Even with a season that only runs from April through October, there are some 40 big ships and dozens of small ships cruising Alaska, making it one of the most popular cruise destinations in the world after the Caribbean and Europe. The best Alaska cruises range from off-the-beaten-path voyages on vessels carrying fewer than 100 passengers to weeklong jaunts through the Inside Passage aboard megaships that hold thousands.
The itinerary choices are numerous in Alaska. Some ships stick to tried-and-true ports, sailing through Southeast Alaska and into western Canada. Others wander deeper along the Alaska coastline to places such as the Kenai Peninsula, north to Nome and Barrow and even deep into the Bering Sea. Some trips hit multiple national parks; others dive into Alaska culture, allowing guests to learn the stories told by totem poles or hear about “the big one” from a fisherman at a dive bar.
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It can be hard to figure out which ship will deliver your idea of a “bucket list” experience in The Last Frontier. A lot comes down to your travel style, preferences and budget. Some travelers demand luxury, while others don’t mind going less fancy if it means close encounters with, say, bears in the wilderness. Some look for romance, while others want to introduce the kids or grandkids to glaciers and eagles, gold panning and sled dogs.
The good news is there’s a ship in Alaska for you no matter your taste or style. Here’s a beginner’s guide to the best Alaska cruises to help you narrow down your choices.
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Best for megaresort fans
Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean both sail some of their largest ships in Alaska. They are floating megaresorts, carrying thousands, and are big on amenities, glitz and a certain amount of glamor — think flashy casinos, Broadway shows, lavish spas. Dining and drinking venues number in the dozens, while amusement park features thrill the kids and adrenaline-seekers.
On Norwegian Encore, you can race along a go-kart racetrack, compete in outdoor laser tag and zoom down slides at the water park while you traverse Alaska’s Inside Passage. The ship sails seven-night cruises from Seattle, visiting Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan in Alaska, as well as Victoria, British Columbia, and Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.
Ovation of the Seas
On Royal Caribbean’s Quantum-class ships, you can order a drink from a robotic bartender, try simulated skydiving or surfing experiences and take a ride in a glass capsule that travels high above your ship on a mechanical arm — a weird and wonderful way to see the Alaska scenery.
Ovation of the Seas sails round-trip from Seattle on seven-night cruises, but the exact itinerary varies by week. The ship cruises Endicott Arm for scenic views of Dawes Glacier and typically visits three Alaska ports and Victoria.
Best for land and sea adventures
Island Princess in Glacier Bay, Alaska. PRINCESS CRUISES
You’ve traveled far to get to Alaska and it would be a shame to miss inland sights such as Denali National Park and Preserve and the sight of Denali, North America’s largest peak — so big it’s often shrouded in clouds caused by its own weather system.
They top the list in terms of cruises, as well as cruise tours, which combine time sailing with overnight stays on land. The companies operate their own lodges, rail cars and motorcoaches for exploration of Alaska’s interior and beyond. Many of the ships have permission to sail in Glacier Bay.
Choose from 10- to 17-night land tours that combine a standard weeklong cruise (sometimes half a cruise) with time spent exploring Alaska’s interior by bus, train or even plane.
Holland America will base six ships in Alaska in 2023, with tour offerings to Denali, Fairbanks and Talkeetna.
However, it also offers 10-night cruise tours on Koningsdam that head into the Canadian Yukon, following the route of the Klondike Gold Rush from Alaska to northwestern Canada. Disembark your cruise ship in Skagway, then travel to Whitehorse and Dawson City in the Yukon before continuing on to Fairbanks (the gateway to Arctic Alaska), Denali National Park and Anchorage.
Princess Cruises offers a cruise tour where you visit four national parks: Glacier Bay, Denali, the Kenai Fjords and America’s largest national park, Wrangell-St. Elias. The 15-night trip combines a seven-night cruise from Vancouver to Whittier, Alaska, with another week on land, ending in Fairbanks.
Best for travelers on a budget
Older ships in Norwegian and Royal Caribbean’s fleets tend to offer more reduced prices than you’ll find on the lines’ larger and newer ships, based on the fact the older ships don’t have as many bells and whistles.
Since they have so many ships in the market, Holland America Line and Princess cruises also tend to offer frequent sales — especially on their older tonnage. These ships have a loyal following and tend to have fewer families on board, which some couples find particularly appealing.
Related: Best time to cruise Alaska
If you’re looking for other surefire ways to save, consider sailings in the area’s shoulder season. You’ll find better deals from April to early June and in September than you will in the height of summer.
Also, in Alaska, balcony cabins are highly desirable, with everyone seeking views of the wilderness, snow-capped peaks and glaciers. As those reserves get low, the prices tend to get higher. Bargain seekers should either book early for these accommodations or choose inside, outside or guarantee cabins (where you don’t pick your room location) to save more.
Radiance of the Seas
Royal Caribbean’s 20-year-old ship Radiance of the Seas mainly sails weeklong, one-way cruises between Vancouver and Seward, Alaska, with prices below $100 per person, per night, for inside and outside cabins on many departures.
However, its end-of-season September 2023 sailing, round-trip from Vancouver, is the cheapest Royal Caribbean Alaska cruise of the season. It starts at $455 for an inside cabin.
Grand Princess and Majestic Princess
Princess Cruises has so many ships based in Alaska that you’re bound to find deals, especially on shoulder-season cruises. Both Grand and Majestic Princess have weeklong Alaska cruises in May 2023 starting from $498 per person for inside cabins. The itinerary starts in Vancouver and ends in Whittier, Alaska, with calls in Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway and scenic cruising in Glacier Bay and College Fjord.
Best for off-the-beaten-path travel
Kayaking in Alaska. UNCRUISE ADVENTURES
Want to see and deeply experience coastal Alaska, and don’t mind a mellower environment where lectures and impromptu guitar singalongs replace casinos and show productions? Consider lines such as UnCruise Adventures, Lindblad Expeditions and Alaskan Dream Cruises, all with ships that carry fewer than 100 passengers (and in the case of Alaskan Dream, even under 20 passengers).
On these small ships, captains have the flexibility to alter itineraries and linger if the naturalist onboard spots a pod of whales or bears digging for clams on a beach.
Small ships can go places bigger ships can’t, so itineraries stretch far beyond the traditional ports. You’ll visit more remote places such as Petersburg, a fishing town with strong Norwegian roots, and Wrangell, one of Alaska’s oldest communities. Some itineraries are conducted entirely in the wild, with no port calls at all.
UnCruise Adventures explores Southeast Alaska on seven-, 12- and 14-night itineraries. A day might start with a morning birding expedition, continue with a kayaking adventure and end with an evening campfire ashore. You might visit LeConte and Baird Glaciers (where the big ships don’t go), plus UnCruise has the only permits for hiking and biking adventures on Chichagof Island.
Lindblad Expeditions frequents off-the-beaten-path destinations in both Alaska and British Columbia, with itineraries ranging from six to 15 nights.
Guests might explore the small fishing town of Petersburg or discover native petroglyphs on the beaches of Wrangell Island in Alaska, or search for grizzly bears in Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest. Lindblad has special permits to bring passengers into the wilderness of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve and the Tongass National Forest, beyond what the big ships can offer.
Alaskan Dream Cruises
Alaskan-owned Alaskan Dream Cruises’ ships carry 10 to 76 passengers to remote Native villages that rarely see visitors, with plenty of time for wildlife viewing far from the cruise ship crowds. Itineraries range from five to nine nights, from departure ports such as Sitka, Ketchikan and Juneau.
Best for families
If you’re traveling with your kids or grandkids in Alaska and want an activity- and entertainment-packed experience, target the newest and biggest ships of Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Carnival and especially Disney Cruise Line. All have excellent camp-like activity programs for kids, plus eye-popping amusement attractions.
On Disney ships, Goofy might make an appearance as you admire soaring eagles, blue icebergs and glaciers. The extensive children’s program, entertainment and such activities as super-fast water slides deliver what you would expect from the purveyor of dreams. Bonus: Cabins are designed with families in mind and include split bathrooms (one with a toilet and sink, the other with a shower/tub combo and sink).
Related: 5 best cruise lines for families
While lacking in whiz-bang attractions, Princess Cruises is another good choice, both for its children’s and teens program, complete with spacious facilities, and for such programming as bringing sled dogs on board, which is a hit with young passengers. The line’s newest ship, Discovery Princess, sails round trip from Seattle, a convenient U.S. home port for families to fly or drive to.
Water slides, a partnership with Dr. Seuss and three hangouts for kids and teens make Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Spirit a great bet for families in Alaska.
The ship’s huge array of included quick eats — pizza, tacos, Guy Fieri’s burgers and unlimited soft serve ice cream — and casual atmosphere take the stress out of dining with the family. The ship sails round trip from Seattle on seven-night itineraries that call in Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan and Victoria, with scenic cruising in Tracy Arm Fjord.
Best for luxury lovers
Silversea cruise ship in Alaska. SILVERSEA CRUISES
If you envision sipping Champagne as you watch a glacier thunderously calve into the sea, consider booking one of the all-inclusive luxury cruise lines in Alaska: Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas Cruises or Silversea.
All these lines include ships that are experts at delivering gourmet cuisine and the other finer things in life in intimate, cushy floating environments. Additionally, all the lines are big on featuring lectures by experts, which provides passengers with a deeper insight into Alaska.
Itineraries tend to include the popular ports and beyond. You might, for instance, visit Wrangell and Prince Rupert, a port city in Canada, and linger in places such as the Misty Fjords and Prince William Sound. Seven- to 14-night sailings embark from ports such as Vancouver, Seward and Sitka.
Seven Seas Explorer
Regent’s 750-passenger Seven Seas Explorer is an all-suite ship offering guests in Alaska multiple gourmet onboard restaurants, all-inclusive beverages, free airfare and included gratuities. Many shore excursions are complimentary. Enjoy little luxuries, like an afternoon in the thermal suite of the two-story spa-and-fitness center, or really splurge out by booking the Regent Suite, the most lavish suite you’ll find at sea.
The 450-passenger Seabourn Odyssey boasts an onboard expedition team and does a posh version of expedition cruising in Alaska, using inflatable Zodiac craft and kayaks.
Seabourn calls its program Ventures by Seabourn. Experts onboard these sailings include naturalists, biologists and other scientists who are members of the expedition team. Once guests finish communing with nature, they can indulge in complimentary Champagne and caviar on board or relish a meal created by famed chef, Thomas Keller.
Upscale Windstar Cruises is another good choice for intimate exploration aboard Star Breeze, a ship that carries up to 312 passengers and is equipped with a fleet of kayaks and Zodiacs.
The name of the game is casual luxury — no need for fancy clothes or jewelry here, but you’ll still be catered to with friendly service and meals by James Beard Foundation chefs. Choose a weeklong or 11-night cruise, or add on a cruise tour to go deeper into Alaska’s interior.
Best for solo travelers
Solo travelers don’t always have to pay double to cruise Alaska on their own. Several ships feature cabins designed and priced for one. Single cruisers should also note that luxury lines Silversea and Seabourn, while not cheap, do a great job of taking care of single cruisers, hosting them at dinner and providing easy opportunities to meet and mingle with other travelers.
The ships in Norwegian Cruise Line’s Breakaway and Getaway classes all have tight studio cabins designed and priced for one person. Additionally, they’re located in a complex where a private lounge encourages mingling. Norwegian Bliss offers 82 solo rooms on its round-trip Seattle cruises that visit Dawes Glacier, Sitka and Icy Strait Point.
Quantum of the Seas
Royal Caribbean’s studio staterooms, on its Quantum-class ships in Alaska, give solo travelers the benefits of both decent space and balconies.
On Quantum of the Seas, choose a 101-square-foot inside cabin or a 119-square-foot ocean-view room with a 55-square-foot balcony. Either way, you get a full-size bed and plenty of space for one person. Ovation of the Seas sails a similar weeklong itinerary to sister ship Quantum of the Seas, round trip from Seattle with scenic sailing along Endicott Arm.
Holland America offers ocean-view accommodations for one in Alaska only on Koningsdam. Measuring 127 to 172 square feet, these rooms come with a full-size bed and a picture window.
Koningsdam sails round trip from Vancouver to Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan, with scenic cruising in Tracy Arm and Glacier Bay. Its cruises can be combined into nine- to 14-night cruise tours to the Yukon and Denali.
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Additional reporting by Erica Silverstein.