Which is better: Denali on your own or with a Cruise line?

Feeling confused about the best way to visit Denali National Park? Taking a cruise and not sure if you should visit Denali on your own or with a cruise line? If so, this article is for you! I’ll walk you through the three factors you want to consider – how much time you have, where you want to go on land and if you’re a hiker to help you decide.

I have worked in the Alaska travel industry since the late 90s and have lived in Alaska and visited around the state on my own and while working as a tour director for multiple cruise lines. I also help people plan their trips to Alaska and I am here to help you make the best decision about Denali for you.

Jennie in front of a wooden sign at the entrance to Denali National Park
Yours truly in Denali National Park

This article is for those who are already planning to take an Alaska cruise and want to go to Denali National Park before or after and aren’t sure how to do it. If you’re still deciding how you want to visit Alaska, check out my advice about that here. If you’re planning a trip on your own and not taking a cruise, see my guide to planning your visit to Denali National Park on your own.

There are three main considerations in deciding whether you want to do Denali on your own before or after the cruise or do a pre or post cruise cruisetour package booked through the cruise line:

  1. How much time do you have?
  2. Do you want to explore other parts of Alaska, or primarily Denali National Park?
  3. Are you a hiker or camper?

Let’s break down each of these factors to learn why it matters and how to make a decision. One factor that should NOT be a deciding factor is the cost. The cost booked as a package through the cruise line vs on your own. I have priced this out many times for clients so you can trust my experience on this.

You can save money booking on your own if you’re planning to camp or you are in a group that could share a vacation rental, staying for several days and are ok being further away from the park at night. Vacation Rentals are located further away from the Denali National Park entrance area than the hotels.

How much time do you have?

If you have 5 days or less for the land portion of your trip (12 days total for your trip including the cruise but not including travel days), I recommend booking through the cruise line.

Why? Because the logistics of getting from the ship to Denali and to the airport (or the other way if you do it before) are complicated and for short trips you don’t get the benefit of having more time to explore more place to make the extra logistics worth it.

If you have five days or longer for the land trip, then I planning the trip on your own might make sense for you. You’ll have more time to explore more places and more time to work with to not be overwhelmed with travel logistics.

Is Denali your main goal? Or do you want to explore other parts of Alaska as well?

If you’re primarily wanting to go to Denali National Park, Anchorage, Fairbanks or Talkeetna, then booking through the cruise line makes a lot of sense. Why not let someone else handle logistics, transportation and all your luggage from place to place if you are going to popular places that are well served by cruise lines?

Mountains seen from the side of the highway from Anchorage to Valdez. The mountains are jagged and have some snow and in the foreground are green meadows
Thompson Pass near Valdez is easy to get to on a road trip, but not on most cruisetour itineraries

If you are interested in getting further off the beaten track to locations that are less often frequently by visitors, such as the Kenai Peninsula, Valdez, Wrangell-St Elias National Park, the Richardson Highway or the Denali Highway, then you’ll probably want to plan your land trip on your own. A big benefit of planning the land portion on your own is to have maximium flexibility to go to less popular (but equally awesome) places.

Are you a hiker or camper?

A hiker on a trail in the forest in Denali National Park with mountains in the background
Trails in Denali are never crowded once you get a quarter of a mile from the visitor center

If you’re into hiking, you will really enjoying doing the land portion on your own. That’s not to say you can’t do plenty of hiking on a cruisetour, because you can. But, you’re limited in the locations and wouldn’t be able to check out any of the hikes along the route from Anchorage to Denali National Park and Fairbanks.

If you’re a hiker you may also prefer the opportunity to take the Transit Bus in Denali rather than the tour bus, where you can get on and off and explore on your own.

Those who camp, especially those who tent camp can save a lot of money doing the trip on your own. You will have the hassle of bringing camping gear with you on the trip (or you can rent it), but if you love camping definitely consider a camping trip on your own.

RV camping is also a really fun way to see Alaska giving you lots of flexibility, but it costs about the same once you factor in the cost of renting the RV and fueling it.

If you are planning to camp in Denali National Park, it is critical to get reservations far ahead of time, as well as locations that are within a couple hours drive of Anchorage.

If you are a hiker, but have limited time, I’d recommend booking through the cruise line but spending your time in Denali National Park hiking. This will get you away from the busiest areas and you can definitely do this on your own.

Bottom Line

If you’re taking a cruise to Alaska and want to add a land portion to your trip to visit Denali National Park, for most people it probably makes the most sense to book this through the cruise line. However, if you have more time (five days or more), love hiking or camping, or you want to get off the beaten track, it is much more worth it to book on your own!

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Jennie Flaming
Hi! I'm Jennie. I’m a fourth generation Seattleite who lived in Alaska for 7 years and I still spend lots of time there every year. I've been a tour guide for many years in both Alaska and Washington and am a field editor for the Milepost. I love to share the places I love with visitors, newcomers and my fellow locals. I’m so glad to have you along on the journey to experience your best adventure in Washington, Alaska and Western Canada!