Let’s be honest. Alaska isn’t the US’s most economical destination. But with some creative planning and an ability to trade luxury for a grittier wilderness experience, a trip up north doesn’t have to destroy your credit card.
The good news is that an entry ticket to Alaska’s abundant wilderness is refreshingly gratis: hiking and backcountry camping are invariably free of charge, and you don’t need to charter a floatplane to view majestic wild animals. If you’re lucky, bears and moose can be glimpsed through a bus window on the Seward Highway or during an afternoon jog in Anchorage.
Here are some additional ways to cut your costs in the 49th state.
Flying is generally the cheapest way to reach Alaska
Book well in advance for the best deals. For drivers motoring up through Canada from the Lower 48, costs will vary depending on type of vehicle, gas prices (higher in Canada) and travel distance.
Anchorage hotels usually offer free shuttles to and from the airport
Pre-organize through your accommodation or call on arrival at Ted Stevens International Airport using the complimentary phones in the terminal building.
To avoid expensive internal flights, stick to areas connected to the main road grid
The compact, easily navigable Kenai Peninsula, one hour south of Anchorage by road or rail, is full of classic Alaskan splendor, including glaciers, mountains, and steep-sided fjords. Seward, 127 miles from Anchorage, is an ideal base. To the north, the Anchorage-Fairbanks corridor is bisected by the scenic, well-maintained George Parks Highway and supports the artsy community of Talkeetna and the fauna-filled expanses of Denali National Park.
There is no state sales tax in Alaska!
However, before you start dreaming of decadent nights in five-star hotels, take note that most accommodations have a combined city sales/bed tax of between 5% and 15%. You can shave a little of your room bills by avoiding high-tax towns like Ketchikan (14% tax) in favor of lower-tax havens like Fairbanks and Skagway (8% tax) or – better still - Nome and Valdez (6% tax).
Visit in May or September for savings of between 10% and 25%
Alaska’s tourist season runs from early May to late September but, if you avoid the high summer months of June, July and August, and book well in advance, you can save a decent amount on accommodation, flights and organized daytrips. Indeed, if you’re adept at being self-sufficient and aren’t averse to a little rain (and occasional snow), then April is a passable month in the balmier Alaskan panhandle. Alaska’s tough winters are relatively cheap, but only endurable if you’re a hardened local or an adventure extremist.
Seeing wildlife doesn’t have to cost the earth
A simple bus-ride along Denali’s 92-mile Park Road costs little over $50 round-trip and you’re pretty much guaranteed to see a whole food-chain of foraging fauna. By comparison, a fly-in daytrip from Anchorage to Katmai National Park to view bears snapping salmon out of Brooks Falls won’t leave much change from $800.
Weigh up your transport options
A shortage of rental cars in the US, post-Covid, has nudged average daily rental rates up to $100 or more during Alaska’s summer season. Before committing to a vehicle, it pays to work out how much you’re likely to need it. Gas prices in Alaska are cheaper than Europe but still $.40 per gallon above the US average. Conversely, bus fares can be surprisingly affordable. The Anchorage-Seward run costs as little as $60 one-way. Anchorage to Denali goes for around $100.
Take the public ferry
The extensive state-run ferry system, known as the Alaska Marine Highway, cuts through the same spectacular landscapes as the cruise ships but at a more reasonable price, especially if you’re willing to swap a cabin for sleeping in your seat or pitching a tent on deck (bring plenty of duct tape to secure against gusts of wind). A fare for the 19-hour journey between Ketchikan and Juneau will set you back around $140. For the six-hour hop across Prince William Sound between Whittier and Valdez, you’re looking at approximately $65.
Opt for a shoulder season or "repositioning" cruise
Alaska’s cruise season runs a short five months with the bookend months of May and September offering the best deals. You can save good money – sometimes as much as 50% – by setting sail on a "repositioning" cruise, which takes the boat to and from its home port (eg Alaska-Hawaii, Alaska-California) at the beginning and end of the season. Big ships are more economical than smaller boats. Carnival is one of the cheapest options.
Consider staying in a hostel or a cabin
Accommodation in Alaska is expensive. There’s a dearth of good bargains, even in the motel field, and the diminutive nature of most towns means there’s often little opportunity to shop around. Notwithstanding, tourist-orientated towns usually have at least one hostel offering dorm beds for between $25 and $35 per night.
Another option is cabins. Alaska has an abundance of basic public-use cabins in state parks and its two national forests, Chugach and Tongass. Many of them are hike-in, others can be reached by kayak. Cabins generally sleep between three and eight people and can cost as little as $25 per night all-in, although $60 to $70 is more common. Designs vary but most have wooden sleeping platforms, stoves, pit toilets, tables, and a nearby water source. Pre-booking is essential.
Travel with a tent or an RV
In a land of brawny adventure possibilities, camping is a popular option. Campgrounds abound with nightly fees ranging from free to $15 for rustic public campgrounds and from $30 to $45 to park your RV in a deluxe private campground with full hookup and heated restrooms with showers. Many towns that cater to tourists operate a municipal campground. Book ahead in peak season, especially at weekends. For hardcore hikers with plenty of outdoor experience, backcountry camping is mostly free.
Master the picnic
Cheechakos (newcomers to the state) pulling up a chair in their first Alaska restaurant usually glance incredulously at the menu and contemplate a three-day fast. Eating out can be prohibitively expensive in the Last Frontier because of the short tourist season and high labor costs for wait and kitchen staff. However, many travelers are surprised that food prices in Fairbanks and Anchorage supermarkets are not that much higher than home.
The solution: cobble together a picnic lunch (ideal when you’re hiking), make your own dinners in your campsite/RV, or book accommodation with a kitchen or kitchenette. Eating out needn’t be banished altogether – the halibut deserves at least one outing – but you might want to make it more an exception than a rule.
Guides, outfitters and tour companies cost money
They also provide security, local knowledge, and peace of mind in Alaska’s often hostile wilderness. However, with a bit of pre-trip homework and the right equipment, it is possible to organize hiking, biking or kayaking trips on your own. For safety reasons, it’s always best to travel with a partner or in a group. Day-hikes are a good option if you’re not mega-experienced. Try Flattop Mountain near Anchorage or the Perseverance Trail out of Juneau.
Make the most of Alaska’s national parks and historic parks
Entry to Alaska’s eight national parks is mostly free. The only park that charges an entry fee is Denali ($15 for a seven-day pass). The caveat? Most of the state’s parks are remote and require expensive boat or airplane transfers. Denali and Kenai Fjords are exceptions. Both are easily reachable from Anchorage by car, bus, or train, and offer multiple free attractions, including glacier-viewing, wildlife-watching, hiking and camping.
Alaska’s two main historic parks – Sitka and Skagway – are also fabulous and free. Stuffed with museums and heritage sites and offering complimentary walking tours with park rangers in the summer, they’re perfect places to absorb the state’s surprisingly eclectic history and culture.
Hone your fitness and polish your outdoor skills
The more adaptable and self-sufficient you are, the more options you’ll have to cut costs. Alaska specializes in the unadulterated and the unpackaged. If you can forsake romantic dinners for freeze-dried camping grub, and swap IMAX cinemas for a tent under the stars, you’ll not only have a life-changing experience; you’ll be able to afford to come back and do it again.
Daily costs in Alaska
Hostel room: $25-35 (dorm bed)
Basic room for two: $140-170
Self-catering apartment (including Airbnb): from $130
Public transport ticket Anchorage-Seward (127-miles): $60-70 one-way
Dinner for two: $60-80
Beer/pint at the bar: $6-7