Alaska Trip Planning 101
Planning an Alaska vacation isn’t a science; it’s an art. Alaska is twice the size of Texas, which means there’s a lot of ground to cover and a million ways to see it. And that’s the thing: there is no one right answer, no one perfect trip. There are a million combinations to create the vacation of your dreams.
The first thing to know is you don’t have to do it alone! Many travel advisors specialize in Alaska and can make recommendations customized to your requests.
Close your eyes and let “Alaska” come to mind. What do you most want to see or do? In your mind, do you see mountains or coastline? Do you see bears or whales? Do you see a remote lodge or a small town? Are you driving or riding the Alaska Railroad? Do you see the king salmon you just reeled in or the kayak paddle in your hands? Or do you see a snowy landscape capped by northern lights? Do you see a ski lift or a dog sled in front of you? These are all right answers. Let them lead you.
As you research things like bear viewing or national parks or fishing, you may also find several tour operators that offer private or small-group package tours with itineraries designed to combine some of Alaska’s most iconic attractions.
The only part left is to figure out how to get to and/or around Alaska. Most major airlines offer nonstop flights into major cities like Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau. Then pull up an Alaska map to help you visualize the rest of your travels. If you want to explore Inside Passage Alaska’s remote bays and small communities this summer, review the Alaska Marine Highway System’s summer schedule. You may want to combine a ferry ride with a few short flights to get around, if you’re traveling independently.
Or, consider one of the small-ship cruise lines or a small yacht charter that will be sailing. If Denali is a must on your list, you’ll need to decide if you’re arriving by car, motorcoach, or Alaska Railroad. If you’re combining multiple locations along the road system in Southcentral and Interior Alaska, you may want to consider an RV versus a rental car. And if you’ve decided to visit a destination in the Arctic or Southwest Alaska, most likely you’ll want to plan on flying.
Every Alaska vacation will look a little different, depending on whether you want to explore the Brooks Range or Misty Fjords. We’ve discovered it’s best to let your original trip inspiration lead you and not try to pack too much into one trip. Order an Alaska Vacation Planner to help guide you, and don’t miss these travel tips.
If you’re still looking for the right inspiration, “100 Things to Do in Alaska Before You Die” authors Fran Golden and Midgi Moore answer a few questions about Alaska travel planning.
Travel Alaska: What inspired you to write "100 Things to Do in Alaska Before You Die"?
Fran: We looked at this book as our love letter to Alaska. We wanted to highlight our favorite things whether natural or cultural attractions, history, culinary, or just plain kitsch. We really had fun picking the 100, and given that we’re talking Alaska it was hard to limit our list to that — so we sneaked in extra stuff wherever we could.
Travel Alaska: Do each of you have a favorite "thing" in the book? What is it and why?
Midgi: That’s a hard question to answer! Two things come to mind right away. First, the unofficial national forest, which was begun during World War II in Adak, the westernmost city in North America. Second, having a drink made with actual glacial ice at the Narrows Bar in Juneau. The idea of having a drink chilled with ancient ice is just really cool.
Fran: Every time I go to Alaska — and I have been going regularly since the mid-1990s — I have an extraordinary experience that really sticks with me. This is going to sound crazy, but I love snorkeling in Alaska, putting on a wetsuit, mask, and flippers and looking for giant purple and red starfish and other creatures. I even once saw an octopus. Also, I was up in the middle of the night in sub-zero weather seeing the northern lights north of Fairbanks. And it was worth it!
Travel Alaska: How do you hope travelers can use this book to plan their Alaska vacations, whether they are a first-time visitor or seasoned Alaska traveler?
Midgi: We kept the book short, tight, and fun. You’ll know immediately if we’re talking about something you want to do and see or not. We did extensive research. Even as someone who has lived in Alaska for many years, this book led to discoveries that I now have on my wish list. And we tell you how to contact the folks who can make your experiences happen.
Travel Alaska: What's your advice to someone planning their first Alaska vacation?
Fran: Consider the geography, narrow down what you want to see, and pick the appropriate modes of transportation — whether cruise ship, trains, planes, cars or dog sleds — to get there. Plan to spend more than a week, and think coastal and beyond. Experience the tidewater glaciers, but don’t skip Denali.
Midgi: Lots of people come to Southeast Alaska by cruise ship to see the glaciers and that’s great, but you really do miss something if you don’t also explore Interior Alaska. Allow yourself time. Juneau is a great weekend getaway for those in the Pacific Northwest, as it’s only a two-hour flight from Seattle. But, to really embrace Alaska, plan a week or longer.
Travel Alaska: How would you spend the perfect Alaska day?
Midgi: If I were a visitor, I’d start the day with a hearty breakfast at one of the local cafes. Then I would go whale watching and take in some wildlife viewing, because the views from the water are spectacular. I may be biased, but I’d take a food tour for lunch and then go on a walk to check out the local artists galleries and shops. Alaska has amazing artwork, and supporting small local businesses is important to me. Finally, I’d wrap up the day with a dinner of Alaska king crab or salmon, and drinks at the local bar and hanging out with the locals.
Fran: Alaskans know how to do a hearty breakfast! And I would definitely do the crab and local bar and craft brewery scene. But I’d start the day on the water, kayaking, preferably paddling near a glacier past bobbing chunks of ice and hearing the thunderous sound of ice falling into the sea in the distance. If a seal came over to say "hi," eagles were flying overhead and a bear was lumbering on shore, well, that would just be nirvana.
Travel Alaska: As an Alaska resident, Midgi, what do you wish people knew about Alaska before they booked their first trip?
Midgi: In summertime, pack light and pack layers. It may be 80 degrees one day and pouring rain and 40 the next. Most of all, plan to have your mind blown. The wilderness is expansive; the scenery breathtaking. Allow yourself moments to stop, take deep breaths, and just take it all in, because there’s no place like Alaska.
Travel Alaska: What do you recommend as a must-do for a visitor’s first trip?
Midgi: Eat local! Most restaurants are owned and operated by families, so not only will you get tasty food but you’ll meet some colorful folks as well.
Fran: Get into the wilderness. If you’re not into hiking, biking, canoeing, paddling, dog sledding and that sort of experience, explore the wilderness by floatplane or helicopter. From the air, as you fly over glaciers and icefields, forests, riversm, and the sea, you start to understand the scope. The views are amazing.
Travel Alaska: What are the benefits of being an independent traveler in Alaska?
Fran: Having the time to chat with Alaskans and being free to take advantage of experiences that they recommend. You don’t want to say no to an opportunity to do yoga with reindeer or an impromptu hike up a mountain to see a glorious glacial lake.
Travel Alaska: If you were planning your first Alaska trip knowing what you do know, what would you have done differently or included?
Fran: On my first trip I took a one-week cruise and then left. I didn’t spend time in Anchorage or Denali or Fairbanks. I saw a lot, and it was great, but I missed the Interior. I think a combination of a cruise and a week in the Interior is a perfect combo. Also, don’t just visit in summer. Each season has its own magic.
Midgi: I would also have planned to stay longer. My first trip I was only here for a few days, and there was so much to see and do. It wasn’t until I moved to Juneau, for instance, that I finally visited the state and city museums, which are so wonderfully curated.
Get more planning and Alaska travel expertise from Fran and Midgi in their book, “100 Things to Do in Alaska Before You Die.”
Alaska: AKA Your Next Adventure
Where will your Alaska adventure take you? Order our Official State of Alaska Vacation Planner and plot your course.