Skip to Content

How To Choose The Perfect Alaska Cruise Itinerary?

When choosing an Alaska cruise itinerary, the process of planning the adventure can be overwhelming. If you’ve begun planning your Alaska trip and there’s curiosity about maximizing time there, I’m here to help.

I travel to Alaska every year and sometimes make multiple trips. I’ve gone with different cruise lines and done various routes, so in this article, I compare different itineraries, allowing for a choice that aligns with your individual interests and budget.

The chosen itinerary may depend on a preferred departure port, visiting Glacier Bay National Park, or cruising the inside passage to minimize the risk of seasickness. No one cruise fits all.

Planning Your Alaska Trip

Cruising an Alaska cruise itinerary

An Alaska cruise isn’t a trip to wing, especially if it’s a one-time bucket list vacation. Without proper planning, you may pack the wrong clothing, miss out on your family’s must-do activities, and choose the wrong ports of call.

Best Time To Visit

The best time to visit Alaska depends on everyone’s interests and desired experiences. Plan to travel in September or October, for a chance to see the Northern Lights. Emphasis on the word “chance,” so check the aurora forecast.

For hiking, fishing, or wildlife viewing, plan the trip between June and late August for milder weather and longer days. Like the aurora borealis, seeing wildlife is by chance, and they may not be seen when in the right areas.

Remember, the summer months are the busiest and most expensive times to visit, but maximum daylight hours allow for tackling long hikes without the fear of darkness.

I’m not fond of wet weather because I already live in a rainy city, so I prefer to travel when the season opens and up until July. Generally, these months are drier, with less chance of a downpour. At Hubbard Glacier, the surrounding mountains were still covered in snow, added to the majestic landscape.

Hubbard Glacier in May
Hubbard Glacier in May

Alaska sees more rain as the weeks progress, with September and October being the wettest.

Understanding Seasonal Differences

Some families choose a specific month to travel due to work or school holidays. The experience can vary significantly depending on the month of the visit.

While Norwegian Cruise Lines offers itineraries in April, it’s too early to go. Most tour operators don’t reopen until May, and some even do so mid-May. The same cruise line has cruises in October. Since shops are closed and excursions are unavailable, it’s also not an ideal time.

Although guests who travel to Alaska often and aren’t interested in tours, might prefer the excellent pricing of off-season cruises. For instance, guests will see the landscape transitioning out of winter in April.

Alternatively, snow will blanket the higher peaks in October, offering contrasting landscape views.

These voyages are best suited to those who want a cruise vacation and not a destination-focused itinerary.

Best Itinerary Factors

Here are six things to consider and to prioritize your choice.

  • Departure ports.
  • Glacier sightings.
  • Alaska ports of call.
  • Length of Cruise.
  • Return or One-Way?
  • Land Tour.

Embarkation Ports

One of the most important decisions is where to start and end the journey. There are several departure ports to choose from, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.

Vancouver, Seward and Whittier Departures

Radiance of the Seas in Vancouver
Radiance of the Seas in Vancouver

Vancouver, Whittier, and Seward are all popular departure ports for Alaska cruises. Vancouver is a fantastic city with lots of attractions. You have the option to take a roundtrip or one-way itinerary from this West Coast Canadian city.

Seward and Whittier, located further north in Alaska, offer the opportunity to explore the state’s rugged wilderness before or after a cruise. Taking a cruise from here cruises through the Gulf of Alaska.

Since I live in Vancouver, British Columbia, I take most my Alaska cruises from the port I can drive to. However since Seattle is a three hour drive, I sometimes embark there when the cruise ends in Vancouver, or vice versa.

Seattle Roundtrip Cruises

Seattle is a popular departure point, with several cruise lines offering roundtrip cruises from the city. Some advantages of starting a cruise from Seattle include easy access to the airport and the fact that US citizens do not need a passport.

Airline tickets to Seattle are also cheaper than flying to Vancouver, which may factor into your choice for US residents.

Boarding the Ovation of the Seas in Seattle
Boarding the Ovation of the Seas in Seattle

California

When looking to avoid long flights and wanting to start the cruise from a warm and sunny location, a California departure may be the best option. Only a couple of ships sail from California, and due to the distance to Alaska, these itineraries are 10 to 11 days.

These cruises are suited to those who live near San Pedro or Long Beach and don’t mind the additional sea days.

A word of warning; cruising along the Pacific Coast can experience rough seas. Those prone to seasickness should select an inside passage voyage from Vancouver instead.

Glacier Sightings

Most cruises include one or more glacier viewing days. Deciding which glacier to see may be the biggest factor when choosing an itinerary.

Is Glacier Bay National Park A Must Visit?

Glacier Bay National Park is a must-visit for many cruise guests, especially if they plan to travel to Alaska once. This UNESCO Heritage Site is home to some of the most breathtaking glaciers in the world, including Margerie Glacier and Johns Hopkins Glacier.

The park is also home to a diverse range of wildlife, including humpback whales, harbor seals, otters, bald eagles, and brown bears.

Cruising in Glacier Bay National Park
Cruising in Glacier Bay National Park

The bay only allows two LARGE vessels a day, owned by Holland America, Princess Cruises, Cunard, and Norwegian Cruise Line.

Hubbard Glacier

Alternatively, visiting Hubbard Glacier provides the largest seen by cruise ship. It offers the best calving action, and a day there never disappoints.

An itinerary to Disenchantment Bay may only include this one glacier, but it’s colossal. While I’ve been to Glacier Bay and Hubbard multiple times, I find a Hubbard cruise equally as spectacular.

At 7 miles wide, the towering face dwarfs even the largest cruise ship. Nicknamed the “galloping glacier,” it’s a rare example of an advancing glacier.

Some cruises don’t include a glacier viewing day. It’s best to avoid these itineraries because isn’t that why we travel to Alaska?

A Fjord Experience

Tracy Arm Fjord and Endicott Arm Fjord are better choices for those who prefer the steep walls and waterfalls in a fjord. However, don’t choose a cruise in April or May, as ice often blocks the channel, preventing ships from reaching the end of the fjord where the glaciers sit.

Waterfall in an Alaska fjord
Waterfall in an Alaska fjord

A few itineraries include two glacier viewing days. The one-way cruises have two viewing days at three possible destinations – Hubbard Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, or College Fjord.

Alaska Ports Of Call

Unlike ports in the Caribbean, many Alaska ports exude a small-town feel. Skagway transports guests back to the Gold Rush era when prospectors arrived in droves to strike it rich.

Ketchikan’s Creek Street reminisces on its development as a redlight district.

However, an interest in wildlife sightings, history, culture, or other factors may be the deciding factor to visit a certain place.

Cultural And Historical Sites

History and culture are a big part of travel, and Alaska offers both. To learn more about the state’s past and present, here are some sites to visit:

The Sitka National Historical Park commemorates the 1804 Battle of Sitka. In Sitka, guests can also visit Baranof Castle State Historic Site. When the United States purchased Alaska from Russia, the signing occurred here.

Sitka National Historical Park totem pole
Sitka National Historical Park totem pole

In Skagway, the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park documents the history of the Gold Rush in the region. Guests can walk part of the Chilkoot Trail or ride the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway, both used by the prospectors years ago.

The Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage showcases the state’s indigenous cultures, including the Aleut, Athabascan, Inupiaq, Tlingit, Haida, and Yupik. To visit it, book a one-way itinerary that starts or ends in Anchorage.

Wildlife Viewing Spots

Alaska has an incredible array of wildlife, including bald eagles, moose, caribou, wolves, and grizzly bears. One of the best places to view wildlife is Denali National Park, home to over 200 species of birds and several large mammals.

Other excellent wildlife viewing spots include the Kenai Fjords National Park, where whales and sea otters can be seen. To visit these areas, pick a cruise and land tour.

Whale watching tours are popular in Alaska and while many ports offer them, Juneau and Icy Strait Point are top picks. I’ve taken several whale watching tours in Juneau, and they never disappoint.

Whale watching in Juneau
Whale watching in Juneau

Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof, Alaska’s ABC Islands have the largest population of Coastal Brown Bears. Itineraries to Icy Strait Point offer an opportunity to see them in their natural habitat, since the bears outnumber the people.

Alternatively, the Fortress of the Bear in Sitka offers guaranteed sightings. Here, I enjoyed seeing black and coastal brown bears in a protected sanctuary.

Length Of Cruise

Plan to spend at least seven days or longer to truly experience all that Alaska has to offer. Cruises under seven days don’t usually visit a glacier, and isn’t that why we travel north?

With the luxury of time and money, traveling more than ten days or doing a back-to-back cruise (14 days) affords the opportunity to see the Gulf of Alaska. Departures to and from Seward and Whittier may include the towns of Valdez, Homer, and Kodiak.

Compare the back-to-back itineraries. Some cruise lines offer different ports and glacier sightings, while others repeat the same stops.

For those who love extended cruises, Norwegian and Holland America offer a few Alaska Hawaii cruise itineraries that visit these two unique states. It’s a chance to experience contrasting landscapes in one trip.

Return Or One-Way?


Another factor to consider is whether to book a roundtrip or one-way itinerary. If time is limited, a roundtrip cruise may be more practical.

However, with more time, you can explore different regions of the state. By taking a one-way cruise, adding a land tour becomes an option. Doing the land tour first allows for enjoying the relaxing cruise at the vacation’s end.

College Fjord
College Fjord

Cruises to the Gulf of Alaska often include College Fjord on their itinerary. Guests on a roundtrip voyage from California or Seattle won’t see College Fjord.

Land Tour

On a cruise and land tour, travelers could visit Anchorage, Denali National Park, Kenai Fjords National Park, and Fairbanks. While cruise lines offer cruise and land packages, opting for a DIY land tour is possible with research and ding your own hotel bookings.

Traveling to Alaska’s interior boosts the chances to spot wildlife, including the “big five”: moose, bears, Dall sheep, caribou, and wolves. I’ve seen them all; how many have you spotted?

Alaska Itinerary: Wrap It Up

There are two types of Alaska cruisers. Firstly, those who want a vessel to keep their family entertained, and the itinerary is secondary. Then there’s the guest who wants the perfect cruise; the ship is just a means to get them there.

Knowing what type of cruiser you are makes selecting a cruise ship and Alaska itinerary easier.

On a cruise itinerary to Alaska, an Alaskan totem pole and College Fjord