How to Get Around Alaska: Planes, Trains & Automobiles – Oh, Boats too!
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By air, sea, or land, there’s no place in the world like Alaska – the Last Frontier. Sweeping tundra, towering mountains, sprawling glaciers, and dynamic waterways are just a few of the landscapes you’ll encounter when traveling in this great place. As you plan your Alaska itinerary, you might wonder how to get around Alaska. In most of my posts, I share information about what I recommend to get from point A to B, but there are lots of options if you want to change your plans from my advice.
Having grown up in Alaska and visited many times since, I’ve had a chance to try every form of transport in Alaska on this list. As you’ll see, there are plenty of options – it’s just about finding the one that connects the places you want to visit, fits your travel style, and doesn’t blow your budget.
Unlike many of my other Alaska posts, this one doesn’t give you a ton of actionable advice as you plan – but it likely answers many questions you have. So read on to discover all the different ways of getting around in Alaska, including planes, trains, automobiles and boats!
In this post, I promote travel to national parks that are the traditional lands of many Alaska Native groups, including the Aleut, Athabascan, Haida, Inupiat, Tlingit, and Yuit 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 originally published in November 2021, and was checked and updated in October 2022.
The 11 Ways to Get Around Alaska
It turns out there are lots of ways to travel in Alaska – perhaps more than you might expect or think of! This is in part driven by just how big Alaska is, and the creative solutions that are used to transport people and goods between places. There are also some great tourism transportation options that don’t exist in every destination. Here are the ways I thought of that you could travel around Alaska.
- Private Vehicle
- Recreational Vehicle (RV)
- Bus or Motorcoach
- Commercial Plane
- Flightseeing Plane
- Bush Plane
- Cruise Ship
- Day Cruise or Charter
- Public Transit
There are also other options like hiking/trekking, cycling (some people do set out on the long journey between Anchorage and Denali/Fairbanks by bike!), and hitchhiking (legal in Alaska), though I didn’t include any of these in my more detailed explanations and advice below.
Getting Around Alaska by Car
As with most places in the U.S., Alaska is a car-friendly destination. There are different options for how to do it though, which I’ll detail in this section.
In terms of the easiest way to travel in Alaska, a rental car is the way to go. I say it’s the easiest because it allows you the most flexibility and freedom, which is something people really look forward to when visiting Alaska in the first place.
If your idea of a great trip includes a lot of driving (Alaska is a big state, so expect at least an hour of driving to reach anywhere from anywhere else!) and the ability to pull off to admire that view or see those animals, consider renting a car for most or all of your travel in Alaska.
All of the major rental agencies operate in Alaska, though it may vary a bit depending on where you try and rent your car. There are also local car rental agencies if you’re struggling to find a car, and Turo is always a good option too.
RVs are another popular way to explore Alaska, though I’ll admit that I don’t get as many prospective RVers reading my site since it’s not something I have direct experience doing (though I’ve tried to arrange a trip several times!).
While RVs are more expensive to rent than a car, they also eliminate the need to book hotels – a real perk if you’re looking for flexibility to not even know where you’ll stay each night. Boondocking (aka freedom camping) is allowed in Alaska, though I recommend researching specifically what the rules are in/near any community you want to stay overnight in. There are also lots of Alaska State Parks with RV hookups and pumping stations.
For the most part, it’s pretty easy to drive an RV in Alaska, especially the smaller 25-foot ones that are widely available as rental vehicles. You might encounter issues finding places to park though, so again, be sure to research the activities you want to do – especially in town – and call if needed to confirm if they have RV parking.
There are lots of RV rental agencies in Alaska if you’re not driving your own. Great Alaskan Holidays is the biggest by far; start there and then look at other options if needed. You could also try Outdoorsy, which is like Turo (or Airbnb) for RVs and campers.
There are two ways to get your private vehicle to Alaska: by driving it or by riding the Alaska Marine Highway System. (I’ll cover the ferry in more detail below.)
In terms of driving, there’s only one road to Alaska: the Alaska-Canadian Highway (or the ALCAN) that connects Dawson Creek, British Columbia, and Delta Junction, Alaska. This road was originally built in 1942 and today stretches some 1,387 miles from end to end – but it requires a lot more driving to reach Dawson Creek from the Lower 48 and to get from Delta Junction to Fairbanks or Anchorage. Be prepared for long days of driving; most people drive it in 5-7 days, depending on how much they want to stop and see along the way.
I’ve driven(/ridden) the ALCAN twice: once when moving to Alaska in 1992, and again in 2006 when my parents moved out of the state. The road was dramatically improved in the 14 years between drives, but it’s still a long drive!
That said, I loved the experience and am keen to do it again in the future (I have a few ideas for how to make it happen!). If you decide you want to drive to Alaska, be sure to purchase The Milepost. This book is considered the ultimate guide and will help you both while planning and when you’re on the road.
Getting Around Alaska by Bus
If you don’t want to drive yourself and don’t want to travel by another means – or your travel budget won’t allow it – there is an alternative: you can travel in Alaska by bus!
The Park Connection
There hasn’t always been a bus route that connects the major cities in Alaska, but we’re lucky that there is one now, so non-driving, non-train-riding, non-flying folks can also explore the state. The bus service is called the Park Connection, and as its name suggests, it operates between Seward (Kenai Fjords National Park), Anchorage, and Denali (Denali National Park) with some stops in between.
Mr. V and I had the chance to ride the bus on our Alaska trip in September 2021 – more than expected actually, as we missed our train due to a flight cancellation… It’s a comfortable way to see Alaska and a good budget-friendly option!
To book the bus as part of your Alaska itinerary, head to the Park Connection website. Most buses run daily between Anchorage, Denali, and Seward, and the timetables are arranged for convenient connections between different routes. Tickets range from $70-$140 per adult, one way. Mr. V and I rode to and from Denali for $200 per person round trip.
Another way some people choose to explore Alaska is on a group tour; this often includes at least some bus transport. Most of the major cruise companies offer bus/motorcoach tours as an add-on option for their cruises, which is a popular way to see the state without having to drive or worry about logistics.
On my recent tour with John Hall’s Alaska, we traveled by bus for the majority of the tour – though also got to ride the Alaska Railroad and took a day cruise from Whittier to Valdez.
Denali Park Buses
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the most famous buses in Alaska: the Denali park buses! These are the only way you can access Denali National Park, since private vehicles aren’t allowed.
While they typically don’t connect you from place to place (most pick up/drop off in the Nenana Canyon area), some provide transport to/from Kantishna for multi-night stays out there.
I have an entire post breaking down your options for visiting Denali by bus in 2023, so be sure to check that out if you plan to visit Denali this coming year. There’s also a new Denali Backcountry Adventure bus tour that explores Denali State Park along the Denali Highway.
Getting Around Alaska by Train
As you’re planning your trip you’ve probably seen pictures of the iconic blue and gold train cars that comprise the Alaska Railroad. As the only commercial train line in Alaska, it’s a unique experience that I always recommend for first-time Alaska visitors. It also takes a different route than the highway system, meaning you’ll have a different experience than when driving.
The AKRR connects Fairbanks, Denali, Anchorage, and Seward, with stops in between for places like Talkeetna and Girdwood, as well as a spur line to Whittier. You can travel in Alaska without a car if you choose to ride the train, even in the winter, though the schedules are reduced during the winter months.
There are typically two classes of seats available, depending on your route: Adventure Class and Gold Star Class. I recommend splurging for Gold Star Class if you can swing it in your budget since it includes glass-domed cars and all meals and drinks.
All the info you need is available on the Alaska Railroad website. They have timetables, fares, route maps, and much more to help you plan your trip… If you find that you need help making sense of their site, I also have a breakdown of train rides in Alaska to help.
Getting Around Alaska by Plane
I lumped together the three types of plane travel into one for this section as I wanted to touch on each briefly but not get lost in the weeds – as you can tell, there are a lot of ways how to get around Alaska!
If you’re looking for point-to-point transfers between places, you have two options: commercial flights (usually offered by Alaska Airlines) or bush planes. You won’t typically need a bush plane unless you’re headed somewhere way beyond the normal tourist track – like one of Alaska’s super-remote National Parks or out into Southwest Alaska or the Arctic.
Commercial services operate between basically every big city and moderately-sized town: Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Sitka, and Ketchikan. There are also flights to smaller towns too, like Cordova, Yakutat, Petersburg, Wrangell, Kodiak, King Salmon, Nome, Kotzebue, Prudhoe Bay, and Utqiaġvik (Barrow). If that second set of places doesn’t sound familiar, don’t worry – those aren’t commonly visited places by first-time (or even 15th-time visitors – I’ve never been to most of them!).
Another way to get around Alaska from the air is on a flightseeing plane – though these typically pick up and drop off at the same location, so you don’t strictly travel between places on a flightseeing tour. Some of the most popular flightseeing tours I recommend are the Glacier Landing in Denali National Park (out of Healy) from Fly Denali and the Katmai National Park Bear Viewing from Rust’s Flying Service (from Anchorage).
Getting Around Alaska by Boat
You’ve probably heard the statistic that Alaska has more coastline than the entire rest of the United States put together. That means that boats and marine transport are an important way for people to get around Alaska – both locals and visitors. Here are the options.
Multi-Day Cruise Ships
Taking a cruise is a great way to explore Southeast Alaska, which is connected by plain but not connected by road. This region is also called the Inside Passage, and it is comprised of a large network of waterways and lots of islands – boats make the most sense if you want to see the scenery and explore some of the towns!
There are three main categories of cruise ships: mega-ships (2,500+ passengers), mid-sized ships, and small ships (<150 passengers). While I understand the allure of mega-ships, I always recommend small-ship cruising in Alaska and have done two small-ship cruises, with Uncruise (2017) and Alaskan Dream Cruises (2021). I’ve also done one mid-sized cruise ship, with Windstar Cruises in June 2022. Compared with their larger counterparts, small ships and mid-sized ships allow you to explore the waterways more intimately and spend more time in each port city having meaningful excursions on land.
Most mega- and mid-sized ships offer one-way cruises between southern terminals like Vancouver and Seattle to northern terminals like Seward and Whittier. You can sail northbound or southbound, though I always recommend sailing northbound and tacking on a few days (5 minimum!) to explore the rest of Alaska on land.
The Alaska Marine Highway System
If you like the idea of exploring Alaska on the water but aren’t up for a cruise ship, there’s a much less formal way to do it: the Alaska Marine Highway System, also called the Alaska State Ferry.
The ferry is a vital part of the transportation network in Alaska, especially for small communities in both Southeast and Southwest Alaska, where there are no roads to the mainland. The ferries connect almost every major waterfront community in these regions, including Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan, Whittier, Kodiak, and more. It’s a no-frills way to get around the state, though only marginally more affordable than a cruise ship with a lot more bells and whistles.
The ferry is also one way you can get your own car to Alaska if you want to explore Alaska by car; more on than below!
The AMHS website has all the info you need to book, including schedules and maps. It’s a complicated system but worth it if you can figure out how to make it work with your travel plans and style.
If you really love boats, there are other ways to get around Alaska by boat. One common way is on a day cruise; I broke down the differences between day cruises from Whittier and Seward and I have reviews of both Major Marine Tours (my favorite operator in Seward, though there are many others) and Phillips 26 Glacier Cruise (in Whittier). Like flightseeing, these cruises don’t allow you to travel between places, but they do open up parts of Alaska that you’re not able to see in any other way.
You could also charter a boat for a day (like a fishing charter) or for transport if that’s something necessary to complete an item on your Alaska bucket list. This is definitely not common and not something I know a lot about – but I know it can be done.
Public Transit Options in Alaska
Public transportation options are definitely limited in Alaska, though I wanted to include information just in case you are curious about it. If you’re just planning to stick to the big cities and then maybe take the Park Connection bus, Alaska Railroad train, or a flight between cities, you can get around Alaska without a car.
In short, public transit is limited to the cities: you can get around Anchorage and even Fairbanks pretty easily on the bus, and there’s a bus line that connects Anchorage to Eagle River (where I grew up) and the Mat-Su Valley (Palmer and Wasilla). As you’ll see though, it’s entirely possible to enjoy Alaska’s five major tourist destinations without a car.
Getting Around Anchorage without a Car
Within Anchorage, the People Mover bus system is actually pretty solid, considering that the vast majority of people don’t use public transit. I was able to easily take the bus from downtown to South Anchorage to visit the Anchorage Market in its new location, and the timetables were all pretty convenient. Best of all, the bus is just $2 per ride!
There are also taxis and car-sharing services like Uber and Lyft in Anchorage, though they’re substantially more expensive. For comparison, that same ride to the Anchorage Market was quoted at $38 on Uber.
Getting Around Fairbanks without a Car
Fairbanks is a lot like Anchorage, which means you can get around without a car. There are eight bus lines (colors) that connect the major areas of town and even some of the top sights – you can get to North Pole, the Museum of the North (on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus), and the airport on the bus system.
Fairbanks also has taxis and car-sharing services, but substantially fewer as Fairbanks is only about 1/10th the size of Anchorage. Don’t count on this as a transportation option unless it’s an emergency.
Getting Around Denali without a Car
Many people book the Alaska Railroad to Denali and worry they won’t be able to get around without a car. Don’t worry – for two reasons:
First, there are shuttles for everything. Hotel shuttles, park shuttles, you name it. When you book your Denali hotel, they’ll ask you if you’re arriving on the train and will provide a shuttle.
Second, the commercial area (hotels and restaurants) in Denali is super small. You can easily walk from one end of the Nenana Canyon/Glitter Gulch area to the other.
In short, you don’t need a car to get around Denali.
Getting Around Seward without a Car
Like Denali, some people take the train from Anchorage and worry they won’t be able to get around Seward without a car. While Seward is not as compact as Denali, you can still see almost everything in Seward within walking distance of the train depot/harbor.
The only exception is Exit Glacier, which is a drive outside of town – but there’s an Exit Glacier shuttle available for $15 round-trip.
Getting Around Juneau without a Car
Less like Fairbanks (despite its size) and more like Seward (because of its geography), Juneau is another city you might worry about navigating without a car.
The Juneau airport is far from downtown, but some hotels offer a shuttle, and there are both car-sharing and taxi services as a backup plan; there’s also the Capital Transit bus system as an option. Most of the tourist attractions and experiences are located downtown within walking distance, meaning you can enjoy almost all of what Juneau has to offer without needing a car.
The one exception is Mendenhall Glacier, which is definitely not within walking distance. Juneau Tours offers a Mendenhall Glacier shuttle for those who want to visit this popular sight without renting a car. (You can also take the bus, but based on my research, this adds an extra 2.5 miles of walking so I don’t recommend that for most people!)
The Best Way to Travel in Alaska
So what’s the best way to get around Alaska? In my opinion, the best way to visit Alaska is by traveling using all of these means! A great Alaska trip will include some car time (or bus time), at least one train ride, flightseeing, and at least one day cruise. That’s what I recommend in my most popular Alaska itinerary, anyway!
Beyond, the best way of getting around Alaska is the one that works in your schedule, with your travel style, and within your travel budget. As I said in the beginning, you have lots of options for getting around in Alaska – it’s just up to you which one(s) you choose. In my itinerary posts, I always share my recommendation, but the final choice is yours!
Have any questions about how to get around Alaska or these options I’ve mentioned? Let me know in the comments!
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I stumbled upon your blog. Lucky me!! Your detailed information was exactly what I was looking for…
My husband and I have been talking about an Alaskan trip for years. Your experiences have sparked our motivation, again.
I have saved your site for a future read.
Thanks so much, Deb! Good luck planning your trip.