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Know Before You Go: Alaska Cruise Q&A with a AAA Expert

Updated: June 14, 2024

Written by

Renata Faeth

Alaska’s summer cruise season may be brief, but it’s a vacation to savor. Bucket-list travelers will be dazzled with unforgettable scenery and wildlife. AAA Travel’s experienced travel advisors know a thing or two about America’s last frontier, including planning their clients’—and their own—epic adventures. We asked two of our experts to tell us what everyone wants to know.

With decades of Alaska travel experience, AAA Minneapolis Branch Manager Sherri Schreckenghaust knows that from her clients’ first spark of interest to embarkation, they’ll make a lot of decisions. “It may be the only time they make this trip.” she says. “So, my goal is to help them capture the essence of Alaska on their terms, with their sightseeing wish list in mind.” She just returned from a northbound Glacier Discovery cruise between Vancouver, British Columbia and Anchorage, Alaska, where she put her planning expertise to good use. 

When is the best time to take an Alaska cruise?

The cruise season runs from mid-May to mid-September. May can be cooler, but the springtime landscape is vibrant with fresh flowers and animals emerging from hibernation. July and August bring warmer temperatures and longer days, but I prefer September, when fall colors pop and crowds dissipate. It’s also the best time of year for shopping; stores are selling the last of their inventory to avoid storing it for the next season. 

I’m trying to decide between a large-ship and a small-ship cruise. How are they different?

Besides the obvious size difference, large ships also offer more activities for all ages and public venues like a casino, Broadway-style shows, multiple dining options, shops and lounges. Conversely, smaller ships get closer to shore and navigate narrow channels, where it’s easier to view wildlife up close, both on shore and at sea. It’s also a more intimate atmosphere with fewer people and more personal attention from wildlife experts and excursion guides. Like most small-ship expeditions and luxury cruises, these are typically higher priced than the large ship alternative.

Is there a big difference between northbound and southbound itineraries between Vancouver, Canada and Anchorage, Alaska?

It’s an interesting comparison. Traveling northbound you have a relaxing start along Alaska’s inside passage and scenery becomes more dramatic each day. It will usually cost around 10% less than a southbound journey, because travelers with packages in Denali National Park and Fairbanks choose the land first with a relaxing, southbound cruise at the end of their journey. That demand can drive the cost a little higher.

We are thinking of an Alaska cruise for a family vacation. Are there activities for everyone?

Alaska cruises are very popular with multigeneration vacationers. AAA Travel cruise partners offer a wide array of activities for all age groups, both on and off the ship. Some of our cruise partners—Royal Caribbean and Disney Cruise Line, to name a few—are geared more toward families in general, but this is more obvious on Caribbean itineraries. 

How do I decide between all the glaciers featured on itineraries, like Hubbard Glacier, Tracy Arm and College Fjord?

They are all amazing. I wouldn’t get too fixated on “which one is the best,” because they all provide outstanding scenery. Hubbard Glacier is unique in that it’s advancing, rather than retreating, like most glaciers around the world. It’s 76 miles long and an incredible sight in Yakutat Bay, with frequent calving events (when big chucks of ice fall into the sea). Tracy Arm, near Juneau, is a 30-mile fjord framed by towering granite cliffs, with the twin Sawyer Glaciers at the end of the waterway. College Fjord, in the Prince William Sound, contains around 150 glaciers, five of which are tidewater glaciers that flow from mountain valleys into the sea, carving out fjords or inlets as they retreat. The world’s most active tidewater glaciers are in the Prince William Sound.

Should we spend a little more to get a balcony stateroom?

Yes! Balconies sell out first. My clients recently described having breakfast on their balcony as they sailed around a glacier. What an unforgettable experience!

How should I plan my wardrobe for an Alaska cruise? Do I need fancy dinner outfits?

You should pack layers, including a raincoat and plan for varied weather. Ketchikan has rainforests, but it can also rain just about anywhere, any time. When it comes to dining attire, Alaska tends to be more casual. Formal nights run the gamut from wedding outfits to evening gowns and tuxedos. By the way, a formal night is optional. You can always go casual at the buffet or take room service. It’s your vacation, so dine as you wish.

What is your favorite port?

I love Juneau, because it’s easy to get around and it features nearby Mendenhall Glacier—a spectacular “bonus” glacier. I also recommend the tram ride to Mount Roberts, where you can enjoy dinner, drinks and great views from the top. And everyone loves Skagway; it has an authentic gold rush era vibe, fascinating history and the famous White Pass Railway excursion.

Shore excursion expert and Senior International Travel Advisor Susan Sabie has a passion for planning Alaska adventures and offering advice on what to wear, what to pack and what to see. As an outdoor enthusiast, Sabie and her husband relish their time off the ship as much as the cruise itself. Long before they set sail, they’ve pinpointed trailheads along the base of Skagway’s famous Chilkoot pass, scheduled their midnight ATV ride in Denali National Park or planned a kayaking adventure along jagged Ketchikan’s rugged shorelines. Her new favorite activity: an e-bike ride along Anchorage’s coastal trail. 

Is it worth the extra time and money to extend beyond the cruise for a land vacation?

Most definitely! Land and sea vacations take the experience to another level, because the landscape in the interior is vastly different than what you see from offshore in the Gulf of Alaska. Both are breathtaking, but they are not the same. There are stunning panoramic vistas on the rail journey between Anchorage and Denali and once you’re in the National Park, you’ll have a chance to see large animals like moose, grizzly bears, Dall sheep and caribou. At sea, you’re on the lookout for marine wildlife like whales, dolphins and sea otters.

What’s so special about the Yukon? How is it different from the other land options?

The Yukon has an amazing gold rush history. If you go, consider traveling northbound from Skagway to Dawson City, so you can experience the journey just like the early prospectors did at the turn of the 20th century, in the authentic “proper order of history.” Combining an Alaska cruise with the Yukon makes sense because—let’s face it, when else can you just hop in the car and drive to the Yukon? Never.

What are your favorite shore excursions?

The White Pass Railway in Skagway is a big win for me and it’s great for all ages. This scenic train route follows part of the Chilkoot Trail, a U.S. National Historic Landmark and a major access route from the coast to the Yukon gold fields in the 1890s. The Riverboat Discovery in Fairbanks is a favorite, too. The three-hour excursion provides up-close encounters with the Alaskan way of life, including a village living museum, a bush pilot demonstration, a visit to the home of an Iditarod dogsled champion and the famous trading posts at Steamboat Landing.

How soon can I book shore excursions after I make my reservation?

It depends on the cruise line. Some cruise lines open their shore excursion booking window eight months before sailing, while others are much earlier. Your travel advisor will remind you of important deadlines.

Does booking early help me get my first choices? 

Yes! If you have your eye on a specific activity, prebook it. The excursion may have multiple offerings in one day, so the earlier you sign up, the better chance you will have to secure your ideal departure time, especially on flightseeing and helicopter tours. If you and a group of friends want to take an excursion together, be sure to reserve it well in advance. Space can be limited and once it’s sold out, it’s gone. There is a shore excursion desk onboard for last-minute planners, but options are often limited.

How many nights should I stay in Denali? I see there are choices of one, two and even three nights.

I wouldn’t do less than two nights. You need a full day for the popular Tundra Wilderness Tour, which offers the most wildlife viewing opportunities. You can also rent an ATV, go hiking, white water rafting, flightseeing (weather permitting) and biking. In mid-summer, the sun sets very late, so many activities start as late as 10 p.m. Aside from that, you’ll want a little down time in and around the lodge to enjoy views of the epic mountain landscape.

Is there much to do in Anchorage if I extend my stay?

Yes! You can visit museums, sample fresh seafood, take the trolley around town and even take a daytrip down to Seward for a Kenai Fjord cruise. While there, you can see puffins, whales, sea lions and other marine wildlife. Anchorage is an ideal city to begin or end your Alaskan adventure.

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Written by

Renata Faeth

Renata Faeth

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