What to Expect From Alaska's Record Cruise Season

History-rich Ketchikan, gateway to Misty Fjords wilderness area, is a featured port of call on most Alaska cruise itineraries.

Each summer, cruise ships — both big and small — sail to Alaska for summer sailings of eco-adventure, family fun and scenic vistas. Cruise passengers are more than half of Alaska’s visitors, and this year, the state expects a record 1.06 million cruisers, the most since 2008.

“Alaska cruise bookings have been strong for my business in 2017 and I’m already seeing interest for 2018 sailings,” says Steven Zellers of Zellers Elite Travel Services, an independent agency in the Avoya Network, Apopka, FL. “Alaska has always been strong because of its relatively short season, and it’s grown in popularity over the years among U.S. travelers who prefer domestic travel or staying close to home.”

Cruise lines have added capacity, and their Alaska deployment is up from 5 percent to 7 percent this year, according to UBS Investment Research. Wholesale travel broker Tourico sees a 45 percent increase year over year for its Alaska bookings and expects to exceed that pace in 2017.

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“Alaska has seen tremendous growth over the past 24 months,” says John Lovell, president, Travel Leaders Network and Leisure Group. “The destination itself is definitely a bucket list item, so when you couple that with Holland America Line’s 70th anniversary in serving Alaska and their newsworthy sailings there this year, the demand has been nothing short of phenomenal.”

In Travel Leaders Group’s “2017 Travel Trends Survey” of agents, Alaska cruises ranked fifth among the Top Five U.S. “destinations” desired by clients; that’s just behind Las Vegas and ahead of Honolulu. As for the cruise region agents are booking most, 19.3 percent said western Caribbean, with Alaska a close second at 18.9 percent.

Not surprisingly, the Port of Seattle expects more than one million cruisers. The Port of Vancouver, also expecting a good year, is readying for Canada’s 150th birthday celebration with special Canada Place events. Icy Strait Point, a native Alaskan destination, expects a record 83 ship calls this summer.

Dedicating seven ships to Alaska sailings, Holland America Line celebrates its 70th year in the region with Inside Passage and Glacier Bay options. Nieuw Amsterdam sails seven-night roundtrip Vancouver voyages, while Eurodam operates seven-night roundtrip Seattle voyages. Among Zaandam’s sailings is a 12-day “Triple Denali” itinerary between Vancouver and Fairbanks with three nights in Denali National Park and Preserve. Noordam operates many voyages, including a “Triple Denali” option between Vancouver and Anchorage. Redeployed from Europe, Oosterdam will sail weekly roundtrips from Seattle, while Volendam also sails Alaska itineraries.

Mount Roberts Tramway rises 1,800 feet from the cruise ship dock in Juneau, affording expansive views of the city and Gastineau Channel.

Among Amsterdams sailing is a 14-day “Great Alaskan Explorer” sailing roundtrip from Seattle; Homer and Kodiak port calls are among the draws for repeat Alaska cruisers. New this summer, Discover Kodiak will offer a 2.5-hour walking food tour for cruise visitors to the Kodiak Bear Town Market and Kodiak Island Brewing Company, plus local restaurants.

Certainly, Holland America’s 70th anniversary is a huge attraction for clients. Orlando Ashford, the line’s president and CEO, tells Travel Agent that a new BBC Earth presentation has been developed. Given the line’s milestone and the popularity of the region, “we’ll have a customized BBC Earth show,” he says.

Anniversary festivities on all Alaska sailings will include “a lot of fun and exciting touches,” he adds. “Alaska continues to be wildly successful and something that people enjoy.” Activities marking the landmark year will comprise a special anniversary party, celebratory dinner in the main dining room, an anniversary Midnight Sun cocktail and an expanded selection of Alaskan Brewing Co. beers, including a commemorative 70th anniversary Pale Ale. The new America’s Test Kitchen onboard cooking shows will have a special Alaska-themed recipe.

Oprah Winfrey herself will sail on Holland America’s Eurodam for several days during the July 15 departure. It’s part of a new partnership Holland America just inked with O, The Oprah Magazine. Activities inspired by the publication will also be sprinkled throughout the line’s North American sailings, including Oprah’s Book Club, movement / exercise classes, tips on healthy eating and fashion by her stylist Adam Glassman, and more.

For those on cruisetours, Holland America is also opening Denali Square, a new gathering place for events and entertainment within the line’s McKinley Chalet Resort. “It’s just one example of how cruise lines are making major refinements to Alaska itineraries to provide guests with more immersive experiences,” says Ashley Hunter, vice president of sales development, Avoya Travel.

Another major Alaska player is Princess Cruises, which has seven- to 12-day roundtrip cruises on seven ships this summer from Seattle, Vancouver, San Francisco and Los Angeles. It also operates one-way “Voyage of the Glaciers” sailings between Anchorage and Vancouver. Princess also has four types of cruisetours of 10 to 15 nights, including fully guided and independent options.

Princess’ “Voyage of the Glaciers” cruises are seven days between Vancouver and Whittier (Anchorage) and include two glacier viewings, including Glacier Bay National Park, as well as port calls at Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway. New in Skagway, the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park’s visitor center and museum has new interactive exhibits showcasing Gold Rush-era characters. Cruisers can smell sourdough and eulachon oil, step into a muddy boot print or “raft” the Yukon River.

Saxman Native Village Totem Park in Ketchikan

Looking ahead to 2018, Princess will increase its capacity by 15 percent, carrying more passengers to Alaska than any other line. A new 12-day round-trip itinerary from Los Angeles will be introduced on the Emerald Princess and Golden Princess. In 2018, Princess will operate 130 departures on seven ships setting sail from Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Whittier and Vancouver.

Princess is the launch brand for Carnival Corporation’s new Ocean Medallion technology. Island Princess, the fourth ship to get the technology, will sail with it in Alaska in 2018. Guests will wear a small, round medallion around their neck or wrist or place it in their pocket. It will communicate with thousands of onboard sensors and, presto, it can streamline embarkation / disembarkation; open the stateroom door as the guest approaches; locate family or friends around the ship; purchase merchandise without cards or paper; deliver food or drinks based on preferences; power interactive gaming and entertainment experiences; and enhance crew-guest interaction as the stateroom steward or bartender can book a spa treatment or specialty dining.

Returning to Alaska for the first time in 15 years is ultra-luxury Seabourn Cruise Line, with 11-, 12- and 14-day Seabourn Sojourn itineraries between Vancouver and Seward (Anchorage). The season begins with an 11-day “Ultimate Alaskan Sojourn,” departing from Vancouver on June 1, 2017 and priced from $4,999 per person. Guests can expect new Seabourn shore excursions plus the optional Ventures by Seabourn program of guided kayak and Zodiac tours.

Guests seeking adventure can explore Rudyerd Bay at Misty Fjords National Park via Zodiac or hike on Davidson Glacier at Haines. An impressive line-up of Ventures wilderness experts, scientists and historians provide commentary and perspective. Enrichment lectures cover such topics as “Brown and Black Bears” and “History and Tribal Culture.” Shutterbugs eager to capture images of Alaska’s gorgeous scenery can receive expert coaching in digital photography. 

Seeing growing demand for these kinds of cruises is Marni Becker, director of cruise sales, Protravel International, New York, who says that it’s a great opportunity for agents to offer adventurous clients both wildlife adventure and comfort onboard a luxury ship. “As one can imagine, such excursions are designed for active travelers who enjoy the outdoors and are eager to kayak the waters of Alaska to see humpback whales, sea lions, puffins, sea otters, harbor seals, and bald eagles in the natural habitat,” notes Becker.

Maiden port calls? Seabourn, Disney Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Line will call for the first time this summer at Icy Strait Point, home to the world’s longest zip line. Carnival Miracle will call at Icy Strait Point and Glacier Bay during its two-week “Carnival Journeys” voyage round-trip from Long Beach, CA, this September. The ports will also be visited by Carnival Splendor’s 14-day Alaska roundtrip itinerary from Long Beach on August 25, 2018. Those Carnival Journeys voyages have local cuisine, entertainment and cultural options within ports, plus onboard photography, cooking, arts / crafts and a 1980s-themed “Throwback Sea Day.”

In 2017 and 2018, dozens of seven- and eight-day Carnival Legend voyages also will sail roundtrip from Seattle; some will cruise Glacier Bay National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A big draw for all Carnival voyages is the supervised kids’ club — Camp Ocean (ages 2-11), Circle “C” (ages 12-14) and Club O2 (ages 15-17) — plus new Seuss at Sea activities.

In 2018, Carnival Splendor will sail from Long Beach, CA, on a 14-day itinerary that will include Hubbard Glacier and other iconic Alaskan vistas.

“I’ve had a lot more families book Alaska this year as well as younger couples and repeat visitors,” says Ann Kent of Sea Ya Travel, an independent agency with the Avoya Network, Waterford, Ontario, Canada. “Alaska is an easy choice for North American travelers because of its value, convenience and the opportunity to experience wildlife and national parks in their own backyard.”

Family-friendly Disney Cruise Line operates five- to nine-night Alaska voyages on the newly refurbished Disney Wonder roundtrip from Vancouver. The ship sports an all-new grand atrium look along with a new adult nightclub and pub, Princess Tiana-themed restaurant, water fun zone and kids’ zones, which include a Marvel-themed area. Disney Wonder’s seven-night cruises sail to Tracy Arm, Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan.

At Skagway, families with kids 10 and up can book a “Dogsledding and Glacier Flightseeing” tour, while those 12 and up might choose a “Chilkoot Horseback Adventure.” The nine-night voyage sails to Ketchikan, Icy Strait Point, Hubbard Glacier, Juneau, Skagway and Tracy Arm. Clients who can’t take a week might consider Disney’s five-night roundtrip on August 2, 2017 and July 18, 2018; this Alaska “lite” itinerary visits Tracy Arm and calls at Ketchikan.

While in Ketchikan, cruisers can explore at the Tongass Historical Museum, reopening in early summer after a major renovation. In Juneau, one new option is Alaska Pedicab, a new pedal cab service offering both quick downtown tours and more robust, guided day tours.

This summer, Royal Caribbean International will introduce two exclusive 12-night cruise tours. During the “Kantishna Select Wilderness & Wildlife Cruisetour,” travelers will explore the Denali wilderness with local experts and spend two nights at a Kantishna backcountry lodge. Guests also will hike the Exit Glacier, go kayaking and bicycling at Eklutna Lake, and travel by rail from Denali to Fairbanks.

If seeing bears in the wild is on a client’s bucket list, Royal Caribbean’s new “Katmai Bear Trek & Kantishna Fly Over Cruisetour” delivers the possibility of making that happen. Guests also spend two nights at Denali or Anchorage.

As for the cruises themselves, Royal Caribbean has seven-, 10- and 12-night Alaska cruises this year on the updated Explorer of the Seas sailing roundtrip from Seattle. During a recent drydock, the ship received a FlowRider surf simulator, virtual balconies for interior staterooms, and new dining experiences. Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas also has a variety of seven- to 14-night itineraries between Vancouver and Seward this summer. Both ships have extensive children and teen’s programs.

Upper premium Oceania Cruises presents 14 Alaska cruises this summer on the newly refurbished Regatta with San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver departures. A 10-night “Glistening Glaciers” cruise sails from Vancouver to Ketchikan, Juneau, Icy Strait Point and Skagway before ending in Seattle. This ship has many big ship features, but it’s able size-wise to call at smaller ports like Wrangell, AK, and Prince Rupert, BC.

Sailing roundtrip from Seattle, Regatta’s “Awe of Alaska” itinerary takes guests to Ketchikan, the Sawyer Glacier, Sitka and Prince Rupert. The ship’s summer Alaska Explorer Youth program has youth counselors and games, activities and Alaska-inspired events for kids 5 to 12. At Ketchikan, Oceania’s cruisers might head out with the captain and crew of the Aleutian Ballad, the crab boat from Discovery Network’s “Deadliest Catch,” or, in Sitka, go deep-sea sport fishing.

It’s been 150 years since Imperial Russia transferred its Alaska territory to the United States at a ceremony in Sitka on October 18, 1867. The U.S. National Park Service will host an Alaska Sesquicentennial Commemorative Exhibit at the Sitka National Historical Park’s visitor center, plus offer Russian tea demonstrations and ranger-guided, hour-long walking tours of the Russian Colonial district.

Spotting Alaskan brown bears and other wildlife is a highlight of cruises from Carnival and other lines.

For summer 2017 and 2018, Norwegian Cruise Line offers a variety of Alaska voyages on either Norwegian Jewel, Norwegian Pearl or Norwegian Sun. It also has cruisetours. Among the offerings? Roundtrip from Seattle this summer, Norwegian Jewel sails multiple seven-day Inside Passage cruises; port calls include Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan and Victoria, B.C. 

Trade trends? “We’re seeing luxury and expedition cruises offering up-close connections with nature and sailings to more remote destinations, while larger cruise lines are enhancing travelers’ experiences with purpose-built ships such as Norwegian Bliss launching next year,” says Vicky Garcia, COO and co-owner of Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel representative.

The Breakaway-Plus-class vessel is the industry’s first purpose-built large ship designed to showcase Alaska’s beauty; it will carry 4,000 passengers and feature a 22,000-square-foot Observation Lounge. In summer 2018, Norwegian Bliss will operate seven-night Alaska cruises from Seattle’s Pier 66, with port calls at Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Victoria, plus scenic glacier cruising.

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and the Port of Seattle will collectively invest $30 million to upgrade Pier 66’s facilities. Guest check-in space will be expanded 300 percent to 150,000+ square feet, and a new VIP lounge and elevated passenger boarding bridges are planned.

Premium Celebrity Cruises will position three of its “modern luxury brand” ships in Alaska in 2017 and 2018. From Vancouver, Celebrity Infinity will sail seven-night roundtrips to the Hubbard Glacier, while the recently refurbished Celebrity Solstice (sporting an $8.5 million makeover) will sail seven-night roundtrip voyages to Tracy Arm from Seattle. Among Celebrity Millennium’s 2018 voyages is an eight-night “Alaska Northern Glacier” cruise between Vancouver and Seward with port calls at Ketchikan, Sitka, Icy Strait, Juneau, Skagway and the Hubbard Glacier.

Celebrity and sister Royal Caribbean International offer Cruisetour packages including dedicated rail car service to take cruisers in comfort to Denali National Park and Preserve, celebrating its 100th birthday this year. Cruisetours are definitely hot, say agents. “I’ve booked a lot more cruise tours,” says Kent. “Customers want to explore more of the surrounding area and all it has to offer.”

Agents also are seeing more Alaska group sailings and more customers booking in advance to secure popular travel dates and itineraries. “I have a group of 37 church members going there in July that I started working with last year,” says Zellers. “Hubbard Glacier was a must-see for them and a requirement when selecting their ship and itinerary.”

For luxury cruisers, Crystal CruisesCrystal Serenity will sail this summer on seven-, nine- and 10-day itineraries between Vancouver and Anchorage. Several programs beckon families including Crystal’s “Kids Sail Free,” allowing kids ages 17 and under to sail in a complimentary third berth with two full-fare adults. For larger family groups traveling together, “Crystal Memories” provides one free berth for every 10 full-fare cruisers, plus shipboard credit for each guest.

Kids and teens have their own dedicated Fantasia and Waves facilities, redesigned in 2016 and equipped with arts and crafts, games, spacious seating areas and flat-screen TVs for movie nights and interactive play on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Wii and Xbox One. Ashore, families can head out on such Crystal shore excursions as a dogsledding camp visit, whale watching or trekking through Tongass National Forest.

Crystal made history last summer with Crystal Serenity’s sailing through the famed Northwest Passage on a 32-day itinerary; its second Northwest Passage cruise departs from Anchorage on August 15.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year is Regent Seven Seas Cruises, which sails Alaska on Seven Seas Mariner. Its highly inclusive cruise fare includes many shore trips, an estimated $750 value per person for the seven-day cruise. Onboard, the Club Mariner Youth Program will entertain kids, while ashore, families can have a fun time at the “Great American Lumberjack Program” in Ketchikan, or perhaps go “natural” with a “Sea Otter and Wildlife Quest” from Sitka.

Sawyer Glacier sits at the end of Tracy Arm, a fjord between Ketchikan and Juneau.

The May 13, July 12 and August 23, 2017 departures are tapped as 25th Anniversary Celebration sailings, so guests will be treated to a new dining concept launching for the celebration; on select sea days, cruisers will walk the red carpet into the Compass Rose galley for a special lunch buffet. On these three sailings, guests will also receive silver anniversary tastings of exclusive vintages and premier spirits plus a commemorative pin.

Ultra-luxury Silversea CruisesSilver Shadow sails in Alaska from May through September, providing one-way voyages between Vancouver and Seward (Anchorage). The 282-passenger luxury vessel cruises to the Hubbard Glacier and also takes guests to such ports as Sitka, Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan. Onboard, Silversea’s cruisers are pampered with high-end service; they dine on Relais et Chateaux cuisine and enjoy enrichment, cultural and eco-activities. Cruisers embarking or disembarking in Seward will receive a complimentary transfer via chartered rail service to / from the Anchorage Airport Train Station.

Cruise Planners’ Garcia emphasizes that travelers of all ages are increasingly seeking out such Alaskan adventures as helicopter rides to the top of glaciers or fishing for king salmon. During Silver Shadow’s “Bear Country Wildlife Adventure” in Ketchikan, AK, cruisers will hike through a private mountain nature reserve at Herring Cove, visit the Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary and view wildlife at Eagle Creek.

A “Safe” Hot Seller

“If someone has one to two weeks of vacation time, a cruise is one of the best ways to see the awe-inspiring Alaskan landscape,” says Lori Sheller, Tourico’s vice president of cruise development, adding, “the political unrest and terror attacks in other parts of the world have shifted the demand to ‘safe’ destinations, like Alaska.”

Alaska’s eco-adventures certainly appeal to Millennials, Generation Xers and active Boomers. The burgeoning 50+ population — many who’ve put Alaska on their “bucket list” — also bodes well. A recent AARP Travel Bucket List Survey showed that 58 percent of Boomers plan a trip within two to five years, with 69 percent optimistic they’ll get to those bucket-list destinations. New cruise options are also on the horizon, most notably Viking Ocean Cruises’ new Viking Spirit, which will inaugurate the line’s first season of Alaska sailings in 2019.

Cunard Line also just announced it will sail for the first time to Alaska in 2019 with Queen Elizabeth.

From Lovell’s perspective: “Alaska is one of our network’s hottest selling destinations and the customer satisfaction of an Alaskan cruise is extremely high.”

This year, Alaska bookings look robust. “The pick-up in bookings can be attributed to increased capacity, multigenerational travel trends, and investments made by major cruise lines to enhance their Alaska product offerings,” says Avoya’s Hunter. She believes that pace should carry into 2018 too, “especially since some of the most desirable itineraries sold out so early.”

More Intimate Cruises

Are your clients fans of small-ship cruises? Check out our look at some smaller, more intimate ships and expedition vessels sailing to Alaska this summer. Among them are Alaskan Dream Cruises, American Cruise Lines, Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, Ponant, Silversea Expeditions, The Boat Company and UnCruise Adventures.