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Alaska

Alaska Cruise Tips: Excursions, Weather, Packing

Due to the vast size and remoteness of Glacier Bay National Park, a boat trip offers the best views. © State of Alaska/Brian Adams
Due to the vast size and remoteness of Glacier Bay National Park, a boat trip offers the best views. © State of Alaska/Brian Adams

The best Alaska cruise tips depend on weather, time of year and things to do. The cruise season is brief, and rain gets in the way of some attractions.

Alaska cruise weather is somewhat risky because of the extreme northern location. Rain and cold may limit some activities even during the summer.

But the risky weather doesn’t stop about 1 million cruise visitors every year, according to the Alaska Department of Commerce. Cruise visitors flock to see the state’s famous glaciers, awe-inspiring mountains, Native American heritage and outdoor adventures.

They also flock there mainly in the peak of summer to take advantage of the warmest time of year to visit. The cruise season runs from mid May to mid September. Even then, some months are better than others.

5 Quick Alaska Cruise Tips

  1. Glacier Bay is worth the visit, even though visitors stay on their ships.
  2. Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau is the most popular land attraction.
  3. More than 80 percent of cruisers buy at least one shore excursion.
  4. July has the warmest weather and lowest risk of rain.
  5. Mid summer visitors should pack for cold nights and warm days.

More Alaska Cruise Planning Tips

Travelers usually choose one of two trips. The most popular route is along the Inside Passage. Ships usually disembark from Seattle or Vancouver and sail up a long channel between numerous islands and the coastline. They disembark at two small towns near Anchorage.

Major stops include Ketchikan, which is known for totem poles; Juneau, the state capital; and the famous Glacier Bay, which displays 11 glaciers dumping ice into the ocean. Smaller ports include Sitka and Skagway.

The most common cruises continue on to the small towns of Seward or Whittier near Anchorage. Passengers disembark there, travel to Anchorage by car, bus or train and fly out of Anchorage for home.

Likewise, other cruisers fly into Anchorage, board ship in Seward or Whittier and travel south to Seattle or Vancouver, where they disembark for a flight home.

Some longer cruises—up to 14 days—will begin and end in Seattle or Vancouver.

The majority of cruise lines offer large ships, which can dock only at larger ports. Smaller cruise ships offer the chance to visit more remote locations and cruise closer to shore. But smaller ships also are more expensive.

Large ships emphasize more on-board activities and offer more amenities. Small ships emphasize the destination more than the ship.

Shore Excursion Tips

Mendenhall Glacier
The Mendenhall Glacier is one of the most popular shore excursions on Alaska cruises. © 2021 Scott S. Bateman

Common Alaska excursions include fishing, kayaking, rafting, dog sledding, nature boat tours and whale watching.

Prices are usually in the same range as other major cruise regions and vary between $50 and $150 depending on the type, transportation and length of time. But “Flightseeing” tours by plane or helicopter usually cost between $200 and $500 or more.

Cruise visitors tend to spend more time in the ports than other international cruise destinations, the Alaska Cruise Lines International Association says.

The visitors also tend to buy more cruise excursions than visitors to other destinations, according to the association.

More than 80 percent of visitors buy at least one excursion. The most popular excursions are wildlife viewing, sightseeing tours and riding on the local railroads, especially in Skagway.

About 22 percent of travelers who cross the Gulf of Alaska take an extended land tour, often to Denali National Park. These tours may involve a railroad trip and an overnight stay in Fairbanks, Denali and Anchorage.

Cruise Weather Tips

Alaska cruise temperatures
Alaska cruise visitors will find the warmest weather in July. © 2021 Scott S. Bateman

Daytime temperatures in the summer reach into the 70s Fahrenheit, especially in the afternoons. Land temperatures are often quite a bit warmer than sea temperatures.

Temperatures along the Inside Passage have an average high of more than 60 degrees Fahrenheit from June through August, according to the U.S. National Service. But winds will make cruise ship decks feel quite a bit cooler at times.

The average high temperature on shore for most destinations is more than 70 degrees Fahrenheit. But it is possible for temperatures on some days to climb into the 80s or reach only into the 60s. The average low, which takes place mostly at night, is often less than 50 degrees Fahrenheit. So do bring jackets.

May and September have lower temperatures and fewer cruises as a result.

July is the best month to go on an Alaska cruise because it has the least amount of rain historically. June and August have the next lowest risk of rain during the entire cruise season. September is an especially bad month for rain, but a good month for prices.

Packing Tips

Cruise visitors should bring long pants, sweaters and light jackets for cool mornings and time at sea. Bring a pair of shorts and a light shirt for days when temperatures might reach the upper 70s Fahrenheit, 80 degrees or higher.

How much to pack for warm or cool temperatures as well as rain depends on the month of the trip.

Light rain-resistant winter clothing is most important for May and September trips because of the cooler temperatures and higher amounts of rain. Don’t forget hat, scarf and gloves.

Long underwear or other types of clothing layers will protect against unexpected cold weather, especially on board ship decks.

Shorts and short-sleeved shirts will be useful during the hotter days in the summer months.

Note that mosquitoes are common in June and July, so mosquito repellant is a good item to bring on cruises during those months.

Scott S. Bateman is a professional journalist who has traveled widely throughout the Caribbean and the Americas.
June 20, 2022