Alaska Cruise Tours: What Are They, and Why Should I Take One?

Springtime heralds the return of cruises to Alaska. Each year, dozens of ships ply the waters of Southeast Alaska and the Canadian province of British Columbia en-route from Vancouver or Seattle to the “Last Frontier.”

While cruises to Alaska are familiar to most, Alaska Cruise Tours may not be. These pre-and-post tours are available from nearly every major cruise line sailing to the region, including small-ship players like Seattle-based UnCruise Adventures. For those with the time and the money to do so, adding a pre-or-post-cruise tour in Alaska can greatly enhance your vacation experience.

Why Should I Take an Alaskan Cruise Tour?

Alaska Cruise Tours offer up the chance to see parts of the state inaccessible by water, like sprawling Denali National Park. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Southeast Alaska – where the majority of cruises spend their time – is but one area of the very diverse and sprawling state of Alaska. While towns like Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway are must-see sights for the first-time visitor, Alaska offers plenty of attractions that can’t be reached by ship.

Few things can compare with the beauty of visiting Denali National Park. This sprawling six-million-acre park is the state of Alaska’s crown jewel, and the largest cruise lines (think Holland America Line and Princess Cruises) operate their own hotels on the fringe of the park. It’s the perfect combination: hotels that offer all the seamlessness of a cruise (if, perhaps, not quite the same level of comfort), situated just minutes away from the Park. It’s a good thing, too: a modest exploration of Denali National Park can run 10 hours or more.

Anchorage, Alaska…home of the Midnight Sun. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Other frequently-visited locales on Alaska cruise tours include the cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks, as well as the quaint town of Talkeetna. Situated just outside Denali National Park, the latter’s claim to fame is an excellent brewery and an honorary mayor named Stubbs the Cat. The late feline (Stubbs passed away in July of 2017) took up residence in the town’s General Store, and the folks of Talkeetna are apparently looking to replace Stubbs with a new honorary mayor.

While some cruise tours are conducted via motorcoach, others travelling through the heart of Alaska will be operated by rail. Celebrity, Holland America, Princess and Royal Caribbean all have their own dedicated rail cars, hooked up to an Alaskan Railroad locomotive that pulls them from Denali down to embarkation ports in Seward and Whittier.

The big reveal: Star Princess, as seen after exiting the tunnel in Whittier. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Whittier in particular is a fascinating city, as it is completely cut off by a gigantic mountain range. Engineers bored a hole straight through the base of it, allowing for road and rail access via the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel which runs for 13,300 feet (or 4,100 metres) and is so narrow that traffic must alternate and wait in staging areas on either end. Amazingly, the highway that links it – the Portage Glacier Highway – was only fully completed on June 7, 2000.

A few very special cruise tours venture even farther north, to remote locales like Barrow and Prudhoe Bay. These journeys tend to be longer, and can push the total combined duration of your cruise and land tour into the three week region.

Surrounded by comfort and scenery on the Alaskan Railroad en-route to Whittier. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Another popular cruise tour option is available for sailings that begin or end in Vancouver, and has nothing to do with Alaska at all.

A Canadian Rockies extension is offered by most major cruise lines sailing to Alaska. These tours begin or end in Calgary, Alberta and include a scenic journey through the heart of the Canadian Rockies aboard the legendary Rocky Mountaineer train service that operates from Jasper, Alberta to Vancouver’s Central Station.

Which Lines Offer Them?

Star Princess in Skagway, Alaska. Princess, along with Holland America Line, offer some of the widest selection of cruise tours in the state. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Nearly every major cruise line operating in Alaska will offer at least one cruisetour packages. The bigger mainstream lines may offer a dozen different combinations, and some lines like Holland America even offer truncated four-day cruises that pair with a longer overland journey.

Are Cruise Tours Available on Every Sailing?

Ships departing from Vancouver on Northbound voyages, and arriving on southbound voyages from Alaska, offer cruise tours pre or post. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

The short answer: no. The majority of all cruise tours are only offered on sailings departing from Vancouver, Seward or Whittier. Cruises from Seattle typically don’t offer cruisetours, as unlike Vancouver departures, Seattle sailings tend to be roundtrip voyages.

For established lines like Holland America and Princess that have maintained an Alaskan presence for decades, nearly every sailing from Vancouver, Whittier or Seward will offer one or more options for a pre-or-post cruisetour in Alaska. However, select tours may only be available on sailings aboard certain ships. If you’re particular about which cruisetour you take, you may have to take a particular ship in order to make that happen. Likewise, if you’re particular about the ship you sail aboard, you may find different cruise tours are offered to that ship.

Un-Cruise Adventure’s Safari Endeavour in Alaska. The small-ship line has announced new cruise tours in Alaska on select 2018 departures. Photo © 2014 Aaron Saunders

Cruise lines with only one or two ships deployed in Alaska, or smaller operators like UnCruise Adventures, may only have cruise tours available on select departures. Some of these will be designated as pre-cruise only, while others may be post-cruise only. Many cruise tours, however, can be taken either pre-or-post-cruise.

It is always a good idea to pick up a physical brochure from your favorite cruise line, or check with your favorite cruise line’s website, to see what cruise tours are offered on your chosen departure and ship.

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