The explosive crack of a calving glacier echoes across icy waters. A grizzly cub bounds through a rippling stream to pounce on a slippery salmon. Whales appear without warning, just off the bow of your cruise ship.

Alaska is packed with surprises. No two trips are ever the same. Whether it’s your first visit or your 15th, you’re bound for new adventures.

With the exception of small expedition-style ships, most Alaska cruises sail round-trip from Vancouver, Canada, or Seattle, Washington. For our most recent trip, we chose Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Symphony, a nearly all-inclusive luxury cruise from Vancouver to Alaska, then turning south down the west coast to Los Angeles.

Looking back on this experience, here are a few Alaska cruise tips to help make your experience one you’ll want to repeat next season and beyond.

Five Alaska Cruise Tips

1) Arrive at your embarkation port early

Alaska Cruise Tips: A Digital Orca appears to leap in the air on Vancouver's waterfront.

Arrive at your departure port at least a day or two early to enjoy the sights, such as a digital Orca appearing to leap in the air on Vancouver’s waterfront.

No matter where in the world you’re cruising, I can’t stress enough the importance of arriving at your embarkation port at least one day early. Two days are even better, especially when you’re leaving from a sightseeing-packed city such as Vancouver.

Of the many lodging choices in Vancouver, we chose The Listel Hotel for its convenient location and quiet neighborhood. Located on the fringe of downtown, it’s within walking distance to Stanley Park, the cruise pier (best done without luggage) and multiple ethnic restaurants, from Greek to Chinese to Korean.

The Listel is known for displaying artworks created by First Nations, Canadian and international artists. Beyond the intriguing Japanese paintings decorating our room, we especially appreciated The Listel’s complimentary beverages—self-serve still or sparkling water taps in the hallways; and the pot of French press coffee delivered to Gallery floor rooms in the morning. During the also-complimentary afternoon wine-sampling hour in the lobby, we exchanged tips with an international mix of travelers coming off cruises, as well as several, like ourselves, about to board an Alaska-bound ship.

Alaska Cruise Tips: Jellyfish delight at the Vancouver Aquarium

Jellyfish delight at the Vancouver Aquarium

We packed our short stay in Vancouver with a personalized selection of must-do activities. A favorite was FlyOver Canada. In this surreal, high-tech video experience, you’ll feel as though you’re actually flying over Canada, from east to west via Niagara Falls and the Rocky Mountains.

A little mist in your face and cool breezes enhance this truly amazing journey.

Wandering to Stanley Park, we spent several hours at the always fascinating Vancouver Aquarium.

We were spellbound by iridescent jellyfish and entertaining sea otters. A dolphin training session rounded out our visit on a high.

2) Alaska cruise tips for packing

Warm, sunny weather is not a given in Alaska. In fact, rain is likely to be on the radar. Do pack accordingly, meaning an umbrella, rain jacket, rain pants and some type of waterproof footwear.

Ready for rain

Ready for rain

With few calls at Alaska ports this trip, I decided to pack light, a decision I regretted while on a scheduled whale watching excursion in Juneau. That day, it was not just pouring rain, the wind was blowing sideways, turning my umbrella inside out. While angling for the best view of whales on a Juneau Tours small boat (you had to be outside to see, as the windows were fogged), I got soaked. My feet, in particular, were wet and cold. If only I had packed my rain pants and sturdy shoes, I would have had a much more enjoyable afternoon. The whales, on the other hand, were having a ball, slapping their tails on the surface, even breaching once or twice.

Alaska Cruise Tips: Be Prepared: Dress in Layers

Be prepared: Dress in layers

Other items you’ll be glad you packed include binoculars, a warm jacket, hat, gloves and scarf for viewing sea life and glaciers from the top decks, especially while cruising through picturesque Glacier Bay.

The good news? You can leave your formal attire at home. Alaska cruises tend to be more casual than European routes. Even on upscale Crystal Cruises, my husband was appropriately dressed in slacks and a jacket (no tie) for the two “black tie optional” evenings.

3) Do indulge in Alaska’s seafood

Alaska Cruise Tips:Help yourself to all-you-can-eat Dungeness crabs.JPG

Help yourself to all-you-can-eat Dungeness crabs.

When you think of Alaska’s favorite treats, fresh salmon tops the list. King crab legs are a close second. Served with lemon and drawn butter, the succulent legs took the place of lobster on one of Crystal Symphony’s formal nights. They were so tasty, we indulged in seconds, as did fellow cruisers dining at the neighboring table.

An all-you-can-eat Dungeness crab feed in Ketchikan was a new experience for us, one worth repeating. Our tour took us to George Inlet Lodge for a feast of the best Dungeness crab we have ever tasted.

4) Read a guidebook for Alaska cruise tips for ports

Get around Alaska with a handy guidebook

Get around Alaska with a handy guidebook

In these days of instant digital information, it’s easy to overlook print guidebooks.

For practical tips on what to do ashore, check out Lonely Planet’s “Cruise Ports Alaska.” The book is packed with Alaska cruise tips on what to see and where to eat. Even better, it describes in detail how to get around on your own, without having to sign up for group tours. In addition to ports in Alaska, it covers Vancouver and Seattle.

5) Choose your dates carefully

With the Alaska cruise season getting longer and longer (April through September), the weather isn’t your only consideration when choosing travel dates. In summer you will enjoy more hours of daylight. Early and late season trips are generally less costly than summer months, and there will be fewer children on board. On the flip side, you will probably see less wildlife in the off months.

Wildlife sightings vary month by month

Wildlife sightings vary month by month

Choose September and you’ll have the bonus of end-of-season sales in most souvenir shops. Hint: You can shop for Christmas gifts (or warm clothes for your next Alaska cruise)—if you haven’t followed my packing advice and have space to spare in your suitcase.

What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?

  • Flights for Alaska cruises are often non-stop and relatively short, especially for those living on the West Coast.
  • Many of Alaska’s must-see experiences take place right on the deck of your cruise ship, such as whale watching and glacier viewing. If it’s cold or rainy, you can see the sights from the comfort of the observation lounge.

Take note

  • Getting from the Vancouver or Seattle airport (or from a pre-cruise hotel) to the cruise terminal is easy and inexpensive via light-rail. In Vancouver, the SkyTrain takes you to the pier. Seattle’s Link light-rail drops you downtown where you may need a taxi to the pier.


The writer paid a media rate at The Listel Hotel. Her Vancouver activities were hosted by Tourism Vancouver and whale watching by Travel Juneau.

All photo credits: Ginger Dingus

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5 Alaska Cruise Tips for Savvy Travel