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©Susan Milne, 1999-2015

Cruising the Inside Passage near Juneau


With remote ports accessible only by sea or air, Alaska makes an outstanding cruise destination. Get away from it all amidst the pristine beauty of the 49th state. Enjoy unspoiled nature and the many wilderness activities available. You'll arrive home revitalized from unique and remarkable Alaska!

Reasons to cruise Alaska from/to Vancouver:

  • The port of Vancouver is one of the most scenic for arriving or departing.
  • Vancouver gives you the best cruise experience as you have a better chance of sailing the British Columbia Inside Passage surrounded by scenic beauty.
  • Vancouver is the only West Coast home port offering both one way or round-trip sailings.
  • Since many Alaska towns can only be reached by boat or plane, cruising is the ideal way to reach these remote spots.
  • Alaska is one of the few places in the world where you can cruise close to spectacular, tidewater glaciers.
  • Ports of call provide the perfect jumping off point for adventures into the great Alaskan wilderness.
  • The peace and silence of Alaska make it a relaxing and rejuvenating experience.

Historically, the allure of Alaska has attracted travellers since the mid 1800's. After the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 for $7.2million - that's less than 2 cents an acre - travellers would sail north to discover the remote region known for its vast glaciers. Naturalist, John Muir arrived in 1879 and made many more visits to explore and record his findings. Paddle wheelers were a common site on the west coast by the turn of the century. Steamships from The Alaska Steamship Co., Canadian Pacific and other lines were the forerunners of today's ferry boats and cruise ships.

Today nearly 60 percent of visitors to Alaska arrive by cruise ship with more than a million disembarking each year.


Cruise ships sail to Alaska on two basic itineraries, Inside Passage and Gulf of Alaska (the Glacier Route).

The Inside Passage

The Inside Passage is the series of channels, bays and fjords along the coast of British Columbia and Alaska. It stretches about 1,000 miles from Seattle to Skagway. This itinerary is a seven-day cruise round trip from Vancouver or Seattle with longer variations offered during the season including 10 or 12-day cruises round-trip from San Francisco.

There are variations on the routes cruise ships take but whichever route you choose, you are in for some spectacular scenery in British Columbia and Alaska.

Small cruise ships ships and expedition ships are able to navigate all the way through the Inside Passage close to the mainland however today's big cruise ships do not hug the coastline, spending more time on the outisdeand in Queen Charlotte Sound and Hecate Strait. On my Infinity and Vision of the Seas cruises we sailed through the most beautiful and narrowest part of the Inside Passage, the Grenville Channel, while sailing north which is an outstanding experience. On other sailings, much of the day was spent in open water. This is also the case for cruises from Seattle and San Francisco which sail outside Vancouver Island going north instead of through the British Columbia Inside Passage.

Inside Passage Ports of Call:
Juneau, Ketchikan, Wrangell, Sitka, Skagway, Haines, Icy Strait Point, Prince Rupert are the towns which may be on your itinerary. The lovely capital of British Columbia, Victoria, is a port-of-call on itineraries of ships sailing from Seattle and San Francisco or longer cruises from Vancouver. This is often a short refueling stop for a few hours so check your itinerary carefully.

Glacier Visit:
The highlight of these cruises is the day spent studying glaciers. Ships on this route visit either Glacier Bay with its numerous glaciers, Hubbard Glacier, the longest tidewater glacier in North America, or the twin Sawyer Glacier in spectacular Tracy Arm fjord, Misty Fjords National Monument, a wilderness reserve established in 1978, is another beautiful area visited by some ships in the Inside Passage.

See the Alaska's Glaciers pages for photos and more information.

Gulf of Alaska/Glacier Route:

Ships on this route do not return to Vancouver, but carry on from the Inside Passage, to the port of Seward or Whittier. (Passengers then take rail or motor coach to Anchorage.) Passengers sail from Vancouver on Northbound itineraries or from Seward or Whittier on southbound itineraries. This is normally a seven-day, one way journey however you can take back to back sailings for a14-night round-trip Vancouver sailing. Also, 14-night sailings that sail directly to Anchorage are usually offered each season from Seattle.

Ports of Call:
In addition to some of the towns on the Inside Passage route, Hubbard Glacier, College Fjord and Valdez are possible ports of call on the Gulf cruises. (On the 14-day sailings, Kodiak, Homer and other lesser visited ports may be added.)

Glacier visit: Glacier Bay, Hubbard Glacier or College Fjord.




The smallest cruise ships visiting Alaska in 2015 are Oceania Cruises' Regatta and Princess Cruises' Pacific Princess.  Both are 30,0000 tons and carrying only 684 passengers so a good choice if you want to avoid the mammoth vessels on the Alaska run. Luxury lines Silversea and Regent also send smaller vessels to Alaska each year.

Experience the real Alaska aboard the small adventure ships. These vessels stay within the coastal channels and fjords of the Inside Passage. They do not go to the "outside" and sail in open water. Watch for the small, adventure and expedition ships of Lindblad Expeditions (in association with National Geographic) and Un-Cruise Adventures (formerly American Safari Cruises ) offering a variety of sailings that bring you closer to shore than the big ships, for a real adventure and expedition experience.

Unique experiences are offered aboard the Aurora Explorer, a working freighter on the B.C. coast which visits remote areas of the Inside Passage and the Nautilus Explorer, a 116-ft boat taking passengers on 7 and 9-night scuba diving cruises along the B.C. and Alaska coast.

Worth noting is the Klondike Express, a owned by Phillips Cruises and Tours. Brad Phillips is a legend in Alaska tourism who has operated the 26 Glacier Cruise for many years. The cruise sails from Whittier to Prince William Sound and College Fjord to study glaciers and wildlife. The high speed cat is an amazing vessel that cruises at 38 knots with no vibration. It can carry 342 passengers.

For those preferring the "big ships", this kind of nature experience can be acquired by taking excursions from your cruise ships and there is a great variety available. Cruise ships also have a lecture program and naturalist on board. These programs are very informative and give you the chance to learn about Alaska without giving up a lot of other entertainment and dining options.




See more of Alaska and the Yukon by booking a land tour in conjunction with your cruise. Roughly half of all cruise passengers take a cruise tour. The variety of options available through cruise lines is impressive covering Denali Park, Fairbanks, Kenai Peninsula, Canada's Yukon, Alaska's Arctic region and Copper River, just outside the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the largest National Park in the United States.

Princess, Holland America Line and Royal Caribbean/Celebrity are the leaders. All three own their own rail cars for the popular Anchorage-Denali Park-Fairbanks rail journey. The private rail cars are a part of the Alaska Rail train on the daily journey north or south. On clear days from the rail cars you can see Mt. McKinley, North America's highest peak (6,168 meters or 20,237 ft.).

Princess owns five deluxe riverside and wilderness lodges which are beautifully appointed and have excellent restaurants. The lodges are located the Kenai, Fairbanks, Denali Park, Mt. McKinley and my favourite, Copper River.

Pre and Post cruise stays in beautiful Vancouver and British Columbia are also a good idea. See Pre / Post Cruise British Columbia for ideas, photos and links.



For information on what to see in each port plus tips on booking through the cruise line and independently see Ports and Excursions.


In one word, Alaska's weather is unpredictable. Any time you have mountains, sea, ocean currents and prevailing winds, you really never know what weather you will find. I have been fortunate on my ventures north. I saw Mt. McKinley on a day that was the clearest in three months. Skagway in September, 2001 was having the hottest day of the year. I have had clear days at Hubbard Glacier in both June and September.

The month of May can be beautiful and the Spring flowers are a great attraction at this time. There is still a lot of snow on the mountains too which makes for many stunning photos however, too much ice in the water might mean the cancellation of your glacier visit. This was the case in May, 2006 aboard Vision of the Seas. We had excellent weather but couldn't get to the Sawyer Glaciers due to to much ice in Tracy Arm Fjord. .

June through August should be the best months but sometimes the hottest days are actually in September. However, early snows at higher elevations in September can mean shore excursions are cancelled early. On Regal Princess in mid September 2000, the dog sled and horse riding excursions were already finished for the season. By mid August in 2002, Era helicopters had stopped dog sled excursions in Juneau.

The best approach is to be flexible and take Alaska as it comes. Dress in layers and get out to enjoy it anyway. Or, take advantage of what your ship has to offer if the weather doesn't cooperate.You'll still see beautiful scenery from your ship.

To emphasize my point, these two pictures of the Lynn Canal at Skagway were taken on one year apart. Rainy in 2000 - hot and sunny in 2001. In 2004 Skagway was extremely windy and cold. So one word - unpredictable.

2000 2001
September 13, 2000    LYNN CANAL AT SKAGWAY     September 10, 2001



Automatic Tipping: Most ships add tips automatically to your on board account for dining room and stateroom staff. The cruise line determines the amount per passenger per day per passenger but it can be amended at the front desk during your cruise or even removed if you prefer to tip personally as was done in the past. Note that children may be charged the adult rate, or half rate, depending on the line. Again this can be adjusted at the front desk if you so choose.

Prepaid Tips: Some lines give you the option of pre-paying tips with your final cruise payment. If you reserve the anytime dining option pre-payment of tips might be required.

Traditional Tipping: Even with the automatically charged tips, some passengers give additional cash to their waiter, assistant waiter, cabin steward and any other people they feel deserve something on the last night of the cruise. Envelopes for tips can pick them up at the Purser's/Front desk.

Tips Included in the Fare: Aboard the upscale cruise lines and all suite ships like Silversea and Regent Seven Seas, gratuities are usually included in the fare which is more all inclusive than other lines.

Bar and Spa Tipping: A 15 percent gratuity is generally added to all beverage tabs and may be higher for spa services. Gratuities for the Maitre d', room service, casino and other staff are usually at the passenger's discretion.

Room Service Tip when service is provided.

Small Adventure Ships Aboard these vessels you will find tipping is completely at the passengers discretion, tips may be pooled and distributed to the crew.



It is easy to be swept up in the excitement of going on a cruise but remember, booking a cruise is a business transaction. Things can happen and you may not be able to make the trip. Cancellation, medical and trip interruption insurance are worth considering.

Once you have made your decision and are in the process of booking your cruise, don't forget to check insurance options carefully. The cruise lines offer insurance packages which should be ordered and paid for at the time of final payment.

Booking directly with an insurance company specializing in travel insurance packages often lets you pay the insurance closer to departure date. It is a good idea to have it in place at final cruise payment time however, as this is when penalties for cancelling begin.

Pre-existing condition clauses and age restrictions often apply. Your experienced agent should be able to offer assistance in making the right choice.