Alaska’s Shoulder Season
Offers Big Advantages
Dreaming of your Alaska vacation and looking to save a little money? Consider traveling during Alaska's shoulder season for better access to the prime attractions, lower prices and some interesting ancillary benefits, like some of the most unusually beautiful displays of fall colors you’ve ever seen.
Alaska’s summer is just three months long – June, July and August. And while it’s not unusual to see summer-like conditions in May, particularly later in the month, it’s also not that unusual to have one last burst of snow. Likewise, the end of the summer comes quickly, and by the third week of September there’s barely a sign of the busy summer season that just wrapped up. The bulk of Alaska’s visitors come during the three prime summer months, which means the “shoulders,” from late April through May and early to mid-September aren’t just less busy, they’re less expensive.
When most people think about Alaska, they think of rugged landscapes, wildlife and untrammeled nature. With a state as large as Alaska, you can enjoy quiet repose no matter what time of year you travel, but at some of the state’s more popular attractions, there’s no denying that shoulder season is less crowded. During peak summer months, four to six large cruise ships arrive in the state’s most popular port communities each day; during May and September, there’s often only one or two ships. And since the vast majority of Alaska visitors include a cruise in some portion of their trip, this pattern holds true for attractions far from the most popular cruise ports, including Denali National Park and Preserve, Fairbanks, Anchorage and Kodiak Island. If you’re making plans at the last minute, you’ll find it easier to book hotels and tours if you plan a shoulder-season trip as well.
Most major cruise lines begin their summer voyages to Alaska at the very tail end of April and early May. Prices are notably lower for these first cruises of the season, sometimes by more than $500 per person. The savings extend to land tours and other popular Alaska cruise add-ons, meaning you can see more of Alaska for less money than if you traveled any time in June, July or August. Prices also drop from September 1 through about the 15th, although not as dramatically as at the beginning of the summer season. Cruises aren’t the only place you’ll find savings. Hotels and tour operators frequently discount prices by anywhere from 10 to 25 percent during the shoulder months.
Although the weather can be a little cooler in May and September, there are several pluses to traveling then. First of all, it’s darker. Alaska is known for its midnight sun, and the days in May and September are still longer than most visitors are accustomed to. But with relative darkness also comes the possibility of spotting the northern lights, which are normally only seen by winter visitors. During summer’s peak, there’s basically no chance of seeing them because the sky never gets dark enough. Visitors to the Inside Passage, which includes all those cruise visitors, will be treated to sunnier, drier weather in April and May than throughout the rest of the summer season. Popular, weather-dependent shore excursions like helicopter landings on glaciers are less likely to get cancelled early in the summer. Meanwhile, a September visit rewards travelers with Alaska’s extremely brief but extremely dramatic fall. This season can literally be over in two weeks or less, and it is a favorite time of year for locals because the trees aren’t the only things that change color – the tundra does too. Tiny mosses and plants that cling to the ground turn deep shades of burgundy and fiery red, and roll on as far as the eye can see. Trees like cottonwood, aspen, birch and willow turn startling shades of gold, red and orange.
Whether it’s the savings, fewer people or seasonal advantages that appeal to you, it’s worth considering booking your Alaska vacation during the shoulder season.