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Choosing Your Alaskan Cruise Route: Inside Passage vs. Gulf of Alaska


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When you start choosing your Alaskan cruise route, you’ll face an initial decision about which itinerary to go with: Inside Passage vs. Gulf of Alaska. Deciding which is better is dependent on what you’re hoping to see and do during your cruise. 

No matter where you cruise, you’ll take in some incredible views on your Alaskan vacation.

  • Glaciers
  • Wildlife
  • Outdoor adventures
  • Vibrant port cities with rich history

So before you pick your cruise solely based on the cruise route, here’s a look at what makes for an outstanding cruise itinerary.

Alaskan Cruise Itinerary Features to Look for

While evaluating cruise itineraries and ports of call, consider these factors that help add to the Alaskan experience.

1. Time at Each Port

Some cruises move through the ports at rapid speeds, only giving you a few hours to see cities with historical significance and outdoor wonders. And while you’ll get to say you’ve been to these incredible places, by the time you disembark and then re-enter the boat, you’ll find that you got to do and see little at each port.

Ensure that the timeline allows for solo exploration or even an excursion at each port. That way, you’ll have more flexibility to design the vacation of your dreams.

On other cruises, you might not even stop. Make sure that you get a chance to explore the land and not just cruise through every adventurous-sounding port on the list.

2. One-way Cruises Often Have the Better Itinerary

Choosing Your Alaskan Cruise Route

Because you aren’t trying to cover many nautical miles in a few short days to go up one way and then come back the other, one-way cruises often offer the better itinerary. 

Sometimes cruisers avoid these options because of the hassle of not being able to book round-trip flights. But it’s worth the hassle because you’ll see more in each port.

Round-trip cruises often have several days of cruising to cover the distance necessary. The captain has a bit more to consider when staying on time with these cruises than captains on one-way cruises.

Additionally, one-way cruises offer the opportunity to plan day tours in both the starting and ending ports. That way, you know you’ll be in full control of what you see in two coastal cities, such as Juneau and Sitka. 

3. Time to See Glaciers and Wildlife

Two unique aspects of Alaska compared to other places in the world are that they features glaciers and unique wildlife. If you’re hoping for an opportunity to experience these Alaskan treats, consider which cruise gets you closer to nature and offers a better view of glaciers. 

Most Alaskan cruises include these features because they know this is what people come to the state to see. However, some have more time and days to explore glaciers or take you right into the heart of bear feeding grounds or whale pods to ensure the best experience.

Some wildlife you might target seeing include:

  • Harbor seals
  • Sea lions
  • Bears
  • Eagles
  • Otters
  • Humpback whales
  • Puffins

Generally, the best places to see wildlife are in the national and state parks. Some popular cruise destinations include Chugach State Park, Glacier Bay National Park and Katmai National Park.

And if you’re going on the cruise to see these incredible creatures, you might consider cruising in July. This tends to be the most active time of year for wildlife. Salmon runs are more active, which means more active bears. Birds are flying about.  And sea lions are the most playful. 


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What You’ll See on an Inside Passage Cruise

Now that you know more about what to look for in a high-quality cruise experience, here’s a look at what you’ll likely see and experience when going on an Inside Passage Cruise.

Ports Often Included

When going on an Inside Passage cruise, you can almost guarantee you’ll see some of the most popular Alaskan ports of Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway. You certainly won’t be bored when exploring these three Alaskan cities. Generally, the cruises start from Vancouver or Seattle. Each of these ports offers something unique to explore. 

Longer cruises often also include Sitka, Wrangell, Haines and Strait Point. And while these are not considered the most popular cruise ports, they still offer unique Alaskan experiences with a little more of a small-town charm.

Cruise Timeline

Most cruises are seven days but you won’t get to explore a different Alaskan town each day. Instead, you’ll spend some days cruising, often at the beginning and end of the cruise as your captain works to get you where you need to go.

Other cruises are only three or four days. The benefit that this can provide is that you can schedule land tours before or after. That way, you get to see the coastal areas during your tour but then have an opportunity to do in-land activities during the rest of your vacation. 

You might find itineraries that build the sea and land portions of your trip for you. And while that can be nice from a convenience standpoint, the land portion will generally cost far more when booking through a cruise line than if you were to book it yourself.

What You’ll See on a Gulf of Alaska Cruise

Another way to see Alaska is with a Gulf of Alaska cruise. Here’s a look at some things you might experience on board these cruises.

Ports Often Included

Most Gulf of Alaska cruises start from Seward or Whittier. Whittier is an hour’s drive from Anchorage. On some cruise itineraries you might see this port listed as Anchorage, but know that you’ll likely be cruising from the smaller port of Whittier. You can ride a train to Whittier from Anchorage. You’ll enjoy a very unique experience of a shared tunnel. The traffic in the tunnel alternates between cars and trains to allow traffic to move through.

During the cruise, you’ll still likely see some of Alaska’s Inside Passage. However, it will have fewer days at port in the Inside Passage unless you go on a cruise that is longer than a week.

Reasons to Consider a Gulf of Alaska Cruise

Individuals looking to combine a land and sea experience while visiting Alaska are often the most ideal Gulf of Alaska cruisers. These cruises start and end in ports that have incredible areas to explore or offer easy transportation to other parts of the state. 

Deciding Which Cruise Itinerary is Right for You

Ultimately, deciding between Inside Passage vs. Gulf of Alaska cruises comes down to what interests you most about Alaska. Cruises that stop in Glacier Bay offer the opportunity to see eight glaciers over the water or a total of 1,000 glaciers throughout the National Park. While you’re less likely to see glacier calving (or large hunks of the ice falling into the water), the area boasts some of Alaska’s best wildlife viewing areas. 

For the most part, you can’t choose a bad Alaskan cruise. All offer unique experiences and incredible views you won’t find anywhere else. So don’t sweat the small details and start booking your Alaskan adventure today.

If you’ll be starting or ending your cruise in Juneau, plan to stay a few extra days to enjoy all that the city has to offer. Book your stay at Juneau Hotel, a downtown hotel in the heart of it all that puts you close to many unique adventures and provides a full kitchen and washer and dryer in every suite.

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