We know, we can hear you already: “The Caribbean and Alaska are nothing alike… it’s like comparing apples and oranges!” It's true that these two popular cruise destinations aren’t a straightforward comparison like the Caribbean and the Bahamas or the Eastern and Western Caribbean. But other than Alaska’s lack of tropical beaches and the Caribbean’s glacier deficit, both offer unique experiences for families, foodies, history buffs, nature enthusiasts, and adrenaline junkies that make it worth breaking down the pros and cons of each destination.
Let’s get the obvious difference out of the way: the Caribbean is warm year-round, while Alaska is much cooler (especially during the fall). But in the height of summer, when the temperatures and humidity in the Caribbean are most stifling, the cool, refreshing Alaska air can be a welcome respite.
Our Pick: Caribbean. Lovers of cold weather will love the Alaskan chill, but most people want sun and warmth on their vacation. Plus, you can sail the Caribbean during any season, which isn’t the case during the frigid Alaskan winter.
While you can always find active excursions in the Caribbean, all too often the destination is stereotyped by beach breaks and all-you-can-drink catamaran sailings. In Alaska, active and adventurous excursions are at the forefront: ziplining, kayaking, glacier hiking, dog sledding, and helicopter flightseeing are among the most popular choices. Plus, since Alaska is a US state, American cruisers can have peace of mind that vehicles and equipment comply with US-mandated safety standards, something that can’t always be said for excursions in Caribbean ports of call.
Our Pick: Alaska. The consistent quality of the excursions (and the companies operating them) is a breath of fresh air.
History & Culture
Most historical attractions in Alaska focus on the Alaskan gold rush at the end of the nineteenth century, and the native culture and history of the native Inuit people—the totems in Sitka National Historical Park (left) are a popular excursion for learning more about native Alaskan culture. The Caribbean has a special appeal for history buffs who like learning about the colonizaiton of the New World as the historical focus usually ranges from the European conquistadors up through the plantation era. Plus, each island has its own local culture and unique history waiting to be explored.
Our Pick: Tie. It depends on what era of history you find more fascinating.
When it comes to food, seafood is the main attraction in Alaska with salmon, crab, and cod being the most popular. Spice lovers will be much more at home in the Caribbean, and most islands will have a signature dish or two worth trying while you’re in port: Jamaica’s jerk chicken, St. Lucia’s salt fish and green eggs, Trinidadian shark and bake, and crab callaloo in the Dominican Republic.
Our Pick: Tie. We love the variety of Caribbean dishes, but cruisers who don’t like exotic or spicy food might find some of the delicacies a bit too hot to handle.
Nature & Wildlife
Sting rays, vervet monkeys and sloths are some of the more fascinating animals of the caribbean. Many ports have rainforest tours, and there are a few natural wonders that shouldn't be missed. Still, the Caribbean’s wildlife offering pales in comparison to the whales, eagles, bears, sled dogs, salmon runs and massive rainforests of Alaska.
Our Pick: Alaska. True nature enthusiasts can enjoy themselves in the Caribbean, but Sting Ray City just can't match the rugged frontier of Alaska.
Alaska cruises are almost always seven-night sailings, either roundtrips from Vancouver or Seattle (visiting ports like Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan) or one-way cruises between Vancouver and Whittier or Seward which bring cruisers deep into the heart of Alaska, and serve as a stepping off point for tours to Mt. McKinley and Denali National Park.
Alaskan itineraries also offer the unique option of scenic cruising in destinations like Glacier Bay and Hubbard Glacier where you can set up on the top deck or your balcony and take in the breathtaking scenery. With the possible exception of Panama Canal itineraries, scenic cruising simply doesn’t exist in the Caribbean.
Caribbean cruises are broken down into Eastern, Western, Southern, and Bahamas itineraries, and set sail from ports in Texas, the Gulf Coast, Florida, Puerto Rico and more. Sailings range from short 3-4 night sailings to standard 6-8 day cruises, to even longer 10-14 night sailings.
Our Pick: Caribbean. Once again, the wide range of options and ease of accessibility wins out.
The new, flashy, high-tech ships are almost always deployed to the Caribbean (often homeporting in Florida) while older, smaller ships are often relegated to Alaska. That will change in 2018 with the launch of Norwegian Bliss, the first modern megaship to be built from the ground up for Alaska sailings.
Our Pick: Caribbean. Norwegian Bliss might signal the start of a renewed interest in Alaska, but the Caribbean still wins out easily based on the quality and variety of the ships deployed there.
As a rule, newer and larger ships tend to have better children’s programs than older vessels, which means that kids will have much more fun onboard your typical Caribbean cruise. On the other hand, scenic cruising in Alaska gives families a unique experience aboard the ship, and there are plenty of family-friendly excursions like dog sledding (left) or ziplining in port.
Our Pick: Tie. Kids will probably be happier in the Caribbean, but Alaska has more multi-generational appeal.
This one isn’t much of a competition. There’s less total passenger capacity in Alaska, so cruise fares tend to be higher, and airfare is higher for open-jaw flights and into Vancouver. There aren’t many last-minute deals like there you can get in the Caribbean, and when you do find them, it’s hard to find cheap airfare.
On the other hand, the Caribbean has a massive passenger capacity, so fares are almost always lower and you have a solid chance of landing deals closer to the sail date. Plus, with Caribbean cruises leaving from ports in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Maryland, and even New York, driving to the port is an option for plenty of passengers.
Our Pick: Caribbean. The ports are easier to reach for most cruisers, and prices are generally half the cost of an Alaska sailing.
Our Pick: Tie. The Caribbean is the most popular cruise destination in the world for a reason. The rich variety of ports combined with state-of-the-art ships mean you'll have new experiences waiting for you every time you go. Still, while Alaska isn’t a destination you’ll want to visit regularly like the Caribbean, a sailing to America's last frontier is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience, and should certainly be a must-do item on your bucket list.