How to Choose an Alaska Cruise Itinerary

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Holland America's Westerdam in Alaska - Photo by Holland America Line

When you tell a non-cruiser you’re planning a cruise to Alaska, there’s a good chance they’ll say something like “Oh, be sure to sail the Inside Passage. I’ve heard it’s beautiful.” Experienced cruisers, on the other hand, know that all Alaska cruises navigate at least a portion of the Inside Passage, the protected waters that stretch from the northern coast of Washington state into Alaska’s panhandle.

Of course, just because you don’t have to specifically choose an “Inside Passage” cruise doesn’t mean that you won’t have a choice to make - there are a number of different alaska cruise itineraries to choose from. To help simplify the choices, here are five of the most popular Alaska cruise routes, with some of the pros and cons of each choice.

Roundtrip Vancouver

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Vancouver, British Columbia - Photo by Shutterstock

The traditional and most popular Alaska cruise itinerary, these cruises depart from Vancouver, British Columbia Canada and visit 3 ports (usually Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan) plus offer a glacier viewing experience, before returning to Vancouver a week later.


  • No call at Victoria - To meet the requirements of the US Passenger Vessel Services Act, cruises that sail from a US port must stop at a foreign port before returning to their US port. Virtually all Alaska cruises that sail from Seattle satisfy this legal requirement by visiting the Canadian port of Victoria on the last night of the cruise. Typically, this stop is short (about 4 to 5 hours) and occurs after dark, making it virtually impossible to do much sightseeing at a beautiful port worthy of a longer visit. Since the cruise is departing from Canada, there’s no legal requirement to include a foreign destination among the ports of call.
  • Pre-cruise stay in Vancouver - This cosmopolitan city is a great place to explore for a few days before your cruise.


  • Airfare - International airfare to/from Vancouver can be pricey, and you’ll generally have fewer flights to choose from than flying to Seattle
  • Passport Required - To fly to/from Canada, you’ll need a passport


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Roundtrip Seattle

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Seattle, Washington - Photo by Shutterstock

The second most popular itineraries are Alaska cruises from Seattle. These cruises also visit 3 Alaska ports, offer a glacier viewing experience, and make a typically short visit to a Canadian port.


  • Less expensive airfare/more flight options - Generally, domestic airfare is less expensive, and you’ll find a greater variety of flights to Seattle 
  • Pre-Cruise stay in Seattle - Though not as exotic a destination as Vancouver, Seattle is still a great place to spend 2 or 3 days before you set sail.


  • Call at Victoria, British Columbia Canada - As we mentioned earlier, this absurdly short stop serves no other purpose than adhering to the law that all cruises leaving from America must visit a foreign port. Victoria is wonderful, but you won’t have time to experience it.


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Roundtrip San Francisco

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Grand Princess sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge. - Photo by Princess Cruises

Princess Cruises offers several 10 night Alaska cruises every summer that sail roundtrip from San Francisco. These cruises typically visit 3 Alaska ports and include a glacier viewing experience, though some itineraries visit two ports and spend a full day of scenic cruising in Glacier Bay National Park.


  • Longer cruise - If you like to spend time on the ship, this itinerary offers more sea days and a slower pace.
  • More time in Victoria - If you want to properly visit the beautiful Canadian port of Victoria and see its many sights like the Butchart Gardens, this itinerary offers a longer daytime visit.
  • More Mature Demographic - Longer cruises like this tend to attract older passengers, so if you’d rather avoid the younger families that gravitate to 7-night cruises, these sailings are a good option.


  • Same amount of time in Alaska - This 10 night cruise offers the same amount of time in Alaska; the additional days are taken up by travel time from Northern California.

Tip: Regardless of which itinerary option you choose, look for a stop at Glacier Bay National Park for a full day of scenic cruising among glaciers. Only a limited number of ships are allowed access to the park, so not every ship can sail there.


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North/South between Vancouver and Anchorage

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Vassar Glacier in College Fjord - Photo by Shutterstock

These one-way cruises sail between Vancouver and Anchorage, via one of two ports that are in close proximity to Anchorage. Seward serves most cruise lines and is a bit further from Anchorage; Whittier is closer, but serves primarily Princess Cruises. 


  • More of Alaska - These itineraries take you further north into the heart of Alaska. In addition to visits to more glacier viewing spots like College Fjord, you’ll be treated to incredible scenery along the 1.5 to 3 hour drive between the cruise port and Anchorage.
  • Gateway to cruise tours - Anchorage is the stepping-off point for Alaska cruise tours (3+ night land excursions that take you to Mount McKInley, Denali National Park and beyond).


  • Open-jaw airfare - You’ll need to book one-way airfare to / from Vancouver and Anchorage.


Expedition Cruises

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UnCruise's Wilderness Explorer - Photo by UnCruise Adventures

These adventure-focused luxury cruises can vary quite a bit from cruise line to line, but all tend to stop at smaller ports and locales and offer up-close nature encounters.


  • Small Ships - These small ships generally accommodate fewer than 100 passengers, which means the ships are able to sail closer to shore, get up closer to glaciers for more dramatic viewing, and go ashore in smaller ports that big ships can’t reach.
  • All-Inclusive - Expedition ships typically offer a luxury, all-inclusive experience, with items like drinks, gratuities, and shore excursions included in the price of the cruise.
  • Spontaneous - Expedition cruises are known to follow the wildlife, so the day’s itinerary may be scrapped to follow a pod of humpback whales or to spend more time on a hike due to unexpectedly nice weather conditions.
  • Fewer Kids - Expedition cruises are typically targeted to active, adult travelers, and you’ll find fewer (and more well-behaved) kids onboard.


  • Expensive - These all-inclusive luxury cruises can begin at $300-500 per person per night.

Join the discussion

Have you ever taken a cruise to Alaska? Would you do the same itinerary again or take a different one next time?

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