Cruise Mood

What to Expect on Your Alaska Cruise

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Fishing with my mom in Alaska
Fishing with my mom on a river in Alaska circa 1978

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.

A misty day in Ketchikan.


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.

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Sunny Day in Skagway -
Sunny Day in Skagway (August 2013).

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!

Even an overcast day is beautiful at the Sawyer Glacier.

The Experience

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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 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.

Formal night - Alaska Cruise -
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!

13 Replies to “What to Expect on Your Alaska Cruise”

  1. 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

    1. WSo how was it Bill? When in June did you go? We are going June 4-11, 2017 and can’t wait! Do you remember what the temp was?

  2. We are going on Princess (inside passage) from Seattle. I am concerned about the dressy nights. When did you go and what kinds of things did you see for men and women. Thanks a lot

    1. Hi Sherry, I am VERY late in replying but this is a good question! Honestly, you see EVERYTHING on formal night. I took some random photos of formal night on our last cruise that I plan to post just to show the variety. I LOVE to dress up so I often opt for cocktail dresses and heels. Wear what is comfortable and makes you feel special and you should be just fine!

    2. Hi Sherry,
      If you haven’t been on many cruises, I would also suggest low heels or even flats. Remember, you’ll be on a moving ship, and while modern ships have very technologically advanced stabilizing systems, they’re still on moving water and it’s not always easy to keep yourself steady. Also, not all of the floors of the ship will be carpeted, making it potentially a bit more of a challenge. Though I don’t mean to scare you, I see plenty of people do just fine in heels, I suppose it’s also a matter of how comfortable, confident, and skilled you are wearing them.

  3. Thank you for posting the attractions for each city! I’ve only booked one excursion through the cruise line, and was wondering what else there was to do.

    Are mosquitoes usually still a problem in early September? Though that may depend on the weather trend for the year I presume.

    1. Hi Kimberly! I am late in responding but I suspect I caught you before you left. Mosquitos should only be a problem in very wooded areas, particularly by water (lakes and ponds in particular). So if you are planning to hike, fish inland, or do anything else “woodsy” I would take repellant and wear protective clothing. I have yet to see a mosquito in any of the towns. There is too much wind while you are onboard the ship itself to allow mosquitos to become an issue there. Have an amazing trip!

  4. Thank you! This information was very helpful.
    We are going in June on the 9 night Denali Express Cruise Tour . So excited!

    1. Fantastic! Glad it was helpful! Be sure to check out “How to Pack for a Cruise to Alaska” as well for more specific packing tips. Have a wonderful cruise!

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About Cruise Mood

About Cruise Mood

Cruise addict who loves detailed packing lists, sea days, formal nights, free champagne, chocolates on my pillow, and dreaming of my next voyage.

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