Alaska is like few places on earth. Wild, rugged, scenic, and abundant with wildlife, it is a paradise. We cruised southbound from Anchorage to Vancouver. However, these Alaska cruise tips apply equally to northbound cruises, or those that loop.
Alaska Cruise Tips: Planning
1. Plan early.
More than other destinations, Alaska cruises tend to book up early. While we love the savings that normally come with last minute cruising, I wouldn’t risk it in Alaska. We find the best deals at Cruise Direct.
2. Double your cruise budget.
Alaska is expensive. Both getting there and being there. Plus, the ports are filled with fascinating, unique, and often costly options. Whether it’s whale watching, dog sledding, or a helicopter landing on a glacier, many opportunities come around only once in a lifetime.
3. Book a balcony cabin.
As we sailed through the inside passage, we were near land more often than any other cruise we have been on. The ever-changing views are spectacular and the summertime daylight hours in Alaska are long. You can’t spend every waking at sea moment on deck, but you won’t want to miss anything.
4. Look into travel insurance.
Alaska is far from just about anywhere. This means you probably spent more to get here, your cruise is on the higher priced end of cruise destinations, and if you need medical help, or if something else goes wrong, you want to know someone has your back. We have had our share of bad luck, landing us in hospitals on four continents. We never leave home without insurance, and to date have had no problems with World Nomads.
5. Allocate a day to enjoy getting to the port.
A typical southbound cruise sails from Anchorage to either Vancouver or Seattle. In reality, the ship sails from either Whittier (97 km from Anchorage) or Seward (204 km from Anchorage). The challenge is getting to the port. While the major cruise lines offer bus transport, you miss all the interesting things to see along the way.
Our best Alaska cruise tip for getting to the port: hire a private guide or take a tour. We hired Steve Busby, an outstanding private guide who started our day with an Anchorage city tour and then took us to the world’s largest seaplane airport, a wildlife refuge, and the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.
Plus, we stopped for lunch in a charming little village before we enjoyed the national forest, Portage glacier, and even a derelict building. We turned our transport from Anchorage to Whittier into an adventure.
6. Pack light, while you pack for all seasons.
Don’t let your conception of summer weather confuse you when you pack. Alaska’s weather changes frequently, although it’s rarely hot. The secret is layers and a good outer layer that will protect you from wind or rain. You also won’t want to forget a scarf and beanie.
For your onboard time, a mix of long and short pants, plus, depending on which cruise line you are on, you may need a formal outfit for one night. A simple black dress with pretty accessories will work for women. See our best cruise packing tips here.
7. Add a land package to Denali National Park.
We took an extra five days and traveled by train to Denali National Park, a real highlight of our Alaska adventure. The views obtained in the dome train cars are unsurpassable. Plus, there is plenty to do in Denali with its rugged landscape, wildlife, and elusive views of Mt. Mckinley, the highest peak in North America.
Our top tip here is to fly into Fairbanks, spend at least a day before taking the train to Denali, and then finally on to Anchorage. You will see more for a similar cost than by traveling roundtrip from Anchorage to Denali.
8. Prebook your Juneau excursions through the ship or other company that guarantees to get you back onboard.
Juneau is one place you do not want to be left behind. With no roads leading to the next port, if you miss the ship in Juneau, you will either need to charter a boat or a private plane to catch up to the ship. However, if you go with the ship, they guarantee to get you back. You can find a similar worry-free shore excursions guarantee on some Viator tours.
9. Explore other excursion options.
We are generally fans of doing it ourselves or getting guides independent of the ship (Just not in Juneau). We have recommended tours on each of our port destination pages (see below).
10. Bring binoculars and carry them with you.
Wildlife seems to appear out of nowhere. One passenger spots a bear at the shore, a moose in the hills, or a whale in the sea, and suddenly everyone is pointing. Those who thought to bring binoculars get the best view. Click here for what we think are the best binoculars for an Alaska cruise (or really any travel).
Alaska cruise tips: ports
A typical 7-day Alaska inside passage cruise will sail by at least one glacier, and visit Juneau, Ketchikan, and Skagway, adding one additional port that is often Sitka or Icy Strait Point. Here are the highlights of each of the Alaska cruise ports.
The published starting or ending point for many Alaska cruises, Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city. We only spent a few days here, but that was enough to be in love with this city. It’s an eclectic mix of culture, history, wildlife, and fun.
Whether it’s your port of embarkation or debarkation, we recommend spending a few days in Anchorage. Some of the highlights include the Anchorage Museum, the Native Heritage Center, and the Wildlife Conservation Center.
Glaciers seen from the ship
An opportunity to see glaciers is a highlight of any Alaska cruise itinerary. The three most common appear to be Hubbard Glacier, Glacier Bay, and Sawyer Glacier. We saw two of the three.
Icy Strait Point
This is a port to get in touch with nature. Icy Strait Point is famous for its untouched landscapes, humpback whales, and brown bears. It’s a port for whale watching, hiking, or discovering the culture of the native Tlingit people.
Icy Strait Point, along with nearby Hoonah are on Chichagof Island, or “bear island” as it has been monikered by National Geographic. Chichagof has the highest concentration of brown bears in the world. Read next: Whale Watch or Bear Search at Icy Strait Point
Juneau, the capital of Alaska offers a treasure trove of unique activities for visitors. While a walk on Mendenhall Glacier is popular, it’s not the only thing to do. Ranging from nature to adventure, the key highlights include wildlife viewing (bears, whales, waterfalls), adventure sport (kayaking, rafting, zip-lining), dog sledding, glacier walks, panning for gold, and more.
And if all that isn’t enough to keep you busy, Juneau is well known for its culinary options, breweries, and music scene. Just remember not to miss the ship from this port. Check out Juneau Whale Watching and Other Juneau Shore Excursions for more to do in this city.
A former gold rush town from 1896, it is the White Pass Railroad that tops most cruise passengers’ must do list. This replica gold rush era train follows the scenic route once walked by the gold miners. We, however, opted to spend our day hiking, eating, and strolling along the boardwalk edged with replica gold rush era buildings. We discovered many free things to do in Skagway.
Our Alaska cruise itinerary didn’t include Sitka, a town known for its intermixing of native Alaskans and Russian immigrants. A visit to the Alaska Raptor Center (an open bird habitat and eagle flight center) is high on most visitor’s lists. Like everywhere we visited, the port is surrounded by rugged beauty.
Nicknamed ‘Rain City’ for a reason, Ketchikan should be visited with a raincoat. It is the rainiest city in Alaska. Not surprisingly, the city is surrounded by a lush wilderness. While kayaking, fishing, and zip lining are popular activities, the key destinations are Tongass National Forest, Misty Fjord, or the town itself, which seems made for walking.
Regardless of what you do here, be sure to save time to visit Creek Street, where buildings stand on pilings out in the water and visitors walk across boardwalks. This tourist shopping area was once the red light district. See more at Our Favorite Things to Do in Ketchikan Alaska.
Vancouver or Seattle
If you embarked on your Alaska inside passage cruise in Anchorage, you will most likely disembark in Vancouver or Seattle. It is rare that Alaska Cruises will sail without a Canadian port. In fact, only US flagged ships can dock solely at US ports.
Although quite different from each other, we love both of these cities. While both cosmopolitan cities, we find ourselves attracted to Vancouver for nature, and to Seattle for the city life, especially the famous Pikes Place Market.
More Alaska cruise tips
- We recommend logging off. (My apologies to teenagers.) While there is decent Wifi in towns, there are far better things to do on the land. Sadly, the Alaska cruise ships’ Wifi is high on the list of negatives for many cruise lines. In addition to being extra slow, onboard wifi is expensive. Even a phone on with USA service will have difficulties in spots.
- While you can often save money with a shoulder season cruise (May or September), the trade-off is generally colder and more unpredictable weather than during the peak of Alaska cruise season (June – August).
- If you are making your own way to Whittier, be aware of the one-direction-at-a-time Whittier Tunnel schedule.
- Attend at least some of the onboard Alaska lectures.
- Alaska is one of our favorite places we have visited in the USA.
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