A beautiful morning in Skagway, Alaska.
Photo © Aaron Saunders

There are very few destinations like Alaska – the combination of nature, scenery, and small towns nestled near the base of mountains has been inspiring people since the gold rush swept the area in the late 1800’s.  Despite the somewhat unpredictable weather and the unfortunate reduction in the numbers of ships cruising to Alaska, it still remains one of the most popular summer cruise destinations.

It can also be one of the most confusing.  There are essentially three different types of Alaska cruises:

Regent Seven Seas Mariner tied up at Canada Place in Vancouver.
Photo © Aaron Saunders

 – Traditional Inside Passage cruises leaving roundtrip from Vancouver, BC.  These voyages typically last for seven days, and include stops in Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway and sometimes Sitka or Icy Strait Point.  A visit to Glacier Bay or Hubbard Glacier is usually on the menu, though sometimes the harder-to-access and less impressive Sawyer Glacier / Tracy Arm stop is provided in lieu of the former options.  These cruises are popular due to their two days worth of Inside Passage cruising – absolutely spectacular.  In 2010, Holland America Line, Regent Seven Seas and Silversea Cruises are the only lines offering roundtrip Vancouver voyages.

 Departing Vancouver, bound for Seward, Alaska.
Photo © Aaron Saunders

– North or Southbound Cruises sail from Vancouver, BC and terminate in either Seward or Whittier, Alaska – or vice-versa.  These usually include the same ports as the Roundtrip Vancouver cruises shown above, but also include scenic cruising in College Fjord, and sometimes stop at more obscure ports like Haines instead of Skagway.  Seward and Whittier both lack international airports, meaning passengers planning on (dis)embarking there must fly into Anchorage, and involves a somewhat lengthy journey from ship to airport.  Currently Celebrity, Holland America Line, Princess, Regent Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean, and Silversea Cruises all offer North/Southbound voyages.

 Golden Princess docked at the new Smith Cove 
terminal in Seattle; better known as Pier 90/91.
Photo © 2010 Aaron Saunders

– Roundtrip Seattle Cruises are quite popular with many Americans due to their proximity to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and relative low-airfare costs compared with the above two options.  They sail roundtrip from Seattle’s Pier 66 or the brand-new Pier 90/91, and voyages can last between seven and fourteen days.  Port calls at Sitka are more common due to the easy access to this unique town from the Pacific Ocean, and calls at Hubbard Glacier, Glacier Bay, Tracy Arm, as well as the ‘big three’ of Alaska – Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway – are also common.

However, cruises departing from Seattle tend to stay in the Pacific Ocean, sailing off the west coast of Vancouver Island instead of the more scenic inside passage.  In addition, in order to satisfy the Jone’s Act, which prohibits vessels leaving and returning from a US port without first calling in a ‘distant foreign port’, an evening port call in Victoria, BC is usually required on the last day of the cruise.  Some lines, like NCL, have substituted Victoria with the more northerly Prince Rupert, BC.  Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess, and Royal Caribbean all offer departures from Seattle.

Is one of these options better than the rest?  A lot depends on what you want to see, and how much you want to spend. Obviously, if you have been to Alaska before and are planning a return trip, you might want to consider a different cruise itinerary in order to get the most diverse experience.  If you’re a first-time cruiser to Alaska, while there really is no right or wrong answer, there are a couple of things to consider:

Magnificent Glacier Bay.
Photo © Aaron Saunders

1.  Make sure your cruise visits at least one glacier.  They are amazing, and yet there are still many itineraries out there that only visit Tracy Arm.  Just south of Juneau, Tracy Arm is quite impressive in its own right, and the narrow, Norway-esque fjord does indeed lead to the North and South Sawyer Glaciers – if you can get there.  Many ships don’t make it more than halfway down the fjord due to ice.

 Tracy Arm on a relatively ice-free afternoon.
Photo © Aaron Saunders

The only guaranteed way to see the Sawyer Glaciers is to book a separate excursion to them while your ship is docked in Juneau – and that is an option that may not be available on all lines and itineraries.  Glacier Bay and Hubbard Glacier are far more impressive and accessible. 

Cruising the Inside Passage aboard the Zuiderdam.
Photo © Aaron Saunders

2.  Don’t Underestimate the Inside Passage.  You can see the ocean on any cruise, but the Inside Passage – routinely offered on roundtrip or North/Southbound cruises from Vancouver – is a must-see.  It doesn’t matter if its sunny or pouring rain, this region is impressive in all types of weather.  Expect to be glued to your deck chair or favorite lounge for most of the day when you sail the passage – you won’t want to be out of sight for long.

3.  Consider Seattle.  If only for the variety of ships they offer.  As a Vancouverite, I’m admittedly biased to cruises departing from Canada Place.  The fact remains, however, that not only does Seattle offer some very attractive itineraries – including fourteen-day options from Holland America and Princess – the city also has its act together when it comes to its cruise terminals, none of which suffer the same kinds of mind-boggling delays that so often mark a cruise departing from Vancouver’s Canada Place.

Whichever Alaska voyage you choose, you are sure to be impressed by this great destination.  It’s what keeps passengers coming back again and again.


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