Alaska checks all the boxes for COVID-safe travel, with wide-open spaces for easy social distancing, a sense of true escape and the assurance of traveling domestically.
But this summer — like last summer — travelers have likely lost one convenient and affordable way to explore Alaska: by large cruise ship. Although legal challenges are under way, the closure of Canadian ports through February 2022 is likely to deprive travelers of cruises that often start around $100 a person a day.
The absence of big ships is a blow for the state's tourism industry, which, in a normal year, gets 60% of its summer visitors via cruises. But for travelers, it's an opportunity to see Alaska by land without the cruise crowds. (Cruising on U.S.-flagged vessels carrying up to 250 people is permitted, but small-ship options tend to be scarce and expensive.)
Alaska presents two distinct hurdles to independent travelers: how to plan a trip in a state the size of Texas, California and Montana combined; and how to do it affordably.
One way to save is to travel in the shoulder season, May or September. Or wait until next year; Holland America Line is selling seven-day Alaska sailings in 2022 from Seattle from about $750 a person. The following are other strategies designed to help you save money, time and frustration.
The 10-Day Sweet Spot
Most of the travelers now jamming the phones at Alaska Tour & Travel, an Anchorage-based travel agency, have seven days for their trip.
"Generally, our recommendation is to stay as long as you can because it takes a while to get around here," said Richenda Sandlin-Tymitz, the marketing and content manager for the company. "With seven days, we like to focus on two major destinations."
Touching down in Anchorage, that could be Denali National Park north for mountains and Seward to the south for coastal wildlife and fjords. She called 10 days the "sweet spot" for Alaska vacations, allowing travelers to add a side trip to more remote places like Valdez on Price William Sound or Homer on the tip of Kenai Peninsula.
A moderate six-day trip, she estimated, would run between $1,500 and $2,000 a person, excluding flights.
"You have to narrow your focus when you come to Alaska," said Lisa Maloney, author of the guidebook "Moon Alaska." "One of the biggest surprises people have is, you can't get from point A to point B without driving six to eight hours or hopping on a jet plane or taking a three-day ferry ride."
Many travel planners recommend starting with one or two splurges — things you don't want to miss — like bear viewing, flight-seeing tours or visiting glaciers, which helps narrow your destination choices.
"Flight seeing is the very best way to get a sense of the scale of Alaska," said Sandlin-Tymitz, who estimates a 90-minute trip out of Talkeetna to the Alaska Range costs about $330.
Given the upheaval in the travel industry, it pays to look for packages today. Bear viewing at the renowned Pack Creek Brown Bear Viewing Area on Admiralty Island near Juneau with Above & Beyond Alaska includes floatplane flights, guided kayaking to the preserve and hiking to the viewing area, an eight-hour excursion for $849. The company is also offering a three-day adventure package that includes trips to Mendenhall Glacier, a whale-watching boat trip and bear viewing for about $1,200, saving 20% with the bundle.
With airlines increasing flights to Alaska, competition is expected to keep fares low. Alaska Airlines will offer nonstop flights between the state and 11 U.S. cities this summer. Delta Air Lines added new service to Anchorage and Fairbanks. Frontier Airlines will operate flights between Denver and Anchorage beginning June 9. And American Airlines will fly Boeing 787 Dreamliners, the wide-bodied carriers normally associated with flights to Paris or Tokyo, from Dallas and Chicago to Anchorage this summer.
The total number of seats available roughly equals those available in the summer of 2019, before the pandemic, but without the 1 million or so cruise passengers who fly in or out of the state, according to Scott Habberstad, director of sales and community marketing in Alaska for Alaska Airlines.
"There are about 400,000 seats we need to fill with independent travelers," Habberstad said, referring to all the carriers serving the state. "With the same number of seats and less demand, when that dynamic is in play, you generally get some good deals," such as a $150 one-way from New York to Anchorage on Alaska Airlines.
Airline ticket prices, of course, can change daily. The travel search site Skyscanner said round-trip rates found on the site in April for domestic flights averaged $378 in June, $457 in July and $393 in August.
"Unlike cities in Hawaii, Florida and the Caribbean, where flight prices are up compared to 2019, flight prices to Alaska are still trending down, about 8% below 2019 levels," said Matt Clarke, vice president of North American marketing at the travel search engine Kayak.
For those who want to get on the water, Alaska's ferries provide a very basic version of a do-it-yourself cruise. (Travelers can also reach the Last Frontier via the Alaska Marine Highway System on a 38-hour trip from Bellingham, Washington, to Ketchikan, Alaska, recently priced from $359 a person in early June, and $1,635 with a standard-size car.)
Because of pandemic-related capacity restraints, currently about 70%, and budget shortfalls, the system will run just six of its 10 vessels, impacting schedules in more than 30 coastal communities from Bellingham to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands.
That means if you get to Ketchikan and want to spend time before moving on, you'll likely wait a week for the next ferry north. Or you could jet ahead to Juneau after a few days (about $150 one way on Alaska Airlines in early June) and then catch the ferry to Haines or Skagway (Juneau to Haines, a 3 1/2-hour trip by ferry, was recently $58 in early June).
Car, Bus, Train or Plane?
Among the many modes of land transportation in Alaska, interior flights are expedient, trains are scenic, buses are a relative bargain, and driving may be more economical for a group, according to travel planners.
If you fly into Anchorage or Fairbanks, you're in what's known as the "railbelt" of Alaska, served by the Alaska Railroad, which also runs south of Anchorage to Seward. Travelers can upgrade to domed cars for best viewing to Seward on the railroad's GoldStar Service ($224 one way from Anchorage in early June, compared to $113 in regular cars) or to Denali with the private Wilderness Express service ($249 from Anchorage, versus $176).
A Park Connection bus between Denali and Anchorage costs $100 one way in summer.
Like other parts of the country, Alaska is experiencing a rental car crunch as demand outpaces supply, resulting in higher rates, nearly double statewide compared to 2019, according to Kayak.
"All over the USA, we're seeing elevated car rental prices, but it can still be cheaper than piecing together train and motor coach combinations, particularly if you're more than two travelers," said Anna Harrison, owner of the agency Travel Observations in Pittsburgh.
Rental cars, however, are hard to find this summer. Clicking around the Avis Alaska site for a rental car recently, I couldn't find a weeklong rental, a compact for $473, until late August. Travel experts warn against one-way car rentals, which are more costly than round trips.
Day Trips Vs. Road Trips
Two more ways to save include basing yourself in Anchorage, which has a range of accommodations, and doing day trips, or renting a car, camper van or RV and camping.
"Anchorage is great as a base for those who are short on time and who don't like moving around each night," Harrison said, noting that travelers looking to use loyalty points or miles are more likely to be able to do so in the city.
The tourism bureau Visit Anchorage has a number of suggested itineraries for travelers basing themselves there, where accommodations range from hostels to vacation rental homes.
If you're set on leaving the big city, bundle transportation and shelter in an RV. Great Alaskan Holidays has RVs from about $210 a night for a week in early June.
Alaska also offers many affordable public-use cabins managed by state parks and federal agencies (availability depends on the property, but there are many showing openings throughout the summer). The U.S. Forest Service, for example, offers cabin rentals in the Tongass and the Chugach national forests. In some cases, you may have to arrange floatplane transportation, but the lodging is rugged, and the rates are often rock bottom, including $60 a night at Wilson View Cabin on a lake near Ketchikan. (Taquan Air prices this charter flight at $1,850 for four people.)
Go Off the Beaten Path
Alaska may be a bucket-list destination for many. But here's a radical approach: Don't try to do it all. Travel less ambitiously, and spend more time in a more remote town like Homer or Valdez, places with plenty of outdoor appeal and relative affordability.
Valdez is "an indie traveler mecca," said Colleen Stephens, president of Stan Stephens Glacier & Wildlife Cruises in Valdez. The influx of independent travelers this year is somewhat curtailed by the border closing with Canada — Valdez is a popular RV destination that requires driving through Canada from the lower 48 states — but, she added, "at least this year we're able to open the doors and operate."
Cruises on ships up to 90 feet with ample open-viewing decks cost $140 for a six-hour itinerary and $170 for an eight-hour tour, both cruises visiting area glaciers and looking for sea otters, whales and puffins en route.
Among affordable lodging options in Valdez, Eagle's Rest RV Park has cabins from $145 and, new this summer, glamping tents from $85.
Airbnb can be a good alternative for saving money in some communities, but some listings may be "dry," or without running water, in which case, Maloney said, you'll be using an outhouse, which is a part of the quintessential Alaska experience.