If you’re planning a trip to Southeast Alaska, there are several big decisions that you’ll want to make before you come up here.
Probably the most important of those decisions and perhaps the first you’ll have to make is whether to take a cruise or visit on land.
Which of these is the better choice? Well, in keeping with my title of “Mr. Nuanced Opinion Guy,” I’m going to say that it depends on what you want to see and do.
Let’s compare the two options and hopefully, it’ll help you to decide which one works best for you.
What is an Alaskan Cruise Like?
There are many different cruise options for Alaska, with most ranging from six to 30 days.
A standard six-day cruise would leave from Seattle, head up north through the beautiful Inside Passage, then stop in Ketchikan and Juneau before going back through Victoria, British Columbia, and then returning to Seattle.
A 30-day cruise might start in Seattle, go through Southeast, then around the Gulf of Alaska up to Anchorage, then over to Kodiak, and turn around somewhere in the Aleutian Islands before heading back to Seattle.
The number of fellow passengers for your cruise could range from a few hundred to a few thousand, which can create some pretty long lines both on and off the ship.
Those issues aside, there are some things that you’d get to see on a cruise that you wouldn’t get on land.
For example, many of Alaska’s beautiful glaciers and scenery are most easily seen from a ship. It also gives you the opportunity to see some wildlife at a safe distance – half a mile away from a bear is much better than half a yard!
Since Southeast Alaska consists of the Alaska mainland and hundreds of islands, there’s no way to take a traditional land tour down here, since a large portion of the mainland is an undeveloped forest filled with dangerous wildlife.
Guided tours, like those offered by Alaska Travel Adventures, involve kayaking between cities and can last from a few hours to a week, depending on how far you’re willing to paddle with the group.
For self-guided tours, you can fly on Delta or Alaska Airlines to Juneau, Ketchikan, or Sitka, then take a float plane, an Alaska Marine Highway ferry, or another type of water vessel to the next city or town.
A simple land tour would involve flying from Seattle to Ketchikan, then Ketchikan to Sitka, Sitka to Juneau, then Juneau to Seattle.
All of these cities have pretty good public transportation options, although renting a car is also a good option, as we’ve discussed.
Cruise Ship vs Land Tour
A cruise ship is a great way to see the beauty of Alaska, while also getting a chance to see our amazing cities and towns along the way.
A self-guided land tour will allow you to visit cities and towns, but unless you take a float plane or a boat between cities, you might miss out on the beauty of the Inside Passage.
A cruise ship is a great option that allows you to pay for most of your visit upfront instead of paying for everything individually.
A land tour gives you the freedom to choose the cities or towns you visit, how long you stay, and which sights you want to see.
Cruises allow you to socialize more easily and perhaps meet new people, while on a land tour, you could go days only speaking to cashiers, clerks, or tour guides if you wish.
If you take a guided land tour that involves several days of kayaking, you should be prepared to make friends with your fellow travelers if you aren’t bringing someone with you.
I’m not saying that you have to go to their kids’ birthday parties or anything, but if you’re more of a quiet type like me, you might not enjoy camping for a week with strangers.
A land tour can be taken any time of year, although some museums and tourist-centric activities in some places might be closed in winter. Cruise ship season is from May to September and you’re unlikely to find one in other months.
If you prefer the idea of visiting a place that has fewer of your fellow tourists, flying to Juneau or Ketchikan and taking a float plane or a boat to one of these locations might be perfect for you.
Gustavus in particular has many fishing lodges, boat tours of nearby National Parks, and plenty of other activities to keep you entertained.
Pelican, on the other hand, is mostly residential, other than the fishing charters. The last time I went, they had a Post Office, a small convenience store, a restaurant, a hotel, a church, a bar, and a public library.
If you’re looking for anything else, Pelican might not be a good destination for you, especially as flying in small aircraft is extremely weather dependent and you could possibly get stuck for a few hours or even a day if there’s too much fog.
Statistics and Last Words
Of the two million tourists who come to Alaska every year, 60% (or 1.2 million) choose to do so by cruise ship.
To me, this suggests that cruises are slightly more popular than land tours, but many people enjoy both options.
If you want more freedom and independence, I’d take a land tour. If you want to see the highlights of Southeast Alaska and don’t mind a more strict itinerary, a cruise might be the way to go.
I’d start with researching a self-guided land tour if you can’t decide, and if you don’t like it or it’s too difficult, I’d go with the cruise.
A friend of mine once asked me to plan out a trip to the Bahamas for him and his wife. I came up with a plan that saved them $1,000 over booking a package and emailed it to him.
The next day he calls me up and says, “Thanks for putting that together, but we decided to just go with the package. It’s easier and everything is taken care of for us.”
He paid me $50 to do it, so I wasn’t upset that he didn’t go with my plan, but it later turned out that the package deal was perfect for them and they enjoyed it more than they would have if they booked everything separately.
That story goes to show that you can have a great time no matter whether you take a cruise ship or fly up yourself and take a land tour.
The important thing is that either way, you’re guaranteed an amazing Alaskan experience that you’ll remember for the rest of your life!