Best Time To Cruise Alaska

There are only five months of the year that you can cruise to Alaska. The Alaskan cruising season runs from May to September, but not every cruise is created equal. This means there will be both pros and cons for each month you decide to go on a cruise. There will be differences in weather, pricing and what’s in season. If you are expecting something specific, like a chance to see bears or plenty of salmon, there are certain times you should book.

Locals say that the best time to cruise Alaska is the end of May or the beginning of June for the best weather and smaller crowds, but visiting Alaska is a great experience no matter when you go.

When deciding on the best time to cruise Alaska, there are many factors to take into account. Different times and seasons might be better for you depending on your interests, your schedule, and what activities you find the most enjoyable. This article will provide with all of the information that you need and answer questions you might have as you plan your Alaska cruise of a lifetime and decide on the best time to make it happen.

Why is Alaska cruise season so short?

The first thing you might be wondering is why the Alaska cruise season is so short. The most important reason for the short duration of the season is safety. As the late fall approaches, the weather cools down and temperatures remain low through early spring. During this period of time, the waters are too icy for cruise ships to safely navigate their way through Alaska’s waters. The cold temperatures and dark days of winter also prevent the cruise season from lasting longer. In the Alaska winter months, there are very few hours of daylight, making it an undesirable time for cruises.

The short season makes for a high demand for cruises during the Alaska cruise season. As a result, cruises fill up quickly especially during peak season and prices are high to compensate for the shortness of the season. If you want to cruise Alaska during peak season, you must be sure to book your cruise well in advance. Cruises in the shoulder seasons are easier to book at shorter notice and less expensive but it is still recommended to book in advance whenever you go.

How should you plan your cruise to Alaska?

Alaska cruises last from 7 to 14 days and follow one of two major routes, the Inside Passage route or the Gulf of Alaska route. The Inside Passage route is a round trip, beginning and ending at the same port, while the Gulf of Alaska route is one-way and more varied but you will need to arrange to fly into and out of different airports.

Throughout the cruise season, temperatures are mild and warm ranging from approximately 50 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, wildlife is flourishing, and the landscape is stunning. Therefore, the best time for a cruise depends largely on your schedule, your budget, and your preferences.

What are the best and worst months to cruise to Alaska?

For most cruisers, warm weather and less rain make for a more enjoyable experience. If this is the case for you, July might be the best month followed by June and then August. Average highs during most of cruising season are 55-65 degrees, but in May and September, temperatures are about 10 degrees cooler. The hours of daylight range from 14 to 18 with June having the longest days and September having the shortest.

In May, the chance of rainfall is at its lowest, and it rises each month throughout the cruise season reaching a peak in September. The busiest cruise months are July and August because of the warm temperatures with highs in the mid-60s. In June, the temperatures are similar to July and August. In May and September, the highs are in the upper 50s, which is fine if you don’t mind cooler weather as long as you dress accordingly.

Why take a cruise during peak season?

With its long days, salmon runs, warm weather, and prime wildlife viewing, the peak season is an ideal time for a cruise in Alaska. During the peak cruise season, which runs from June through August, you will find higher prices and more crowds, but you will also enjoy longer days and warmer weather. With 22 hours of daylight on June 21, the summer solstice, you will have plenty of time to take in all the sights. The weather is pleasant and warm making this a good time to explore ports such as Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Juneau, stop for land excursions, look for wildlife at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, forage for berries, and view bears, walruses, and seabirds. During peak season, you should expect to find more people, more kids, and more activity at ports.

Why take a cruise during shoulder season?

The months of May and September are considered shoulder season, or off-season, for Alaska cruises, with some companies offering sailings in late April and early October. During these periods, you will enjoy the same spectacular scenery at lower prices. In May, the wildflowers are blooming, waterfalls are rushing, and Dall sheep, mountain goats, and black bears are easy to spot. Migratory songbirds and seabirds can be seen returning in May, and it is the driest and least buggy month of the cruise season. However, you might find it cold, snowy, and muddy. As the snow melts, seas of mud, called breakup, are created which make some outdoor activities impossible. Some tourist attractions will still be closed until the middle of May or later.

September, at the opposite end of the season, is cool and rainy with temperatures ranging from 55-41 degrees Fahrenheit. If you don’t mind the cool temperatures and rainy days, September has a lot to offer. It is mating season for moose, caribou, and muskoxen, the colors of autumn foliage make for beautiful vistas, crowds begin to thin out, and it might be possible to see the Northern Lights. Most tourist attractions remain open through mid-September and lower their prices. Silver salmon fishing is still active on the Kenai Peninsula through the end of the month.

Booking and prices

July is most expensive month for a cruise in Alaska, while May, early June, and September are the cheapest. Cruises during peak season get booked a year in advance, so it is advisable to plan early and book ahead.

Highlights

Each season has its special highlights and advantages. In the spring, you will find wildflowers blooming and larger animals migrating. In early June, you will have the opportunity to experience the longest day, calving glaciers, orcas, whales, and dolphins. Long daylight hours and warm temperatures continue through July and early August. September’s highlights are fall foliage, the gathering of bald eagles, the Northern Lights, and the fresh snow on the mountains.

How to decide?

In making a decision about when to cruise Alaska, you will want to take into account weather, crowds, prices, hours of daylight, etc. May, early June and September are the least expensive, May and early June are the driest, and September is the least buggy, coolest, and has shorter days. If you have specific interests, here are the best times for some of Alaska’s most popular activities.

Best time to see bears on Alaska cruise

The world’s highest concentration of Brown, Black, and Polar bears are found in Alaska. If bear viewing is a priority for you, it is important to plan accordingly. The bear viewing season reaches its peak from July to early September. At these times, you will find them feasting on salmon near streams and rivers at dawn and at dusk. Bears can be seen throughout Alaska everywhere from Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Seward, Kenai Fjords National Park, Whittier, Sitka, to Icy Strait Point.

Best time to visit for long days

If you love the sun and want to be in Alaska for its longest days, June is the best time for an Alaska cruise. In June, there are days when sun barely sets; on June 21, the summer solstice, Anchorage gets 22 hours of daylight. Alaskans take full advantage by gathering for celebrations, events, concerts, and festivals on this day. To take full advantage of Alaska’s summer solstice, plan to spend the day at a port of call in the farthest north location.

Best time for whale watching

Watching whales on an Alaska cruise is a unique experience that you won’t want to miss. Watching them spout, leap, and lunge through the water is something that you will never forget. While whales can be spotted at any time during Alaska cruise season, some times are better than others. The best times to see humpback whales are in June and July, while orcas are most likely to be seen in May and June. Gray whales are most visible early in cruise season in April and May. July and August are the best times for seeing blue whales.

Best time for Northern Lights

The Northern Lights are a phenomenon caused by electrically charged particles from the sun entering the Earth’s atmosphere. The interaction creates bright bands of color, mostly green and pink, in the sky. Seeing the Northern Lights in Alaska is an experience like no other, but it isn’t likely to see them on an Alaska cruise. This is because the best times to see them are when the nights are long, in other words, not during cruise season. Still, it might be possible to see them. Your best shot at seeing them on a cruise is in September when the days begin to shorten and the nights become darker. The best places to see them are in Fairbanks, Anchorage, or Brooks Range, 200 miles north of Fairbanks.

Best time for good deals and avoiding crowds

If you are trying to cut costs, the best deals can be found during the shoulder seasons, in May or September. Great deals can be found, especially if you are flexible about your dates. Shoulder seasons are also the best time to avoid crowds because most families prefer summer cruises when the weather is warmest and the kids are out of school. The weather is colder in the shoulder seasons, so be sure to pack extra layers. May is the driest month, which is another advantage, while in late August and September, you will see stunning views of Alaska’s colorful fall vistas.

Best time for glacier viewing

The experience of seeing glaciers up close is a highlight of an Alaska cruise, and most visitors will want to see one on an Alaska cruise. Seeing a glacier by sea is the best way to fully appreciate their size and scale and to experience their activity. Watching a glacier calve huge blocks of ice into the ocean is a dramatic event that will make a lasting impression. The calving creates icebergs that hit the water making enormous waves as they head for the open waters or beaches.

While glaciers can be seen at any time during the cruise season, getting close depends on the weather and the ship’s ability to navigate through the water. Taking a cruise later in the summer when more ice has melted will increase your chances of seeing the spectacular Hubbard Glacier and Tracy Arm Fjord.

Off the coast of Yakutat, Hubbard Glacier is more than six miles wide where it meets the ocean. Its face is up to 400 feet tall and it calves frequently. In certain conditions, a ship can get within a mile of the face of this glacier. Tracy Arm Fjord is near Juneau, off of Hokham Bay. It is a 27-mile long narrow waterway surrounded by cliffs extending over 30 miles along the Tongass National Forest wilderness. The narrow inlet is surrounded by waterfalls, and traveling through it is a breathtaking experience. Other glaciers to check out are the Mendenhall Glacier and Glacier Bay National Park.

Best time for families with kids

An Alaska cruise makes for an unforgettable family vacation. Kids will love Alaska’s wildlife, landscapes, cultures, and outdoor activities. If you have school-age kids, your choices for when to go on an Alaska cruise will be somewhat limited. The most popular time for families is during summer break when prices are highest and crowds are largest. Going early in the summer, right after school gets out, is the best time to find deals and to avoid crowds. Before the trip, be sure to educate your kids about Alaska’s history and culture. This will get them excited about the trip and make for a more meaningful experience.

Best time for cruise tours

An Alaska cruise tour combines a full-length cruise with a land tour of Alaska’s interior either before or after the cruise. This gives you the opportunity to visit inland Alaska’s wilderness, small mountain towns, and to spend time at Denali National Park. Cruise tours might also visit Anchorage, Talkeetna, Fairbanks, and/or the Kaneai Peninsula.

Cruise tours are offered throughout cruise season, although you will find many more cruise tours are offered during the season peak from June through August. Cruise tours give travelers an opportunity to see aspects of Alaska that are not accessible by boat and help you to appreciate more of what Alaska has to offer. While combining a cruise and a land tour can be exhausting, the opportunity to see more of this incredible state is well worth it if you have the time to spare.

Best time for city and town exploration

You might think of going to cruise in Alaska primarily to see wildlife and scenery, but Alaska’s cities, towns, and communities also have a lot to offer. Some of the best small towns to visit in Alaska are Cordova, Talkeetna, Skagway, Sitka, Homer, and Seward.

One of the disadvantages of traveling to Alaska in the early spring is that not all businesses and tourist attractions will be open. While many shops and restaurants at ports and cruise-ship towns will open to accommodate cruise ship passengers, you might find that most tourist facilities don’t open until late May. When they do open, you can expect lower prices.

Best time for Salmon fishing

With 80 percent of high-value salmon species coming from Alaska’s waters, it is no surprise that Salmon fishing is a popular activity in Alaska. Salmon fishing season in Alaska runs from May through October, lasting throughout the cruise season. Therefore any time is good, but if you have a preference for certain types of salmon, you might want to plan accordingly.

From May to July is the best time to fish for king salmon, also called Chinook salmon. Sockeye salmon fishing season runs from June to late July, while red, pink, or chum salmon are more prevalent from mid-July to mid-August. For silver salmon, also known as coho salmon, plan your cruise for July to October. Ideal times for first-timers are in the early summer months when you will find a selection of fish or in early fall during silver salmon season. Some fishing tour companies will even pack your catch and ship it back home to you on dry ice.

Activities for any time of cruise season

If you are having a hard time deciding on when to take your Alaska cruise, you will be happy to know that many popular activities and attractions are available throughout the cruise season. Dog sledding, glacier hiking, kayaking, rafting, beer tasting, visiting museums, attending a salmon bake or a crab feast, or visiting the totem poles at Ketchikan’s Totem Heritage Center and Totem Bright State Historical Park are among the uniquely Alaskan experiences you can enjoy whenever you take your Alaska cruise.

For each of these activities, you will find any number of choices. Popular dog sledding tours can be found in Juneau, Skagway, and Denali. Dog sledding is a unique Alaskan experience that provides an opportunity to learn about the history of the dog sled racing and spend time with Husky pups.

Glacier hiking tours allow you to have an adventure of a lifetime by landing on and walking on one of the state’s accessible glaciers. Some of the best kayaking and rafting adventures are on the Tatshenshini River, in Sitka, and in Denali National Park. Anchorage is the city with the most breweries to check out and also houses some of Alaska’s biggest and best museums.

Additional Tips

To make the most of your Alaska cruise, consider booking a veranda stateroom. This allows you to have more frequent and direct access to Alaska’s natural beauty. You can relax and enjoy your morning coffee or an evening cup of tea on your veranda while watching for views of ports or looking out for whales.

When packing, remember that Alaska weather is unpredictable. Be sure to bring layers so you can make quick adjustments if you get too hot or too cold. Warm fleece pullovers, sweaters, and rain jackets and boots are highly recommended.

If you plan to use your phone, be sure to check with your cell phone provider about roaming charges, and make sure your passport is up-to-date. If you are travelling with kids, look for ships that provide children’s activities.

A Month-by-Month Guide

If you still aren’t sure when is the best time for your Alaska cruise, this month-by-month guide lays out the details and the pros and cons of each month of the Alaska cruise season.

May

May is a great time for an Alaska cruise because it is quiet, peaceful, affordable, and relatively dry. On a May cruise, you will get to experience Alaska’s beauty, active wildlife, blooming wildflowers, and good weather without the hassle of crowds, high prices, and booking a year in advance (although it is still a good idea to book early.) The season begins the second week of May, and you will find the best deals and bargains in the early weeks. The drawbacks to May cruises are the mud, known as breakup, that you will encounter on land excursions and the lack of accessible hiking trails.

The weather in May is chilly and the snow will not have melted, but temperatures are beginning to rise. The average temperatures in May are between 39 and 54 degrees Fahrenheit, with daytime highs in the upper 50s and nighttime lows in the low 40s. With these cool temperatures, it is important to bring a warm jacket and sweaters on your May cruise. With a 25 % chance of rain, May is the driest and sunniest month of season. Rainfall averages are about 5 inches and it rains about 19 days during the month. You can expect about 17 hours of daylight and cloudy skies during the month of May in Alaska. May is also the least buggy month of the cruise season.

You will find plenty to do to fill up those daylight hours. May is a great time to view wildlife, including Dall sheep, mountain goats, and black and brown bears. Dall sheep, known to inhabit Alaska’s mountain ranges, are most notable for their white color and curved horns and the clashes that occur among males. They weigh up to 300 pounds. Mountain goats, mostly found in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia, have shorter black horns and long shaggy coats, which they shed in the summer. Late May is birthing time for many mammals, so you might see get to see some cute baby animals.

Bear sightings are common because they are actively hunting for food near the shores. Migratory birds are heading in so you are also likely to see songbirds and sea birds as well as ducks. If you go fishing, you might catch some salmon or Arctic char, a colorful fish that is closely related to and often confused with Dolly Varden. Depending on their environment, they can weigh up to 15 pounds. If you love flowers, May is when the first Alaskan wildflowers begin to bloom. It is also a great time to see waterfalls.

A typical itinerary for a May cruise of the Inside Passage might include stops in Ketichikan, Sitka, Icy Strait Point, Juneau, Hubbard Glacier, Skagway, and Seward.

June

Beat the crowds but still enjoy most of what Alaska has to offer by taking a cruise in June. In early June, you will still find good prices and avoid large crowds, but the biggest attraction of a June cruise is the length of the days. June 21st, the summer solstice, when you will experience nearly 24 hours of daylight, is a great time for visiting a town or festival. Unique and beautiful wildflowers will be blooming, and Alaska will be lush and green by late June. However, mosquitoes are a problem in June, so be sure to pack bug spray and plenty of long-sleeve shirts and long pants.

With temperatures ranging from 47-62 degrees, June is one of the few warm months and one of the mildest. The average daytime high is in the low 60s. While it rains more than in May, June is still relatively dry. With an average of 19 hours of daylight, June is a good time to see everything that Alaska has to offer.

June is also a great time to cruise in Alaska because there is so much to see and do. In terms of wildlife, June is when moose give birth, whales make their journey back into Alaska, and humpback whales are feeding their young. It is also a good time for viewing herds of caribou, grey orcas, Dall porpoise, seals, sea lions, sea otters, unusual birds, and black and brown bears. The best bear viewing of the season begins in mid-June.

A float trip down the rivers of the Acrtic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Fairbanks is a great way to take full advantage of June’s spectacular wildlife. Oftentimes referred to as America’s last great wilderness, this refuge spans 19.6 million acres in Alaska’s northern corner. It is home to a spectacular array of wildlife including 36 species of fish, 36 land mammals, nine marine mammals, and more than 160 birds.

The wide variety of fish in June makes it a great time for fishing enthusiasts. You will be able to fish for King salmon, sockeye salmon, rainbow trout, northern pick, halibut, and more. Wildflowers are still in bloom, herbs and greens are in season, and forests are lush and green, making this an ideal season for land excursions, hiking, and kayaking. Denali National Park opens in mid-June as do many other businesses, restaurants, and tourist attractions.

A typical June cruise itinerary might include Tracy Arm Fjord and stopping in Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, and Victoria British Columbia.

July

The peak of cruising season in Alaska is in July with its long days, wildflowers, and lush green vistas. It is the busiest and most expensive month, but also the warmest. There is much to do and enjoy, and everything from wildlife activity to glacier activity is in full swing. Daylight hours are long and landscapes are stunning. July is a great time for wildlife, landscape, and wildflower photography. The crowds and the mosquitoes are the biggest drawbacks for taking an Alaska cruise in July.

Temperatures in July are slightly warmer than June, ranging from 51 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, but the rainfall increases to more than 5 inches. This is still less than you will find in August and September, but it’s best to be prepared for many rainy days. Be sure to pack shorts, pants, windbreakers, jackets and raingear for a July cruise. With approximately 19 hours of daylight, you will still have plenty of time to see all that Alaska offers.

July is a great time to see wildlife activity. Brown and black bears will be hunting and fishing for salmon in the rivers and streams, whales will be feeding their young at Frederick Sound, and it is the season to see songbirds, seal pups, sea lion pups, and walruses. It is also prime time for salmon fishing and growing season for fruits, tomatoes, cabbage, and more.

Glaciers are at their peak of activity in July. The warm temperatures cause them to calve into the sea. Watching large chunks of ice break off from glaciers is a most powerful and unforgettable sight. If you happen to be in Alaska for the Fourth of July, there are plenty of events to check out. Among them are the Girdwood Forest Fair outside of Anchorage, a free event which features Alaskan artists, crafts items, exotic foods, entertainment, and a parade, and the Mount Marathon race in Seward, a mountain race that is known as the most challenging 5K race on the planet.

A typical July itinerary might allow for a longer vacation, such as a cruise tour that combines a 7-night cruise with 7 days of touring Denali National Park and Fairbanks.

August

In August, you will experience the transition from summer to fall. In some areas the leaves will begin to change in August making this a great time for photographers to capture the beauty of fall colors. The first part of August is still peak season for Alaska cruises although things begin to wind down toward the end of the month. This means you might be able to find some good deals and avoid the crowds if you wait until after August 15. August is a good time to visit the far north. The weather is still warm and the days are long with about 17 hours of daylight. Whales and migratory birds haven’t left yet, and tourist attractions will still be open.

Expect the weather in August to be warm and rainy. Temperatures range from 48 to 63 degrees Fahrenheit, which is similar to June and July, but rainfall jumps to more than 8 inches, and there is over a 50% chance of rain. As is the case in Alaska, the weather is unpredictable, so be sure to pack rain gear, waterproof shoes and wool socks for an August Alaska cruise. While you will still find crowds in August, they won’t be as dense as in July, and the mosquitoes are usually gone by August 1.

You can expect to see wildlife including moose, caribou, foxes, wolves, bears, salmon, humpback whales, and bald eagles. Bears will be busy feeding and fattening up before their winter hibernation, and whales will be feeding. August is a great time for fishing for pink salmon, silver salmon, and Dolly Varden trout. Calving glaciers and moving icebergs can also be seen in August.

There is a lot going on in Alaska in August. The Alaska State Fair held in Palmer in the Mat-Su Valley begins in late August and continues through the beginning of September. The fair has been held for over 75 years and is the state’s largest annual event. It features concerts, entertainment, rides, games, food, and exhibits. At the Talkeetna Bluegrass festival, you will find camping in the wilderness, handicrafts, and bluegrass music. Alyeska Resort hosts a blueberry festival in late August, and the Girdwood Fungus Fair is a celebration of mushrooms.

A typical August Itinerary might be an abbreviated cruise tour that includes 7 nights of cruising followed by a short tour of Denali.

September

The weather can still be beautiful and the fall colors are amazing in September. At the end of cruise season and the start of autumn, September is a time when things begin to quiet down in Alaska. Prices are lower and great deals can be found. The weather begins to cool down and the rainfall increases. If you don’t mind the cool and rainy weather, September cruises have a lot to offer.

Temperatures in September range from 41 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, so be sure to pack warm clothes and heavy layers. The rainfall rises to 13 inches and the daylight hours shorten to 14. Fall foliage transforms the mountains into beautiful colors and shades of gold, orange and yellow, and the snow begins to collect on the mountain peaks. The nights grow darker and longer, and you won’t have to contend with bugs and mosquitoes.

The wildlife is amazing in September, as the mammals have grown their winter coats. Active wildlife in September includes moose, goats, caribou, muskoxen, bears, and whales. Black and brown bears can be seen preparing for their winter hibernation, while migratory birds are getting ready for the flight south. Bald eagles, sea otters, sea lions, orcas, and Dall porpoise are also active. Salmon fishing season continues in September. September might be the best time of year for wildlife photography.

In late September, you might catch the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, swirling and lighting the sky with bands of color.

On a September Alaska cruise, you might sail from Seward to British Columbia and see the first signs of winter along the way.

Final thoughts

Whenever you end up going on an Alaska cruise, you are sure to have an incredible time. Alaska cruises are fun and educational often incorporating enrichment talks, seminars, and cultural awareness programs. Unlike most other cruises, an Alaska cruise focuses on the wilderness and the ports of call rather than on the ship itself. Shore excursions cost extra but are an essential part of an Alaska cruise, so be sure to take advantage of them and to book them in advance.

Remember that the weather will fluctuate greatly so bring along plenty of clothing options and plan to dress in layers whenever you go. Don’t forget to bring sunglasses and sunscreen for those sunny days and raincoats, umbrellas, and boots for the rainy ones. Other things to bring include a camera to capture some of the beauty of Alaska’s landscapes, wildlife, wildflowers, and vistas, a journal to record your trip, and nice clothes for nights out or more formal dining that is offered on some cruise ships.

As you can see, there are a lot of factors to take into account when choosing the best time to cruise Alaska. Each month has its benefits and its drawbacks. The choice will come down to your schedule, preferences, budget, and interests, but whichever month you choose, you will be certain to have an amazing experience and the trip of a lifetime.