Let’s talk about planning and booking an Alaska cruise. When most first-timers think about visiting Alaska, considered one of the best destinations in the world, they picture the ship heading to tropical ports, where they can sip margaritas on a beach.
But sooner or later, most seasoned travelers turn their eyes toward an Alaskan cruise and begin considering an entirely different type of cruise vacation.
And while Alaskan cruises almost make the “best trip ever” list, it’s essential to know that this type of voyage is far more involved than one to Mexico or Bahamas cruise.
Cruises to Alaska will generally cost more and involve more planning, especially if you want to make it a once-in-a-lifetime adventure by participating in jaw-dropping (but often pricey) outdoor activities and shore excursions.
Planning your Alaska cruise should be broken down into a series of steps.
Because an Alaska cruise is more complicated than other vacations, we put together this tip-filled guide to help you plan the best trip ever.
This is only a planning guide leading up to booking your Alaska cruise and ensuring you leave no stone unturned.
In this article:
Questions to ask when planning an Alaska cruise
1. Is an Alaskan cruise within our budget?
As mentioned above, Alaskan vacations can be much more expensive than their more-traditional counterparts. Make a list of all of the expenses you can think of before fully committing to the idea. That should include everything like getting to Seattle, Washington or Vancouver, Canada, how much you want to spend in the ports of call, pre-and post-cruise expenses, and the cruise line you want to sail on.
2. Who will most enjoy this trip?
While we’re big believers that Alaska’s breathtaking beauty and scenery is something everyone should see in their lifetime, that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone should go on the trip you’re planning.
Is it worth taking the youngest of your crew? Will your mom spend the entire trip complaining that you’re not on a Caribbean cruise? Do you want to make this an invite-the-whole-clan trip or one catered specifically to people who will enjoy it the most? Should we sail on Royal Caribbean, Princess, Carnival, or Holland America?
3. Do you want to include a land tour?
Cruising through Tracy Arm Fjord, witnessing the Gulf of Alaska, and seeing glaciers like Hubbard Glacier and Dawes Glacier can give you a satisfying expedition.
But suppose you want to take things to the next level and have the best time in Alaska.
In that case, you can’t beat combining a cruise with a few days on land exploring places like Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve, where you can spot wildlife, including bald eagles, brown bears, and salmon, among many others.
There is a chance to witness the northern lights at Denali National Park between April and August. And if that’s not enough, you can visit cities like Anchorage, Sitka, Whittier, and Homer.
4. When do you want to go?
While you can jump on a ship to the Caribbean any time of year, the Alaskan cruise season runs from May to September, with a few lines offering cruises in April and October.
It’s worth noting that the weather is unpredictable at best, and the chances of having an utterly rain-free week are low.
Researching Alaska cruise prices
Google search for the words “Alaska cruise,” and you’ll get over 40 million responses. While that’s an incredibly intimidating number, the good news is that it’s straightforward to narrow that search down and begin figuring out exactly what type of cruise is right for you.
Cruiseline.com is a great place to start, as it lets you get a general idea of how much various itineraries will cost across various cruise lines.
Once you get the pricing down, you can speak with an educated travel agent to work out all the details because an Alaska cruise has a lot of details.
Don’t Book the Alaska Cruise on Price Alone
If you’re looking for week-long Alaskan cruises in August 2024, a search will yield 66 options with varying prices.
The rates range from $210 to $2,799 per person per week, depending on your room type. (Note: Price as of 2023.)
Of course, it would be foolhardy to book simply based on the price, which is why this is only the first step in the research phase of planning.
You must find exactly the right cruise line and ship for you. That means considering your budget and what type of cruiser you are.
Do you want something more casual or high-end?
Are you looking for something very family-friendly (meaning a lot of kids will be onboard) or something geared more towards adults?
Another critical question is what type of cabin you want to book.
Again, the answer to this question might be different than it would be on a cruise to the Bahamas. Many people say, “I’ll save money and book an inside room because the only thing I’ll be using the cabin for is to sleep.”
However, many people make an exception when planning trips to places like Alaska or Hawaii because there’s much to see from a balcony cabin.
Sure, the ship will have plenty of public spaces — inside and out — with great views, but that can’t compare to sitting on your balcony sipping coffee and taking in nature.
Pre-cruise Hotel Stay for You Alaska Cruise
Finally, you’ll need to decide how to handle the days leading up to and following the cruise. We highly recommend flying into the city from which you’ll be sailing a day early. The last thing you want is to miss the ship because of problems with your flight.
While there are numerous options for departure ports, most seven-night cruises are either round-trip from Seattle, Washington, or Vancouver, British Columbia, or point-to-point between Vancouver and Seward, Alaska.
Many people find it easier (and a bit cheaper) to use Seattle as their transportation hub, but no matter which city you choose, we highly suggest arriving at least a day early.
Another thing to consider — both in terms of making arrangements and the expense involved — is transferring between the airport and/or hotel and the pier.
Perhaps the most important thing you’ll have to decide, at some point, is whether you want to book this trip yourself or go through a travel agent.
Given the complexities involved in planning an Alaskan cruise, we highly recommend using either a travel agent or, at the very least, one of the personal cruise consultants affiliated with whichever line you ultimately wind up sailing with.
Booking Your Alaska Cruise
As you get closer to booking your voyage, you’ll begin paying more attention to the price. You have to look beyond what the websites tell you and begin budgeting.
A cruise line’s website might advertise a seven-night sailing running $799 per person. However, that doesn’t consider many additional costs ranging from port taxes and shore excursions to beverage packages and extra services.
Port Taxes and Fees depend on the embarkation port and what ports your ship visits. Depending on your itinerary, they can range anywhere from $150 to $275 per person.
This is why research in advance is so important. It gives you a better idea of how much you’ll pay than the initial quoted price.
Two crucial things to keep in mind once you’ve booked your cruise:
- The Cancellation Policy: Know exactly how much you’ll be charged if you cancel the cruise. Generally, most cruise lines allow you to cancel up to 90 days before sailing without penalty or just a small one attached.
- The Final Payment Date: This might as well be called “the point of no return,” Once you’ve passed it, you’re either going on this cruise or paying for all or most of it.
Alaska Shore Excursions
Now that you’ve booked the cruise, the real fun begins. Between now and when your countdown clock hits zero, you’ll begin planning what to do at each port your cruise will visit. With a few exceptions, Alaska isn’t like other cruises regarding shore excursions.
For example, you can walk off the ship in the Bahamas and find several vendors trying to sell excursions.
In Alaska, some of the best and most popular excursions will sell out long before your ship even pulls into port.
So you must plan ahead and book the excursions you want to experience.
Long story short: Yes, you can wing it upon arrival, but doing so could mean missing out on something you wanted to see or do. Even more so if there are a lot of cruise ships in port.
Popular Alaska cruise excursions offered by cruise lines
- The White Pass Scenic Railway in Skagway features spectacular views. This is often paired with other excursions, such as a visit to a camp where dogs are trained to pull sleds or panning for gold.
- Several ports offer passengers the opportunity to get an up-close and personal view of a glacier via a seaplane or helicopter ride. These can be pricey, but they offer a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
- Whale watching/photo safari tours are famous in Juneau, although visitors are advised to dress in layers due to the cold weather.
- If you’ve got anglers in your group, they might enjoy casting their lines while in Ketchikan. There are several excursions where they’ll cook your catch. Some cruise lines will do the same, allowing you to fish during the day, then have what you caught served in the dining room that night.
- As gorgeous as glaciers are when viewed from a distance, one of the ultimate excursions available is the opportunity to travel to the Juneau Icefield and hike across one, with the glaciers as the backdrop.
Remember that when planning shore excursions, it’s important to remember that not all excursions will suit all members of your travel party.
Some will prove difficult or even impossible for those with mobility issues. In other cases, the price alone may be an issue for some.
When planning any cruise for a group of people, getting feedback from everyone involved at each step is essential, particularly when planning an Alaskan cruise.
The state of Alaska offers a packing list on its website that I recommend checking out before your cruise.
This article was initially published in March 2019. It was most recently updated in May 2023.