What’s the best way to see Alaska? According to an Alaska Guide

Last Updated on April 9, 2024

Planning your dream Alaska trip and trying to decide between a cruise and planning a trip on your own? You are not alone in wondering what’s the best way to see Alaska!

In general, for travelers who want to go to as many different places as possible, a cruise or cruisetour is the way to go. For travelers who prefer going anywhere they like and are ok going to less places overall and less popular and busy parts of Alaska, planning your trip on your own is the way to go.

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. I spend several weeks in Alaska each year and I also help people plan their trips to Alaska. I am here to help you make the best decision for you whether you’re looking to see glaciers, wildlife, national parks or just get away from it all.

Ups and downs of Cruising Alaska

A princess cruise ship in front of a glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, surrounded by mountains on a cloudy day
A Princess ship in Glacier Bay National Park

An Alaska cruise is an absolutely ideal way to see Alaska for the first time if you want to go to lots of different places in a short amount of time. Alaska is a vast state, and going to lots of different places on your own is logistically complicated and expensive.

Another benefit of cruising is letting someone else take care of the logistics and only having to pack and unpack one time while seeing 1500 miles of the Alaska and British Columbia coastline. Adding a cruisetour (a cruise + land package booked through the cruise line) is an efficient way to go to inland areas like Denali National Park as well as see the coastline. Booking a cruisetour allows you to go to Denali as well as the cruise in as little as 10 days, which is logistically complicated on your own.

If you are wanting to see multiple different places in Southeast Alaska, also known as the Inside Passage, you’ll definitely want to take a cruise. If you do this on your own, limit yourself to no more than two locations (Juneau + Glacier Bay National Park makes a wonderful independent 7 day trip), otherwise the logistics and time it takes are very hard!

Benefits of seeing Alaska by CruiseDownsides of seeing Alaska by Cruise
Best way to go to the most different locationsShort amount of time in each location
Visit Remote locations – see places you can’t get to otherwiseRemote locations – mostly no cell service, Wifi is too slow for streaming
Relaxing experience – all the details are taken care of, you do not need to make a lot of decisionsThe decisions about where you go are decided by the cruise line
Easy to add to add tours that are vetted by the cruise lineNot all local tour operators sell their tours on board ships (but you can book on your own)
Puts Alaska’s most famous highlights together in one package (logistically hard on your own)You will be in places that are very busy during the summer season

Ups and Downs of visiting Alaska on your own

A hiker in a red rain jacket standing on a glacier next to a blue pool
The Root Glacier in Wrangell-St Elias National Park is one of my favorite off the beaten track locations in Alaska

Visiting Alaska on your own is a great option if you don’t mind going to less places overall in favor of spending more time in each and getting a bit further off the beaten track with that additional time.

This option gives you the maximum amount of flexibility and is especially well suited to those who want to do a trip on the Alaska Railroad, who love road trips or enjoy camping.

Benefits of seeing Alaska on your own (not on a cruise)Downsides of seeing Alaska on your own (not on a cruise)
You can go wherever you want, including places off the beaten trackTravel logistics are more complicated
You can spend as much or as little time you want in different locationsIn the most popular places systems are designed around a group tourism and can be frustrating to navigate for independent travelers
You can stop wherever you like on road trips and for as much time as you likeYou’ll be driving a lot (or riding on trains, airplanes or boats)
You can camp or if you’re in a group staying in one location for awhile stay at a vacation rental, which saves moneyHotels are more expensive booked on your own in popular areas such as Denali and downtown Anchorage
You can wing it for some things (like camping and hiking) if you’re ok going to less popular and well known placesYou’ll need to plan far ahead for lodging and tours in popular locations such as Denali and Seward
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, just outside of the town of Valdez is another favorite off the beaten track location perfect for visiting on your own

How many days do you need to see Alaska?

This is a difficult question to answer because Alaskans who have lived in Alaska their whole lives have not seeing everything! It is impossible to see all of Alaska in one trip or even in one lifetime.

If you live on the West Coast of North America, you can have an amazing Alaska experience in just a long weekend. If you live elsewhere, the flight might be too long to justify that short of a trip.

For most people 7 to 14 days is a good amount of time to have an amazing Alaska adventure. Most Alaska cruises are 7 days, though some are 10 days or longer. Alaska cruisetours are generally 10-14 days including the cruise, with some companies offering longer trips.

If you have more time, say a month or more, you can take on the epic adventure of driving to Alaska or taking the ferry to Alaska!

Itinerary Planning

Once you’ve decided how to visit Alaska, you’re ready to start booking!

The most important thing to do first is to decide where you will and won’t go on your trip. If you’re taking a cruise, you’ll be making decisions about how many days and whether you’re doing a round trip or one way cruise. If you’re doing a land portion, a one way cruise is best. I recommend a round trip cruise from Seattle or Vancouver if you’re not doing a land portion to keep the logistics simple while still getting all the benefits of a cruise. Grab my Alaska Cruise Planner and Workbook to walk you through the process step by step.

If you’re planning your trip on your own, I recommend not sleeping in more than two places per week (not including an airport hotel when you arrive or the night before you leave). This will give you time to experience activities and not just be driving, riding on a train, boat or airplane the entire trip. If you’re looking for specific itinerary suggestions for planning a trip to Alaska on your own, check out my done-for-you Alaska itineraries.

If you need help getting organized and making decisions, grab my Alaska Adventure Travel Planner and Workbook – it will walk you through all the decisions you need to make and what to book and in what order.

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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!