Alaska cruising vacations travel guide


Alaska is vast, there is no doubt about it. It is the USA’s largest state, it has humungous national parks, the largest national forest at Tongass, the deepest fjords in North America, the world’s largest population of brown bears, and some of the country’s largest islands, such as Admiralty and Prince of Wales. Or Prince of Whales as it should be called, as the Alexander Archipelago of which it is part, is home to orcas, humpback, and so many other greats. The best news is that you don’t need vast vessels to explore it; far from it. There are superb small ship cruise options, with ships varying in size between 70-100 passengers, and where activities such as sea kayaking, SUP or hiking are all about being on the water or the land, rather than on the ship. Unless you are just struck dumb watching whales jump up in front of you while you sip your morning coffee on deck, of course.
Alaska small ship cruising vacations are...

a way to travel into an archipelagic arcadia. A very wild one too, where bears and whales thrive and eagles soar.
Alaska small ship cruising vacations aren’t...

Arctic cruises. These are summer cruises around the southern archipelagos. For polar bears, head north.

Best time to go on an Alaska cruising vacation


The skipper always knows the best time to go on a small ship cruise in Alaska, and most head off into the now thawing waters around May, docking up for winter around late Sep. Temperatures range between 12-15°C but with daylight hours reaching 20°C in June. Peak season for prices is Jul-Aug. Wildlife wise, Jun-Jul are great for humpback whales and May-Jun for orcas. Bears are busy between Jul-early Sep at the mouths of rivers where salmon are taking a chance with destiny in search of spawning grounds. On land, mid Jun-end Jul is pretty bad for mossies, so be prepared.

Is an Alaska small ship cruise for you?

Responsible Travel recommends

Go on an Alaska small ship cruise if…

… you want to go island hopping on this dreamy archipelago without hundreds of other passengers. These are small ship cruises on expedition ships sleeping up to 100 passengers.
… you want to have outdoor adventures. Sea kayaking, stand up paddling, snorkelling and hiking through wilderness are all part of the offer, with expert local guides.
… you are a keen wildlife watcher. Between Admiralty Island with its highest concentration of brown bears in the world, and Stephens Passage, which has the largest concentration of humpback whales in the northern hemisphere, be prepared to lose sleep.
… you want to learn more about indigenous communities of Alaska. The Alexander Archipelago is home to the Tlingit people, many of whom are involved in tourism.

Don’t go on an Alaska small ship cruise if...

… you want heat. This is Alaska, and so temperatures don’t go much higher than the mid teens in summer. But you will get sunshine in summer though, and plenty of glacial glare.
… you worship the King Cunards of the world. Instead of thousands of people, you have thousands of islands, inlets, coves and cetaceans.
… you want facilities like swimming pools, climbing walls and crazy golf. These boats offer things like kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, inflatable skiffs, hiking poles and yoga mats.
… you like a party boat. These are tranquil trips that aim to connect with nature. Be it the night skies, peace of the waves, or a hiking expedition on land. Evening entertainment is watching the sun set over a fjord, or watching whales through an underwater camera live screened in the bar.



How big is a “small” cruise ship?

Our responsible, small cruise ships are expedition boats, designed to cope with Alaskan conditions, and so they are not tiny, but they are certainly not the behemoths that sleep thousands of people. We let nature be the ruler of the waves on these trips, and our expedition boats sleep between 70-100 guests. Less common but more popular on specific wildlife watching trips is a traditional sailing ketch, with up to about 16 passengers. Of course, it is still equipped with all the safety and navigation equipment needed to sail through these remote waters.

What are the cabins like?

They may be expedition ships by nature, but they have all been refurbished to cater for happy travelers. The cabins on traditional small ship cruises are clean and comfortable with en suite bathrooms, and most ships offer single, double or triples cabins. On a sailing trip that carries fewer passengers, the norm is about eight double cabins, with a mix of double bunks or twins and shared bathrooms. Solo travelers may need to bunk up on these ones, so ask your tour operator for details.

What about other facilities?

The facilities on board Alaskan small ship cruises are all about the connecting with nature and the outdoors, rather than counting swimming pools or cinemas. Most have libraries with books on nature or local history, underwater cameras which transmit images to the cosy lounge, kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, inflatable skiffs, hiking poles and yoga mats. And even snorkelling equipment for those who dare. And if a hot tub or sauna on deck lit by shooting stars rather than a spa down on level -3 speaks your language, then you are definitely more of a small ship cruise type of person.

Can I travel solo?

If you are traveling solo and there are no single cabins, you usually have two choices: Pay roughly a 50 percent supplement for your own double cabin, or choose to share a twin cabin with someone of the same gender, at no extra cost. If the cruise is not fully booked, you may get lucky and end up with your own double cabin without paying a supplement, but there are no guarantees. Check with your vacation company to see if it is possible to reserve a specific cabin in advance.

Can I travel with my children?

Families are always welcome on board. For a supplement, the ship may be able to put an extra single bed into a cabin to sleep three people. Ask your tour operator for details.

How are they responsible?

Many of the ships on these routes are operated by companies that are members of the 'Passenger Vessel Association Green WATERS Program', or PVA. This is a scheme that recognises commitment to a green and clean marine environment, by reducing fuel consumption, managing waste responsibly, conserving drinking water, using marine friendly cleaning products when possible and so on. Many small ship cruises tie in with local community conservation efforts, by fundraising or collecting donations, and of course by doing plenty of land excursions in order to spread the tourism income. Ingredients are purchased locally, with many ships’ chefs being members of a ‘Chefs Collaborative’ to encourage sustainable food supply and respect seasonality. Cruise companies also partner with local operators for land excursions such as guided hikes, wildlife safaris and cultural visits to indigenous communities.

The owners don't just support the local community; they are the local community. The vessel is owned by members of the Kaagwaantaan Clans, one of the clans of the he Tlingit people of southeastern Alaska.


Most small ship cruises in Alaska will have onboard naturalists, zoologists or marine conservation experts, as well as libraries to keep you well informed about all wildlife around you. From the Sitka blacktail deer of the Tonass National Forest or the bald eagles soaring above its temperate rainforest canopy , the moose and grizzlies on the shores of Misty Fjords, the orcas and humpbacks of Stephens Passage to the black bears of Prince of Wales Island and many more, these trips are like Attenborough on all cylinders.
Photo credits: [Topbox: Charles Mims] [Temp chart: Ian D. Keating] [How big: Roderick Eime] [Other facilities: Matt Zimmerman] [Children: USDA Forest Service Alaska] [Wildlife: USDA Forest Service Alaska]
Written by Catherine Mack
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Photo credits: [Page banner: Paxson Woelber]
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