Deciding on the best cruise line for Alaska depends on a number of factors, and, of course, getting a good deal on the price. Each of these items is specific to what you want to experience.
So, the good news is that there are no “right” or “wrong” answers when booking your next Alaskan cruise adventure.
Best Cruise Line for Alaska
Up for consideration are over 70 specific ships representing over 20 different cruise lines. There are mega ships (“floating cities”), small vessels limited to only 100 passengers or less, and every other size in between. Here’s a list of the best lines for what you need:
- Carnival Cruise Line: One of the cheapest and most suitable for family fun
- Royal Caribbean: Has some of the most feature-filled ships and is suitable for families
- Princess Cruises: Offers more Alaskan cruises than most other lines, good for guests with no young kids
- Holland America Line: Among the best cruise lines for Alaskan food and culture, good for older cruisers
- Celebrity Cruises: There are fewer cruise options than other lines in Alaska, and ships are not ideal for kids
- Norwegian Cruise Line: Good choice when cruising out of Seattle, new Breakaway-plus class ships, ideal for families and singles
There are ships with all the bells and whistles bedecked with glitz and glam, and others offer just the basics with a surprise (see our insider tip in the Final Note below!). Some offer roundtrip voyages, and others are one-way.
At any given time, you will have an abundance of choices based on your interests. However, keep in mind that the cruise season in this area of the world is shorter. Specifically, it runs from March or April to early fall (September or October).
Departures are typically out of Vancouver, British Columbia, and Seattle, Washington. There are also fewer departures out of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and even Alaska homeports of Ketchikan, Juneau, and Anchorage.
When planning your next cruise to America’s last frontier, perhaps the first decision is where you would like to go in this vast wilderness. There are three basic geographic regions frequented by the best cruise lines: Inside Passage, Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands/Bering Sea. Each has its own beauty, charm, history and unique ports of call.
So, let’s look at some of the best Alaska cruise options.
Large Cruise Lines
There are several options when it comes to the larger cruise lines, with departures from major west coast homeports in British Columbia, Washington State, and California. As the major cruise lines operate many vessels in Alaska on a seasonal basis, there are also options for repositioning sailings, often including the Panama Canal or a transpacific crossing.
The major large cruise lines you’ll find operating in the region are Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Celebrity Cruises, and Princess Cruises. For the 2023 season, Princess Cruises has seven ships sailing the region, more than any other cruise line.
Carnival sails from Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Cruises to Alaska with Celebrity depart from Seattle and Vancouver, and Princess sails from San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver. Holland America, which has medium and larger ships, often sails from Vancouver and Seattle. Norwegian Cruise Line only sails from Seattle.
Royal Caribbean also sails out of both of those homeports. The newer Quantum-class cruise ships are often sailing Alaska for the season. They can carry over 4,000 passengers, such as Ovation of the Seas. These ships feature the North Star, offering guests breathtaking views of the Alaskan landscape far above the deck.
If a mega ship is your preference, an important point to remember is the following: Some ports, fjords, and passageways along the journey will be inaccessible. Simply stated, the ships are too large to go in certain areas. This can mean missing some of the smaller towns while dealing with much larger groups during certain shore excursions.
Midsize Cruise Lines
For more than 75 years, Holland America has been carrying eager travelers to Alaska. Their current itineraries include passage to all three geographic regions mentioned above – including a journey above the Arctic Circle!
These particular ships take between 1,400 and 2,600 passengers, the perfect size to visit some of the less-frequented ports of call. Even though Holland America Line has much larger vessels sailing Alaska, it also has mid-ship options, such as the 1,300-passenger Volendam.
Oceania Cruises is one company that makes our list of best cruise lines for Alaska in the midsized ship category. Personalized service and gourmet dining without extra fees are two of the popular reasons people choose this line. Ships carry between 700 and 1,300 passengers in spacious, well-appointed suites and have port-intensive itineraries.
Smaller Cruise Lines
If you would like to learn from experts during your voyage to Alaska, the top cruise line for a smaller ship experience is often Viking Ocean Cruises.
With less than 1,000 passengers (adults only), small does not translate to lacking of amenities. Actually, quite the opposite. Spas, distinctive design elements, and even bathrooms with heated floors are included on a Viking cruise.
The choice for those who enjoy specialty cuisine on a small(er) ship is Oceania Cruises. Chef-inspired and chef-created dishes throughout the journey make this a top-rated line for foodies. And, there are less than 700 passengers.
If up-close-and-personal exploration is on the bucket list, book passage with Windstar Cruises. Their 300-passenger Star Breeze is fitted with Zodiacs and kayaks for the opportunity to leave the ship, get on the water and experience nature. There are also lectures and professional guides to complete the experience.
Smallest Cruise Lines
For the least number of fellow passengers and access to the most intimate locations far from the crowds, book passage on one of these popular lines. All have less than 100 folks onboard – some as few as 8!
UnCruise Adventures is a sustainability-focused line traveling the waters of the Inside Passage. Culture, regional cuisine and nature adventures are the top themes, with ports of call in the decidedly less touristy spots.
Partner of National Geographic, Lindblad Expeditions is the pioneer in expedition ecotourism cruises. There are naturalists and professional photographers on each cruise. Landscapes, water encounters and wildlife are front and center here – with little to no signal for electronic devices most of the time.
For the anglers, book a passage with The Boat Company traveling the waters between Sitka and Juneau. With no traditional ports of call, the two ships of this line stop at the unexpected for nature activities, hiking and wildlife viewing – along with some great fishing.
Worth Reading: IDEAL Things to Do in Seward, Alaska
Our final smallest ship recommendation is to experience a truly unique sailing. Maple Leaf Adventures has a 92-foot sailing ship for only eight guests. First Nations history and nature are the themes. They also offer itineraries for a catamaran and a converted tugboat – for a one-of-a-kind Alaska cruise.
Land and Sea Combinations
Once again, Holland America is at the top of the most popular list, along with Princess Cruises. Both operate a suite of services for those wanting to explore on land, including lodges, trains, motorcoaches, and the popular Denali National Park.
Guests can also book landtours before or after their voyage, where they can experience the vast wilderness of Alaska. Princess Cruises even has its own Princess Lodges as part of its combination packages.
Princess Cruises (operating in the state for over 50 years) has an incredible train tour into the interior. They also offer visits to four national parks as a combo with your cruise.
Options include Denali (the tallest peak in North America), Glacier Bay (3.3 million acres of mountain, rainforests…and, and glaciers!), Kenai Fjords (home to 40 glaciers), and Wrangell-St. Elias (America’s largest national park).
A third excellent option is the destination-focused itineraries aboard select Celebrity Cruises ships. Again, this option is based less on the ship-based entertainment and more on the ‘learn about and experience Alaska’ approach. Also included, land-based tours via motorcoach and/or rail.
Our last suggestion for land and sea combos is a cruise line with which most people may not be familiar – Hurtigruten. This Norwegian-based company sails a 530-guest ship that doubles as a science center.
Itineraries are well off the beaten path; stopping at abandoned islands, small port towns, and even Nome. Another unique experience is the chance to ride a dog sled!
Luxury Cruise Ships
While luxury can certainly be enjoyed on many of the lines mentioned here, these are often considered the top-of-the-line for creature comforts.
On a Seabourn voyage, passengers share the journey with scientists, naturalists, and others who expand the Alaskan experience with history, culture, and the natural world.
Stopping along many ports of call through the Inside Passage, their itineraries offer a detailed view of this area of the state, including up-close Zodiac/kayak trips to glaciers.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises offers all-inclusive packages covering the desired items for a carefree cruise – all beverages, specialty dining, Wi-Fi, shore excursions, and flights and transfers. The suites are spacious, and there are so many excursions to choose from per itinerary that you cannot possibly do them all!
Lux ships with Silversea Cruises include shore excursions at each port of call. Butler service and multiple dining options on board create a comfortable atmosphere.
With a maximum number of just under 600 passengers for all ships, the service is exceptional. Check their longer voyages to Nome for an extended vacation.
For an immersion in French elegance and style, Ponant is the top choice. These 260-guest yachts offer sea-view accommodations, gourmet cuisine and “expedition-style” itineraries – “nature on a grand scale.”
Alaska Cruises on a Budget
Discover several options in the category of best cruise line for Alaska on a budget. Most notable are these five lines: Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Royal Caribbean.
Each of these cruise lines have been around for a number of years and have ships in the fleet that are considered “older.” Basically, this means that the vessels will not have all the “latest and greatest” bells and whistles while still offering comfort and class.
To find some of the best deals, consider sailing on one of these ships. They tend to have fewer families – a bonus for a romantic getaway – and a loyal following of regular passengers – a great way to make new friends. Additionally, you may have the option of sailing from larger cities, which translates to money saved on transportation.
Also, book in the shoulder parts of the sailing season for additional discounts and sign up for loyalty programs to enjoy some inexpensive (or free) perks. And, if you would like one of the popular balcony cabins (there is a continuous view of stunning scenery on an Alaskan cruise), book those early.
Family Time on an Alaskan Cruise
It will come as no surprise that one of the top-rated cruise lines for families is…wait for it…Disney! This holds true for the Alaska itineraries, as well.
With a Frozen-themed deck party and tons of activities and venues onboard, the kids and teenagers are sure to stay entertained. And, there are locations and activities just for the parents, too.
To keep everyone busy during the cruise, Norwegian, Carnival, and Royal Caribbean are also fun-filled. There are amusement rides, shows, programs and quick eats for all the family to enjoy.
Read Also: Best Alaskan Cruises for Families
And, for a more low-key experience with Alaska-specific programs, book a passage on one of the Princess ships where you might get to meet sled dogs who visit the ship.
Going Solo to Alaska
For solo cruise travelers, paying double for single occupancy can become expensive. Great news! There are ship accommodations with certain cruise lines that are specifically tailored for this class of passenger. For example, NCL offers studio cabins (82 of them to be exact) on their Alaska-bound ship, Norwegian Bliss.
The Quantum-class ships of Royal Caribbean have studio staterooms for one passenger that have ocean views and balconies. And, Holland America has cabins with full-size beds and picture windows for solo travelers.
Off Season Cruises in Alaska?
The happy answer to whether there are off-season cruises in Alaska is “yes”! For winter sports and the chance to see the Northern Lights, UnCruise Adventures offers February and March itineraries when other vessels do not sail.
The ship and her 84 guests will be the only cruise ship in Glacier Bay National Park. Explore both Tracy and Endicott Arms and hold glacial ice in your hands. Whale watching, farm-to-table meals, snowshoe and cross-country skiing, and heli-ski excursions are also on the schedule.
Our final note today is an insider tip from this writer’s experience living in the state – the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS). Rather than a traditional cruise, it is a way to cruise 3,500 miles of coastlines from Bellingham, Washington to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, in the Aleutian Islands.
AMHS runs a system of nine ferries that visit a total of 33 communities throughout all three of geographic regions. And, there are options for transportation to several of these areas year-round.
Passengers can walk on, bring their vehicles and choose some unique accommodations. Book a “no frills” cabin or actually pitch a tent on deck for a travel adventure. You may also bring your own food and drinks. If you are traveling with your own vehicle, four-legged family members are welcome.
Create your own budget-friendly itinerary to any and all the ports – many of which are not accessible to the larger cruise ships. Passengers can community hop and disembark along the way to explore the towns. And, the best part – this is how many locals travel. So, it’s a terrific opportunity to learn about life in Alaska from Alaskans!
Regardless of your choice of the best cruise line for Alaska, the entire experience of scenery, food, culture and adventure are sure to make memories to last a lifetime.