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Alaska on a Budget: Costs to Visit & 15 Ways to Save

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If your heart is set on visiting Alaska, you might be willing to pay whatever it costs. But for some of us, we have to be budget-conscious on every trip we take – so we can take more trips in the future! While I consider Alaska to be a bucket list destination that’s totally worthy of splurging for, I also understand that not everyone can blow the annual vacay budget for just one week… and heck, even I have booked my trips to Alaska on a budget.

I grew up in Alaska, so I had very little sense of how much things cost compared to other places in the U.S., or other destinations around the world. That is, until I moved to the Lower 48 and started traveling back to Alaska myself! Now I appreciate how expensive things are – and I’ve learned a few tricks over my many trips to help save.

Alaska on a Budget Hero

In this post, I’m covering the oft-asked questions I receive about how much an Alaska trip costs and how to save money when you’re visiting Alaska. If you want to travel to Alaska but need to keep your budget in mind, this post will equip you with the cost info and money-saving tips to help you visit Alaska on a budget too!

The Average Cost to Visit Alaska

One of the questions I receive the most (especially by email, as finances/budgeting are a very personal thing!) is “how much does it cost to visit Alaska?

The worst part is having to answer… well, it depends.

It depends because I don’t know how much you want to spend (or save), and what you’re willing to do to not max out your Alaska travel budget. However, to help people who have this question, I’ve put together this post to try and help you understand the general costs you’ll encounter – and some tips to help you save if you need to.

Factors that Affect the Cost of Visiting Alaska

You might wonder why Alaska costs so much – so here are a few of the reasons that help explain it:

  1. Alaska is remote. It takes almost as long to travel to Alaska as to Europe (depending on your starting location). It’s far from… well, everything! That means it costs more to travel there, for airfare specifically.
  2. Supplies cost a lot to reach Alaska. Because Alaska is far from the continental U.S., shipping supplies to Alaska is more expensive. Just be glad you don’t have to buy milk year-round like Alaska residents!
  3. Alaska’s peak tourism season is short. Many tourism providers (hotels, tours, etc.) make all of their annual income in 4-5 months. Prices are higher as a result.
  4. People love visiting Alaska, or as my college economics professor would say: “high demand means high prices!” Especially in 2021 and 2022, people are eager to visit Alaska and it’s a great domestic travel destination that feels like you’re traveling internationally.

These four factors combine to make Alaska a more expensive destination than most in the U.S. But once you’ve been, I’m confident you’ll agree it’s worth it!

How Much it Costs to Visit Alaska

To give you a sense for how much it costs to visit Alaska, here’s a breakdown of what I estimate as a cost for two people. To begin, here are the basics:

  • Airfare costs roughly $550 per person (source)
  • Hotels cost roughly $200 per night (source)
  • Car rentals cost about $95 per day (source)
  • If you’re eating very budget-conscious and order no alcoholic drinks, you can probably find meals for $10 (breakfast), $15 (lunch), and $25 (dinner). Those are the estimates I used below.

And using the itineraries I’ve shared on my site so far, here are different price estimates based on the length of your trip:

Cost to Visit Alaska Table

Based on the above table, it costs $215-295 per person, per day to visit Alaska, excluding airfare.

The main difference in cost comes from whether you rent a car or take the Alaska Railroad to travel around Alaska.

15 Ways to Save Money when Visiting Alaska

Valerie in Alaska

So based on the above estimate, how can you save as much money as possible during your Alaska trip? After planning many trips of my own – and helping dozens of people plan custom itineraries – here are my best tips to help visit Alaska on a budget.

1. Book in Advance

If you want a sure-fire way to spend too much on your Alaska trip, wait until the last minute to book. I typically recommend booking your Alaska trip at least 3-4 months in advance, though many people book 6-8 months in advance (so January each year for the upcoming summer season).

Heck, there are some really smart people booking Summer 2022 travel right now as I write this in Summer 2021. Those people are going to get the best prices because everyone else is still booking last-minute for this year.

2. Visit During the Shoulder Season

 Summer and winter are Alaska’s two most popular seasons to visit; that increased demand guarantees that you will pay more for hotels, car rentals, and pretty much everything else that has demand-based pricing.

If you want to save, consider booking in the shoulder season, which is early to late May and mid-September to mid-October. Flights and hotels are always cheaper in the spring and fall, and if you click those links, you’ll see there are plenty of other great reasons to visit during the shoulder seasons too.

3. Be Flexible with Travel Dates

As you start to narrow down your travel dates (whichever season you choose), I recommend checking the price of everything before you book. Check flights, check hotels, confirm tour availability, etc. Once you have all that data, you can look at surrounding dates to make sure you’re getting the best price in that time. If you are, book it! You never know how many other clever people there are booking in advance and comparing dates after reading this article…

4. Visit One Alaska Region Only

I receive a lot of questions from people who want to visit more than one part of Alaska. Typically that means they want to visit Southcentral Alaska, Interior Alaska, and the Inside Passage (also called Southeast Alaska).

While it’s entirely possible to plan a trip that includes both Southcentral and Interior Alaska; the Alaska Railroad connects these two regions and that makes them easy to visit in a single trip. But visiting Southcentral/Interior and Southeast is tough unless you think about them as two separate trips… and almost twice the cost.

In short, stick to one region per trip: plan your first trip to Southcentral and/or the Interior, and plan a return trip to Southeast (or vice versa).

5. Rent a Fuel-Efficient Car

UnCruise Alaska Hero

Renting a car is a great way to save on travel costs in Alaska; it’s cheaper than the Alaska Railroad or other transit options. However, it’s important to keep in mind that Alaska is huge and you’re going to use a fair amount of gas to travel around.

For that reason, do a bit of research into the fuel efficiency of rental cars too. While you can’t typically choose your exact make/model before you arrive, you could make a shortlist of good cars in your rental class (Economy, Compact, etc.) and have it with you and hand it over as a request when they go to assign you a car at the counter.

Pro-tip: FuelEconomy.gov is the government resource on fuel efficiency for cars. I would aim for a car that gets at least 35mpg highway if you can!

6. Take the Bus instead of the Train

If you choose not to rent a car – or don’t want to drive – during your Alaska trip, no worries! You can still save.

Let me be clear: I absolutely recommend the Alaska Railroad (especially Goldstar Service) but it is not budget-friendly.

Instead, you can save by booking a bus instead. The Park Connection from Alaska Tour & Travel offers bus service between Anchorage and Denali and Talkeetna in the north, and Seward and Whittier in the south. Prices vary, but it is cheaper than the Alaska Railroad, helping save a bit.

7. Prepare Some Meals (Instead of Dining Out)

Dining in Alaska is a real treat: you can enjoy fresh seafood, great craft beer, and even more unusual dishes like reindeer sausage (my fave!!). But… dining out three times a day gets expensive fast.

To save on food costs, I recommend booking a hotel where breakfast is included, and consider preparing one meal a day instead of eating out for both of the other meals. There are grocery stores (and smaller convenience stores) across the state where you can stock up on ingredients. Fred Meyer is the most common supermarket, though there are others too.

8. Do the Cost-to-Time Calculation for Excursions

I mention this philosophy in my guide to booking Alaska cruise excursions (which are often overpriced and not worth the money!), but here’s my suggestion on getting value when you do book an Alaska excursion:

  • If the tour is on land or relatively stationary (such as a dinner show), I recommend you pay no more than $50 per hour of the excursion.
  • For water tours, such as rafting or a whale-watching cruise, I recommend you pay no more than $100 per hour.
  • If the tour is in the air, such as a flightseeing or helicopter tour, I recommend you pay no more than $150 per hour.

These are super general rules, but they’re good guidelines.

Any company charging more than that amount per hour for a tour is probably going to be less valuable than its competitors. Alaskan tours are certainly memorable – but not completely priceless and you shouldn’t pay $1000 for a 2-hour tour. By doing this math, you can make sure what you are spending is worth the money.

9. Skip the Most Expensive Excursions

Based on the above advice, you will probably find that some high-ticket excursions are “worth the money” but don’t fit your budget. That’s an unfortunate reality; some tours in Alaska are really great and really just cost a lot.

If you want to save while visiting Alaska, you may just need to set a limit on how much you’re willing to pay per-person for excursions. Maybe that’s $500 per person; maybe it’s only $250 depending on your budget. It’s easiest to make that decision before you do too much research so you already have that in mind when you come across something above your limit and can come up with a more budget-friendly alternative.

10. Comparison Shop on Flights & Hotels

This is generally good travel advice, but you should definitely comparison shop as you start researching your Alaska trip if you want to find the best prices. I love Kayak; it’s been my go-to since I started traveling internationally back in 2011 on a very shoestring budget.

You can browse flights, hotels, and cars on Kayak. Other good tools I use regularly include Booking.com and Hotels.com for accommodation, and Hotwire for cars.

11. Book Local Hotels

Anchorage Facts Hero - Anchorage Skyline - Frank Flavin
Photo courtesy of Frank Flavin

You might not know this, but not every hotel is listed on those comparison tools like Kayak, Booking, and Hotels.com. Many times, local hotels are not on those sites – and that means you can potentially find better prices by researching local hotels directly.

The way I do this is by searching Google for “[location in Alaska] hotels” such as “Denali hotels” to see what Google maps shows. I then open all the websites I can find and research on each site. It’s less convenient than those comparison tools, but you might be paying for that convenience – so you can save by doing the research yourself.

12. Book Non-Hotel Accommodations

For another accommodation option that may save you even more, look into non-hotel accommodations. This could include:

  • Airbnbs
  • VRBOs
  • other vacation rentals
  • RVs

These alternative accommodations can save if you book them far enough in advance or find a good deal – but don’t forget there may be other fees like cleaning charges and gas (for an RV!).

13. Tour Anchorage by Bike

There are many different ways to visit Anchorage, and most are pretty budget-friendly. But if you want to save and see the city, a good option is to rent a bike and do it on two wheels (rather than two feet). Pablo’s Bicycles is located right downtown and offers bike rentals starting from $20 for an hour (or $50 for the whole day).

14. Take the Transit Bus in Denali (Instead of the Tour Bus)

Things to Do in Denali - Bus Tours

I’m hesitant to make this money-saving suggestion because I genuinely believe that if it’s your first trip to Alaska, you should absolutely book the Denali tour bus.

However, I have gotten questions about the difference between the Denali National Park tour buses (like the narrated Tundra Wilderness Tour) and the transit buses (non-narrated buses that transfer you between parts in the park). The transit buses are cheaper, but that means you won’t have a narrator-driver, and may miss spotting wildlife and other sights.

If you are truly visiting Alaska on a budget and don’t care about having the ultimate Denali experience, I guess this tip is good… But if you really have to cut costs that much, you might want to wait until a future year when you can really invest in an unforgettable (rather than mediocre) Alaska experience.

15. Visit Roadside Attractions Instead of Flightseeing Them

While flightseeing tours are truly epic, they’re also expensive, as I mentioned in point #9. While I love and recommend several flightseeing tours, they’re a surefire way to blow your budget if you’re conscious of that.

Some general Alaskan experiences like glaciers (Exit Glacier, Matanuska Glacier, Portage Glacier), wildlife viewing (whale watching in Kenai Fjords, seeing Denali’s Big Five), and fishing spots (Copper River, Homer, Seward) can be visited by car or train, meaning you don’t have to book a flightseeing tour to experience them.

Unfortunately, some experiences – including the Fly Denali Glacier Landing tour and Rust’s Flying Service to Katmai or Lake Clark National Park – are not possible to visit by car/road, so you’ll just have to save up for your next trip!

Now you’re all set to book your own trip to Alaska on a budget. Have any questions about the cost to visit Alaska or these budget Alaska travel tips? Let me know in the comments!

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