Our guide to Alaska cruises

Cunard’s guide to cruising the inspirational scenery of Alaska.

Few destinations possess the natural allure of Alaska. With its glittering icefields, deep cobalt fjords and soaring mountain peaks, the Last Frontier is as wild and untamed as it is beautiful.

Here we explore the unique sights and experiences you can expect to savor on a cruise to Alaska, and how to get the most from a voyage to this majestic wilderness.

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Why choose Alaska for a cruise?

Alaska is a view-seeker’s dream. If you’re after breath-taking natural scenery unlike anything you’ve experienced before, a cruise to Alaska is sure to deliver. Its landscapes vary wildly, from rippling glaciers and turquoise ice caves, to vast forest-lined lakes and snow-capped mountains, so you’ll be truly spoiled for choice.

What’s more, exploring Alaska from the water offers unrivaled views of the area’s dramatic natural beauty, enabling you to experience its sweeping icefields up close and uninterrupted. Its coastal pathways through fjords, glaciers and islands make Alaska a perfect cruising destination.

Then there’s the wildlife. Alaska gives cruise visitors the opportunity for some real up-close encounters, including sea lions, sea otters, porpoises and even the migration of humpback whales in spring. On land, there are bears and lynx to spot, a rich variety of bird and plant life, plus the growing thunder of waterfalls as the snow begins to melt.

Find out more in our special article ‘Alaska: Nature’s best’.

History of Alaska cruises

Visitors have been discovering Alaska by sea since the 1880s. The Pacific Coast Steamship Company (PCSC) sailed monthly from San Francisco, and their ships often carried livestock and freight as well as tourists (and not all of it strictly legal).

Passengers were nonetheless captivated by Alaska’s icy splendor, and the PCSC soon added more ships and trips to its schedule to meet demand.

At Cunard, we have had a similarly long love affair with Alaska as a cruise destination. After a 20-year hiatus, Queen Elizabeth returned to Alaska in 2019, once again offering the opportunity to journey the famous Inside Passage and Glacier Bay National Park. Time ashore to explore the gold-rush history of Juneau and Skagway, and the native culture of Ketchikan and Sitka, further enhance Queen Elizabeth’s Alaska cruise itineraries.

Alaska cruise routes

Cruising Alaska itself generally comes down to a choice between two routes: the Inside Passage, or a journey across the Gulf of Alaska.

The Inside Passage is Alaska’s renowned coastal pathway that runs alongside Canada and weaves through the islands on the Pacific Northwest coast of the North American Fjordland. Routes tend to take a round trip from Seattle or Vancouver.

Cross-Gulf Alaska cruises are usually longer, and sail from north or south between Seattle or Vancouver and Seward.

When it comes to more extensive cruises that make port in Alaska, there are many opportunities to explore the Canadian destinations of Banff, Jasper and the Rockies, as well as Victoria in British Columbia. World itineraries include Alaska on epic voyages that take in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Hawaii and Polynesia, New Zealand, Australia, Southeast Asia, China and Japan.

Alaska cruise ports

So where do cruises to Alaska make port? At Cunard, our Alaska cruises combine a thrilling mix of natural landscapes and rich cultural heritage, so you experience all this icy frontier has to offer. Let us introduce some of the fascinating coastal cities and cruise ports you can visit on an Alaska cruise.

Glacier Bay National Park

This unbelievable national park is home to some of the world’s most amazing tidewater glaciers. Enjoy sailing past snow-capped peaks, towering fjords and dramatic glaciers.

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Hike through ancient spruce forests, visit museums dedicated to the Native Tlingit heritage and keep an eye out for bald eagles soaring overhead in Haines.

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Alaska’s capital city captivates with its rugged natural beauty. Keep an eye out for humpback whales breaching in the bay and make sure you pay a visit to the massive Mendenhall Glacier.

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Ketchikan may be small, but it makes up for its size with breathtaking wilderness. This 3-milelong village is known as Alaska’s First City for its location and outstanding natural beauty.

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Once an old Wild West outpost and gold rush town, Skagway is now a national historic park where the present and past meet amongst incredible natural landscapes.

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Framed by snow-capped mountain peaks, Sitka is a charming seaside town with a rich history. Learn more about its Tlingit traditions and Russian past.

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Urban sophistication meets pristine nature in Vancouver. Grouse Mountain and the Capilano Suspension Bridge are two wilderness highlights of this lively city.

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The capital of British Columbia effortlessly blends contemporary delight and historic charm. Explore The city’s verdant gardens an ornate castle while admiring waterfront views.

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Alaska cruise highlights

Every cruise to Alaska will be full of unforgettable sights and memories, but there are several must-dos that you simply won’t want to miss. Make sure your Alaska cruise itinerary includes these essential highlights, available every year on Cunard’s Alaska cruises.

Alaska cruise sights

Alaska’s untamed wilderness is unlike anywhere else on Earth. These jaw-dropping natural sights are sure to earn a place in your travel highlight reel.

Tracy Arm Fjord: Dwarfed by sheer rock walls that reach over a mile in height, this narrow inlet features tumbling waterfalls, plentiful wildlife and Alaska’s largest icebergs.

Hubbard Glacier: If you’re lucky, a trip to Hubbard Glacier may reward you with a once-in-a-lifetime experience – witnessing the forming of a building-sized iceberg as it thunders in the water.

Cultural highlights

Native Alaskan custom is as absorbing as it is rich. Don’t miss these cultural destinations that offer a unique sense of Alaskan heritage.

Alaska Native Heritage Center: Set in 26 acres of lakes and woodland near Anchorage, the ANHC reveals the way of life for a variety of cultural groups, including traditional homes, dance performances and storytelling.

The Klondike Highway: Follow the fortune-seekers of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush and discover the lofty White Summit Pass and dramatic Yukon River wilderness.

Food highlights

Guests will be more than happy with the culinary delights on offer in Alaska.

The deep blue waters of Alaska produce some of the finest seafood there is. Salmon is a particular highlight: opt for Copper River Red Salmon for a taste of the best. Local halibut is also excellent, and Alaskan King Crab is known and loved the world over.

When it comes to game, it’s all about reindeer. You’ll find this versatile meat prepared in a multitude of ways throughout the state—spicy reindeer sausage is especially enjoyable.

Fans of craft beer won’t be short of local breweries to try, and anything made with the abundance of fresh local berries is sure to impress.

Of course, there’s also a wealth of dining options to experience on board Queen Elizabeth, every day of your Alaska cruise.

Alaska shore experiences

We offer a range of exciting day trips and shore experiences from Queen Elizabeth to enrich your Alaska cruise.

Feel the ocean spray on your face on a whale watching expedition from Victoria, or immerse yourself in Alaskan culture at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

Or why not take a boat tour to Portage Glacier for some dramatic iceberg cracking, before meeting the local flora and fauna at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center?

Northern Lights and Alaska cruises

Alaska is known as the best place in the U.S. to see the magical aurora borealis – the world-famous Northern Lights. Watching rippling curtains of neon light dance across the night sky is one of the most unforgettable travel experiences there is.

Alaska cruise season

The Alaska cruise season typically runs from May to September, to include the warmest and lightest months of the year. Cunard Alaska cruises tend to sail in June and July as this part of the year offers the mildest weather and longest hours of daylight.

Alaska seasons

An old Alaskan saying goes, there are four seasons in Alaska – winter, June, July and August. While this is true to an extent—weather is cold and wintery bar the months of high summer—May and September can also offer a warmer climate.

General overview of the weather in Alaska

While ice and snow abound, Alaska cruise routes steer clear of the Arctic zone, which means that the weather during Alaska cruise season is not as cold as you might think. In fact, many mid-summer days are surprisingly warm.

Most of the regions Alaska cruises visit are in the South-Eastern and Southern parts of the state, which both have a milder, wetter climate than the Northern Arctic regions.

Alaska cruise weather in May

May is the start of the warmer season in the Alaska Inside Passage, although on average the weather is still very cold, with highs of around 57°F/14°C and lows of around 35°F/1°C. This is the driest time of year, although skies tend to be cloudy. Winds are low, and there are generally at least 15 hours of daylight.

Alaska cruise weather in June

Cruise temperatures in Alaska in June are generally comfortably warm or cool, ranging from highs of 62°F/16°C and lows of 43°F/6°C. June is still likely to be somewhat cloudy and wet, with low wind speeds.

Alaska cruise weather in July

The Alaska cruise season is warmest in July, with highs of 68°F/20°C and lows of 50°F/10°C, although it can still be very cold at night and in the early mornings.

Alaska cruise weather in August

The Alaskan summer starts to cool down in August, although temperatures are still pleasant yet cool on average. Highs are around 62°F/16°C and lows are around 45°F/7°C. 

Alaska cruise weather in September

As the cruise season in Alaska starts to draw to a close in September, the temperatures can drop sharply, reaching only around 43°F/6°C on average. Skies tend to become cloudier and wetter, although there are still at least 12 hours of daylight to enjoy.

Alaska cruise packing essentials

With cold, crisp weather and the occasional rain shower, number one on your Alaska cruise packing list should be a good-quality all-weather coat or parka. You’ll need to wrap up for hikes, shore experiences and taking in the scenery on deck, so don’t forget sturdy walking boots, waterproof outerwear and hats, gloves and scarves.

Conditions can change quickly on an Alaska cruise, so go for thin, casual layers that are easy to build up and take off, rather than lots of very thick knitwear. These will see you from relaxing on deck to venturing ashore and back again. Casual sneakers or boots are great for on board the ship.

When it comes to more formal evening wear, you can let your personality do the talking. Think cocktail dresses and dressy tops for women, and smart shirts and tailoring for men. Nights under the stars on deck can be cold, so don’t forget a wrap, pashmina or other cover-up for those moonlit strolls.

Finally, remember to bring a couple of swimsuits and flip-flops for the pools and spa, as well as sunglasses, a camera and a pair of binoculars for those wildlife encounters.

Read our helpful packing guide for more details, including suggestions for different months of the year and suitcase sizes.

Alaska cruise reading list

Alaska has inspired many literary works over the last century, from fictional tales set against the backdrop of real events to captivating travel memoirs, and where better to read them than in the great land itself? Passage to Juneau by Jonathan Raban, Travels in Alaska by John Muir, and Coming into the Country by John McPhee, are just three books you may wish to pack for your Alaska cruise.

Alaska cruise top tips from experts

If you’re hoping to catch a glimpse of orcas in Alaska, June and July are the best months to travel. It’s not uncommon to see whales and other marine life from the deck of your ship, while eagles can often be spotted circling in the sky, so keep a watchful eye both above and below as you sail. A set of binoculars can also help you to enjoy a better view of the wildlife on shore.

On the subject of better views, Alaska’s landscapes are among the most spectacular in the world and an undoubted highlight of an Alaska cruise. While the scenery from your ship is second to none, embarking on a flightsee experience will allow you to fly high above Alaska’s glaciers, revealing views you simply can’t appreciate from the water.

Abby Crossley, Shore Experience Product Manager for Cunard, also offers these top tips:

“Juneau is one of my favorite places in the world: there is so much to see and do. First thing is to walk on a glacier. Then have lunch at Taku lodge, a magical hideaway. While tucking into a salmon feast you are surrounded by stunning scenery and glacier views, not to mention the odd visiting brown bear looking for a snack. Finish your day with a visit to Glacier Gardens with its unique flower towers, and watch the sun go down over the Gastineau Channel, Douglas Island and the Chilkat Mountains from the 580 ft high viewing platform.”

“In Sitka you’ll find an abundance of wildlife just off the coast, from sea otters bobbing about on their backs, to vibrantly colored starfish, porpoise, harbor seals and whales. I’ve never experienced anything like it before or since, but wrap up warm as even on a sunny day it’s icy!

Another little hidden gem in Alaska is Haines. Head to the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve for a jet boat cruise. If you’re lucky you’ll get some great shots of moose and brown bears. When you’re done, warm up with a hot chocolate or cider, preferably next to an open fire—perfect.”

Alaska cruise FAQs