to take in as much adventure as possible and we love the water and harbors, boats, etc. I would love to do the train between Anchorage and Seward but it was overwhelming to try and figure out how to fly into Anchorage, see Denali and then to Seward and back to Anchorage and be able to do the train when we will need a car. Whew!! I have almost given up on traveling this summer but honestly, still want to go for it but I know time is running out. If you have some advice on the destinations I have given you that would be great!!

Thank you!

Valerie

Sunday 21st of March 2021

Thanks for reading, Brenda! Have you checked out all of my Alaska articles? They're up to date with everything that's open this year: https://www.valisemag.com/guides/alaska/