No matter how you choose to visit the great state of Alaska, travel prep is a crucial part of making sure your experience is the best that it can possibly be. While I strive to do my best to provide all the articles and blog posts you could want for any situation regarding travel to, in, or around Alaska, sometimes you just need the TL;DR prep list.
So here it is!
Based on my own experience living in Alaska for four years and traveling back and forth from the state for over a decade, here’s the firsthand knowledge and helpful tips that I have to share when getting ready for a trip.
Step 1: Research the Climate
I love the weather, but Alaska is very far north. This sounds obvious, and it is when you look at a globe, but it’s VERY far north. And after a 6 month winter of temperatures in the -40 range what is good “long sleeve” weather for an Alaskan coming into early May might be a far cry from what you consider reasonable weather.
Expect to bring some long sleeve shirts and or sweatshirts especially if you’re visiting in May as opposed to late June or the month of July. You want to have layers for when you are visiting the state.
Step 2: Balance Open Time with Structured Time
Guided tours are something I don’t care for in most of my travels. However, it is a great way to check out Denali, go whale viewing, or see multiple glaciers via cruise. In other words, Alaska is one of those places where a combination of guided tours with open time to just wander at your own whim is an excellent way to set up your visit to Alaska and make sure you get the most out of it.
A good way to do this is to plan a guided tour like a bus tour on Denali, then just have an extra day or two where nothing is planned. This way you get great organized tours and then plenty of time to explore on your own, which lets you stay longer or take off for the next place early.
In other words, finding that balance instead of trying to structure every single hour is definitely the way to go and can give you the best of both worlds experience-wise.
Step 3: Plan Around What’s Most Important to You
Have you always wanted to see the Northern Lights? Experience the Midnight Baseball game? Hike a glacier? Take the world famous Alaska Rail train ride from Anchorage to Fairbanks (and back)? Take out a halibut charter out of Homer, Alaska, the Halibut Fishing Capital of the World?
Whatever immediately jumps to mind when you think about Alaska, that is where your planning for the dream Alaska vacation should begin.
IMPORTANT: You Can’t Do It All
Alaska is beyond huge. Even though Fairbanks, Denali, and Anchorage all look close by, they’re not. They’re not at all. Don’t assume you can see the entire state in one go, even if you have three or four weeks to do it, because that’s not nearly enough. Also not everything happens at the same time. You can’t catch the Midnight Baseball game and the Northern Lights.
Decide what’s most important to you and plan around that. Hopefully you’ll have many wonderful return trips to Alaska in the future, but if not (or even if there will be) it makes sense to base that first one around what fascinates you most to make that trip special.
Step 4: Add 20% to Your Budget
This comes with the caveat that there are many inexpensive alternatives to conventional expenses traveling in Alaska. However, from food to lodging to fuel to odds and ends, everything is a lot more expensive. Budget on the safe side by estimating all your expenses high, and THEN adding 20% to that.
If the number is intimidating, maybe save for one more year – or maybe you do some things on a budget to make up the difference. Depending on your age, taste for adventure, and willingness to search down good deals you very well could cut down on expenses but Alaska is an expensive state and it will take more to travel there than most people are used to.
Step 5: Review Potential Dangers
I don’t want to scare off visitors. I love the state of Alaska, and there’s a reason so many of the residents of the state came from elsewhere and then just stayed. But there are very real dangers that travelers need to be prepared for, especially if you are the explore the outdoors alone type.
Take some time to do research and understand what the localized dangers are and how to properly prepare for them. A little bit of study, preparation, and practice can go a long way.
I wrote an article titled Is Alaska Safe to Travel Alone? that talks about a lot of the precautions travelers can take to help make sure they are safe while still have the type of adventure they want when visiting the Last Frontier that is Alaska.
Step 6: Ask Around Locally
Alaska is one of those special places where you can stay in the touristy areas, always be guided around, and still have the trip of a lifetime. Not many places can accurately claim that.
However, one of the most amazing things about Alaska is the sheer wild beauty and uniqueness of the place. Some of the most beautiful places I’ve seen in my world travels weren’t National Parks, but simple off the road rest stops an hour north of Fairbanks or a couple hours’ drive down the Kenai.
The Combo Platter was a legendary bar food dish in Fairbanks at a local tavern at least as of 2010, and there are incredible hiking trails, campsites, antique stores, and parks you don’t know about unless you talk to locals – so spend some of that free time from tip number two in order to talk to some friendly locals and learn about the places that are worth checking out off the tourist track.
Step 7: If in Doubt, Go!
While preparation is extremely important, don’t let worry or concerns stop you. Alaska is an amazing place with many different ways to experience it. If you love flying solo and stumbling into adventure, get up there and start exploring!
If you’re the type that loves travel but gets nervous in new places and circumstances, don’t feel bad if you choose a heavily guided cruise up the coast and guided bus tours to and from Denali from there. That is still a trip that is worth it and maybe seeing the amazing majesty of the place and meeting the people will help encourage you to return a little bit more at ease the second time around.
Because for most of us, one taste of Alaska just isn’t enough!
That’s it. Seven easy steps to preparing for the trip of a lifetime (for many). Alaska is a wonderful place with amazing independent people, and I hope that taking the proper bit of prep will only enhance your positive experience and adventure when you choose to visit this truly one of a kind place.