The Best Excursions on a Cruise to Alaska

A cruise to Alaska is at the top of a lot of people's bucket lists. And for good reason! It's not called the Last Frontier for nothing! Alaska beckons adventurers with its breathtaking landscapes, pristine wilderness, and abundant wildlife. One of the best ways to explore this rugged beauty is by embarking on a cruise to Alaska. There's something magical about sailing through icy fjords, witnessing towering glaciers, and encountering majestic marine life all from the comfort of your cruise ship and without ever leaving the United States! If Alaska is on your list, I'm here to help you dive into the must-visit ports of call: Juneau, Ketchikan, Icy Strait Point, and Sitka. 


The Best Alaska Cruise Excursions


Why Alaska?

Alaska is renowned for its untouched wilderness and dramatic landscapes, making it a dream destination for anyone who loves nature! A cruise to Alaska offers a unique blend of luxury and adventure, and allows witnessing some of the world's most stunning natural wonders! From colossal glaciers to diverse wildlife, Alaska promises an unforgettable experience for cruisers. 

Taking an Alaska cruise allows you to witness the state's iconic glaciers. Do you know what a glacier sounds like when it calves? I do! Make sure when choosing your sailing, that your cruise includes Hubbard Glacier and/or Glacier Bay. 

Pro tip: Glacier Bay limits the number of cruise ships it allows in the bay every day and every season. Holland America has been sailing to Alaska since before it was a state and has priority sailing into the bay allowing the National Park Service on board to educate cruisers. 

I'm such a big fan of seeing wildlife in the wild. While you are in Alaska, there is no shortage! Bald eagles soar overhead, brown bears forage along the shoreline, and whales gracefully navigate the icy waters. There is rich marine life, combined with stunning landscapes, making Alaska a paradise for nature lovers!

READ MORE: Is a Cruise to Alaska a Good Trip for Teens

Before You Book Your Alaska Cruise Excursions

I know that the cardinal rule for booking a cruise excursion is to book through the cruise ship. I don't really follow this rule. And I especially would feel free to take liberties in Alaska. Here's why.

Alaska is one of the easiest places to access if you do happen to get left behind and miss the boat. There are frequent flights that aren't too expensive so you can easily catch up to the cruise ship. Now, this doesn't mean you take risks when traveling, of course not! But it does make it easier to know that if for some reason something happens, you can get to the next port pretty easily.

Alaska is also the most unpredictable when it comes to weather. I'm from the PNW where the weather is similiarly unpredictable. If you booked an excursion to the top of Mt. Roberts on the tram, and spent several hundred dollars on it, only to get to the top and see literally nothing because of cloud cover, it hardly seems worth it! 

Flexibility is the name of the game when it comes to booking excursions in Alaska. Weather can prevent anything from your helicopter tour to your whale-watching trip from being canceled. Having a backup plan just in case, is going to be one of the best ways to make the most of your ports of call.

Alaska relies on cruise tourism. Every port we stopped in had easy access to tour operators. Many of them didn't have full tours and were willing to negotiate prices. These are the same tour operators that run tours through the cruise line, but the price is jacked up by 25% or more!

DON'T MISS THIS: What I Wish I Packed on my Cruise to Alaska


What to Know Before Booking a Whale-Watching Tour in Alaska

Whale watching is a quintessential Alaskan experience, offering a chance to witness these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat. There is no shortage of whale-watching tour operators, so how do you know which one is the best to book with? Here are some things to keep in mind.

If you want a glimpse into an Instagram vs Reality whale-watching tour, here you go!

Reputation and Experience

Opt for operators that have a solid reputation and years of experience. Look for reviews from other cruisers to gauge the operator's reliability and commitment to providing a positive enriching experience.

Knowledgable Guides

A knowledgeable guide can make or break your whale-watching experience by providing insights into the behavior and biology of the marine life you are encountering. Choose operators who are experienced and passionate about whales.

Look at the Group Size

Consider joining a small group tour for a more intimate experience. There are often 4-5 cruises docked daily in port, so it's easier to send out a whale-watching tour with hundreds of people. But that also means that you may not have the most intimate experience. Small vessels often allow for better viewing and closer encounters making it a much more memorable experience.

Guarantees and Policies

Check for guarantees or policies regarding wildlife sightings. While nature is unpredictable, some operators will offer partial or full refunds if specific wildlife, like whales, aren't spotted during the excursion.

Environmentally Conscious Operators

This goes without saying, but I can't imagine any operator is going to say that they aren't committed to sustainable and responsible whale-watching practices. However, keep this on your radar if you feel like the operator isn't respecting marine life and their habitats and report them accordingly. NOAA has marine mammal viewing guidelines and regulations. This will also help you as a passenger understand your limitations on a tour. There is also a number that you can call for enforcement on their website. 

Pro Tip: I spotted whales daily on our cruise ship. Keep your eyes on the horizon and you'll often see spouting! 


Ports of Call: Juneau

Juneau is the capital city of Alaska and offers a fascinating blend of history, culture, and natural beauty. When your cruise ship docks in Juneau, there are several excursions to consider.

Don't Miss This Post: Everything You Need to Know About Visiting Juneau

Mendenhall Glacier Tours:

The easiest way to visit Mendenhall Glacier is on a tour. I looked into exploring it on my own, and there is really no inexpensive way to do it. The tour operators leave from the cruise port, making it really easy to get to the glacier.

Explore Mendenhall Glacier from the Water

There are a few different options to explore the glacier from the water. You can take a sea kayaking tour {around 3 1/2 hours} leaving from Auke Bay {yes, the same bay most whale watching tours explore!}. Most kayaking trips are two-person kayaking trips, so it's best to have a partner and not an odd number on these types of excursions. If you are odd man out, you might get paired with the guide, which could be a cool and educational experience, or paired with a stranger and that can sometimes be awkward or awesome, depending on your personality!

There are also rafting tours, where overall, you'll experience a relatively calm-water ride, but there are some class II and III rapids {depending on the weather, time of year, and snow melt}, and you might get a little wet. You can also explore the waters on a canoe trip {ages 12 and up}, some even allow you to get close enough to walk up and around the glacier so you can explore it a bit more. 

Explore Mendenhall Glacier from the Air

Flightseeing tours are very common in Alaska and will allow you to get up above it all and see just how vast and diverse Alaska is. With all flightseeing excursions, please know that they can and will be canceled if the weather conditions are not optimal. This is for your own safety and while it can be disappointing, it is something that you should understand fully before booking. Your excursion price is almost always refundable if you are canceled due to weather.

A helicopter tour allows you to land on the glacier and then walk around and explore. This was one of the coolest excursions I did with my teen son! He still talks about it. The helicopter ride is only about 20 minutes but it will allow you to see various parts of the glacier as you fly above. There are three different adventures you can take once you are on the glacier. There's a walkabout experience {the least strenuous and includes a one-hour walkabout for a total of 3 1/2 hours}, the trek experience, {slightly more strenuous with about 2 hours of walking on the glacier with a guide for a total of 4 1/2 hours} or the x-trek which is extreme exploring with some vertical rope climbs on ice walls.

A quintessential experience would be to combine a helicopter tour with a dog sled adventure. There's nothing that screams traditional Alaska like dog sledding. It's often a very memorable tour for those who book it. 

Whale Watching in Auke Bay

Want to see whales AND add in the glacier? You can combine whale watching and a Mendenhall Glacier tour!  As you book, keep in mind the size of the whale-watching boat. There are cruise ship excursions that crowd 150+ people on a boat, and then there are other boats that have a more manageable number of passengers. Most have this information in their FAQ section, so don't forget to peek around to find that before you book. 

Juneau is renowned for its excellent whale-watching opportunities and most tours will give you your money back if you don't see a whale on your trip. I've found that this can be good and bad. People who have taken whale-watching tours in other parts of the country {Hawaii or California} may be disappointed at how different the whale behavior is in Alaska. You may only see a quick fin and not a big whale tail slap or breech, so be prepared that the expectation vs the reality might be different. 

Hiking {or Tram} Mt. Roberts

Taking the tram up Mt. Roberts is something that is an easy last-minute decision to make. You'll want to consider the weather before booking your tickets so you can have the best experience of a clear day. Tickets can be bought at the terminal near the cruise port. I actually enjoyed hiking up Mt. Roberts on my last visit. You can read more about my experience here. 


Ports of Call: Ketchikan

Ketchikan is known as the "salmon capital of the world" and welcomes cruisers with its rich Native American heritage and stunning landscapes.

Zipline Through the Rainforest

Ketchikan Rainforest Canopy Zipline is a great way to explore the Tongass National Forest area from a different perspective. While you soar through the treetops on a zipline, keep your eyes out for bears feasting on salmon in the creek below! 

Explore Native American Culture

One of the popular tourist activities, mostly because it's not incredibly strenuous, is a visit to Totem Bight State Historical Park. Wander through the lush grounds that are adorned with intricately carved totem poles, each telling a story of the region's indigenous peoples. 

Flightseeing to the Misty Fjords

One of the most beautiful parts of the world lies inside at Misty Fjords National Monument. This 2.3 million acre monument is completely roadless, and one of the only ways to access it is by seaplane. Michelle, the owner and operator at Island Wings, is an incredibly competent pilot who loves to share the area with her customers. This was one of the most beautiful areas I've ever seen and should be explored!

Experience the Life of an Alaska Fisherman

This Bering Sea Crub Fisherman excursion gets high praise from just about every review I've read! If you watched the Deadliest Catch, this will all feel familiar to you! You get to experience the same crew as on the Discovery show minus the rough seas, high winds, and treacherous conditions! They even haul in their catch and put it in viewing tanks so everyone can observe it!


Ports of Call: Icy Strait Point

Icy Strait Point, is actually a privately owned destination that not all cruise ships explore. It was actually one of my favorite ports of call and seemed to have the most authentic Alaskan experience with a focus on sustainability and local culture.

Whale Watching

This is another port that gets high marks for its whale-watching tours. In fact, after talking to several passengers on board, many said that it was the best whale watching they'd ever done! This area is less inhabited so it seems to offer a more intimate encounter with the region's marine life. As you cruise through the icy waters, you are surrounded by stunning landscapes and you can witness the grace of humpback whales, orcas, and seals. If you want the best whale encounter, book a whale-watching tour in this port. 

Explore the Port

This port is 100% locally owned and operated. You'll find small stalls with donuts and crab shacks but you'll also find walkable trails and plenty of tide pools to explore! No planned excursion ended up being our best excursion while we were in this port and I'd encourage you to just enjoy a wander. We stumbled on a tree swing, read historic signage about port activity, and wandered through a few shops. But what was most interesting, was talking to the locals who were running these shops and restaurants. They were incredibly friendly and offered a really great perspective into daily life in a remote area of Alaska that has more moose than people living in it!


Ports of Call: Sitka

Sitka has really rich Russian and Native American influences and offers a really unique blend of history and natural beauty. 

Explore the Areas Islands

We took a kayak trip around Siginaka. You trade one boat for another and hop on board a fully enclosed power watercraft. It leaves from the cruise port and they point out various marine life and birds as you prepare to go to your next destination. Siginaka is a private island and provides lots of opportunities to explore marine life. The knowledgeable guides help to make the most of your kayak exploration. 

Go on a Wildlife Quest

You can explore the waters around Stika on a sea otter & wildlife quest, where sea otters, sea lions, and a variety of seabirds abound! You'll find an onboard naturalist who can explain everything about this remarkable ecosystem. The Alaska-built tour vessel is built to navigate small narrow passages, so you can view wildlife up close! 

Visit the Animals

Zoos and aquariums are kind of rare in Alaska because the state is already one big wildlife park! However, sometimes animals get into trouble, and need rehabilitation and as a means of education, you'll find the highly regarded Alaska Raptor Center. The center provides treatment for up to 200 injured birds per year. There is an up-close viewing center with several of the resident eagles, a flight training facility for the birds that are in rehab, and an opportunity to explore a portion of the Tongass National Forest where the center is located. 



A cruise to Alaska is an unparalleled adventure and the ports of call you choose will offer a diverse array of excursions, each highlighting the unique beauty and culture of the region. You can marvel at glaciers, zipline through rainforest, or embark on whale-watching adventures. Alaska's natural wonders are sure to leave an indelible mark on your travel memories. You're going to love exploring the Last Frontier!

If your cruise leaves out of Seattle don't miss these posts:

What Hotels to Stay in Around Seattle for Your Cruise
Exploring Seattle like a Local
Everything You Need to Know About Visiting the Gum Wall in Seattle
A Local's Guide to Pike Place Market

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