I knew this much: Packing smart for a first-time cruise to Alaska would require research. I spent hours browsing Pinterest and YouTube for “expert advice,” only to be left scratching my head. Much of what I found from influencers and bloggers seemed off-base and impractical, or clearly winged by someone who had cruised many times to the Caribbean but never to Alaska (and missed the boat regarding travel to a region that gets more than 100 inches of rain a year).
I abandoned the Internet and went straight to the source: Alaskans themselves. With each shore excursion I explored, I quizzed my local contacts on the weather, terrain, clothing and gear.
The following insider’s guide emerged as I blended the advice I gleaned plus my own must-haves from domestic and international travel through the years.
I sailed July 8-15 on Celebrity Infinity from Vancouver, British Columbia, with three Alaskan ports of call: Sitka, Juneau and Ketchikan, and four days at sea.
Weather in Alaska is predictable: It’s going to rain. And it's going to be chilly at times. We had sunny 75-degree days and rainy 50-degree days. As you’re contemplating your wardrobe, think Colorado hiking gear when you’re off the ship by day, wilderness resort lodge by night, and athleisure or activewear for days when you’re at sea.
- Pack for comfort (daytime ship wear for activities like exercising, dancing, yoga, lounging by the pool, reading); warmth (glacier viewing, deck strolls, roaming between enclosed and open-air areas of the ship); and protection (water-resistant outerwear and footwear).
- Start by creating a capsule wardrobe of essential separates that you can mix and match. Five tops and four or five bottoms will give you more than enough versatility. My core travel wardrobe consists of athleisure knits in black, gray and white with a jolt of color in two scarves, a cargo vest and two cardigan sweaters.
- Ladies, bring a cocktail outfit for when the dinner dress code states “evening chic,” but leave your high heels at home. Flats or kitten heels are a smarter choice (especially if the ship hits rough seas and you can feel the roll).
- Gents, you won’t need that blazer and tie – unless you plan to eat in the ship’s upscale restaurants. But you will need a collar shirt or sweater and denim jeans or slacks for evening meals in the main dining room.
- Invest in a water-resistant jacket with pockets and a hood. My go-to style is an anorak with a concealable hood and sleeves that can be rolled up if temperatures merit so. The length hits just below my hips, which works great for leggings or pants.
- Hat, gloves, scarf.
- Ball cap.
- Hold your shoe selection to three pairs: An athletic shoe for dry deck wear, a dress shoe for dinner, and a duck shoe or other sturdy water-resistant hiker for shore excursions. All of your shoes should be comfortable and have good traction; decks and gangways are slippery when wet.
- Multi-plug outlet adapter. Our cabin had one standard two-plug outlet.
- Nightlight. It’s dark at sea.
- Personal electronics, cords and chargers.
- Highlighters for identifying activities and information in the ship’s daily newsletter.
- Disinfectant wipes. Use them to wipe down surfaces in your cabin when you first arrive.
- Hand sanitizer. Use it regularly to cut the chance of catching nasty germs.
- Dramamine or similar motion sickness preventive. I used the non-drowsy formula.
- Over-the-counter pain reliever.
- Travel-size tissues.
- Carry-on roller luggage. My Rick Steves backpack suitcase, which has been my go-to bag for overseas travel, was not particularly practical for the regional jet portion of our journey. The overhead bins are small, and luggage gets relegated to the belly of the plane.
- Hanging toiletry bag. Stateroom counter space is limited.
- Travel tote for airplane use.
- Water-resistant day bag for shore excursions. A backpack can be ideal, but check to make sure your shore excursion provider allows them.
- For women, small crossbody bag or backpack for onboard use.
- Good travel camera (or space on your smartphone for lots of photos and videos).
- Binoculars. You never know when you’ll see wildlife.
- Passport if traveling through Vancouver; otherwise a driver's license or other accepted photo ID.
- Plane tickets and boarding passes.
- Boarding credentials and other ship documents (obtained online before embarkation).
- Confirmation numbers and meeting point information for shore tours.
- Emergency contact information.
THINGS TO LEAVE AT HOME
- Wine and soft drinks. Plenty of video bloggers brag about carting an extra suitcase with beverages onboard. Spare yourself the hassle and buy a basic drink package. Use your ship-issued SeaPass to purchase the occasional alcoholic beverage, like wine for dinner, if you’re a light drinker. (No cash is exchanged on ship; all purchases run through a SeaPass or similar ship-issued card. At the end of your cruise, you'll receive an itemized statement of charges to be billed to your credit card.)
- Hairdryer. Each stateroom has one.
- Tumbler, travel mug. Beverages are available in to-go cups.
- Room, door decorations. You’ll regret the clutter; quarters are tight.
- Pool inflatables. Any lounging you do will be poolside on a chair.
- Hangers. There are plenty in your stateroom closet, and drawers for what can’t be hung.
- Umbrella. Cruise ships provide them for shore excursions and glacier viewing, if needed.
- Expensive jewelry.
- Large pieces of luggage. Floor space is extremely limited in inside cabins; only slightly better in outside cabins. Suites offer the most square footage. But the larger the cabin, the more you'll pay.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
- Thirty-some ships sail the Alaskan waters. Compare itineraries of cruise companies. Some ships from Vancouver and Seattle double-back through Alaska’s Inside Passage. Other sailings are seven days one-way, with Whittier or Seattle/Vancouver as the point of debarkation. That puts you in position for a pre- or post-cruise land tour by train and motor coach to Anchorage, Denali National Park and Preserve, and Fairbanks. As long as you’ve traveled this far, you may as well see as much of Alaska as possible.
- Pre-book your shore excursions and activities. You can do this through the cruise line after browsing its many offerings, or you can research and book your own adventures. Don’t be afraid to do the latter; tourism is huge business in Alaska and tour providers are in sync with cruise ship schedules and seem to do a good job overall of meeting and transporting passengers – and returning them to the ship before its scheduled departure.
- Consider traveling between May and September, when Alaska has its best weather and whales have returned for summer feeding in the glacial waters. Inquire about discounts and perks; cruise lines tend to offer more of them at the beginning and tail-end of the cruise season.
- Spring for a stateroom with balcony. You’ll enjoy the fresh air, private views and extra relaxation space. Order room service and have breakfast on the balcony just for fun.
- Buy trip insurance, especially if booking months ahead of your travel date. Cruise companies offer policies, but your travel agent may be able to land you a better rate through an independent provider. That was my experience.
- Consider an open dining package, which allows you to vary your seating time in the main dining room or try one of the specialty restaurants at a surcharge. Our group opted against specialty dining because we were able to have the same main waiter, assistant waiter and sommelier for the duration of the cruise, thanks to a hostess who accommodated us with late seatings. Bonus: The dining room was less busy, and our table service wasn’t rushed.
- Study the beverage packages carefully. They are complicated, and I’m not going to pretend that I even understand them after cruising for one week. My husband and I bought the basic non-alcoholic beverage package, paid a la carte for our occasional glasses of wine and martinis, and subjected ourselves to annoying up-sell pitches for the entire cruise. We did the math post-cruise and came out about even with the cost of the first-tier alcoholic beverage package.
- The second-most confounding decision concerns gratuities. I was ready to recommend prepaying your gratuities (above and beyond the automatic service charges per passenger). But I learned aboard ship that the amount you prepay goes to a pool. We were naïve to the process and inadvertently failed to tip our servers as much as we had planned and they deserved. Consider carrying 5-, 10- and 20-dollar bills for tipping your cabin steward, head waiter, assistant waiter and sommelier on the final day of the cruise.
- If you enjoy games and books on your tablet or smartphone, download everything you think you’ll need and a little bit more before leaving home. Wi-Fi and cellular service at sea are outrageously expensive. Plan to grab Wi-Fi in ports of call. (Being without regular Wi-Fi wasn’t as horrible as many of us — myself included — had anticipated.)
- When shopping for souvenirs in port cities, consider Alaska Native art and look for the “Made in Alaska” insignia as proof of authenticity. Locally owned shops carry woven blankets, hand-painted masks, hand-carved totems, etched silver jewelry, Alaskan jade, Ulu knives, birch syrup, glacial mud. And, of course, salmon (shipping recommended).
- There were very few young children among the 2,250 passengers on our ship. The average age easily exceeded 40, which the five millennials in our party of nine immediately noticed. But the age gaps seemed to evaporate as everyone got into the groove of the days’ activities and took advantage of various ship amenities, including the exercise room and hot tub. If you have young children, consider sailing to Alaska with Disney. Mickey and Minnie are adorable in their Eskimo outfits!