Know Before You Go: Alaska Cruise Considerations

Last July, while lounging in the sun near the cruise ship launch dock in Sitka, I overheard two friends talking about their fortunate score of splendid weather during their cruise to Alaska.

“I can’t believe it,” First Guy said. “Somebody told me it rains every day in Alaska, so I brought all my best gear, and an umbrella, and look, it’s gorgeous out!” Guess they missed the previous day’s drizzle and fog.

I’m asked all the time by visitors if they picked the “right time” to visit Alaska. Sunny days, rainy days, windy days; everyone wants to know if they were given accurate information. Perhaps you are ready to book your family’s 2012 Alaska cruise, but, like so many potential visitors, aren’t quite sure about the timing. With so many ports of call from which to choose, and an ever-increasing list of tours, it can be quite challenging to finally hit that “select” button on the cruise line’s website, despite your exhaustive research into things like weather, wildlife sightings, daylight, and such. Maddening, that’s what it is.

Sun? Rain? Yes, all that and more on a cruise to Alaska

Let’s break the summer cruise season down a bit, shall we? AK Fam has indeed been to the major and minor ports around southeast and southcentral Alaska, and the cruise tour destinations, so we hope our little bit of insight helps you select the best cruise option for your family vacation.

In a nutshell, Alaska’s cruising season begins in May and ends in October. Our scenery speaks for itself, whether shrouded in mist or illuminated by sunlight, and anyone thinking otherwise just better stop right now and take a hard look at their mission to the 49th state. Repeat after me: “One does not come to Alaska for the weather.” (there, better? Okay, let’s continue).

Springtime in Alaska means water, lots and lots of water...

May: Welcome to spring! At least, what Alaskans consider to be spring. Hey, the snow is gone, and that’s usually enough for us. But while grass might be growing along your favorite Inside Passage ports, southcentral and Interior Alaska are still a bit brown, although you will be the first to see buds on trees, flowing water, and slightly nutty Alaskans doing the dance of daylight. May in Alaska is fresh, it’s new, and it’s also when everybody and everything, from salmon to moose to human, begin our first tentative steps (or swims) into a lush, green, and crystal-clear world we have not seen for the past seven or eight months.

Weather will be chilly and likely wet, so pack your rain gear, hiking boots, and warm hat/gloves, along with your best outdoor attitude. In return, you’ll be rewarded with few crowds, early-season deals at many hotels or attractions, and happy vendors who are as thrilled as you about the change in seasons. This is where our favorite coupon book, the Alaska TourSaver, really earns its worth. Two-for-One, everything, and early visitors get the pick of the pack for stuff like lodging, train rides, and wildlife cruises.

Sunny day for cruising the Chena River in Fairbanks aboard the Riverboat Discovery

June-August: Hey, it’s officially summer! Alaskans go all out during these three months, with festivals, activities, and, in port cities of the Inside Passage, crowds of thousands. This is prime time for most visitors, especially those who hope to maximize time through shore excursions and tours through other parts of Alaska. Weather can be decidedly better between the months of June and August, although there are certainly no guarantees, especially in rainy southeast. But all in all, visitors will more than likely have a few days of sun (and long daylight) by which to induldge themselves in all the outdoor recreation their hearts could possibly desire. If you like heat, do head up to Fairbanks in the summer; temperatures range from 60-80F or higher, and activities abound in the Golden Heart City. We love a Riverboat Discovery trip on a bright, sunny Fairbanks afternoon; the narration is absolutely fabulous, the boat, positively historic, and the scenery, dramatic.

The summer months are prime for glacier and wildlife-viewing, too, so if these activities are on your family’s list, make sure you plan ahead and make reservations far in advance. One of our favorites, Allen Marine Tours, offers a huge variety of cruises and tours in Sitka, Juneau, and Ketchikan, including their  incredible new “Alaska Wilderness Survival” cruise, a three-hour, hands-on experience for the whole family that is destined to be a hit.

Autumn sunlight filters through the trees at Pike's Lodge in Fairbanks

September-October: Quite possibly my family’s favorite season in Alaska, fall brings golden leaves, shaggy-haired animals, and maybe even a bit of “termination dust” on top of our highest mountains. While many southcentral vendors shutter up tight after Labor Day, those who serve the cruise industry make every effort to show, and show off, our state. Visitors to Alaska in the fall might spy a moose, enormous antlers atop his head, ambling his way across the road in search of a mate. Bears, fat and happy after a summer of gorging on salmon, will be racing to fuel up on their final food groups before denning up, and flocks of  birds, including Sandhill Cranes, geese, and swans, will rest in fields like Creamer’s Field in Fairbanks or Potter Marsh in Anchorage before the long journey south. The air takes on a different feel, as if nature is holding its breath, waiting for winter. Hikes can be fantastic ways to see the colors shift from green to red, brown, and yellow; try Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center in Juneau, or simply walk the pathways of towns like Sitka, where a paved trail system leads to all sorts of beautiful sights at its terminus near the Totem National Historical Park. Ketchikan’s stunning Totem Bight State Park takes one away from the busy downtown area, and teaches not only the culture and history of Alaska’s coastal native population, but the crucial connection between art and culture, as well. Autumn provides a quiet, reflective opportunity to teach kids the value of both.

So, cruise on, friends! No matter the month you choose to visit Alaska, it is sure to be unforgettable. Questions? Email us at togoak@gmail.com, or throw in your two cents in our comment section below.

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