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Alaska Cruise Departure Ports: Choosing The Best Starting Point 

Alaska is a popular destination for cruise lovers, and there are many departure ports to choose from when planning a Last Frontier trip. Each port has unique features and attractions, so choosing the one that best fits your needs is essential. 

In this article, we will explore some of the departure ports for Alaska cruises and what makes each one special. When it comes to choosing an embarkation city, my choice may be different from yours due to preferences.

Naturally, those residing in Vancouver, as I do, aren’t likely to fly to California to begin their journey from there. 

Norwegian Bliss docked in Seattle

Overview Of Alaska Cruise Departure Ports

Planning your Alaska cruise can be exciting and overwhelming. One of the first things you’ll need to decide is where to depart. 

Alaska offers several options for embarking on a cruise ship. Factors can include wanting to cruise the inside passage, only having seven days, seeking a longer itinerary that includes a land tour, or not having a US passport.

San Francisco, California

Two cruise lines, Princess and Carnival Cruises, offer select Alaska cruises from San Francisco. For the 2024 season, the Crown Princess provides 11-day cruises; in 2025, the Ruby Princess will her. Both are grand-class vessels with the same layout.

On August 30, 2025, the Grand Princess will embark on a 16-day itinerary that includes the coveted Glacier Bay National Park. Bear in mind that this cruise has eight sea days.

Carnival also offers one vessel for Alaska itineraries: the Miracle, which will sail in 2024, followed by the Legend in 2025.

Port of San Francisco
Port of San Francisco

Since California is further from Alaska, it takes longer to get there and back, and guests may experience rough seas along the Pacific Coast.

San Francisco provides a great city to stay in before or after the cruise. This city has just as many bucket list attractions as Alaska, such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, cable cars, and Fisherman’s Wharf.

Pros: San Francisco is a great destination and offers a picturesque sailaway. It’s an ideal starting point for those living in California and Nevada.

Cons: Cruises to Alaska from California have more sea days, and the Pacific Coast is notorious for rough seas.

Seattle, Washington

The Seattle cruise port is a top choice for embarkation for US residents and for a good reason. It only requires a domestic flight, making the travel day less stressful. 

SeaTac International Airport is a large hub for the Pacific Northwest, so passengers can find plenty of flights to and from other major US cities.

Norwegian Bliss docked at Pier 66
Norwegian Bliss, docked at Pier 66

Seattle has two cruise terminals: Bell Street Pier Cruise Terminal or Pier 66, conveniently located downtown, and Smith Cove Cruise Terminal or Pier 91, located north of the city.

Additionally, Seattle offers excellent pre- and post-cruise activities. Choose from visiting the iconic Space Needle or Museum of Pop Culture to exploring the vibrant Pike Place Market and Starbucks First Coffee Shop.

Seattle is the only port city that offers Alaska cruises on mega vessels. So, if it’s a dream to cruise to the 49th state on the Norwegian Bliss or Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas, Seattle’s your embarkation port.

To comply with the Passenger Vessel Services Act, ships leaving Seattle must dock in a foreign port. Most ships only dock in Victoria, British Columbia, for four to five hours, not leaving enough time to explore the city.

Ovation of the Seas, docked at Pier 91 in Seattle
Ovation of the Seas, docked at Pier 91

Pros: US citizens only need domestic flights. Cruise guests can select from a variety of vessel sizes, including mega-ships.

Cons: Alaska cruises from Seattle usually have a short, often four-hour stop in Victoria. Some cruises have shorter port times.

Vancouver, Canada

Vancouver is often a top choice for those sensitive to motion sickness. Since cruises starting here sail the inside passage, the voyages are generally calmer, and ships reach Alaska quicker due to closer proximity.

Vancouver International Airport (YVR) is the major airport for those embarking here. From the airport, the Skytrain, Vancouver’s rapid transit, provides easy access to downtown.

When cruising out of Vancouver, there are options for round-trip and one-way itineraries to Seward or Whittier. Guests ending in Whittier or Seward can include a land tour through the cruise line or a self-guided one.

Some Alaska cruises from Vancouver include the Yukon, while others continue to the Canadian Rockies.

Disney Wonder cruise ship in Vancouver, BC
Disney Wonder in Vancouver

There are hundreds of itineraries across multiple cruise lines to choose from. From Vancouver, Disney offers one ship, the Disney Wonder, and does not offer Alaska itineraries from other ports.

Guests can select cruises with Viking, Silversea, Crystal, Ponant, Hurtigruten, Seabourn, and Oceania, along with the major cruise lines.

Vancouver is beautiful, with plenty of things to see and do for a pre-cruise stay. Gastown, Granville Island, the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, and Grouse Mountain are top attractions worth checking out.

Pros: Vancouver is closer to Alaska, so ships get there faster, which results in longer port times. Cruises from this city sail the inside passage, offering calmer seas and less likely to cause seasickness. Guests can add on a land tour.

Cons: Vancouver is an expensive city and its downtown hotels near the port are pricy.

Whittier, Alaska

Holland America ship docked at the Whittier cruise port
Whittier cruise port

Whittier is a small town on the south coast of Alaska. It’s a deep-water port used by cruise lines and cargo vessels, which deliver goods to Anchorage and beyond.

The port of Whittier is open year-round; however, cruise ships only use it in the warmer months. Holland America and Princess Cruises use Whittier as a gateway to Denali National Park. 

Since the train travels to Whittier, they offer a cruise-to-rail service on some itineraries.

The stunning Prince William Sound offers lots of attractions for those spending a day in the area. The 26 Glacier Cruise, Glacier Quest Cruise, Portage Glacier, and Portage Glacier Pass trail are some activities to enjoy around Whittier.

Pros: The Whittier cruise port is closer to Anchorage and its airport.

Cons: Travelers must travel through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel between Anchorage and Whittier. The tunnel, used by cars and trains, charges direction every 30 minutes.

Seward, Alaska

Further west of Whittier, Seward is another popular departure port for one-way Alaska cruises. It’s located on the Kenai Peninsula, about two hours south of Anchorage. 

A ship docked in Seward, Alaska

The Seward cruise port is used by Royal Caribbean, Silversea, Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian, Viking, Crystal, Regent, and Hurtigruten.

Seward, a charming town on the Kenai Peninsula, offers a plethora of pre- and post-cruise activities. From hiking, fishing, and wildlife viewing to exploring the stunning Kenai Fjords National Park, there’s something for every adventure enthusiast.

The Kenai Fjords and Resurrection Bay are also ideal for whale watching, where guests can see humpbacks and gray whales.

Like Whittier, the Alaska Railroad goes to Seward, so guests can reach Anchorage by ail or shuttle.

The Alaska Railroad in Whittier
Alaska Railroad

Pros: Seward is near Kenai Fjords National Park, a gateway to spectacular natural beauty.

Cons: Seward is further from Anchorage than Whittier, requiring a longer journey to reach the international airport.

Choosing Your Departure Port

Choosing the correct departure port is important when taking an Alaska cruise. Here are a few factors to consider when selecting an embarkation port:

Proximity To Home

Naturally, those living near a port might favor that location over others. For those living in the Pacific Northwest, for example, will lean towards a Seattle or Vancouver departure for simple convenience.

Those living in Alaska might choose one of the Anchorage ports for a one-way itinerary and a flight home. Alternatively, they could fly to Vancouver and cruise home.

Domestic Flights Vs. International

Domestic flights are less expensive and more readily available than international ones. So, many US residents opt for a California or Seattle embarkation due to cost, convenience, and shorter check-in times.

Also, US residents don’t require a passport to fly when choosing a domestic flight. 

Those living outside the United States or Canada must take an international flight and generally choose Vancouver as their starting point. Depending on the country, some may need an ESTA or ETA, an electronic travel document, to travel to the United States and Canada.

Boarding the Quick Shuttle in Seattle
Boarding the Quick Shuttle in Seattle

There are options if you want a domestic flight but an inside passage itinerary from Vancouver. Amtrak offers rail service between Seattle and Vancouver, and Quick Shuttle provides a bus service. I’ve used Quick Shuttle; it was effortless with pickup at the cruise port.

Also, Holland America offers cruise and land tours from Seattle. They bus cruise guests to Vancouver, where they board their ship and fly back to Seattle at the end of the cruise tour.

Embarkation And Debarkation Process

Embarking and disembarking from an Alaska cruise ship can be an exciting yet daunting task. However, it can be a smooth process with proper planning and preparation. Here are some tips to help you navigate the embarkation and debarkation process:

Embarkation

Of the ports listed above, only Seattle has more than one port, so know which one you’re cruising from. Although, Los Angeles has only one sailing out of San Pedro on August 30, 2025.

The speediness of embarkation depends on a few factors, such as how many ships are in port and if passengers have all the required documents.

Vancouver and Seattle ports can be slow at the start of the season when Alaska cruises start. This is due to new staff, who are training in the procedures.

A Princess vessel docked in Vancouver
A Princess vessel docked in Vancouver

Sometimes, I found San Francisco slow due to a lack of port staff.

Debarkation

On the last day of the cruise, guests disembark their cruise ship, but there’s a procedure to follow. Bags are packed the night before and left in the hallway. Remember to keep a small bag for overnight night clothes, toiletries, and items needed.

Those with an early flight should do self-disembarkation. This requires guests to carry all their luggage off at one of the earliest times.

Conclusion

Every cruise guest may have a favorite embarkation port for different reasons. While I have cruised out of every port listed here, my favorite is Vancouver because it’s home. Without a hotel stay or flight (unless I cruise one-way), I can splurge on expensive shore excursions.

Vancouver also provides a picturesque sailaway under the Lionsgate Bridge along with the one from San Francisco.

A Princess ship docked at the Vancouver cruise port, before leaving for Alaska, and Hubbard Glacier