A cruise to Alaska is perfect for anyone new to cruising, not only for the exceptional scenery and adventure the area offers, but also because a large part of the itinerary is through the Inside Passage, the protected waters that stretch from northern Washington to Alaska's Panhandle. These waters make for much smoother sailing than on open ocean.
In fact, ALL Alaska cruises go through the Inside Passage.
This may have you concluding then, that all itineraries are pretty much the same. Not entirely accurate - you do have a number choices.
Roundtrip itineraries start and finish in the same port. On the bigger ships, week long cruises are most often out of Seattle (Washington) or Vancouver (Canada). A longer 10 day cruise will start and end in San Francisco.
Roundtrip itineraries are perfect for those with time constraints and who simply want to get a taste of Alaska. In 7 or 10 days you will see 3-4 ports and get in some glacier viewing. Roundtrip airfare is generally better priced than starting and ending in different ports. Seattle and San Francisco will typically have better prices and more flight options than Vancouver (but not always so don't rule out this port).
This itinerary is simply a "taste" of Alaska. One does not experience, in my opinion, the true essence of the state - the interior. If you were to look at your left hand (with your thumb pointing down), a cruise through the Inside Passage is just your thumb. The rest of your hand is what you miss seeing in Alaska. However, if time and budget are limited, a roundtrip cruise is a super option.
Small ship adventure cruises have itineraries from Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Ketchikan. The itineraries may include similar ports the bigger ships visit, but more often they take you to smaller ports , or not ports at all. They will take you into places off the beaten path and much closer to wildlife.
NORTHBOUND or SOUTHBOUND
A northbound itinerary will start in Vancouver and end in Seward or Whittier. A southbound is simply the reverse, starting in either Seward or Whittier and ending in Vancouver. The ports of Seward or Whittier varies based on the cruise line.
These itineraries provide you with more opportunities to see Alaska's interior. Flights will be in/out of Anchorage, with a transfer to either Seward or Whittier via train, coach or van or rental car.
You can explore Alaska's interior on your own, which is what I did (lots of flexibility) or customize a trip with a local tour company. And most of the cruise lines, including the small ships, offer land packages that include stays in Anchorage, Denali, Fairbanks and even the Yukon. These are very popular as everything is taken care of (hotels, transfers, etc.).
If time and budget allow, I always suggest adding days to discover Alaska's amazing interior and/or extra days in Whittier or Seward to explore the wonderful wildlife and scenery of the Kenai Peninsula.
Which direction is better? Though technically the same, I much prefer and recommend the southbound, primarily because of the flight time. When you fly west, you are gaining hours, flying east you lose hours. If you live in the western part of the US this has less of an impact than if you live in the east. However, with flight time between Seattle/Vancouver to Anchorage just under 4 hours, I believe it is much better to start your journey home from Seattle or Vancouver than Anchorage. Much shorter. I also like having the more active land tour in the beginning with the cruise at the end. In my opinion more relaxing.
INSIDE THE INSIDE PASSAGE
Small ship adventure and expedition cruises have a unique sailings that explore areas that big ships can't reach, going to smaller ports, bays and fjords. In addition to their roundtrip itineraries, they also offer one way sailings, starting/ending in Juneau , Sitka, Ketchikan or Petersburg. They may also offer extended sailings that include the San Juan Islands at the beginning and end of the season when they reposition the ships.
These itineraries are perfect for those wanting a unique perspective of Alaska that few non-residents get to experience. Perfect for lovers of culture, nature and wildlife, photographers, and adventure seekers. People seeking elbowroom, no crowds, and serenity.
As of this writing I have not seen any big ship itineraries with similar sailings.
Many of my first time cruisers to Alaska choose one of the bigger mainstream or luxury ship sailings. This means you have a choice between a roundtrip (most often from Seattle), a northbound or a southbound itinerary.
Now that you understand the basic differences, the first step is to decide between round trip or north/southbound cruises. Then take a closer look at the itineraries to see which ones include your "must haves". For example, if you want to see Victoria, depart from Seattle. Only a few itineraries include Glacier Bay National Park, so this will narrow down your options as well. Then determine the best cruise brand that meets your travel style and budget. If you have a preferred brand, you can start with them and then look at itineraries. However, know that certain brands are better at serving Alaska than others.
To insure you get the itinerary, date and cabin of choice, I always recommend booking as early as possible. A good travel advisor (me!) can steer you in the right direction.