AAA Travel Tips / 6 Tips for Selecting the Perfect Alaska Cruise

6 Tips for Selecting the Perfect Alaska Cruise

AAA/Frank Swanson
By AAA Travel Editor Frank Swanson
September 25, 2019
Well over a million people are on track to book an Alaska cruise this year, and that number is expected to keep rising annually as more and more travelers choose to discover the Last Frontier for themselves. And it’s easy to see why Alaska cruises have proven to be so popular—they combine incredible wilderness scenery with the ease and comfort of shipboard travel. It’s like staying in a nice hotel that brings the majestic landscapes of Alaska to you.
And what landscapes! At just about every turn there’s a camera-ready vista that’s difficult to describe: dense forests of dark green fir trees, sparkling waters flecked with sea ice, snowcapped peaks and breathtaking steep-sided fjords. If there were a star of this fantastic show, it would be the blue-tinted glaciers that seem close enough to touch from the deck of your ship.
Wildlife sightings are another highlight of an Alaska cruise, and you’re likely to hear the excited cries from fellow passengers pointing out whales spouting nearby or bears on the rocky shoreline or bald eagles gliding overhead. Another big part of the Alaska experience are the ports you’ll visit along the way—Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka, Skagway—quaint towns in picturesque settings where you’ll get a feel for area history, local Native American culture and the lives and livelihoods of everyday Alaskans.
Cruise lines have developed Alaska itineraries catering to a wide range of clientele, which means you’ll have plenty of options to choose from (size of ship, ports, shore excursions, etc.). Having so many choices can be a little overwhelming, but don’t worry. Here are AAA’s tips for choosing the right cruise for you and answers to common questions.
Cruise ship in Alaska
iStockphoto.com/BergmannD

What’s the Best Time to Cruise Alaska?

Alaska cruises operate late April through September. The high season is June through August, which is your best bet for warmer temperatures and wildlife viewing. But this is also the time of year you can expect the biggest crowds (some cruise ships carry far more passengers than the entire populations of the towns they visit). And it’s also when Alaska cruise deals become all but impossible to find. You’ll have a better chance of finding bargains in May and September, but the weather during the shoulder season can be iffy and seas become noticeably rougher in September. If you’re prone to getting seasick, this would be the month to avoid.
Passengers aboard a cruise ship off the coast of Alaska view a glacier.
AAA/Frank Swanson

What’s the Best Cruise Line for Alaska Vacations?

The answer depends on what you’re looking for. There are three broad categories: Mainstream or Contemporary, Premium and Luxury. All three offer what you’d expect from a cruise—attentive service; a variety of dining options that include buffets, snack bars, room service, main dining rooms and specialty restaurants; bars; live entertainment; casinos; spas; shops; shore excursions; etc. (For more about cruising, read 5 Reasons to Try a Cruise Vacation.)
The differences tend to be one of degree. Mainstream cruise ships are generally larger and more crowded but are also cheaper. Larger ships usually have a better variety of onboard amenities like rock climbing walls, mini golf greens, poolside movies and areas of the ship set aside for kids and teenagers.
Premium and Luxury ships are usually smaller with fewer people and more personalized and attentive service and are, as you might expect, more expensive. Smaller ships are able to navigate narrower, out-of-the-way bays, straits and fjords, which means you may be visiting places the mega-ships can’t reach. Premium and Luxury cruise lines also offer longer trips, and passengers are inclined to be older and are less likely to have young children.
Although the distinctions between categories is not clean-cut, these are roughly the classes AAA’s preferred cruise lines fall into:
Mainstream
• Disney Cruise Line
• Princess Cruises
• Royal Caribbean International
Premium
• Azamara
• Celebrity Cruises
• Holland America Line
• Oceania Cruises
Luxury
• Cunard Line
• Regent Seven Seas Cruises
• Seabourn
For more information about types of cruise lines, talk to your AAA Travel Counselor or read Best Cruise Lines for Families.
Cruise ship in Alaska
iStockphoto.com/groveb

How much does an Alaskan cruise cost?

Depending on the length of the cruise, the type of cabin (interior or one with a window or balcony), the category of the cruise line and whether it’s high season, fares can run from anywhere between a few hundred dollars to several thousand.
Another factor that affects the price is when you book your trip. Alaska cruise deals are available months in advance when the lines first announce their itineraries as well as within a couple months before the ship sails. Generally the last-minute deals are better, but your choices of cabins and shore excursion may be limited, and in the end, there are no guarantees that those late bargains will materialize.
An inflatable boat leaves a secluded cove on the Alaska Coast during a shore excursion.
AAA/Frank Swanson

What is there to do on an Alaska cruise?

Besides all the onboard activities during an Alaska cruise, there’s an incredible variety of things to do off the ship as well. Among the most common shore excursions are hiking and biking trips along with rafting, canoeing and whale-watch adventures. Cruisers can experience indigenous culture during visits to places like Saxman Village in Ketchikan, known for its outstanding collection of totem poles. Another unforgettable outing favored by sporty types is salmon fishing followed by the chef aboard ship preparing the day’s catch for dinner that night.
Sightseeing jaunts aboard a train are another option thousands of cruisers enjoy; the White Pass & Yukon Route in Skagway is one of the most popular. And among the more adventurous things to do are ziplining, dog sledding and chilling out on a glacier during a helicopter flightseeing tour that actually lands on the ice.
For those who really want to set aside some time to explore more of Alaska’s vast wilderness, several lines offer cruise tours that combine a cruise with a land tour on the front or back end. One of the top interior destinations is Denali National Park and Preserve, home to North America’s tallest mountain and some of the 49th state’s most beautiful scenery.
Scenic view of a cruise boat and totem pole in Vancouver British Columbia
iStockphoto.com/MDoubrava

Where Do Alaska Cruises Depart From?

The majority of itineraries begin in Vancouver and Seattle or the ports of Whittier and Seward south of Anchorage. Deciding where to depart from depends on several factors including the cost of air travel (flights to Canada and Alaska tend to be more expensive) and whether you want to spend some time exploring your port of departure before or after your cruise. (Check out Top Things to Do in Vancouver Before or After Your Cruise for some sightseeing ideas.)
Something else to consider is whether to book a round-trip or a one-way cruise. Returning to the port you departed from is liable to be cheaper in terms of airfare whereas a one-way trip works well if you do a cruise tour before or afterward.
Lady with open arms sunning on a cruise ship balcony
iStockphoto.com/baona

Is it Worth Getting a Balcony on a Cruise?

In most cases, yes it is. As you cruise along the Alaska coast and especially within the Inside Passage, the scenery just doesn’t quit. Being able to relax on your own private balcony and take in the sights is a wonderful convenience. While odds are you won’t be sunning yourself in your bathing suit, a little bundling up is all you need to keep the experience enjoyable. And if the weather changes, it’s so much easier to duck inside your stateroom to grab a jacket rather than hike back and forth to your room from the decks above. Another benefit is that balconies are covered and even in a light rain you can still savor the view.
Did you know that a AAA Travel Agent can help plan your Alaska cruise adventure?
Domestic Travel Boiler Plate Graphic
AAA

Start Your Next Vacation with AAA

AAA Travel provides peace of mind when you travel—before, during and after your vacation! Members enjoy the advantages of membership including exclusive benefits, savings, map routing and travel planning, plus additional travel needs such as AAA Travel Guides, TourBook® guides, passport photos, International Driving Permits and travel insurance. Your next vacation starts with AAA—your complete travel solution. Visit AAA.com/Travel.
X