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15 Things You Need to Know Before Traveling to Alaska in 2023

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That moment pictured, right there and then, is one of my favorite memories from traveling to Alaska on a cruise in 2017. It was freezing cold, it was raining, and I was wearing every layer I had brought on the trip – but I had just heard the rumbling of “white thunder” and witnessed a huge chunk of the ice calf off from the face of Dawes Glacier.

These are the kinds of unforgettable experiences I think back on so fondly whenever I write Alaska stories, answer your comments and emails, and help you plan your trips. Alaska is truly unique on our big beautiful planet; it’s The Last Frontier, one of the last places you can find Wild, wide-open spaces and the wildlife that live there. I want you to experience it too, but I know people have tons of questions about traveling to Alaska, planning a first trip, and lots of other topics too.

40 Before 40 Hero - 36

To that end, I’ve written this post – it’s different than a lot of the others I’ve written about Alaska or any other destinations either. These are the things I’ve learned from a childhood spent growing up in Alaska, and the many trips I’ve taken back (for business and for pleasure!). As you figure out how to travel to the Last Frontier in your own way, here are all tips I think you need to know before visiting Alaska.

In this post, I promote travel to destinations 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 June 2020, and was updated in April 2023.

1. Alaska is Big – Like, Really Big

View of Eagle River Valley

When I was working in tourism many summers ago, I have a distinct memory: a tourist stepped off a giant motorcoach in Denali National Park, and loudly complained, “why does it take so long to get anywhere in Alaska?

In my mind, I thought: have you ever looked at a map?

I know that Alaska is misrepresented on most maps and globes, but it’s not hard to find evidence of the truth: Alaska is really, really big. It takes a while to get from place to place! Here are some examples:

  • It takes about 3.5 hours to fly from Seattle to Anchorage; that’s about the same amount of time it takes to fly from New York City to Miami.
  • The drive from Anchorage to Denali takes about 4-5 hours; that’s the same amount of time it takes to drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas!
  • The train from Anchorage to Fairbanks takes 12 hours; that’s the same length of time for a train from Chicago to New Orleans.
  • Even flying takes time – it’s an hour’s flight from Anchorage to Fairbanks, similar to the hour it takes to fly from Houston to Dallas.

I generally advise people to give themselves a full day for each day of travel – even when the travel time is not a full day. It takes a while to get from one place to another, whether you fly, drive, or ride the train, and you’ll want to make stops as you can to admire the views, spot wildlife, and more. The good news is that the Alaskan scenery is stunning so you’ll have plenty to enjoy along the way.

2. There are Only a Few Roads & Routes for Traveling in Alaska

Another reason it takes a while to get between destinations while traveling in Alaska is that there aren’t many roads or routes to choose from. Again, I’d encourage you: look at a map as you begin planning to visit Alaska. The roads and routes aren’t anywhere near as varied as you might expect if you live in the Lower 48 or elsewhere in the world.

For example, there’s only one real route from Anchorage to Denali: the Parks Highway. If you want a longer, multi-day route, you could instead take the Glenn Highway to the Richardson Highway. No joke: there are no interstates in Alaska (because Alaska doesn’t connect to any other states) and all of the main highways (of which there are only 9) are named.

So as you try and put together your Alaska itinerary, remember this: there’s no quicker, less scenic way. The journey is part of the experience. When traveling in Alaska, you only get those slightly meandering, beautifully scenic routes – and you’re gonna enjoy it, gosh darn it!

Want help planning your Alaska trip?

I grew up in Alaska and it’s my favorite place to visit – let me help you make your trip planning easier!

3. You Don’t Have to Wait to Visit Alaska

Here’s another story from my time as a wee young teenager, living in Alaska and working in hospitality (the pictures above are from that summer, 2007!):

I was standing in our main office, ready for busloads of travelers to arrive and flood in trying to book their tours. After surviving the deluge of questions and bookings, one older lady made her way to the counter with a cane and a sour look on her face. Warily, I asked her how I could help her, and her reply floored me.

“You young people need to travel. You have credit cards, right? Use them! Don’t wait until you’re so old that you can’t enjoy any of the activities you want to do when you get there.”

I think this anonymous woman changed my life, as it inspired me to start traveling more in the next few years – and to use those credit cards wisely to explore the world.

But I feel the same way about traveling to Alaska: Don’t wait! Alaska is not just a destination for retirees! (Though of course travelers of all ages are welcome!)

You can plan a trip to Alaska now, this year, with whatever physical and mental ability you have. Alaska is expensive, and it requires a bit more coordination and planning than other destinations, but there’s no need to save up and wait, only to visit Alaska and realize you can’t do some of the activities you’ve been dreaming of for a lifetime.

4. Traveling to Alaska is Expensive, But…

Alaska Cruise Excursions Hero

Okay, let’s call out the elephant in the room: traveling to Alaska and the activities you want to do will be expensive.

Part of the reason that it costs so much to travel to/within Alaska is that it’s far away from everywhere else. A lot of what you consume and use in Alaska has to be flown or shipped in. That increases the cost – which affects the whole economy: the cost of living is higher, which means wages have to be higher, and the costs of the service Alaskans provide is also higher.

I’m working on a new blog post all about different budgets and how much things cost while traveling in Alaska, but for now, I estimate that you need at least $1500 per person for a week in Alaska. Depending on your group size, how many and what kind of tours and excursions you do, and how you choose to travel, it roughly costs $200-$300 per person per day – but you can also easily spend $500 per person per day if you’re splurging!

Be sure to check my guide for how much it costs to visit Alaska, which I update annually with new prices and suggestions.

5. …Traveling to Alaska Can Be Done on a Budget

If you’re looking at those numbers in my last point and your jaw is on the floor, don’t worry! There are ways to travel in Alaska on a budget. Here are some tips:

  • Travel in the shoulder season. Summer and winter are Alaska’s two most popular seasons to visit. Flights and hotels are always cheaper in the spring and fall!
  • Book/arrange free or low-cost experiences. Though there are some epic splurge-worthy tours, there are also plenty of lower-cost alternatives. Think museums, walking tours, and bicycle rentals – Alaska has them all!
  • Look at non-hotel accommodations. Alaska has plenty of options from Airbnb/vacation rentals to hostels, cabins, and campgrounds – heck, you can even rent an RV and combine transport and accommodation!
  • Rent a car. On the scheme of “ways to travel in Alaska,” renting a car and DIYing your itinerary is generally going to be the cheapest option when compared to flights, the Alaska Railroad, and guided tours.
  • Visit roadside attractions instead of flightseeing them. While flightseeing tours are truly epic, they’re also expensive. Instead, look for alternatives you can visit by car, like glaciers (Exit Glacier, Matanuska Glacier, Portage Glacier) and fishing spots (Copper River, Homer, Seward).

Hopefully with these tips, you can trim the cost of traveling to Alaska (point #4) down enough to make that trip happen sooner in life (point #3)!

6. Alaska Has Four Distinct Seasons

When I was a kid growing up in Alaska, I remember that when the mercury hit 55°F, it was shorts weather! Summer in Alaska isn’t balmy, humid, or sweltering like other places in the Lower 48. But it is summer, and the other seasons each offer their own distinct experience:

  • Summer is the most popular season for traveling to Alaska. You can experience warmer temperatures and the midnight sun!
  • Fall is increasingly popular for people who want to try and experience the last of the good summer sun with a chance of snowy, winter activities.
  • Winter is Alaska’s second most popular season to visit, thanks to opportunities to see the aurora, plus try your hand at winter-only experiences like dog-sledding and ice fishing.
  • Spring is the overlooked season for visiting Alaska, partly because it’s a short one. But you can sneak in as the snow and ice begin to thaw and enjoy Alaska before the summer crowds arrive.

Each of the links above will take you to an article I’ve written all about that specific season – if you have a specific season or month in mind, you’ll learn even more in these articles about why that’s a great time and the types of experiences you’ll have since they vary a lot!

(I’ve been asked a lot, but honestly, there’s not really a “best” time to visit Alaska because The Last Frontier is great year-round!)

7. It Rains in the Alaskan Summer

Ketchikan Cruise Excursions Hero

As I said, most people visit Alaska in the summer, and I’ve just talked summer up as the season with the greatest weather, warmest temps, and most sun… but it also rains in Alaska a fair amount in the summer. That’s why I always advise people to pack rain gear when traveling to Alaska – even if the forecast looks clear and beautiful for your upcoming trip.

Broadly speaking, here’s what you can expect in terms of rain during Alaska’s summer months:

  • June is generally dry and clear, but it’s possible to experience rain, especially if you’re doing an Alaska cruise in Southeast Alaska where they get more rain than any other place in the state!
  • During July, there’s a joke that the rain always waits to start on the 4th. (We usually celebrate Independence Day at midnight on the 3rd since it’s the only time that’s dark enough.
  • August is the peak rainy season when most destinations see the greatest amount of liquid precipitation of the year. (Obviously, some places receive a lot more frozen precipitation – snow! – in the winter.)

My family joked growing up that the weather changes every five minutes in Alaska. So plan ahead: pack for rain. The worst thing that happens is that it sits in your suitcase for the whole trip!

8. Alaska is Great by Sea and by Land

UnCruise Adventures Alaska Review

“What is the best way to visit Alaska? By cruise, on land, or both?” Great question.

If you have the budget, the answer is obviously both! If you have to choose due to vacation days or budget, here’s what to consider.

Cruises are great if… you love sea life think whales, otters, puffins; want to see glaciers and fjords; love being on a boat (of any size); and like to have basically everything taken care of for you.

Land tours are great if… you prefer to do a vacation your own way; want to see land critters like moose and bears; want to see mountains and glaciers; and are up for the logistics of putting together your own Alaska itinerary. (I do offer custom Alaska itineraries and have a DIY tool too!)

You’re probably looking at those two lists and thinking: I want both! Okay, then, do both! If you can’t do both on this first trip, that’s okay. Just plan a second trip to Alaska in the future! (Spoilers for point #15!)

9. You Can Only See the Midnight Sun in Summer

Alaska - Fireweed

Among all of the things I think you need to know before traveling to Alaska, this point and the next one are related to a simple concept: you can’t experience the same things all year long in Alaska. As I mentioned, Alaska’s seasons are distinct, and that means the opportunities and experiences you’ll have will also be distinct from one season to another.

So let’s start with summer: if you want to see the Midnight Sun, you must visit Alaska in the summer.

Days are long and the sun stays up late in the summer months across the Northern Hemisphere (including Alaska). But that’s only in the summer – it’s the opposite during the winter. So if you want to see the Midnight Sun but are planning to visit Alaska in January to also see the northern lights, that ain’t gonna happen!

10. You Can Only See the Northern Lights in Winter

Similarly, seeing the northern lights in Alaska – the #1 reason people visit the Last Frontier during the winter months – is only an option during the dark, winter months.

If you plan a trip in June and expect to see the aurora, you will be disappointed.

All this to say, do your research. Understand how the months and seasons vary. Plan your first trip to Alaska for the top experiences on your Alaska bucket list; if that means the northern lights, you need to plan an Alaska winter itinerary. Then plan another trip (or many more) for the rest!

11. Alaskan Wildlife is Spectacular

I’ve mentioned a lot about growing up in Alaska so far, but one I haven’t ever really mentioned is how I was so fortunate for it. Growing up in Alaska meant incredible astronomy experiences that eventually inspired my work in astrotourism and space tourism. Growing up in Alaska meant family vacations to see glaciers and fjords and the towering Denali. Heck, growing up in Alaska meant seeing incredible wildlife – and gaining a deep respect for the Wild.

The Last Frontier is still very Wild, and there are some incredible wildlife experiences to be had while traveling in Alaska.

On the water, wildlife lovers are treated to a huge diversity of sea life. Eight species of whales call the waterways of Alaska home at different parts of the year, including humpbacks, orcas, and belugas. You can see cute sea otters and puffins, plus plenty of other mammals (seals, sea lions) and sea birds (eiders, murres, auklets).

If you’re doing a land tour, I always suggest visiting Denali National Park, where you can try to spot Denali’s Big Five:

  1. Moose
  2. Grizzly Bear
  3. Wolves
  4. Caribou
  5. Dall Sheep

Like other safaris in other parts of the world, Denali is a haven for wildlife and the chance to see it up close but still safely. It’s definitely a must-do if you love wildlife! (There are loads of other great things to do in Denali too!)

12. To Get Deals and the Best Availability, Book in Advance

If you’re reading this in 2023, let me give you a tip: the lead time on booking Alaska travel has never been longer. I regularly receive emails from people who are planning trips in 2025 – and the 2023 season hasn’t kicked off!

The ramifications of the pandemic have not yet resolved: a lot of businesses are still struggling to get back on their feet, seasonal workers are hard to come by, and the supply chain is still not working at full efficiency.

But this rule about traveling to Alaska applies more broadly: the sooner you book your Alaska trip, the better deal you’ll get. Don’t wait until that random 56-days-before-your-trip to book everything because “that’s when most people book” and “than’s when you can get the best deal.” That’s not true in Alaska – 56 days out from the summer season means you’ll need second and third alternatives for almost everything you want to do so you can find things to book!

13. The Best Souvenirs are Hand-Made

I’ve written a whole post about Alaska souvenirs that are worth saving space in your suitcase for, but in case this is your first visit to my site, here’s the big takeaway: if you want to buy souvenirs in Alaska, look for the places where craftspeople are selling their wares.

The most authentic souvenirs from Alaska are made in Alaska – shocker, I know.

How can you find those items? Look for an “Alaska Grown” or “Made in Alaska” sticker on the product – or ask the person selling to share where the products were made or produced.

14. Traveling to Alaska is a Once in a Lifetime Experience (But…)

I struggled about where to put this point on the list of things to know before going to Alaska – but I decided to end here because it’s the point I want you to take away with you (and hopefully as you explore the rest of my Alaska travel guide or dive into my Alaska ebooks).

You likely already know, but let me say it again: Alaska is a once-in-a-lifetime destination. It really will blow your mind and will leave you speechless. You’ll come home with unforgettable memories and stories that give all your friends FOMO. Make traveling to Alaska a priority – you won’t regret it.

But that’s not my final point actually, because…

15. …You Can Easily Visit More than Once

Alaska is a once-in-a-lifetime destination that you can experience way more than once in a lifetime, with proper planning and prioritizing your vacation days and vacation budget.

Yes, I grew up in Alaska, so I have a lead on visiting Alaska – but I’ve also traveled back a lot:

  • In 2009, my best friend from college and I made a trip to celebrate our graduation in the summer.
  • In 2014, I took a somewhat spur-of-the-moment weekend trip back to Alaska to visit Denali in the fall.
  • I made two trips to Alaska in 2017, both within the spring month of May! I went on my first UnCruise early in the month, and took Mr. V on his first trip to Alaska for Memorial Day weekend.
  • I traveled back to Alaska in February 2020 to experience winter in Alaska for the first time since my family moved away – and just before the whole world shut down.
  • Since the pandemic, I’ve visited Alaska three more times (twice in 2021, twice more in 2022), and have two trips planned for 2023.
  • I’m also leading a group trip in 2024 – come travel with me in Alaska!

How did I make 9 trips to Alaska in the last 14 years? I made it a priority! I saved up, looked at different seasons, and took advantage of deals.

You can do the same. Yes, plan an epic, once-in-a-lifetime first trip to Alaska – but if you fall in love with it and want to go back, that’s totally possible and you can make it happen! (Here are my tips on planning your second trip!)

What else do you need to know about traveling to Alaska? Let me know in the comments below!

Need More Alaska Travel Advice?

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I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.


  • Rachel Frampton

    My sister and I are planning to go to Alaska and try the infamous Whale watching tour in there. I’m glad you shared this; at least now we’re aware that we’ll have to prepare $1500 for a one-week vacation. Your idea of renting an Rv seems like a practical option as well.

      • Angela Norwood

        My husband had been wanting to visit Alaska for years. We finally booked a cruise for 6 for 2021. Of course, it fell through so we ended up planning the trip ourselves. We flew in to Anchorage and rented a van. We stayed at Alyeska for 7 nights while we visited the area including Seward, Whittier, and Anchorage. Then drove to Denali for 3 nights while visiting Talkeetna, the park, Fairbanks, and the North Pole. Our cost was about $5,000 per person but included a marine tour, Alaskan wildlife center, Native American Heritage Center, flightseeing to glacier, and all the free things too! Your information was very valuable in my planning process and we are coming back in 2022 on a cruise this time!! My husband wants to live there now.😂


    Hi, i was planning for a family vacation to Alaska by 2022. What is the best cruise company for the cruise trip? Which port of origin is better? I am from the Philippines.

    • Valerie

      I haven’t cruised with all of the companies, but I’ve heard Disney is good for kids and Carnival is fun too! I did a Norwegian cruise and they have a lot for kids too. I hope that helps!

  • Carol Pinkston

    My new neighbor (2 years) is a native of Alaska and her husband lived there, but wasn’t born there. She has graciously offered to take me and another neighbor for a 3 girls adventure. She is very comfortable driving an RV—knows all the places to take us to see more than we ever would on a guided tour! We will got this July—-stay at least 12 days, probably more—and I am soooo excited. I’m the oldest, 68, one is 63 and our neighbor is upper 50’s. One question, RV space is limited—your take on what clothes to bring, and any other out of the ordinary places to go, see, eat??? Thank you for your time and info!

  • Robin

    Thanks for the info! I’ve been wanting to drive my pickup/camper from the lower 48 to your great wide open for years. And tell my friends and family not to expect me back!! As soon as the border opens up through Canada I’m there.

  • Brenda

    Valerie, I found your website by accident….and it is exactly what I have been looking for for several years!!! I am still reading….. there is so much great info!

    My husband and I are leaning toward touring this great state in an RV – whether we rent or make the epic drive with our own travel trailer (to be decided yet). Do you have more info for those interested in camping…either your own informnation or another source.

    I have to admit, I am overwhelmed in planning this trip but, your information has been very helpful. I have heard from numerous people that is is hard to tour Alaska if you are not part of a cruise/land package – because everything gets booked up. Is it hard to secure camping sites?

    You have a wealth of great information. Thank You!

    • Valerie

      Brenda, I’m sorry, I’ve never done an RV trip myself, but I have one I’m planning for this summer! I generally advise that you can use Google to find campsites – and then I recommend calling each place to ensure they have spots that will fit your RV/trailer and have the hookups you need. I also then advise booking/reserving them right away so you know you’ll have them secured for your trip. Some of these campsites are still phone-based for most of their business, so it’s worth making those calls. I hope that helps!

  • Pramane Phommachit

    We’re thinking about Alaska this summer and this is the best blog I’ve read to prepare for. Thank you for the detailed information..

  • Michelle

    I’ve been planning our trip for a while now, but just starting to make reservations. We plan to take the ferry instead of a cruise. Rent a car in Whittier and spend a couple weeks on a land tour. Do you have any tips for the ferry? Do you think we will see whales on the ferry or should we book a whale watching tour?
    We will be in Fairbanks at the end of August. What are the odds of catching the Northern Lights while we are there?

    • Valerie

      I haven’t ridden the ferry since I was about 7 years old, so I don’t have any resources about it at this time. I would book a whale watching tour too, just to improve your odds! Regarding the aurora, it’s impossible to predict. They’re technically visible when it gets dark enough and there’s solar activity, but I obviously have no idea if the aurora activity will happen or if the skies will be clear!

  • Marv

    Hi Valeria,

    I read with much interest about your articles on Alaska. It was informative and enjoyable.

    My friend and I (2 ladies) are going for the North bound Alaska cruise starting from Vancouver on Sep2nd
    and ending at Seward on Sep9th 2022

    We plan to extend our stay at Alaska but am at a lost as to how to start .

    We are retirees and have time on our side.

    Would love to get your advise re our extension stay at Alaska.

    Hear from you soon.


  • Claire

    Thankyou so much for such a useful article. I wanted to take my grandma on a land alaska tour in winter and would prefer an organized company so less stress. Do you recommend any?

  • Amanda Bridge

    I’m hoping to spend the last 5 days of my September 2023 trip in a scenic hostel with private cabins to do a little self-managed writing retreat. I was looking into Sven’s Basecamp Hostel hear Fairbanks. Do you have any other recommendations for places to stay for a peaceful writing retreat that has a community around it so I’m not alone in the middle of the woods?

    • Valerie

      Great question – I don’t have any suggestions specific to that, and I’m not sure if there are any good ones where you won’t need a car (relating to your other comment).

  • Gina

    If you are expecting 5 star treatment and accommodations you will be disappointed. Alaska is the last frontier and the restaurants and hotels are not what you’re used to. There isn’t room service in the resorts or the hotel we stayed at, there also was not a restaurant in the hotel. That said, the restaurants surrounding the resort were great. The Dome Train has limited food (mostly snacks) so plan for that. Depending on which direction you go on the Dome train you could be on it for as long as 8 hours. The train doesn’t have the right of way so it pulls over and waits for oncoming traffic. It’s best to do land tour first.

    • Valerie

      Good one – and I agree! Alaska has its own standard of hospitality and I try to make sure people are aware of that when they book.

  • Peggy

    This is a great article. Im hoping to leave California to drive to Alaska this summer. Do you have any tips and tricks for traveling in Alaska with a dog? Thank you.

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