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How to Choose an Alaska Small Ship Cruise

by Todd Smith

What’s the best way to choose your Alaska cruise? The experts at AdventureSmith Explorations have years of experience answering this question, and we’ve put together this guide of Alaska small ship cruise comparison, tips, advice and information to help you select the small ship and trip that’s right for your travel style.

In many ways this is the golden age of small ship cruising in Alaska. There are currently more ships and trips than ever before. There are small ship cruises for every interest, ability and budget from traditional small ships visiting popular ports and wilderness areas to active adventures aboard intimate yachts crewed by local Alaskans. With all of these options it can be difficult to decipher what trip and ship are best. Contacting cruise lines directly does not always answer critical questions about how much activity there is, what the cabins are like, what is included and so on. Use this handy Alaska small ship cruise guide to better understand what Alaska has to offer and to make an informed decision when booking your Alaska small ship cruise with AdventureSmith. 

Plan Ahead!

Small ship cruises to Alaska are limited, the season is short, vessels are small and spaces fill up fast. The most popular Alaska small ship cruises are often sold out 6-9 months in advance. For the best selection of Alaska cruises and available cabins, advance reservations are encouraged, and often required.

When to Go

The Alaska adventure cruising season begins in May and runs through mid September. If you are considering a land extension to Denali National Park, the season is even shorter beginning in early June and ending the first week in September. Read our Alaska Climate section for more details.

Early Season: May to Mid-June

The early season consists of the Alaskan spring and early summer. This time of year winter snow is present in the mountains driving hungry bears, which have been hibernating all winter, down to the coast for a meal making them visible from small ships that can get close to shore. May is the driest month along Alaska's coast and temperatures are cooler than midsummer. 

Many cruises will encounter whales during this time, but they are few and far between. It isn’t until mid June that the whales have arrived in greater numbers and are getting together in predictable feeding pods. If whale watching is important to your Alaskan experience you should travel in mid-June or later. You will find the best prices of the year on Alaska cruises in May. 

High Season: Mid-June, July and Early August

During Alaska’s high season travelers will find the best combination of long days, good weather and abundant wildlife. Coastal Alaska is a temperate rainforest, and you should expect rain at any time of year here. Typically weather becomes wetter as the summer progresses. Mosquitoes are usually not a problem aboard small ship cruises, but they can be a nuisance in Alaska's interior. Bugs are at their height in July and slowly disappear by mid-August.

Autumn: Mid-August to Mid-September

Fall comes early in Alaska, and by mid-August trees are changing color, bugs are gone and days are getting shorter and wetter. Whales and wildlife are active as they prepare for a long migration or winter hibernation. The fall colors in Alaska’s interior and Denali National Park can be spectacular. If you hope to see the Aurora Borealis (also known as Northern Lights) then plan your trip for mid August or later. Viewing the Aurora Borealis aboard a small ship cruise is fairly rare, but it is possible if you travel late in the season.

Alaska When To Go Whale Tail

How Much Time to Spend in Alaska

Most travelers will make only one trip to Alaska in their lifetime and of course want to make the most of it. Like any wilderness-oriented trip, the longer you stay in the backcountry, the better chance you have of seeing animals. For travelers who have only one week we suggest they consider an Alaska coastal cruise. An Alaska cruise offers the most bang for your buck, the best opportunity to view whales and wildlife, and the convenience of only unpacking once while the ship does the traveling. Travelers who have two weeks should consider a cruise plus a land extension into Alaska’s interior. Our most popular land trip is the 6-day Denali Backcountry Explorer. Combining a coastal cruise with Denali offers an opportunity to experience much of what Alaska offers from temperate rainforest, whales and glaciers to boreal forest, tundra, Mt McKinley, bears, moose and more. See our Alaska land tours for a full selection of trip extensions and land-based tours.

Most cruises are one week although there are some shorter and some longer options. The Active Prince William Sound Discovery cruise operates short 4- and 5-day cruise packages from Anchorage that are perfect to combine with a trip extension to Denali. Northern Passages & Glacier Bay, Eastern Coves and Western Coves Adventure Cruises are all one week, but are designed so travelers can combine them to create a 2- or 3-week trip without any overlapping explorations. Longer cruises of 12-15 days are also available as spring and fall positioning cruises from Seattle, Washington, or by combining cruises.

Choosing the Best Alaska Small Ship Cruise

With so many choices (we offer dozens of cruises aboard 15+ small ships) how does one begin to decide? We suggest travelers first consider how active they would like to be. The level of activity will determine which cruises are best for you, then you can consider which ship offers the level of comfort and amenities that fit your travel style. We organize Alaska small ship cruises into four categories based on their activity level and length: Active Expeditions, Soft Adventures, Easy Explorations and Positioning Cruises. 

Active Expeditions

Northern Passages and Glacier Bay, Eastern Coves Adventure Cruise and Western Coves Adventure Cruise offer daily guided adventures such as hiking, kayaking, small craft excursions, paddleboarding and even snorkeling across a wide variety of cruising regions. These 8-day cruises are aboard a fleet of small expedition ships ranging in size from 36 to 86 guests. When ashore, group sizes are limited to a maximum of 12 people to preserve your wilderness experience.

Discoverer's Glacier Country is a popular 8-day wilderness itinerary with lots of activity options. It begins and ends in Juneau with two days inside Glacier Bay National Park aboard your choice of upscale yachts including the 22-guest Safari Quest, the 36-guest Safari Explorer or the 86-guest Safari Endeavour.  

Glacier Bay Adventure Cruise, Active Inside Passage and Active Prince William Sound Discovery also offer daily shore excursions including hiking, kayaking and small craft excursions but from historic 12-guest yachts that we liken to floating B&Bs. These 5- to 7-day cruises offer more intimate explorations of a smaller region of Alaska with local Alaskans for a more authentic experience.

Soft Adventures

Soft Adventures combine opportunities to get off the ship with wilderness cruising and some port stops. They vary widely in their program focus, and travelers must consider their interests when choosing a soft adventure cruise.

Exploring Alaska’s Coastal Wilderness is one of the finest small ship cruises available in Alaska and offers an easy program of off-vessel activities, port calls and wilderness cruising led by experts from National Geographic. A rotating cast of onboard expedition leaders from National Geographic is the best in the business and might include researchers professors, authors, photographers and explorers each with a particular specialty. Choose this 8-day cruise if you are seeking an intellectual and educational onboard experience and are willing to pay more for immersing yourself in an issue of National Geographic.

Inside Passage Sojourn, Glacier Bay and Island Adventure and Alaska’s Southeast Explorer visit lesser known and popular ports with one day of activity, and a focus on authentic Alaskan history and indigenous culture. Operated by Native Alaskans these affordable 8- to 11-day cruises highlight authentic small ports rarely visited by other ships. The crew is largely from Alaska giving these cruises the feel of visiting authentic Alaska in the company of real Alaskans.  

The 9-day Island Spirit Cruise is the perfect combination of relaxed cruising, optional shore excursions and port calls. The captain owns the ship, so you can expect terrific personalized service and a lifetime of Alaskan stories. If your idea of a great vacation includes spending quiet evenings anchored in peaceful coves, up-close wildlife, sightseeing and shopping among most popular destinations, then the Alaska Island Spirit Cruise is the perfect cruise for you.

Lindblad Zodiac Bear Soft Adventure

Easy Explorations

Easy Explorations typically combine wilderness cruising with visits to remote towns and popular ports. There may be little or no opportunity for adventurous activities such as hiking and kayaking from the ship. Easy Explorations are perfect for travelers seeking a port cruise without the big ship crowds.

The 12-day Gold Rush Legacy and the 8-day Alaska’s Golden History are new for 2014 and fill a much-needed niche for cruises that offer the most popular port calls combined with wilderness cruising. Experience Alaska through the lens of its rich history with onboard programs and port stops that bring the history to life. Combined with extensive wilderness cruising aboard an upscale historical ship these cruises are perfect for people seeking to cruise Alaska in style aboard a small ship.

Positioning Cruises

Each spring many small ships reposition from Seattle, Washington, to Alaska, and each fall they return from Alaska to Seattle. These “positioning” cruises offer a longer expedition covering the entire Inside Passage. These cruises, including Gold Rush Legacy and Famed Passages of Discovery, range from 12 to 15 days and often represent a significant value.

Un-Cruise Legacy Easy Exploration

Choosing Your Alaska Small Ship

Once you have an understanding of what length and style of cruise interests you, it is time to consider your small ship. Our Alaska small ships are handpicked and scrutinized for safety, service, itinerary and expedition leaders. We are Alaska cruise experts who have cruised aboard or personally inspected every ship on our website, and we are here to make sure you choose the correct ship for your interests, ability and budget. If you have any questions about ships please do not hesitate to call us. See Small Ship vs Big Ship – What is the Difference for further details.

Expedition Ships

Expedition ships such as the Wilderness Explorer, Wilderness Adventurer, Wilderness Discoverer, National Geographic Sea Bird & Sea Lion, Safari Endeavour, Admiralty Dream, Baranof Dream and S.S. Legacy are comfortable, sturdy vessels specially designed and built for adventure travel in remote locations. As such, this type of expedition ship often has ice-strengthened hulls and all the amenities one would expect on a small ship cruise. They offer a wide variety of accommodations and high quality of onboard service and dining. They have larger cabins, many with view windows and private bathrooms. These ships have more deck space for watching wildlife, more common areas such as a library, lecture room, salon or bar, larger galley and dining room and more convenient deck plans with cabins located close to observation decks. Expedition ships typically accommodate 60 to 86 passengers.

Mid-Size Cruisers

Mid-sized cruisers carrying 32 to 48 passengers offer the efficiency and intimacy of a small yacht combined with the space and amenities typically found on a small ship. Ships such as the Safari Explorer, Island Spirit and Alaskan Dream have larger cabins, spacious bathrooms, ample deck space, delicious cuisine, a high crew-to-passenger ratio and excellent guides. There are multiple decks where you can always find a moment to watch the sunset and enjoy the solitude.

Yachts

Smaller yachts carry 12 to 22 guests and can vary considerably in price and amenities, from rustic floating base camps to luxurious yachts that will satisfy the most refined travel styles. They offer the most active and intimate experience with the most time ashore. It is easier to get 12 travelers ashore in one group than it is to ferry 100 passengers ashore in multiple groups, so smaller yachts can mean more time ashore. In general, smaller yachts often carry kayaks.

The tradeoff is that these boats are smaller. They have smaller cabins, bathrooms, dining room and deck space. Smaller boats mean there are not as many public places to go for a private moment on deck. However, travelers aboard small yachts and sailboats often comment that getting to know their fellow passengers and crew is one of the highlights of the trip.

The 22-guest Safari Quest offers yachting at its best with luxurious cabins, a wine library and five-star service. The Pacific Catalyst, Discovery and Sea Wolf are family owned and operated yachts that feel like floating B&Bs.Sea Wolf Yacht

Getting to Your Alaska Cruise

There are a variety of ports where Alaska cruises begin and end including Juneau, Ketchikan, Petersburg, Sitka and Anchorage. Flights to Juneau and Anchorage are common while smaller ports may require a bit more planning. Travelers connecting from the west coast of North America will have little difficulty getting to Alaska and embarking their ship the same day (although a pre-cruise overnight is nice). Travelers east of Utah or Colorado will require a pre-cruise overnight in order to safely embark their ship in time. Most major airlines offer flights to Anchorage, while Alaska Airlines is the only carrier to service Juneau and the small ports of Southeast Alaska. Flights to this region will route through Seattle, Washington.

At AdventureSmith, we are small ship cruise experts not airfare experts, and as such we do not book flights for our clients. But our Adventure Coordinators will work closely with you to make sure your flights are scheduled to seamlessly coincide with your Alaska vacation. We advise travelers to purchase flights only after their Alaska trip is confirmed.

Seasickness

Seasickness is typically not an issue on most Alaska small ship cruises. Most cruises travel in the protected waters of the Inside Passage or Prince William Sound and rarely travel more than a few miles away from shore. Positioning cruises and cruises that venture close to the open water of the Gulf of Alaska are more prone to exposure to ocean swells for brief periods of their itinerary. If you are sensitive to seasickness, tell your Adventure Coordinator and we can advise you which ships and itineraries may have a chance to encounter these conditions.

A Word about Guides

The experience and demeanor of your Alaskan guide will have a profound impact on your overall experience. All of the small ships we work with in Alaska have naturalist guides on board. Todd Smith, our founder and director, worked as a lead naturalist aboard small ships in Alaska for 10 years and knows the importance of a good guide. The quality of onboard guides is one of the most important criteria we think about when considering which small ships we represent.

One Alaskan cruise line, Lindblad Expeditions, stands above the rest in terms of onboard programs and naturalist guides. Lindblad’s partnership with National Geographic means that its naturalists and expedition leaders are experts in their field and may include professors, authors, scientists, researchers, photographers and generalist guides who have a lifetime of experience in Alaska. Lindblad cruises aboard the National Geographic Sea Bird & Sea Lion appeal to travelers willing to pay a premium for an intellectual and educational experience with National Geographic.

Family Cruises

While families are invited to enjoy any Alaskan small ship cruise, a number of small ships offer dedicated family departures. These Alaska family cruises offer specialized programs with guides who are experienced working with younger travelers and may include special educational programs, unique activities, family-friendly meal options and more to enhance the family cruise experience. These family cruises also offer the added benefit of traveling with other likeminded families with kids of similar age. For information about traveling with children aboard a few boats in our fleet, read the Traveling with Kids Aboard Safari, Wilderness & Legacy Small Ships blog post. And as always, your AdventureSmith Adventure Coordinator can answer any further questions you have about Alaska family cruises.

Alaska Small Ship Cruise Reviews

There are now countless Alaska small ship cruise and travel review websites on the internet. Many offer honest advice, but many need to be taken with a grain of salt. Use Alaska cruise reviews as a tool but don't rush to judgment when you read a poor review. Often this is a result of a mismatch between the style of the traveler and the type of cruise they were on. The best type of Alaska cruise review is a personal referral. Ask your booking agent if he/she can put you in touch with someone who has traveled to Alaska with similar interests as you or aboard the boat you are inquiring about. Reputable Alaska small ship cruise agencies will gladly refer their past clients.

Alaska Land Tours

AdventureSmith Explorations also offers a full selection of land- and lodge-based tours that are perfect as small ship cruise extensions or standalone trips. Independent tours can be scheduled at any time based on availability, exploring Glacier Bay, visiting Denali or viewing brown bears at Katmai National Park for example. Guided small group tours, designed with the same focus on intimate exploration as our small ship cruises, explore the Kenai Peninsula and Denali with activity options such as hiking, kayaking, rafting, flightseeing and more. For a full selection view our Alaska Land Tours.Alaska Land Tours Denali Backcountry Explorer

Take Our Expert Advice

Most important when choosing your Alaska cruise, speak with an experienced Alaska small ship expert. Our specialists are armed with the best Alaska cruise tips from years of experience traveling and working in the region. You will not get the whole picture when booking direct, and a company with experience aboard all the ships can be the difference between the trip of a lifetime and the trip from hell.

At AdventureSmith Explorations, we are award-winning Alaska small ship cruise specialists with a focus on guided small group nature tours and custom travel for individuals, couples, families and small groups. Our founder and president Todd Smith helped pioneer expedition cruising, and our staff has decades of experience guiding, arranging and selling wilderness adventures. We offer firsthand knowledge, personal service, key Alaska cruise tips, sustainable practices and unbeatable prices. Thanks for reading AdventureSmith’s primer on Alaska small ship cruising, and contact us with any further questions on how to choose your Alaska cruise.

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