On a recent trip to Seattle, I took the Link Light Rail to meet some friends at the Northgate Mall. One of them got on at International District/Chinatown Station and we started talking.
During a break in our conversation, the man sitting in front of us turned around and apologized for interrupting but since he heard us mention Alaska, he had a quick question that I as an Alaskan would be uniquely qualified to answer.
He said that he wanted to surprise his wife with a cruise to Alaska for their 40th wedding anniversary but he couldn’t decide when to book the tickets. He then realized that his stop was coming up and he only had a minute or so to hear my answer.
Thinking quickly, he skips to the end and asks me, “What’s the worst time of the year to go? I’ll just avoid that and, even if it’s not the exact ideal day, she and I will have a great time.” It’s a very good question, so I’ll tell you what I told him.
When is the Worst Time of Year for an Alaskan Cruise?
Upon hearing that question, most people would automatically say “the middle of winter.” It’s Alaska in December so it’ll be cold and dark, but at least there will be fewer people, right?
Strictly speaking, winter would be the answer. However, the cruise ship companies figured that one out years ago, and as a result, there are no winter cruises in Alaska! At least not regularly scheduled ones.
Other than the cold and the dark, the other major reason for this is that winters produce what are called “king tides”, whose waves are stronger and rougher than they would be in the summer. It doesn’t make for good sailing, I can tell you that firsthand.
When is Alaska’s “Cruise Ship Season”?
Since cruise ships don’t come to Alaska in winter, that’s probably the worst time! Since that doesn’t really answer the question, though, let’s take a look at when the cruise ships actually do run.
First, let me clarify real quick that by “worst”, I really mean “the least best”. It’s always a good time to take a Southeast Alaskan cruise; some of those times just happen to be better than others.
The cruise ship “season” in Alaska is typically May to September, although that has started to expand in recent years, due to both high demand and cruise ships looking to get back some of the revenues they lost during the pandemic.
In Juneau, for example, the first cruise ship of 2023 is scheduled to arrive on April 17th and the final cruise of the year is scheduled for October 25th.
In order to decide the “worst” time for a cruise, I’ll quickly list the biggest pro and the biggest con for each month. That way, you can make your decision based on what’s important to you, although I will still give my opinion at the end.
Since there are only four or five cruises scheduled in April and never two on the same day, the areas near the cruise ship dock won’t be as crowded as they would be on a day that had four or five ships, for example.
However, since the traditional tourist season in Southeast Alaska doesn’t really start until May, a lot of tourist-oriented businesses that only open in the summer might still be closed.
In May, the tourist season has begun to fully kick off. All businesses are open and you can buy all the souvenirs and experiences you like because nothing has run out of stock yet.
Unfortunately, summer hasn’t kicked off and the average temperature will be low-40s to mid-50s during your visit. If you’re at the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau or you’re sailing near the hundreds of them in Glacier Bay, it’ll even be colder.
By June, everything is fully operational and the weather has started to get warmer. You’ll enjoy temperatures in the low 60s during the day and almost all the species of wildlife will be visible (depending on the day and time, of course!).
With that wildlife comes the mosquitos, however. By mid-June, they’re everywhere and you’ll want the strongest insect repellent you can find.
July is one of the most popular times for a cruise in Alaska because nature is at its peak, most of the salmon have started their spawning runs, and the temperature can reach the low-to-mid 70s.
However, because of that popularity, lines will be longer, the cruise will cost a little bit more, and the mosquitos are out in full force.
By early August, the season’s peak has already come and things begin to wind down. Prices have gone down a little bit and lines are a little bit shorter, but the scenery is just as beautiful.
Unfortunately, it’s going to rain a lot more in August, with some places getting nearly ten inches over the course of the month. Combined with gray skies, it might be more difficult to see that nature from the deck of your cruise ship.
September sees the end of the traditional cruise ship season and, if you’re lucky, you might get a few discounts while shopping for souvenirs from shops trying to reduce inventory. If you prefer a cruise with fewer families, most of the kids should be back in school.
Some souvenirs and experiences might be sold out or closed by this time, as many shops stop getting new inventory towards the end of the season. Also, many seasonal workers have flown back home by the middle of the month, leaving some places understaffed.
By October, there are very few ships and the cruise companies want them filled, so you could get a great price. There’s also a chance you’ll see the Northern Lights since it’ll be dark enough for them to be visible.
It will also be cold, rainy, and dark, especially at night. Very few tourist shops will still be open but that might be less of an issue if your focus is on sightseeing. Glaciers, mountains, and other amazing sights will still be there.
So…Which Month is the “Least Best” For an Alaskan Cruise?
These are some of the advantages and disadvantages of each month. The real “worst” month for your cruise will be the one that least fits your wants and needs, of course.
For example, if you want to catch King salmon, April will be the worst month for you because there aren’t any yet. If you want to see bears, October will be the worst for you because they’ve started to hibernate for the winter.
That being said, some visitors have more open-ended goals and just want their overall experience to be as best as possible. Others might know that they’re going to want to take future cruises to Alaska, so they’re less concerned about doing it all at once.
Here’s my take on it, as a guy who has lived in Alaska for almost 30 years: although there are no particularly “bad” times for an Alaskan cruise, I wouldn’t recommend the month of May as your first choice.
May is still a little too cold outside, the wildlife levels aren’t at their peak, and it rains quite a bit. That being said, there are still plenty of other things to do and see here, especially if you have a warm jacket and an umbrella!
Mid-to-late October also gets an honorable mention for the same reasons. There are very few true tourist-oriented activities left and it’s dark.
During these two months, for the price of a cruise, you’d probably be able to see and do more by flying into Juneau or Ketchikan, staying in a hotel for a few days, and renting a car. However, if you want a less-crowded cruise, these might be the perfect times.
Summary and Final Thoughts
Although there is no true “worst time” to take a cruise up to Alaska, some months are better than others, especially if you have one or two activities or sights that you want to see while you’re here.
However, if you come prepared for all temperatures and weather conditions, you can have an amazing time during any part of the cruise ship season! Just not during the winter, of course, because there won’t be any cruise ships.
No matter what month you choose, you’ll love the beautiful scenery, activities, and souvenir shops that Alaska has to offer. We can’t wait to see you on your next exciting cruise!