You want to go on a cruise to Alaska but you don’t know when you should go? This post is for you.
For many Americans, there’s a vast uncharted territory in the great northwest of North America that lies adrift on their bucket list. We’re talking of course about a little place called Alaska.
The 49th state in our union lies far, far away indeed, but not too far that it cannot be reached by ship, and that’s just how many folks choose to get there.
Naturally, going on a cruise to a destination as far north as Alaska, your biggest consideration has to be the weather. Simply put: it gets cold up there.
Weather in Alaska
This chart below shows the average temperatures in Juneau, Alaska. You will also see the monthly rainfall averages:
A utopian beach cruise this is not, but chances are you knew that before you began your research, You’re likely in search of something a bit different than sandy toes and palm tree hammocks.
Alaska boasts thousands of miles of rugged coastline, rich history and culture, and a unique blend of scenery and wildlife, with the latter often being the main draw.
From its glaciers, rainforests, and massive mountain ranges, including Denali, the highest peak in North America, to its whales, bears, moose, elk, eagles, seals, and seabirds — things are just bigger here.
A cruise offers great potential to see it all, whether while on board your ship, in port, or during a shore tour.
Not to mention, many people flock aboard an Alaskan cruise for a chance to look up at the sky, with Alaska being one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights.
With all of these goals in mind, but particularly if you hope for a peek at the Aurora Borealis (that’s the northern lights more fancy name), your timing will be crucial.
Whether your hope for breaching whales, feeding bears, climbable mountains, or that light show in the sky, you need to carefully plan your Alaskan cruise depending on what it is you want to see and do.
So when is the best time for a cruise to Alaska? Well, it depends. But hopefully, this month-by-month guide will help you decide what time is best for you.
When is the Best Time for a Cruise to Alaska?
If only there were an easy, universal answer! But like Alaska’s wild country, mixed culture, and fabled history, it’s difficult to put the whole thing in a pretty box. The easiest way to break down when you should take an Alaskan cruise is to take a look at things by the month.
Related Post: How to Pick the Best Cabin for an Alaskan Cruise
The first thing you should know is that the Alaska cruise season is just five months long, lasting from May to September, with the summer months of June, July and August being the most popular. However, this doesn’t necessarily make them the “best.”
Each month sort of has its own niche.
Various Seasons for Various Cruises
As you may have guessed, June, July, and August are the most popular months because they are the warmest, with highs ranging from the 60s to 70s, if you’re lucky. However, July and August also typically bring quite a lot of rain. But this isn’t necessarily the worst news, as they are also the best months for spotting wildlife and are the peak fishing months.
The “shoulder season” months of May and September will offer cheaper rates and fewer crowds but also come with more unpredictable weather. Shore excursions will have a better chance of getting canceled, and snow may even be on the ground.
September, however, is the best chance cruise-takers will get for a glimpse of the Northern Lights, in addition to end-of-season shopping deals. But since the weather can be rougher, you can expect choppy water. So, if you get seasick, forget it!
So as you can see — it’s a bit complicated! Much like the tide ebbs and flows, you’ll have to weigh the pros and cons of each month listed below to see which would present your most ideal fit.
But before you do, there’s one other thing you need to keep in mind: daylight. Despite not being overly warm, Alaska has extremely long summer days due to its longitude. In July, for example, you can expect to see daylight for around 19 hours of the day. Might we suggest an interior room so you can get some sleep? (Kidding, rooms are equipped with nightshades.)
And before you get too far into making a decision based on weather, well keep in mind that weather isn’t exactly reliable, and conditions in Alaska, in particular, are known to change rapidly. Essentially, you’ll need to prepare for all conditions no matter what!
Taking an Alaska Cruise in May
With 17 hours of daylight, you’ll have plenty of time to work with on deck or shore. But you can leave the t-shirts and shorts at home, as the beginning of the Alaska cruise season, temperatures here are just starting to warm with an average high in the mid-50s.
You’ll still need to pack layers, as the nights will be quite chilly, but you might luck out and not need your rain gear, as May is historically Alaska’s driest month.
Cruise prices and excursions will also be lower in May, especially during the first week of the season. You can even find cruises for as low as $100 per day.
This early season is also a great time to view wildlife as the vegetation has not completely grown in yet, meaning it will be easier to spot animals between the trees.
Migratory birds should also have begun to arrive, and the fishing season will be just kicking off (however, we do recommend hiring a local guide to find the best spot).
For those looking to hop on shore and take a hike, you still may encounter some snow on the ground, depending on where you are and at what elevation.
There are also numerous opportunities to walk on a glacier should you so choose. Just check to see what excursions are available in each port.
If you’re pulling into port in Seward, keep an eye out for Alaska’s resident orca whale pods, as May is the best time to spot these locals of Resurrection Bay. It’s also your best (and likely only) chance to spot the elusive gray whale before they migrate north to colder waters.
Taking an Alaska Cruise in June
June is a bit of a sweet spot for an Alaska cruise. The weather is fairly dry and warming up, crowds and prices still have not reached peak levels, and wildlife aplenty will be out and about.
The days will be longer still, including the summer solstice on June 21, on which you will experience nearly 24-hours of daylight, depending on how far north you happen to be. Denali, in particular, is an incredible place to experience the summer solstice.
With average temperatures in the low 60s, you’ll still have chilly nights, but as far as Alaska goes, June offers what amount to ideal conditions.
Unfortunately, the mosquitos agree, so you’ll want to pack some bug spray. You will want to be outside, however, because everything will be in bloom and it can be remarkably beautiful.
And animal lovers try and contain your excitement here, but Moose give birth around this time of year, so if you’re really (REALLY) lucky, you might even spot a calf.
It’s also the best time to see herds of caribou, but they are fairly elusive as well. You’re much more likely to hear the caribou (and elk) bugling at night, but if you want to get in close to see them, the best chance you have might be to float down a river in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Fairbanks.
June is a great month for trekking as most trails will be free of snow, but be on the lookout for animals, as an unexpected encounter with a moose calf or bear cub could be quite dangerous. June also is the best month to spot some unusual birds such as Asian accidentals.
Back in the water, king and sockeye salmon can be caught in June, and rainbow trout also begin to run at this time. June is also a good time for northern pike and halibut also.
Seeking larger marine life? Humpback whales typically make their way into the waters off the Alaskan coast in June to feed and enjoy the long days and plentiful food.
Taking an Alaska Cruise in July
You’ve now reached peak Alaska cruise season. The prices for cruises, excursions, and even souvenirs will be at their highest, and each port will be full of tourists.
July is traditionally the warmest month in the Alaskan year, with highs in the mid-60s and lows in the low 50s. Some days will touch into the 70s, but don’t expect it to go much higher.
However, July also brings the rain (about 12 inches on average), so you’ll need to pack a raincoat for any excursions.
July is also peak season for salmon, which means it may too be your best chance to spot a bear. Fur seal pups are also born during July as well as Steller sea lions. Walruses also “haul out” on Round, Little Diomede, and King islands during this time.
July also offers your best chance to catch a glimpse of the largest animal in the world — the blue whale.
Taking an Alaska Cruise in August
You’re still in peak season here, but at the back end, so you might see some deals emerge toward the end of the month. However, you should likely expect to pay full price for an August Alaska cruise.
Your chance of rain for the month is at more than 50 percent, so you should surely expect to see some rain during your cruise.
Waterproof shoes and wool socks are your best friend during July, as well as any other breathable rain gear you own. Count on getting wet, so it’s best to be prepared.
The famous Alaska blueberries will be in season in August so snatch up your favorite berries. You know the bears sure will be, as July still offers great chances to view them feeding on branches or salmon. You’ll even have a solid chance of spotting bald eagles near salmon-spawning streams.
Taking an Alaska Cruise in September
You’ve now reached the other shoulder!
The kids are back in school and the end of cruise season is near, meaning you’ve got your best chance to catch a sweet last-minute deal on an Alaska cruise in September. Things will be relatively quiet and cool, and September will often be just as rainy as August.
The nights are longer, days are shorter, and the weather getting colder, but it’s not all doom and gloom for September! Especially not if you’re a moose or caribou, as September is the mating season! You might even catch them in the act right out in the open.
Early autumn is also a great time to spot bears near berry patches and salmon streams. At this time, gray, bowhead, and beluga whales will be migrating back south along the Alaskan coast.
But what brings most people out for an Alaska cruise in September is a chance to spot the Northern Lights. You’ll likely need your waterproofs and some heavy layers, but if you are lucky enough to catch a clear night up near Fairbanks, you’ll give yourself the best chance to catch a glimpse of the aurora. This chance alone is often enough to bring people out for a September cruise.
This monthly break down should give you a better idea of what you can expect during the Alaska cruise season. However, if you’d prefer to search in terms of certain attractions, continue reading below.
The Best Time for a Cruise to Alaska if you Want to See Whales
Luckily for whale watchers, various species can be seen in Alaskan waters during the entirety of cruise season. It truly is not uncommon for cruise passengers to spot whales right from the deck of the cruise ship, but booking a whale watching excursion will increase your chance of spotting some whales.
The tour’s smaller boat will allow you to get a closer look of the whales and get tidbits about the local whale pods from your guide.
Gray whales head north in April and May but return at the end of cruise season in September. Humpback whales can be spotted using their unique and fascinating “bubble-netting” feeding technique during June and July.
There are over 500 humpbacks who make Southeast Alaska’s inside passage their home during the summer months between Homer and Kodiak in the Barren Islands.
Blue whales can be spotted in open water (meaning far from shore) during July and August while killer whales (orcas) are most frequently spotted in May and early June, although they can be seen at any time during the entire cruise season. Beluga whales may also be seen year round.
Related Post: Best Alaskan Cruise Shore Excursions
The Best Time for a Cruise to Alaska if you Want to the Northern Lights
Unfortunately, if your goal is to see the Northern Lights, you will have to compromise in terms of ideal weather conditions. You will have slim-to-none chance of seeing the lights during the summer months, but if you come during September, you might just have a shot!
What’s interesting is that the conditions that create the aurora borealis (magnetic fields) are present all year long, but in order to be seen, you’ll need dark, clear skies and a bit of luck. Because Alaska’s summer days are so long, it does not create dark enough conditions to view the lights.
The ideal time to view the Northern Lights is actually outside of the cruise season window, between late September and April. However, there is some opportunity in September for you to spot the aurora during a particularly fortunate night.
While going on an Alaska cruise this late in the season also gives you the opportunity to catch a last-minute deal, you’ll give yourself the best chance of spotting the Northern Lights. There is certainly no guarantee that you’ll see them, but the later you can go, the better, as there will be long nights late in the season.
You can also improve your chances by taking a land or sea tour that includes one or more nights in Fairbanks, which lies just under 200 miles below the Arctic Circle. This area is considered one of the best in the state, and the world, to see the aurora, especially if you are able to venture away from the city lights.
To Sum it All Up
We hope that by reading through this guide you will be able to narrow down your cruise window based on what it is you want to see. If you’re after wildlife sightings, choose the warmer months when food is plentiful. For the Northern Lights, give the end of the cruise season in September a try. If you just want to cruise around and enjoy the scenery, then you can go whenever you like!
Just make sure you bring some rain gear and warm clothes no matter when you go and keep in mind, it’s Alaska. Conditions can change quickly, and it’s going to be an incredible adventure regardless of the time of year.
Taking a cruise to Alaska is unlike any other cruise destination. Depending on what time of year you go on your Alaskan cruise, not only will you get to see majestic snow-capped mountains and scenic views, but you will also have a chance to see incredible wildlife in action. From the deck of the ship passengers often can catch a glimpse of a bear trying to catch a fish for lunch, a moose rubbing his antlers on a tree, and other wildlife on the shore.
But even on a cruise to Alaska you will see awe-inspiring sites along the way. Bring your camera for views of humpback whales, killer whales, beluga whales, and sea lions.
When Should YOU Cruise to Alaska?
As you have read above it really depends on a few factors:
- Do you mind going during peak season when it’s a little more crowded?
- Can you stand the temperatures during the colder months?
- Are the Northern Lights on your bucket list?
- Are you hoping to see a lot of wildlife?
- Do you mind going during the rainy months?
- Are you a floral enthusiast that wants to see all the flowers in bloom?
The best times to go to Alaska on a cruise ship are between the months of May and September, but between July and August is going to be peak season. It’s during these summer months that most people like to go on these trips; partially to escape the heat, and partially because they have a better chance of seeing some wildlife.
In May and September the temperature will be a little colder, so you may need to pack accordingly, but you will also see some of the more rare sites during these months. In May you will see Alaska in the spring and many wild flowers will be blooming everywhere with truly vibrant colors. You will also see a lot of animals in the spring time.
In September you have a good chance of seeing some of the northern lights, which is a spectacular show that everyone needs to see at least once in their lifetime. You may experience some rain during these months that are on the fringe of the peak season, but it is worth it in my opinion.
So if you want to play it safe, go on your Alaskan cruise during the peak months of July – August, but if you want to avoid some of the crowded ports and see Alaska at her finest you can visit in late May to early June or late August to early September.
Any other questions to add? Let us know in the comments below. Have some amazing Alaska cruise tips? You can share those below too so we can all benefit from your cruise wisdom!