If there is one destination about which I receive more questions than any other, it’s Alaska. At the core, everyone wants to know: how do you plan a trip to Alaska? What’s the perfect Alaska itinerary?
Since I started this blog, I’ve become a bit of an expert in Alaska trip planning and at times I publish so many stories that it seems like I’m running an Alaska travel blog! After all, I grew up in Alaska and I go back to explore my ‘home’ state with some frequency (at least once per year and twice in both 2021 and 2022). On top of that, I worked for three summers for one of the major cruise companies in Alaska. All this to say: I love answering questions and giving tips about how to plan a trip to Alaska, The Last Frontier, my home state!
If you’re planning a trip to Alaska – a destination many people dream of visiting for years – you’ve got to do it right. As a local and one who has worked in hospitality, I’m happy to share all my knowledge and tips so you can plan a perfect Alaska itinerary and have an amazing trip.
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Alutiiq (Sugpiaq), Dena’ina Ełnena, and Tanana peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
This post was published in September 2017, and is updated annually. It was most recently updated in April 2022 with additional tips for traveling this summer.
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As part of my Alaska resources, I created a quiz that will give you a simple free Alaska itinerary based on your trip length and travel preferences.
Alaska Itinerary Planning & Travel Tips
Alaska is a bucket-list destination for many travelers, so there are some important details to know before you start planning your trip. Putting together a good Alaska itinerary requires knowledge of the basics so that you don’t make any easily avoidable mistakes.
How to Plan Your Alaska Trip
To begin, I want to highlight this post: How to Plan Your First Trip to Alaska
In it, I cover a step-by-step process that will help you conceptualize your Alaska itinerary planning process before diving into the details below. I recommend opening that in a separate window on your computer, reading it, then coming back to this post.
The Best Months to Visit Alaska
The vast majority (90%) of people who visit Alaska in any given year visit during the summer months, but Alaska is actually a year-round destination. Yes, it’s colder and darker in the winter, but there are several reasons to visit during Alaska’s winter months:
- Fewer crowds
- Lower costs
- Possibility of seeing the Northern Lights
- Seasonal events like Fur Rendezvous and the Iditarod
Similar reasons make visiting in the shoulder season (spring and autumn) appealing. If you’re on the fence, I put together a list of reasons to visit Alaska in the spring (these apply to autumn too). I personally take most of my Alaska trips during the autumn, because there are fewer crowds and autumn colors are beautiful, even in Alaska.
If you’re looking for the best weather, it’s undeniable that the best months to visit Alaska are June through August. These are the months with the best weather – most sun and least rain – and warmest temperatures. Unfortunately, this short peak season means you’ll be visiting at the same time as every other traveler, so consider whether shoulder or off-season travel might be a better option for you.
Almost all of the activities I recommend in this post are only available in the summer months. If you plan a trip to Alaska in the spring, autumn, or winter, be sure to check the available dates for all activities I suggest below – before you book your flights.
Booking a Guided Tour vs. Doing it On Your Own
There are three main ways to visit Alaska:
- On an Alaska cruise
- On a guided tour
- On your own
I’ve done all three – most recently I visited Alaska on a guided tour (with John Hall’s Alaska in August 2021), and on my own (in September 2021) which also included a cruise with Alaskan Dream Cruises.
Having experienced all three types of Alaska travel, I can say that it’s definitely easier to book with a tour operator or guide. But, it’s not too hard to visit Alaska on your own and book everything independently. It really depends on your travel style!
Alaska may be ‘The Last Frontier,’ but it is well connected and you can research and book your entire Alaska trip online. This post, and all the others in my Alaska Travel Guide, are here to help!
The Cost of Travel in this Alaska Itinerary
As you begin planning your Alaska trip, you’ll quickly realize: Alaska is not a cheap, budget-friendly destination. That’s not to say you can’t be budget-conscious, but it’s not a default.
I’ve broken down how much it costs to visit Alaska on average, and that link also includes a bunch of tips to help you save if you want to visit Alaska and need to do it on a budget.
Unfortunately, in 2022 the cost of travel to Alaska has actually gotten a lot more expensive. Flights cost more (due to fuel prices), car rentals are more expensive (due to decreased supply of vehicles because of the pandemic), and hotels cost more than usual (due to increased demand – everybody loves Alaska!). As such, I’d actually estimate that the cost of Alaska is somewhere north of $350 per person per day on average right now, rather than the $215-$295 I mention in the post above.
What to Pack for Alaska
If you’re planning a trip to Alaska, you need to pack the right gear. It’s not the kind of destination where you’ll enjoy yourself if you’re underdressed or underprepared! I’ve put together a full packing list for Alaska, but here are some quick tips:
- Pack layers! You can always take them off.
- Pack rain gear. You don’t want to spend the whole trip feeling damp and cold.
- A hat, gloves, and scarf can’t go wrong, even in summer.
- Skip the skimpy shoes and opt for sturdy walking or hiking shoes.
- Throw sunglasses and an eye mask in your bag. That Midnight Sun is bright!
The Perfect 10-Day Alaska Itinerary
Okay, now that we’ve covered all that general stuff, here’s the quick version of my suggested 10-day itinerary for Alaska:
|Day 1||Arrive in Anchorage|
|Day 2||Explore Anchorage|
|Day 3||Travel to Denali|
|Day 4||Denali National Park|
|Day 5||Sightseeing Denali|
|Day 6||Travel to/Explore Seward|
|Day 7||Sightseeing in Kenai Fjords|
|Day 8||Travel to/Explore Girdwood|
|Day 9||Exploring Turnagain Arm|
|Day 10||Return to Anchorage|
This itinerary has been viewed by hundreds of thousands of future travelers and I’ve gotten some great feedback over the years to make it even better. In particular, it allows you to see one region of Alaska (Southcentral) in great depth and not be rushing constantly from place to place. In the rest of this post, I’ll dive into detail about each day, what to see and do, where to eat, and where to stay.
Day 1: Arrive in Anchorage
Depending on your city of origin, it may take almost one full day to fly to Alaska. For example, from Seattle, most flights to Alaska leave in the afternoon or evening, and you arrive in Anchorage late in the day.
If you’re arriving for your 10 days in Alaska via cruise ship, it will take most of the day to disembark and travel from the ship to Anchorage. Cruise companies typically use Anchorage as a base for “land excursions” in the state, so you can expect to catch a bus or train from Seward or Whittier to Anchorage on your day of disembarkation.
Given that you’re arriving in Anchorage during the evening, don’t plan much for your first day between settling in. For now, it’s best to settle into your Anchorage accommodation and enjoy dinner. For dinner, try 49th State Brewing (my fave) or the Glacier Brewhouse. If you’re staying at the Hotel Captain Cook, Fletcher’s restaurant also does a great reindeer sausage pizza.
If you still have energy and no jet lag after that, you can certainly walk around Downtown Anchorage to get oriented with the area; it’s a simple grid system and very walkable!
Accommodation Resources for Day 1
- Book 2 nights + 1 more night for Day 5 all at the same time; it may help to call and arrange this directly with the hotel rather than booking through a third-party site.
- If you are renting a car for this trip rather than taking the train to/from Denali, you only need 2 nights in Anchorage and Day 5 will be your first of three nights in Seward.
- For hotels, I recommend the following downtown hotels:
- For vacation rentals, consider this water view apartment in a great location (from $127/night, also on Booking.com), this apartment right near the Coastal Trail and downtown (from $255/night), and this huge house which is gorgeous and has space for up to two families (from $381/night).
Day 2: Explore Anchorage
Since I grew up just outside Anchorage, I could easily give you a week worth of things to do in Anchorage, but let’s try and keep it to just one day – there’s so much to see in Alaska and it’s such a big state that you need the rest of this Alaska itinerary for 10 days to see other amazing sights (and to travel between them)!
In the morning I recommend starting with an Anchorage Trolley Tour. I did this on my most recent trip and while it wasn’t like, amazing, it was a really good orientation to Anchorage including the history of the city. It’s also only an hour so you can do it and then get on to another adventure!
Then I recommend heading to Pablo’s Bicycles and renting a few bikes; you can easily access the 11-mile Tony Knowles Coastal Trail that runs along the Anchorage waterfront and gives you sweeping views of Cook Inlet and the Alaska Range – including Denali on a clear day!
For lunch, I have two suggestions, based on your preferences. If you want a sit-down meal, head to Humpy’s, a watering hole with a lot of local flavor – literal and figurative! Or if you’re feeling adventurous, seek out Tia’s Reindeer Sausage stand on 4th Avenue; it has the yellow umbrella. There, order a reindeer sausage, and be sure to add the pineapple salsa! No matter where you have lunch, head to Wild Scoops afterward for a sweet treat: fireweed ice cream!
Even if the weather is great, trust me and spend your afternoon at the Anchorage Museum. This huge facility underwent massive renovations that were completed in 2017; you can easily spend 3-4 hours in here if you discover all of the galleries.
From a Smithsonian-sponsored exhibit on the Native cultures of Alaska to the classic Alaskan artwork in the original part of the Museum, the exhibit on Alaska’s unique relationship with Russia to the “Imaginarium” downstairs where kids and alike can experience science first hand… the museum is a surprising delight.
For dinner, you can choose whichever of the three restaurants I recommended yesterday that you didn’t visit, or opt for the Crow’s Nest atop the Hotel Captain Cook (open to non-hotel guests). If you’re not totally wiped after a day of adventure and dinner, look and see if Ghost Tours of Anchorage is running on this night. It’s a colorful, occasionally creepy way to learn more about Anchorage’s history.
Accommodation Resources for Day 2
- Stay in the same accommodation for Day 2.
Day 3: Travel to Denali
Today’s plan: head north to Denali! There are three ways to get to Denali:
- By car, 4 hours via Alaska Highway 1 (the Glenn Highway) and 3 (the Parks Highway)
- By bus, 5.5 hours via the Park Connenction
- By train aboard the Alaska Railroad, 7.5 hours
While I have most commonly driven between Anchorage and Denali, I highly recommend the Alaska Railroad, since it offers a unique experience of the Alaskan Wilderness as well as great service and the ability to relax the whole way. If you choose to drive, be sure to keep an eye out for the mountain of Denali (here are some of my favorite Denali viewpoints), and be sure to stop at Miller’s Landing and get a huge ice cream cone!
In 2022, I’m especially encouraging travelers to book on the Alaska Railroad since cars have been so expensive and supply is so low. You will need a car later in this trip (Day 6-10) so take a look at rental car prices to decide if you can afford to rent a car for the entire trip (and want to drive) or want to split it with the train and car as I recommend.
However you get there, you’ll arrive in Denali in the mid-afternoon, so you can spend the rest of the day relaxing, or get started on this list of the best things to do in Denali. (Almost all of the excursions in Denali offer afternoon start times if something on that list catches your eye.)
For dinner, head to Moose-AKa’s. This European-style restaurant is the hands-down best restaurant in the Nenana Canyon area (where you’ll probably be staying). It was one of the best meals I had on my most recent Denali trip and is absolutely a must-do (or should I say must-eat). There are a number of other great restaurants in Denali if this doesn’t sound your style; be sure to check my list of where to eat in Denali.
After dinner, call an early night since you’ll likely be rising early tomorrow for your bus tour into Denali National Park!
Accommodation Resources for Day 3
- Book 2 nights in Denali.
- Denali has a limited number of accommodations in the Nenana Canyon area; my top recommendations are:
- There aren’t a ton of vacation rental options near Denali National Park, so you’ll need a car if you choose to stay in a vacation rental instead of a hotel right in town. This house (from $325/night, good for families or small groups) or this house (from $443/night, good for large groups, also on Booking.com) are both good options.
Day 4: Visit Denali National Park
Denali National Park is not accessible by private vehicle, so National Park Service buses are the only way to get into the park, see wildlife, and potentially, see the mountain of Denali herself. After two crazy years, you’ve probably heard that yet another issue has arisen regarding visits to Denali National Park: the road has closed at Mile 43 (of 92) due to a landslide and subsequent construction work.
While there are a few options for Denali bus tours in 2022 (read more about them here), with 100% certainty, I recommend everyone should book the Tundra Wilderness Tour. I know it’s long; I know kids get bored – and adults too. Trust me, that it’s the best way to see Denali National Park – even with the shortened experience. It’s still worth it.
In 2022, as with most things, availability for the Tundra Wilderness Tour is constrained – I’ve already heard of folks in June and July unable to find dates that work. For this reason, I highly recommend researching all of the parts of your trip including the TWT to confirm the availability on the day you need – or shifting your dates to accommodate this tour.
Since most Tundra Wilderness Tours leave in the morning, you’ll return back to the Visitor Center/Nenana Canyon area in the early afternoon and have the rest of the day to explore the Nenana Canyon or book another excursion in the Denali area (see my list for ideas).
For dinner, I have a couple of suggestions:
- You may want to book a seat for Alaska Cabin Nite, a dinner theater show that’s both cheesy and charming. Tickets are $75 per person.
- The Alpenglow Restaurant (at the Grande Denali, which offers a shuttle down to the Bluffs as well as the Tesoro station in town) is high-end and offers spectacular views.
- My personal favorite pizza place is Lynx Creek Pizza, at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. Order a margarita pizza with artichoke hearts, my off-menu specialty.
If you’re not totally wiped, I have one last suggestion: head to the Denali Salmon Bake for a McKinley Margarita. This towering blue monstrosity is mostly for the tourists but local workers enjoy them on occasion too. (Click here to see a very old pic of me enjoying one back in 2009!)
Accommodation Resources for Day 4
- Stay another night at your Denali accommodations.
Day 5: Flightseeing Denali (& Return to Anchorage)
For your final morning in Denali, book the 8:30 am guided flightseeing tour with Fly Denali. If you splurge on just one part of your Alaska itinerary, this is it. Their Denali Glacier Landing tour is expensive at $599 per person, but 100% worth it.
This is hands-down my absolute favorite thing to do in Denali – it’s my other “must-do” after taking a bus tour into the park. You’ll spend almost 2 hours in the air, plus 20 minutes on a glacier on Denali itself. So cool (literally and figuratively – there’s always snow!).
I’ve had the chance to do this flightseeing tour twice: once in 2007 and again in 2021 – and both times it was truly mind-blowing to stand among the towering peaks on the surface of the Kahiltna Glacier – which flows from the slopes of Denali! For fun, here’s a comparison of me the two times I’ve done this tour… 😂
Once you complete your flightseeing tour, you’ll begin making your way back to Anchorage. If you’re riding the Alaska Railroad, you’ll catch the 12:30pm southbound train to Anchorage. You can enjoy dinner aboard the train before arriving in Anchorage around 8pm.
If you [ignored my advice and] chose to rent a car for Days 3-10, you’ll arrive in Anchorage around 4:30pm. I’ve provided several dinner suggestions in the Anchorage sections above, so head back up to Days 1 and 2 if you still need ideas.
Or, see the sidebar for another suggestion on how to customize this itinerary should you choose to.
Accommodation Resources for Day 5
- If arriving from Denali by train, stay another night in Anchorage. As advised above, I recommend booking this night when you book the earlier nights for your 10 days in Alaska.
- If driving from Denali to Seward in a single day, you’ll need to book an additional night of accommodation in Seward (three total, in addition to the two I recommend below).
Driving a rental car? Should you continue onto Seward?
Absolutely, you can drive from Denali to Seward; this is a ~7 hour day of driving, and you’ll need three nights in Seward.
Day 6: Travel to Seward
If you chose to stay in Anchorage last night, Day 6 is another travel day. While the Alaska Railroad is a beautiful route from Anchorage to Seward, I recommend renting a car for this portion of the drive for several reasons:
- It is a 2.5-hour drive from Anchorage to Seward.
- While the Seward Highway is known as one of the more dangerous highways to drive, it is reasonable to drive as long as you are aware of other drivers and don’t take risks while driving or park on the side of the highway to look at whales or Dall sheep.
- The train from Anchorage to Seward leaves at 6:45 am – yuck!
- The rest of this Alaska itinerary works much better if you have a car to get around.
After making the drive from Anchorage to Seward, you’ll have most of the day to explore the city (or all of it if you drove to Seward yesterday). In any case, here are some of the top things to do in Seward. If you need to narrow it down, I recommend spending a few hours at the Alaska SeaLife Center in downtown Seward; you can see a variety of sea creatures including several in rehabilitation or research studies.
In the afternoon, head to Exit Glacier, just north of Seward. As I mentioned in my post about hiking in Alaska, Exit Glacier has a bunch of hiking trails and it’s easy to get pretty close to Exit Glacier and learn more about how glaciers have shaped the Alaskan terrain.
For dinner, head to Seward Brewing Company. The menu is exciting and a bit experimental (sea salt watermelon salad, anyone?) but delicious.
Accommodation Resources for Day 6
- Book two nights in Seward. (Or 3 if you decided to drive down, as mentioned in the Day 5 sidebar.)
- For hotels, I recommend:
- In terms of vacation rental options, stay in this retro yet modern apartment (from $99/night), cozy up in this downtown studio (from $114/night), or try this award-winning B&B (from $179/night).
Day 7: Sightseeing in Kenai Fjords
Today, you’ll board a sightseeing tour in Seward that will take you out into Kenai Fjords National Park. As the name suggests, these fjords are massive waterways that are home to some of Alaska’s greatest sea life, including humpback and orca whales, seabirds like puffins, and plenty of otters.
My preferred tour provider in Seward is Major Marine Tours, though there are others to choose from. I’ve taken several tours with Major Marine Tours over the ages and put together a review of two different tours I’ve done recently: the 6-hour Kenai Fjords National Park Cruise and the 8.5 Hour Kenai Fjords Northwestern Fjord Cruise.
As this tour will take up most of your day, the rest of the day can be spent at your leisure. For dinner, try The Cookery. I’ve never been, but it has rave reviews on TripAdvisor and I’ve heard great things from past Alaska travelers in my Alaska travel Facebook group.
Accommodation Resources for Day 7
- Stay another night at your Seward accommodation.
Day 8: Travel to Girdwood
For Days 8 and 9 of your 10 days in Alaska, the pace of travel slows significantly; there’s much less time spent traveling and more spent relaxing and/or looking around at the sights.
After the second night in Seward, the goal is to reach Girdwood on Day 8, a 1.5-hour drive. This obviously won’t take the whole day, so today is a great day to book a morning half-day fishing excursion in Cooper Landing before continuing back north. I haven’t personally done this excursion but I know fishing in Alaska is a popular reason to visit; google “Cooper Landing fishing” and you’ll see a bunch of options.
After either spending a leisurely morning in Seward or out on the river fishing, I recommend taking a small detour to enjoy lunch and walk around my favorite small Alaska town, Hope. There isn’t a ton to do in Hope, but it gives you a good picture of what life is like outside the “cities” in Alaska. Enjoy lunch at the Sea View Cafe, walk along the river, and try your hand at gold panning.
In Girdwood, spend the afternoon taking the Alyeska tram up Alyeska mountain. This tram is part of the Alyeska Resort and takes about seven minutes to bring you up the mountain. En route, you’ll see hanging glaciers on nearby mountains, and maybe even some wildlife in the landscape below.
Once you’ve arrived at the top of the tram, you can hike around (this is another easy hike I recommend for first-time travelers to Alaska) then return to the valley floor by tram – or hike back down if you’re feeling ambitious!
For dinner, hop in the car and make the short drive to the Double Musky, a Cajun steakhouse that will delight all of your senses (no more on that so you can really enjoy it when you walk in the door!). This was my parent’s favorite restaurant in Alaska when we lived there (they used to make the hour drive each way for special occasions!) and Mr. V and I had the chance to try it ourselves on our September 2021 visit – it is absolutely fantastic.
Accommodation Resources for Day 8
- Book two nights in Alyeska.
- For hotels, your options are a bit limited I recommend:
- For vacation rentals, this gorgeous wooden home (from $173/night) is a perfect mountain home base, this guest suite (from $140/night) is nicely modern, or you can stay at this alpine home (from $130/night) with a hot tub.
Day 9: Exploring Turnagain Arm/Whittier
On the last full day exploring Alaska, you have a bit of flexibility. While I don’t recommend staying at the Alyeska Resort, I definitely recommend booking a session at their new Nordic Spa. (It hasn’t opened as of my update in October 2021, but I’ll update this post as soon as it actually opens.)
After relaxing in the morning, you can grab brunch at The Bake Shop; their sweet rolls are a must-try but they have tons of other delicious breakfast options.
From there, I recommend heading out of the Girdwood valley to explore other areas along Turnagain Arm – the waterway you drive along from Anchorage to Seward and Seward to Girdwood. There are two main experiences I recommend while based out of Girdwood for the day:
- Portage Glacier Tour – A short boat tour to see Portage Glacier, an easily accessible glacier.
- Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center – A facility where many species of native Alaskan animals live permanently or in rehabilitation. This gives you a good chance to see some animals you may have missed while traveling.
Both of these activities will take a few hours, so you probably only have time for one unless you skip the Nordic Spa in the morning.
You could also choose to plan this day in Whittier; the 26 Glacier Cruise is quite different than Kenai Fjords cruises. There are also loads of other things to do in Whittier worth checking out if you want a more adventurous day.
For dinner, head back to Girdwood for a meal at Jack Sprat. In addition to the fact that Mr. V went to college with the Executive Chef, the food is fabulous. I tried my first bibimbap here and was blown away – quite a thing as we were far from where I’d expect to have great Korean food.
Accommodation Resources for Day 9
- Stay a second night at your Girdwood accommodation.
Day 10: Return to Anchorage
Wake up on your final day of this Alaska itinerary. It’s an easy day: all you need to do is get back to Anchorage from Girdwood (~60 minutes driving). Along the way, you could stop and do the following:
- Go for a short hike at McHugh Creek, a day-use hiking area.
- Walk along the boardwalk at Potter Marsh, a huge wetland where you can still occasionally spot a moose.
- Go for a hike up Flattop, one of Anchorage’s popular hiking mountains near the city.
- Watch airplanes land at Earthquake Park near the Anchorage airport.
- If you’re flying out on a Saturday or Sunday, attend the Anchorage Market at the Dimond Center Mall. It’s a great place to stock up on any last souvenirs!
- Spend an extra hour driving to visit the Eagle River Nature Center (in the town where I grew up!).
If you have time before your flight, stop for dinner at the Moose’s Tooth. This is a local favorite pizza shop with great beer (and great root beer!).
Now that we’re at the end of your trip, you’ll need to board a plane home at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. Many flights are red-eye when heading east toward the contiguous United States, so settle in for the long flight with dreams full of your Alaskan adventures!
Accommodation Resources for Day 10
- Nothing else – we’re all done!
What to Do if You Have…
9 Days in Alaska
If you only have 9 days in Alaska, how should you change this 10-day Alaska itinerary? I recommend dropping the full day in Girdwood/Turnagain Arm/Whittier. This means you’ll depart Seward on Day 8, spend one night in the Girdwood area, then drive from Girdwood to Anchorage on Day 9 for departure.
11 Days in Alaska
If you have an extra day – that is, 11 days in Alaska –, how should you modify this plan? Adding an extra day to this itinerary for 10 days in Alaska gives you a lot of flexibility! With 11 days, here’s how I would change your travel plans: Depart Seward on Day 8 and drive to Homer (further down the Kenai Peninsula). Stay there for Days 9-10, then drive up to Girdwood for one night (similar to the 9-day adjustment I just suggested).
If you’re visiting for a different length of time, I also have two itineraries for 5 days in Alaska, two 7-day Alaska itineraries (with suggestions for if you have 6 days or 8 days), and one suggested itinerary for 12 days in Alaska with tips for 13-, 14-, and 15-day trips.
No matter how long you’re visiting Alaska, I offer the perfect tool to help you finish your Alaska itinerary: my Alaska Itinerary Planning Packs range from 5-12 days in length and are perfect to 1) help you create a custom itinerary for your own travel style, 2) reduce overwhelm, and 3) help you avoid any FOMO about doing every must-do activity in Alaska!
Have questions about this Alaska itinerary? Let me know in the comments or join me in my Alaska Travel Tips Facebook Community!
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