A woman enjoys views of the mountains on an Alaska road trip
Photo Credit: Travel Alaska, Ben Prescott

Roads, Planes, Ships, & Trains: How to Get Around Alaska

Roads, Planes, Ships, & Trains: How to Get Around Alaska

In a state as large as Alaska, figuring out how to get around can seem a little dauting. At 663,300 square miles, Alaska is the largest state in the United States and larger than the next three largest states (Texas, California, and Montana) combined! Our sheer size and vast expanses of wilderness are what make Alaska so unique. This also makes getting around Alaska as exciting as your destination. Flying in a bush plane over wide-open tundra, cruising along the coastline on a cruise ship or ferry, or taking in the views on a scenic train trip are all adventures that await as you travel throughout the state.

For those that prefer the open road, the Alaska road system has endless options for exciting road trips, whether you prefer to drive yourself or let someone else lead the way on a motorcoach tour. The good news is you don’t have to pick just one mode of transportation. We recommend combining a little of each for a true Alaska experience. Read on to learn the ins and outs of how to get around the 49th state.

The Alaska Railroad next to the Turnagain Arm in Alaska
The Alaska Railroad next to Turnagain Arm in Southcentral Alaska; Photo Credit: Travel Alaska; Michael DeYoung

Getting Around Alaska by Road

Alaska is a road-tripper’s paradise. Even though much of the state is not accessible by road, there are road trip options in each of the state’s 5 regions, and even options to take your car on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system to connect to coastal communities off the road system.

If you have a few weeks to spare, consider embarking on the Ultimate Road Trip through Western Canada to Alaska on the Alaska Highway. You have several options for driving up through Alberta, British Columbia, and the Yukon depending on where you’re starting from. Once you've explored Alaska, you can either drive back home or ride back on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry to Bellingham, WA. Learn more about the routes and itinerary options for driving the Alaska Highway, including an interactive route map.

Driving the Alaska Highway
Driving the Alaska Highway; Photo Credit: Joris Beugels

For independent travelers who want to set their own pace and explore more off-the-beaten track destinations, road tripping is the way to go. The top cities to start your road trip are Fairbanks or Anchorage, where you’ll find the most options for car and RV rentals and access most of Alaska’s road system, connecting the Southcentral, Interior, and Arctic regions. Here are just a few road trip itineraries to consider:

Views of Worthington Glacier along the Richardson Highway, Alaska
Views of Worthington Glacier along the Richardson Highway, Alaska; Photo Credit: Travel Alaska, Ben Prescott

Check out more itinerary ideas here. Other fly/drive road trip destinations in more remote parts of the state are Kodiak Island, Nome, and Prince of Wales Island. These areas are not connected to the main Alaska road system but have scenic roads and car rental options.

If you’re keen to explore Alaska by land but want someone else to drive, take advantage of one of the state’s excellent motorcoach tours. These tours, typically departing from Anchorage and Fairbanks, visit the top destinations along the road system and often include accommodations and activities as part of the package.  Or, you can book daily scheduled transportation if you're looking for an easy way to transfer to a new community. Motorcoach tours are a popular add-on for cruise ship passengers, and offer the benefits of experienced guides and itinerary planning, onboard narration, onboard restrooms, and the opportunity to sit back, relax, and enjoy the view.

A motorcoach tour in Alaska
Sit back and relax on a motorcoach tour in Alaska

Getting Around Alaska by Train

Weather you’re a train enthusiast or you’re looking for a comfortable and relaxing way to travel, Alaska train trips are a unique way to take in the sights and are fun for the whole family. The Alaska Railroad stretches 470 miles from Seward to Fairbanks, with stops in top destinations like Anchorage, Talkeetna, Denali National Park, and more. With onboard dining, narration, restrooms, large windows, outside viewing areas, and the option for booking GoldStar Service in railcars with glass-domed ceilings, traveling by train is equal parts comfort and adventure.

Glass dome ceilings on the Alaska Railroad
Glass-dome ceilings on the Alaska Railroad; Photo Credit: Travel Alaska, @travelingnewlyweds

The Alaska Railroad offers day trip options as well as multi-day itineraries that include accommodations and activities. Most independent travelers board the train in Fairbanks or Anchorage, but you can get on and off the train at any stop with the appropriate ticket. The train is another popular post-cruise land tour, with pick-ups in the port towns of Seward and Whittier.

Alaska’s other train excursion is the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad from Skagway to Fraser, BC. This historic train route was established in 1891 during the Klondike Gold Rush and offers a glimpse into the area’s fascinating gold rush history and dramatic scenery. Several tour options are available ranging from two hours to full-day, with drop-off options for camping and hiking along the way.

White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad in Skagway, Alaska
White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad; Photo Credit: LembiBuchanan,

Getting Around Alaska by Water

With more coastline than the rest of the United States combined, it’s no surprise that traveling around Alaska by water is the most popular way to see the state. Cruising to Alaska from the United States or Canada through the Inside Passage takes visitors along stunning coastline to charming port towns, with opportunities to see whales and wildlife, choose your own adventure on a wide array of shore excursions, and experience Alaska Native culture first-hand through cultural tours and demonstrations. Cruising is very popular for first-time visitors to Alaska and is a fun-filled and relaxing way to experience the state, with options for adding on post-cruise land tours via bus or train. Read more about the best cruise for every type of traveler.

Cruise ship in port in Juneau
Cruise ship in port in Juneau; Photo Credit: Travel Alaska

Independent travelers can also travel Alaska by water via the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system. The ferry offers scheduled service from Bellingham, WA and Prince Rupert, B.C. to over 35 port communities in the Inside PassagePrince William SoundKenai PeninsulaKodiak Island, and the Aleutian Islands. Ferry riders can either walk onboard or take a car or RV (make sure to book well in advance if taking a vehicle). Depending on the length of your ferry trip you can book a private cabin for overnight trips or bring a tent to camp on the upper decks. Traveling by ferry is a great option for adventurous travelers who are looking for more flexibility and less amenities than cruising, with the added benefit of being able to bring your car or RV. Learn more about ferry schedules and rates on the Alaska Marine Highway website

Camping onboard the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry
Camping onboard the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry, Photo Credit: Travel Alaska, Mark Nakamura

Getting Around Alaska by Air

Your trip to Alaska is bound to include some sort of air travel, whether you’re flying to the state, taking scheduled air service between communities, or taking a small plane for a flightseeing day trip or drop-off for a backcountry adventure. Aviation is part of the backbone of Alaska, with much of the state only accessible by air. Alaska is home to the most pilots per capita in the United States, more air strips than any other state, and the world’s busiest float plane base at Lake Hood in Anchorage.

Alaska Airlines offers the most options for commercial air travel in Alaska, with connections to 20 communities. Smaller regional air carriers offer scheduled air service to more remote communities, and air taxis offer chartered air service when scheduled service is not available. These smaller air carriers operate different types of planes, often called “bush planes”: float planes/seaplanes for water, ski planes for snow, and wheeled planes for land.

A bush plane on a lake in Arctic Alaska
A bush plane on a lake in the Arctic region of Alaska

Visitors looking for backcountry experiences in Alaska will most likely take a bush plane to their destination – weather it’s a drop-off at a wilderness lodge for fishing or wildlife viewing, or a remote location for several days of backcountry camping, hiking, or float trips. Day trips are also a great option for folks who want to access Alaska’s backcountry without roughing it. Flightseeing and helicopter tour operators offer day trips throughout the state that explore the state’s mountains, wildlife viewing hot spots, and even take you out for a day of dog sledding on a glacier or backcountry hiking.

Mountain views on a flightseeing trip in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
Mountain views on a flightseeing trip over Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Photo Credit: Travel Alaska, Ben Prescott

Whichever primary mode of transportation you choose, we recommend that you mix and match to get different perspectives of the state. Are you taking a cruise? Add a post-cruise train trip or motorcoach tour to see Alaska by land. Prefer to road trip? Take your vehicle onboard the Alaska Marine Highway ferry to access coastal communities, or add a day trip on the train or a flightseeing trip to get off the road system. Traveling by train? Add on a helicopter tour or a day cruise to see Alaska by air and water. Don’t forget that the journey is all part of the adventure when traveling around Alaska!


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