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Even though I spent much of my childhood in Anchorage visiting glaciers, going fishing, and ice skating at recess; I am still in awe of this beautiful state. I never tire of hearing my fellow cruisers gasp when they see an eagle or catch a glimpse of a whale. However, the wild and wonderful nature of Alaska is exactly what makes it difficult to know what to expect on your Alaska cruise.
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. Will it be cold? Will I see snow? Should I bring a bathing suit or shorts? Now that I have been fortunate enough to go on several cruises to Alaska, I am thrilled to share my experience and knowledge with you!
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.
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.
What ports will I visit? This depends on the cruise line and duration of the cruise you choose!
- Roundtrip cruises typically embark and disembark out of Seattle. For this cruise, the most common Alaskan ports are Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan. Some ships may bypass Skagway and visit Sitka instead. Ships also spend a day visiting a glacier (my favorite day!) and also include a stop in Vancouver or Victoria BC. These cruises are typically seven days and are a great way to see southeastern Alaska.
- One-way cruises usually visit the same ports as a roundtrip with the added bonus of embarking (or disembarking) from Anchorage. We did a one-way cruise to Anchorage out of Vancouver BC and it included two amazing days visiting glaciers.
If possible, I highly recommend doing a one-way cruise at some point and adding on a cruise tour. Alaska is MASSIVE and a roundtrip cruise will only give you a glimpse of the southeastern part of the state.
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.
After four Alaska cruises, we’ve seen a mix. Days can start foggy and chilly and end being mild and sunny. We’ve had days with gorgeous sunny weather where we 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.
If your cruise includes a glacier day, you will definitely want gloves and a hat. Even on sunny days, glacier cruising is cold, especially 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 raincoat with a hood is strongly recommended.
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 the 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!
Will I see whales? If you pay attention and are patient, yes. I didn’t even catch a glimpse of a whale until my third cruise even though my entire family was spotting them. On our last cruise, they were everywhere!
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 on 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.
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 the 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.
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.
Sitka: If you are lucky enough to sail to Sitka you are in for a treat! Most recently voted the most beautiful city in Alaska, there plenty to see and do in town including St. Michael’s Cathedral and the Russian Bishops House. Sitka is only accessible by smaller ships, however, so it’s not as common of a stop. Cruise ships can port in two different areas in Sitka. Halibut Port Marine is about five miles outside of Sitka so passengers take free shuttles into town from the port. If the port is full, ships will anchor in Sitka’s harbor and take tenders into town.
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 fireweed honey.
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 all of our cruises to Alaska, we have still seen the full range of formal wear but generally not as many tuxes and evening gowns. Around the ship, jeans are very common and you see plenty of sweatshirts, t-shirts, and other casual wear.
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!