Sail Your Best Alaska Cruise
You can quickly get overwhelmed researching how to plan the best Alaska cruise for your family. This guide will help you weed through volumes of information and focus on what’s really important to you.
So Why Cruise Alaska?
The massive glaciers and stunning marine wildlife provide a unique backdrop for a family cruise. The natural wildlife both in sea and on land is its own attraction – humpback whales, Orcas, sea otters, seals, sea lions, wild salmon, moose, grizzly, and polar bears. And, Alaska also has the largest population of bald eagles in the country. In addition to numerous wildlife viewing opportunities, you’ll find many outdoor adventures. Stunning mountain hikes, dog sledding, fishing, kayaking, and various helicopter excursions only scratch the surface of what’s available.
Very few cruise experiences can compare to the fun and excitement of an Alaskan cruise. More than one million cruisers make that trip every year. And, more than half of the visitors to Alaska arrive by cruise ship. Not surprisingly, it is also a top destination choice for multigenerational family travel.
Alaska is one of the most exotic cruises you can take while still being in the United States (right up there with Hawaii). But, unlike Hawaii, Alaska’s vastness and unique topography make it quite challenging to master for the typical family traveler. It is literally frontier country. Millions of acres of untamed wilderness and only a smattering of cities/towns. And, some towns can only be reached by air or water.
So, a cruise may be the only viable option for most people for seeing Alaska. It is almost certainly the most affordable option.
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Planning Your Best Alaska Cruise
1. The Basics: Itineraries
For Alaska cruise itineraries, the bulk of options will be available in the spring and summer. The Alaska cruise season runs May to September. High season runs June through August. And everything pretty much shuts down after September/October because of weather and habitability issues.
There are two primary routes that cruise ships follow. First, you have the “Inside Passage.” This route usually runs round-trip from either Seattle or Vancouver. Your second option will be some version of a “Cross-the-Gulf” itinerary. This involves a one-way itinerary that will start and end in either Seattle or Vancouver and start or end in Anchorage, at either the Seward or Whittier ports.
So which route makes for the best Alaska cruise for your family? An advantage of the inside passage route is that it will likely be cheaper because you can start and end in Seattle which is relatively easy to reach from within the United States. Plus, you won’t have to worry about passports (if you sail from Seattle). This same holds true for folks residing in Canada who can start and end in Vancouver.
In contrast, a cross-the-gulf itinerary requires that you start and end your cruise in different countries. This makes for more expensive air travel, and may require more complicated logistics. But, this itinerary can provide you with more flexibility to expand your trip and see more of Alaska. A typical Alaska inside passage cruise will be 7 days. But you can readily find longer itinerary options on a gulf-crossing itinerary. And lots of add-on land tour options as well.
2. Cruise Lines & Ships
Large ships are a very popular choice for Alaska with lots of great options for families. At this point, all of major domestic cruise line have at least some Alaska sailings. Historically, Princess and Holland America have dominated the market in terms of ships, sailings and tour options. But now, family-friendly lines like Disney, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian all offer Alaska cruises.
Alaska is also a place where you can get lots of bang for your buck using a small cruise line or with expedition style cruising. But for these lines, be aware that most will not have organized youth programs or activities. And, unless you are sailing on a special family designated sailing, there may be very few other kids. But, if you are primarily seeking an intimate family-of-origin centered experience, this could be a fantastic choice.
To learn more about what different types of cruise lines have to offer for younger passengers, download our free summary of youth programs and policies for 60+ cruise lines.
How to decide what’s the best Alaska cruise for your family?
So, across the spectrum, you will find literally dozens of cruise ship options for an Alaskan itinerary. Ships that run the gamut from small luxury vessels to larger ships from the major family cruise lines. Trying to sort through all of those options can quickly get overwhelming. So how do you decide which ship will make the best Alaska cruise for your family?
A good place to start your research is with a high level chart compiled by the folks at Cruise Critic. This summary highlights one of the top ships sailing Alaska from 12 different cruise lines. And, it provides useful details on specific itinerary options, exclusive programs for each cruise line, and various wow factors that may be of interest to families.
And, you should also check out this insightful post from Donna Hull at My Itchy Travel Feet. She has sailed numerous Alaska cruises and provides useful tips on evaluating, comparing and selecting cruise lines. Although she definitely has a clearly disclosed preference for luxury lines and small ship cruises, her observations will be useful for all types of cruisers. Including practical tidbits on things like how to make sure you standout in your photos!
3. Embarkation Ports
Most Alaska cruises will leave from one of four ports: Seattle, Vancouver, Seward or Whittier. The cruise line and basic itinerary that you select will determine your options for embarkation ports. Each of these ports has something special to add to your Alaska cruise experience. However, if you do not have a U.S. passport, then the only embarkation point you will be able to sail from will be Seattle. Although both Whittier and Seward are also both in the United States, they typically kick-off one-way itineraries that end outside the United States.
The very popular embarkation port of Seattle can be a great kick-off to your Alaska cruise. Plus, it has the added bonus of not requiring a passport (for U.S. Citizens and Legal Residents). If you have time, you can spend a couple of days before or after your cruise exploring all that the city has to offer.
The Marcie in Mommyland blog provides some great family activity ideas from a native Seattle mom.
If you are planning on staying over in Seattle for a day or two, check out reviews for the top choice Seattle hotels on Trip Advisor. And, also check out the dozens of options for well-reviewed excursions and activities.
For the perspective of a Canadian mom, check out the Go Far Go Close blog. She provides an excellent explanation for why Vancouver is a great spot to kickoff your Alaska cruise. Although the primary purpose of the post is aimed at encouraging more Vancouver residents to explore cruising, the information provided has equal helpfulness to non-Vancouver residents.
If you will be spending extra time in Vancouver, you can the inside scoop on the best hotels for cruisers on Trip Advisor. And, depending on your schedule, you can plan to add in your own independent excursions as well.
You can also embark on an Alaskan cruise from the Anchorage area from either of the two ports in the region, Whittier and Seward. Note that both of these ports are actually some distance from Anchorage and you should allow several hours travel time to get to your destination.
Cruise Critic has posted a great guide to the Seward cruise port. It provides a thorough discussion of the different ways of making your way to the cruise port from Anchorage along with cost estimates for each method. It covers everything from private taxi to public transportation. Cruise Critic has also published a similar guide for the Whittier cruise port. And, you can also find several different options for Anchorage area excursions that can include transfers to and/or from the cruise port.
Both Whittier and Seward are relatively small towns with limited options for hotel stays. In fact, at last report, Whittier had only one hotel. But, you can find several good options for hotels in Anchorage. You can peruse the reviews to see which one would best fit your plans.
If your family will be spending some time in Anchorage, check out the recommendations from the folks at Scary Mommy for fun things to do with kids.
Best Alaska Cruise Packing Tips
1. Clothing Tips
Not surprisingly, packing for an Alaska cruise presents several challenges. First, you have the weather and climate concerns. The weather differences can swing widely as you are sailing through different ports. One day may be sunny and a brisk temperature that requires only a light jacket. While other days can be grey, cloudy, cold and wet. Plus, you must account for your time both on and off the ship and a wide range of activities with varying dress requirements.
So, when you are planning the best Alaska cruise for your family, you should plan to create an actual packing list. You want to avoid trying to cover all of your bases on the fly and end up over packing. Before you can compile a useable packing list, you need to have a good idea of what clothes you will be taking for each member of your family.
For a really useful detailed walk through of wardrobe items packed for a recent Alaska cruise, check out Communikat. This post does a good job of explaining how everything she packed fit together and how and why it was used. Although she was packing only for adults, you can use this list a starting point for creating your own list that includes kids’ clothes.
Although this provides a great guide for starting your own list, if you plan to do some laundry on your cruise, you can substantially scale this list back.
2. General Packing Tips
There are lots of different Alaska Cruise packing lists floating around. This one from Linda on the Run is simple, yet quite comprehensive and filled with stuff that most people are actually going to use.
One of the items that she includes on her list that deserves being underscored is thermal/long underwear. For folks who don’t live in places with harsh winters, long underwear can go a long way to transforming your regular wardrobe into a cold weather wardrobe.
Both of the lists referenced above provide Alaska-specific guidance for your cruise packing. For general guidance on packing for any cruise that involves kids, download our own Family Cruise Pack & Prep checklist.
We have a prep and pack checklist that is specifically designed to help families cruising with kids. Get your free copy now!
3. Highly Recommended Extras For Your Best Alaska Cruise
There are four extras that you will commonly see recommended for an Alaska itinerary. You should strongly consider adding these to your Alaska packing list:
Travel Sleep Mask
Travel sleep mask – It’s called the land of the midnight sun for a reason. Your cabin will have curtains that should block out most, if not all, of the outside light. But, if you require absolute darkness for sound sleeping, bring some backup.
Insect repellent – When it is warm outside, you will find lots of large, hungry mosquitos. So pack your favorite form of insect repellent.
Sunscreen – Don’t be misled by whatever views you might have about Alaska weather. The sun’s rays can be quite powerful. And, you may be exposed to them for many more hours than you are used to. Everyone should wear sunscreen.
Extra memory card or other storage for whatever device you will be using to take photos.
So, what about binoculars? It’s definitely worth having a set for on and off ship viewing of the spectacular wildlife. Depending on which cruise ship you sail on, you may possibly have complimentary access to a set of binoculars in your stateroom. Call your line to check. But, if you are traveling with a group of people, you should nevertheless consider getting an affordable pair so that everyone isn’t tussling over the same set.
It is also likely that you will be able to purchase binoculars on board. But those will almost certainly be more expensive than something you could reasonably purchase before you sail. If you are primarily purchasing for use on one sailing and don’t think you will get much additional use, then take a look at some of the affordable and favorably reviewed sets on Amazon from well-regarded manufacturers. Check out this list of binoculars under $50 from top manufacturers that have top reviews.
This list includes the Bushnell 138005 H2O Waterproof binoculars, an example of a fantastic choice for an Alaska cruise. They are waterproof, fog proof, have a compact size and weight, and can be worn with glasses.
(Note that this particular set of excellent Bushnell binoculars is available exclusively to Prime members at a special price. But, even if you aren’t a Prime member, you can sign up for a free 30-day trial (and cancel at anytime).)
Best Alaska Cruise Excursions & Activities
1. Typical Ports of Call
As you are researching your ports and your shore excursion options, be mindful that your options aren’t limited to those being offered by the cruise line. And, in some instances, where the cruise line brochure lists age or weight restrictions, those may have been imposed by the cruise line and not by the actual tour operators. And, if the cruise line tour appears to be sold out, don’t give up. This great post from a Skagway tour operator provides some insider tips on how to get around those situations and still see exactly what you want to see. The tips discussed have wide application beyond a single Alaskan port or a single tour operator.
Get a true insider’s view of all the best sights to see and places to visit in Juneau from someone who has worked on a cruise ship and had the opportunity to make many trips through the city. Check out these recommendations from a Jaunt With Joy.
Jaunt With Joy
Check out what local residents think are the best things to do for a cruise stop in Ketchikan.
As for Skagway, my personal all-time favorite recommendation is to check out your options for dog-sledding camp.
We had an absolutely fantastic time doing this.
Here is a detailed discussion and review of a deluxe version of dog-sledding excursion from the Janet B Person Blog. Check it out.
If dog-sledding isn’t your thing, you can also research online options and reviews for affordable Skagway excursions at Viator.
Looking for a place to safe money on your cruise vacation? Turns out that some of the best things to do in Sitka can be absolutely free! Check out these tips from The World Is A Book on how to have fun with your kids in Sitka on next to zero dollars.
On an Alaska cruise, there will be at least one day designated for cruising by spectacular glaciers. This will most likely entail either cruising through Tracy Arm Fjord or cruising through Glacier Bay National Park. Here are some tips on what to expect from the experience.
The post from Planet D gives you the highlights of viewing the glaciers from the ship’s public areas. The post from My Big Fat Happy Life provides the highlights from viewing from a private balcony. The latter post also provides some useful insights into why those sailing with small children might prefer the balcony experience. (If your budget can afford it, get something with a balcony.)
Glacier Bay National Park
Tracy Arm Fjord
2. Side Trips
Many families choose to create their best Alaska cruise by expanding the basic cruise itinerary. You can easily add on side trips at the beginning or end of an Alaska sailing. Indeed, most of the major cruise lines that sail Alaska will offer a selection of tour packages that allow folks to further explore the beauties of the Alaska frontier. But you can also make arrangements through independent tour operators. Time and budget permitting, this is a wonderful way to make the most of a bucket list vacation and to really create the best Alaska cruise experience possible.
Read on to learn more about popular side trip add-ons.
Denali National Park
The Denali National Park is huge. It spans 6 million acres. And it’s home to 160 species of birds, and 39 species of mammals. Including the big 5 animals that most folks would like to see when visiting Alaska (from a safe distance): Bears, Moose, Caribou, Wolves, and Dall Sheep.
This post from Backpackingman provides a great overview of what a typical travel can expect from Denali. And, it provides great insights on saving money with the cheaper shuttle bus options vs. a full guided tour. Don’t be scared off by the moniker. This particular post is chock full of useful tips for the first time family visiting Denali. No backpack required.
If you think you will doing some exploring away from a larger group, be sure to take along some easily accessible bear spray – a deterrent recommended by the park rangers. (You may be skeptical – but bear spray actually works! Check out this recent story about one family’s successful defense against a momma grizzly bear attack in Yellowstone National Park.).
And, for a slightly different take on a Denali experience, check out what Hawaiian Brian has to say. He writs about one of the most ambitious park-sponsored tours that Denali has to offer. Regardless of whether you are up for that full experience, his information and photos will be sure to kindle your excitement for adding on a little time to the end of your trip.
Cruise lines such as Princess and Holland America (and their affiliates) have a menu of several different add-on tours featuring Denali. And, you have a variety of options for creating your own Denali Park experience with independent excursions.
Bear Viewing Expedition
If you really have a penchant for bears. Plus, some extra time, money, and a very strong sense of adventure (!), book yourself on a private bear viewing day trip. The vivid description from the folks at No Back Home really sets the stage.
Ride The Alaskan Railroad
Some cruise lines that sail Alaska offer extensive add-on shore tours to expand your vacation experience. And, some of these options include traveling across Alaska’s vast acreage via rail car. Both Princess and Holland America have their own rail cars and rail excursions. But, you can also plan a scaled down version of a rail experience independently. Read about the experience of traveling from Anchorage to Seward by rail. And, if you are flying into Anchorage for a cruise departing from Seward, this can be an interest way to get to your embarkation port.
Other Noteworthy Points For Creating Your Best Alaska Cruise
1. Money Tips
As you plan the best Alaska cruise for your family, you will notice that all of the “must do” and “must see” extras can quickly add up to a hefty bill. But don’t worry, the folks over at Cruise Radio have put together a handy list of tips for how to save money on your Alaska cruise while still having a fabulous time.
And, sort of like a bookend, they have also put together a handy list of things that it’s worth splurging on.
Two of the items on this list that warrant a particular shout-out are the recommendation to book a balcony room and the suggestion to bring your own binoculars. Read the post for explanations on why these extras can really enhance your Alaska experience.
2. Special Reading
No Ultimate Guide for families planning their best Alaska cruise would be complete without highlighting some recommended reading! There are some true children’s classics that are set in Alaska. Reading one or all of these books together can be a great lead up to your trip.
Julie of the Wolves – A Newberry Award-winning classic. The story features an Eskimo girl’s journey as she is lost in the Alaskan wilderness.
Gentle Ben – Another classic that has been remade into movies and television series. It features an Alaskan boy and his friendship with a bear.
Stay On Top Of Planning Your Best Alaska Cruise With Our Pinterest Board!
You can find all of the Pins referenced in this post, and Pins for many other helpful blog posts over on our Pinterest Alaska Board. The Board is updated regularly, so be sure to follow it for tips on planning your best Alaska cruise.