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Hiking in Kodiak

Tips for Planning your Alaska Vacation

Tips for Planning your Alaska Vacation

Alaska is home to seventeen of North America’s tallest peaks (including the tallest in North America, Denali), 30,000 square miles of glaciers, 60% of the country’s total national park lands (including the largest, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park), and a total area bigger than Texas, California, and Montana - combined! With all of this greatness, it’s easy to see why planning a trip to Alaska is high on many travelers’ lists, and why it can feel a bit overwhelming. The good news is, no matter when or where you go, you are sure to have an incredible Alaska adventure. Our insider’s tips will help you get a head start on planning your next Alaska vacation.

Boat tour of the Stikine River from Wrangell
Boat tour of the Stikine River from Wrangell

When to Go

Your first decision is when to visit Alaska. While most visitors come to Alaska during the summer season, from June – August, every season and month offers its own unique experiences. Summer is best for the warmest temperatures, longest hours of daylight, best wildlife viewing, and the most tours, activitiescruise options, and accommodations available. However, if you’re looking to get away from the crowds and find better deals, consider visiting during the shoulder seasons in spring (April – May) and fall (September – October). Another big bonus for traveling in fall: the chance to witness Alaska’s incredible autumn colors.

Fall colors in Alaska
Fall colors overlooking the Knik Glacier in the Mat-Su Valley

Winter is the best time to visit Alaska for one of our top natural phenomena: the northern lights, or aurora borealis. This incredible colorful display is viewable from late August through April. You’ll also find an array of fun winter outdoor recreation activities like skiing, dog sledding, snowmachining, and more – plus some of the best festivals the state has to offer. 

Northern lights in Fairbanks
Northern lights in Fairbanks

How long to go

Next, decide how long you can go. You could spend a lifetime exploring this great state, but you can plan a memorable and exciting visit even if you have just a few days. Most visitors spend seven to fourteen days in Alaska. Much of this decision depends on where you want to go and how you’re getting around.

Cruising is one of the most popular ways to visit Alaska – especially for first-time visitors – with most cruises lasting seven to ten days. Peak cruise season is June through September, but many cruise lines are extending their seasons to start as early as April and end in October. If you have the time, we recommend adding on a post-cruise land tour (typically several days by train or motorcoach) so you can experience the Inside Passage by sea and go on to explore the Southcentral and Interior regions by land. 

If you only have a long weekend or a few days, we recommend using AnchorageFairbanks, or Juneau as your home base and taking day trips from there. These are the state’s largest cities and home to our main airport hubs. You’ll find plenty of activities and accommodations in these communities, along with countless adventures available in the surrounding areas.

Dog sledding in Fairbanks
Dog sledding in Fairbanks

For visitors staying over a week and traveling to more than one of Alaska’s five regions (which we highly recommend), our biggest piece of advice is to plan for enough travel time between destinations. If you put the state of Alaska over a map of the Lower 48 states, Alaska stretches east to west from Savannah, Georgia to Los Angeles, California, and north to south from North Dakota to the Texas panhandle. Meaning – Alaska is a big state! Traveling between some communities can take a good part of the day (or more) depending on your mode of transportation. Many communities are not along the road system or railbelt and are only accessible by plane or boat. Make sure to account for travel distances and build in extra time to stop and smell the Arctic roses along the way! In Alaska, the journey is truly part of the adventure, and you’ll have just as much fun and see some of the most beautiful sights while traveling around the state as you do in your final destinations.

Creek Street in Ketchikan
Creek Street in the town in Ketchikan, accessible only by boat or plane

You could easily spend an entire vacation in just one of the state’s five regions: InteriorSouthcentral, Inside PassageSouthwest, and Arctic. However, if you want to explore more than one region, plan to stay at least a week. Don’t try to pack in too many destinations when planning your trip. We recommend picking your top destinations and planning at least 2-3 days around each spot to give you enough time to travel and enjoy the area. Make sure to visit both large and small towns to get a sense of the breadth of Alaska communities and culture – from urban centers like Anchorage to remote villages only accessible by bush plane. Learn more about our regionscommunities, and national parks & public lands to start planning your route - weather you're interested in visiting the top sights or getting off-the-beaten-track. 

Hiking in Kodiak
Get off-the-beaten-track in Kodiak

How to get around

In a state as big as Alaska, figuring out how to get around is just as important as deciding where to go. The main modes of transportation are boat (cruise or ferry), plane (commercial jet or bush plane), road (self-drive or bus/motorcoach), or train. We recommend mixing and matching your transportation so you can see Alaska from a few different angles. Taking a cruise? Add on a train or motorcoach land tour after you disembark. Fancy a road trip? Explore Alaska’s road system and then take your car onboard the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system to connect to 35 ports of call. Flying to Alaska? Plan your itinerary around the many exciting day-trip opportunities, like flightseeing, train trips, and day cruises.  

Cruise ship in Juneau
Cruise ship in Juneau

If you like to leave the planning to the experts, consider a cruisemotorcoach tour, or package tour for exciting itineraries to some of the state’s top destinations. If you prefer to get off-the-beaten-track, road tripping, the Alaska Marine Highway System, and bush planes are the best ways to access more remote destinations. The Alaska Railroad is a great option for any visitor to Southcentral and Interior Alaska, whether you’re looking for a day trip or a multi-day adventure. The train travels from Seward to Fairbanks with stops along the way in destinations like Anchorage, Talkeetna, and Denali National Park. And don’t forget Alaska’s other scenic railroad in the Inside Passage region – the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, which connects Skagway to Fraser, B.C.

Each mode of transportation offers its own unique vantage points and highlights different aspects of Alaska’s communities and stunning scenery. Learn more about getting to and around Alaska.

Alaska Railroad
Travel by train onboard the Alaska Railroad

When to book

We recommend booking your Alaska vacation around four to six months in advance. If you’re booking a package tour or reserving for a bigger group, it’s best to book at least six months early to ensure availability for the itinerary you’re looking for. Book your hotels as early as possible since those tend to book up quickly, especially in the more popular destinations during summer. While it is possible to book a last-minute trip to Alaska, we highly recommend booking early to ensure your top picks for accommodations, tours, and activities – especially if you are visiting from June through August and around popular festivals and events.

Cabin in Seward
Cabin in Seward

Ways to Save

Consider visiting during the shoulder seasons in spring and fall for cheaper prices on flights and accommodations. Some tour companies, accommodations, and cruise lines offer early booking discounts and cheaper rates for booking early, so it pays to plan ahead and book as early as possible. Visit hotel and tour company websites to look for specials and packages and to book directly for better rates. Check out our Travel Specials for a list of discounts statewide.

Snowmachine tour at Spencer Glacier
Snowmachine tour at Spencer Glacier in Southcentral Alaska

Looking for more planning help?

Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau
Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau

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Alaska: AKA Your Next Adventure

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