Best Alaska Cruise Excursions according to an Alaska Guide

Last Updated on February 7, 2024

Are you looking for the best Alaska cruise excursions for your upcoming Alaska cruise? If you need some help sorting through the overwhelming number of options, I’m here to help.

I’ve worked in the Alaska cruise industry since the late 90s and have lived in two Alaska cruise ports. I have spent lots of time in all the ports, both exploring on my own and on tours.

I’ll get right to it and tell you that the two best Alaska cruise excursions are whale watching in Juneau and the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad in Skagway.

There are so many wonderful Alaska cruise excursions, you really can’t go wrong with any of them, but those are my top two and explain why below. I’m defining “best” as ones that everyone will love regardless of their age, mobility or interests that are experiences unique and authentic to Alaska. I also have some honorable mentions for those with unique interests.

Alaska cruise excursions give you the opportunity to get to places you can’t get to on your own, such as out among humpback whales feeding, mountains towering above narrow fjords and flying above glaciers and mountains.

What cruise line has the best Alaska cruise excursions?

All the major cruise lines operating in Alaska offer nearly identical options at the same price points. If for some reason your cruise line is not offering a smaller, special interest tour that you want, you can book it directly through the tour company. There is no need to choose one cruise line over another for the excursions.

Whale watching in Juneau

A humpback whale tail in a gray ocean on a cloudy day with hills and forest and mountains in the distance
One of my favorite whale experiences ever was watching this whale frolicking in the water on a whale watching tour from Juneau

Juneau is one of, if not the best place for whale watching in the world. Why? Because humpback whales migrate here seasonally and are very active all summer eating and feeding their calves before they migrate south for the winter.

In my opinion, if you only do one Alaska cruise excursion, it should be whale watching in Juneau.

Of course, the number of whales you see varies from day to day, but it’s nearly a guarantee of seeing these spectacular animals on a whale watching tour. In between, you’ll have a fun boat ride in very protected water with stunning mountains all around you. You will probably see other marine mammals such as seals or sea lions on your whale watching trip as well.

A humpback whale tale in the air as the whale dives with a big splash. The tail is black with white markings and you can see mountains in the background on a cloudy day.
I’m not a wildlife photographer…Thanks to Harv and Marv’s Tours for sharing this awesome whale photo with me.

Most Alaska cruise itineraries go to Juneau, but if yours does not, Icy Strait Point is also excellent for whale watching (nearly as good as Juneau) and Sitka is also a very good whale watching option.

White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad in Skagway

A green and yellow diesel train engine pulling a historic brown train car with a red roof. The train track is going through the forest and by mountains

The White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad in Skagway is another must do Alaska cruise excursion. What is truly unique and special about it is that it takes you up from the head of a fjord into the mountains through several unique climate zones and landscapes into Canada. There is no other Alaska cruise excursion that takes you to so much diversity in such a short time.

Beautiful scenery and the chance to see wildlife along with the fascinating Klondike Gold Rush history that literally put Skagway on the map are additional bonuses for the train.

There are many variations on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. There is the straightforward summit excursion that takes you back and forth from the cruise ship dock and there are many combo tours.

Combining the railroad with the dog mushing camp and gold panning is a crowd pleaser and especially fun for kids. The combo that goes into Canada’s Yukon Territory is also wonderful, though it’s a longer tour (7-8 hours) so doesn’t give you as much time to explore the town. If you like wide open spaces and getting away from it all, you’ll love the Yukon tour!

What about Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau?

Mendenhall Glacier seen in the distance behind a lake. Around the glacier are rocky hillsides covered in thick, dark clouds. There are green trees and bushes in the foreground
Mendenhall Glacier from the East Glacier Trail

Mendenhall Glacier is a wonderful gem in Juneau and an extremely popular recreation area for locals as well as visitors. You can read my complete guide to visiting Mendenhall Glacier here, but the bottom line is that this is one you definitely want to book a tour to do and you need to book it in advance. It’s really challenging (though not impossible) to get to Mendenhall Glacier on your own.

Mendenhall Glacier is super popular, but you will have other glacier viewing opportunities on your cruise, so don’t worry if you decide to do other things with your short Juneau visit.

Best Splurge on an Alaska cruise excursion

If you’ve got the budget to support it, there is no more authentically Alaskan experience than getting up in the air in a small plane, float plane or helicopter! Aviation, specifically small plane aviation, plays an outsized role in the lives of day to day Alaskans so it’s a very local and authentic experience.

In addition, Alaska is such an enormous state, with endlessly changing diverse landscapes, that to really grasp it flightseeing is the way to go. That said, flightseeing is very expensive, and boat tours are also amazing so go with a boat tour if you need something easier on your budget.

The two best flightseeing opportunities in Southeast Alaska are:

  • Helicopter Glacier Dog sledding in Juneau or Skagway – on a glacier is the only way to see a dog team on snow in the summer, and the views are incredible!
  • Wings Airways float plane flight to Taku Lodge – float planes take Alaskans everywhere, and on this trip you fly over beautiful glaciers to Taku Inlet for some delicious food at Taku Lodge.
A white float plane taxiing across Gastineau Channel near Juneau with houses and forested mountains in the background
A Wings Airways float plane taxiing before glacier flightseeing on the way to Taku Lodge

Unique Alaska cruise excursions

A totem pole in red and turquoise paint in a forest on an alaska cruise excursion in ketchikan at Saxman Native Village
A totem pole at Saxman Native Village in Ketchikan
  • Totem poles in Ketchikan – take an excursion to Saxman Native Village or visit any of the other totem poles that are abundant in Ketchikan. Ketchikan is an excellent place to learn about Alaska Native Culture and support Native owned businesses.
  • Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show – this is an extremely popular and unique experience in Ketchikan featuring the amazing skills and competitions that make use of real world skills.
  • Deadliest Catch tour – fans of the show Deadliest Catch must not miss this popular tour in Ketchikan. Entertaining and you get to learn a ton about Alaska’s crab fishery!
  • Misty Fjords National Monument Boat tour – the green, foggy hills and narrow fjords of this beautiful area near Ketchikan are exactly what people think of when they think of Southeast Alaska. While you’ll be seeing similar scenery throughout the cruise, this tour allows you to go in narrower areas that bigger ships can’t get to. There is also a flightseeing tour of Misty Fjords, but in my opinion the boat tour is better due to Ketchikan’s consistently rainy weather.
  • Juneau Food Tours – Foodies and anyone who loves unique local experiences MUST do the Juneau Food tour! I love food and getting to know local people when I travel so if this sounds like you, do not miss this tour.
  • Juneau Lighthouse ToursThis wonderful tour combines whale watching with a visit to tiny Sentinel Island and the Sentinel Island Lighthouse. This gives a very unique and local perspective to add to your whale watching experience. You can explore the tiny island with just a few other people which is really special.
  • History walking tours in Skagway – for history enthusiasts, you don’t want to miss a walking tour of Skagway. You can book one through the ship, or you can join up with the free walking tours offered by the National Park Service.

Best Alaska cruise excursions for specific interests

If you’re looking for tours related to your specific interests, such as fishing, hiking, kayaking or cooking, there are plenty of great options. As I mentioned earlier, all the tours in Alaska are excellent so you really can’t go wrong. Definitely choose something specific to your interests!

Ketchikan, Juneau or Sitka are the best ports for fishing excursions. Skagway is the best hiking port although there are excellent hikes available in every Alaska port.

A busy cruise port with five cruise ships far below mountains with green trees in the foreground
Deer Mountain in Ketchikan is a challenging but beautiful hike with a great view

Kayaking is excellent in Juneau (especially the Mendenhall Glacier kayaking excursions) and Ketchikan.

Should I book my cruise excursions through the cruise line or on my own?

The easy way with the least hassle and most convenience is to book through the cruise line. This often gives you a priority disembarkation in port and very slick and seamless transportation back and forth.

That said, it’s fine to book excursions on your own, if you want to do some extra research. There is always the risk of not making it back to the ship in time, but in my experience this is not an issue with anyone operating cruise excursions in Alaska. Check in with them and make sure they offer a return to ship guarantee. Nearly all of them will.

Really this is a matter of preference and convenience. You can go either way on this one. The cost will be about the same for the same experiences.

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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. I love to share the places I love with visitors, newcomers and my fellow locals. I’m so glad to have you here!