What is the best time to cruise to Alaska?

by  Kristen O'Neal | Aug 16, 2016
A Lindblad excursion to South Sawyer Glacier
A Lindblad excursion to South Sawyer Glacier / Michael S. Nolan

Alaska cruises provide amazing opportunities to get up close and personal with the great outdoors, from navigating around glaciers to spotting whales, bears, eagles, and other wildlife at sea, as well as hiking or kayaking. There is a pretty short window of opportunity to see all of these amazing sights, though, with the Alaska cruise season running from May through September each year.

Even with a season that lasts just about five months, Alaska cruises are split into two types: cruises in the peak season of June, July, and August, and cruises in the shoulder seasons of May and September. So when is the best time to cruise to Alaska? Well, it all depends on what kind of cruise you’re looking for — and what kind of budget you have.

For the Best Weather: 
Peak season, in mid-summer, is warmer and drier than the rest of the year in Alaska. The rainy season starts at the end of August. The combination of warmer temperatures and clearer skies, along with many families on summer vacation, makes this the most popular time to cruise in Alaska. There's also the draw of long daylight hours (cruising around the summer solstice may give you a chance to experience the midnight sun) that maximizes your sightseeing time both on land and from the cruise ship deck. 

For the Best Price: 
Although peak season is the most popular time to cruise Alaska, it's also the most expensive. Cruises during the summer months come at a premium, and it's harder to find amazing deals. The main draw of the shoulder season for most cruisers is the price: Cruises in May and September are around 20 percent cheaper than summer cruises.

There are other bonuses to taking a trip earlier or later too. Not only will you have a greater choice of cabins and activities, but the bugs that plague cruisers during the summer months don't hatch in May and die off by September. You might also get a chance to see the northern lights — though dimly — at the end of September. But keep in mind temperatures will be a lot lower at the end of spring and the beginning of fall, and you'll see a lot more rain. Be sure to pack a warm, waterproof jacket.

For Peak Wildlife:
You're sure to spot wildlife no matter when you head to the 49th state, but there are ideal times to cruise to Alaska, depending on what kinds of animals you want to see. The best time for spotting bears is mid-June through the end of August, in the middle of the peak season. Bald eagles nest in May, and spotting baby eagles spreading their wings is most likely to happen in August or September. 

The shoulder season months, when there's less foliage, can actually make viewing animals much easier overall. In terms of water-based animals, seeing whales surface is a major highlight of  an Alaska cruise. Gray whales are most prevalent in May, orcas head to the area in May and June, while hundreds of humpback whales visit the Inside Passage in June and July. If you're adding time on land and want to visit the state's parks, keep in mind Denali’s roads don’t open completely until June and close sometime in early September. 

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