Cruising Alaska has been gaining in popularity for a number of years and it doesn’t seem like interest will taper off any time soon. All the major cruise lines offer itineraries along with a number of smaller lines.
We often get asked what cruise we would recommend and we do have some very specific ideas on what to look for. Alaska has a lot to see and almost any cruise will be a memorable experience but there are differences.
First, some information on the general environment. Coastal Alaska has a limited number of ports and locations so there is a lot of cruise similarities. The major cruise ports are Skagway, Juno, and Ketchikan and each has a lot to offer and they are popular with passengers. There are also a couple of less visited stops with the most common being Hanes. Another common stop is Icy Straight Point. Both of those are more opportunities to take tours than a an actual destination. There are also a couple of “cruise only” destinations. The first is the Misty Fiord which is usually a half day of cruising up thru the narrow fiord. The other is Hubbard Glacier where the ships cruise up near the face of the glacier. Finely is the port of Seward and it is the farthest north of the itineraries. Most one-way cruises make it up to Seward as this is a jumping off point for trips to Denali and includes the origin of the Alaska Rail Tours.
Our opinion is that the most spectacular sights are the glaciers and that should be a prime consideration in selecting a cruise line and its itinerary. Because the number of ships allowed to go up near to Hubbard Glacier are very limited we recommend that your first priority is to select a cruise that includes this glacier. Hubbard is a huge glacier that terminates at a bay and it is “calving” huge chunks into the water constantly. In addition the bay is filled with icebergs and flowing chunks of ice with seals being a common sight.
Mendenhall Glacier is another popular destination and usually all you need is a bus ticket from Juneau. The glacier is a National Park with a good visitor center and great hiking trails and it really is only a half hour bus ride from town. Almost all Alaska cruise passengers have an opportunity to visit this glacier.
A third glacier of particular note is Dawes Glacier located at the end of Tracy Arm Fjord. It also terminates into water with calving a frequent event. Unfortunately it is not on many ship itineraries probably because there is a limit on ships allowed all the way up the fjord. Tracy Arm Fjord is a branch off of the Misty Fjord and while cruise often include Misty Fjord, few make it up to Dawes Glacier.
A fourth frequent glacier opportunity is a helicopter tour up on the Juneau Ice Field. These tours are available from Juneau as well as Skagway. One tip that can save you some money is to book the tour on your own rather than thru the ship. You can call using U.S. cell service at most points near the popular towns and often book at the last minute. The tours only take a couple of hours so it is easy to fit into a port day as well.
Regardless of which cruise line you prefer pay attention to the available itineraries and try to get a cruise that includes Dawes or Hubbard. Most cruise will list Hubbard on the cruise itinerary but you will probably have to make some inquiries regarding Dawes.