You might be asking - what does Shoulder Season mean? Most travel destinations will have a Peak Season and an Off Season but there will also be a bit of in between time which is the Shoulder Season. Most popular travel destinations will have some sort of shoulder season. In some places where year round travel is pretty popular, like here in Central Florida for example, we don't have much of an off season or shoulder season.
Cruising in Alaska has such a short Season in total that it offer a great example of Shoulder Season. Cruise ships can only sail Alaska in May - September (maybe very late April and into very early October but not much). The Peak Season is Mid-June through Mid-August so that leaves May and September as the Shoulder Season. The rest of the year is totally Off Season since the ships cannot even go there if they wanted to. There is some good and bad to choosing shoulder season anywhere.
There are 2 good reasons to cruise Alaska during Shoulder Season -
#1 - Lower Prices - since it isn't the most popular time the rates are lower to try and entice more visitors.
#2 - Smaller Crowds - Most people either only want to or can only travel during the dates of the Peak Season so there are more crowds at that time leaving smaller crowds in the Shoulder Season.
There are also 2 not so good reason to choose Shoulder Season -
#1 - Not everything will be open or available. For example Denali National Park won't open until Mid June so if you want to go there you need to pretty much stick to Peak Season. Another thing to consider is snow melting over summer will cause some excursions to not be offered in September.
#2 - There won't be as much wildlife. If you are really going to Alaska for the wildlife the best times for that is going to be Peak Season when the Salmon are running and the Bears are out of hibernation.
You might think that weather would be a reason to choose peak season but in Alaska the weather can be all over the map at anytime of the cruise season. You should be prepared for rain anytime you cruise Alaska. It is possible that May and September will be colder than June - August but it might not be. There is a slight chance you could catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights during shoulder season but you shouldn't plan your trip around that since it isn't very likely.
I have cruised Alaska twice - once in May and just this year the end of August so my dates have been shoulder season. The photo I posted above shows one of the big differences in May and August since you see a lot less snow in the August photo. As pretty as the snow was in May we almost didn't get close to the glacier because there were still a lot of big ice chunks and frozen water in that area. I enjoyed both times of year and I think the smaller crowds of shoulder season were nice too but I would still like to try peak season too.
Alaska really is an amazing wilderness and one that everyone should have on their must see list. An Alaska cruise is not your typical cruise though. There are certain things that are worth the splurge when it comes to an Alaska Cruise.
#1 Your room - This is one of those times when splurging for a balcony is really worth it. There will be a lot to see outside and it is nice to be able to watch some of it from the comfort of your room.
#2 The excursions. On some cruises you can get away with just exploring town or finding a beach to relax on but in Alaska the excursions are really worth the splurge. There are many that can be a bit pricey so it is good to budget for those in advance. I have done a few that were big splurges and they were all worth every penny. On this visit I went big with the Helicopter to a glacier to go dog sledding. It was truly amazing! There were only a total of 4 adults on our excursion so it felt very private and we got a lot of time on the glacier with the dogs. This is something you really cannot do anywhere else so it one of those once in a lifetime moments you won't soon forget. The other big splurge we did last time in Alaska was a flight-seeing ride on a float-plane. Alaska is really best seen by air and you can only get to some places via a plane. Our float-plane flew around some fjords and even landed on a lake so we could pop out of plane for a bit. Again there were only 4 people total in our plane so it was pretty much a private excursion. If you are into fishing then Alaska is one of those places you must book a fishing excursion. You can even have the chef back onboard cook up your catch for your for dinner! You can also ship your big catch home if you prefer.
#3 Private viewing areas. Find out if you ship offers any private areas that you can reserve for your time in Glacier Bay or whichever glacier you might visit on your cruise. The top decks can get very crowded on the glacier day so if you ship offers a private area you can reserve a spot it is worth the cost. For our cruise Princess offers the Sanctuary up on the top deck in the very aft of the ship. This area is available to reserve anytime during the cruise for a small fee but on glacier day it really it a great place to be. The lounge chairs are super comfy with extra blankets and attentive service. You do get to actually reserve a specific chair so you can come and go and not worry about losing your spot. For our cruise they served pastries, lunch, and tea during our time in Glacier Bay. They would also bring hot chocolate, coffee and tea or water anytime you needed more. With the limited number of guests in the Sanctuary it was very easy to get all the perfect photos you wanted while viewing the glaciers.
#4 The right wardrobe. Packing for Alaska can be tricky as you really do need a little bit of everything since you just never know what kind of weather you might get. Generally in summer you can pretty much count on rain though. Having the right gear can really help make sure you get the most out of your vacation. Depending on where you live you might not get a lot of regular use out of some of these things but they are worth the splurge to have for Alaska. Number one would be a nice pair of waterproof hiking type shoes. It is no fun to be walking around in wet shoes with cold feet. Another item that you might not normally purchase would be some water resistant clothing. I bought a pair of water resistant hiking pants from Columbia that worked out really well for the wet days. A good rain jacket is also much easier than carrying an umbrella. One tip though when it comes to certain excursions be sure to note if they will provide some gear. We did a few excursions that did give us boots or other outerwear to keep us protected on the excursion so that was a nice bonus.
#5 Camera - Alaska has a lot of wildlife to catch a glimpse of and if you want to really capture that image your cell phone camera just isn't going to cut it. This is one of those trips when having a nicer camera is worth it. Binoculars also come in handy so they are worth picking up a pair before your cruise.
#6 - The spa. With all the excursions and outdoor activities to choose from in Alaska a spa treatment might be just the splurge you need to recover and also warm up. Some ship spas will also offer a thermal spa and I cannot think of anywhere better to warm up than a heated lounge chair inside the relaxing atmosphere of the spa. Some ships will have the thermal spa set up where you can even have an amazing view of the outside while lounging. You might be able to get just a day passes but many times only length of cruise passes are offered. There are even some ships that have specific stateroom categories that will come with spa access included with the room.
I just finished my first cruisetour in Alaska and we are headed for the ship. You might ask what is a cruisetour? It is basically a land and sea package where you get to go a bit more in depth somewhere that a cruise ship couldn't go added onto your cruise. You can choose to do your tour portion either before or after your cruise but for Alaska I recommend doing it before. The tour portion in Alaska is busy and has lots of early mornings so doing the cruise after allows you to relax and recover. Most times you will have a few different package options for your Alaska cruisetour to include other things but all will include your cruise and land accommodations along with transportation to your cruisetour hotels. The big difference between the cruise and the tour is that your land portion doesn't come with food included like the cruise so you would need to choose an add on package if you want meals included on land. Here are 7 tips I learned from my Alaska cruisetour.
#1 Pack strategically. This really is key since you need to pack a little bit of everything for a visit to Alaska. It really is worth it to not have suitcases that are packed too tightly from the beginning since you will be having unpack and pack a few times. We ended up with 3 checked suitcases for the 2 of us (2 large and one smaller one) even though I probably could have gotten it all into just 2. I was very happy I chose to bring 3 as it made things easier for me. Princess does offer an option to send any bag you won't need on land right to the port so it will meet you on the ship instead of having to go to each lodge with you. That just didn't work for me but that was OK since having the 3 bags did help when we were juggling things from lodge to lodge. You most likely will only spend 1 or 2 nights at each lodge so it means a lot of living out of suitcases.
#2 Pre-plan your outfits for each day. This comes in handy when you have to have your bags out of your room at the crack of dawn. I recommend using some packing cubes or something that will help you keep your suitcases organized and easy to pull out a day's set of clothes the night before. In Alaska dressing in layers is key so make sure each day's clothes have you ready for any type weather no matter what the forecast might be predicting.
#3 Have a day bag plan. On the days you change lodges you might be on a long bus or train ride between lodges. You might also be doing a tour or excursion on the way between lodges so you will want to have a day bag with you with a few essentials. It is also good to keep anything with you that you really couldn't afford to lose or would need before getting to your next room, such as prescriptions or your travel documents. Be sure to read over your travel documents beforehand as there might be restrictions on the day bag you can carry on with you, for example the train between Denali and Anchorage has pretty strict rule of no wheelie bags can be carried on the train with you. There are specific size limits for the bag you can take on the train as it needs to fit in a tight space by your seat.
#4 Be Organized. Having packing cubes or some type of smaller bags or specific spots in your suitcase for things makes it easier to find things quickly. This also helps to be sure everything gets packed again each time you change lodges. The early morning bag pick ups can be hectic so being organized really helps.
#5 Read and reread the schedule for each day in advance. There will be lots of important times to remember each day so you don't want to miss the bag pick up or worse your bus. The morning we went into Denali park was a very early bus pick up and they stick to schedule so it would be a bummer to miss that bus.
#6 There are no guarantees. In Alaska this applies to a few things. Remember this is wilderness so there are some things no one can control. Number one is there are no guarantees that you will get to see a clear view of Mt Denali. It is said that usually only 30% of visitors get a clear view of the whole mountain just because it is so high that is pretty much has it own weather and will usually be hidden behind clouds. We realized how lucky we were to get a clear view more than one day of our trip. The second thing that people complain about is not getting to see all of the wildlife they wanted to see. Again nature doesn't always cooperate so you just might not get that shot of a grizzly or moose or whatever animal you were hoping to see during your Alaska visit. You should already be prepared for just about any weather as that is just a given with Alaska but weather can also affect other things like your mode of transportation. This is a little more unusual but happened during our trip that weather caused the train tracks to be impassable in spots due to rock slides and trees down so our scenic train ride from one lodge to the next was cancelled and we had to take the bus. I was really looking forward to the train experience and I know for most people that is a big part of what they want as part of their Alaska land portion. Hopefully you will get to see and do everything you really wanted to on your visit but if you don't there is always next time.
#7 Get enough sleep and drink plenty of water. There is a lot to do on your tour so getting a good amount of sleep and staying hydrated is important to being able to really enjoy everything. Alaska is 4 hours behind our East Coast time zone and along with the longer hours of daylight this far north it was easy to stay up way later than you intended and that 6 am bags out time sneaks up on you real quick. It is also very dry in parts of Alaska so be sure to drink enough water.
Did you know all of that about Alaska? I was amazed by how big Alaska really is when you see it laid on top of the rest of the US! That trivia doesn't even mention things like how big Glacier Bay National Park is (3.3 million acres by the way). Glacier Bay is just a small part of the 25 million acre World Heritage site (one of the world's largest international protected areas).
Need a quote for traveling anywhere? Click here to start.