Sailing in Alaska is unlike any other cruise you will take. Even if you’ve done dozens of cruises in the Caribbean, Europe or elsewhere, it’s very different when you sail in this part of the United States.
From the weather to the schedules to the excursions, and even the atmosphere on the ship, it’s not the same experience when heading to Alaska compared to a Caribbean cruise. To help you prepare, we’ve rounded up some of the most important changes you need to know before you sail to one of the most remote and scenic places on earth.
The atmosphere on board is different
If you’ve cruised the Caribbean on a major cruise line, you know the atmosphere is normally festive. There are big sailing parties, drinks and cocktails are flowing freely, the music is pumping by the pool and it’s usually a party.
Cruise to Alaska? The atmosphere is much more discreet. Although we haven’t sailed on all the cruise lines, when we sailed there was no big pool party, conga lines or dance music. Instead, people simply lined up on the rail to watch the view as the ship began its journey.
It’s a bit the same thing during the cruise. There are still events like dance parties and “Sexiest Man Competitions”, but in general the atmosphere is less festive.
Ship design matters a lot more
Head to the Caribbean and what seems really important is that you have plenty of space around the pool. On Alaskan cruises, however, the design of the cruise ship is much more important.
Weather is a major player when sailing to Alaska. Days can be gray, cold and rainy or bright, sunny and hot. Even in hot weather, however, if the ship is sailing or the wind is blowing, it can get cold.
This means that having a ship with interior spaces is ideal. This includes things like indoor pools and activities. For example, Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas has an indoor pool, the indoor sundeck, and the SeaPlex which is essentially an enclosed sports arena with lots to do.
Having these options means that no matter the weather, there are places you can go and enjoy while cruising while still being comfortable.
Tours are expensive
Part of Alaska’s big draw is seeing scenery and nature you simply won’t see back home. It’s popular to book an excursion that will allow you to do things not possible elsewhere. Things like kayaking near a glacier or going whale watching are popular.
We recommend people do some of these tours, but be aware that they are likely to be more expensive than what you are used to seeing.
It’s not uncommon for these day trips to run into the hundreds of dollars. There are a few cheaper options here and there which are usually simple bus or walking tours. However, in general, excursions seem to start at around $150 per person and go up from there.
That’s considerably more than the lower prices you usually see in the Caribbean.
Boarding can be long
The longest we’ve ever waited to board a ship? It was over an hour sailing from Seattle. And that was after waiting late into the boarding hour to get to the pier.
Typically, if you’re cruising from somewhere like Miami or Fort Lauderdale, the boarding process is so smooth that it feels like you barely have to stop between the time you enter the terminal and the time you step on vessel.
In Seattle, it was a different story. Arrived around 2:30pm to board, we were shocked to see a line of hundreds of people even waiting to enter the terminal. Then there was a line inside the terminal to get to security. And then another line after security to be registered.
We can’t say this is all cruises, but the staff we spoke to made it seem perfectly normal.
The times of the ports of call are very different
Head to a port and you expect to arrive there early in the morning and depart in the evening. For some stopovers, this is the case. In other situations in Alaska, you will have drastically different port times.
For example, maybe you will arrive at 1:00 p.m. and depart at 8:00 p.m. or even a stop where the ship arrives at 4:00 p.m. and all on board at 9:30 p.m.
Longer daylight hours in the north make this more doable, but it’s still a bit different if you’re used to cruising the Caribbean or elsewhere. Just be aware that your schedule isn’t always as regular as you might see on a cruise elsewhere.
It’s hard to dress well
There isn’t much difficult about cruising, but one of the biggest challenges is knowing what to wear when cruising in Alaska. This is because the weather can change quickly, and even if it doesn’t, your comfort can still change from hour to hour.
Take, for example, a perfectly clear and sunny day. In this case, the temperature can reach into the 70s and with lots of sun it can literally be a t-shirt and shorts. But if you go into the shade or the wind blows over the cooler mountains or water, it can instantly get chilly, which means you’ll want to cover up. It’s the same with days that can start out cold and gray but then clear up making them warmer.
Our advice is even if it seems clear when you leave the ship, always bring a jacket and always bring something to cover your head.
Indoor areas can get crowded
A downside of having weather that isn’t the best for lounging by the pool means that traffic patterns around the ship are different. Normally people would be out in the sun on the pool deck on a nice afternoon. In Alaska, these people are looking inside for things to do. This means that there are definitely more people in the interior spaces of the ship than you might be used to.
Of course, if you’re used to cruising the Caribbean, times like evening will see people moving from outside to inside the ship. So larger crowds at certain times are not out of the ordinary. It’s just that in Alaska they are more common in the morning and afternoon.
The whole day is an experience, not just ports
You might be used to a certain type of routine on a cruise. You visit a port, then it’s out to sea and there’s nothing to see until you reach the next port of call.
When sailing in Alaska, this is not the case. After the first day at sea heading into the state, each subsequent day is filled with scenery right outside your window. Cruising from port to port in Alaska is almost always a short distance from land.
So, from the moment you open your curtains in the morning until the moment you go to bed at night, there is always something to see. Maybe it’s mountains passing by your window or whales and other wildlife. Don’t think you are just killing time until you reach the port.
Long daylight hours can bother you
It’s hard to explain the impact being so far north can have on your internal clock. In fact, you might not notice it for a few days.
Being so far north, the days are long. The sun can start to shine before 5am and it doesn’t set until 10pm or later. Without the rhythm of a normal day, you might wake up earlier and go to bed later than usual at home. And on top of that, don’t forget about the time difference between Alaska and where you live. The state is four hours behind the Eastern Time Zone
In our experience, those longer days and time changes seem to catch up with you after three or four days. At that time, you might find yourself suddenly out of order in the evening.
The scenery is more spectacular than you think
The main reason to go to Alaska is to see the sights and scenery that this part of the world offers. But we can tell you personally that no matter how many photos or videos you see, it doesn’t do Alaska justice.
When sailing in a Caribbean port, the ship is usually the tallest thing and the highest point for miles. In Alaska, you’re dwarfed by mountains that aren’t just here and there. They literally surround the places you will visit.
It all adds up to a landscape that you can’t just experience through pictures. You have to be there to get the full scope because it’s even more amazing than you think.
Learn more about sailing in Alaska: