What to Expect on Your Alaska Cruise

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Fishing with my mom in Alaska

My mom and me fishing in a river in Alaska circa 1978

While I was born in Seattle, I spent most of my childhood in Anchorage, AK. My parents felt the lure of “The Last Frontier” shortly after I was born and when I was six months old, we moved. Consequently, I spent much of my childhood fishing, visiting glaciers, seeing moose, and ice skating at recess. When we periodically returned to Seattle, I remember Seattle kids asking questions like “Did you go to school by dog sled?” and “Did you live in an igloo?”

While living in Anchorage was a bit less exotic than kids imagined (we drove an Olds, shopped at Nordstrom, and lived in a rambler), it still is an exotic place. And, when you consider the world of cruising, warm and sunny destinations are far more common. It’s no wonder that going on an Alaska cruise sparks a lot of questions from future cruisers. After all, there is no mystery surrounding what you should pack while cruising to a tropical location, but what the heck should you pack when going on an Alaskan cruise in July? Hopefully this post gives you a better idea of what to expect on your Alaska cruise!

Which cruise lines go to Alaska? Celebrity, Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Disney, Princess, Holland America, and Crystal. I may have forgotten some of the smaller or luxury lines so feel free to comment with additions.

What ports will I visit? The most common Alaskan ports for cruise ships are Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, and the Anchorage area including Whittier and Seward. However, most Alaskan cruises also have at least one day where the ship cruises in areas for glacier viewing.

If you can, at some point, please do a one-way Alaska cruise and explore more of the state! Alaska is MASSIVE and a cruise will only give you a glimpse of the southeastern part of the state. Alaska is truly a diverse, unique place with some of the most incredible scenery you will experience.

When do ships cruise to Alaska? Some lines start visiting Alaska as early as late April, however, most lines begin their season in May. Cruises to Alaska typically end by mid-September.

Weather

Is it going to be cold? Summer in southeast and south central Alaska is fairly mild with daytime highs reaching the mid 60’s  during the day and dipping into the mid 40’s at night. Growing up in Anchorage, I distinctly remember days in the 70’s during the summer.

Our last two Alaska cruises (both August), we had sunny weather and were sitting on deck in port wearing t-shirts and shorts. Granted, we are from Seattle so our idea of warm starts at about 60 degrees. I am certain someone from Phoenix would have been cold.

Sunny Day in Skagway - www.cruisemood.com

Sunny Day in Skagway (August 2013).

If your cruise is taking you through Tracy Arm Fjord to see Sawyer Glacier, you will definitely want gloves and possibly a hat. Even on sunny days, the fjord is cold in the morning.

Should I expect rain? Yes. Juneau, Ketchikan, and Skagway are all part of a rain forest. Some ports average over six inches of rain during the summer so bringing a small folding umbrella or a rain coat with a hood is strongly recommended. However, if you are cruising in summer 2015, the entire west coast of the US is expected to be much warmer and drier than normal.

Will there be snow? On mountain tops, yes, but not in port. However, you may see snow on the ground during some excursions into higher elevations (Yukon Pass, dog sledding).

Will it be stormy? It might be. You are more likely to encounter rough water during the shoulder season cooler months (May, September) because the water is colder and the seasons are changing. For an inside passage voyage, you are most likely to experience rocky weather on days you are on the open water (usually the day before and day after you enter the passage). The temperature of the water drops and you are no longer sheltered from ocean waves.

One last word about the weather, even if it isn’t sunny and warm on your cruise, you will still have an amazing trip! The scenery is very dramatic when it is overcast. We had a very sunny day on our first cruise through Tracy Arm Fjord followed by an overcast day on our second cruise. The photos from the second cruise are some of my favorites!

Even an overcast day is beautiful at the Sawyer Glacier.

The Experience

Will I see whales? If you pay attention, yes. However, I have only caught glimpses of air coming from their blowholes on my two cruises to Alaska. I think I am cursed because my family has seen them.

Grey whales are seen most commonly in the Inside Passage during April and May as they migrate north for the summer. Orcas and Humpback Whales are seen in the Inside Passage from early June through September.

What other wildlife will I see? That sort of depends where you go on excursions. If you stick to town in port, you are most likely going to see an occasional eagle in flight or maybe whales or seals from the ship. If you go on an excursion, you are much more likely to see moose, salmon, and bears. And, if you are in the wilderness, the mosquitos are large enough in Alaska to practically be considered wildlife.

Whale breaching near Juneau – photo taken by Linda Grant

Is it light 24 hours a day during the summer? Cruises do not travel far enough north to allow passengers to experience a full 24 hours of sunlight. Anchorage, typically the farthest north a cruise goes, experiences very long periods of daylight around the summer solstice (June 20th) when the sun rises at about 4:19 AM and sets at about 11:40 PM. In Ketchikan, the southernmost Alaskan port, the sun rises at about 4 AM and sets at 9:30 PM during the summer solstice.

Now, if you are taking a trip farther north to Fairbanks and beyond, if you are there during solstice or close to it you will definitely experience close to 24 hours of sunlight. The sun dips very close to the horizon and begins to rise again.

In Port

Excursions in Alaska are quite different from warm weather cruises. You will have some very unique opportunities that you are unlikely to experience anywhere else including glacier hikes, dog sledding, fly fishing, and panning for gold.

However, if you are on a budget or just not the excursion type, you can walk off the ship and be virtually right in the center of town for each stop.  We didn’t take a single excursion last trip and had a great time walking around in each port.

Juneau: Famous tourist attractions are less than a five-minute walk from the cruise terminal including the Mt. Roberts Tram, The Juneau Trolly Car, and the infamous Red Dog Saloon.

Ketchikan: There are four cruise berths in Ketchikan. If you are at the northernmost berth (berth 4) the walk to the main attraction area is a good 10 minutes long without a ton to see along the way. However, the other three berths are right in the center of town. The Great Alaskan Lumberjack show is a 15 minute walk from berth 4 and a 7 minute walk from berth 3.

Skagway: The center of town is roughly a 7 to 10 minute walk from any of the cruise berths. Our last cruise had small passenger carts that ran passengers back and forth from the ship to the edge of the port area to make the walk shorter.

Souvenirs

Yep, that’s real moose poop.

Get ready for some rather unusual souvenir options in Alaska!

For those with a sense of humor, keep an eye out for Yellow Snow Lip Balm (don’t worry, it’s citrus flavor), reindeer poop candy (it’s chocolate), as well as all manner of moose “nugget” products including earrings and swizzle sticks. However, unlike the lip balm and candy, the moose nuggets are actually authentic moose droppings that have been sealed in acrylic.

If you are into jewelry, jade and gold nuggets are prominently featured along with charms featuring animals native to Alaska. And of course, Diamonds International is in every port.

There is a ton to look at when it comes to Alaska native crafts and souvenirs. Dolls, Ulu knives, blankets, jewelry, baskets, and much more is offered. Just be sure to look at the “made in” labels to ensure what you are buying is actually crafted in Alaska and not elsewhere.

Something you will also see featured frequently in Alaska are Russian souvenirs including nesting dolls and amber jewelry. You will also find huckleberry jams, candies and syrups as well as fire weed honey.

Packing

Will I need a parka or snow boots? It’s not cold enough to really require a parka unless you are going dog sledding or taking an excursion into very snowy territory. You may need snow boots if you are going to be taking an excursion into an area with snow. Your excursion details should give recommendations.

How formal is Alaska cruise attire? In my experience, Alaska cruises tend to be slightly more casual than other cruises. That said, on both our Princess and Celebrity cruises to Alaska, we have still seen the full range of formal wear but generally not as many tuxes and gowns. Around the ship, jeans are very common and you see plenty of sweatshirts, t-shirts, and other casual wear.

Formal night - Alaska Cruise - www.cruisemood.com

Formal night – Alaska Cruise

Hopefully this has helped take some of the mystery out of an Alaska cruise and helps you better prepare. If you have any questions, please use the comments to post them and I will respond as soon as I can.

Please stay tuned for my future posts about cruising to Alaska which will include a comprehensive packing list specifically for an Alaska cruise, information about my current hometown and popular embarkation point for Alaska cruises, Seattle!

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4 Comments

  1. I am from Miami and going to Alaska in May. This has been the most helpful blog yet.

  2. Thank you for the information you provided. There have been many sites I’ve visited and read with respect to Alaska cruising, however, I have to say yours has been the best to date. Very well done.
    Our group, my brother and his wife along with two couples who are long time friends (our neighbours while growing up) and myself will travel from Ottawa Canada to Anchorage for a three day land trip then a seven day cruise all with Princess. We will be travelling in May.
    My late husband and I have sailed with Princess several times although always to sunny locals.
    This cruise, I am so looking forward to experiencing as much as possible as far as nature and scenery can provide.
    I look forward to reading further information concerning packing for Alaska.
    Thank you

  3. Going to Alaska in June. Really looking forward to our first cruise and awesome scenery

  4. Any hidden cost on board ship we should be aware of?

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