There are three basic types of Alaska cruises: Inside Passage voyages that begin and end in Vancouver; Alaska cruises that depart roundtrip from Seattle; and so-called Gulf of Alaska voyages that typically sail one-way, northbound or southbound, between Vancouver and Seward or Whittier, the two turnaround ports for nearby Anchorage.
Gulf cruises offer the most flexibility. You can book them back-to-back to create a 14-day roundtrip journey, or you can use them as the springboard for combination land-and-sea packages, which have grown increasingly popular (and increasingly elaborate) over the decades. (See the box on p. 72.
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) The downside to this type of cruise and it can be a major one are increased airfare costs, as you'll be flying into one gateway and out of another. Sometimes, however, these one-way sailings are more reasonably priced than round-trips that embark and debark from the same port. Bottom line: Get out a calculator and factor in all costs before booking.
Timing will also factor into how much you pay. The season typically runs between May and September, but dips into April and October, and deals can abound for the shoulder months (May and Sept are also often cheaper). Which is better? Alaska is famous for its liquid sunshine and that can strike at any time during the year, as can cold weather. So bring layers, waterproof clothing and your binoculars Alaska is spectacular no matter what the weather is doing.
Alaska Land & Sea Packages
Many cruise companies have developed add-on land tours to complement their cruise packages. The most popular such cruisetour combines a Gulf of Alaska cruise ending in Anchorage with a train excursion to stunning Denali National Park, where guests stay in the cruise lines' private lodges, and then on to Fairbanks for a range of activities such as river cruises, jet-boat rides, and excursions to gold mines. A shorter add-on to Anchorage cruises offers fishing, hiking, sightseeing, kayaking, and wildlife-watching on the Kenai Peninsula, just across a narrow channel from Anchorage. Tours into Canada's Yukon Territory typically follow a Vancouver-to-Juneau/Skagway cruise, taking passengers to historic spots such as Whitehorse, the territorial capital, and Dawson City, a picture-perfect gold-rush town.
Can visitors recreate these journeys on their own? Easily. The Kenai Peninsula is where Anchorage residents go for their own vacations, and it's a wonderful road trip to some of Alaska's most scenic areas (it's also kismet for fishermen). And visitors hoping to see Denali can ride the exact same train cruise passengers do (or rent a car for a speedier trip), and take terrific ranger-led tours of the park. It's up to you whether you want more of a group experience or a solo adventure.
Inside Passage from Vancouver
The Inside Passage runs through the area of Alaska known as Southeast (which the locals also call the Panhandle). It's the narrow strip of the state islands, mainland coastal communities, and mountains that runs from the Canadian border in the south to the start of the Gulf in the north, just above the Juneau/Haines/Skagway area. The islands on the western edge of the area give cruise ships a welcome degree of protection from the sea and its attendant rough waters (hence the name Inside Passage). Because of that shelter, ships can reach ports such as Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, and others with less rocking and rolling and thus less risk of seasickness for their passengers. Sitka is not on the Inside Passage (it's on the Pacific Ocean side of Baranof Island), but is included in a fair number of Inside Passage cruise itineraries because it's a beautiful little port. The classic Alaska cruise, these voyages depart roundtrip from Vancouver's Canada Place Cruise Terminal (p. 75 ). Holland America Line and Princess Cruises offer the most departures from Vancouver to Alaska, but other players, including Disney Cruise Lineand Oceania call Vancouver home, along with luxury lines Crystal, Regent Seven Seas, Silversea and Seabourn Cruises.
Alaska Roundtrip from Seattle
While airfare costs might be cheaper for U.S. travelers flying into SeaTac than Vancouver International Airport, there are some trade-offs to this convenience. Unlike cruises departing from Vancouver, voyages from Seattle typically don't sail the scenic Canadian section of the Inside Passage. Instead, they swing out west of Vancouver Island into the open Pacific Ocean, which carries a threat of rough weather, and seas, during the shoulder months of May and September.