May 25, 2024
The 9 Best Northern Lights Alaska Cruises for 2024 & Beyond

The 9 Best Northern Lights Alaska Cruises for 2024 & Beyond

There’s no other experience on Earth quite like witnessing the northern lights. Also known as the aurora borealis, this spellbinding phenomenon – when brilliant hues of green, yellow and purple dance across the night sky – is visible in Alaska from late August to late April. Clear, dark evenings away from the ambient light of cities provide prime viewing opportunities.

Alaska is one of the best places in the world to see the aurora borealis – especially locations in the Interior and Arctic regions, such as Coldfoot, Wiseman, Utqiagvik (Barrow) and Nome. Fairbanks is regarded as a top location due to its position directly under the auroral oval, a ring-shaped area in the far north where aurora activity is generally concentrated. The Southcentral region of Alaska, where you’ll find Anchorage, Talkeetna and the Mat-Su Valley, also offers basecamps for northern lights viewing.

If you’re hoping to see the magic aboard an Alaska cruise in 2024 or 2025, then you just might be in luck. Experts predict the next few seasons will be particularly good for northern lights sightings, due to increased solar activity. While seeing the northern lights is never guaranteed, your best chance of seeing them is during these high-activity solar cycles, which occur about every 11 years.

When to take a cruise to view the northern lights

Holland America Line recommends booking a cruise or cruisetour (a combined sea and land package) during the autumnal equinox, or the official start of autumn, which falls around Sept. 22 in the Northern Hemisphere. Disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field are more likely around the autumn and spring equinoxes, which could increase your chances of seeing the aurora. For the best views, Holland America advises heading to higher ground in Anchorage, to vantage points like Glen Alps, the Knit River Valley and Point Woronzof.

Princess Cruises also suggests booking your vacation in the fall. September is an ideal month to watch for the spectacle in the sky as the nights start getting longer and darker. The elusive display is most likely to appear on crystal-clear evenings between midnight and 4 a.m. While you can see incredible light shows in Anchorage, consider an extended tour of Fairbanks or the Interior that takes you away from light pollution (such as to Denali National Park & Preserve).

U.S. News has compiled a list of the nine best cruises and cruisetours to give you the optimal chance of viewing these whimsical lights in the sky, with a focus on sailings around the autumnal equinox in 2024 and later dates in September 2025. We’ve also included an early sailing in April, before the end of the aurora season. (Keep in mind: Many of these trips and itineraries are also available on other dates during the season. Cruise fares were accurate at the time of publication.)

Man standing under the northern lights in Canada.

Thierry Guenez|Courtesy of Holland America Line

9-Day Denali: Tour D8l

Departure dates Embarks from Starting price
Sept. 13, 2024; Sept. 12, 2025 (Classic) Fairbanks, Alaska $1,279 per person

This nine-day land and sea tour on Nieuw Amsterdam includes an opportunity to search for the northern lights in Fairbanks, one of the best places to see them in Alaska (and in the world). Holland America offers a four-hour aurora borealis viewing tour outside the city in a yurt; it operates between the last week of August and mid-September.

If you’d like more options, there’s no shortage of tour operators in town that can take you on a northern lights adventure in Fairbanks. You can even fly into town early to stay in the wilderness in an igloo with clear views of the night sky at Borealis Basecamp, located less than 30 miles from Fairbanks. Be sure to notify your hotel that you’d like a wake-up call or a knock on the door if the northern lights are on display.

You’ll have more opportunities to see the aurora when you head to Denali National Park & Preserve for a stay at Holland America‘s exclusive 60-acre McKinley Chalet Resort, located near the entrance to the park. After a full day exploring the park by ATV or a bucket list flightseeing adventure over Denali, you’ll have another chance to see the colorful light display in Alaska’s wilderness after midnight. The rest of the cruisetour itinerary includes scenic cruising days, with one spent in beautiful Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve. You’ll also call on Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan before disembarking in Vancouver.

14-Day Denali: Tour D3c

Departure dates Embarks from Starting price
Sept. 8, 2024 (Double); Sept. 7, 2025 (Ultimate) Vancouver, British Columbia $2,499 per person

This 14-day adventure includes scenic cruising of the Inside Passage, Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve and College Fjord, with stops in the ports of Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Whittier and Seward. You’ll then have nearly a week on land in Anchorage, Denali National Park & Preserve and Fairbanks to go aurora hunting. If you spend an extra night or two in Fairbanks at the end of the trip, you’ll be in town for the autumnal equinox, maximizing your northern lights viewing opportunities.

With the extra time in town, plan to book the Arctic Circle Air Adventure with Northern Alaska Tour Company. This unforgettable journey takes you on a flight over the Yukon River and Brooks Range, just east of the Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve. You’ll then land 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle in the community of Coldfoot and receive an Arctic Circle Adventure Certificate before your return flight to Fairbanks.

7-Day Glacier Discovery Northbound

Departure dates Embarks from Starting price
Sept. 8, 2024; Sept. 7, 2025 Vancouver, British Columbia $929 per person

If you’re interested in a cruise-only option and would prefer to arrange the land portion independently, consider this seven-day voyage on Nieuw Amsterdam. The itinerary includes three scenic cruising days, with one day in Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve, and calls on the ports of Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway before disembarking in Whittier, which sits roughly 60 miles south of Anchorage.

From Whittier, there are many options to transfer to Anchorage (by rail or by road), including the iconic Glacier Discovery Train. Plan to stay a few evenings in Anchorage with a multiday guided aurora tour, or reserve a spot on an evening outing in search of the northern lights.

Princess Cruises ship in Skagway, Alaska.

Courtesy of Princess Cruises

11-Day Denali Explorer – Tour DA4

Departure dates Embarks from Starting price
Sept. 7, 2024; Sept. 6, 2025 Vancouver, British Columbia $1,687 per person

This 11-day cruisetour begins with a seven-night voyage embarking from Vancouver on Royal Princess or Sapphire Princess. The itinerary includes three sea days, two of which are dedicated to scenic cruising through Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve and College Fjord. You’ll make stops in the coastal towns of Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Anchorage (Whittier) before disembarking to depart for the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge via the line’s direct-to-the-wilderness rail service.

Spending three nights at the lodge – located just outside the entrance to the park – in mid-September will offer excellent opportunities for aurora viewing. Keep your fingers crossed for high solar activity and clear, dark skies. Throughout your trip, learn photography tips to capture the mesmerizing display through Princess’ North to Alaska Program. After your stay in Denali, you’ll take a motor coach to Anchorage and stay overnight in a hotel there to finish up your voyage.

10-Day On Your Own – Tour BBX

Departure dates Embarks from Starting price
Sept. 11, 2024; Sept. 10, 2025 Fairbanks, Alaska $1,588 per person

The 10-Day On Your Own cruisetour with Princess Cruises begins with three nights on land, including overnights in Fairbanks, the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge and the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. While at the Mt. McKinley resort, be sure to check out the lodge’s treehouse. Designed by Pete Nelson of Animal Planet’s “Treehouse Masters,” this vantage point offers impressive views of Denali – the highest peak in North America at 20,310 feet above sea level.

Before heading off to bed, get an update on aurora activity from the tracker on your smartphone, especially if you have clear skies that night; the app My Aurora Forecast & Alerts has excellent reviews. Request a wake-up call to have the Princess lodge staff call your room if the dazzling bands of light begin to dance in the sky. The next day, after traveling to Whittier by motor coach, you’ll embark on your cruise to Vancouver aboard Royal Princess or Sapphire Princess.

The voyage from Whittier includes three sea days for relaxing activities on board the ship, with two days of scenic cruising around Hubbard Glacier and in Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve. During your time in Glacier Bay, park rangers will board the ship to offer commentary about this captivating wilderness area’s pristine glaciers and abundant wildlife. Younger cruisers and teens will also appreciate learning about this spectacular place through the Junior Ranger program, which features interactive games, activities and presentations. (All cruise ships visiting the park participate in this program with the National Park Service.) Ports of call for the rest of the journey include Icy Strait Point or Skagway (depending on the cruise), then Juneau and Ketchikan. The voyage ends in Vancouver.

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Balcony of the Celebrity Suite on the Celebrity Summit.

Courtesy of Celebrity Cruises

The Great National Parks Expedition Cruisetour

Departure date Embarks from Starting price
Sept. 1, 2024 Fairbanks, Alaska $2,571 per person

Celebrity’s pre-cruise national parks adventure takes guests on a wildlife viewing quest to destinations in the north and the Interior where you can watch for the aurora. The 12-night trip begins in Fairbanks with a free day to explore.

Consider a trip to the University of Alaska Museum of the North, which features exhibits on Arctic dinosaurs, diverse wildlife, Alaska Native cultures and 2,000 years of Alaska art. You could also visit the impressive collection of antique cars and clothing at the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum, or take a walk with the reindeer into the woods at Running Reindeer Ranch. The second day in town includes a Riverboat Discovery ride and a tour of the city, as part of the cruisetour.

On the third day, you’ll board the Wilderness Express (a glass-domed railcar) for the ride to Denali. Then, you’ll embark on the Tundra Wilderness Tour in search of the park’s grizzly bears, moose, Dall sheep and other wildlife. Be sure to put your name on the list before bedtime to get a wake-up call for aurora activity. You’ll also have one evening in Anchorage, where you can arrange for a northern lights tour, and one night in Seward before setting sail on Celebrity Summit the next morning. Highlights of the voyage include cruising Hubbard Glacier and the Inside Passage as well as stopping in Juneau, Icy Strait Point and Ketchikan. You’ll disembark in Vancouver.

The Norwegian Bliss on the water at sunset with mountains in the background.

Courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

13-Day Denali Explorer – Pre-Cruise Cruisetour

Departure dates Embarks from Starting price
Aug. 6, 2024; Sept. 2, 2025 Fairbanks, Alaska $3,198 per person

Norwegian Cruise Line’s six-day pre-cruise adventure begins with overnights in Fairbanks, Denali and Anchorage, where you’ll have the best chances to view the northern lights. Other highlights for the first part of the trip include a deluxe dome car rail journey from Talkeetna to Anchorage on the Alaska Railroad and a private tour to an Iditarod sled dog musher’s kennel. You’ll also have plenty of time in Denali National Park to book a flightseeing tour, go whitewater rafting, or take a hike with a park ranger to look for bears, moose, Dall sheep, wolves and other local wildlife before starting your cruise in Seattle.

Norwegian Encore will call on Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay and Ketchikan (Ward Cove) in Alaska. The Mill at Ward Cove near Ketchikan is a newly built cruise ship port that serves as a jumping-off point for outdoor activities in the Tongass National Forest, from hiking and biking to kayaking and sea cycling. You can even pick up souvenirs, grab a bite to eat and sample a cold Alaska brew at the mill. The cruise itinerary also includes one day at sea and a stop in Victoria, British Columbia, before you disembark in Seattle.

7-Night Alaska: Dawes Glacier, Juneau & Ketchikan

Departure dates Embarks from Starting price
April 6, 2024; April 12, 2025 Seattle, Washington (round-trip) $629 per person

Consider this seven-day cruise on Norwegian Bliss if you prefer to travel early in the spring and take your chances at catching the northern lights toward the end of aurora season, which falls around April 21. This round-trip itinerary from Seattle is one of the earliest sailings of the year to visit the Great Land and features two sea days, with one day of scenic cruising in Endicott Arm and Dawes Glacier. You’ll also visit Sitka, Juneau, Icy Strait Point, Ketchikan (Ward Cove) and Victoria before disembarking in Seattle.

Juneau will offer one of the best opportunities during the cruise for seeing the northern lights, although chances are dependent on the weather and solar activity. There are several apps and websites with real-time updates for aurora tracking, including My Aurora Forecast & Alerts. If the skies are clear in the evening and the forecast looks promising, ask guest relations if there’s a sign-up sheet to get a call or a knock on the door in the event of aurora activity.

Exterior of Royal Caribbean's Radiance of the Seas.

Courtesy of Royal Caribbean International

12 Night Mountain Panorama Adventure Cruisetour 5B (Pre Tour)

Departure date Embarks from Starting price
Sept. 7, 2025 Seward, Alaska $3,119 per person

This 12-night cruisetour with Royal Caribbean International begins with an overnight in Anchorage before boarding the Wilderness Express, where you’ll have a glass-domed rail car for the journey to Talkeetna. The quirky community of Talkeetna is said to be the inspiration for the fictional Alaska town of Cicely in the 1990s show “Northern Exposure.” It’s also an excellent base for chasing the aurora – especially at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, where you’ll be staying.

After an overnight at the lodge, your tour moves on to Denali, where you can search for wildlife by day and look for the aurora at night. Another evening on land at Hotel Alyeska in the remote town of Girdwood affords more opportunities to chase the finnicky lights before heading to Seward to board your ship, Radiance of the Seas.

Ports of call on this voyage include Juneau, Skagway, Icy Strait Point and Ketchikan. There are also two days of scenic cruising through Hubbard Glacier and the Inside Passage before disembarking in Vancouver. While there are plenty of activities, dining venues, bars and lounges on board to keep you entertained all night long, be sure to save up enough energy to wake up in the middle of the night should you get a call to see the magical natural wonder that is the northern lights.

Why Trust U.S. News Travel

Gwen Pratesi is a U.S. News & World Report contributor and an avid travel adventurer who fell in love with Alaska on her first visit to the state many years ago. She’s returned several times both by land and sea to view wildlife and chase the northern lights in one of the best places on the planet to view them. She’s even considered moving to The Great Land as a full-time resident. Pratesi used her deep knowledge of Alaska and the cruise industry to write this article.

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