Your three main questions in choosing a cruise in Alaska are "When should I go?," "Where do I want to go?," and "How big a ship?"
When to Go
Alaska is very much a seasonal, as opposed to year-round, cruise destination, generally open to cruising from May through September (although some smaller ships start up in late Apr). May and September are considered the shoulder season, and lower brochure rates are offered during these months (and more aggressive discounts as well; watch your local newspaper and check the Internet). Cruising in May can be extremely pleasant -- the real, near-gridlock-inducing crowds have yet to arrive, and if you're lucky, the temperatures will already be warm. Locals, coming off what is usually a fairly isolated winter, are friendlier than they are later in the season, when they're tired and, frankly, pretty much ready to see the tourists go home. There is also the statistical fact that May in the Inside Passage ports is one of the driest months in the season. Late September also offers the advantage of fewer fellow tourists clogging the ports. The warmest months are June, July, and August, with temperatures generally around 50° to 80°F (10°-27°C) during the day and cooler at night. But warmer days can occur as well -- and when it gets above 80°F (27°C) in, say, Juneau, you can be sure there will be plenty of local speculation about global warming. Pack a parka, but also pack some T-shirts. You will need to bring along a sweater or two, and a rain slicker is a good idea. June 21 is the longest day of the year, with the sky lit virtually all night. June tends to be drier than July and August, and April and May are drier than September (though in early Apr you may encounter freezing rain and other vestiges of winter). Somebody once said, "Everybody complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it." And that's very much the way it is in Alaska. The simple fact is that, in Alaska, perhaps more than in many other states, the weather is going to do what it's going to do. You may be forced to don a coat, hat, and gloves in July and August -- theoretically, the months in which one might expect higher temperatures. On the other hand, we've also been comfortable in short sleeves on deck in Glacier Bay in May and September -- when, again, theoretically it should be a little cooler. You may encounter so much wind-driven rain in Skagway that you'd think the moisture was moving horizontally. But it might also be completely dry and so sunny that you have to put on sunblock so you don't burn -- and pack a bathing suit, because you may even want to take a dip in the ship's pool. In other words, be prepared for anything.
If you are considering traveling in a shoulder month, remember that some shops don't open until Memorial Day, and the visitor season is generally considered over on Labor Day (although cruise lines operate well into Sept).
Inside Passage or the Gulf of Alaska?
The Inside Passage runs through the area of Alaska known as the Southeast (which the locals also call "the Panhandle"), that narrow strip of the state -- islands, mainland coastal communities, and mountains -- that runs from the Canadian border in the south to the start of the Gulf in the north, just above the Juneau/Haines/Skagway area. The islands on the western side of the area afford cruise ships a welcome degree of protection from the sea and its attendant rough waters (hence the name "Inside Passage"). Because of that shelter, such ports as Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, and others are reached with less rocking and rolling, and thus less risk of seasickness. Sitka is not on the Inside Passage (it's on the Pacific side of Baranof Island), but that beautiful little community is included in most Inside Passage cruise itineraries.
The Southeast encompasses the capital city, Juneau, and townships influenced by the former Russian presence in the state (Sitka, for instance), the Tlingit and Haida Native cultures (Ketchikan), and the great gold rush of 1898 (Skagway). It is a land of rainforests, mountains, inlets, and glaciers (including Margerie, Johns Hopkins, Muir, and the others contained within the boundaries of Glacier Bay National Park). The region is rich in wildlife, especially of the marine variety. It is a scenic delight. But then, what part of Alaska isn't?
The other major cruising area is the Southcentral region's Gulf of Alaska, usually referred to by the cruise lines as the "Glacier Discovery Route," or the "Voyage of the Glaciers," or some such catchy title. "Gulf of Alaska," after all, sounds pretty bland.
The coastline of the Gulf is that arc of land from just north of Glacier Bay to the Kenai Peninsula. The Southcentral also takes in the truly spectacular Prince William Sound; the Cook Inlet, on the northern side of the peninsula; Anchorage, Alaska's biggest city; the year-round Alyeska Resort at Girdwood, 40 miles from Anchorage; the Matanuska and Susitna valleys (the "Mat-Su"), a fertile agricultural region renowned for the record size of some of its garden produce; and part of the Alaska Mountain Range.
The principal Southcentral terminus ports are Seward or Whittier for Anchorage. Ships typically carry passengers from Seward or Whittier to Anchorage by bus or train. (Getting all the way around the peninsula to Anchorage would add a day to the cruise.) Let us stress that going on a Gulf cruise does not mean that you don't visit any of the Inside Passage. The big difference is that, whereas the more popular Inside Passage cruise itineraries run 7 nights round-trip to and from Seattle or Vancouver, the Gulf routing is 7 nights one-way -- northbound or southbound -- between Vancouver and Seward or Vancouver and Whittier. A typical Gulf itinerary also visits such Inside Passage ports as Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, and/or Skagway.
The Gulf's glaciers are quite dazzling and every bit as spectacular as their counterparts to the south. College Fjord, for instance, is lined with glaciers -- 16 of them, each one grander than the last. On one cruise, Fran saw incredible calving at Harvard Glacier, with chunks of 400- and 500-year-old ice falling off and crashing into the water with thunderous sounds every few minutes (worries about global warming aside, the sight was spectacular). Another favorite part of a Gulf cruise, though, is the visit to the gigantic Hubbard Glacier -- at 6 miles, Alaska's longest -- at the head of Yakutat Bay (our all-time favorite, by the way -- where the chunks in the water may remind you of ice in a giant punch bowl). Not to raise again the specter of global warming, but sadly, most of Alaska's glaciers are in retreat, some receding quite rapidly. On a recent visit to Sawyer Glacier, the ice face had gone so far back that the ship was unable to get closer than a mile or so. Not the best way to view a glacier.
Cruise tours combine a cruise with a land tour, either before or after the cruise. Typical packages link the cruise with a 3- to 5-night Anchorage/Denali/Fairbanks tour, a 4- to 7-night Yukon tour (which visits Anchorage, Denali, and Fairbanks on the way), or a 5- to 7-night tour of the Canadian Rockies. Holland America, Princess, and Royal Caribbean/Celebrity lead the big-ship cruise-tour market. Even if you book with another cruise line, chances are, at least some portions of your land tour will be bought from one of these operators.
Big Ship or Small?
Imagine an elephant. Now imagine your pet pug dog, Sparky. That's about the size difference between your options in the Alaska market: behemoth modern ships and small, more exploratory coastal vessels.
Small Ships -- Just as big cruise ships are mostly for people who want every resort amenity, small or alternative ships are best suited for people who prefer a casual, crowd-free cruise experience that gives passengers a chance to get up close and personal with Alaska's natural surroundings and wildlife. Small ships offer little in terms of amenities: They usually have small cabins, only one lounge/bar and dining room, and no exercise facilities, entertainment, or organized activities. There are little or no stabilizers on most of these smaller ships, and the ride can be bumpy in open water -- which isn't much of a problem on Inside Passage itineraries, since most of the cruising area is protected from sea waves. They are also difficult for travelers with disabilities, as none of the ships in the market have elevators. Despite all of this, they're universally more expensive than the big ships and offer fewer discounts. That's the down side.
But a big plus, thanks to their smaller size, is that these ships can go places that larger ships can't, such as narrow fjords, uninhabited islands, and smaller ports that cater mostly to small fishing vessels. Due to their shallow draft, they can nose right up to sheer cliff faces, bird rookeries, bobbing icebergs, and cascading waterfalls that you can literally reach out and touch. Also, sea animals are not as intimidated by these ships, so you might find yourself having a rather close encounter with a humpback whale, or watching other sea mammals bobbing in the ship's wake. Cruising recently in Misty Fjords, Fran and her fellow passengers watched through binoculars as a shore-side bear stood to its full height, the captain positioning the ship a safe distance from the creature for a good half-hour so everyone could take in the sight. The decks on these ships are closer to the waterline, too, giving passengers a more intimate view than they would get from the high decks of the large cruise ships. Some of these ships stop at ports on a daily basis, as do the larger ships, while some avoid ports almost entirely, exploring natural areas instead. Small ships also have the flexibility to change direction as opportunities arise -- say, to go where whales have been sighted and to linger awhile once a sighting's been made.
Visitors aboard large ships have access to the real, natural Alaska, too, with frequent whale spottings. But since you are calling mostly at popular ports, to dig further, you really need to do some of the more remote (and pricey) shore excursions. Visitors aboard small ships will have simpler accommodations and not much onboard entertainment, but will get an experience that's more intimate, allowing them to really get in touch with the place they've come to see. Choose your ship accordingly.
Big Ships -- The big ships in the Alaska market fall generally into two categories: midsize ships and megaships. Carrying as many as 2,670 passengers, the megaships look and feel like floating resorts. Big on glitz, they offer loads of activities, attract many families and (especially in Alaska) seniors, offer a large number of public rooms (including fancy casinos and fully equipped gyms and spas), and provide a wide variety of meal and entertainment options. And though they may feature 1 or 2 formal nights per trip, the ambience is generally casual (with casual buffet options now available on formal nights and some people not dressing up at all; and we've noticed a trend among those who do -- fewer tuxes and ball gowns and more dark suits and cocktail dresses). The Alaska vessels of the Carnival, Celebrity, Princess, and Royal Caribbean fleets all fit in this category, as do Norwegian Cruise Line's Jewel and Pearl, Holland America's Zuiderdam and Westerdam, and the Disney Wonder. Midsize ships in Alaska fall into two segments: the ultraluxurious, such as Regent Seven Seas' Seven Seas Navigator, Silversea Cruises' Silver Shadow, and the modern midsize, such as Holland America's Veendam, Amsterdam, Volendam, Zaandam, and Statendam. In general, the size of these ships is less significant than the general onboard atmosphere. Both the midsize ships and the megaships have a great range of facilities for passengers. Cabins on these ships range from cubbyholes to large suites, depending on the ship and the type of cabin you book. Big dining rooms and a tremendous variety of cuisines are the norm. These ships carry a lot of people and can, at times, feel crowded.
The sizes of these big ships also come with three major drawbacks for passengers: (1) They can't sail into narrow passages or shallow-water ports, (2) their size and inflexible schedules limit their ability to stop or even slow down when wildlife is spotted, and (3) when their passengers disembark in a town, they tend to overwhelm it, limiting your ability to get insight into the real Alaska communities. But on the plus side, they offer dozens of excursions at each port so you can get well out of town.
Every year, hundreds of cruise-ship passengers and plenty of visitors on shore come down with vomiting and diarrhea caused by a bug now known as the norovirus. The good news is, it's rarer in summer than winter. Still, the illness is no fun. It lasts a day or two and is rarely serious, although some passengers do end up in the hospital because of dehydration. The virus is extremely contagious from the first symptoms until at least 3 days and up to 2 weeks after it clears up. Touching a contaminated handrail and then your face is enough to catch it. To minimize your chances of contracting the virus, wash your hands frequently, drink bottled water, and avoid eating raw food onboard, especially shellfish. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends that passengers 65 and older or those with chronic illnesses check with their doctors before taking a cruise. The CDC website (www.cdc.gov/nceh/vsp) posts sanitation inspection scores for each ship. Type "norovirus" into the search page to find a fact sheet. Most cruise lines now have hand sanitizer stations at the boarding ramp and throughout the ship -- including at the entryways to the gangway, buffet area, and the dining rooms. Their use is mostly voluntary, but our advice is -- do.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.