Alaska Cruise: What do you recommend?
January 5, 2023 1:51 PM   Subscribe

My MIL wants to take a cruise to Alaska and my partner and I are helping. What recommendations do you have?

We want to be able to help her with:
-Recommended and preferred cruise lines
-Activities and things to see - hiking and other excursions would be of interest, if available
-Ideal ports of departure
-Experiences you had
-Any books or resources you might use for planning

My partner and I are not cruise people, so we are not in-the-know on good companies or experiences. And we don't know anyone who has taken a cruise there, either.
posted by glaucon to Travel & Transportation around Alaska (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
My (75yo) dad and his ladyfriend really enjoyed their UnCruises in Alaska. Hiking, kayaking, really active program.
posted by ApathyGirl at 1:57 PM on January 5, 2023 [2 favorites]

Go to, where they have reviews of cruise lines, ships, ports, and itineraries. There is also a massive message board there, on which cruise devotees analyze every aspect of cruising and make live reports from their trips. You will find an absolute ton of information.
posted by Daily Alice at 2:01 PM on January 5, 2023 [7 favorites]

There are basically three options for Alaska cruises from the big cruise operators:
  • Round-trip in and out of Seattle
  • One-way from Vancouver, BC to Anchorage (Actually, Whittier, about 50 miles from Anchorage)
  • One-way from Whittier to Vancouver, BC
The Seattle trip goes up a ways, visits a few Alaskan ports, comes back down, performs a legally mandated stop in Victoria, BC for a few hours (thus making it an international journey that foreign-flag vessels can do from US ports) and then returns to Seattle.

The Anchorage-Vancouver trip goes (or starts) further north, visits more-or-less the same ports, but also goes into Glacier Bay or other neat territory further north. And because it stops and starts in different countries, it is once again an international trip that foreign-flag vessels can do.

I've done both, and while the logistics of sailing out of or into Canada is a pain, the extra trip further north into Glacier Bay or other cool sightseeing is worth it. I would recommend the Vancouver-Anchorage trip over the Seattle-Seattle trip.
posted by Hatashran at 3:32 PM on January 5, 2023 [1 favorite]

We did this with Princess Cruises in 2018, Vancouver to Anchorage (Whittier) itinerary. It stops at Icy Strait Point, Juneau, and Skagway (on this stop you can take a train ride into the Yukon!) and then two days cruising Glacier Bay and College Fjord before arriving at Whittier.

While I haven't done any other cruises to compare, I liked that itinerary because you worked your way up to the glaciers, and the big highlight is on the last 2 days of the trip. Whereas the reverse route starts with the glaciers and then goes more and more towards towns and cities. Basically what Hatashran says above.

Excursions: we booked a bear-spotting walk but did not see any bears. We also had a whale watching tour, it was raining the entire time BUT we were lucky to see many whales bubble feeding so we could see their big chompers come out of the water. It was very cool! Really enjoyed the train ride into the Yukon from Skagway, the views were magnificent! You need to bring your passport for this one, since there is a border-crossing involved.
posted by tinydancer at 4:38 PM on January 5, 2023

If you're looking for lower cost than the UnCruise, then Holland America typically has a more mature clientele than some of the other cruise lines. I enjoyed my Holland America cruise.

My favorite port was Sitka. You can get both Russian and Native culture there.

Excursions I enjoyed included Mendenhall Glacier and a dog-sled outing. The dogs pull on a wheeled cart, because there was no snow often in cruise season.
posted by NotLost at 4:40 PM on January 5, 2023 [3 favorites]

My 76 year old mom and I took a Holland America cruise roundtrip out of Seattle. We are not cruise people. My mom LOVED it. I liked it a lot. As someone else said, HA has a more mature clientele. There are no water slides or roller coasters or other things that attract kids. That said, any cruise in Alaska in the summer will attract kids, so unless you go early or late in the season, there will be kids running around being kids.
posted by OrangeDisk at 4:55 PM on January 5, 2023 [1 favorite]

Windstar does smaller (200-400 guests) luxury cruises. I’ve been on several and loved them, despite previously thinking I’d hate going on a cruise. (To be honest, I still don’t think I’d like a giant cruise—I worry it would be sensory overload.) I haven’t done a windstar to Alaska, but a family member did and raved about it. They’re on the pricier side, but the service is excellent, the food is fantastic, and the cabins are very comfortable.
posted by theotherdurassister at 5:48 PM on January 5, 2023 [1 favorite]

I will preface this by saying that I have never been on an Alaskan cruise, but..

..I live in Ketchikan and in season can watch the boats come and go from the windows of my home office. I've been here for more than a decade and can answer questions about this particular port and activities based here if you want to MeMail me.

As several other people have hinted, there are big cruises with gargtuan ships fully equipped with all sorts of on-board facilities, and there are also smaller "pocket cruises" and specialty "eco cruises" that are generally on much smaller vessels and more oriented towards outdoor experiences and excursions.

The good news is whatever type of cruise you choose you'll see much of the same spectacular scenery along the Inside Passage. But your choice of cruise type will influence the experiences available and the port calls you make.

If you have the budget for it, my own personal preference would be to choose one of the smaller cruises but everybody's preferences are different.

One thing I'll mention that's specific to my home port of Ketchikan - beginning last year, some of the cruise lines began stopping at a new port facility built 6-7 miles out of town in Ward Cove, at the site of a former pulp mill. If your boat stops there, you either need to choose one of the excursion operators who have cut a deal with the new port facility or you need to queue for a shuttle bus into town.
posted by Nerd of the North at 8:22 PM on January 5, 2023 [1 favorite]

Have you chosen target dates, by the way? The part of summer when you choose to visit will influence some of the activities you might select and the probability of success when you undertake them.

For example, if bear viewing is a high priority for you then you might want to visit later in the summer during peak salmon runs, as bears are much easier to find when they are feeding off the streams full of fish. Visit early in the summer and you will get better wildflowers, but you won't see many bears. Visit during midsummer and the berries will be ripening.. Days are really long during June, shorter during September - you get the idea.

It's a spectacular part of the planet under any conditions and I think you can have a good trip during any part of the season (except that for weather reasons I would advise against the very beginning of the season and the very end - try to stick in between the second half of May and the first half of September unless you have a very specific reason to schedule outside that range) but if you have particular experiences you want to get out of a once-in-a-lifetime Alaska trip, timing might be something you want to consider..
posted by Nerd of the North at 8:32 PM on January 5, 2023 [1 favorite]

This book was handy, so were the answers to this previous ask.

My favorite thing I did was in Skagway I rented a bike and rode to the AB Mountain trailhead and hiked a couple miles up it to incredible views.
posted by latkes at 8:37 PM on January 5, 2023

I did this Lindblad trip or one very close to it, and it was fantastic. Of course it's quite expensive, but I felt I should at least note it here.

The Lindblad/NatGeo cruises are all inclusive and have naturalists and experts around for every outing. We did hikes, kayaking, and even a bit of swimming where it was possible (this was in October). Quite cold! I saw the aurora many times and countless seals and whales. Only one visible bear but many bear tracks.

We left from Juneau, where I understand many cruises at least stop in. If you/they go, escape the tourist area and go up to the real downtown; the big museum is excellent and the glacier trip is close. The tramline is also very cool.

Our boat was microscopic compared with the big cruise lines — like literally the size of one of their lifeboats. The quarters were pretty modest but the food was good and it was much more personal having only ~75 people on board all told.

It may well be that there's a happy medium between this small, expensive cruise and one of the large ones — a medium size boat and excursion would have more options and amenities day by day probably, though it wouldn't able to (safely) go everywhere we did.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 10:13 PM on January 5, 2023

Not that planning something like this isn't already confusing enough, but another wrinkle you'll want to consider is whether you will want to include side-travel before or after the cruise.

Personally, my advice is not to try to see all of Alaska at once - it is mind-bogglingly large and pretty hard to get around. But if you do have things on your bucket list that you don't want to miss, make sure your plan will give you a shot at them because "We went to Alaska" can mean a lot of different things depending on where and when you go.

You're not going to see Denali from your cruise ship, you probably won't see the aurora borealis without a trip away from the coast (and the right timing - midsummer doesn't provide a lot of dark in which to look for the aurora), etc..

Don't let that bother you too much, though, because you will see plenty of mind-blowing scenery and nature. But if there's something you can't bear to miss, make a plan that includes it.
posted by Nerd of the North at 12:51 AM on January 6, 2023

You should check out American Cruise lines. We have cruised with them several times and have always had good food and service. They are not inexpensive and cater to a more mature crowd. We flew into Juneau and got the Glacier Bay and Skagway experience that others have mentioned. We saw lots of whales, which was one of our reasons for going on this particular cruise. Be prepared for inclement weather no matter what time of year you go. A sturdy windbreaker/raincoat is a must, along with cold weather gear. The scenery is stunningly beautiful.
posted by serendipityrules at 6:09 AM on January 6, 2023

A decade or so ago, my family took a Princess Cruise from Vancouver to Juneau to Skagway to Sitka and back to Vancouver. We also took a turn around a bay where we could see a glacier calving which was pretty cool. Also actually cool from the wind blowing over the glacier. That ship had about 2250 guests aboard. The new ships have 6000. Personally, I think that's too big, and a lot of the shipboard "attractions" to keep the crowd happy are not that interesting to an older person.

Juneau and Sitka are real places. Skagway is really a stage set with some cruise-company-owned shops. Still, if you have even a tiny bit of interest in the Yukon gold rush, it's a reasonable stop.

We were all coming from the NYC area, and the travel agent found it was cheaper to book a flight to Seattle, stay overnight, and take a bus to Vancouver than use the cruise lines flights. This worked out pretty much OK, but if a couple of wrinkles had gone slightly less well (like a delay at the US border on the way back to Seattle), it would not have been worth any money saved.
posted by SemiSalt at 8:06 AM on January 6, 2023

As you consider your options, you will also see various "CruiseTour" combinations. These can include motorcoach transportation to various places in the Alaska interior. Princess Cruise Lines owns several lodges which they incorporate into a CruiseTour. Prices (land and ship) are inclusive of meals. Wine/beer "packages" are available.

Two suggestions:

Do a tour with the land portion before the ocean. After a week on a motorcoach you will appreciate the relaxation on the ship. After a week on the ship, followed by a week on the motorcoach, you will be worn out.

If it's within your price range (and Princess still offers them), choose the "Concierge" version. During the land portion, you will be part of a smaller group that will have the benefit of a skilled tour director who can run interference for you in ways that make the trip much more enjoyable.
posted by John Borrowman at 8:46 AM on January 6, 2023

If she’s time-flexible, you can find great deals on sites like vacationstogo. This assumes you can arrange some last minute travel to Seattle/Vancouver and back from AK, but you can often get the Holland America or Princess options for $600 vs $3000, so the math might work out depending on where you are. I’d add Denali first, often available as a bus/train option if you’re on a large line. Driving is long and difficult with lots of construction being typical. It’s big. It’s beautiful whenever you go, though can be chilly and rainy in summer. What you pick will depend on her level of fitness/interest in activity. Even in Skagway, you can hop a shuttle and hike, or see some historic spots if you don’t want to be in town. A good guidebook would be a great gift for her - DK Eyewitness are usually high level but present options in an easy format. A used one is fine!
posted by OneSmartMonkey at 9:38 AM on January 6, 2023

I'm also going to recommend the Harr Travel YouTube channel to help you decide on a ship and cruise line. Make a list of the ships that are in Alaska when you are interested in going and view full ship tours on YouTube to help you decide which fits your MIL's style of travel. I recommend you pay particular attention to the food and entertainment options on each ship, because this can have a huge impact on your experience. Does MIL prefer modern fine dining to (well made) traditional fare? This is a huge reason why you'll hear so many answers to what cruise line has the best food. Everyone defines "good" differently! Thanks to the magic of the internet, you can get a very good idea whether the menus and venues on each ship are a good fit for your preferences.

Harr also has very detailed videos of different room categories so you can make an informed decision about cabins. There are also sites where people post photos and videos of specific cabins on each ship to help when you are selecting rooms during booking. Many experienced cruisers look what is above/below/around the cabin when booking to avoid noisy locations.

Squaremouth is a great resource for researching and comparing travel insurance, which seems almost like an absolute post-COVID-era necessity.

(I have no basis for judgement of Harr as a travel agency, but they are great YouTubers! In general, you want to select a travel agency or direct cruise line booking based on price AND how accessible customer service is when you need them-- it can be a disaster if you need immediate help and your agency is in a different time zone!)
posted by Gable Oak at 1:14 PM on January 6, 2023

It's worth mentioning, I suppose, that if anyone (the poster of this thread or anyone who comes across it in the future) has questions about planning a cruise stop in Ketchikan, they are welcome to MeMail me.
posted by Nerd of the North at 2:11 PM on January 13, 2023 [1 favorite]

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