Of the two million people who visit Alaska each year, at least one million of those arrive or depart via cruise ships. From the mega-vessels housing thousands to smaller yachts carrying only a few, Alaska cruises are big business for the tourism industry. They are also the source of much confusion when it comes to determining which type of Alaska cruise fits for a particular family. The 2020 season looks to be just as busy or busier than the last, with new products, itineraries, and even vessels available to families looking for an opportunity to see the Last Frontier’s southern reaches by boat. Below are a few highlights.
LARGE VESSELS (1,000 or more passengers)
Celebrity Cruises. Best for: larger families traveling together who want the “bells and whistles” of youth programs, shows, and activities typical of a large-vessel Alaska cruise. Highlights include the popular Camp at Sea for kids age 3-10; a teen disco, basketball court, and Wii for older kids. Want a more intimate shore excursion experience? Check out their Private Journeys program, whereby a family or group of friends can receive a curated shore experience without the crush of a few hundred or so of your fellow passengers. Private vehicles, food and drink, and a relaxed pace. If considering a larger ship, the Private Journeys offering is a game-changer for those wanting the best of shore explorations and big ship luxury. Ships sail round-trip from either Vancouver, B.C. or Seattle, but do disembark in Seward on a few itineraries.
Holland America. Best for: families with older kids (although when we sailed with a 4 year-old, he found the kids club to be quite fun), and those interested in a more classic, European-style experience. HAL has boosted their attraction for families, though, with the addition of family cabins sleeping five and two bathrooms. Additionally, the Maasdam has kicked exploration into high gear with the addition of skiffs that depart right from the ship and allow for a more in-depth experience typically reserved for smaller vessels. Holland America vessels sail Alaska from either Vancouver or Seattle, and can disembark in Seward (or reverse).
MIDSIZE VESSELS (150-300 passengers)
Windstar Cruises. Best for: teen-centric travelers (Windstar does not allow kids under 12 as a general rule). With two new itineraries for 2020/2021, Windstar is trying to jump out the usual Alaska cruise box with sailings to port cities like Valdez in Prince William Sound, and Petersburg in Southeast. The 11-day Alaska Glaciers and Prince William Sound itinerary travels between Seward and Vancouver, and offers opportunities not generally available on large ships. Look for excursions centered around nature, wildlife, and ecology, and including zodiac tours, hikes, birdwatching, fish hatchery tours and more. In 2021, the Scenic Alaska itinerary will sail a 7-day itinerary between Seattle and Juneau, responding to passenger requests for a shorter trip. With stops in Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan, and Sitka, this is a nice fit for the midsize cruise range, and might be a compromise for families with different cruise expectations.
SMALL SHIPS (100 passengers or fewer)
Alaskan Dream Cruises. Best for: multi-gen families wanting a soft-adventure type of cruise experience. Alaskan Dream is a Sitka-based company that prides itself on local ownership and a commitment to Alaska, with nearly 50 years of day and overnight cruising experience. More casual than the bigger vessels, Alaskan Dream does have high guest satisfaction expectations, with fine dining, local ingredients, and excellent service. Look for more family-centric sailings in 2020, including the Become a true Alaskan Family cruises in June and July. With a youth expedition leader and outdoor-centered activities, kids are sure to have a great experience in Alaska. There’s also a 15% discount for kids age 15 and under. This itinerary sails between Sitka and Juneau.
UnCruise Adventures. Best for: active families looking to truly expose their kids to Alaska’s wild spaces. Full disclosure: I am the UnCruise Youth Adventurist, and am proud to say I paved the way in Alaska for a fully-immersive experience geared toward young visitors. Two family-specific itineraries are on tap for 2020; departing July 4 and again August 1. Look for a “summer-camp” type experience, with plenty of time for free play on shore with mom and dad, too. There’s also a $500 savings for kids 8-13. These itineraries will sail between Ketchikan and Juneau.
Maple Leaf Adventures: Best for: soft-adventure and active families with tweens or teens looking to truly get away. Hop aboard the Swell, a converted tug boat that has been remodeled in a most gorgeous way. Sail for 10 or 11 days between Sitka and Ketchikan with only 12 guests aboard. Enjoy kayaking, hiking, hot springs, and more on either of the 2020 itineraries. Look for a commitment to eco-tourism and nature, and the chance to explore some small Alaska communities as well to tie it all together. No restrictions on ages, but do consult the company for specific requirements regarding littles.