So, you have decided to take your first cruise to Alaska. Congrats! You are going to have a truly unforgettable vacation. Even if you have sailed the Caribbean or another region of the world before, a cruise “way up north” is quite different. To help you navigate these waters, we have put together our list of expert Alaska cruise tips every cruiser needs to know in 2023.
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Top Alaska Cruise Tips Every Cruiser Needs to Know (2023)
Book your Alaska cruise early
Most major cruise lines release itineraries up to two years in advance. And while anytime is a great time to book a cruise, we always suggest booking as early as possible. This is especially true for Alaska cruises as you wouldn’t want to compromise on your bucket list trip.
The biggest reason you should book a cruise early is to secure the best prices. As specific sailings begin to fill up, prices will go up.
Popular room categories and locations book up quickly as well. By booking your cruise early, you will have a greater selection of cabins. You’ll also get your preferred dining times.
Of course, this will also give you more time to pay off the cruise and to plan all aspects of your trip.
Having a cruise booked in advance always gives you something to look forward to as well.
Don’t get sticker shock with Alaska cruise prices
One of the most important Alaska cruise tips is always knowing the cruise cost so you can budget accordingly. When Alaska cruise planning, you should know that Alaska cruise vacations are a bit on the pricey side when compared to Caribbean cruises. So, don’t get sticker shock.
Alaska cruise costs fluctuate considerably depending on a few factors. The cruise line, the Alaska cruise itinerary, and the time of year will all weigh heavily on pricing.
If you have flexible vacation time, choosing the right time to cruise to Alaska can have a big impact on your budget.
Pick the best time to cruise to Alaska
Alaska is one of the top places to cruise. However, some may not realize that Alaska is a seasonal cruise destination. This means that you will only be able to cruise to Alaska during select months of the year.
The Alaska cruise season generally runs from late April/early May through the end of September. June through August is considered the peak season. While late April/early May and September/early October are considered the shoulder seasons.
When determining the best time of year to cruise to Alaska, you will need to consider the weather, wildlife, price, and crowds. Do you want the most wildlife sightings possible? Do you want the cheapest Alaska cruise possible?
Mid summer usually offers the best combination of average temperatures, rainfall amounts, hours of daylight, and wildlife sightings.
Cruise during shoulder season for cheaper fares
The summer in Alaska may have the warmest temperatures and the most wildlife sightings, but it also means increased crowds and increased price.
Particularly, July and August are the busiest months in Alaska. This coincides with school breaks and summer vacations. These months are usually the most expensive to cruise to Alaska as well.
Thus, one of our expert Alaska cruise tips is to cruise to the region during the shoulder seasons. This will save you money and avoid the crowds.
We have cruised to the region late in the season a few times now and have still had a great Alaska cruise.
Know the best time to see the northern lights on an Alaskan cruise
Another perk of sailing towards the end of the Alaska cruise season is the chance to see the Northern Lights. The Aurora Season is generally from the end of August until mid April.
Typically, you have a better chance of seeing the northern lights further north in Alaska, as cloudy skies are common in southeast Alaska. Still, you could get lucky. During the Alaska cruise season, the sun sets the earliest in September (the skies are the darkest) making for the most ideal viewing conditions.
Pick the best cruise line for your travel party
Alaska sees over a million cruisers travelling each year. With that said, more and more cruise lines and ships are sailing to the region every year.
From family-friendly cruise lines, to luxury high end cruise lines, to small ship adventure cruises, there is truly no single best cruise line or best cruise ship in Alaska. Truthfully, it all depends on your travel party’s preferences.
Brands like Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean offer more diversity for multi-generational families. With some of the newest and most innovative ships in the fleet cruising this region, these might be the best Alaska cruise picks for families. Carnival Cruise Line and Disney Cruise Line are also popular choices for family cruises to Alaska.
There are also luxury cruise lines like Viking. While this trip might cost a bit more, it includes shore excursions at each port of call, beer and wine at meals, free WiFi, and no up-charges for specialty dining.
If you are an adventure traveler, several small ship cruise lines like UnCruise Adventures and American Queen Voyages also cruise in Alaska.
Pick the right cruise ship
With such a diversity of cruise ships sailing the region, even within brands themselves, you should review the cruise ships’ amenities before you decide on one.
Once you’ve narrowed down your search to a cruise line or two, compare the ship offerings to find one that’s a good fit for your Alaska cruise. While the flashy bells and whistles on new cruise ships might be important for some, an Alaska cruise is really more about the destination.
One of our expert Alaska cruise tips is to look for ships with good viewing areas, like indoor observation lounges. Also consider whether the ship has an indoor pool or indoor amenities for the kids. While the weather is often warm enough to enjoy the outdoor attractions, that’s not always the case.
Pick the best Alaska cruise itinerary for you
Again, much like cruise line, the best Alaska cruise itinerary is really all about your travel party’s preferences.
There are also one-way sailings that generally cruise from Seward or Whittier, Alaska to Vancouver, BC (and vice versa) on Northbound or Southbound routes.
Some cruise lines also offer select Alaska cruises out of California.
The top ports of call on an Alaskan cruise are Juneau, Ketchikan, and Skagway in Southeast Alaska, as well as Victoria, British Columbia. Some ships might also visit Sitka, Haines, or Icy Strait Point.
Most cruise ships will also have at least a day of “scenic cruising”, where you will sail past majestic glaciers and fjords. Perhaps the two most popular glacier cruising spots are Hubbard Glacier and Glacier Bay National Park. You should know the differences before picking your cruise itinerary.
If you are a first time cruiser to Alaska, one of our expert cruise tips is to stick to a traditional 7-day roundtrip cruise. If you can find one that cruises through Glacier Bay National Park, we highly recommend it. The views are amazing!
Consider extending your cruise with a Cruisetour
Your Alaska cruise will certainly be an unforgettable experience. With several days in port and scenic cruising with glaciers and fjords, what could be better? Well, more time to explore Alaska of course.
If you have the vacation time and finances, you should consider extending your Alaska cruise with a Cruisetour. Many cruise lines sailing the region offer add-on land packages.
These land portions can vary in length and visit more interior locations beyond the typical southeastern Alaska ports of call. With a cruisetour, guests can enjoy a scenic train ride, a stay in a lodge, and visits to places like Denali National Park, Fairbanks, or Anchorage.
Use a travel agent
Even if you have cruised before, we recommend using a travel agent to book your Alaska cruise. A good travel agent can help you decide on some of the factors listed above.
They can also save you some money on this pricey Alaska cruise. In addition to helping you find the best deal, travel agents often offer additional perks that can be combined with any promotions from the cruise lines. Think add-ons like a free specialty dinner, free gratuities, onboard credit, and more.
Upgrading to a balcony is worth it
Once you have decided on your cruise ship and itinerary for your Alaska cruise, you now need to choose your cabin category. If you are trying to decide what type of cabin is right for you, we have a complete guide to cruise cabin categories.
However, one of our expert Alaska cruise tips is to upgrade to a balcony. There are many reasons to book a balcony cabin on any cruise, but we find this splurge the most beneficial in Alaska.
Yes, a balcony cabin will cost more than an inside stateroom or oceanview cabin. Though, it is truly breathtaking to admire the natural landscapes from the comforts of your balcony on an Alaska cruise.
Imagine sipping coffee or hot cocoa while sailing past fjords. Be on the lookout for wildlife while getting ready in the morning. Stay up late in hopes of spotting the northern lights. The possibilities are endless.
Of course, if you decide not to upgrade to a balcony, there are still plenty of viewing areas around the ship.
You should have a passport
For U.S. citizens, a passport is technically not required for closed loop cruises, a cruise that begins and ends in the same U.S. port. Thus, if you are cruising to Alaska roundtrip from Seattle, a birth certificate and a government issued ID are the only forms of documentation required.
However, just because you do not need a passport to go on the cruise, doesn’t mean that you might not need one to enter one or more of the ports of call during your trip.
For instance, you may need a passport for some Alaska cruise excursions. Shore excursions that visit Canada, like the White Pass Railway in Skagway, do require a passport to participate.
So, one of our expert Alaska cruise tips is to always cruise the region with a passport.
Fly in to your embarkation port early
Depending on your embarkation port, you will likely need to arrange airfare. You should also consider booking a pre-cruise or post-cruise hotel stay.
While we always recommend flying in a day early, it is even more important when cruising in 2023 given flight cancellations and delays.
Plus, Seattle and Vancouver are both great cities that deserve some time for exploration.
You should check with the cruise line, or your travel agent, to see if there are any promotional airfare offers. Many cruise lines now offer packages that include airfare. This option also offers some peace of mind in case of air delays, as the ship will usually wait for you.
Budget extra money for shore excursions
When it comes to budgeting for a cruise, you have probably noticed a cruise to Alaska is not cheap. Alaska cruise prices themselves can run you double (or more) compared to a Caribbean cruise. The shore excursions and tours in Alaska can also cost you a pretty penny.
This is especially true if you want to book some of the “once in a lifetime” tours during your Alaska cruise. When we think of one of our best Alaska cruise experiences, a helicopter ride to the Mendenhall Glacier comes to mind. However, this tour can cost $500 or more per person.
The White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad in Skagway is the number one Alaskan cruise excursion. Other Alaska cruise shore excursions like a floatplane through the fjords, wildlife tours, ziplining, glacier exploring, or dogsledding on a glacier should not be missed either.
Thus, another one of our Alaska cruise tips is to be sure to budget accordingly for shore excursions on your Alaska cruise so you don’t miss out on these amazing experiences.
Book shore excursions early
We always like having a game plan for each port of call. This often means reserving our shore excursions well in advance of our cruise. This is especially true in Alaska.
Since an Alaska cruise is a once in a lifetime trip for many travelers, shore excursions do book up quickly. Waiting to book onboard the ship or delaying until the actual port of call is a risk we would not take. The last thing you want to hear is the excursion you have been waiting for all year is already sold out!
We suggest booking your shore excursions early, as you can always cancel if something pops up. Keep an eye on your online cruise planner, as most cruise lines will periodically run sales on items like shore excursions.
Also, you should investigate local tour providers and third party tour vendors as they often offer smaller group tours and cheaper prices.
Of course, you don’t have to book shore excursions in every port of call. Many of these Alaska cruise ports are walkable if you just want to explore the downtown area. Or, the cruise lines often have shuttles into town as well.
Book onboard packages and make reservations prior to your cruise
Much like shore excursions, another one of our expert Alaska cruise tips is to always book onboard packages and make reservations before boarding the ship. This is one of the easiest ways to save money on a cruise.
These add-ons include anything from beverage packages and specialty dining, to WiFi, and other experiences not included in your cruise fare.
If you have a flexible dining option, many cruise lines let you make your reservations pre-cruise as well. Of course, if you plan to dine at any specialty restaurants, you will want to pre-reserve those too. Prime dining times do fill up quickly.
You need to pack layers
Packing for an Alaskan cruise is altogether different than what you would typically pack for a Caribbean cruise.
From toiletries to outfits, and everything in between, we detail what we pack for our trips in this Complete Alaska Cruise Packing Guide to help first time cruisers to Alaska.
In short, the time of year you cruise to Alaska will dictate to some degree what items you will need to include on your Alaska cruise packing list. The type of excursions you book should also factor into what you pack.
The MOST IMPORTANT Alaska cruise tip is to pack layers!
Given the fluctuations in temperature, which in our experience is 25-30 degrees in one day, you will need plenty of clothes in varying degrees of warmth. Layers that can be easily packed, and taken on and off during the day, are preferable.
It’s also a good idea to pack a water resistant day bag to easily store these extra layers when going ashore.
It will rain during your cruise
Speaking of weather and packing, make sure to bring a packable raincoat and some waterproof shoes or boots. It will rain during your cruise!
If you are lucky, the rain will only pop up here and there, but Ketchikan is one of the rainiest places in the United States after all. Even if the day starts off sunny, be prepared for some fog and rain to roll in eventually.
Don’t let the damp weather impact your trip though, just be prepared with the right gear.
Don’t forget to pack a bathing suit either
Another Alaska cruise tip is don’t forget your bathing suit. While the weather is not exactly beach friendly, the pools and hot tubs on the ship are still open, as is the spa and thermal suite. You might even get lucky enough with the weather to enjoy the outdoor pools!
Think of how perfect it would be to enjoy the Alaskan scenery at sail away while being gently massaged by the warm water jets in the hot tub.
Pack a zoom camera and binoculars
Clothing is not the only gear you should pack for a cruise to Alaska. This trip is one you will want to remember! While cameras on smartphones have come a long way over the years, they won’t do the scenery and wildlife in Alaska any justice.
If you want great photos to last a lifetime, we recommend bringing a digital camera with a zoom lens. If you don’t own one, you could always rent one. We rented a zoom lens for our camera during our last trip to Alaska and are so glad we did.
You should also invest in some binoculars for this trip. They don’t have to be expensive, but a pair of binoculars is crucial when scouting the area for wildlife. Of note, some more premium cruise lines do provide a pair in each cabin.
Make sure to attend the onboard enrichment programs
When not docked at a port of call, most cruise lines offer a variety of onboard talks and lectures. These are not your typical port shopping presentations but rather enrichment programs that provide valuable information about the history, culture, and wildlife of the ports of call you will be visiting.
These talks are an informative, fun, and educational part of your cruise that should not be missed. The onboard naturists and/or historians really make the cruise that much more enjoyable.
Further, if your ship is cruising through Glacier Bay National Park, a park ranger will actually come aboard the cruise ship. He/she will offer narration and informational sessions that are definitely worth attending.
Skip a WiFi package (maybe)
With onboard enrichment, early morning glacier viewing, and long days in port, you may want to consider not purchasing a WiFi package on your Alaska cruise.
While internet on cruise ships is constantly improving, the signal in Alaska is not always the best; it can be impacted by weather and interference from landscapes.
Further, most of your ports of call will be in the United States and likely covered in your cell service. You will want to check your provider’s coverage area prior to sailing.
If you do use your cell phone while in port, make sure to put it back into airplane mode once you set sail. You don’t want to incur any expensive roaming charges while out to sea.
Be sure to taste the local flavor
The food on the ship is delicious as always, but when in Alaska, you should eat like an Alaskan. This means you should indulge in the plentiful seafood available.
Salmon bakes and Alaskan King Crab are just some of the fresh local specialties that you should sample during your cruise. Of course, you will need some beverages to wash down the food as well.
Some recommendations (and popular tourist stops) include the Red Dog Saloon (Juneau), Tracy’s King Crab Shack (Juneau), and Red Onion Saloon (Skagway). There is also the popular Creek Street with shops and restaurants in Ketchikan.
Make sure to get some rest
You are going to do and see a lot during your Alaska cruise, so make sure to get some sleep. There will be early morning calls into port and glacier sightings that will have you up at dawn.
With the sun out until 10 pm during peak season, you will want to take in all of the majestic views until late in the evening as well. Not to mention, there is also the potential to see the Northern Lights during certain times of the year.
These early mornings and late evenings mean you should make use of down time to squeeze in a few extra hours of shut eye whenever you can. This is one adventure you don’t want to miss.
Learn some basic nautical terms
You don’t have to captain the ship, but learning some basic nautical terms is especially important before a cruise to Alaska. Often times, announcements will be made for wildlife sightings and during glacier viewing. Knowing starboard side vs. portside will ensure you don’t miss out on anything.
Portside refers the left side of the ship when facing forward. An easy way to remember this is that “port” has four letters as does “left.” Starboard is the righthand side of the ship when facing the front.
Now, when you hear there has been a whale spotting on the starboard side of the ship, you can just grab your gear and go!
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Have you cruised to Alaska yet? What are some of your best Alaska cruise tips? Drop us an anchor below to share your Alaska cruise tips, tricks, and secrets.