That moment pictured, right there and then, is one of my favorite memories from traveling to Alaska on a cruise in 2017. I 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 to, but I know people have tons of questions about traveling to Alaska, planning a first trip, and lots of other topics too.
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 Alaska in your own way, here are all the Alaska travel tips I think you need to know before you go.
1. Alaska is Big – Really Big
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 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 flight from Anchorage to Fairbanks, similar to the hour it takes to flight from Houston to Dallas.
When I do custom Alaska itineraries (and in my DIY tool), I generally advise people to give themselves a day for each day of travel. It takes a while to get from one place to another, whether you fly, drive, or ride the train. The good news is that 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!
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!
You can plan a trip to Alaska now, this year (okay, maybe not 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…
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 because 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!
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, 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 a summer, and the other seasons each offer its 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
Like I said, most people visit Alaska in the summer, and I’ve just talked summer up 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 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
“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 in the future! (Spoilers for point #15!)
9. You Can Only See the Midnight Sun in Summer
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. 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 hand 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:
- Grizzly Bear
- 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 Best Availability, Book in Advance
If you’re reading this in 2020, let me give you a tip: the lead time on booking Alaska travel has never been longer. For the first time, everyone has their eyes on next summer before this summer has even finished.
Coming off the heels of the Covid-19 pandemic, a lot of businesses are hurting too, and are working to get bookings in place to help sustain them until tourism recovers. That means you can find flight deals, hotel deals, and tour deals like never before.
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 ebook bundle).
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 most recently in February 2020 to experience winter in Alaska for the first time since my family moved away.
How did I make five trips to Alaska in the last 11 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!
What else do you need to know about traveling to Alaska? Let me know in the comments!
Planning to Visit Alaska this Summer?
My free Alaska eBook covers all the essential travel info you need to plan a safe, unforgettable trip in 2021.