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Alaska Baby!

Image: Royal Caribbean

The best time to cruise Alaska isn’t obvious—until you’re quietly sailing along its calm waters under a cloudless, late-spring sky. It was on one such day that someone on board spotted a whale breaching. And then again. And again. Within minutes it seemed everyone on board had gathered at the railings on deck to watch. The captain of the ship nimbly repositioned us, giving both the port and starboard sides prime viewing, at a safe and respectful distance from the animals. With binoculars, cameras, and phones at the ready, the passengers and crew aboard UnCruise Adventures’ 86-guest S.S. Legacy settled in for what turned out to be an hour-long private show by a juvenile humpback who had migrated from Hawaii to spend the summer in the nutrient-rich Alaskan waters.

On that same late-April voyage with UnCruise, the Northern Lights danced through the sky on night one, and through the week we spotted grizzly bear mamas and their cubs skirting the coastline; bald eagles soaring overhead; humpback whales and orcas breaking the water’s surface to breathe; puffins, seals, and sea lions bobbing in the water and laying out on rocks—even a wolf on the shoreline, feasting on a fresh kill. (Our captain said he had seen a wolf in Alaska only twice in his 30-year career.)

We sailed roundtrip from Juneau, and while I’ve visited the capital city during the busy summer months, I found the restaurants, bars, and shops much less crowded, reliably filled with locals for the most part. On the water, we rarely passed any other ships or boats, aside from fishermen out for their catches.

According to Travel Alaska, cruising is the most popular way to explore the state, and Cruise Lines International Association Alaska predicts that 1.64 million cruise line passengers will sail to and within Alaska in 2024.

But when is really the best time to sail Alaska? We’ve broken the seasons down for you, including the highlights of each, as well as the best cruise lines and cruise ships to consider so you can make your bucket list dreams come true.

Celebrity Alaska Cruise

Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Edge sets sail for the first time in Alaska this year.

April and May

If your schedule allows, not only does sailing Alaska in April and May afford the possibilities of glimpsing the Northern Lights and seeing wildlife emerge from their winter hibernation, it’s a more affordable and less crowded time to cruise, too. April and May are also the driest months in Alaska, so the chances of rain are slim.

Norwegian Cruise Line kicks off the 2024 Alaska cruise season when Norwegian Bliss sets sail on a weeklong, roundtrip itinerary from Seattle; she will be the only ship sailing in Alaska the first two weeks of spring. Balcony cabins are still available on the season’s inaugural sailing at a discounted fare of $1,029 per person.

Smaller ships like those that comprise UnCruise Adventures’ and Alaska Dream Cruises’ fleets can maneuver closer to the coastline for better views of bears rambling along the beaches and on-land excursions without another soul around. Uncruise’s 12-night “Inside Passage” itinerary departs April 15 with rates starting at $6,300 per person, and Alaska Dream Cruises’ seven-night “Last Frontier Adventure” has starting rates from $3,995 per person.

Swan Hellenic
Credit: Shutterstock

June to August

Warmer temperatures, an average of 17 hours of daylight, and schools’ summer vacations all make Alaska a popular destination for cruising in June, July, and August. Expect crowded ports and more ships out on the water, but that’s not to say it’s not a good time to set sail: bears are still active, as are whales and native bird life.

Holland America Line, which has sailed in Alaska for 75 years, offers 50 itineraries throughout June, July, and August, including the new 28-day Alaska Arctic Circle Solstice itinerary that departs June 9 from Seattle; verandah staterooms start at $7,259 per person. Family favorite Disney Cruise Line offers 13 itineraries over the summer, including a seven-night itinerary from $3,467 per person.

September

Not only is school back in session in September, which means fewer crowds at ports, but the chances of seeing the Northern Lights return, especially if combining your cruise with a land tour that takes you further north into Alaska. Fall is also mating season for wildlife, so expect to see some friskiness.

Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Edge sets sail for the first time in Alaska this year and has four six- and seven-night itineraries in September, starting at $599 per person. For a cruise-tour option, Princess’ 12-day Denali Explorer itinerary blends five days on land with a weeklong cruise with mini-suite rates from $4,008 per person.

October

The Alaska cruise season winds down in October, with only a few ships setting sail. Just as in April and May, you’ll likely have the water to yourself, and even fewer people in the ports you call upon. Along with cooler weather, you’ll also find lower fares that will please your bank account.

Just as Norwegian Cruise Line kicks off the 2024 Alaska cruise season in April, it’s the last cruise line to set sail in the state, and the only one to sail in October. The seven- and nine-day itineraries sail roundtrip from Seattle, and a recent search found fares more than 80% off published fares, starting at $499 per person.

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