15 Steps for Planning an Alaska Vacation
Make the most of your trip to the Great Land
It’s been at the top of your travel list for years. Alaska! But how to condense the natural majesty, fantastic wildlife, amazing Alaska Native cultures and exciting tours into a trip that actually fits your schedule and budget? Making plans to travel in such an awesome and almost mythic place can seem daunting at first glance. But just because Alaska is breathtaking doesn’t mean you’ll be breathing into a paper sack as you plan. A few helpful tips can ensure your travels in Alaska exceed anything you could have imagined.
- Make your dream list – Almost anything is possible in Alaska, from wilderness trekking and wildlife viewing to fine art and refined dining. Start by brainstorming your ideal trip. What do you want to see and do while you are in Alaska? Are there certain animals you need to see? What about activities you have always dreamed about doing or events you want to be part of? Now is the time to build your list!
- Ask friends for their faves – Odds are someone close to you has been to Alaska already, so why not take advantage of their firsthand knowledge? They will rave about their favorite places, activities and foods. Just as important, ask them what they would do differently if they were to go back to Alaska. You may get tips on the things they discovered after they arrived but couldn’t make time for.
- Read up – Check out the local convention and visitors bureau, chamber of commerce or visitors center for the lowdown on what each area is famous for, new tours and attractions. Request the state of Alaska’s vacation planner and visitor guides from individual cities and regions you are considering. Of course, the Web makes it easy to read up on Alaska, and most of these organizations have extensive online content to help you plan. Check out travelalaska.com, anchorage.net, explorefairbanks.com, alaskavisit.com; traveljuneau.com ... the list goes on!
- Ask the locals – If you have friends or relatives in Alaska, you may have built-in local advice, but there is another option as well. The volunteers and staff at visitor information centers know Alaska best of all. They are friendly, dedicated and chock full of helpful ideas for your trip. Since locals staff the visitor centers, you’ll get plenty of firsthand knowledge about the possibilities in each place.
- Know when to go – Consider timing your visit to coincide with an annual event. From summer solstice celebrations to Mount Marathon, the Valdez Fly In to the World Eskimo Indian Olympics, the calendar is loaded with celebrations and special occasions found only in Alaska. Events like these are a great way to gain a special understanding of Alaska and celebrate with the people who call this state home. Calendar considerations can factor into wildlife activities as well. For example, if fishing or bird viewing is in your trip, you will want to find out when fish are running or when certain bird species are in Alaska. Don’t be discouraged if you find the fish aren’t running in a particular river during the dates you have in mind; the runs vary by river, so there’s probably another option nearby. The best bear viewing depends on location too, since bruins are often attracted to local salmon runs. Consult with guides or charter flight services if this is on your list.
- Pursue your interests – Combine the trip with a meeting, hobby or educational opportunity. The largest cities in Alaska host many national and international conferences, and topics range from A to Z. Find out when your organization is coming to Alaska (and if they don’t have plans already, ask why not).
- Find your accommodations – Trying to get away from it all? You’ll find hidden retreats where you can escape from the hectic world. Would you rather live it up in luxury and be pampered at the spa? We’ve got that too. From mountain cabins to family run B&Bs, major hotel brands to luxury lodges, Alaska has it all.
- Track down the best companies – There is a wealth of information online about hotels, guides, restaurants and more. Do your research and you’ll find the companies that have a great track record in Alaska and plenty of satisfied patrons. Again, friends and family may have recommendations, and visitors centers can help connect you to reputable companies.
- Know your geography – Alaska is big. Five-hundred seventy thousand square miles means the sky is the limit for adventures. But you’ll need to consider the vast distances; you won’t be able to start the day in Juneau, visit the Aleutians for lunch and be in Kenai that evening. With a little forethought, you can still explore a big swath of the state. Consider the road, rail, boat and air connections of each city and it will be easier to explore Alaska without a lot of transportation hassles. Generally speaking, you can split Alaska into five regions: Far North, West, Interior, Southcentral and Southeast. Thinking of the state this way might help you bundle activities within each region, set up travel between them and eliminate the need to bounce back and forth across the state.
- Consider transportation – First things first: you can get to Alaska by road on the Alaska Highway, by sea aboard a cruise ship or the Alaska Marine Highway or by air. Traversing such a big state can seem intimidating, but we’ve figured out how to bridge such large distances and find our way across the waters and through the mountains. In fact, some of the most popular attractions are trips in themselves. Watching for wildlife from the Alaska Railroad, cruising the waters for calving glaciers or flightseeing over the Alaska Range really is about the journey as much as the destination.
- Don’t short your time spent in Alaska – It’s one of the few laments we hear from Alaska travelers: “I wish I had made time to ___.” Don’t make the same mistake! Add a couple of days to your planned trip, I guarantee it will be useful. In a state this large, there’s more to explore than what is mapped out in planning. Give yourself time to walk the shore, enjoy a meal as the sun slowly crawls across the sky and chase the tip you got from the local sitting next to you.
- Pack smart – Almost daily I’m asked about how to dress when visiting Alaska. There’s one simple rule to follow: layer. Just a day’s drive can take you from boreal forest to open tundra. Of course, if you’re out on the water or near a glacier for the day, for instance, that can influence the temperature, too. Don’t worry about bringing formal clothes. Alaskans can be chic, but nobody here is hung up on a dress code. Apart from clothing, bring plenty of memory for your camera. Alaska is a photographer’s dream! Finally, don’t worry if you leave something sitting on the bed, you’ll find everyday necessities, outdoor gear and almost anything else you need here in Alaska!
- Consider shoulder season – The bulk of Alaska visitors come between mid-May and mid-September. But you’ll find great rates and plenty of activity outside this window, too. Many summer tours continue through September and even into October. The fall foliage really pops in late September.
- Don’t forget about winter – If you want to see the northern lights, winter is the time to visit Alaska; after all, it’s hard to see them in the midnight sun! Resort and backcountry skiing in Alaska is phenomenal, and with the base so close to the shoreline, there’s no acclimating to high altitude. It’s breathtaking to look out from the slopes of Alyeska and see the waters of Turnagain Arm. Great events like Anchorage Fur Rendezvous, the World Ice Art Championships and Talkeetna Bachelor Auction all take place in the winter, too!
- Some of the best things are free – Just because it’s the trip of a lifetime doesn’t mean it is inherently costly. Some of the most amazing things in Alaska are inexpensive or completely free! Walking the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail in Anchorage won’t cost you a cent, but you’ll have views of Mount McKinley and Sleeping Lady, and might come across a moose or an eagle. The state and national parks in Alaska are some of the most beautiful spaces in the world, and can be explored for as little as the cost of parking at a trailhead.
Follow a few simple steps, and your adventure in Alaska will be one you treasure for the rest of your life. Armed with these guidelines, you should be able to map out an amazing, rewarding visit. If you need ideas to get started, aren’t sure if your plans make sense or just need inspiration, help is just a click or call away. Don’t make your first trip your only trip to Alaska, either. No matter what you see and do, I can say with certainty there’s more waiting for you. Start planning now, Alaska is looking forward to welcoming you!
Julie Saupe has been helping Alaska visitors since high school. She got her start in tourism at the Fairbanks visitors center as a summer job and has worked for tourism organizations in Fairbanks and Mat-Su. She is president and CEO of Visit Anchorage.