How to Choose the Best Alaska Cruise Itinerary for You

Last Updated on April 9, 2024

Thinking about setting sail for Alaska? Not sure which itinerary to choose? This article is all about the highlights and best Alaska cruise ports to help you decide which Alaska Cruise itinerary is best for you. It also covers the best shore excursions as well as the best things to do on your own in each port.

Great news to get started – you really can’t go wrong here as all the Alaska ports of call are interesting and unique and all are surrounded by incredible scenery.

I’ve worked in the Alaska cruise industry since the late 90s and visit all of these ports frequently. I’ve even lived in two of them. I’m also the host of the Alaska Uncovered Podcast and a travel advisor who helps people plan their Alaska cruises. I’m excited to share my insider knowledge with you!

This article will covers a lot of ground, feel free to use these links to jump around and find what you need quickly.

Related: The best hike in every Alaska cruise port

Listen to cruise expert Ilana from Life Well Cruised share about her first Alaska cruise experience on the podcast:

Which cruise line is best for Alaska?

A large white cruise ship docked in Ketchikan, one of the best Alaska cruise ports, with a pilot boat near it and mountains in the background
The Coral Princess docked on a sunny day in Ketchikan

I recommend choosing the cruise line that has the itinerary you like best or the type of experience you’re looking for. Nearly all big ships in Alaska offer the same shore excursions, so no need to have that be the reason to make a decision.

If you already have experience with a cruise line that you love, I recommend sticking with that. However, if you’re a first time cruiser, here are some things to consider when choosing your cruise line for Alaska:

  • Small ships often have round trip cruises that depart from ports in Southeast Alaska. Small ships can go to places big ships can’t and are usually all inclusive. If you’re looking for an experience that will take you to places outside of port towns and away from crowds, look at UnCruise, Lindblad (National Geographic) and Alaska Dream.
  • Princess and Holland America have a long history in Alaska and bring some local touches on board such as local food and local Alaskans to do programs on the ship. They also have more permits for Glacier Bay than some of the other big ships. There will be less children on both of these cruise lines, though they still have programs for children and teens on board.
  • Royal Caribbean and Norwegian have more families on board, and more features on board the ship like climbing walls, go kart racing and waterslides and family friendly amenities.
  • If you’re looking for a luxury experience, look at Seabourn or Silver Sea

Should I take a round trip Inside Passage cruise or a one way cruise to Alaska?

The next step need to decide if you’re going to do a one way cross gulf cruise (named because it crosses the Gulf of Alaska) or round trip from Seattle or Vancouver BC, which goes through the Inside Passage and returns to Seattle or Vancouver. Small ships generally run between towns in Southeast Alaska, usually Juneau, Sitka or Ketchikan.

If you are doing a cruise only (no land tour), I recommend doing the Inside Passage only on a round trip cruise. It’s more straightforward and usually less expensive to fly if you do a round trip from the same port. It also means you travel in mostly protected and calmer water.

I recommend the cross gulf (one way) trip if you are also adding a land portion of your trip to other parts of Alaska, such as Denali National Park, Anchorage or Fairbanks. If you’re not planning a land trip, or just want to keep it simple, then a round trip cruise will be best for you.

Is it better to take an Alaska Cruise from Seattle or Vancouver?

This is one of the questions I get frequently from my readers and clients. Both Seattle and Vancouver are wonderful cities to sail from and spend an extra couple days if you have it. Usually the answer to this question comes down to logistics.

One way cruises to Alaska will always either start or end in Vancouver. Why? Because of the Passenger Vessel Services Act, foreign flagged ships (all the big ships) cannot take people from one American port to another. So, if you are doing a one way cruise, you will start in Vancouver and end near Anchorage (either Whittier or Seward) or the other way around.

Round trip cruises may go from either Seattle or Vancouver. I would recommend making the decision based on logistics such as which city is easier to get to (for most Americans that is Seattle, for most Canadians, Britons and Australians that’s Vancouver) or which itinerary works best for your schedule.

Is it better to do Denali on my own or through the cruise line?

This is another question I am frequently asked and as a person who has been to Denali many times on my own as well as works as a tour director bringing people to Denali as part of their cruisetour, I know a lot about doing in both ways.

The cost is going to be similar whether you do Denali on your own or through the cruise line. Often people are under the impression that it’s more expensive through the cruise line but that is not usually the case for an equivalent experience (tent camping on your own is cheaper for sure and cruiselines do not offer tent camping cruisetours!).

The bottom line is that cost is not the primary factor to consider here. Instead I recommend deciding this based on how many days you have and if you just want to see Denali as opposed to seeing other places in Alaska off the cruise ship.

If you have less than five days for land and primarily want to see Denali, then I recommend booking through the cruise line. If you have more time and want to see some other places, then you could book it on your own. Booking it on your own is more logistically complicated, but you can go places that might not be offered on cruisetour itineraries.

Jennie, wearing black pants, black boots and a button up shirt is smiling and pointing to the Denali National Park sign
Me in Denali leading a cruise tour. Photo credit: one of my wonderful guests!

When is the best month to take an Alaskan Cruise?

The Alaska cruise season runs from early May through late September. Some companies offer cruises slightly earlier or later than this, but this is the heart of the season. I do not recommend doing an Alaska cruise in April or October.

The best month to take an Alaskan cruise is May or June. Early season is the least rainy time of year in Southeast Alaska and the Inside Passage (it’s still quite rainy so be prepared for that!). It is also a bit less busy and crowded in ports.

July is the most popular time for cruising in Alaska and it is still the height of summer with long days. Whale watching and fishing are both excellent in July and August.

August and September are much rainier, but you can get some good deals at this time of year. If you don’t mind bundling up with some hot drinks while watching the rain and getting the full Inside Passage experience then September is the time for you! September is a good time to plan a last minute cruise as there is often space available on ships.

Related: What is the best month to visit Alaska?

Scenic Cruising – Is Glacier Bay better than other scenic glacier cruising?

Mountains and a glacier are reflected in the water which has lots of little pieces of ice in it on a visit to Glacier Bay national park
Marguerite Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park

There’s no question that Glacier Bay National Park is absolutely stunning. However, there are plenty of other glacier cruising areas that are also stunning. Most Alaska cruises have a day of cruising near a glacier but it’s not always Glacier Bay.

If you’re looking at a cruise itinerary that does not include Glacier Bay, you can be confident that you will have an amazing experience. Don’t let that on it’s own stop you from booking. Small ships sometimes dock at Bartlett Cove in Glacier Bay (see more on this at the bottom of this article), but big ships do not go ashore in the park. Park rangers come aboard to share about what you’re seeing and experiencing. Other possible glacier cruising areas include:

  • College Fjord – Cross gulf cruises (one way from Whittier or Seward to Seattle or Vancouver BC) sometimes call at College Fjord, a spectacular collection of tidewater glaciers, narrow fjords and towering mountains.
  • Hubbard Glacier – located near Yakutat, this glacier is huge! In fact, this is the largest glacier that big cruise ships visit. It is not in a narrow fjord, but the glacier itself, the icebergs and massive mountains behind more than make up for this
  • Endicott Arm/Dawes Glacier – another stunning iceberg filled bay in view of the Dawes Glacier
  • Tracy Arm – located near Juneau, Tracy Arm is a local favorite and an impossibly long and gorgeous fjord. The glacier is not huge but the setting is stunning. Locals will tell you Tracy Arm is more beautiful than Glacier Bay!

No matter where your ship sails for glacier viewing, it is sure to be absolutely stunning.

Juneau – Best Alaska cruise port overall

A life like statue of a humpbackwhale breaching surrounded by a fountain in Juneau Alaska
The incredible whale sculpture in downtown Juneau

In my opinion, Juneau is the best Alaska cruise port overall. This is not because the others are not fantastic, because they are! Juneau has the most options for literally every traveler and this is why I put it right at the top of the list.

In addition to the stunning natural beauty that every Alaska cruise port has on offer, Juneau has options for exploring around town on your own, many wonderful shore excursions including whale watching and fishing, a fascinating excursion to Mendenhall Glacier and fantastic hiking and other outdoor activities. In addition to shore excursions organized by your ship, you can also easily explore Juneau on your own by going for a hike, shopping around town or taking the wonderful Juneau food tour to get an insider and local perspective on Juneau’s delicious food scene. Juneau has a bus system that you can use to get around. Ketchikan (below) is a very, very close second, but Juneau’s many hiking trails that you can get to easily from the cruise ship dock edge it into the number one spot for me.

A cruise ship in a channel between mountain ranges on a cloudy day
A cruise ship approaches Juneau seen from Mt Roberts near the top of the tram

Nearly every cruise calls at Juneau, so look for a cruise that gives you the maximum amount of time there to see as much of this wonderful town as possible.

Juneau Highlights

  • Mt Roberts – you can take the tram from downtown or hike the trail to the viewpoint. I recommend taking the tram and then expanding your hike from there to higher and better views of the mountains and water around Juneau
  • Mendenhall Glacier – you are likely to see other glaciers on your trip, but the Mendenhall is a stunning glacier feeding into a lake, with plenty of hiking trails, a gorgeous waterfall and an opportunity to learn about how climate change is impacting Alaska’s Glaciers at the excellent visitor center
  • Whale sculpture – easily walkable, the gorgeous and completely lifelike whale sculpture is not to be missed!
  • Downtown local establishments like the Alaska Hotel and Bar, Heritage Coffee and Amalga Distillery
  • Hiking – there are several trails you can get to from downtown, such as Mt Roberts, Perseverance Trail and Mt Juneau and others a short bus ride away, or at the glacier
  • Whale watching – Juneau (along with Ketchikan and Sitka) are good options for a whale watching trip
  • Kayaking – along with Haines, Juneau is a great place to take in a kayak trip

Learn more: Best things to do in Juneau

Ketchikan – Overall Runner Up and Best for Unique Experiences

A house screen and two totem poles on a wooden structure with light blue, black and red paint at Saxman Totem park in Ketchikan, one of the best alaska cruise ports
A house screen and totem poles at Saxman Totem Park in Ketchikan

Ketchikan is a very close second for me for the top spot as the best Alaska cruise port! Juneau gets a slight edge from me as I mentioned above for the number of hiking trails that are easy to get to from the cruise ship dock. Like Juneau, Ketchikan is relatively easy to get around on your own and has a bus system that takes you to most places.

Ketchikan also has excellent shore excursions, particularly to Misty Fjords National Monument, and it’s a great place for fishing trips. Ketchikan also has lots of opportunity to learn about and experience Alaska Native Culture, including the many totem poles around town and nearby.

Ketchikan is also home to some quirky and really fun experiences like the Deadliest Catch Tour and the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show.

This is an excellent Alaska cruise port for shopping, with delightful Creek Street and the streets surrounding it offering up more local art and gifts than many other ports (Juneau is also good for this, ask a local where to go!). Make sure to visit Crazy Wolf Studio, which is Alaska Native owned and features Native art from across the northwest coast. In addition, I highly recommend the Captain’s Lady, with lots of locally made items as well as Ray Troll‘s studio.

Ketchikan Highlights

  • Walking around and exploring the shops of Creek Street
  • Totem Poles – take in the impressive art of these elaborate and beautiful poles of the northwest coast around town or at Saxman or Totem Bight
  • Take a boat tour to Misty Fjords National Monument
  • Check out the Deadliest Catch tour and learn about Alaska’s crab fishing industry
  • Take in the fun and impressive Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show
  • Go fishing – salmon and halibut fishing are both excellent out of Ketchikan
  • Hiking – if it’s a rainy day, try the Rainbird Trail to explore the rainforest, and if the sun is out and you’re up for a challenging hike, head up Deer Mountain

Learn more: Best things to do in Ketchikan

Skagway – Best Hiking

A steam engine coming around a corner with a train in the remote mountains of white pass near Skagway alaska. There is a sign in the forest next to the tracks that says Denver Glacier Trail and Denver - Skagway 5.5 miles
The steam locomotive on the White Pass and Yukon Route approaching the Denver Glacier trail whistle stop in the mountains above Skagway

Skagway is a tiny town with a very busy cruise port! This is as far north as cruise ships go in the Inside Passage (some continue north from here across the Gulf of Alaska to Seward or Whittier while others turn south here to return to Seattle or Vancouver). Skagway was put on the map by the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898 and has a colorful history. In fact, the entire downtown is a national park!

The White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad was built during the Gold Rush and remains today as a tour for visitors and I will tell you that in my opinion (many agree with me!) this is the best shore excursion available in Southeast Alaska! There are several options for the train: you can take a round trip summit excursion right from the cruise ship dock, or you can go one way by train and one by bus giving you additional views of this stunning location. You can also do a hike from the train getting dropped off at Denver or Laughton Glacier as part of a tour.

The White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad gives you the unique opportunity in Southeast Alaska to get up into the mountains and inland and see a completely different climate. There are good chances to see bears and goats on this trip too! Overall I highly recommend this if you only do one shore excursion…make it this one!

Skagway also has lots of great history to explore and several excellent hikes that leave from downtown and you can easily walk to.

Skagway Highlights

  • Ride the White Pass and Yukon Route historic railroad – do NOT miss this!
  • Walk around downtown, also known as Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, and learn about Gold Rush history
  • Take a hike to Lower Dewey Lake, Smuggler’s Cove, or Lower Reid Falls

Learn more: Best things to do in Skagway

Haines – Best Weather and Kayaking

The Haines Alaska small boat harbor with many boats docked inside a breakwater. Across the water are high mountains with snow and some clouds around them on a partly sunny day
Photogenic Haines Harbor

Haines doesn’t have a lot of cruise ships that call in its port, but it does have some. You can also visit Haines by taking a shore excursion when your ship calls in nearby Skagway. However you get there, Haines is worth a visit for plenty of reasons.

In addition to the scenery that every Alaska town has on offer, Haines is positioned to have the best weather in Southeast Alaska, making it ideal for outdoor activities like kayaking! When I say best weather I mean less rain than most other ports (except Skagway) but it doesn’t have the wind that Skagway has. In any part of Southeast Alaska you need to be ready for rain, any day, all year, but Haines gives you a better chance of a dry day than most.

Kayaking is unique in Haines because you can take a tour for sea kayaking or you can kayak in Chilkoot Lake, giving options for every preference and every skill level in a kayak. This is a wonderful place to try kayaking for the first time!

Haines Highlights

  • Kayaking – either sea kayaking of lake kayaking, both are available
  • Jet Boat tour of the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve – the beautiful Chilkat River is home to a large concentration of bald eagles and a jet boat tour is the perfect way to experience the beauty of the river and see eagles diving for fish
  • Walk around Fort Seward – historic Fort Seward is today a large greenspace surrounded by lodging options and home to the delicious Port Chilkoot Distillery
  • Check out the quirky Hammer Museum – just exactly what it sounds like!
  • Walk around the harbor – all Southeast Alaska towns have a bustling harbor filled with fishing charters, commercial fishing, locals, tour boats and more. Haines has a particularly scenic harbor against the mountain backdrop

Learn more: Best things to do in Haines

Sitka – Best Alaska cruise port to explore on your own

If you like to explore on your own, Sitka is the port for you! Sitka has far fewer ships than many other ports so it’s fun for an independent minded traveler to explore. Most likely your ship will dock a few miles outside of town, but there’s a free shuttle downtown that goes every 15 minutes while a ship is important and it’s easy to zip around. You can also link up with Sitka’s bus system (called The Ride) to get to trailheads and other areas.

Sitka’s beautiful setting on Baranof Island combined with an intriguing history of Tlingit history and modern culture with Russian and American rule make it an interesting place to visit.

Sitka Highlights

  • St Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral – the best remnant of life in Sitka when it was the capital of Russian America is this gorgeous cathedral downtown
  • Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Tribal Community House – don’t miss this stunning House Screen on a clan house downtown
  • Castle Hill – great views of Sitka are found from the place where Alaska was formally transferred from Russian to American rule in 1867.
  • Sitka National Historical Park – commemorating a battle in 1804 between Tlingit people and the Russians, you can learn this history as well as see another impressive collection of totem poles
  • Whale watching – this is another fantastic place for a wildlife cruise. I once saw a brown bear swimming between two islands from a wildlife cruise here, it was incredible!
  • Fortress of the Bear – another way to see bears is to visit this bear sanctuary where you can (safely!) get close to brown bears and learn about their lives in Alaska
  • Hike the Harbor Mountain Trail – hikers will love this gorgeous rainforest trail with incredible views

Learn more: Best things to do in Sitka

Icy Strait Point/Hoonah – Most unique Alaska cruise port

Gray ocean and dark mountains surrounding it on a mostly cloudy day near Icy Strait Point, one of the best alaska cruise ports
Sailing towards Icy Strait Point (to the left) near Hoonah

Icy Strait Point near the town of Hoonah is a unique port in Southeast Alaska. Icy Strait Point was converted from a cannery for cruise ships by the Huna Totem Corporation and is Huna Tlingit owned and operated. The vast majority of employees are Huna Tlingit who live in the town of Hoonah.

At Icy Strait Point you can explore the museum in a historic cannery, walk the nature trails, eat delicious seafood and book one of the many tours offered. Tours include whale watching, trips to look for bears around Chichagof Island, ziplining and off road adventures. If you have the chance to go, don’t miss out on this truly unique Alaska cruise port, there’s nothing like it anywhere else!

Other Alaska cruise ports

If you’re traveling on a small ship, your ship may call at Wrangell, Petersburg or go ashore at Bartlett Cove in Glacier Bay National Park. These are all wonderful and intimate ports with lots to see and do. Learn more here about Wrangell, here about Petersburg and here about Glacier Bay.

A view of Wrangell Alaska from the Mt Dewey Overlook. You can see several harbors in the town below through the trees and water and mountains in the distance.
Wrangell is one of the small towns that are sometimes visited by small cruise ships

Even though it isn’t in Alaska, many cruises which start or end in Seattle stop in Victoria. If your ship calls at Victoria, read all about my suggestions for making the most of a short port call there.

If you’re embarking or disembarking in Whittier or Seward, you’ll be flying in or out of Anchorage. If you’re looking to spend a few extra days exploring, read more about all the wonderful things to do in Anchorage here.

Alaska Cruise Planner and Workbook

If you’re looking for something to keep everything organized and in one place while helping you make decisions, my Alaska Cruise Planner and Workbook is for you!

My Alaska Cruise Planner and Workbook is designed to be used online in Google Sheets (though you can download it to Excel or print if you prefer to use it that way) and will walk you step by step through the entire process of planning your cruise including:

  • What order to do things in
  • How to plan for all the costs (even the sneaky ones)
  • Whether or not to add a land trip
  • How to book the land trip (on your own or through the cruise line)
  • Choosing a cruise line and itinerary
  • Choosing and booking shore excursions
  • Choosing and booking flights
  • Packing list for your Alaska Cruise

What to pack for an Alaskan Cruise?

I have a whole post about what to pack for Alaska, including if you’re taking a cruise! Head over there for all the details, but the MOST important things to have and bring from home are an excellent rain jacket and waterproof comfortable walking shoes or boots!

If you are coming from a hot climate, make sure to bring plenty of warm clothes. Temperatures in Southeast Alaska and along the Inside Passage are generally in the 50s and 60s in the summer. It is possible to have much hotter days but definitely be ready for some chilly and damp days, even in the middle of summer!

You’ll also want to make sure you have sunscreen because when the sun does come out it’s INTENSE during Alaska’s long summer days. You can find sunscreen everywhere, but if you like a particular brand definitely bring it with you.

What about the ferry?

Alaska ferry upper deck with two tents and many deck chairs, passing through a narrow channel
Camping is a popular way to travel overnight on the Alaska ferry

You might have heard someone refer to the Alaska ferry (Alaska Marine Highway) as a local’s cruise or a cheaper cruise and I want you to know that is not accurate. I cringe whenever I read or hear this. The Alaska ferry is absolutely wonderful, but it’s public transportation and that is how it’s used by Alaskans. It’s also more expensive than people expect (often more than a cruise) and there are lots of hidden costs, such as getting a small cabin and eating in the cafeteria. If you’re interested in taking the ferry to or within Alaska, it’s an amazing experience, but it’s very different from a cruise! Learn more in my complete guide to riding the Alaska ferry here and my DIY traveler’s guide to having a blast on a cruise here.

Final Thoughts

Cruising is a fantastic way to see the coastal towns, glaciers and wildlife of Alaska, since distances are large and many communities and places are not accessible by road. And you get to wake up in a new stunningly beautiful place every day without having to repack. Go with whatever itinerary and ship makes sense for your family and you’ll have an amazing time.

Related: Guide to Planning a trip to Alaska, Alaska on a Budget

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Jennie Flaming
Hi! I'm Jennie. I’m a fourth generation Seattleite. I lived in Alaska for many years and I still spend lots of time there every year visiting friends and working as a tour director. I've been a guide for many years in both Alaska and Washington, am a field editor for the Milepost and host the Alaska Uncovered Podcast about Alaska Travel as well as the Washington State Hiking Podcast. I love to share the places I love with visitors, newcomers and my fellow locals. I’m so glad to have you here!