A starter guide to cruising in Alaska
Pick the cruise route and ship to suit your budget. (Mark Newman/LPI)
While many independent travellers may find the strictures of “cruise life” a bit stifling, there are plenty of reasons to take an Alaskan cruise, namely the two “Cs”: comfort and convenience. In Alaska, a state that could take months, if not years to thoroughly explore, a cruise offers travellers the chance to see many of the top sights in one convenient package.
Depending on the type of trip you choose, cruises allow you to disembark in port for anywhere from four to eight hours, where then you can bop around town or venture further inland. You also get to sit on deck and spot bald eagles hunting, humpback whales breaching and glaciers calving. Not a bad little bit of sightseeing.
On the smaller lines, you will often get more wildlife excursions and more stops. Backpackers and thrifty types can always hop on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry where you see the same sights without a casino or heated pool.
Picking your ship
Large cruise ships
Most large cruise ships are as comfortable as a floating hotel. They stop in the major ports of call and generally depart from Vancouver or Seattle. Excursions range from zipline tours to guided hikes to day trips to Denali National Park. Cruises cost around $120 a night, not including your flight to the port of embarkation. Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess and Royal Caribbean all offer Alaskan cruise options.
Just 3% of Alaskan cruisers take a small-ship voyage. And while you will have tighter quarters, bumpier seas and less entertainment options than on the big boys, these vessels offer better chances at seeing wildlife, more land and kayak excursions, onboard naturalists (most of the time), a more casual atmosphere (you can leave that blue sports coat at the office where it belongs) and a more intimate portrait of Alaska.
These small boats sleep anywhere from eight to 100 and are more likely to depart from somewhere within Alaska. While this is probably your best bet if you are looking to match comfort with quality and authentic experience, it does come with a steeper price tag: anywhere from $400 to $1,200 a night. Adventure Life Voyages, AdventureSmith Explorations, America Safari Cruises, Cruise West, Discovery Voyages, Lindblad Expeditions and the Yukon Queen II (Holland America) offer a variety of small boat cruises.
Alaska Marine Highway
Travel on the state ferries is a leisurely and delightful experience. The midnight sun is warm, the scenery stunning and the possibility of sighting whales, bald eagles or sea lions keeps most travellers at the side of the ship.
Alaska Marine Highway runs ferries equipped with observation decks, food services, lounges and solariums with deck chairs. You can rent a stateroom for overnight trips - spartan compared with what you will get on a cruise liner - but many travellers head straight for the solarium and unroll their sleeping bags on deck chairs.
The ferries are extremely popular during the peak season (June to August). If boarding in Bellingham, Washington, you absolutely need reservations for a cabin or vehicle space, and just to be safe you should probably have a reservation even if you are just a walk-on passenger.
Picking your cruise route
This is a classic route, which sails from Seattle or Vancouver up through the Inside Passage. Most trips will stop in Ketchikan, which has just about as many bars as people and some very fine totem poles. They then continue to the state capital in Juneau, home to a lovely glacier and some nice heli-seeing tours; Skagway, a gold-rush port with some nice hiking not far out of town; and the granddaddy attraction of Alaska cruises, Glacier Bay, where you will see 11 tidewater glaciers spilling their icy wears into the sea.
Gulf of Alaska
This trip includes the Inside Passage, but then continues to the Gulf of Alaska, with stops in Seward, the Hubbard Glacier and Prince William Sound. While you get a broader picture of coastal Alaska on this one-way cruise, it also comes at a price, as you will generally need to arrange for flights from separate ports.
These trips are more expensive and generally focus on natural and cultural history. Folks that enjoy learning on their vacations will like this trip, with stops in the Pribilof Islands, Nome and, on the really expensive cruises, King Island.
These trips give you the chance to get off the boat for about half of your trip. Most begin with the Inside Passage cruise, then head out on a tour bus, with stops in Talkeetna, Denali National Park, Fairbanks, Eagle or the Copper River. Most cruise companies have all-inclusive hotels in these destinations (basically cruise ships without the rocking).