As you plan your Alaska trip, you might have one unpleasant experience: sticker shock. Yep, Alaska is an expensive destination to visit – and it even surprises people who say “I know Alaska is an expensive destination.” But as you wade through the options and plan your itinerary, you might be uncertain: where can I save, and what are the splurge-worthy Alaskan experiences?
While there are definitely ways to save some in Alaska – hotels and breakfasts are two easy areas to trim costs – there are also some experiences that are worth every penny. I’ve learned which ones are worth it through having grown up in Alaska, working for an Alaska tour company, and visiting many times on my own dime since my family moved away.
In this post, I’m not going to share how you can save money in Alaska (that’s for another post) – instead, I’m going to tell you where you can spend it! I’ll also share why I think these are the experiences worth spending on… especially since several are also on my Alaska bucket list. Without further ado, here’s my list of the most splurge-worthy Alaskan experiences to consider for your trip.
1. Flightseeing in Denali National Park
If there’s one experience I recommend splurging on above all others, it’s flightseeing. Specifically, flightseeing in Denali National Park on the Glacier Landing Tour from Fly Denali.
You might wonder why I’m so specifically intense about recommending this one tour, so let me explain the backstory. In the summer of 2007, I worked for Holland America Tours in Denali; if you took a cruisetour that year, you might have encountered me in the HAL sales office! As part of my sales role, I was encouraged to reach out to every tour and experience operator in Denali and book an empty spot on their tour when I had a day off. The idea was that by experiencing them all, I would be better at helping people choose which tour to book.
I didn’t go on my Fly Denali tour until late in the season – sometime in August, just before I was set to leave Denali. But after all the tours I had been on, it was far and away the best. Even as someone who doesn’t love small planes, I was blown away by the views and getting to step foot on the glacial slopes of Denali herself.
Honestly, I can’t recommend this highly enough: if you only have a budget for one of these splurge-worthy Alaskan experiences on my list (other than the Tundra Wilderness Tour, #9) – make it this one.
The Glacier Landing Tour from Fly Denali is $599 for adults and $479 for children. They offer four flights daily through the summer season. Book here.
2. Staying in an Aurora Hotel with a View
If you’re planning to visit Alaska in the winter, there’s probably one big reason you’re willing to brave the dark and the cold: a chance to see the northern lights!
You can see the aurora throughout Alaska during the winter, but the best destination is Fairbanks (Anchorage is also good though you’ll need to book a tour to escape the city lights). Fairbanks is home to a number of hotels that specialize in aurora experiences; if you want to have that quintessential Instagram experience where you can watch the aurora from your bed then you need to stay at least one night in the domes at Borealis Basecamp.
Borealis Basecamp is located 45 minutes north of Fairbanks and the isolation ensures pristine dark skies. They offer aurora wake-up calls, in case the lights don’t wake you dancing overhead. (Other hotels in Fairbanks also offer aurora wake-up calls. My favorite from my Alaska aurora trip in 2020 was Taste of Alaska Lodge, and Chena Hot Springs is another good option with their aurora tour – more on them later!)
Igloos at Borealis Basecamp range from $389 per night (shoulder season) to $599 per night (holiday dates). Book here.
3. Booking a Small-Ship Cruise
I’m not sure the exact breakdown between people who cruise to visit Alaska compared to those who fly, but I do know that it’s a lot of people: almost a million every year! (In normal years, obviously.) Most people cruise on those monstrous mega-ships that move through the Alaskan waterways like a bulldozer – scaring away the sea life, doing harm to the local economies, and polluting the waterways. (Can you tell how I feel about them?!)
Instead of booking one of those mega-ship cruises to Alaska, I recommend checking out the small ship cruise companies. I cruised with Uncruise in 2017 and absolutely loved it; I am currently scheduled to cruise with Alaskan Dream Cruises in 2021. Most people balk when comparing the list price of mega-ship cruises compared to small ships – but I think that the latter are splurge-worthy Alaskan experiences in part because they might not actually cost more!
Best of all, these cruises might seem like they are more expensive based on the initial cost – but they don’t nickel and dime you like the big ships. There are no extra charges for drinks, services, or even excursions! (Which can really add up!) The price you pay for a small ship cruise is usually all-inclusive, and in the end, it can be the same or even less than the total you pay on a big ship (I break this down with real numbers in my Uncruise review here).
4. Taking a Dogsled Ride
Many people want to visit sled dogs when exploring Alaska, especially those super cute little puppies. There are a number of locations across the state (from Seward to Fairbanks) where you can book a tour to meet the dogs and learn about mushing in The Last Frontier. But if you have an option, it’s always worth splurging to book the tour that includes an actual sled ride.
In the summer months, this may mean you’re being pulled on an ATV or modified cart; in the winter you should have no trouble finding a tour that gets you out on a real dog sled flying over the snow while your team pulls you.
Here are the ones I know about:
- Paws for Adventure (Fairbanks)
- Black Spruce Dog Sledding (Fairbanks)
- Rod’s Alaska Guide Service (North Pole)
- Seavey’s Ididaride (Seward)
- Turning Heads (Seward)
There are also a lot of operators who offer dogsled tours from Anchorage too, if you want to book one there.
These tours don’t actually cost as much as other splurge-worthy Alaskan experiences on this list, but my point in including them was to say: always go for the tour option where you can actually take a dogsled ride.
5. Booking a Wildlife Encounter
I love recommending the Alaskan Wildlife Conservation Center (Girdwood) and Alaska SeaLife Center (Seward) to people; it’s the best way of guaranteeing they see wildlife in Alaska – even if their Kenai Fjords cruise or Tundra Wilderness Tour in Denali National Park is a bust (which they rarely are!).
However, if you have the budget to level up your time at these two wildlife facilities, both offer animal encounters that are definitely splurge-worthy Alaskan experiences.
The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is located near Girdwood and is home to a number of Alaskan animals you might want to see up close – moose, grizzly bear, lynx – but not in the wild. Normal admission is $17 per person, but they offer some wildlife encounters for more. How would you like to feed a moose? Or help train a bear? Book here.
The Alaska SeaLife Center is located at the edge of Resurrection Bay in Seward and is home to all kinds of cool sea species like seals, sea lions, otters, and tons of sea birds (including puffins, which I love!). They offer two animal encounters: a chance to get up close and personal with puffins and another one with sea otters (too cute!). Book here.
Best of all, these animal encounters are conducted in a way that is respectful and humane for the animals and the proceeds from these tours directly support animal rescue and rehabilitation at both facilities.
6. Staying a Night at Chena Hot Springs
I’ve already mentioned where to stay in Fairbanks once, so let me make the choice even tougher: in addition to a night in the aurora igloos at Borealis Basecamp (if you’re visiting in the winter), you also shouldn’t skip spending a night or two at Chena Hot Springs.
When my family lived in Alaska, we visited Chena in a former life – it has since been remodeled into a world-class spa fed by natural hot springs in the area.
You can certainly just visit Chena for a day, but I think spending at least one night out at the property is a real splurge-worthy Alaskan experience. it’s an hour drive from Fairbanks and you can soak in the hot springs late at night (possibly under the aurora if it’s dark enough!) or early in the morning before the crowds arrive.
7. Upgrading to Goldstar Service on the Alaska Railroad
I’ll be honest: I almost didn’t include this one on my list, because I checked the price for Goldstar Service and think it’s getting exorbitant. (That’s how you know I’m keepin’ it real with you!) But let me explain first…
There are two classes of tickets on the Alaska Railroad: Adventure Class and Goldstar Service. Adventure Class is pretty much what you’d expect – standard train cars, access to the snack car and dining car, etc. Goldstar Service is the splurge, with double-decker cars that have glass domes up top and a dining car below. (It’s actually a lot like the Rocky Mountaineer, which you know I definitely recommend.)
Adventure Class is already a “healthy” price at $176 each way from Anchorage to Denali or $113 each way from Anchorage to Seward. Goldstar Service is $325 each way Anchorage to Denali and $224 each way Anchorage to Seward – so twice as much. While this doesn’t seem like much, it adds up: it’s $1300 for two people to ride the Alaska Railroad to/from Denali in Goldstar Service! That’s… a lot! Even for me – and I’m the one writing the list of splurge-worthy Alaskan experiences!
So here’s my advice: if you have the budget, absolutely splurge on Goldstar Service. If you’re trying to choose between Goldstar Service and something else on this list (like flightseeing in Denali), go for the other option instead and enjoy Adventure Class.
Tickets and fares can be found on the Alaska Railroad website. Click here.
8. Booking a Bear-Watching Tour
Many people come to Alaska and want to see bears eating salmon. All I can say is that someone did a really nice job getting the word out about that experience, because it’s one I increasingly get requests for on my custom Alaska itineraries.
What most people don’t realize is that the bears aren’t near… well, anything! They’re bears – they live in the wild! Specifically, the most common places to see bears are Katmai National Park and Lake Clark National Park – but those two parks are only accessible by plane, specifically on a flightseeing tour. Since the national parks are pretty far from Anchorage, it actually takes a full day to do the tour – and as I shared above, flightseeing tours are not cheap.
Basically, I’m trying to manage your expectations here: if you want to see bears catching salmon in Alaska, it’s totally doable. But it has to be on your “I’m willing to splurge for it” list, because most tours start around $900 per person for the day tour.
If you have your heart set on seeing bears in Alaska and Denali National Park isn’t going to cut it, definitely splurge on this – but now you won’t have any sticker shock!
Flightseeing tours to Katmai National Park start at $995 per person with Rust’s Flying Service (who I recommend). Book here.
9. Doing the Denali National Park Tundra Wilderness Tour
Here’s another one that some prospective Alaska travelers get sticker shock over and wonder if it’s worth it – but which actually doesn’t cost that much in Alaska prices (as you can tell from the rest of this list): the Tundra Wilderness Tour in Denali National Park.
Yes, the TWT is absolutely worth it. In fact, it might be the one thing on this list that I think is absolutely a must-do. (Everything else is a splurge-worthy Alaskan experience if you can afford it – this is one you should not skip.)
The Tundra Wilderness Tour is an eight-hour bus tour into Denali National Park aboard the official National Park Service modified school buses. These buses are the only way to visit Denali beyond Mile Marker 15 at the Savage River Crossing – and it’s necessary to go that far into the park to ensure you really see the wildlife and wildness there.
Oh, and in 2021, it’s your only bus tour option. (Even in other years, I always recommend the TWT over the other two bus tours because it’s the best combination of time and distance into the park.)
The Tundra Wilderness Tour is $162.50 for adults and $73.75 for kids in 2021. Book here.
10. Enjoying Fresh Alaskan Seafood
I’ll be honest: Alaskan seafood was wasted on me as a kid when growing up in Alaska. I didn’t like it – but my parents just got to enjoy it all to themselves instead!
Now I know better: Alaska has some of the best seafood in the world, and it’s on almost every menu in almost every restaurant.
While this isn’t a specific experience, I recommend planning to enjoy at least one really great meal of Alaskan seafood during your trip. Whether that’s splurging on Alaskan King Crab (which is not cheap, but still cheaper than you’ll find in the Lower 48) or ordering halibut or salmon for dinner every night, don’t miss out on the chance to sample the local flavors.
11. Booking a Guide for a Better or Safer Experience
I’ll be honest: I don’t normally recommend guides, mostly because I grew up in Alaska and figure I can figure almost everything out myself. But there are some times in Alaska I think a guide is definitely worth splurging on.
Like enjoying Alaskan seafood, this isn’t a specific recommendation for one destination or experience. Instead it’s a reminder that Alaska is one of the last truly wild places in the United States. It can be dangerous. Having a guide can help keep you safe.
One example that comes to mind is glacier hiking on Matanuska Glacier. You can absolutely do this yourself, but you’ll be safer with a guide, the right equipment they provide, and the route they take which avoids dangerous parts of the glacier.
All this to say: do your research. If you see people recommending a guide, or you ask an expert (like me!) for advice, take that advice. I want you to have an unforgettable trip – and I’ll recommend what I think is best for you. Sometimes that means a guide, and that’s the best way to ensure you come home from your Alaska trip with nothing but memories (and souvenirs!).
Bonus: On Professional Photos
After writing this post, I realized there was one more “experience” I wanted to recommend: professional photos that you can bring home as the ultimate souvenir. My favorite service for vacation photos is Flytographer, and there’s one photographer in Anchorage: Cindy! I love her style and plan on booking with her for my upcoming Alaska trip.
You can click this link or use code VALISEMAG1383 for $25 off your first photo shoot with Flytographer.
Did I miss any splurge-worthy Alaskan experiences you’ve heard about? If you have questions about these or other Alaskan experiences you don’t know if are worth the money, let me know in the comments or join me in my Alaska Travel Tips Facebook Community!
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