There are three major differences between various Alaska cruises: Inside Passage, north-south and cruise-tours.
Most Alaska cruises take in the “Inside Passage,” but usually that term (“Inside Passage”) means a roundtrip cruise from Seattle that includes Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Glacier Bay or Hubbard Glacier, or both. The advantage to the round trip Seattle cruises is that airfares to Seattle are much less expensive than those to Vancouver, B.C. The disadvantage is you don’t go to Vancouver, which is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
Another type of cruise is the north-south or south-north, which starts in either Whittier or Seward and ends in Vancouver, or vice versa. The advantage to these cruises is they are almost always less expensive. The disadvantage is the airfare, which involves flying into Anchorage and shuttling to either Seward or Whittier and then flying home from Vancouver (or reverse). In this case the itinerary would perhaps include College Fjord or Hubbard Glacier, but other ports of call would be the same as those on a round trip Seattle cruise.
The third type is called a cruise-tour, which is always longer than seven days because it not only includes a north-south or south-north cruise but a land package that would include Denali National Park and Mount McKinley, as well as perhaps Fairbanks and/or Keenai. The tour would be at the front end of a north to south cruise or the back end of a south to north cruise.
Princess Cruises pioneered the cruise-tour and they actually own and manage several lodges where their passengers stay during their tours.
These lodges are reminiscent of those found in places like Yellowstone, Bryce Canyon, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, etc. A tour involving several stays in such places, to say nothing of the gorgeous scenery around them, is particularly appealing. Holland America, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, and now, Norwegian Cruise Line all have cruise-tours that utilize local hotels for overnights.
The touring by all of them is done in a combination of motor coaches and trains with domed cars so you don’t miss any of the spectacular scenery. The extra three-to-five days of touring is usually priced higher than the seven day portion on the cruise ship, but everyone who has been on one of these visual feasts says it is well worth it. Any way you do it, an Alaska cruise is one of the world’s premier vacation options.