Alaska encompasses many realities, from packed neighborhoods in Anchorage to small villages with no connecting roads to the outside world. Although much of Alaska remains largely inaccessible to the average traveler, there are plenty of excellent sights and experiences within range of road and ferry, as well as other tourist infrastructure.
Many visitors arrive to Southeast Alaska on a cruise or the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry, fly into Anchorage and explore the Kenai Peninsula or head up to visit Denali National Park. A smaller number fly to remote streams and lodges for salmon fishing, bear-watching or simply an epic river float. Here's how to get around in Alaska.
Scheduled flights are cheaper than charter flights, and Alaska Airlines serves a surprisingly comprehensive list of destinations. The rest is picked up by several smaller airlines, including Alaska Seaplanes, PenAir, Ravn Alaska and Taquan Air.
With 75% of the state inaccessible by road, small, single-engine planes known as "bush planes" are the backbone of intrastate transport. They carry residents and supplies to desolate areas of the Bush, take anglers to some of the best fishing spots in the country and drop off backpackers in the middle of untouched wilderness.
In the larger cities of Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Ketchikan, it pays to compare prices before chartering a plane. In most small towns and villages you’ll be lucky if there’s a choice.
Bush aircraft include floatplanes, which land and take off on water, and beachlanders with oversized tires that can use rough gravel shorelines as air strips. Fares vary with the type of plane, its size, the number of passengers and the amount of flying time. On average, chartering a Cessna 185 that can carry three passengers and a limited amount of gear will cost up to $500 for an hour of flying time. A Cessna 206, a slightly larger plane that will hold four passengers, costs up to $550, while a Beaver, capable of hauling five passengers with gear, costs in the vicinity of $600 an hour. When chartering a plane to drop you off in the wilderness, you must pay for both the air time to your drop-off point and for the return to the departure point.
Tips for flying on a bush plane: Double-check all pickup times and places when flying to a wilderness area. If you’re not at the designated pick-up spot when the pilot flies over, they usually return to base, call the authorities and still charge you for the flight. Always schedule extra days around a charter flight. It’s not uncommon to be "socked in" by weather for a day or two until a plane can fly in to get you. Don’t panic: they know you’re there.
With a tightly packed jumble of islands and landscape-molding glaciers sliding down mountainsides to kiss the ocean, Alaska's waterways hold an obvious allure. And with many of Alaska's ports and cities not accessible by road, you've got another reason to eschew terra firma and take to the high seas.
The Alaska Marine Highway
The Alaska Marine Highway ferry calls at 35 ports across 3500 miles of coastline from Bellingham, Washington, to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians. There are nine regular vessels serving four main regions: the southeast (Ketchikan up to Skagway), the Cross-Gulf Route (Juneau to Whittier), Southcentral Alaska (Prince William Sound, the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak) and the Southwest (the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands).
In some cities – namely Juneau, Sitka and Haines – the ferry terminal is located several miles outside town, necessitating a bus/taxi transfer.
The Southeast is also served by the Inter-Island Ferry Authority, which connects Ketchikan with Prince of Wales Island; and Haines-Skagway Fast Ferry, linking Skagway and Haines.
Cruising in Alaska
Alaskan cruises allow people who might not otherwise have the opportunity to glimpse into a vast natural wilderness once only accessible to hard-nosed adventurers and travelers with piles of money and equipment. On top of this, it enables ordinary people to do it with a high degree of comfort and convenience. Trips that once took 19th-century gold-rush pioneers months, if not years, can now be shoehorned into a manageable two- to three-week itinerary taking in hundreds of miles of coastline.
On standard cruises, you’ll disembark at a port most days for anywhere from four to eight hours, where you can bop around town, take in a hike or an excursion, or even a longer trip inland to places such as Denali National Park, Talkeetna or Eagle. On the smaller cruise lines, there will be more wildlife excursions and more stops.
Some of the world's largest cruise-line companies ply the waters of Alaska, including Princess, Norwegian and Holland America. Most large cruises stop only in the major ports of call, and generally start from Vancouver or Seattle. Costs for Alaskan cruises average around $120 a night (per person), but that does not include your flight to the port of embarkation. You can save good money (sometimes as much as 50%) by hopping on a "repositioning" cruise, which takes the boat back to its home port.
Just 3% of Alaska cruisers take a small-ship voyage. While you’ll have tighter quarters, bumpier seas and fewer entertainment options than on the big boys, these vessels offer better chances of seeing wildlife. There will also be more land and kayak excursions, onboard naturalists (most of the time), good food, a more casual atmosphere (you can leave that blue sports coat at the office where it belongs) and a more intimate portrait of Alaska.
These boats sleep anywhere from 12 to 100 and are more likely to depart from within Alaska. While this is probably your best bet if you are looking to match comfort with quality and authentic experience, it does come with a steeper price tag: anywhere from $400 to $1200 a night.
Tips for cruise travel: Check the small print about what's included in the price before you commit. Unless you're on a luxury cruise, you'll likely be paying extra for alcoholic beverages, shore excursions and tips. Then there's the spa, casino, gift shop and so on.
For those who want to bike it, Alaska offers a variety of cycling adventures on paved roads under the Arctic sun that allows you to peddle until midnight if you want. A bicycle can be carried on Alaska Marine Highway ferries for an additional fee and is a great way to explore small towns without renting a car.
Most road cyclists avoid gravel, but cycling the Alcan (an increasingly popular trip) does involve riding over some gravel breaks in the paved asphalt. Mountain bikers, on the other hand, are in heaven on gravel roads such as the Denali Highway in the Interior.
If you arrive in Alaska without a bicycle, some towns have rentals; expect to pay $30 to $50 a day. You can take your bicycle on the airlines for an excess luggage fee. Alaska Airlines charges $100.
Anchorage’s Arctic Bicycle Club is Alaska’s largest bicycle club and sponsors a variety of road-bike and mountain-bike tours during the summer. Its website includes a list of Alaska cycle shops. Other bicycle groups: Bike Anchorage, Fairbanks Cycle Club and Juneau Rides.
While there is no statewide bus network, and no Greyhound, various shuttle buses (usually 12-seater vans) cover most of Alaska's main highways in the summer, though they don't always run daily. Check online for schedules and prices and book in advance.
Car, motorcycle and motorhome
Not a lot of roads reach a lot of Alaska but what asphalt there is leads to some seriously spectacular scenery. That’s the best reason to tour the state in a car, motorhome or motorcycle, whether you arrive with your own or rent one.
AAA, the most widespread automobile association in the USA, has one office in Alaska, Anchorage Service Center, which offers the usual, including maps, discounts and emergency road service.
For two or more people, car rental is an affordable way to travel, far less expensive than taking a bus or a train. It is almost always cheaper to rent in town rather than at the airport because of extra taxes levied on airport rentals.
In cities and most mid-size towns there will be taxi service.
RVers flock to the land of the midnight sun in astounding numbers. This is the reason why more than a dozen companies, almost all of them based in Anchorage, will rent you a motorhome. Renting a recreational vehicle is so popular you have to reserve them four to five months in advance. Popular choices for these rentals include ABC Motorhomes, Clippership Motorhome Rentals and Great Alaskan Holidays.
Tips for traveling by car: Along heavily traveled roads, most towns will have a car mechanic, though you might have to wait a day for a part to come up from Anchorage. In some small towns, you might be out of luck. For anybody driving to and around Alaska, a full-size spare tire and replacement belts are a must.
Read any rental contract carefully, especially details on driving on gravel or dirt roads. Many agencies, particularly those in the Fairbanks area, will not allow their compacts on dirt roads. If you violate the contract and have an accident, insurance will not cover repairs.
For road conditions, closures and other travel advisories for the Alaska highway system, even while you’re driving, contact the state’s Alaska511.
It took eight years to build it, but today the Alaska Railroad stretches 470 miles from Seward to Fairbanks through spectacular scenery. You’ll save more money traveling by bus down the George Parks Highway, but few travelers regret booking the Alaska Railroad and viewing the pristine wilderness from its comfortable cars.
The Alaska Railroad operates a year-round service between Fairbanks and Anchorage, as well as summer services (from late May to mid-September) from Anchorage to Whittier and from Anchorage to Seward.
The most popular run is the 336-mile trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks, stopping at Denali National Park. Northbound, at Mile 279, the train passes within 46 miles of Denali, a stunning sight from the viewing domes on a clear day. It then slows down to cross the 918ft bridge over Hurricane Gulch.
The ride between Anchorage and Seward may be one of the most spectacular train trips in the world. From Anchorage, the 114-mile trip begins by skirting the 60-mile-long Turnagain Arm on Cook Inlet and then swings south, climbs over mountain passes, spans deep river gorges and comes within half a mile of three glaciers.
The Anchorage–Whittier service, which includes a stop in Girdwood and passes through two long tunnels, turns Whittier into a fun day trip. So does riding Alaska Railroad’s Hurricane Turn, one of America’s last flagstop trains, which departs from Talkeetna.
You can reserve a seat and purchase tickets online; this is highly recommended for the Anchorage–Denali service in July and early August.
The White Pass & Yukon Railroad was built during the height of the Klondike Gold Rush, and it's still possible to travel it from Skagway to Carcross in the Yukon and complete the journey to Whitehorse by bus. The trip is classed as a "tour," with a guide giving interesting commentary. Reservations are highly recommended at any time during the summer.
Accessible travel in Alaska
Thanks to the American Disabilities Act, many state and federal parks have installed wheelchair-accessible sites and restrooms in their campgrounds. You can call the Alaska Public Lands Information Center to receive a map and campground guide to such facilities. The Alaska Marine Highway ferries, the Alaska Railroad and many bus services and cruise ships are also equipped with wheelchair lifts and ramps to make their facilities easier to access. Chain motels and large hotels in cities and towns often have rooms set up for guests with disabilities, while some wilderness guiding companies are experienced in handling clients who are wheelchair-bound on rafting and kayaking expeditions.
Access Alaska includes statewide tourist information on accessible services and sites and Challenge Alaska is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing recreation opportunities for those with disabilities. You can also download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guides for more information.
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