Alaska’s astounding beauty and vast wilderness are unlike any other destination in the U.S. — and even in the world. While you can plan land-based trips to the state, many of Alaska’s majestic snow-capped mountains, pristine forests, glacial waterways and abundant wildlife are in remote locations, only reachable by plane or by boat. That’s just one of the many reasons why Alaska is one of the most popular cruise destinations in the world.
Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) Alaska says about 630 voyages are scheduled on board 41 CLIA-member cruise ships for the 2022 Alaskan cruise season. There are also smaller vessels operated by nonmember lines, like Lindblad and Hurtigruten expeditions, that are not included in that number.
Seattle is a common departure point for round-trip cruises to Alaska, with many sailings offering journeys along the Inside Passage, the state’s most popular cruise route. From the Port of Seattle alone, 295 cruises will depart between late April and the end of October, according to John Boesche, senior vice president of tourism at Visit Seattle.
With so many cruise ships visiting Alaska each year — over the course of a seven-monthlong season — when is the best time to book an Alaskan cruise?
If you have school-age children, you’ll probably need to travel midsummer, which is peak season. However, if you’re flexible on dates, there’s really no bad time to visit this magical destination. Mountain peaks shrouded in clouds or misty days cruising Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in late April are equally as beautiful as sunny days hiking through Tongass National Forest or whale watching on an excursion out of Icy Strait Point in July.
If you’re ready to stop dreaming and start planning a once-in-a-lifetime adventure to the Last Frontier, here are tips on the best times to cruise to Alaska.
Shoulder seasons — and an extended cruise season — mean better pricing and more availability.
If you want to score a deal and have fewer crowds, travel during the shoulder seasons: May and September. In these months, cruise fares are typically lower and ships are not as full, offering more cabin availability. However, with changes in the global climate bringing more moderate temperatures to Alaska, and the cruise season now extending into April and October, cruisers can also expect to find deals in April and October. There will be fewer sailings to choose from, but you may find lower pricing and avoid the peak season crowds on the ship and in the ports.
Select shore excursions may be available at a discount in spring and fall. If you’re planning on exploring Alaska on your own before or after your cruise, you’ll also find cheaper hotel rates at the beginning or end of the cruise season.
If you’re interested in sailings in April or October, Norwegian Cruise Line may be a good option. This cruise line kicked off the Port of Seattle’s 2022 Alaskan cruise season with Norwegian Bliss as the first ship to sail from Seattle in late April; two of its ships are also set to close out the season toward the end of October. Other lines sailing the extended season in Alaska include Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Royal Caribbean International, Silversea Cruises and Ponant.
In addition to bringing more cruise options for passengers, the extended season provides more opportunities for local businesses and residents in Alaska. Tyler Hickman, senior vice president of Icy Strait Point, an Alaska Native-owned port in Hoonah and one of the ports of call in the Inside Passage, says extending the season has a positive economic impact for Alaska. It generates more jobs that employ people for seven — rather than five — months out of the year.
Do you want to take a cruise or cruisetour?
Many cruise lines offer itineraries in Alaska, including mainstream and luxury lines. You can also opt for small-ship cruises on expedition-style vessels like those operated by UnCruise Adventures and Alaskan-owned Alaskan Dream Cruises. What you decide to book will depend on your budget, who is traveling and the type of experience you seek.
Round-trip cruises from Seattle are popular because the city is easily accessible. Cruise lines also make some round trips from Vancouver in Canada’s British Columbia province, but more often the voyages from Vancouver sail one way to the Alaska cities of Seward or Whittier. Other ports used less frequently for these cruises include San Francisco, Los Angeles and Juneau, the capital of Alaska. You can browse many options, depending on the line you choose and when you want to travel. The majority of sailings available occur between May and September.
Perhaps you’re interested in a cruisetour: a land and sea package that’s offered typically from May to September by lines like Celebrity Cruises, Princess, Holland America, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian. These combined trips generally include the cruise, overnight accommodations in lodges, railway journeys and motorcoach travel between destinations. With these tours, you’ll be able to visit the vast landscape of Alaska, where you can explore cities like Anchorage and Fairbanks or spend time in Denali National Park and Preserve. Some options, such as one by Celebrity Cruises, include seeing the alpine lakes and snow-covered peaks of the Canadian Rockies, while other tours may range in focus from encountering Alaskan wildlife to viewing glaciers.
What are the best months for warm weather and sunshine?
Alaska’s weather can change dramatically, especially the further north you go. While the weather may not be as predictable in April as in the middle of summer, Hickman says Alaska can be beautiful in springtime, with long stretches of sunny days and crisp, clear evenings, offering the opportunity for late-season viewing of the northern lights. He also adds April is one of the favorite times of year for local Alaskans.
If you’d prefer warmer weather for your cruise, the summer season in Alaska runs from mid-May to mid-September. During that period, daytime temperatures typically range from 60 to 80 degrees, though they can drop into the 40s overnight. You can expect to have between 16 to 24 hours of daylight in the warmer season. May is considered the driest month, with around a 25% chance of precipitation, but the rain becomes more frequent throughout the summer.
Mid-June through mid-August is regarded as the peak season for warmer weather and lots of daylight. If you want to experience the most “midnight sun,” plan to cruise a few weeks before or after the summer solstice — the longest day of the year — which usually falls on June 20 or 21.
Come September, the days are generally shorter, rainier and cooler — but not always. You might get lucky with some unseasonably warm days amid the beautiful fall foliage; as a bonus, September also means no bugs and fewer crowds. Early October temperatures are usually around the 50s, while later in the month brings snow in the higher elevations. If you have high hopes of catching the northern lights, it may be dark enough to view the aurora borealis starting in mid-August, though the chances are much better during a winter land-based trip.
When can you expect to see wildlife and go whale watching?
According to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, one of the top destinations on the Inside Passage itinerary, wildlife viewing is possible year-round, especially if you have your binoculars at hand. When you’re not watching for turquoise ice calving in the bay from the glaciers, you might see humpback whales as long as 65 feet, black and brown bears up to 10 feet tall, orcas, harbor and Dall’s porpoises, sea otters, harbor seals, mountain goats, sea lions, seabirds and bald eagles soaring overhead. And that’s just what you can view from the ship.
During cruises through the park, rangers board the ships to offer commentary and information about the marine and terrestrial wildlife. They also help spot whales or other animals along the way. One of the highlights while cruising slowly through the park is to go outside on the bow of the ship — or even out onto your veranda — to listen to the incredible silence of this otherworldly place. You may hear nothing at all, or perhaps you’ll be treated to the sounds of birds in the distance or the swoosh from a whale’s blowhole before it dives down below the water’s surface.
It’s possible to view certain animals and marine life throughout the year, according to Hickman. “Whale sightings are consistent from May through September, with fewer occurring in April and October as they migrate from or to Hawaii for the winter,” he said, adding: “Even on a foggy day when you can’t see the whales, you can still hear them and feel their presence — and that’s almost as incredible as seeing them from a ship or along the coastline.”
If you’re interested in seeing brown bears, here is Hickman’s advice: “Bear sightings in April will depend on the snowpack and when they are leaving hibernation. This year they started moving around the last week of April, but this can happen a few weeks earlier. Bear viewing is best in low elevations as they are seeking grass and skunk cabbage.” With about 3,500 brown bears on Chichagof Island, the location of Hoonah — amounting to roughly 1.7 bears per square mile and one of the largest brown bear populations in the world — Hickman says you’re nearly guaranteed to see bears on one of Icy Strait Point’s bear-watching tours. Icy Point Strait also offers whale watching adventures and other tours into the wilderness.
Alaska.org, a website run by local Alaskans that offers travel advice and recommendations, points to late May and early June as the best time to see bears on a cruise, as mothers and cubs roam the shoreline. If you’re venturing ashore, however, peak bear season is typically mid-June through the end of August. May to September is overall the top time for wildlife viewing, though some animals, like moose or orcas, you can spot year-round.
When do the Alaskan salmon run?
If you are an avid angler — or just want to watch the bears fish for their supper — then visit Alaska during the peak salmon runs, from May to September. King salmon season begins in May and goes through the end of July. The silver salmon run lasts from July up until the end of November. Red salmon are available between mid-June and mid-August, while you can catch pink and chum salmon in the brief window from mid-July to mid-August. If you prefer halibut or just want to get out on the ocean, the best time for this wild Pacific species is from May to September. You can also seek out many other river and ocean species, such as rainbow trout, arctic char and northern pike. Cruise lines offer fishing excursions, or you can arrange for a private or group charter in one of the Alaskan towns, like Ketchikan.
If you want to see brown bears during the salmon run, book a bear-viewing excursion in one of the ports, like Icy Strait Point. You may also consider extending your trip to visit Katmai National Park and Preserve and the renowned Brooks River, combined with a stay at Brooks Lodge. Brooks Falls boasts iconic photos of bears catching salmon that are jumping over the falls; you may be able to view the bears feasting in salmon season, from June through mid-September. The lodge is accessible by floatplane from King Salmon. You can also add a flyover tour to see the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, an area in southern Alaska transformed by ash from the 1912 Novarupta-Katmai volcanic eruption.
What are the best months for excursions?
Some of the excursions offered on an Alaskan cruise may be the most expensive tours you’ve seen on a ship, but they’re also probably some of the coolest things you’ve ever thought about doing while on vacation. Note that the probability of a tour being canceled for weather is almost the same for all tours offered between April and October, as the weather in Alaska can be unpredictable. Some of the more extreme tours, however, may not be available early or late in the season.
If you’re looking at splurging on a bucket list adventure while in Skagway — like Alaska Shore Tours’ flightseeing helicopter excursion, which includes a dogsledding experience on a glacier — you should check to make sure it’s available the month you’ll be cruising. This particular tour may not be open for booking before May or after September due to the conditions for the sled dogs.
Another over-the-top excursion dependent on optimal weather conditions is the Heli-Hike and Rail Adventure that begins in Skagway. This tour includes a helicopter ride from town that flies over glaciers and mountains, then drops you off for a roughly 5-mile guided hike to view Laughton Glacier and learn about the natural history of the area. After the hike, you’ll board the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad at Glacier Station for the scenic journey through the mountains back to Skagway.
If you’re interested in the Misty Fjords Flightseeing tour in Ketchikan, this thrilling ride is also best on a clear day. This Alaskan bush plane tour soars over the Misty Fjords National Monument, which has more than 2 million acres of pristine lakes, waterfalls, ancient forests and snow-capped mountains.
Tours that include activities like mountain climbing or navigating suspension bridges might also be best when done on a sunny day. The ship’s excursion desk, local guides or tour providers can offer the best advice on how to plan your activities.
No matter which tours you opt to take, be prepared for the ever-changing weather patterns by wearing layers — and make sure to bring a waterproof rain jacket. Before booking, you should check the individual tour operator’s cancellation and refund policy.
If you’re flexible as to when you can travel to Alaska, you may be able to take advantage of lower pricing, travel incentives and added perks in the shoulder seasons — and you’ll have fewer crowds than in the busy summer months.
If your goal is to view wildlife, then most of the cruise season, especially from May to September, will offer ample opportunities to see bears, humpbacks whales, bald eagles and other amazing animals — depending on the itinerary and excursions you choose. You’ll also be able to catch Alaska’s prized salmon throughout much of the cruise season.
And if extreme adventures are going to be the highlight of your vacation, then be sure to check with the tour providers to make sure your top picks are offered when you’re planning to travel. Not all tour providers operate the full seven months of the season.
No matter when you decide to visit, a cruise to the Last Frontier will be one of the most memorable vacations of your lifetime.
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