15 Alaska cruise mistakes you never want to make - The Points Guy (2023)

For many, an Alaska cruise is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You don’t want to screw it up because you might not get the chance for a do-over. Unfortunately, it’s easier than you think to make Alaska cruise mistakes that can ruin a trip or prevent you from experiencing Alaska to the fullest.

While cruises to the Last Frontier are not polar-cruise-level adventures, they require more careful planning than for a Mexico or Caribbean sailing. You need to get all the details right, from booking the cruise and packing your bags to what to do and see during your cruise.

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Here's a list of things you should never do on an Alaska cruise. Avoid these Alaska cruise mistakes, and you'll be on your way to a smooth sailing.

Alaska cruise planning mistakes to avoid

No matter how many times you've cruised before, you might be shocked at how much planning you need to do for an Alaska sailing. Get these things wrong, and you might miss out on your big Alaska cruise experience.

Assume all Alaska cruises are the same

15 Alaska cruise mistakes you never want to make - The Points Guy (1)

This is an easy mistake to make on your first Alaska cruise. However, matching your ship and itinerary to your expectations and travel style is crucial for a successful trip.

Are you looking for a full day of glacier time? Try a mid-season sailing that visits Glacier Bay National Park. Early- and late-season cruises might be unable to access the glaciers on their itineraries due to ice floes.

Want to see whales? A round-trip Alaska cruise in June is ideal. Do you want to fish for salmon? You’ll want to book at the peak of the salmon fishing season, from mid-June to mid-August. Ketchikan is the salmon capital of the world, and while most cruises stop there, a few don’t, so make sure it’s on the itinerary if you wish to fish.

Are you taking kids on your Alaska cruise? Big ships often have more for kids to do on board, which might be more important than where the ship goes. Expedition-style cruises may have less for youngsters but appeal to independent teens. These voyages offer a more intimate and close-up Alaska experience, with outings on kayaks and Zodiac boats that launch directly from the ship.

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Wait to book excursions

You don’t have to worry about booking tours in advance in some cruise destinations. Alaska cruises are not like that.

Alaska shore excursions fill up fast. It's worse in mid-summer, but even on shoulder season sailings, you may not find space on the excursions you hoped to do if you wait until you're on the ship to book. The only solution is to sign up for tours as early as possible.

Does this mean you shouldn't take advantage of last-minute Alaska cruise deals if you find them? Of course not. Snap those babies up — just come prepared with a list of second and third choices of excursions, just in case.

Related: Tips for booking the best cruise shore excursion for your money

Overlook independent excursions

You don't have to stick with ship-sponsored shore excursions in every port in Alaska. On my last Alaska cruise, we booked kayaking independently for our stop in Ketchikan. It was one of the best experiences of the entire cruise. The company picked us up and dropped us off at the cruise ship. We were guaranteed an on-time return to the ship and paid far less than the ship's kayaking excursions.

If you want to check out independent tours, you can find several Alaska excursion aggregators online or deal directly with independent businesses. Make sure you inquire about tour timing and leave a buffer, so you won’t miss your ship even if there’s traffic or a delay.

Book same-day flights on embarkation day or early flights home

You don't want to find yourself stuck in an airport because of a flight delay when you should be boarding your cruise. To avoid this problem, book your flights to arrive the day before your cruise departs rather than the same day.

If you think it can't happen to you, listen to my most recent flight horror story. I was on not one but two flights on the same day, where minor mechanical problems caused deplaning and two-hour delays. I should have landed at my destination at 11:30 a.m. but didn't arrive until after 5 p.m. Had that been embarkation day, my ship would have sailed without me.

Similarly, it’s always best to book departing flights home for the afternoon in case the ship is delayed returning to port or is not cleared by authorities on time. If you’re flying in or out of Anchorage, know that all transportation options include several hours of travel from the ports of Seward and Whittier; you might consider overnighting in Anchorage either pre-or post-cruise to play it safe.

Skip the travel insurance

Airline issues aside, Alaska can be a wee bit hazardous. You will encounter slippery slopes and rocky roads — and that's just walking through Alaska port towns. You might be participating in more daring activities than normal, such as flying in helicopters, hiking across glaciers, kayaking icy waters or zip-lining through forests. It’s easy for something to go wrong.

On my last Alaska cruise, I heard about two passenger emergencies. A kid broke an arm on the ship and needed surgery, so a family of five disembarked in Ketchikan — not exactly a cheap end to their vacation, I'm guessing. Later in the sailing, a sick passenger was airlifted directly off the ship by the Canadian Coast Guard before we made it to Victoria.

If you live in the U.S., your health insurance is most likely valid in Alaska. You'll be covered for medical expenses but not the other expenses associated with any injury that interrupts your cruise. Travel insurance is the way to go unless you want to pay for flight changes and medical evacuation out of pocket.

Related: The best cruise travel insurance plans

Alaska cruise packing mistakes to avoid

15 Alaska cruise mistakes you never want to make - The Points Guy (2)

Packing for an Alaska cruise can be tricky. The region’s unpredictable weather means it can be rainy and 50 degrees one day, then sunny and 85 degrees the next. Mix in boat rides and glacier watching from the ship at 6 a.m., and you have a complicated packing job ahead of you. Don’t make these Alaska cruise packing mistakes.

Forget your rain gear

Rule No.1 on Alaska cruises: Pack rain gear. It might not rain one drop on your cruise, but chances are good the weather will be wet at some point on your trip. When it does, you'll want the right gear to stay dry and not be drippy and miserable.

Waterproof shoes or boots are a must. For extra protection, spray them with a water-repellant sealer before you pack. You can stow lightweight raincoats or ponchos and pull-on rain pants in your backpack during excursions when you don’t need them.

Skimp on layers

Layers are the only way to dress on an Alaska cruise. Start with thin, base-layer undergarments that won’t bulk up your clothes and are comfortable even if the day turns out warmer than expected. The final layers of outerwear should be lightweight because you may need to stuff them in your backpack for half the day as the temperature rises.

I especially like puffy vests and jackets for Alaska. You can shed the jacket as temperatures allow, then lose the vest if it gets even warmer. Top everything with caps, knit hats, earmuffs and gloves. Those things might be excessive for a stroll through town, but important in the wind on a whale-watching boat.

Related: Cruise packing list: The ultimate guide to what to pack for a cruise

Overpack on eveningwear

The dress code on most Alaska cruises is more relaxed than in other cruise destinations. Days are long and outdoorsy, leaving people less enthusiastic about rushing back to the ship to put on fancy clothes and dress shoes.

Trade out your hiking shoes for comfy flats or dress sneakers. Jazz up casual, neutral-colored slacks (even jeans) or skirts with jackets or scarves. You can leave the formalwear and high heels at home.

Cheap out on insect repellant

Mosquitoes in Alaska aren't always a nuisance, but they can be horrendous. Pack insect repellant and full-coverage clothing as though you were planning to visit a rainforest … because you are.

If you don’t plan on checking a bag, pick up bug spray in your departure city or first port of call.

Leave the binoculars and cameras at home

One question I get asked often is whether you can see whales and other wildlife from the ship. The answer is a resounding yes. Unfortunately, much of what you will see is from a distance.

You can solve that problem with a pair of lightweight binoculars. They’re also useful for getting a close-up view of glaciers or spotting eagles in port. Consider bringing a pair for everyone in your group because you don’t want to fight over one pair when a pod of whales comes into view.

As for cameras, I recommend that everyone in your travel group have a water-resistant camera or a waterproof smartphone case or pouch. I lean toward cameras rather than phones for two reasons. One, most cameras dropped into the depths of an Alaskan bay pose a less traumatic loss than most smartphones. My second reason is in the next section.

Related: Can you use your cellphone on a cruise?

Mistakes to avoid during your Alaska cruise

15 Alaska cruise mistakes you never want to make - The Points Guy (3)

Once you're on board your ship, it's time to put all the craziness of planning and packing behind you. You've made it, and you don’t want to let anything get in the way of enjoying your cruise.

Stare at your phone too much

An Alaska cruise is the ideal time to hit pause on your digital life. Sure, you want to capture the amazing scenery, but you know what? Few of the pictures you take will accurately portray the scale of the beauty of Alaska.

The photos you'll enjoy most when you look back next year are the ones of your travel partners enjoying the trip. Take those, then spend your time soaking up the enchantment of this place. The news, email correspondence and your Instagram followers can take a back seat until you’re back home.

Assume the seas will be smooth

Don't be surprised if you feel seasick in Alaska's waters, even if no other cruise has made you feel that way. Cruising through the Inside Passage is generally calm, but the open waters of the Pacific Ocean can be choppy. Even the bays can churn up quickly during summer storms.

Ships also do a lot of maneuvering, including turning complete circles designed to give everyone on board access to the amazing views. Unfortunately, those tight turns can contribute to nausea for some people.

Prepare by packing motion sickness relief bands you place on pressure points on your wrists, prescription scopolamine transdermal patches, ginger candies, over-the-counter seasickness medications and herbal motion sickness patches. I've used these for years, with only one failure on a rather small ship.

You can also treat the woozies with seasickness tablets, which are often available free at the medical center or guest services, green apples from the buffet and ginger ale from your ship's friendly bartenders.

Related: How to avoid seasickness on your next cruise

Spend all your time indoors

You packed all those clothing layers — now’s the time to use them. The coldest part of your Alaska cruise will likely be while the ship cruises through can't-miss scenery. Don’t wimp out in an observation lounge. Bundle up and head outside to fully take in the view. Your balcony may give you an edge over the folks in interior rooms, but you won’t get a 360-degree vista unless you’re out on the top deck.

The best souvenir advice I've received is to buy a cozy throw or blanket at your first port stop. They won’t cost a fortune and will serve a purpose for the rest of the cruise. Picture yourself cozy and warm in your fuzzy Alaska souvenir blanket, sipping hot chocolate while watching glaciers calving. Once home, you’ll remember your epic vacation every time you snuggle up on the couch.

Sleep through your vacation

This is not a cruise you want to sleep through — and even if that's your plan, you may have difficulty accomplishing it. Long hours of daylight, excursions and glacier viewings that start early, and even your own fear of missing out can have you out of bed early and staying up later than you might on any other cruise.

Sleep apps and eye masks may help with the daylight situation. I also find that Alaska cruises are ideal for ordering room service meals. It definitely saves time before morning excursions and can provide a bit of downtime in your cabin for lunch or dinner on occasion.

Fail to try something new

Your Alaska cruise offers many opportunities to try things you might never have the chance to do again. You could walk on glaciers, snorkel in a dry suit in the frigid Alaska waters or play with sled dog puppies. Or how about riding in a sled pulled by sled dogs? We already mentioned salmon fishing, which is surprisingly fun, even if you’d never go fishing at home.

The array of things to try in Alaska can be as tame or as adventurous as you want — it’s the joy of discovery that’s key. I once kayaked in Ketchikan with a woman on her first solo cruise in Alaska. She’d never kayaked before. When our marine biologist guide pulled a sea cucumber from the crystal-clear waters to show us, she squealed with delight when he offered to let her hold it. That's the kind of joy you cruise to Alaska to experience.

Bottom line

You can avoid the most common Alaska cruise mistakes with a little extra planning.

The goal is to have the Alaska cruise experience you and your travel companions long for. Achieve that by choosing an itinerary that gets you to the things you want to see and do, shopping early for excursions (especially the ones you have your heart set on), and packing gear and clothes that will keep you comfy during your Alaska adventure.

Everything else is about stepping outside, breathing in the shockingly clean air, and enjoying the cruise.

Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:

  • The 5 most desirable cabin locations on any cruise ship
  • A beginners guide to picking a cruise line
  • The 8 worst cabin locations on any cruise ship
  • The ultimate guide to what to pack for a cruise
  • A quick guide to the most popular cruise lines
  • 21 tips and tricks that will make your cruise go smoothly
  • 15 ways cruisers waste money
  • The ultimate guide to choosing a cruise ship cabin

Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.


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