Cruise to Alaska in September for an Unforgettable Trip

When you cruise to Alaska in the fall, you can enjoy the crisp weather without the crowds, revel in autumn colors—and maybe even catch a glimpse of the northern lights.

Landscape of Denali National Park with autumn colors meeting the snow of the distant mountains. Kal K/Getty Images

The best time for an Alaska cruise is from April to September. In April and May, you can experience spring blooms and nature coming to life. In June and July, you’ll glory in the full shine of summer. And in August and September, things begin to quiet down again as the buzzing of bugs disappears, the weather becomes crisp, the foliage turns deep yellow and orange, and the tundra glows bright red.

Compared to high season, September sees fewer people taking Alaska cruises, so you’ll find better deals and smaller crowds when you visit popular attractions in ports like Juneau and Sitka.  

Seattle, Washington skyline at dusk from Pier 66 iStock

Departing ports in the U.S. and Canada for your Alaska cruise

You have choices when it comes to your departure location. Popular ports for Alaska cruises include Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles—with Seattle and Vancouver at the top of the list.

Choose Los Angeles or San Francisco as your departure port if you love sailing and would like to have as many days at sea as possible. Otherwise, Seattle and Vancouver are your best bets.

Seattle has two ports that cater to every major Alaska-visiting cruise line: Bell Street Cruise Terminal at Pier 66 and Smith Cove Cruise Terminal at Pier 91. Bell Street Cruise Terminal has the advantage of being close to downtown and Pike Place Market, which you can enjoy before embarking.

When you embark from Vancouver, you’ll be cruising the Inside Passage for the whole time—a bonus for those who get seasick since the water is mostly calm and peaceful. Vancouver’s ship terminal, known as Canada Place, is downtown, with easy access to restaurants, hotels, and other amenities and attractions.

If you embark from Vancouver, you have to show your passport. And if you’re coming from the U.S., flying to Vancouver will likely cost more than flying to Seattle.

Popular ports and shore excursions during Alaska cruises in September

While sailing, you may see wildlife such as bears, Dall sheep and bald eagles on shore, and dolphins, sea lions and harbor seals in the water.

Once you’ve sailed north through the glacier-carved Inside Passage (depending on the cruise line and your itinerary), your first stops might be the port towns of Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau and Skagway.

Creek Street in Ketchikan, Alaska iStock


Ketchikan, known as Alaska’s “first city,” is home to an incredible number of totem poles and other examples of its vibrant Indigenous cultures and histories. You can visit Potlatch Totem Park, a re-creation of a 19th-century native village (the park is built on the site former fishing grounds of the Tlingit people), to see replicas of houses and totem poles. There is even a totem carving shed where visitors can watch resident carvers practice this ancient craft.

Most cruise lines offer an array of adventurous excursions from Ketchikan, including sailing in a catamaran among the Misty Fjords, exploring the wilderness in a four-wheel drive vehicle and zip lining above the dense forest. 

After Ketchikan, you can’t miss the enormous Dawes Glacier towering over Hobart Bay. Some cruise itineraries include excursions out to the glacier by small boat, such as a Zodiac boat.

Man kayaking in Sitka Harbor, Alaska iStock


The next port town, Sitka, was the capital of Russian Alaska, but there’s little in the town to remind visitors of that time. However, you can get close to incredible flora and fauna by kayaking (depending on what your cruise line offers) or simply walking around Sitka National Historical Park. Like Ketchikan, Sitka is also home to totem poles and other expressions of Indigenous cultures.


Juneau (not Anchorage) is the capital of Alaska, and it sits near the majestic Mendenhall Glacier. Many cruise lines offer shore expeditions to visit the glacier, and these excursions often include whale-watching, as the waters near Juneau are a prime viewing spot for these spectacular mammals. September—and even up until November—is prime time for whale-watching near Juneau, so be sure to bring your binoculars.

Man inside the Mendenhall Ice Cave in Alaska Wu Swee Ong/Getty Images

The gargantuan Mendenhall Glacier is a half-mile wide, with ice 300 to 1,800 feet deep. The landscape offers incredible viewpoints, including hikes to waterfalls and glacial lakes. If you don’t have the time or mobility for a hike, there is a visitor pavilion. Shore excursions may include airplane and helicopter flights over the glacier offering breathtaking views, dogsledding right on the glacier, halibut fishing and more.

Back in the historic center of Juneau, you can learn about the culture of the local Tlingit and other native people and see artistic expressions such as totem poles and murals.


The next port along Alaska’s Inside Passage, Skagway has an Old West spirit dating back to the Yukon gold rush of the 1890s. Get a taste of the past by riding a vintage train or a restored bus from the 1920s.

Then, get ready to be active and have fun, because shore excursions from Skagway include incredible outdoor activities for everyone. For example: 

  • Take a guided hike on the stunning Chilkoot Trail, surrounded by lush forest. (You may even walk into Canada!
  • Kayak in Chilkoot Lake at the foot of the Takshanuk Mountains, canoe Summit Lake or go rafting down the Chilkat River. 
  • Some cruise lines offer options such as rock climbing and rappelling, dogsledding and glacier sightseeing.

No matter which adventure you choose, keep an eye out for bears, bald eagles and other wildlife.

Glacier Bay 

Not far from Skagway is Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve. Home to multiple glaciers and a unique wildlife habitat, Glacier Bay is a protected wilderness area and world heritage site. Only a limited number of cruise ships can enter its waters, and when they do visit, they typically spend about one day. National park rangers come aboard and offer presentations to help visitors understand what they’re seeing on shore and in the water at this special place.

North of Glacier Bay, ships will cruise by Yakutat Bay and Disenchantment Bay, presided over by the majestic Hubbard Glacier, one of the highlights of any Alaska cruise.


The town of Seward sits right on Resurrection Bay, framed by snow-peaked mountains, making it a top destination for those who relish outdoor beauty and adventure. Alaska cruise shore excursions in Seward reflect the extraordinary local geography. 

Explore the waters of Kenai Fjords National Park by boat. Go for a hike on Exit Glacier. Go for a boat ride to explore the wildlife of Resurrection Bay. Go dogsledding—pulled by huskies from the famed Iditarod race—or go rafting among the icebergs of Spencer Glacier.

Some Alaska cruise itineraries offer land extensions that take visitors by rail and other means from Seward to Dawson City (in Canada), Fairbanks, Anchorage and Denali National Park & Preserve. What will you find in Anchorage in September aside from city amenities? Lower prices, fewer people, no bugs and wondrous colors showing on the trees and reflecting from the mountains.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve

Some cruise itineraries include excursions from Anchorage and elsewhere to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. Comprising 13 million acres, the park is the largest U.S. national park. It includes mountains, glaciers, rivers and abundant wildlife. Those who visit can enjoy a range of activities including rafting, kayaking, hiking and biking. There is culture to be found here as well. The Kennecott Mines site, where copper was discovered at the turn of the 20th century, is a National Historic Landmark.

If you cruise to Alaska in September, you may get lucky and see the northern lights on your ship at some point during your journey. (Stay on the lookout for clear, cloudless nights.) The town of Fairbanks, however, is known as one of the world’s best places to see the northern lights, attracting aurora borealis hunters from around the globe. They even have a northern lights research and study center, Aurora Pointe, which doubles as a warm and cozy place where you can wait for the elusive lights to show themselves.

Note that the temperature can drop below freezing in Denali National Park & Preserve in September and that many amenities may be closed.

Travel planning for your Alaska cruise

To experience the best possible Alaska cruise in September, work closely with your trusted AAA Travel Advisor. They will ask you about your needs and priorities and find the ship and itinerary that fit your desires and your budget. And if you’re new to cruising, you’ll find plenty of resources.

Your travel advisor can help you arrange every aspect of your trip, including your flight to Seattle or Vancouver (or wherever you’re embarking from) and your hotel and rental car if you’re staying over in a port city. In addition, AAA Members can get major discounts and benefits when booking AAA Diamond designated hotels and rental cars.

A packing list for a cruise to Alaska in September will be a little different than one for cruising to the Bahamas in June! Here are just a few of the items you will need:

  • Base layers, such as long underwear tops and bottoms
  • A waterproof windbreaker or light jacket
  • A scarf, a hat and gloves
  • Waterproof boots and warm socks
  • Sweaters and/or sweatshirts
  • A swimsuit for enjoying the onboard amenities
  • Polarized sunglasses
  • Sunscreen and lip balm
  • A cellphone dry bag (if you plan to go kayaking, etc.)

Questions to ask your AAA Travel Advisor

When planning your ideal cruise with your AAA Travel Advisor, they’ll probably ask you questions like these:

  • Are you interested in a short or long cruise? 
  • What kinds of shore excursions are right for you? 
  • What are your must-have stops and destinations? 

In turn, you’ll probably have questions, too. Once you’ve chosen your Alaska cruise, make a list of things you’ll want to know, such as the size of the staterooms and the dress code for dinner on the ship. This way there will be few surprises when it comes time to embark on this incredible journey.

Alaska is one of the most popular destinations in the world for cruising. You get to experience vistas of majestic, rugged nature from the comfort of a luxurious ship and visit fascinating destinations that change every day. The views of the wilderness inspire awe, while the shore excursions get your pulse racing. The rustic port towns are steeped in their own intriguing histories.

When you go in the shoulder season, which includes September, you can take in all the splendor but with smaller crowds and better cruise deals. Are you ready for your next adventure?

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