Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here
CLOSE ×
Search
Leaving AARP.org Website

You are now leaving AARP.org and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

The Ultimate Guide to Alaska Cruising

Timing, cruise ship size and when to book factor into planning your trip to the 49th state

spinner image A Princess Cruises Cruise tour includes a five-day land tour and a seven-day cruise aboard the Majestic Princess.
A Princess Cruises Cruisetour comprises a five-day land tour and a seven-day cruise aboard the Majestic Princess.
Princess Cruises

“One if by land, two if by sea” from the poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” somehow accurately portrays the transportation modes used on my three visits to Alaska over the last four years. 

On my first visit to State 49, I chose a 12-night small-ship cruise aboard Windstar Cruise’s Star Legend for a truly intimate exploration of the glaciers, fjords and waterways among only 200 other passengers. My second visit was a two-week land-based tour from Anchorage to Fairbanks with many stops at must-see and lesser-known locales in between. And, most recently, I combined land and sea for the best of both worlds: a Princess Cruises Cruisetour, which included a five-day land tour followed by a seven-day large-ship Alaskan cruise aboard the Majestic Princess.

spinner image Image Alt Attribute

AARP Membership— $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine. Find out how much you could save in a year with a membership. Learn more.

Join Now

Each trip offered a unique perspective and helped me realize that choosing the correct cruise experience to match your vacation goals is key to satisfactorily checking this trip off your bucket list.

spinner image Howard Schildhouse and Jill Schildhouse smiling aboard the Majestic Princess with Alaska's The Hubbard Glacier in the background.
Howard Schildhouse, 70, and Jill Schildhouse, 46, aboard the Majestic Princess. The Hubbard Glacier is behind them.
Jill Schildhouse

When is the best time to visit Alaska?

Having traveled there in May, June, July and September, I’ve now had a taste of pretty much the entire cruise season, which is only about six months long. There are advantages to cruising during every month, so your decision will largely depend on what you’re looking for.

“If you're coming to see bears, you want to come in July and August,” says Jillian Simpson, president and CEO of the Alaska Travel Industry Association. “A lot of locals love the spring May weather, when it's still crisp.”

If budget is a primary deciding factor, Diana Reuling, a certified Alaska travel expert through Alaska.org (a producer of activity guides, maps and a mobile app to help visitors plan their trips) and founder and CEO at Your Travel Concierges, a member of Ensemble, suggests focusing on the beginning and end of the season when prices are lower. 

“Of course, this means weather may be uncooperative, but the opportunity for wildlife in the spring — post hibernation and before the crowds — may be greater. Best weather is usually July, but I find that in my own experience … the best for ‘doing it all’ is late August.”

For the brave — who aren’t scared off by 24 hours of darkness and frigid temperatures — some cruises travel outside of the normal tourist season. UnCruise Adventures has announced Alaska’s first-ever small ship winter sports cruise, set to sail in February 2024. Simpson says this seven-night “Northern Lights & Winter Sports” round trip capitalizes on southeast Alaska’s outdoor winter activities, including skiing, snowshoeing and ice skating, as well as the exploration of Glacier Bay National Park and nearby glaciers. Plus, don’t forget about opportunities to view the northern lights.

How far in advance should you book your Alaska cruise?

Because Alaska’s cruise season is so short and demand is high — the projected count for 2023 is 1.65 million cruise travelers on 60 large and small ships sailing around 700 voyages, according to Cruise Lines International Association Alaska — prime cabins and itineraries can sell out six months in advance.

“If you want the best ship location and promotions, then book early,” says Reuling, noting she booked her upcoming Alaska cruise a year out. “As with all cruises, the most expensive and least expensive tend to sell out first.”

spinner image Jill Schildhouse on her Windstar Star Legend balcony, pointing to an Alaskan glacier.
Jill Schildhouse enjoys the view from her balcony aboard the Windstar Star Legend.
Jill Schildhouse

Speaking of prime cabins, while you can easily get away with an inside or an ocean-view cabin on most cruises to save money, you’ll definitely want to splurge for a balcony in Alaska. Why? The vast majority of your route will be breathtakingly scenic, with nonstop opportunities to see whales and other marine life, chunks of ice, waterfalls, bald eagles and more. Your own private balcony (paired with a trusty set of binoculars) is always the best viewing spot on the ship. And with about 22 hours of daylight on cruises during the summer months, consider this round-the-clock viewing window your free excursion.

Travel

Holland America Line

Up to $200 onboard credit on select cruises

See more Travel offers >

The great debate: Small vs. big ship cruising

Small ship and big ship Alaska cruises both offer specific benefits, and understanding those differences will make or break your vacation.

Smaller ships — such as those on Windstar Cruises, UnCruise Adventures, Crystal Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line and Hurtigruten Expeditions — can get up close and personal with glaciers and wildlife, sneaking into areas larger ships simply can’t fit into. The ships also are likely to have more remote port stops (such as Sitka or Nome), which gives you greater access to Alaska’s many cities. Additionally, smaller ships usually offer more in terms of education and are often staffed with naturalists and marine biologists who give lectures, answer questions and join passengers on Zodiac – inflatable boat – excursions. Finally, many of the smaller cruise ships tend to be more luxurious in terms of accommodations and cuisine, and some include alcohol and excursions in the cost of your booking.

spinner image Holland America offers big-ship cruising in Alaska.
Holland America offers big-ship cruising in Alaska.
Holland America Line

On the flip side, ships that hold several thousand passengers — such as those on Princess Cruises, Holland America Line and Norwegian Cruise Line — offer more onboard amenities. For example, Princess Cruises offers boutique fitness classes from Pure Barre, StretchLab, Club Pilates and CycleBar; Holland America’s Pinnacle-class ships (such as the Koningsdam, Nieuw Statendam and Rotterdam) have a bi-level spa with ergonomic ceramic heated loungers and a jetted Hydropool with swan neck jets to help relieve sore joints and aching muscles; and Royal Caribbean’s Ovation of the Seas has a FlowRider surf simulator and rock climbing wall. Large ships also have more live theater and entertainment options, a larger selection of excursions in each port and a greater array of dining venues.

But all of those extras certainly don’t mean you’ll lack in enrichment and education experiences if you choose a larger ship. My recent Princess cruise featured an onboard national park ranger the entire day we spent in Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve and various cultural heritage guides who shared Alaska Native traditions and storytelling.

Adding a land tour is the only way to see all of Alaska’s many wonders

I didn’t realize it at the time of my first Alaska cruise, but only seeing the state by sea left so many stones unturned. Now that I’ve done the Princess land and sea package, I feel like I’ve had a comprehensive visit that’s given me a far greater appreciation for the immense diversity the state has to offer. Since most people only ever get to Alaska once in their lifetime, it’s important to do it right, which is why Reuling agrees that a cruise tour is the way to go.

“Alaska is vast,” she says, illustrating that if placed over the lower 48 states, it would take up one-third of the country. “Visitors miss so many important sites by not taking a land tour.”

Some of those sites include Denali National Park, a road trip along the iconic Seward Highway and a scenic ride on the historic Alaska Railroad (where, while in a glass-domed car, I was lucky enough to spot a mama black bear and her cubs).

spinner image Small-ship Windstar Cruise offers close encounters with glaciers, fjords and waterways.
Small-ship Windstar Cruise offers close encounters with glaciers, fjords and waterways.
Capt. James Griffiths/Windstar

“A land tour takes travelers to a completely different region of Alaska, usually inland with more mountains, valleys and tundra, and vastly different Alaska Native cultures,” Simpson says. “All major cruise lines that cross the Gulf of Alaska offer a land program and a multitude of options for their cruisers. But there are plenty of independent tour operators that offer multiday tours to line up with cruises as well.”

Combo land and sea tours are much more convenient than planning your own solo land adventure before joining your cruise, and you’ll have access to some upgraded experiences, too. On a Princess Cruisetour, for instance, guests are treated to stays at charming Princess Wilderness Lodges. The lodges’ remote locations also provide opportunities to view wildlife (I spent several hours one day watching a moose outside my window). Having stayed in nearly a dozen other hotels in Alaska on previous visits, I found these to be the most modern and comfortable accommodations in the state.  

“All of the cruise lines offer something different for cruisers, whether they’re looking for family fun, a luxury vessel or a true expedition,” Simpson says. As long as you’re honest with yourself about which cruising type best fits your vacation style, you’ll be in for the trip of a lifetime.

Discover AARP Members Only Access

Join AARP to Continue

Already a Member?

AARP Travel Center

Or Call: 1-800-675-4318

Enter a valid departing date

Enter a valid returning date

Age of children:

Child under 2 must either sit in laps or in seats:

Enter a valid departing date

Age of children:

Child under 2 must either sit in laps or in seats:

Enter a valid departing date

Age of children:

Child under 2 must either sit in laps or in seats:

Flight 2

Enter a valid departing date

Flight 3

Enter a valid departing date

Flight 4

Enter a valid departing date

Flight 5

Enter a valid departing date

+ Add Another Flight

Enter a valid checking in date

Enter a valid checking out date


Occupants of Room 1:



Occupants of Room 2:



Occupants of Room 3:



Occupants of Room 4:



Occupants of Room 5:



Occupants of Room 6:



Occupants of Room 7:



Occupants of Room 8:


Enter a valid departing date

Enter a valid returning date

Age of children:

Occupants of Room 1:

Age of children:


Occupants of Room 2:

Age of children:


Occupants of Room 3:

Age of children:


Occupants of Room 4:

Age of children:


Occupants of Room 5:

Age of children:

Age of children:

Child under 2 must either sit in laps or in seats:

Enter a valid start date

Enter a valid drop off date

Select a valid to location

Select a month

Enter a valid from date

Enter a valid to date