For many people, particularly retirees, cruise ships offer a luxury way to see Alaska . A multitude of ships ply the Inside Passage  and Gulf of Alaska waters, carrying 900,000 people each summer—half of all travelers to the state. Cruises make it easy for travelers to explore the Inside Passage while enjoying good food and cozy accommodations.
Cruise ship tourism has proven to be a mixed blessing for Alaska. True, it does bring in millions of dollars to the state, and towns such as Skagway  are almost totally given over to cruise ships, but the ships also dump hundreds of thousands of gallons of wastewater into Alaska’s pristine waterways, pollute the air, and cause major disruptions in local communities. In 2006, Alaskan voters were angry enough to slap a $50 head tax and various restrictions on the industry.
If you’re traveling by cruise ship, you will be inundated with suggested shore excursions offered through the ship. There are advantages to booking through your ship, but they do take a cut and the prices are often substantially higher than you would pay if you booked the trip yourself. Readers of this travel guide will have a good idea of the offerings, but visit www.shoretrips.com  to see some of the available options and their costs.
Most ships depart from Vancouver, British Columbia , but some cruises also leave from Seattle  or San Francisco . The largest vessel can hold more than 3,000 passengers, and some offer impressive buffets, luxurious atrium lobbies, private stateroom verandas, health spas, and lounges with live music and casinos.
Not all ships are large and glitzy, however. The smallest “expedition” ships may hold just a few dozen passengers. On these, the emphasis is on education and ecotourism. Many of the smaller ships also have professional naturalists on board and act as “mother ships” for short sea kayaking or hiking trips. Not surprisingly, expedition ships are considerably more expensive than the giant cruise liners.
Any good travel agent or online travel site can set up an Alaska  cruise, or you can book your own by contacting the companies directly. A good overall place to begin an exploration of cruise ship travel is the website of the Cruise Lines International Association (www.cruising.org ). It has links to all the major players, plus general information.
For specifics on Alaska cruising, visit www.alaskacruisingreport.com . Other useful websites include www.cruisecritic.com , www.cruisereviews.com , www.cruise-chat.com , and www.cruisemates.com; www.cruisecritic.com  is especially useful if you’re looking for cheap cruises.
The large ships that visit Alaska are operated by:
206/281-3535 or 877/724-5425
Silversea Cruises operates the smallest of the large ships with space for 300 or so passengers. These are the ultimate luxury ships if you really want to feel pampered.
You don’t have to join these megaships to see Alaska  by sea. A number of companies offer smaller ships (under 100 passengers) for a more intimate look at the state. Of course, these are also considerably more expensive than ships that pack folks into every nook and cranny. Companies with small cruise ships include Cruise West (206/441-4757 or 888/851-8133, www.cruisewest.com ) and Lindblad Expeditions (212/765-7740 or 800/397-3348, www.expeditions.com ).
Even smaller boats provide the ultimate in luxury for groups of 6–8 people. Good expedition companies include:
907/772-4700 or 888/772-8588
907/723-0883 or 866/486-1732
907/789-1978 or 800/725-3913
360/898-7300 or 800/767-1024
360/592-2375 or 800/287-7063
510/527-9622 or 800/472-9942
Prices for cruises have dropped in recent years as more and larger ships have moved into the Alaskan market. The bargain deals are typically early or late in the summer season and can be amazingly cheap at times. Cruises typically last 7–12 days and are either taken as a round-trip tour of the Inside Passage  or a one-way cruise that encompasses both the Inside Passage and towns along the Gulf of Alaska.
It is also possible to add in a land tour, either as part of a hurried seven-day ship-and-bus package or as an add-on to the cruise. The add-on option often includes time in Southcentral and Interior Alaska  and might start with a trip through the Inside Passage followed by a bus tour from Skagway  to Fairbanks , a train trip to Denali National Park , and then on to Anchorage , where you fly home. Many other cruise options exist; contact the individual companies for details.