What a Royal Caribbean Alaska cruise is like in 2023

14 Jul 2023
Jenna DeLaurentis

What's it like to take a Royal Caribbean Alaska cruise in 2023?

Whether you’re planning an Alaska cruise this season or are hoping to visit Alaska in the coming years, it’s helpful to know what to expect.

After my recent Royal Caribbean cruise to Alaska on Quantum of the Seas, I gained a few important insights that I wanted to share with those visiting Alaska this summer.

Knowing what to expect when it comes to the check-in process, dining, ports, cabins, and activities will prepare you for everything you may encounter on your vacation.

Alaska cruises are becoming increasingly popular—it’s estimated nearly 1.6 million cruise passengers will visit the state in 2023.

Indeed, the 49th state is one of the most picturesque destinations in the world. From its towering mountains to magnificent glaciers and historic towns, it’s hard not to be in awe of the sights around you as your ship sails through the state’s chilly waters.

Here’s what a Royal Caribbean Alaska cruise is like in 2023.

Before your Alaska cruise, you will need to spend a night in Seattle or Vancouver.

One of the most important pieces of cruise advice we share is to arrive in your embarkation city, whether it’s Seattle or Vancouver, the day before your cruise begins. For my Alaska cruise, I flew to Seattle the day before my cruise, arriving in the city around 2PM.

While arriving a day early means you have to pay for a hotel and request an extra day off work, it’s well worth the peace of mind knowing you have enough time to make it to the cruise terminal. Flying to Seattle or Vancouver the same day as your Alaska cruise is risky, as any delays or cancellations could cause you to miss your flight altogether.

After taking the light rail from the airport to downtown, I checked into my hotel, and I had the rest of the evening to sightsee around the city.

I booked a stay at the Grand Hyatt Seattle, which was conveniently located in the heart of downtown. I paid only $220 for the 4-star hotel via Priceline’s Express Deals, a blind booking feature offering discount fares on hotel rooms.

Related: I’m a budget traveler, and here are 10 ways I saved money on my Alaska cruise

During the evening and the following morning, I explored downtown Seattle, visiting popular attractions like Pike Place Market and the Olympic Sculpture Park. I also ate dinner and breakfast in the city; my favorite restaurant in Seattle is Din Tai Fung, a Chinese dim sum restaurant serving freshly made dumplings and noodles.

If you’re cruising to Alaska this year, I recommend turning your pre-cruise stay in Seattle (or Vancouver) into a mini vacation, as it’s a nice way to kick off your cruise vacation a little earlier.

Embarkation day for my Alaska cruise was straightforward, and I was on the ship within 20 minutes of arrival at the cruise terminal.

I had a check-in time of 12PM for my Quantum of the Seas cruise, which timed out perfectly with check-out of my hotel in downtown Seattle.

Royal Caribbean ships depart from Pier 91, which is located around three miles from downtown Seattle. I recommend taking a Lyft or Uber to the cruise port as opposed to a hotel shuttle service, as it’s easier to leave on your schedule rather than wait for a shuttle to arrive.

Related: Guide to Seattle cruise port for Alaska cruises

If you’re cruising from Vancouver, however, it’s possible to walk to the cruise terminal from downtown hotels. If you have a lot of luggage, though, you can always take a Lyft or Uber there as well.

Upon reaching Pier 91 in Seattle, I quickly dropped off my luggage with the porters and entered the cruise terminal. I was pleased to see minimal lines at the terminal’s entrance, although I noticed check-in times were not being enforced, so we probably could have arrived earlier than our scheduled check-in time.

We breezed past check-in and security and were able to immediately board the ship.

Once onboard, most guests immediately headed to the Windjammer buffet for embarkation day lunch. We also decided to eat lunch at the Windjammer, but upon arriving we had to wait in a line for tables to open.

I had never experienced a line to enter the Windjammer before, but we were told the space was at capacity. Luckily the line only took a few minutes, but if you’re looking to avoid crowds, I’d recommend eating lunch at a quieter venue like Cafe @ Two 70 or a specialty restaurant instead.

Cruise cabins to Alaska offer everything you need for a comfortable stay during your week onboard.

Whether you book a small inside room or spacious suite for an Alaska cruise, it will quickly become your home away from home.

I booked an interior cabin for my Quantum of the Seas cruise, and I found the room to have much more walking and storage space than I thought it would.

Related: Take a look inside my interior cabin on Quantum of the Seas

If you’re cruising on Ovation of the Seas or Quantum of the Seas to Alaska, you will find modern cabins with ample storage space and plenty of outlets to charge electronics. In addition, all interior cabins on these ships have a virtual balcony, a floor-to-ceiling television screen depicting a live feed from a camera outside the ship.

If you’re cruising from Vancouver on Radiance of the Seas or Brilliance of the Seas, expect more outdated cabins. You may notice more wear and tear in your cabin on an older ship and there won’t be as much storage space or outlets available.

Nonetheless, cabins on older ships will still offer everything you need during your stay, including a king-sized bed, private bathroom, desk, television, and closet.

Cruise ports are busy, so you should disembark the ship early.

My Quantum of the Seas cruise called upon Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, and Victoria, and we also enjoyed a glacier viewing day at Endicott Arm & Dawes Glacier. If there’s one thing I learned during my time in port, it was to disembark the ship early to avoid crowds.

If your cruise visits Alaska in the peak season, there could be four or more ships in port at the same time. This means over 15,000 passengers could visit the port on the same day, leading to intense crowding in busy areas.

I noticed places like Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau were extra busy this year—at times it was too busy to be enjoyable. Mentally preparing for crowds at popular spots is important to ensure you are not too overwhelmed with the amount of people present.

In most scenarios, however, the earlier you disembark the ship, the more empty a cruise port will be. When our ship docked in Ketchikan, for example, we disembarked immediately and enjoyed pleasant, crowd-free walking around the quaint town.

As we were heading back to the ship a few hours later, more cruise ships had since docked, and the crowds increased exponentially. At that moment, I was grateful to have done the majority of my exploring before the crowds arrived.

Shore excursions are expensive in 2023, but there are more than enough low cost activities to enjoy.

Alaska glacier scenery

If you were shocked upon seeing the prices for Alaska shore excursions, you’re not alone.

Shore excursions in Alaska are notoriously expensive. Expect to pay at least $150 for a whale watching tour, $500-700 for a glacier helicopter ride, and over $100 for a cycling tour to Mendenhall Glacier.

Alaska excursions can quickly break your budget, but the good news is that there is a plethora of free or low cost activities to do in port instead.

During my Quantum of the Seas cruise, I chose to explore ports on my own instead of booking shore excursions. Doing so allowed me to not only have more freedom in what I wanted to do, but save money, too.

Related: Tips for taking an Alaska cruise on a budget

In Ketchikan, I walked to the historic red-light district, Creek Street, hiked up the Married Man’s Trail, and visited two museums on Alaska’s history and Native culture.

In my second port of call, Sitka, I booked a shuttle bus for $20 that took me to Fortress of the Bear, a bear rehabilitation center outside of downtown. With a $15 entrance fee, I was able to watch brown and black bears up close, a fascinating experience with a relatively low cost.

While in Juneau, I spent $50 to rent a bicycle for the day, which enabled me to visit Mendenhall Glacier at a lower cost than cruise ship excursions.

Finally, my last port of call took me to Victoria, British Columbia. With only five hours in port, I decided against an excursion in favor of walking around the city, which proved to be a lovely experience. Victoria’s downtown is the most charming of any cruise ports I visited on the sailing, and admiring the views costs nothing extra.

If you have an Alaska cruise planned for 2023, I recommend reading the following guides to get an idea of what free or low cost activities are available in each port:

If your ship visits Skagway, be prepared for extra lines.

Landslides recently occurred right next to one of Skagway’s cruise docks, and it has disrupted scheduled visits to Skagway this summer. In fact, Royal Caribbean canceled Quantum of the Seas visits to Skagway in 2023, but Ovation of the Seas is still making her scheduled visits.

Due to the risk of additional landslides, passengers are not permitted to walk the length of the pier. Therefore, passengers must board shuttle buses outside the ship that will drive down the pier.

The ride only lasts a minute, but you might encounter long lines waiting to board a shuttle bus. Some cruise lines have been using tender boats instead of shuttle buses, but neither method is convenient.

To avoid waiting in line, I recommend disembarking the ship as early as possible. As soon as you hear an announcement that the gangway has opened, leave the ship immediately to be one of the first in line.

Radiance Class ships usually dock at a separate pier in Skagway, so you may not be affected by the landslide if sailing on one of these vessels.

Alaska cruises in 2023 feature Royal Caribbean’s new Main Dining Room menu and a range of other eateries.

Menu from Wonder of the Seas

One difference with Alaska cruises this year is that they feature Royal Caribbean’s new Main Dining Room menu, which was launched fleetwide in early 2023.

The dinner menu has a different theme each evening, such as Italian night and French night. I noticed a few theme differences compared to what I’ve seen on Caribbean cruises, as an Asian theme night was offered in lieu of Mexican night.

There are three options for dinner in the Main Dining Room: early, late, and My Time Dining. On my cruise, early dinner was at 5PM with late seating at 8PM. With My Time Dining, you can reserve a different dining time for each evening, but if you forget to make a reservation, you’ll have to wait in a line for an available table.

Related: Dinner on Royal Caribbean: Early Dinner vs. Late Dinner

On my Alaska cruise, I ate in the Main Dining Room just two out of seven nights. Unfortunately, our early dining time coincided with the sailaway time from most Alaska cruise ports. If I wanted to watch the breathtaking scenery outside, I had to forgo dinner in the dining room, as most tables were not by a window.

Instead, I dined most evenings in the Windjammer. The buffet’s large windows offered the perfect spot to watch Alaska’s scenery, and I preferred the quick service and wider range of cuisines at the restaurant.

Depending on which ship you book for an Alaska cruise, dining options can vary. All ships will feature the Main Dining Room along with the Windjammer buffet, Chops Grill steakhouse, and an Italian specialty restaurant.

Other venues vary from ship to ship, but you’ll find a mix of included and extra cost food on any cruise ship visiting Alaska.

Booking popular activities like RipCord by iFLY and The North Star can be confusing—here’s how to book a complimentary slot.

If you’re cruising to Alaska on a Quantum Class ship, then you’ll surely want to try the ships’ signature activities.

One of the most popular things to do on both Quantum of the Seas and Ovation of the Seas is RipCord by iFLY, an indoor skydiving simulator. For this activity, passengers enter a skydiving chamber that blows strong wind upwards, allowing them to “skydive” in the chamber.

Another sought-after activity is the North Star, an observational pod that rises from the ship’s pool deck to 300 feet above sea level. Views from the North Star are unparalleled—they offer a 360 degree view of Alaska’s scenery from a high vantage point.

The catch with these two activities is that there are both free and paid options. For RipCord by iFLY, 1-minute flights are complimentary, but 2-minute flights cost around $50. As for the North Star, you’ll find complimentary rides when your ship is in port, but the activity costs extra while your ship is at sea.

Related: 15 free things to try on your next cruise

As you might expect, most passengers hope to book a coveted complimentary spot for these activities. In the past, Royal Caribbean opened the full week’s worth of reservations on embarkation day, meaning the slots filled up quickly. Once they were gone, you were out of luck.

In 2023, I noticed a more staggered approach. Instead of opening all slots for the week on embarkation day, the app would open a few slots each day instead. By checking the daily list of activities regularly on the app, you could often find an open slot for the North Star or RipCord by iFLY.

Slots usually opened up the day before the activity, so a 5PM ride on the North Star on Thursday could be booked starting on Wednesday.

Some shows require reservations, so be sure to reserve these productions early.

In addition to reserving select onboard activities, you might also need to reserve entertainment on an Alaska cruise.

Luckily, most entertainment on Royal Caribbean ships does not require reserving a seat in advance. You can enjoy live music at lounges, participate in game shows, and attend the majority of production shows with no prior reservation.

Reservations are only required for the signature shows in Two70, one of the main entertainment spaces on Quantum Class ships. On Quantum of the Seas this show is titled Starwater, whereas the Two70 production on Ovation of the Seas is Pixel’s Cabaret.

In Two70 you will catch productions augmented with technology. The venue was designed to wow guests through its massive screen projections and moving television screens, and it's certainly an impressive entertainment space.

You can make reservations for shows on the Royal Caribbean app once you get onboard, or you can reserve a seat prior to your cruise on Royal Caribbean's Cruise Planner website. If there are no seats available, I still advise showing up to the entertainment venue. If there are empty seats in the theater ~10 minutes prior to the show, they will open the theater to those without a reservation.

When it came time to disembark the ship, I was glad I booked a flight after 12PM

No one likes the end of a cruise, but unfortunately all Alaska cruises must come to an end.

I booked my flight home from Seattle’s airport at 12:30PM, and I’m glad I booked a flight after noon. Seattle’s airport is around a half hour drive from the cruise terminal, but during morning rush hour the drive can take even longer.

On the last day of the cruise, I disembarked the ship around 8:30AM. By the time I got through the cruise terminal, walked to the rideshare pickup area, and got inside a Lyft, it was nearing 9 o’clock.

After driving to the airport and going through security, another hour had passed. I was happy I booked a flight a little later so I didn’t have to worry about making my flight on time. Flights before 11AM would be risky, as you never know what kind of delays (both in the cruise terminal and in traffic) you might encounter on the way.

If you’re planning an Alaska cruise, I always recommend booking a flight no earlier than ~11:30AM to ensure you have enough time to make your flight.

Planning an Alaska cruise? Check out more of our tips and tricks:

Jenna DeLaurentis enjoys exploring new ports of call around the world on a cruise ship, learning about new cultures, discovering beautiful landscapes, and trying diverse cuisine. She loves to get active while at port, whether cycling through mountains in the Caribbean or scuba diving under the sea.

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