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9 Alaska Cruise Tips and Tricks (Including What To Pack and Expect)

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Katie Seemann
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Katie Seemann

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Katie has been in the points and miles game since 2015 and started her own blog in 2016. She’s been freelance writing since then and her work has been featured in publications like Travel + Leisure, F...
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A long-time points and miles student, Jessica is the former Personal Finance Managing Editor at U.S. News and World Report and is passionate about helping consumers fund their travels for as little ca...
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An Alaska cruise is a dream vacation for many travelers. Sailing through glaciers, spotting bald eagles and humpback whales, and wandering through quaint towns is what it’s all about.

Whether or not you’ve cruised before, going on a cruise in Alaska is a new experience that requires a bit of planning. That’s why we’ve compiled this list of our best Alaska cruise tips and tricks to help you prepare for a fantastic adventure up north.

Pack Lots of Layers

You might wonder what to pack for an Alaskan cruise. The answer? A bit of everything!

The first thing I read when researching a trip to Alaska was to pack plenty of layers. I found this to be one of the most important pieces of advice I got. While most Alaska cruises happen in the summer, the weather can still be chilly. But it can also be warm, wet, cold, windy, foggy, etc. You get the idea.

Juneau port stop on an Alaska cruise
Pack lots of layers for your cruise to Alaska.

When packing for an Alaska cruise, you need to focus on items that can be easily layered so you can adapt to whatever weather is thrown at you.

Days spent cruising through destinations like Glacier Bay National Park will involve lots of time spent on deck. You’ll probably need a jacket, hat, and perhaps gloves. In contrast, port days in towns like Ketchikan can see temperatures up to 70 degrees.

Different elevations can have different weather, so it’s not uncommon to need a coat and hat in the morning, just a T-shirt during the afternoon, and a rain jacket in the evening.

Don’t forget sunglasses and sunscreen. Just because the weather is a bit chillier than you would experience in other destinations in the summer doesn’t mean the sun won’t be out. Alaska can be bright and sunny, so sun protection is a must.

Bottom Line:

July is considered the best month to cruise Alaska. While daytime temperatures can reach up to 70 degrees in parts of the state, you’ll still need to pack clothes for layering on chilly days, including long-sleeve shirts, pants, a jacket, and a hat.

Bring Binoculars and a Camera

Binoculars are a must for an Alaska cruise. I know this because I didn’t bring them and felt like I missed out on some wildlife sightings.

Humpback whale fluke in Alaska
Binoculars and a camera with a zoom lens will help you get a better view of Alaska’s wildlife. Image Credit:  John Yunker via Adobe Stock

Much of an Alaska cruise is spent on the ship enjoying the scenery. While the views are beautiful, your ship probably won’t be close enough to shore to spot wildlife with the naked eye, so a pair of binoculars is essential to get the most out of your cruise.

You’ll want to document your trip with pictures and videos of the vast landscape and local animals. While most phones take great photos, consider bringing a camera with a zoom lens if you want close-ups of glaciers or wildlife.

Hot Tip:

The time of year you cruise to Alaska will affect the wildlife you may see. June and July are best for viewing humpback whales, while May and June are best for spotting orcas. Bear activity peaks from June to August, when rivers are full of salmon. Otters and bald eagles can be spotted year-round.

Budget for Pricey Shore Excursions

If you’re used to shore excursion prices on other cruise itineraries, you’re in for some sticker shock — Alaska cruise shore excursions are expensive. Many cruisers love to get off the boat to explore on their own. But to get the most out of a majority of Alaska ports, you’ll need to book a shore excursion. Whether you book through the cruise line or the provider, expect to pay a lot.

Sled Dog Summer Camp cruise excursion in Juneau Alaska
Shore excursions, like this one that visited Sled Dog Summer Camp, can be very expensive on an Alaska cruise.

Many popular tours can be several hundred dollars a person — some were as much as $600+ per person on my Alaska cruise in July 2023.

Don’t forget to book your excursions early as many of the most popular ones will sell out quickly.

Hot Tip:

If you book your shore excursions through the cruise line, they will be charged to your stateroom and appear on your bill as a cruise line charge. That means you can earn lots of points by paying with a card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, which earn 3x points per dollar spent on eligible travel purchases.

Book a Stateroom With a Balcony

An Alaska cruise is all about the views, so booking a room with a balcony is worth it if you can afford it. The freedom to step outside your room to enjoy the scenery without having to trek up to the main deck is a luxury that can make your cruise even more special.

Enjoying those same views while staying warm in your cabin is also fantastic.

Balcony on Alaska cruise
It’s worth paying a little extra to book a stateroom with a balcony on an Alaska cruise.
Hot Tip:

Booking an Alaskan cruise doesn’t have to be expensive. Many websites offer cruise deals, and you can even use points and miles to book a cruise.

Expect Crowds

You should always expect crowds on a cruise unless you’re going on a small ship. However, the crowds on an Alaska cruise can be more intense than those on warm-weather cruises.

On an Alaska cruise, no one except for perhaps a few brave kids will take advantage of the pool and pool decks. So, during days at sea, all those people who would be at the pools are inside the ship. This can lead to very crowded common areas during sea days.

Crowded Alaska cruise ship
The pools may be empty, but the rest of the ship is crowded.

On scenic cruising days, a large number of people will be up on the decks taking in the scenery, resulting in crowding on the main outside decks.

Hot Tip:

If you aren’t prepared to battle crowds on your cruise, look for a smaller ship with fewer passengers. Lindblad Expeditions, Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas, and Silversea offer Alaska cruises on smaller ships with under 800 passengers.

Choose Your Ship Wisely

Some say you cruise Alaska for the scenery and not the ship. While that’s true to a point, the ship you choose for your Alaska cruise can affect your overall enjoyment of your trip.

On an Alaska cruise, more days can be spent on the ship than on other cruises. These days, called scenic cruising days, offer guests a chance to see spectacular views, but there’s only so much time you can spend staring at the landscape.

I found I spent much more time on board during my Alaska cruise than I have on cruises to the Caribbean and Mediterranean.

Make Plans for the Kids

If you’re planning to bring the kids along on your Alaska cruise, remember these tips.

First, don’t expect them to be entertained by the scenery as much as you will be. On scenic cruising days, let them enjoy the ship’s kids’ club or another more kid-friendly activity while you’re enjoying the landscapes.

Set expectations ahead of time. Many kids (including mine) assume they can spend all day at the pool when they hear you’re going on a cruise. Make sure they know what to expect — there may be some time for the pool, but it can often be too cold.

Ellie at Camp Discovery kids club on Princess Cruises
My 9-year-old loved the kids’ club on our ship.

Take full advantage of the kids’ club if your ship has one. My 9-year-old loved hanging out and meeting new friends in the kids’ club while the adults did something she deemed “boring.” Many cruise lines have trackers so you can locate your children at any time, making it much easier for parents to feel comfortable giving kids who are old enough a little autonomy on the ship.

Bottom Line:

If you’re traveling with your kids, set expectations ahead of time so they know what types of activities will be available. Remember that they won’t be interested in the same things you are, so let them choose their activities (if they are old enough), and don’t forget to take advantage of the kids’ club.

Arrive in Port the Day Before Your Cruise Departs

Flight delays and cancellations can happen. That’s why flying into your departure port the day before your Alaska cruise leaves is so important. It’s a big deal if you miss your cruise’s departure, so it’s best to play it safe. If you arrive the day before, you’ll have plenty of buffer time even if your flight gets severely delayed.

You may even want to fly a few days early to explore more. There is much to do in the common Alaska departure ports of Seattle, Vancouver, and Anchorage.

Manage Expectations

Managing expectations is an important Alaska cruise tip that doesn’t get mentioned much.

First, the weather can be a big factor affecting your itinerary. On my Alaska cruise in July, we were scheduled to spend the day cruising around Hubbard Glacier. However, we couldn’t access the glacier due to fog and ice, so it was canceled, and we just moved on to our next port. It was disappointing, but nothing can be done about it, so it’s good to go into an Alaska cruise knowing things might not work out exactly as planned.

Fog at Hubbard Glacier Alaska
Sometimes, Alaska weather won’t go your way.

The other important thing to remember is that seeing glaciers in the summer in Alaska won’t match your expectations if you’re picturing cruising Antarctica in the winter. For many, the term glacier conjures visions of vast ice chunks floating in an icy sea. In reality, seeing glaciers in Alaska can be underwhelming if you don’t know what to expect.

Glacier Bay in Alaska from a cruise ship
The glaciers you see in Alaska from a cruise ship might not be as majestic as you think.

Another important thing to remember is that wildlife sightings aren’t guaranteed. While you may be able to see plenty of animals, including bears, whales, and bald eagles, there’s a chance you won’t see any. If seeing wildlife is a big part of your Alaska wish list, be sure to schedule excursions or activities specifically focused on those animal sightings — don’t assume you’ll be able to see them all from the ship.

Final Thoughts

An Alaska cruise can be a fantastic family vacation, especially if you know what to expect and how to prepare for your trip. Whether you’re bringing the whole family on a big ship or taking a romantic trip for 2 on a small luxury ship, Alaska is a beautiful destination with much to offer.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do you need a passport for an Alaskan cruise?

If you’re traveling on a cruise that begins and ends in the same U.S. port, you don’t need to bring a passport, although it’s highly recommended. If your Alaska cruise begins or ends in a foreign port, you will need a valid passport.

Can you see the northern lights on an Alaska cruise?

It’s possible to see the northern lights (also known as the aurora borealis) on an Alaska cruise. Your best chance of seeing this nighttime light show is during the winter months. However, it’s possible starting in late September all the way through early April.

Is it worth having a balcony on an Alaska cruise?

Yes, getting a stateroom with a balcony is worth it if you’re going on an Alaska cruise. You’ll love having a private viewing area to enjoy the spectacular sights, and on chilly days, you’ll still enjoy the views while staying warm in your room.

Is the water choppy on an Alaskan cruise?

It depends. If you sail through the Inside Passage, the water will be very calm. Cruises that include time on the open sea (like sailings from Anchorage or Seattle) can be a bit choppier.

What is the best side of a cruise ship for an Alaskan cruise?

It doesn’t matter. There will be sights on both sides of your cruise ship. During scenic cruise days, the ship will be turned around so guests can view the glaciers from both sides of the ship.

Katie Seemann's image

About Katie Seemann

Katie has been in the points and miles game since 2015 and started her own blog in 2016. She’s been freelance writing since then and her work has been featured in publications like Travel + Leisure, Forbes Advisor, and Fortune Recommends.

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