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Cruising Alaska in the Off-Season

Spring and fall sailings can offer smaller crowds and lower fares

Humpback Whale fluking in Lynn Canal with a cruise ship in the distance, Inside Passage

Alamy Stock Photo

Consider cruising during shoulder season for better opportunities to view Alaska's wildlife.

En español | In early April, the Inside Passage starts to awaken. Migrating whales begin to arrive from Hawaii, while hungry bears shake off hibernation and search the shoreline for food. It's also the start of Alaska's quieter — but increasingly popular — spring cruise season.

"People are starting to clue into the virtue of the shoulder season,” which includes both spring and early fall, says Zak Kirkpatrick, marketing director for the tiny Alaskan Dream line, whose sailings start unusually early — in mid-March. “It's a great time to come to see Alaska."

Traditionally Alaska's cruises sailed from Memorial Day through Labor Day, but recently — as interest in Alaska has surged, with 33 percent more visitors arriving in 2017 than in 2008 — a few companies have begun to stretch the season, launching their cruises in March or April, and sailing until the beginning of October.

Keep in mind: It can be chilly. You may need to break out the puffy coats and fleece hats at times, with temperatures often peaking in the 50s, even in May. On the plus side, spring is the driest season. “It's a little bit of a lottery, but if it's beautiful, it's unbelievably beautiful in April,” says Bill Fletcher of Holland America Line.

Another benefit to choosing spring or fall sailings? More elbow room. You can explore ports and popular sites without crowds. “Not everybody wants to be in port with two other big cruise ships,” says Colleen McDaniel, senior executive editor at Cruise Critic, who has seen Alaska's cruise season “getting a bit longer every year."

"We literally had the wilderness to ourselves,” says Donna Higinbotham, an Arizona travel agent who led a group of 12 on an eight-day UnCruise trip from Sitka to Juneau that departed on April 27. “We were there before any of the big cruise lines started their sailings.”

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And on the first night of their voyage the crew woke them up to see the northern lights — a spectacle rarely seen in the summer. “It was an amazing experience,” Higinbotham says.

Another advantage: the price. UnCruise Adventures’ April sailings can run $2,000 less per person when compared to an August trip at the height of the season. While discounts aren't always that large, airfare is often less expensive off-season as well.

Here are a few shoulder-season trips worth considering. Note that fares fluctuate (prices are per person, double occupancy).

Big ship: Norwegian Jewel

Refurbished last year, this 14-year-old, 2,376-passenger ship keeps you busy on board, with 10 restaurants, multiple lounges and Broadway-style shows. You'll want to get off the boat, nonetheless: On its weeklong one-way trip from Vancouver, Canada, to Seward, Alaska (near Anchorage), stops include the Native Alaskan port of Icy Strait, an area where you're pretty much certain to see whales, and Juneau, with the chance to visit nearby Mendenhall Glacier. A trip leaving on Sept. 9, 2019, starts at $449, plus $124 taxes and fees.

Midsize ship: Holland America Noordam

While you'll still have big-ship offerings such as cooking classes, specialty restaurants and afternoon tea, this 1,924-passenger vessel is a bit more manageable. You'll find quiet corners on board to take in the glorious Inside Passage scenery and wildlife — soaring bald eagles, pods of dahl porpoises and breaching killer whales. One of its Alaska routes is a weeklong round-trip cruise from Vancouver, Canada, including stops in the fishing town of Ketchikan, Juneau and Gold Rush-era Skagway, along with Glacier Bay National Park. The cruise departing on Sept. 22, 2019, starts at $692, plus up to $240 for taxes and fees.

Small ship: UnCruise Adventures Wilderness Explorer

In Alaska, tiny vessels deliver big adventures. This expedition cruise line prides itself on being able to visit small inlets and bays, where passengers can hike, kayak and explore old-growth forests, with all excursions included in the base fare. The seven-day sailing from Ketchikan to Juneau lingers in less-visited spots such as Endicott Arm, Dawes Glacier, and Wrangell — Alaska's oldest town. If you book the cruise departing April 18, 2020, before Dec. 13, 2019, the early-bird per person cost is $2,195, plus $375 taxes and fees (booking later will cost you $500 more per person). Going off-season offers a big savings: A departure on Aug. 1, 2020, for instance, is $4,695 per person.

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