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The Best Time to Cruise in Alaska

What to Expect in Every Month of Alaska Cruise Season

The cruise season in Alaska is short (just May-September), but what this state lacks in winter tours it makes up for in stunning summer vistas, exciting wildlife and a travelogue of iconic land excursions.

Traditionally, July and August have been considered the best time to cruise to Alaska, as these months offer warm sun, long days, and abundant wildlife. However, the shoulder seasons (April–May and September–October) are growing in popularity, thanks to fewer crowds, lower-priced cruises and seasonal attractions like the northern lights.

When is the Best Time to Cruise in Alaska?

The Yukon, Ketchikan, Glacier Bay National Park — Alaskan cruises offer direct access to the last American frontier. If you’re a first-time visitor, the vast tundra and glaciers of Alaska can feel intimidating. After all, in addition to figuring out how to respond if you encounter a moose, you’re also worried about the weather and which month would be best to plan your trip.

Fortunately, you don’t need to sweat too hard about that last one as there’s no bad month to do an Alaska cruise.

Both the peak season and shoulder seasons offer high-quality excursions, breathtaking scenery and memorable tourist events and cultural festivals. So the “best time to visit Alaska” looks different for each person, as your personal trip preferences are what determine the best month for you.

To help you select the ideal time for your trip, the following guide will introduce you to weather and attraction differences between the months. Then we’ll wrap up by answering some frequently asked questions about Alaskan cruises — the best time to see whales and northern lights, the best time for salmon fishing and similar queries.

close-up of a Moose in Alaska with blurry background of the Alaskan mountains
Moose and other wildlife spotting in Alaska. Photo by Alberto Loyo/Getty Images.

May in Alaska

While the tourism season in Alaska doesn’t really kick in until June, many small cruise ships start running tours in May. If you’re looking for dry weather and lots of wildlife, then May is a great time to join a cruise as it’s one of the state’s driest months and features spring migrations and lots of newborn wildlife.

A downside to visiting Alaska in May is that the interior National Parks are still closed, along with many of the land-based attractions and shops that later cruisers will get to enjoy. 

Advantages of Visiting Alaska in May

  • Decent weather, with coastal temperatures at 40-55 degrees and about 16 hours of sunlight per day. In the interior, the temperature drops to 30-55 degrees but daylight increases to 18 hours.
  • May is part of the spring shoulder season and sees fewer visitors than later in the year, so you should be able to find better travel deals and lower cruise prices.
  • For wildlife spotters, May offers migratory songbirds, pods of gray whales and herds of moose. Bring a pair of binoculars and you may even spot a wolf or lynx on the prowl.
Mother polar bear with her cubs on ice covered ground at Wrangle Island
Polar bears at Wrangle Island. Photo by Gerald Corsi/Getty Images.

June in Alaska

June brings summer and fleets of cruise ships to Alaska. The warming weather even allows cruise ships to penetrate Arctic waters, giving you the opportunity to see polar bears on Wrangel Island.

Down south, the waters around the southwestern and southcentral regions of Alaska teem with ships visiting Kodiak Island, the Aleutian Islands, Prince William Sound and Katmai National Park.

As for land trips, June sees Denali National Park and Kenai Fjords National Park open, both of which offer stunning floatplane and flightseeing adventures. Alaskan railroad trips are also available, giving you access to interior hiking, cozy lodges and remote wildlife viewing. 

Advantages of Visiting Alaska in June

  • Warming coastal temperatures between 40-60 degrees and even warmer interior temperatures of 50-70 degrees.
  • Between 18 to 20 hours of daylight, giving you lots of time to enjoy the Alaskan wilderness and wildlife.
  • Wildlife is everywhere in June, with caribou, black bear cubs, mountain goats, moose calves and even polar bears out in force. On the water, pods of beluga whales can be spotted, along with plentiful seabirds and seal pups.
  • Cruises offering land tours are available, as all the major national parks open in June.
  • The warmer weather and longer daylight hours mean that tourist attractions in towns like Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks are fully open.
Girdwood Forest Fair Alaska people watching a parade on a road with the Alaskan Mountains at the background
Girdwood Forest Fair. Photo by Brook Binkowski/Flickr

July in Alaska

The cruise ship season is in full swing in July. This month brings the warmest weather of the year, the longest hours of daylight and the largest number of tourists. And for good reason, as July in Alaska is ideal for salmon fishing, culture festivals like the Girdwood Forest Fair, bear viewing and memorable trips into the interior.

Cruise bookings can be difficult to come by in July, but with some careful planning ahead, you can secure cabins on either large or small ships.

If you’re looking to get away from the summer crowds and enjoy an intimate cruise in remote Alaska, then we recommend booking an ocean view cabin on a smaller ship. Smaller boats have access to quieter coastlines, like the Wrangell Narrows, that larger cruise ships don’t have access to.

Advantages of Visiting Alaska in July

  • Looking for warm weather? July is Alaska’s hottest month, with daytime temperatures ranging between 50-70 degrees and 18 to 19 hours of daylight.
  • If you’re planning an arctic cruise, prepare for cooler weather, as the temperature up north dips down to 33-45 degrees. Also pack an eye mask for sleeping, as arctic cruises enjoy nearly 24 hours of daylight.
  • Grizzlies, black bears and mountain goats dot the landscape. In the sea, humpback whales and otters splash about, and overhead you can spot millions of migrating shorebirds.
  • For the anglers, July is spawning season for salmon, making it perfect for fishing trips.
Alaska State Fair women enjoying the ride in an amusement park
Alaska State Fair. Photo by Matt Hage/State of Alaska.

August in Alaska

August closes Alaska’s cruise season. This month brings cooler weather and more rain but fails to dampen the high spirits on cruise ships.

From the Alaska State Fair in the Mat-Su Valley to the Talkeetna Bluegrass Festival, there is so much to do in this glorious state in August. Blueberries are in season, with berry festivals following, bears roam the hills, and Seward’s Silver Salmon Derby is the perfect place to cast your fishing rod.

As August winds down, fall colors explode across the mountains, giving you gorgeous landscapes to explore by ship, train and foot.

Advantages of Visiting Alaska in August

  • Warm weather, with temperatures between 45-65 degrees and 18 hours of daylight.
  • Abundant fishing opportunities, as halibut, northern pike, rainbow trout and salmon are all in season.
  • Numerous cruise and land tour packages on offer, giving you access to the breathtaking fall foliage of the Last Frontier.
  • As for wildlife, August is peak migration season for songbirds and you’ll see numerous caribou, bears, beavers, orca and loons on your adventure.
Northern Lights in the Alaskan dark skyline
Northern Lights can be seen in September. Photo by Jonathan Mauer/Getty Images.

September in Alaska

As the school season begins and fall approaches, cruise prices start to dip, affording the opportunity to snag a last-minute bargain for Alaska. We still recommend planning ahead though, as an increasing number of tourists have been booking cruises each year in September.

If you’re hunting the northern lights, then include a land trip to Fairbanks, where you can enjoy Denali Park and hopefully catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis.

September also increases your wildlife sighting opportunities, as animals across the state begin migrating, foraging for hibernation and engaging in courtship rituals.

Advantages of Visiting Alaska in September

  • Pack warm clothes and enjoy September’s cool temperatures that vary between 35-55 degrees. If you’re on an arctic tour, pack winter coats, as you’ll experience daytime temperatures of 28 to 33 degrees.
  • Looking for a bargain? September increases your odds of finding low-cost tours and other Alaska cruise deals.
  • September thins out the crowds of cruisers, giving you greater access to tourist locations that would be packed during July or August.
  • Elk, caribou, bears, moose and deer can be spotted across the wilderness. Above, raptors and gulls migrate south and bald eagles hunt for prey. Below, harbor seals and sea lions dot the beach, and pods of gray whales pass your cruise ship.
Whale in Alaska
Whale watching in Alaska. David Hoffmann Photography/Getty Images.

What’s the Best Time to See Whales on an Alaska Cruise?

Gray whales, humpback whales, orca, beluga whales — Alaska has them all. Here are some quick tips to help you increase the odds of seeing whales during your cruise.

  • Humpback whales: June and July are the best months for seeing these giants of the deep. Over 500 humpback whales spend summer within the Inside Passage, so select a cruise that passes through this route and visits the Barren Islands.
  • Beluga whales: You can spot belugas in Turnagain Arm from mid-July through August, just south of Anchorage. September is also a good month for belugas, as long as your cruise passes Nome.
  • Gray Whales: April and May are ideal for gray whales, as they feed around Kodiak, Sitka, Ketchikan and Seward.
  • Orca (Killer Whales): The ideal time for orca spotting is between early May and early June when you can find these colorful behemoths feeding in Resurrection Bay and along cruise routes going between Seattle and Alaska.
Northern Lights seen in Fairbanks, Alaska
Northern Lights in Fairbanks. Photo by Getty Images.

When’s the Best Time to See the Northern Lights on an Alaska Cruise?

Seeing the northern lights from the cruise ship is a rare occurrence, but if you’d like to catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis from the balcony on your stateroom, then you need to book a trip in late September or early October.

To maximize your chance of witnessing the northern lights, get off the boat and join a land excursion to Fairbanks. The aurora season in Fairbanks lasts from the end of August to April and the lights can be seen four out of five nights if the sky is clear.

Fishing boat in Ketchikan, Alaska
Fishing boat in Ketchikan. Photo by Jawalker1969/Getty Images.

When’s the Best Time to Cruise to Alaska for Salmon Fishing?

Luckily, any cruise season month is a good time to fish for salmon in Alaska. Here’s a quick guide to help you time your trip to match when your favorite salmon is running:

  • King salmon: May–June
  • Sockeye salmon: June–July
  • Silver salmon: Mid July–late August
  • Chum salmon: July–August
  • Coho salmon: July–September
  • Dog salmon: July–October
  • Pink salmon: July–October
norwegian encore in Alaska
Cruise ship in Alaska. Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line.

What is the Best Month to Cruise Alaska?

The best month to visit Alaska depends on what you hope to experience during your trip.

  • Do you want as much sun and daylight as possible? Then book a June or July cruise.
  • Would you like to see lots of wildlife? Then purchase a May, August or September cruise as these months feature young animal families and migrations.
  • Do you want to get into the interior and see Denali National Park or the Yukon? Then select July or August.
  • Are you chasing bright tree foliage? Then book a cruise at the end of August or in September.
  • Would you like to avoid mosquitoes? Then May and September are the best months for your cruise.
  • Are northern lights on the itinerary? Then your trip will be in September or October. Would you like to fish for salmon? Then select any summer or shoulder month.

The good news is that no matter which month you choose, your Alaskan cruise will reward you with incredible experiences and memories that last a lifetime.

Book Your Alaskan Cruise Adventure

At AAA, we offer a wide selection of cruise itineraries to those explorers who want to get up close and personal with Alaskan wildlife, landscape, and culture.

While you’re on the boat, you’ll enjoy delicious and local cuisine, with many of our cruises offering fine-dining options. And in addition to the glaciers outside, you can stay entertained with phenomenal live music performances featuring musicians from The Juilliard School, B.B. King’s Blues Club Memphis, and other institutions.

Interested in planning your next Alaska cruise with AAA?
Call your travel agent directly or your nearest AAA store to get pro tips, travel guides, and more.

Interested in planning your next road trip with AAA Washington? Call your travel agent directly or your nearest AAA store to get pro tips, TripTik maps, and more. Find more Pacific Northwest scenic drives and road trips.

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