The Alaska Cruise Mistakes You Can’t Afford to Make

We have been on 6 Alaska cruises and share the Alaska cruise mistakes we still see travelers making and how you can avoid them.

Alaska Cruise Mistakes

Planning an Alaska cruise can be stressful. Admittedly, we have made some mistakes while planning our previous six Alaska cruises, and we want you to learn from our mishaps. So, we’ve put together this list of the common Alaska cruise mistakes when planning a trip way up north. Armed with the right information, you can successfully plan and execute your perfect cruise vacation to this magnificient destination.

Alaska Cruise Mistakes You Can’t Afford to Make

Failing to Focus on the Itinerary

Perhaps the most frequent question we get is, “What is the best cruise line (or cruise ship) in Alaska?”. This is the completely wrong question. We have sailed with five different cruise lines in Alaska, each with pros and cons, but the “best” really all depends on your preferences.

However, Alaska cruises are more about the destination than the ship anyway. So, what cruisers really should focus on when picking an Alaska cruise is the itinerary.

It is true that many cruise lines offering 7-night cruises stop at similar ports. Many of these cruises will have calls in the state capital of Juneau. Other popular spots are Skagway and Ketchikan. While not as popular, other towns like Icy Strait Point, Sitka, or Haines might be on the itinerary. But, these port stops are not all created equal.

When investigating the itineraries, it’s important to look at the port of call times and number of hours in port. Some cruise lines spend only half a day at some stops, like Ketchikan or Victoria, British Columbia. Others have more full-days in port, giving you more time ashore.

Alaska Cruise Mistakes

Further, all cruises offer scenic cruising to one of the region’s glaciers. Glacier Bay National Park, the Dawes Glacier, and Hubbard Glacier are among the most frequently visited locales. But, some are better than others in our opinion.

There are also one-way itineraries vs. roundtrip itineraries. For many, a roundtrip cruise from Seattle, WA might be easier to plan. However, one-way itineraries usually offer more ports of call. These tend to head north or south from either Seward or Whittier, Alaska or Vancouver, British Columbia.  

So, don’t pick an Alaska cruise solely based on the cruise line. Look at the itinerary options and where you’ll visit to decide what appeals to you the most.

Not Comparing Cruise Ships

All major cruise lines offer at least one ship that sails in Alaska, and some offer several ships. Thus, there are many options when cruising in the region. Even after picking an itinerary, there will likely be several ships to review.

Each cruise line has its own onboard vibe and atmosphere. Norwegian Cruise Line is known for its Freestyle approach to cruising. Holland America Line and Princess Cruises have the biggest presence in Alaska and offer more onboard enrichment. While Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and Disney Cruise line are more family-focused.

Princess Cruises Upcoming Alaska Season Marks 55th Anniversary

While it is true that each cruise line is unique, even within each cruise line’s fleet, there is also variability. Assuming that all the cruise ships from a line, say Royal Caribbean International, are the same is an Alaska cruise mistake you don’t want to make.

Some of these ships are mega-ships like Norwegian Encore or Royal Caribbean’s Ovation of the Seas. However, both cruise lines offer smaller ships sailing in the region as well.

While the region might be more important when picking an Alaska cruise, you do still want to compare ships across the different cruise lines. You’ll want to pick the cruise ship that has the onboard amenities, activities, and features that appeal to you and your travel party the most.

Not Budgeting Appropriately

Some of our Alaska cruises have been the most expensive trips we have taken on a per-day cost. Not only is the cruise itself more expensive, but so are the other associated costs.

Now, for us, these splurges have been worth it. Dog sledding on a glacier or taking a floatplane through the Misty Fjords are experiences we will never forget. But, we knew ahead of time that these would be pricey. Not to mention, flights, hotel stays, and all the other add-ons can rack up quickly.

While some balk when we offer budget advice, from our experience, an Alaska cruise is more costly than comparable trips in the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and the Bahamas.

Alaska Cruise Tips

Of course, these Alaska cruise costs do depend on the cruise line you choose, the cruise cabin you book, and the number (and type ) of shore excursions you pick. But, in our experience, cruisers should budget about $300 to $600+ a person per day for an Alaska cruise.

For the two of us, we have easily spent close to $10,000 on some Alaska cruises. But, you can quickly look at all of the costs associated with cruising to Alaska and run the numbers for your trip. That way you have a reasonable estimate of how much it will cost you and your family and can budget accordingly.

Not Booking Early

With Alaska cruises being expensive, one mistake cruisers make is waiting until the last minute to book. For us, we usually book our Alaska cruises 8 months to a year in advance. In all instances, the cruise price increased as it got closer to the sailing date.

So, we suggest booking as early as possible. Right now, all cruise lines already have 2025 Alaska cruises on their websites.  

In the rare instance of a last-minute deal, any cruise fare savings will probably be consumed by paying for last-minute airfare. Also, booking at the last minute often means that popular tours and cabin categories are already sold out.

For many, going on an Alaska cruise is a bucket list trip. So, we suggest booking early and taking advantage of lower fares. Plus, you will have more time to pay off the cruise and research what you want to do in each port of call.

Opting to Book Directly With the Cruise Line

We have been on over 80 cruises. Yet, whenever we book a cruise, we always use a trusted travel advisor. Booking our Alaska cruises was no different.

While the cruise lines do offer plenty of information on their websites, we suggest finding a travel professional to help you through the process of reserving your trip.

Celebrity Cruises Returns to Alaska

For those who don’t cruise often, a travel advisor can help you compare the different ships and itineraries in the region. Plus, they can offer advice on shore excursions at the ports of call or things to do onboard the ship. Our travel advisor friends are invaluable sources of information.

Along with ensuring you pick the right Alaska cruise for your travel party, travel advisors offer additional benefits. Often, they can provide perks that make booking with them a better deal. These perks are usually in addition to any of the cruise line promotions. So, the travel agent might be able to get you onboard credit, specialty dining, free WiFi or gratuities, or even drink packages.

It is also possible that the travel advisor has access to group rates. These fares are typically lower than the cruise line’s advertised price. Even if that is not the case, booking with a travel advisor is usually a better value than booking directly with the cruise line.

Flying in the Day of Your Cruise

For many, an Alaska cruise means a rather long flight to the embarkation city. Even though many will make up time by heading west, one of the most nerve-wracking things you could do is decide to fly in on the same day of your cruise.

The worst thing you could do is spend money on an Alaska cruise and miss the ship. After all, the cruise ship will be leaving with or without you.

Complete Guide to Alaska Cruises from Vancouver

So, we always suggest flying in the day before the trip. Doing so provides some wiggle room in case there are any travel delays or issues getting to the ship’s homeport. You don’t want to be stressed if there are some unforeseen travel disruptions.

Also, many of these departure ports are fantastic cities to visit themselves, like Seattle and Vancouver. So, why not get a head start on your Alaska adventure and spend a few days in your embarkation city.

Cruising At the Wrong Time

The Alaska cruise season runs from the middle of April to the end of September/early October. The peak time to visit Alaska is the end of June through the middle of August. This time will have the warmest temperatures, the longest daylight hours, and the best chance of seeing wildlife.

But, if you pick this time, you can also expect cruise ships to be filled with families. Not to mention, there will be several ships in port each day. Cruising in the middle of the season also means the highest prices.

Thus, we highly recommend sailing during the shoulder season. This is the first few weeks of the season and the last few weeks of the season. During this time, there will be fewer crowds and lower prices. Sometimes, cruises during the beginning and the end of the Alaska cruise season can be literally half the cost of sailing during the middle of the summer.

We would rather cruise at the off-times and opt for a better room or spend the money on one-of-a-kind shore excursions.

We have sailed to Alaska in almost every month during the season. On all our trips to Alaska, we have had mostly seasonable weather. Regardless of when you cruise, it will rain in Alaska. But, we have been able to experience all the region has to offer whenever we travel. The one exception is that SOME shore excursions may not run very early or very late in the season.

Failing to Book Shore Excursions in Advance

Just like booking the cruise, you can miss out if you delay on booking tours. The most desirable tours often sell out quickly. Whether you opt to book with the cruise line or directly with tour providers, it is best to secure those highly coveted shore excursions as early as possible.  

For instance, whale watching in Juneau or helicopter tours of Mendenhall Glacier are among the first to go. These tours have limited capacity and are often the first booked. Thus, we have been known to book some of our excursions just days after depositing on a cruise. This is especially true for these once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Bear viewing in Ketchikan, Alaska on a Cruise

If the prices change, you can often cancel and rebook or contact the cruise line for a refund.

We wouldn’t want you to spend all this money for your Alaska cruise and not get to experience all the state has to offer. So, book early!

Thinking You Need to Book an Excursion at Every Port

While we don’t want you to miss out on exciting shore excursions, that doesn’t mean you have to book one at every port. During our cruises, we have certainly explored the ports on our own, visited museums, or done short tours instead of an all-day outing.

Towns like Skagway and Ketchikan (shuttle required from Ward Cove) are very walkable. These towns feature saloons, shops, and local historical sites and exhibits that are easily explored without a guided tour.  

Best Things to Do in Icy Strait Point, Alaska on a Cruise

Icy Strait Point is also an easy port to explore on your own. It has restaurants, a mill museum, and enjoyable walking paths that don’t necessitate an excursion. Cruisers can also pay a fee for the gondola ride up to the top of the lookout point for a small hiking trail.

While we don’t always have a shore excursion booked, we do always have a game plan for each stop. Even though we have been to many of these locations several times, we always find something new or interesting to try. If nothing else, we can always grab some local food and a beer while enjoying the beautiful surroundings.

Alaska is definitely not the place to stay on the ship during a port of call.

Not Being Flexible

Unfortunately, the weather in Alaska doesn’t always cooperate. We have had tours canceled, and our ships have been delayed docking or leaving due to the conditions. Our glacier viewings have been altered as well due to fog. So, when traveling to the region, cruisers need to be flexible.

Your tours might be rescheduled or cancelled, or the the ship might need to take an alternative route. Some of those wildlife tours might need to go to different locations due to weather or other concerns. Also, it is possible certain ports are missed or scenic cruising is altered due to ship traffic or Mother Nature. While unfortunate, if things change from the original plan, just go with the tide. It’s usually not the cruise line’s fault.

Of course, any cancelled tours will be refunded, and the cruise line will try to offer alternative programming if there are itinerary changes. It actually took us 3 booked attempts before we were finally able to take our helicopter tour to the Mendenhall Glacier for dog sledding. It just seemed that our tour always got cancelled for some reason or another.

With that said, remember that you are on vacation, and there is still plenty to do and see when in Alaska!

Packing Inappropriately

Perhaps the biggest Alaska cruise mistake we see cruisers make has to do with packing. Sure, we certainly overpacked on our first Alaska cruise. But since then, we have gotten more strategic about what we bring with us in our luggage.

What time of year you travel might affect some of the items you pack. But, regardless of when you go, you will need layers. Everyone in your travel party will need a packable raincoat as well. It will rain, so be prepared.

Plus, a pair of comfortable walking shoes is vital. But, you won’t need snow boots; a heavier pair of wool socks will do. We also suggest a pair of lightweight, waterproof pants if you plan to do a lot of hiking or tours on the water.

However, you won’t need ski pants or thick winter jackets. You probably won’t need big puffy sweaters either. But, you know your own temperature regulation best.

We suggest several medium-weight garments, such as long sleeved shirts, sweatshirts/sweaters, vests, and packable puffer jackets. If you go toward the end of the season, maybe some thermals would be nice for that early morning sail in and out of ports of call. You might also want to pack a pair or shorts and a couple t-shirts for an exceptionally warm day or for around the ship.

In our experience, you can easily see a 30 to 40-degree change in temperature throughout the day. You could wake up to a temperature of 35 degrees for glacier viewing, but it could be close to 70 degrees by late afternoon.

So, you will still want accessories like hats, gloves, scarves, and other essentials like sunglasses, sun tan lotion, and bug spray.

Back onboard, dinners are more casual than in other regions. Plus, many cruise lines offer self-service laundry. So, you could wash some clothes mid-cruise if you want to reduce the amount you pack for the trip. Just be sure to check if your cruise line does indeed offer this.

Relying Solely on Your Smartphone

The video and photo quality of smartphones have come along way. Still, some of the best memories we have from our Alaska cruises were captured in an old-fashioned way with a camera.

We are not saying you need to go out and spend thousands of dollars to purchase equipment. For a few hundred dollars, you can easly rent the newest DSLR or mirrorless cameras and zoom lenses for the week. I took my old Sony a6000, a pretty basic mirrorless camera, and rented a few extra long zoom lenses, which were well worth the money.

Along with cameras and lenses, travelers should also pack binoculars. These will certainly come in handy for wildlife spotting. Other gear you may want to consider bringing along are 360 cameras or action cameras like Go Pros, particularly something that is waterproof if you plan to do any kayaking or water-related activities.

Selecting the Wrong Cabin

Whether or not you should upgrade to a balcony stateroom on an Alaska cruise is a hotly debated topic. We agree that picking a ship with various areas for sightseeing is important. We like ships like Norwegian Encore, which offer many indoor and outdoor viewing areas.

But, we still think having the ability to get out of bed and open your door to the Alaskan vistas in the morning is worth the upgrade. Maybe even enjoy some coffee on the balcony while admiring the views or scouting for wildlife.

Admittedly, this is not worth it for everyone. If you are on a budget, you might want to allocate your funds elsewhere.

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Given the wide range of price points for staterooms on a ship, picking the right cabin comes down to your preferences and budget. If you can only sail during the summer while the kids are out of school, maybe you can save some money by opting for an interior cabin.

Or, another option is to opt for a guaranteed cabin. This will guarantee you a certain stateroom category, but you won’t be able to select your actual cabin. The cruise line will assign it to you prior to your sailing.

Another option to save some money on a cruise cabin is to book a lower category with the hope of trying to bid up closer to your sailing date. Of course, not all cruise lines and all sailings offer this bid program, but if it is available, you can likely score a balcony (or better) cabin for much less than the initial booking price.

Sleeping In

When taking an Alaska cruise, the schedule can be a bit hectic. Early morning ports of call are not uncommon. Scenic cruising occurs all hours of the day. Plus, with 18 hours of daylight, it is easy for your biological clock to feel out of sync.

While it is important to get plenty of sleep on an Alaska cruise, we don’t recommend sleeping in.

There might be early morning sailings by fjords that you won’t want to miss. Walking the outdoor decks or enjoying breakfast on your balcony is the ideal way to spend a morning. Instead, take advantage of down time for a nap before dinner or call it an early night before the next day’s port of call.

Also, we suggest booking early morning tours. The odds are that you will have more favorable weather conditions and be ahead of the other tourists from the several ships that may be in port along with you.

Even if you have a later day stop in port, getting off the ship as soon as you can will help you beat the crowds and ensure you get to see and do everything you want.

Passing on the Onboard Enrichment

Of course, travelers visit Alaska for the ports of call. But, this doesn’t mean that you should skip the onboard enrichment. Many cruise lines offer captivating and well-curated presentations, lectures, and other themed events during the voyage. These are sometimes the best parts of the trip.

We always attend the various lectures and informational sessions, where we have met Iditarod race champs and watched local artists craft their next masterpieces.

Many cruise lines routinely feature local cultural experts and historians onboard during the cruise as well. These talks can range from learning about the First Nations people from a Tlingit Princess to a presentation on the history of Glacier Bay National Park.

We have learned about the sordid history of Skagway, humpback whale migration, and Alaska’s stampede toward statehood all on a cruise ship. So, make sure to review your cruise ship’s daily schedule or app to see when these events are occurring. Bookmark them and don’t miss out on even more ways to immerse yourself in all that Alaska has to offer.


Have you made any of these Alaska cruise mistakes? Do you have Alaska tips or tricks to share? Drop us an anchor below to share your advice for cruisers heading way up north for the first time.

Don Bucolo, or “DB”, loves everything about cruising- the ocean, the food, and the atmosphere. While he may be obsessed with doing extensive amounts of research on ships and all elements of a cruise, Don enjoys sharing his new found knowledge with fellow cruisers. When he is not sailing the high seas, he does whatever his wife tells him to do-it only took 10 years to realize this.
Don Bucolo
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The Alaska Cruise Mistakes You Can’t Afford to Make

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