No matter where you go in Alaska, you’re guaranteed to see sights you’ll see nowhere else in the United States.
But the way you see them – the vantage point and the experience – can vary greatly, depending largely on which type of ship you choose, particularly its size.
Alaska cruise ships range from small yachts that carry a dozen passengers to mega-ships capable of hauling 2,500 people or more. For many cruisers, the larger ships — operated by Carnival, Celebrity, Norwegian, Holland America, Princess, Disney, and Royal Caribbean cruise lines — have a lot to recommend. (Disney, by the way, is geared toward adults as well as kids.)
Averaging around 2,000 passengers, they’re geared toward satisfying a wide variety of tastes — visiting the most popular ports and serving up near-round-the-clock food and entertainment — and are loaded with abundant shipboard activities of every type.
The big ships also tend to be relatively easy on the budget, averaging much lower basic cruise rates than small ships. They also tempt passengers with attractive shore excursions such as lumberjack shows, Tlingit dance exhibitions, salmon bakes, gold panning, dog sledding, glacial river floating and even bear-watching by floatplane.
Keep in mind that while organized shore excursions can add a lot to a cruise experience, they can also add a lot to your expenses, so choose wisely.
At the other end of the spectrum, much smaller “expedition-style” vessels — such as those operated by Un-Cruise Adventures (formerly American Safari Cruises) , Lindblad Expeditions, Discovery Voyages and American Cruise Lines — offer a more adventurous cruising experience.
Accompanied by naturalists and carrying no more than 200 passengers — and often far fewer — these more maneuverable ships can visit out-of-the-way islands, ports, and inlets that the bigger ships can’t reach. You’ll also get to know Alaska’s wildlife, glaciers and scenery better as well.
On many, passengers can board Zodiacs or kayaks to get intimate views of whales and other attractions. Of course, small ships may also put into port just like big ships — though they tend to be more off-the-beaten-track ports. While you may start or end your voyage in Juneau or Sitka, say, your other ports of call may be small fishing villages.
You also aren’t likely to find the kind of round-the-clock onboard entertainments and activities, such as theater productions, discos, water slides and the like, as you would on the big ships — though you may find a pool or hot tub and some light entertainment (even a National Park Service ranger playing the violin on one recent cruise!).
You are also likely to be treated to talks by local geologists, naturalists, historians or experts on native Alaskan cultures. After-dinner activities may include chatting with fellow passengers over drinks, watching movies or spending time on deck under the stars.
Expect to pay handsomely for all this personal attention; small ships often come at luxury-line prices. Some small ships do include budget-stretchers like shore excursions, alcoholic drinks and gratuities in their base prices; but in any event, you aren’t likely to encounter the same types of costly temptations (specialty restaurants, big casinos, spas, boutiques, art auctions) as you will on the big ships.
If you’re just seeking plain old-fashioned luxury, you can opt for lines like Regent Seven Seas or Silversea, which have mid-size ships (400 to 700 passengers) and plenty of onboard amenities.
The Cruise Lines
Here is a brief rundown of top cruise lines sailing Alaska in 2016:
Note: Princess and Holland America have the most ships operating in Alaska.
Carnival — One-week Inside Passage trips.
Celebrity Cruises — Seven- to 12-day Inside Passage and Gulf of Alaska voyages, some with land tours.
Holland America Line — One- to two-week Inside Passage and beyond trips, some with land portions.
Disney Cruise Line — One-week Inside Passage trips.
Norwegian — One- to two-week Inside Passage and beyond trips.
Princess Cruises — One-week to 10-day Inside Passage voyages plus longer land-sea trips.
Royal Caribbean — Five-day to two-week cruises and land-sea tours to Inside Passage and beyond.
My favorites: For sea only, Disney; for land-sea, Princess.
American Cruise Lines — Twelve-day Inside Passage sailings.
Discovery Voyages — One ship on Prince William Sound.
Lindblad Expeditions — One- to two-week voyages along Inside Passage.
Un-Cruise Adventures — One- to two-week voyages along Inside Passage.
My favorites: Un-Cruise Adventures, American Cruise Lines.
Crystal — Seven- to 10-day Inside Passage voyages; some longer international sailings include Alaska.
Regent Seven Seas — One- to two-week Inside Passage cruises.
Silversea — Mostly one week Inside Passage and Gulf of Alaska sailings; one special 23-day expedition sailing.
My favorite: Silversea.