Home>Travel inspiration>Cruise>Expedition Cruises

The Best Cruises for Exploring the Beauty and Wilds of Alaska

By Bailey Berg

Jun 15, 2022

share this article
flipboard
Sail to Alaska on Hurtigruten's battery hybrid-powered MS "Roald Amundsen."

Courtesy of Hurtigruten

Sail to Alaska on Hurtigruten's battery hybrid-powered MS "Roald Amundsen."

Including islands, Alaska has 33,904 miles of shoreline. The best way to see it all? By boat.

share this article
flipboard

Roughly 1.5 million people visit Alaska on a cruise ship each season, according to the Cruise Line International Association Alaska. With more than 2,500 islands, mountainsides that tickle coastal waterways, a robust seasonal whale population (as well as the opportunity to spot moose, bears, and eagles, among other wildlife), and rich local culture in some truly remote communities, some of which are only accessible by water, it’s easy to see why so many travelers decide to sail in Alaska.

Each summer, scads of ships cruise Alaska’s coastal waterways, ranging from 12-person expedition-style sailings to mega-ships with passenger numbers into the thousands. Some stick to a manageable six-day itinerary within the popular and more easily accessible southeast region, while others head out on epic three-week sailings that cross multiple time zones. Some are as rugged as the 49th state, and others are pure opulence.

That’s all to say: There is probably an Alaska sailing that will match your travel style and budget. Here are eight of the best Alaska cruises to consider. 

How much do Alaska cruises cost?

Alaska cruises can cost anywhere from $500 to $7,500 per person for a five-night sailing, but total costs will depend on the size of the ship, length of the trip, and other factors like whether onshore excursions and food and beverage are included in the base rate.

Generally speaking, the larger the ship, the cheaper the initial price tag. Mega-cruises (with cruise lines such Princess, Carnival, Celebrity, Disney, and Holland America cruises) can go for as little as $100 a night (so roughly $600 per person for a six-night sailing). These resorts at sea, however, are often not all-inclusive, so be sure to check the fine print before putting your credit card down. Passengers frequently have to pay extra (and usually at a premium) for things like specialty dining, alcoholic beverages, and off-boat activities. It’s also worth factoring in on-board activities that cost extra like the spa and gift shop.

While small-scale operators have fewer dining and entertainment options on board, they do have an edge over larger ships: better chances of seeing wildlife. The larger ships are often relegated to port towns due to their sheer size, but smaller ships can more easily navigate and visit remote areas for hiking and kayaking excursions. Because they’re not hurrying to get to a port on time, their schedules are looser than those of large-scale ships, so if a pod of orcas is spotted, they can idle and watch them a little longer. Some of the smallest boats hold between 12 and 100 passengers, and many of them are all-inclusive (or at least inclusive of almost everything except alcohol). That more intimate experience commands a higher nightly rate—anywhere between $250 and $1,500 a night.  

The best time to sail in Alaska—and see natural wonders like the Hubbard Glacier—is during the summer.

The best time to cruise to Alaska

The best time to take an Alaskan cruise is generally between May and September. 

The Alaska cruise season, like the 49th state’s summer, is all too brief. The vast majority of sailings, particularly those in the Inside Passage (the island-filled coastal waterway in the southeast portion of the state), fall somewhere between Memorial Day and Labor Day. That being said, there are some shoulder season departures in April, May, September, and October.

The best time to visit also depends on your tolerance for the cold and for other travelers. Those shoulder-season trips are chilly (there’s a good chance you’ll see snow in some places and will need to bundle up more), but there are significantly fewer tourists to do battle with during shore excursions. However, the peak season (July and August) is divine. The sun hardly sets, the landscapes (save for the glaciers) are verdant, and the waterways are choked with playful whales getting their fill before winter.

Best Alaska cruises to book

It doesn't get more authentic than an Alaska Dream Cruise.

Alaska Dream Cruise’s Remote Alaska Adventure

  • Cost: From $8,600 per person
  • Days: 10 days
  • Departure port: Sitka, Alaska
  • End port: Ketchikan, Alaska
  • Book now

What makes Alaska Dream Cruises so special is the fact that it’s the only Indigenous-owned cruise company in the United States—and that heritage presents itself in an authentic way throughout the sailings. One subtle example of this: At the top of daily dining menus are Tlingit phrases, like Xáanaa atxá gaawú áyá, meaning “it’s dinner time.” On a larger scale, the sailings are usually the only ones to visit and get a lesson on the Glacier Bay National Park Huna Tribal House (a traditional gathering place for Tlingit peoples). And because the ships are Alaska Native–owned, they’re able to go to remote, tribally owned corners of the Inside Passage that non-Indigenous companies simply aren’t allowed to, like Hobart Bay. Other items on the agenda include exploring the pristine west coast of Chichagof Island, seeing the summer fishing camp of the Tlingit people at Klawock (where there are also 21 totem poles), and walking a rain forest path to the natural hot spring pools of Baranof Warm Springs.

If you’re looking to eschew the cruise ship behemoths for something more intimate, this is it—Alaska Dream Cruises’ Kruzof Explorer holds only 12 passengers. And because it’s so small, passengers can weigh in on the daily itinerary, perhaps opting to skip a hike in favor of more time photographing the face of a glacier or watching juvenile humpback whales learn to breach. The vessel was once a Bering Sea crab fishing boat, but it’s since been turned into a comfortable expedition vessel. Meals and activities (including going for high-speed Zodiac rides, kayaking, and paddleboarding) are included. 

Hurtigruten Expeditions’ Inside Passage, Bears, and Aleutian Islands

  • Cost: From $10,420 per person
  • Days: 18 days
  • Departure port: Vancouver, Canada
  • End port: Nome, Alaska
  • Book now

For its inaugural season in Alaska, Hurtigruten Expeditions is not holding back. In 2022, the company is offering an 18-day sailing that starts in Vancouver, Canada, before working its way past the fjords, glacier-filled straits, and Indigenous villages of the Inside Passage. Unlike most other sailings that stay within the southeast, from here, the ship hangs a hard left and chugs along to Kodiak, an island community known for humongous brown bears and prolific crab fishing. Though it’s the second-largest island in the entire United States, it’s rare that cruise ships visit, mainly because it lacks the infrustructure for big ships.

Then it’s onward to the even less visited Aleutian Islands (a chain of islands, 14 of which are volcanic, in southwestern Alaska), where guests visit the uninhabited St. Paul and St. Matthew islands and Unga Village (a ghost town), before crossing (and recrossing) the International Dateline, sailing through the Bering Strait (between the Pacific and Arctic oceans, separating the Russian Far East from Alaska), and eventually docking in Nome, the far-flung city best known as the finishing point for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.  

Perhaps even more interesting than the itinerary is the fact that the vessel, the 528-passenger MS Roald Amundsen, is battery hybrid-powered. In addition to being a model for cruising sustainably, the MS Roald Amundsen features an observation deck, science center, three Nordic-style restaurants, an infinity pool, and hot tubs. In other words, it’s definitely a place you wouldn’t mind spending 18 days. 

With Lindblad Expeditions, passengers will get up close and personal with nature.

Lindblad Expeditions’ Exploring Alaska’s Coastal Wilderness

  • Cost: From $7,340 per person
  • Days: 8 days
  • Departure port: Juneau, Alaska
  • End port: Sitka, Alaska (this same cruise is also offered in reverse)
  • Book now

Many of the sailings to Alaska center on the state’s major ports of call, like Juneau and Sitka. There’s nothing wrong with those itineraries, but they do tend to focus more on touristy downtowns and less on the great outdoors.  

While this Lindblad sailing does start and end in those cities (since most cruise passengers fly in, it’s most convenient to at least begin the sailing in a larger port not far from a major airport before heading toward more remote destinations), the days in-between are adventure packed. Multiple times a day, guests are invited to disembark for a closer look at the true wilds of Alaska. That could entail going kayaking among bobbing bits of glacial ice in Tracy Arm–Fords Terror Wilderness, or going for a Zodiac ride in Frederick Sound to view whales up close. Another option includes trekking on lesser-known forest trails and getting an explainer on tide pools along smaller islands. While Lindblad has a general idea of where the vessel will stop each day, itineraries are not set in stone and the crew is not afraid to mix it up if it means having a locale to themselves or if there’s a stellar animal encounter to enjoy—this is an expedition ship, after all.

Because Lindblad Expeditions partners with National Geographic, there’s always a professional photographer on board to help travelers best capture their trip, as well as oodles of naturalists and expert guides to put what passengers see on the voyage into a more informative context. Both the National Geographic Quest and National Geographic Venture make the sailing. The sister ships were purpose built to sail the North American coast and feature 50 rooms each, all with windows or portholes, private bathrooms, climate controls, and a TV, plus Wi-Fi connections. 

In Alaska, NCL offers passengers countless off-ship activities to choose from.

Norwegian Cruise Line’s Alaska: Hubbard Glacier, Skagway & Juneau

  • Cost: From $584 per person
  • Days: 9 days
  • Departure port: Seattle, Washington
  • End port: Seattle, Washington
  • Book now

If we were to pick one mega-ship operator to see Alaska on, it would be Norwegian Cruise Line. If your idea of a good time includes loads of onboard amenities (like over-the-top spas, nightly theater productions, go-kart tracks, and a water park), this is the sailing for you. It’s also one of the more family-friendly lines sailing in Alaska, considering there are kids’ clubs and programming specifically geared at youngsters. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Over the course of nine days, this sailing on the 1,976-passenger Norwegian Sun visits seven ports, including Sitka, Ice Strait Point, Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan, and Victoria (in British Columbia), and spends a full day puttering around the otherworldly Hubbard Glacier. All in all, the sailing is affordable, and travelers can customize the land part of their itineraries to fulfill their Alaska wish list (at an added cost), by opting for excursions that include kayaking to the face of a glacier; going on a flightseeing tour to see brown bears feast on salmon; meeting with sled dogs; shopping for Indigenous handicrafts; marveling at totem poles; and visiting local breweries. On board, Wi-Fi, bar drinks, and specialty dining are free, but activities like the spa cost extra. 

Ponant’s Alaska and Its Fur Traders

  • Cost: From $12,340 per person
  • Days: 15 days
  • Departure port: Nome, Alaska
  • End port: Vancouver, Canada (this cruise is also offered in reverse)
  • Book now

Another itinerary that focuses on lesser-visited ports is French line Ponant’s 15-day sailing starting in Nome, Alaska’s erstwhile gold-rush outpost on the sparsely populated western coast. As the boat pulls out of the harbor, guests are invited to bring their binoculars to the deck to check the landscape for reindeer (or, at the very least, to see the spooky, Cold War-era telecommunications towers on a nearby hill). After a day at sea, the first stop is St. Matthew Island, in the Bering Sea, almost equidistant from mainland Alaska and Russia. Next is St. Paul Island, where volcanoes and crater lakes are on the agenda, followed by Dutch Harbor, an Aleutian Islands community known for its prodigious number of bald eagles. Unga and Chankliut Islands wrap up the western islands. Next up will be Tsaa Fjord in the captivating (and appropriately named) Icy Bay for icebergs and glaciers. Then Sitka, a former Russian colony, and Kake, a little-visited Indigenous community known for having the tallest totem pole in the world. After a few more days in the Inside Passage, the sailing culminates in Vancouver.

These sailings take place on the 264-passenger L’Austral, a high-end expedition-style ship that boasts a theater, gym, spa (with hammam), panoramic lounge, and pool. 

It's all about those top deck views.

Silversea’s Vancouver to Seward

  • Cost: From $5,650 per person
  • Days: 7 days
  • Departure port: Vancouver, Canada
  • End port: Seward, Alaska
  • Book now

What Silversea does well is creating an onboard experience that is luxurious and one-of-a-kind but doesn’t distract from the real star of the show: Alaska.

By day, the Silver Shadow visits buzzing, historical port towns including Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, and Sitka, where guests are invited to disembark and participate in an activity of their choosing, like leisurely bopping around the downtown area or getting spine-tinglingly close to brown bears on a flightseeing tour. Back on the vessel, after a gourmet meal and drinks, evening entertainment is viewing the deep fjords, glaciers, and abundant whales that make Alaska so magical. Spacious suites accommodate 388 guests. There’s also complimentary pilates and yoga, a gym, jogging track, spa, observation library, and a slew of bars and restaurants, including the fabulous La Dame, which features fine wine and French cuisine.  

What’s particularly convenient about this sailing is that it ends in Seward, making it easy to continue your Alaska vacation (a visit to Denali National Park and Preserve, anyone?) by road or rail.

Uncruise Adventures’ Wild, Woolly and Wow

  • Cost: From $4,495 per person
  • Days: 8 days
  • Departure port: Juneau, Alaska
  • End port: Juneau, Alaska
  • Book now

Cruise vacations often have the reputation of being not very active. However, this UnCruise Adventures sailing is aimed at those who want an more heart-pumping immersion into some little-visited areas of the 49th state, like South Baranof Island Primate and National Wilderness Area and Chichagof Island. 

One day might involve kayaking in Patterson Bay followed by a brisk snorkeling session. Another could see guests hiking to a glacial lake or going for a skiff tour among icebergs. And another could involve biking in an area known for its healthy population of brown bears (if you dare). 

These sailings take place on the intimate 86-passenger Wilderness Legacy, with cozy but comfortable cabins and unlimited activities and beverages. 

Windstar Cruises’ Islands & Inlets of the Inside Passage

  • Cost: From $4,999 per person
  • Days: 11 days
  • Departure port: Vancouver, Canada
  • End port: Vancouver, Canada
  • Book now

The Inside Passage is popular for a reason. Here you’ll find remote islands dappled with stately spruce trees, dreamy fields of pink fireweed, and long stretches of undisturbed, rocky beaches. But, if you motor a bit further, there’s a good chance you’ll be greeted by electric-blue icebergs, dizzying fjords, and dramatic, millennia-old glaciers. And, sooner or later, you’ll also be met with communities of hardy locals.

What’s appealing about this Windstar Cruises itinerary is that it’s a good mix of Alaska’s natural landscapes and coastal cityscapes. Visits to bustling port towns like Juneau and Ketchikan are balanced with days spent entirely in the wilderness of Endicott Arm and Misty fjords.

The ship is also on the smaller size (at least compared to many of the other cruise lines operating in Alaska), holding just over 300 guests, so it’s able to tuck into areas the mega-ships can’t. And it’s a luxurious way to spend 11 days—all of the rooms aboard the Star Breeze are suites.

>>Next: Why Your Alaska Cruise Should Include Extra Time in Anchorage

Sign up for the Daily Wander newsletter for expert travel inspiration and tips

Please enter a valid email address.

Read our privacy policy