Interested in Alaska?
We'll send you updates with the latest deals, reviews and articles for Alaska each week.
Topics include Transportation, Dining Scene, United States: For Foreign Visitors & more!
2. Which cruise option?
2.1 Round trip option
2.2 One way trip option
3. Repositioning cruises
4. Which cruise line?
5. Cabins - tips for choosing
5.1 Balcony or not
5.2 Which side of the ship for the cabin?
6. Youth programs
7. Disabled cruising
9. Which port excursions?
10. What is the shopping like in ports?
11. Weather conditions
13. Money matters
14. Clothing to bring
15. Cruise transfers
16. Small ship Inside Passage cruises
17. Alaska ferry travel
18. General tips for cruising
19. Other sources of information
Alaska cruises are very popular for a very good reason – they provide a great experience in visiting otherwise difficult-to-access regions in South East Alaska. This article attempts to address most issues related to such cruises for the information of future travellers. As such it deals predominantly with mainstream cruises, however small ship cruises and Alaska ferry travel are also briefly addressed toward the end of the article.
2. WHICH CRUISE OPTION?
Many options are available for an Alaska cruise and the first thing you need to decide is whether you want to do a round trip to/from the same port (Seattle or Vancouver), or a one-way between Vancouver and either Whittier or Seward, near Anchorage. Both types of cruises are almost always for seven days duration. The first option is great to see the highlights of Southeast Alaska and return to the same port, and the second option is great to also see SE Alaska as well as spend on land in south central and/or interior Alaska (such as Seward, Homer, Fairbanks, Denali, etc.), but will then require flying to/from Anchorage (or sometimes Fairbanks). Both types of cruises, R/T and O/W, mainly hit the same most popular scenic areas of SE Alaska (aka Inside Passage).
The cruises nearly all call at Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan, with some rarer alternatives for Haines, Icy Strait Point (Hoonah) and/or Sitka. Seattle based round trip cruises also have a compulsory docking in a Canadian port under the antiquated U.S. Passenger Vessel Services Act 1886 (often incorrectly referred to as the ‘Jones Act’), and usually do so in Victoria, at nearly useless hours to enable little to be done or seen. There are also different options for cruising in glacier areas with some (Holland America and Princess mainly) having access to Glacier Bay National Park, some going to Hubbard Glacier, some going to Tracy Arm.
The second decision should be which cruise itinerary best meets your needs regarding glacier viewing and preferred ports of call, having regard to your individual objectives and what you might like to do in each area. The duration of docking at individual ports varies between cruise lines and should be considered. If you have specific interests such as fishing, bear viewing, ice climbing, be sure to research the peak periods of time for these activities.
2.1 ROUND TRIP OPTION (Commonly referred to as Inside Passage Cruise)
Once that decision is made, and if in favour of a round trip, your next decision is whether to sail from Seattle or Vancouver. The former takes an open sea route to the west of Vancouver Island and some join the Inside Passage south of Ketchikan while others sail on to Hubbard Glacier first before entering the Inside Passage west of Juneau, and all have the obligatory docking in Victoria mentioned above. The Vancouver cruises are quite superior, sailing between Vancouver Island and the mainland in sheltered waters with a bit of scenic viewing along the way. For a U.S. resident it is often found that it is cheaper to fly to Seattle than it is to Vancouver, and that is one of several reasons that many of the Alaska cruises now emanate from there. However a scenic rail trip from Seattle to Vancouver (or a bus, shuttle transfer or rental car) and cruise from there would give a better overall trip.
In some years Holland America operate a 14 day cruise round trip from Seattle which, as well as including the usual Inside Passage ports, also dock in Anchorage itself, Homer, Kodiak and Sitka. Oceania Cruises, as well as doing mostly 7 day round trips. Also do some 10 day cruises from Seattle.
2.2 ONE WAY TRIP OPTION
The one-way trips, nearly all sail between Vancouver at one end, and Seward or Whittier at the other end. These also involve a day of sailing in open water through the Gulf of Alaska. Also offered are cruise tours covering the land portion, however this part of the trip can be easily organized by the traveller themselves to produce a more satisfying experience. The TA Alaska forums are an excellent resource for assistance to do that. Some cruise by Hubbard Glacier and others cruise in College Fjord.
If you’re doing a one-way northbound or southbound to/from Whittier/Seward, it is highly recommend you try to add at least a couple of days to see some of south central and/or Interior Alaska (the Inside Passage cruise is Southeast Alaska). Many people enjoy adding Denali and/or Fairbanks to their trip; others prefer a Kenai Fjords day cruise, fishing, a bear-viewing tour, hiking (including on glaciers), visiting the Native Heritage Centre in Anchorage, etc.
For those who would like to plan their own land tour, either before or after their cruise (as opposed to taking a basically inflexible cruise tour through the cruise line), here are some general ideas:
For more specifics, feel free to start your own thread in the appropriate forum (use the general “Alaska” forum if you’re not sure). There are a great bunch of knowledgeable regulars on these forums who love helping people plan and personalise their trips! If you don’t already have a general idea of what you’d like to do, check the Top Question about Trip Reports (top right side of the Alaska forum page), and read through a few of those to see what might interest you.
3. REPOSITIONING CRUISES
At both the beginning and end of the cruise season the ships must relocate, and usually do so via San Francisco and Los Angeles. Some also relocate across the Pacific Ocean to cruise the SE Asian/Australian summer circuits. Relocation cruises sometimes offer a few extra days cruising for little extra cost, though by nature are sailing in the very start and ends of the traditional Alaska tourist season, when not all tours and facilities are available.
4. WHICH CRUISE LINE?
The various cruise ship options available to choose from may be seen here: http://www.cruisealaska.com . Use either the ‘Cruise Calendar’ tab near the top of screen which has a drop-down menu for various months of the season, or the ‘Advanced Cruise Search’ on the left side of the screen.
From many previous reviews posted both here on Trip Advisor Alaska and Cruises forums, and on Trip Advisors 'sister' site Cruise Critic , there appears to be very little difference overall between the actual cruise lines on the Alaska circuit, although several Holland America ships are not quite half the size of the ships used by other lines and can get into tighter places near glaciers. The demographic make-up of passengers varies little between the lines for Alaska cruises (contrary to other sailing regions), although Disney obviously may be more attractive for families with young children.
For much more information on the respective cruise lines on the Alaska circuit this website is very informative:
Alaska cruises are not pleasure cruises like in the Caribbean. They are regarded by many as providing a very comfortable floating hotel taking a person to the great scenic locations, not otherwise easy to access in SE Alaska, with lots of things to do/see while there. Many cruisers do not worry about on-board entertainment, with Alaska itself providing the entertainment they are seeking, though of course the ship activities are available for those who enjoy them. Some lines may have better children’s programs than others, dining options, whether freestyle or occasional formal nights, but, if doing the cruise for the sake of a cruise, you should be aware that there are really only two days of actual cruising in a seven day itinerary, whether O/W or R/T, with exception of cruising near the glaciers. The ships usually sail between the various ports at night.
5. CABINS - TIPS FOR CHOOSING
Actual photos of the cabins of Holland America (HAL) ships can be accessed from here:
5.1 BALCONY OR NOT?
Some posters on another forum frequently state that people should not go to Alaska unless they could afford a balcony. That’s just silly. Many people have been quite happy with outside cabins (and would have no problem with an inside room). First, the cost difference leaves you with more more free money to spend on excursions and, secondly, you don’t spend much time in a cabin anyway, so why pay a lot of money for it? And third, on glacier-viewing days, the captain will turn the ship frequently so that both sides will have equal viewing time…which means people sitting on their balconies get to see the glacier only half the time. Those out on deck or in a viewing lounge just toddle over to the other side and keep watching and listening 100% of the time.
There are some people who claim a balcony is a necessity in order to enjoy scenery or wildlife, apparently under the misapprehension that everywhere else on the ship people are blindfolded. The fact is that balcony-dwellers are the ones missing at least half the action! Now, if they’re content with that, fine, but the best place to watch for wildlife is on the front deck (if your ship allows access to that, though be warned it can be rather windy and chilly there), or in the forward observation lounge. You can see everything as it comes, long before people on their balconies can see it as it passes by (and they can’t see it at all if it’s on the other side of the ship). Plus, having more eyes scanning the horizon means less chance of missing something.
This is certainly not advising against having a balcony. If you can comfortably afford it, by all means get one--after all, nothing is stopping you from going to the better viewing areas from time to time too. However, if paying extra for a balcony means you have to cut back on shore excursions that you would have liked to include (and in Alaska, those excursions tend to be costly), it’s not worth it.
5.2 WHICH SIDE OF THE SHIP FOR A CABIN?
On a round-trip Alaskan cruise, sides don’t matter much, though you might want to compare the times you will be going past various locations (can’t see much in the dark). On the one-ways, much of the time there is enough scenery on both sides to make most people happy; however, you do see a little more toward the east unless you prefer viewing sunsets. The Alaskans have a saying: travel “POSH”: Port (left) Outbound out of Alaska, Starboard Homebound, to Alaska. That goes for cruises as well as planes. Of course, that is reversed if you start your cruise from Vancouver. Keep in mind, though, that even if your cabin is on the far side, you can always stroll over to the other side of the ship occasionally to view from there.
6. YOUTH PROGRAMS
These vary between various cruise lines, so individual research of the information posted on the websites for each line should be undertaken. Understandably Disney would probably have the best offerings for the younger brigade. Other lines offer activities from rock climbing walls to basketball courts, so if a specific activity is important to your teen, do some research to find a ship he/she will enjoy. The following article discusses activities for teens and gives links to further information at the bottom: http://www.cruisecritic.com/articles....
7. DISABLED CRUISING:
General information: http://www.cruisecritic.com/cruisesty...
Forums to discuss your issues: http://boards.cruisecritic.com/for...
Each individual has their own level of tolerance to motion sickness, so there is no one solution to cover everyone. The Vancouver R/T cruises sail in very protected waters, sailing in open water only for the stretch between the north of Vancouver Island to south of Haida Gwaii before entering the Inside Passage proper, while, as previously mentioned, the Seattle R/T cruises are in open water all the way before entering the Inside Passage at ether the southern end near Ketchikan or the northern end near Juneau. O/W cruises sail in open water across the Gulf of Alaska.
Cruise ships have extremely efficient stabilization systems so most passengers would not have a problem with some rough weather. If in doubt, discuss this with your medical practitioner before you travel and arrange appropriate medication. There are several over-the-counter medications that may help with seasickness, plus other possible remidies and coping ideas such as discussed in this article: http://gcaptain.com/seasickness-ways-...
9. WHICH PORT EXCURSIONS?
How long is a piece of string? Which excursions you take depends on your interests and your budget. There are very many options available in each port from as simple as walking tours and hiking, to whale watching (Juneau & Icy Straight), Mendenhall Glacier (Juneau), White Pass & Yukon Rail (Skagway), Misty Fjords float plane, Saxman Village totem poles (Ketchikan), float plane for bear viewing in remote regions, and, at the top of the budget scale, heli-flight with glacier landing and sled dog ride (several ports). Literally hundreds to choose from expecially if you expand your horizons to the tours offered by the locals in various portsand don't stick to just the cruise ships' tours.
To see the available options start by downloading the excursions options from the cruise line. Also, read the article in the Top Questions entitled "Resources for planning a trip" where tourism sites for the individual towns are listed at the bottom of the page which also provides a lot of information.
Next go to the forums for each of the individual ports and read previous posts there as well as looking at the destination forum for each of the individual ports under the tab “Things to do” near the top of screen. You should also study the Top Questions on each forum which could contain the type of information you seek. When preferred options for each port are decided upon, please then feel free to post on the destination forum for further information if necessary.
Please be aware that ship-booked excursion options are quite frequently able to be booked independently of the ship, and in most instances give a much more personal trip/experience with much smaller groups. In some cases they might also be slightly less expensive and of longer duration.
There are sometimes warnings posted on various forums that,if anything went wrong with a private excursion the ship would sail without those passengers, while people who booked via the ship would be taken care of. While true with some destinations, on Alaska cruises, no person has ever posted that this has happened to themselves or others to their knowledge, on either this forum, nor CruiseCritic to the knowledge of long time regular posters on either forum at the time of writing. So this is generally regarded as a scare tactic utilized by the cruise lines to ensure they get their cut. The local excursion operators are quite attuned to the ship schedules, and are very aware that their reputations depend upon meeting those schedules. Just be sure to mention to the vendor which ship you are on and what your port time is.
If bear viewing is a priority then the month of the cruise would be very important as trips to most of the popular areas do not operate until the salmon start to run when bear activity would be an almost certainty. This usually commences sometime in July with some regions later than others, and also some regions where brown bear activity is common and others where black bear activity occurs. Most such trips involve a trip by small boat or flight by float plane. Entry to most of the popular bear viewing areas is controlled by permits issued by National Parks.
POPULAR EXCURSIONS in the most common ports:
10. WHAT IS THE SHOPPING LIKE IN PORTS?
Be aware, be very, very aware. If tempted to buy a “genuine” item from Alaska, and if bought from some of the many shops dockside from the cruise docks, it will be genuine as BOUGHT in Alaska, but that may probably be as far as it goes.
If gold, it probably comes from Western Australia or South Africa, and is manufactured in China. The jewellery shops in port are generally promoted heavily on the cruises, and it is often mentioned on forums that these are owned or affiliated with the cruise lines although no proof of that has ever been presented. These traders move into the ports with the first of the cruise ships, and close down when the last one has left. They have driven rental prices up in some ports for prime dockside locations to the extent that many local traders have been pushed back a street or two. When on the Alaska forum page, go to the search box near the top of the page and search “jewellery” and “jewelry” and read the results of each search.
If looking for genuine Alaska goods you will need to seek some local advice as a simple internet search for the various ports will not easily deliver that information. Ketchikan in particular has some very good advisors here on TA for such questions. However, in general walk deeper into the port towns/cities, away from the main streets near the docks, and your search may be very rewarding. This article has good information about purchasing genuine Alaskan arts and crafts:
11. WEATHER CONDITIONS
This is a quick chart for average temperatures, sunset times, and rainy/clear days
There is also a Top Question here:
Please note that NO reliance should be placed on information provided from this or any other non-Government website for requirements related to passports and/or visas. ALWAYS check from the official sources. Note also for the most popular excursions from Skagway entering into BC and the Yukon, and also leaving the ship when docked at Victoria BC, for U.S. cruisers in particular sailing from Seattle who are not passport holders, this aspect should be carefully considered as both BC (British Columbia) and the Yukon are in Canada.
If the first point of arrival in the USA is by air or sea, people travelling on passports from countries which are members of the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP) will generally require an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) before commencing their trip. Similarly, for arrival in Canada by air, if on a passport from one of the countries who are members of the Canadian VWP, an eTA (Electronic Travel Authorisation) is generally necessary. However, there are some situations where persons from VWP countries may require to apply for a visa and this would need to be determined from studing the relative guidelines and rules.
As said above, always check from the OFFICIAL Government websites as there are other look-alike websites which will come up first in results from an internet search, and while such sites are usually legitimate, they charge much, much more than the official Government fee doing exactly the same thing as you could do yourself.
Click here for USA ESTA
Click here for Canada eTA
eTA NOTE: Due to problems being experienced in Canada with the introduction of the eTA systems, until September 29, 2016 travellers who do not have an eTA can still board their flight, as long as they have appropriate travel documents, such as a valid passport.
13. MONEY MATTERS
Inexperienced cruisers should be aware that cash is not used on the ships, and that prior to boarding you will be asked to provide a credit card which will be billed at the end of the cruise for any on-board purchases and the daily gratuities/service fees. A hold will then be placed on the card for an amount estimated to cover the potential exposure for the ship, and a card will be issued to be used for purchases on-board which is usually also your cabin door key.
CAUTION – do not use a debit or cash card instead of a credit card as the hold placed on your card will lock away some of your available funds and may restrict your ability to use your own money to pay for excursions and port purchases.
Similarly to nearly all cruises everywhere, daily gratuities or service fees are charged and the funds collected are distributed to members of the crew, apart from the salaried officers and specialists such as chefs. This is a very fair method for crew members to receive tips as it also rewards all those workers behind the scenes making your cruise pleasurable, such as galley staff, cleaners, stewards, maintenance persons etc, and not just the ones who deliver your meal to the table or attend to your cabin.
Some lines permit cruisers to remove the daily charge and some people who do so maintain they prefer to tip a crew member in cash. While this may make the cruiser feel warm inside, it is a false move as the crew member must hand in all cash tips received from people who have removed the daily charge for the amount given to go into the pool to be distributed the same as all other funds. Should the daily fee not be removed, and the person also wants to tip an individual crew member, then that crew member may retain the tip.
14. CLOTHING TO BRING
This question has also already been anticipated and there is a “Top Question” for that on the Alaska forum as well.
However, specific to cruises, many ships have formal nights in the dining room, but formal in Alaska does not require top hat and tails. Provided neat casual dress, not shorts or jeans, is worn, with men wearing a jacket, there should be no problem. If concerned by this then each ship has casual buffet arrangements which remain informal.
When packing for a cruise to Alaska there is a lot of further informative advice here:
To this should be added the standard advice: the key to Alaska is dressing in layers. You might need a jacket in the morning and short sleeves in the afternoon. Be sure to bring a waterproof (not just water resistant) jacket--don’t forget that most of coastal Alaska is temperate rainforest so you might encounter drizzle or rain. And it’s a good idea to waterproof your walking shoes to keep your feet comfy and dry. Also be aware that on your glacier-viewing day(s), it can be really chilly near the glacier, so dress warmly including a hat and gloves so you can stay out on deck to hear the incredible sounds the glacier makes as it moves!
15. CRUISE TRANSFERS between ANCHORAGE and WHITTIER options are:
A transfer (train or bus) arranged through your cruise line
Rental car from Avis which the only car rental outlet in Whittier. Note there will be a hefty “drop-off” fee for leaving it in another city.
A taxi from Anchorage
Alaska railroad http://www.alaskarailroad.com/
Park Connection Bus (cruise ship turnaround days ONLY):
Flights are not available between Whittier and Anchorage except by private, expensive charter.
More ideas: http://tinyurl.com/cv9xfpj (see note** below)
CRUISE TRANSFERS between ANCHORAGE and SEWARD:
A transfer arranged through your cruise line (train or bus)
Rental car from Hertz (the only car rental outlet in Seward. Note there will be a hefty “drop-off” fee for leaving it in another city)
A taxi from Seward or Anchorage
Alaska railroad http://www.alaskarailroad.com/
Park Connection Bus: http://www.alaskacoach.com/schedule.html
Seward Bus: http://www.sewardbuslines.net
Homer bus (note the limited schedule): http://thestageline.net
Flights are not available between Seward and Anchorage except by private, expensive charter.
More ideas http://tinyurl.com/cv9xfpj (see note** below)
**NOTE** Be sure to check out whichever company you choose with the Better Business Bureau ( www.bbb.org ), because there is at least one company on the list from the last web link that has a TERRIBLE rating, which has also received numerous complaints here on the forums from travellers who were abandoned or inconvenienced.
16. SMALL SHIP INSIDE PASSAGE CRUISES
These are usually confined to localised areas within the Inside Passage in SE Alaska, sailing from some of the local ports such as Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka. They provide a very much up close and personal view of SE Alaska, and also many are designed for the adventurous spirited cruiser offering kayaking near glaciers, snorkelling and hiking, but also at a premium price. Some options are:
http://www.un-cruise.com/ previously known as Inner Seas Discovery
http://www.expeditions.com/destinatio... Lindblad Excursions in conjunction with National Geographic
There are many more options out there for small ship cruises, and the list provided on this website is quite long, but as to how current it is…..?:
17. ALASKA FERRY TRAVEL known as the Alaska Marine Highway System
The AMHS operates various services from as far south as Bellingham, WA and Prince Rupert, BC to Dutch Harbour/Unalaska in the far western Aleutian Islands in the Bering Sea, servicing both main centres and small villages along the coast of SE, SW and southern Alaska. It offers many various alternatives for travel to regions not visited by the cruise lines. Some of the travel times may not be convenient, as the ferries commonly dock in some regions in the middle of the night or early morning, and they only stay in port for a short period of time to permit transfer of passengers and freight. To visit the land regions of the ports it is necessary to disembark on arrival and stay for several days until the next ferry comes along. Ferry travel is not a fast way to travel.
Most ferry terminals are not located within walking distance to the town. If you will be disembarking and spending a few days in port, you will need to make arrangements with your hotel or B&B for pick-up service, or rental car company or take a taxi.
The AMHS sailing schedules really take a lot of study and are very confusing, so a lot more research is required to plan a coherent trip by this method, but many who have taken the trouble to do so have reported a very rewarding experience well worth the effort.
18. GENERAL TIPS FOR CRUISING
When to go, passport requirements, Customs and duty-free merchandise, etc.:
Cruise misconceptions (will get seasick, will be bored, all cruisers are old):
First time cruisers (disembarking, alcohol policies, dining, internet, cruise ship courtesies, etc.):
19. OTHER SOURCES OF INFORMATION
The above sites contain detailed information on everything from general cruise articles, to reviews of individual cruise ships, and discussions about excursions available at ports of call. The book “Alaska by Cruise Ship: The Complete Guide to the Alaska Cruise Experience” by Anne Vipond is also a recommended read.
Hoping that the above may have provided some insight into cruising Alaska, which is a fantastic experience as Alaska is so stunning.