Alaska has so much to offer cruisers that there's really no*bad* way to visit; any smackdown between small ship and big ship cruises in the Last Frontier has to come with that caveat.
Yet there are advantages and disadvantages to each type of cruise. We've done both -- twice -- so we're hoping that this list will help you decide which type of cruise helps you plan that bucket list Alaska trip.
2021 Editors' Note: A ban on cruise ships by Transport Canada until 2022 is likely forcing all foreign flagged ships to cancel their 2021 Alaska season. Several small, U.S.-flagged ship lines are still planning to sail, however.
Itineraries and Ports
Cruise ships of all sizes ply the Inside Passage, the general term used for the Southeast Alaska coastline that extends well into the Canadian province of British Columbia. Many towns in this region are inaccessible by car, making a cruise the best way to visit. The Inside Passage is also filled with wildlife on land and sea -- think bears and whales -- as well as jaw-dropping glaciers and scenery.
The most common big ship itinerary begins or ends in Whittier or Seward (not too far from Anchorage, where major airlines fly) and ends or begins in either Vancouver, British Columbia. Other itineraries include voyages departing roundtrip Vancouver, and roundtrip Seattle. Because they are foreign flagged and subject to various maritime laws, all large cruise ships departing Seattle or Whittier/Seward need to make a stop in Canada on their Alaska journey, often Victoria, in British Columbia's Vancouver Island.
The three main ports that appear on almost all Alaska Inside Passage big ship cruises are Ketchikan, a historic Tlingit fishing town and jumping off point for Misty Fjords National Monument; the state capital Juneau, home to Mendenhall Glacier; and the former Alaskan Gold Rush town of Skagway. These towns have been developed for tourism and there are pages of shore excursions and activities to choose (more down below).
If you're on a small ship, such as Lindblad, UnCruise or Alaskan Dream Cruises, you will likely embark directly in one of these ports, or Sitka -- and perhaps not visit another one during the length of your cruise.
Instead, you'll be going off the grid to wilderness islands for hiking, kayaking and wildlife viewing. If you do visit another port, it's likely to be an even smaller island town, such as Wrangell or Petersburg, or a native Tlingit village such as Kake or Hoonah. The draw of these small ship Alaska cruises isn't exploring ports or taking group excursions; it's waking up in a remote bay with the idea that you'll be outside in nature most of the day.
Choose a big ship if…. You want to visit Alaska's major port towns with plenty of souvenir shops, restaurants and bars, and lots of shore excursion choices.
Choose a small ship if…You want to maximize your time on active outdoor activities in Alaska's remote wilderness, stopping only in tinier towns with more locals than tourists.
Both big cruise ships and small ships could have Glacier Bay National Park on their itinerary; visits are doled out on a contracted permitting system with the national park system.
A visit to Glacier Bay is generally a day-long event, no matter what size ship you are on. On a big ship, national park rangers board the ship and usually set up a learning exhibit in one of the lounges. They will also narrate what you are seeing as the ship makes it rounds of the bay's eight glaciers, with most vessels lingering for a few hours at spectacular Margerie Glacier at the end of Tarr Inlet.
From a big ship, you're able to take it all in from a comfortable perch, be it your balcony, lined up along the ship's railing with the rest of the passengers or even from a hot tub. The mood is celebratory and happy, with people cheering when they witness a glacier calving (the term for when a chunk of ice dramatically breaks off into the water below) while sipping on spiked hot chocolate doled out liberally by deck stewards.
Visiting Glacier Bay on a small ship is still celebratory, but the scale of your perch invokes more awe than hooting and hollering. The national park ranger comes onboard, but because you're with fewer than 100 people, you're able to have more of a conversation than a narration. (On Alaskan Dream Cruises, the line brings on a Tlingit cultural interpreter to explain the indigenous population's relationship to the glaciers). The small ships are also able to get much closer to the face of the glacier so you can witness the power of the ice first hard; calving is a bit louder and scarier.
Some small ship itineraries spend an overnight within Glacier Bay, or allow you to get off the ship for hiking, kayaking and other excursions. On a small ship, you're also more likely to visit other well-known glaciers outside of Glacier Bay National Park, such as the North and South Sawyer Glaciers (in Tracy Arm) or Hubbard Glacier.
Choose a big ship if…. You want to see Glacier Bay in comfort, with plenty of photo ops, and are ok being part of a crowd.
Choose a small ship if… You want to feel like you're closer to the glaciers, with a more in-depth naturalist or outdoor experience.
Ships and Cabins
Nearly all of the major cruise lines sail in Alaska, and so the type of big cruise ship that you find there can range from the newest megaships with all of the amenities to the luxury ships that are considered "small" at under 1,000 passengers.
As such, there are a wide variety of cabins that you pick for your Alaska cruise, from inside cabins to the most lavish suites. Families or large groups traveling together might want to go with a line such as Holland America, Princess or Royal Caribbean that has many cabin choices for all budgets. All three have been sailing to the region for decades, though Holland America and Princess have operated in Alaska the longest.
Other lines, like Disney Cruise Line and Carnival, also offer limited sailings to Alaska.
If you want butler service and in-room Champagne, go with a luxury line such as Regent or Silversea, or a line that caters to well-heeled adults looking for a more subdued experience, like Cunard, Seabourn or Viking.
Small ship cruise lines, by definition, generally have less choice in cabins. The vessels themselves tend to be homey and utilitarian, with not a lot of bells and whistles; the real luxury here is the intimate size and personal interactions you have with fellow passengers and crew. There are a few notable exceptions: American Cruise Lines stands out because the cabins are on the more spacious size for a small ship, while Lindblad has put brand-new expedition ships in Alaska with a more modern look.
Choose a big ship if….you want a lot of choices in cabin types or are looking for lavish suites.
Choose a small ship if…..you care less about your personal cabin and more about an intimate onboard atmosphere.
The range of activities you can do in Alaska is truly mind-blowing. Flightseeing! Dog sledding! Snorkeling! (yep, that's not a typo). The state is full of bucket-list adventures, and almost every day will produce an Instagram-worthy moment.
On a big ship, your biggest problem will be narrowing it all down, especially if you expand your trip into a cruisetour that encompasses Denali, Fairbanks or the Yukon. Your book of Alaska shore excursion choices is just that -- a fat volume of things to do that all sound fun and interesting. The good news is that many of the big cruise lines have vast experience in the region, and it's really hard to go wrong. Make sure to set aside a generous portion of your vacation budget to excursions -- activities in Alaska are expensive, but the payoff is worth it, as some things you just can't do anywhere else in the world.
On a small ship, your choices may be fewer, but equally memorable. Instead of being packed with other tourists on a Deadliest Catch fishing boat, you might serenely paddleboard around a quiet bay. You might not take a plane to a glacier, but you might visit a Tlingit cultural event where you sample dried salmon and learn legends from a tribal elder. Small ships often throw daily schedules out the window when the captain sees a pod of whales, or the line wants to add an extra Zodiac trip out to see wildlife.
One other thing to mention about big ship cruises -- the lines, particularly Holland America and Princess -- also have a full array of pre- and post-cruise trips that you can take to lodges throughout the state. These cruisetours make seeing other places in Alaska, such as Denali, or even the Yukon in Canada, extremely easy, as the cruise lines also have access to scenic trains (such as the White Pass and Yukon Route) that make the trip comfortable, complete with baggage service.
Small ship operators do know Alaska very well, particularly the southeast corner. But they are more likely to give you individual recommendations or set you up with another tour operator, rather than make arrangements themselves.
Choose a big ship if….you want to have the full array of Alaska shore excursion choices, with the ease of booking from your ship. Many big ship lines also have pre- and post-cruise trips at lodges throughout the state, making it easier to plan a larger Alaska trip.
Choose a small ship if…. You dislike large group excursions as a whole, and want to spend your vacation being more active in nature and smaller towns.
Onboard Atmosphere and Activities
Life on a big ship in Alaska has all the amenities and activities that you'd expect on a cruise ship anywhere in the world. In between your shore excursions and days in port, you'll find trivia, game shows, seminars and wine tastings on the schedule. You'll be able to get in the pool if it's warm enough (hot tubs might be a better bet) and visit the spa. There are kids' clubs, nightly entertainment and a wide array of restaurant and specialty dining choices.
Small ship life in Alaska is simpler. There is usually one dining room, with meals served within a window or at a set time. There may, or may not, be a hot tub. There is usually an evening port talk about the next day's activities and options, generally after a well-attended Happy Hour where you chat with crew and your fellow passengers. After dinner, you might watch a movie, go out on deck for star-gazing or fall asleep early because you're tired from physical activity.
Choose a big ship if…. You love a variety of activities and restaurant choices onboard.
Choose a small ship if….You prefer to spend most of your energy off the ship, with quiet evenings and no-fuss dining.
On any Alaska cruise, you have the possibility for bear, whale and eagle sightings, no matter what size ship you are on. The difference is how you can access them.
On a big ship, you are more likely to see whales and bears by taking a planned trip to areas where they are. Whale watching excursions abound and at least one port on your trip will offer an excursion to a bear preserve. A few ports like Sitka have raptor centers where you can see eagles up close (although you'll see eagles flying around fish-centric areas in Juneau and Ketchikan too).
On a small ship, your wildlife encounters are more spontaneous. If you're hiking, the trail guide might bring "bear bells" so you don't have any scary encounters. Or you might accidentally bonk an otter on the head with a paddle as you kayak through Misty Fjords. You will almost assuredly see whales and orcas, because the captain will bring the ship to where they are.
Choose a big ship if….You're ok interacting or seeing animals in more of an excursion capacity.
Choose a small ship if….You want your Alaska wildlife experience to feel more organic.
As both small and big ship cruises in Alaska are special trips, you really can't go wrong. On a big ship, you are guaranteed to see most of Alaska's main tourism sites, in a manner that is well-organized, with lots of choices onboard and onshore. On a small ship, you will get a feeling of the true Alaska, with lots of time spent in the great outdoors, in an intimate atmosphere with like-minded people.