Alaska Planning Guide: 16-Day Alaska Itinerary Including Alaskan Inside Passage Cruise

Creek Street, Ketchikan

My friend, Michelle, who is very well-traveled, came home from an Alaskan cruise declaring Alaska the most beautiful place on earth. Compound that with my quest to complete my 50 before 50, I booked the same cruise for the summer of 2019 on Royal Caribbean, my go-to cruise line on the Radiance of the Seas.

Then I set my mind on figuring out what else I wanted to do with my time in Alaska. There is so much of the world to see that I was not sure that I would be going back. And if I am going to visit Alaska, I am going to see Alaska. There are so many options for incredible things to do in Alaska. I started planning my trip to Alaska by asking my friends what their recommendations were to do. I wrote the results up in 10 Items for Your Alaskan Bucket List.

I spent so much time researching the trip and it went as well as I hoped– A trip of a lifetime. So, I am giving you my itinerary to serve as an Alaskan trip planner for you. This was one of the hardest trips I have ever planned, as there are so many possibilities of worthwhile things to do. I felt like as soon as I was sure of one thing, something better showed up.

This post is meant to cover the basics of planning your time in Alaska. If you want more detailed information, you can also purchase a guide book, such as Fodor’s Alaska, DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Alaska or Lonely Planet’s Guide to Alaskan Cruise Ports.

Table of Contents

Why Alaska?

Alaska trip planner and Alaska Inside Passage Cruise
Hubbard Glacier

Glaciers

Glaciers are areas where snow compacts into ice and doesn’t thaw. There are over 600 named glaciers in Alaska. The most exciting ones are glaciers that meet water, such as a lake or ocean. At these spots pieces of the glacier fall, or calve off, with thunderous noises creating icebergs.

Part of what drew me to Alaska was my trip to Iceland. It is definitely one of my favorite spots on earth, especially my trip to Jökulsárlón. Seeing Icebergs calve is one of the highlights of my life, so that was something high on my list of things to see again while in Alaska. Most Inside Passage cruises will take you to Glacier Bay to see this happening.

Wildlife

When I was younger I wanted to be a wildlife veterinarian, so seeing wildlife was high on my wish list for Alaska. During our 16-day trip, we saw whales, porpoises, black bears, brown bears, sea otters, puffin, moose, caribou and bald eagles. The state is teeming with wildlife!

Culture

I brought my teen boys along and we wanted to learn something on this trip. It was enlightening to learn about the native culture in the area and their strength in surviving this harsh environment. There are many tribes scattered throughout Alaska and many options to learn about them.

History

Everywhere you look is shaped by the Gold Rush and oil being found in Alaska. It is the reason that trains, boats and towns are where they are and the main reason non-natives settled so thickly in Alaska.

Another thing to know before you book your Alaskan trip– Alaska is expensive. The cruise wasn’t too expensive, but every other thing cost much more than I expected, including food!  My best advice is to save up for this trip, so you won’t have to miss anything that you will regret.

First things first to help you plan your Alaska trip–

What Time of Year is Best to Visit Alaska?

Knowing why you want to go is the key to figuring out when to go.

Winter in Alaska

Although I would love to see the Northern Lights again, I saw them in Iceland, so I didn’t need this trip to be about them. They are only visible when it is dark. If you want to see the Iditarod, Alaska’s famous sled dog race, you will need to go in March. Plan your trip to the Iditarod.

Summer in Alaska

Most of the things people want to see in Alaska, other than the lights, are best seen during the tourist season from the middle of May until the middle of August. This season is much shorter in some areas of Alaska.

In the summer, the days in Alaska are very long- almost 24 hours in some places. This will let us explore long into the night!

I chose to spend the end of July in Alaska, as I have been told that there are fewer bugs than earlier in the summer, but the days are still long. I very much wanted to see bears interacting with the salmon running, so I needed to go in summer to see that.

One problem with summer in Alaska is that it rains a lot! Each day has about a 30 percent chance of rain. That means that you have to be fine missing out on things you want to do, roll with it when a flight or tour gets canceled and be prepared to experience Alaska in the rain.

I knew that I wanted to see things in Alaska that are best seen by cruising. Cruises operate in Alaska April through September.

Shoulder Season in Alaska

If you need to save money and are looking to be away from crowds, the shoulder season (the time right outside of tourist season) may be the best time to go.  If you do go in the shoulder season, be aware not all the activities you want to do may be running.

Summer in Alaska can be very rainy, which is another reason to consider visiting in May. Still moderately warm, but not as rainy.

How Far in Advance Should I Book my Alaska Vacation?

I am generally an inside cabin girl when I cruise, as I would rather spend money on other things and rarely spend time in my room. But the general advice was this is the one time a balcony is completely necessary. On the sea days through the Inside Passage and Glacier National Park, I sat on my balcony and enjoyed the views!

I originally wanted to do this cruise last year. I called in December to book my July cruise and all the balcony rooms were already taken! This was six months in advance! That was my first realization that you have to book a trip to Alaska very early to get exactly what you want out of it.

So, I booked my room a year-and-a-half early. Then I went along my merry way, not planning the rest of our trip. That was a mistake. As I stated before I really want to see bears catching salmon. Through my research, it seems that Brooks Falls in the Katmai National Park is the best place to see them. I tried to book a stay at Brooks Lodge for six months in advance, but it was booked. If you waited too long like me, but still would like to see the bears catch salmon a Brooks Falls, you can book a day tour from Homer or get one from Anchorage. The day tours are all by plane and are quite expensive.

What kind of Alaskan Cruise Should I Book?

This also depends on what you want to get out of your trip. You can book Alaskan cruises from many places, including Seattle, Washington, Vancouver, Canada or Seward, Alaska. If you only want to cruise, it is likely cheaper to start and end in Seattle. Depending on how long you will cruise, this likely won’t bring you as far into Alaska as you will get by booking a cruise that ends in Seward.

Do you want to explore more of Alaska before or after your cruise? If so, you need to start or end in Seward or Whittier.

If you have a passport, you can book any of these cruises. But if don’t, you can’t start in Vancouver. Even if your cruise starts in the US, it is likely to make a stop in Canada where you may need one.

My Two-Week Alaska Itinerary

We made sure to choose a cruise that went through the Inside Passage, the coastal route in southern Alaska that travels between Alaska’s coastline and a chain of islands.

Two Days in Vancouver, Canada

Vancouver Marina– I love seeing the verdant mountains behind the marina full of boats.
We spent two days in Vancouver before our cruise. We loved this metropolitan city on the sea, where 43 percent of its residents have an Asian Heritage.
I would love to return and visit the mountains around, Vancouver Island and Whistler

Things to Do in Vancouver

Where to Stay in Vancouver

Since we are just staying for two days, we wanted our hotel to be convenient to the ship and the things we wanted to do. We are staying at the Coast Coal Harbor on the Waterfront.

Search for your room on Vancouver’s Waterfront on Hotels.com, just like I did. Any affiliate links you use in this post help support this website at no additional cost to you. Thanks.

Our 7-Day Alaska Inside Passage Cruise and Seaside Ports

A Cruise Stop in Ketchikan, Alaska

Ketchikan is best known for its totem poles, which can be found throughout the town, and its proximity to Misty Fjords National Park.

Things to Do During a Ketchikan Cruise Stop

  • Explore Creek Street, a former “red light district”.
  • Kayak in the Tongass National Forest.
  • Enjoy the one-hour strenuous walk through town from Main to Pine to Upper Pine. Take a left on Forest to “the bypass” to 4th Avenue, Jefferson, then back into downtown.
  • Take a cab to hike at Totem Bight.
  • See the salmon ladder right in town.
  • Take a tour to the Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary.
  • Catch a cab to see the Guard Island Lighthouse right north of the town.
  • See the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show.
  • Plan for a tour to see Misty Fjords National Park, which as the name implies is full of water, steep rock cliffs and fjords. It sounds like another of my favorite places, Norway.

This stop will be my excursion day with my one son who isn’t joining us on our journey to the Arctic. We flew in a float plane with Dave from Family Air to Anan Creek to, hopefully, see bears catching salmon as they travel upstream. You can read all about this unbelievable adventure here.

Cruise Stop in Icy Straight Point

Icy Point Straight is really a privately-owned cruise port. The nearby town is actually called Hoonah which you can get to by shuttle. Many people say this is the most “real Alaska” of the other ports if you head into town. This cruise stop is on an island off the coast of Alaska.

Things to do in Icy Straight Point

  • This area is famous for its whale watching and wildlife.
  • Take the 2-mile walk into the town of Hoonah.
  • Tour the Cannery Museum.
  • Brave the mile-long zip line.
  • Go on a bear hunt tour.

I will be kayaking with my mother.

Cruise Port: Juneau, Alaska

Juneau is the only US capital city not accessible by car, as well as the second largest US city by area. It is nestled at the foot of Mount Juneau and named after a Canadian explorer.

Things to Do in Juneau, Alaska

Cruise Port Skagway, Alaska

Skagway was a gold rush town where tens of thousands of hopeful excavators began their trek into the Yukon looking for gold. Now you can see the history come alive in the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.

Things to Do in Skagway

A Day at Sea in Glacier Bay

As I mentioned, I am a huge fan of glaciers. The otherworldly blues, the sounds of the glaciers calving– Happiness. We had rooms with a balcony on each side of the boat, so spent the whole time on the balconies with my camera at hand.

24 Hours in Seward, Alaska

How to find puffins in Alaska

Many people just jump straight from the ship onto rides into Anchorage and miss out on what Seward has to offer. I heard such great things, we decided to stay the night. It ended up being a favorite port of all who stayed.

Things to Do in Seward, Alaska

Where to Stay in Seward, Alaska

This is a small town, so anything near the center should be good. We stayed at the Best Western Plus Edgewood. It was right across the street from the Sea Life Center.

Book your room in Seward now. 

How to Get From Denali to Anchorage

These are the three main options we had for our whole trip. You can also fly, but that seemed cost-prohibitive for as many stops as we were making.

  • Rent a car. One-way rentals are expensive, but if you do this you can stop where you want on your way. When we were first planning, this was our plan. Some places we were planning on stopping were Turnagain Arm, Kenai Lake, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and taking the Mt. Alyeska Tram.
  • Take the bus. The bus is actually much quicker than the train, taking just around 2 1/2 hours. Book the bus here.
  • We took the GoldStar dome train and it was unbelievably gorgeous. It ended up a highlight of the trip- even for the kids. You can book a coach train ticket here. Book the GoldStar Dome Train here. It seems from my research that both the bus and train are narrated.

24 Hours in Anchorage, Alaska

Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city and is on the water or Cook Inlet. It is where you fly into when you come to Seward. Anchorage is a starting point for many trips and tours to many other areas in Alaska.

Things to do in Anchorage, Alaska

  • Potter bird walk
  • Visit the Alaskan Native Heritage Center.
  • Explore the Portage Glacier.
  • Ride a bike on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.

Day Trips from Anchorage

  • Take an early flight on Alaska Airlines crossing the Arctic Circle to Utqiaġvik (Barrow) on the Arctic Ocean, returning on the same day.
  • This would be more than a one-day trip, but another place to visit that is right over the line into the Arctic Circle is Kotzebue, Alaska. The town is overwhelmingly native and there are 12 villages around the area to visit.
  • While you are in Kotzebue visit LaVonne’s Fish Camp.

Where to Stay in Anchorage

The two hotels recommended to us by a native are The Voyager Inn and Embassy Suites Anchorage. We stayed at The Voyager Inn and were happy with our stay. It was walking distance from the mall and downtown Anchorage, but a long walk.

Road Trip from Anchorage to Denali

The first thing we knew we wanted to visit during our exploration of Alaska’s interior is Denali National Park, the home of North America’s tallest peak and ample wildlife. My mother’s friend recommended for us to road trip this portion of the trip. I am always up for a road trip!

Things To Do on a Road Trip from Anchorage to Denali

  • Catch the bore tide at Turnagain Arm. A bore tide is a unique large wave that travels down a bay from the ocean due to a large tidal differential. You can read more about it here.
  • Try to see a beluga whale in the wild. Beluga whales follow the salmon, so they are traveling through the Turnagain Arm in late-July and August. Turnagain Arm is a little south of Anchorage, so in the wrong direction, but these are two things I would love to see. The beluga were a few days behind us.
  • Stop for a hike at Eagle River Nature Center.
  • See Thunderbird Falls.
  • Visit Eklutna Village.
  • Explore the funkiest Alaskan town of Talkeetna.
  • Take a half-day tour with Denali Gold Tours- a fun and educational stop.
best road trips in Alaska
Denali by the Bureau of Land Management on Flickr.

Two Days in Denali National Park

You can only drive 15 miles into the park to Savage River. A park shuttle is required to get in any farther. We spent our one whole day in Denali doing a bus tour through the National Park Service. There are a few bus trips to choose from, transit buses and tour buses. One option is to book a shuttle to Wonder Lake and get off at the Eielson Visitor Center to take part in a ranger-led hike. Although the park services website says that the transit buses are non-narrated, every review that I read says that the bus drivers all provide commentary. For more information check out the NPS Denali site.

We ended up going the Kantishna Experience, a guided bus ride all the way into Denali, which a few ranger-led hikes. Unfortunately, it rained the whole time we were in Denali, but the bus ride was still interesting in spite of being 12-miles long. The roads are dirt and bumpy

On your second day in Denali, you can visit the dog kennels and hike the Savage River Loop Trail.

Where to Stay in Denali

If you don’t have a car, it is much easier to stay at a hotel in the park with a free shuttle. Here are a few to choose from: Denali Bluffs Hotel and Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. These hotels book up early. We stayed in the Bluffs. It was conveniently located and had a washer and dryer– always a help if you are traveling for a long time.

Two Days in Fairbanks, Alaska

More than one Alaskan has told me that Fairbanks is their favorite big Alaskan city.

Things to Do in Fairbanks, Alaska

  • Learning about reindeer at the rural Running Reindeer Ranch is a great way to spend the day. We did this tour which is informative and culminates with a hike with reindeer through a birch forest.
  • If you don’t get to do the gold tour on our road trip, check out Gold Dredge #8.
  • We panned for gold at Gold Daughter.
  • Explore the University of Alaska, Museum of the North. Consider exploring the museum as part of a Half-Day Cultural Tour.
  • My boys love antique autos, so we visited the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum, an exploration of antique cars, clothing and their relationship to society.  Buy tickets here.
  • See the Alaskan Pipeline.
  • The tour we took which we though most typified all of Alaska was our Riverboat Discovery Tour. We took a riverboat ride, saw a floatplane take off, saw a dogsled demonstration and explored an Athabaskan Indian village.

Day Trips from Fairbanks, Alaska

Where to Stay in Fairbanks, Alaska

For a reasonable price and great location check out the Wedgewood Resort. We stayed there are liked it so much we returned. Fairbanks is very spread out. It is a good idea to have a car, no matter where you stay. They do have taxis and Uber.

Spend the Night Above the Arctic Circle/ Try to Not Get Eaten by a Polar Bear

My son’s biggest wish for their trip to Alaska was to cross the Arctic Circle. If we were going to do this, I really want to do this, so instead of taking a day trip, we used our last two days in Alaska to fly to the northernmost city in the United States, Utqiagvik, or Barrow. It is located on the Arctic Ocean. Our flights and one-night hotel cost us less than taking the one day tour. We didn’t see a polar bear or take a polar plunge but found this visit irresistible, a favorite of our trip.

We were so happy we stayed at The Airport Inn, a family-owned bed and breakfast that is reasonably-priced for Utqiagvik. The second hotel considered was the Top of the World Hotel, mainly just for a view of the Arctic Ocean from the room and restaurant. The tour I chose was from Andrew at The Airport Inn because I have read so many great reviews of it on Trip Advisor.

Read on for the whole story of our trip to Barrow, Alaska.

If you don’t want to try this on your own, check out this 4-Day Arctic Tour to Prudhoe Bay and Wiseman.

Bear Safety in Alaska

When I visit my friends in rural Maine, the lifestyle is very different from mine in urban Rhode Island. They live the life that my boys experienced in Boy Scouts– ATVs, guns, fishing and hunting are part of their everyday life.

When I called Andrew to book my tour in Barrow, we had a frank discussion about the danger of polar bears if one wants to explore outside of town. It seems that the town has to expend a lot of energy and planning to keep themselves safe from the bears.

Here is a great resource I found about how to prepare for encountering bears in the wild from the US government. Although I generally hike with my family on our own around the world, we didn’t in Alaska. We did a lot more tours. On one long walk in Juneau, we did run into a momma and her cubs.

Travel Essentials to Bring Along on a Trip to Alaska

Here are a few things I bought for my trip to Alaska:

I bought a dry bag to keep my stuff safe from the rain. Shop for a dry bag here. 

Although I love my normal travel camera, a Sony Cyber-Shot RX-100, its biggest flaw is its limited zoom. I wanted to be sure not to miss shots of the whales and bears I hope to see. After a lot of research, I bought a Sony RX-10 IV with a 600 mm zoom and smallish size. It was the perfect camera to take to Alaska!

and a new waterproof coat that is thin enough so you won’t be hot, but will keep you dry.

a warm jacket that compresses into a small size

water-resistant hiking pants– I wore these more than anything that I packed!

and lastly, a day pack to carry with you- compressible, but big enough to carry everything you need.

How to Find Wildlife in Alaska

Read my Alaskan Wildlife Guide for tips.

What I Would Have Done Differently

I had a wonderful trip but would recommend just a few changes. There was so much rain in Denali, we ended up heading to Fairbanks early. One day in Fairbanks would have been sufficient. I would have loved an extra day in Seward to go to the Spencer Glacier. You can kayak with the icebergs in Spencer Lake! I also would have liked more time in Talkeetna. We just stopped for lunch, but a whole day, or at least a half one, would have been better.

Where Would I Return in Alaska?

I treasure my time in Barrow, but it was definitely a one and done sort of place. The Tongass National Forest was magical. It is the largest temperate rain forest in the world and the US’ largest forest. I would love to return and explore it more, including the Misty Fjords.

If you liked it, please share it. Thank you!

6 thoughts on “Alaska Planning Guide: 16-Day Alaska Itinerary Including Alaskan Inside Passage Cruise”

  1. Can you please tell me how you contacted Andrew for your polar bear tour. I’m planning a a 2 to 3 week land and sea tour for summer 2020 and this on my bucket list too.

    Reply
  2. I wasn’t really excited to visit our 49th State after being in Scandinavia a year or so ago, but love to travel with those folks. The vastness diversity really took me back. My biggest surprises in AK were the warmth & eagerness of the native Americans ( southern & Eskimos ( northern) to share their lives , and the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum in Fairbanks. If I had my way I would have spent another full day, each, investigating further.
    The sincere fellowship at the three local Church services/ Masses were blessings that still cause me to smile.

    Reply
    • What is the one state you have left? I am so happy that you felt blessed by this trip. I agree with the favorites and add the time with you as one of our highlights.

      Reply

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