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Can you travel to Alaska without booking a package on a large cruise line? Of course! Most people choose a cruise because they are unsure of how even to start planning a trip to this beautiful state on their own. Despite Alaska being a notoriously difficult place to travel around, logistically, there are plenty of options for those looking to visit without a big cruise ship. Alaska has some fantastic all-inclusive tour operators that are ready with pre-planned and guided travel packages or the resources to help you customize a trip and give you all the tools you need including transportation to go it on your own. For those that are more independent, I’ll give you a list of some great resources to help you plan an independent trip that will rival any cruise.
News of the cruise industry canceling 70% of their cruises to Alaska due to COVID is devastating news for the Alaskan economy and the thousands of locals that rely on tourism. It is also a major bummer for anyone who had plans to embark on a once in a lifetime trip to Alaska. The ethics of cruising to Alaska and the tourism leakage caused by the industry there is no denying that Alaska’s tourism economy is reliant on the cruise industry, especially for smaller communities in the southeast. However, I am adamant that the travel industry in Alaska needs to diversify, and I encourage any of those that are willing and able to explore Alaska away from a cruise to try it out. Cruise companies are canceling their Alaskan and global sailings, so there is no time like the present to try something different and experience Alaska in a way most never have.
If you were one of the near million people that had their cruise cut from the 2020 sailings, or you’re a curious adventurer wanting to explore all that Alaska has to offer, then keep reading for my local tips for how to travel to Alaska without a cruise. When it is safe to go to Alaska again, then I recommend booking a flight to Alaska without a cruise. As a former Alaskan tour guide, a born and raised Alaskan, and someone who currently still works in the travel sector, I know all the ins and outs to help you plan the best trip of your life.
One of my favorite facts about Alaska is that you can drive almost 1,000 miles and only make one left (or right) hand turn at a proper light and get from Seward to Deadhorse. So, even though we only have one major highway (which is really a bunch of smaller highways connected) you can access a huge portion of Alaska from the comfort of a car. And, if you want to be a real Alaska, you’ll get off the highway and take to the air or sea to reach all the hidden gems and small villages that make Alaska such a special place.
Rent a Car / Van / Camper
If you’re planning to stick to our main highway system including Southcentral Alaska (Anchorage, Seward, Homer, Girdwood, Palmer, Talkeetna, Valdez), the Interior of Alaska (Fairbanks, Denali National Park, Denali Highway) and even as far east as Wrangell National Park then renting a car or motorhome is the right option for you. Alaska has some of the major rental companies such as Enterprise, Avis, and Hertz in Fairbanks and Anchorage.
If you are the adventurous type without mobility or significant health concerns, I recommend getting off the main highways in Alaska and exploring some remote areas such as the Denali Highway or heading to McCarthy. For this, it is highly recommended you rent a 4×4 and make sure it comes with a spare tire or two – and that you know how to change a tire. A 4×4 is also a great option if you plan on driving from Anchorage to Fairbanks in the winter as well. Alaska 4×4 Rentals has an excellent reputation for providing quality 4×4 rugged vehicles in Fairbanks and Anchorage. You can choose from a line of Jeeps, Suburbans, and for larger families a 12 person 4WD option. Midnight Sun Car and Van Rental have AWD Subaru rentals and even larger vans to fit the entire family. If you’re going down some of the more remote roads then make sure you have great insurance, cracked windows and popped tires can be common.
If you want to utilize Alaska’s numerous RV camping locations in Seward, Homer, Anchorage, Fairbanks, Valdez, Palmer, and beyond then check out ABC Motorhomes,Alaska Motorhome Rentals, or Go North Alaska. Most RV rentals are only available in Anchorage or Fairbanks.
As an alternative, you can also just add a tent to your car rental and utilize Alaska’s numerous camping grounds to save some money. There are campgrounds just about everywhere, so you’ll always find a place to pitch your tent. Campgrounds may get full on weekends and holidays, as we locals love using them every chance we get. It helps to plan your route ahead of time during the peaks in summer. You can rent camping gear from Alaska Outdoor Gear Rental in Fairbanks or Anchorage.
Sail the Seas with Alaska Marine Highway
If you had your heart set on seeing Southeast Alaska, including Juneau, Sitka Ketchikan, and more, then don’t despair, do as the Alaskans do, and take advantage of our Alaska Marine Highway System. The marine highway is 3,500 miles of ferry routes that connect 35 communities, including connections to Canada and Washington State. You can access the ferry system from most coastal regions in the south including, Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands all the way to Bellingham, Washington. The Marine Highway also offers short day trip ferries and shuttle ferries, so you can create a home base and take short day or overnight trips to see your surroundings.
You can easily fly to Juneau, where you can use the ferry to access Skagway, Hoonah, and Sitka. Then from Juneau, you can make your way down to Ketchikan, where you could fly back to Washington or settle in for a long ferry ride to Bellingham. The ferry can eat up days of your itinerary. For example, getting from Juneau to Ketchikan is 20 hours, so if you’re not up for a night on the ferry, then just stick to Juneau and utilize the day and shuttle ferries to see plenty of amazing spots in southeast Alaska.
Ride the Train
One of my favorite ways to get around is riding the Alaska Railroad. The railroad connects the interior of Alaska, and you can combine rail legs with renting a car. You can save money by only renting a car for a few days and riding the train for the rest of the way.
During the summer, the Alaska Railroad runs from Seward to Fairbanks. My favorite route is Anchorage to Seward, which passes by glaciers, through mountain passes, and you’ll see plenty of wildlife. However, I would argue that every leg of the train is awe-inspiring. The trek from Anchorage to Talkeetna passes over braided glacial river beds and through moose-filled marshlands with the Talkeetna Mountains, the Chugach Mountains surrounding the valley. The leg from Talkeetna to Denali passes through wild forests dotted with lakes, bears, moose, and mountain views. The journey from Denali to Fairbanks is probably my second favorite. It traverses the Alaskan tundra with endless views of the vast wilderness. You enter a high elevation pass nestled among the mountains where the caribou migration happens and a sense of calm washes over you with the silent beauty of Alaska.
Local Tip: The Alaska Railroad has some amazing “specials” such as the Glacier Discovery Train. This train runs from Anchorage to Whitter and makes whistle stops so you can get out and go berry picking, take a walk out to a glacier, or just hang out and enjoy the scenery. They even have overnight or multiday packages where they plan an epic adventure by rail and all you need to do is book your tickets. This is something you can not do if you’re cruising. So, if you are a train lover take advantage of their specials and packages.The train does book up fast in the summer months, so make sure you plan your route ahead of time and secure your tickets.
Take to the Skies
Alaska has the most extensive seaplane base in the world, the largest air carbo hub, and more air traffic with small single-engine planes than anywhere else. You can’t even drive to our capital, Juneau – you have to fly there. Alaska and Horizon Airlines fly to most major towns and cities, enabling you to explore Bethel, Nome, or Utqiagvik. Ravn Air offers access to smaller towns. However, the ideal way to fly around Alaska is by booking an overnight or sightseeing excursion with the likes of Rust’s, K2, Alaska Adventure Company, or Northern Alaskan Tour Company. This way, you can see Alaska from a small plane and land somewhere remote for a unique experience.
Alaska has a pretty shit public transportation system, so don’t expect to hop on a convenient bus from downtown Anchorage to Eagle River any time soon. But, we do take care of our tourists, and you have plenty of options to catch a motorcoach ‘bus’ from Anchorage to Denali National Park. The Park Connection Shuttles people between Denali and Seward. Most shuttles operate daily, if not several times a day during the summer season. My former employer, Premier Alaska Tours, operates these shuttles, and they are fantastic.
If you are in Anchorage with time to kill and want to see the gorgeous Turnagain Arm including a scenic drive, a stop at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, Girdwood, or Portage Glacier then book a shuttle day trip to see all the highlights of the Anchorage area with Turnagain Arm Shuttle.If you are looking to hike Anchorage’s Flat Top, then you can catch a shuttle from Anchorage to the trailhead and back with the Flat Top Shuttle. Ketchikan and Talkeetna have a tourist taxi service that acts as a shuttle service. There are dozens of options like this around Alaska, including Seward, Juneau, Fairbanks, and more. If you need help finding excellent shuttles or transportation hops near any of your destinations in Alaska, let me know!
Visit in Winter
Alaska is fantastic in winter. A quiet calm washes over the state as tourism numbers decline. But, there is still plenty to see and do, including Northern Lights Tours, Ididitrod adventures, hot springs, glacier adventures, and more. Check out my top reasons to visit Alaska in winter, my favorite spots to visit, and tour operators that are open all year round specializing in winter adventures. For a winter adventure, I highly recommend booking an inclusive winter package from one of the tour operators, since driving in snow and icy can be really scary – especially since we don’t maintain the road haha.
Try a Small Sustainable Alaskan Owned Cruise
If you still have your heart set on a cruise, then I suggest skipping the mega cruise companies and opting for a small local Alaskan-owned cruise company. Sail with Dream Alaskan Cruises on a 7-10 day adventure with a small group of up to 70 people. Local Alaskans will take you to small Native Villages, remote and rural towns, hidden wildlife sanctuaries, and more. A local small-group cruise is perhaps the best way to see the beauty of southeast Alaska while avoiding the large crowds of mega cruises and ensuring your money goes right back into the community.
Plan Your Own Adventure
Utilize local resources from experts to plan your own personalized trip. Alaska.org has some of the best ideas for independent DIY travelers allowing you to cobble together your very own adventure anywhere in the state. Explore Fairbanks has some great travel ideas for the interior and north of Alaska. Visit Anchorage has some great resources for Southcentral Alaska.Alaska Inside Passage will help get you started with Southeast Alaska travel tips. Of course, the posts in my Alaska section are always growing to give you more ideas like these awesome 70 local things to do in Anchorage.
Relax, and Book A Multi-Day Tour with A Local Company!
Alaska has dozens of local inclusive tour companies that offer set packages or customized itineraries. That means they will prepare all the transportation, lodging, excursions, and more. A lot of people book cruises for the ease of having everything taken care of for them, but most Alaskan tour companies do all that for you as well. I know and recommend Salmon Berry Tours, owned by two lovely local women who are passionate about Alaska. I used to work for Premier Alaska Tours and they are a well organized professional company with great guides. Private Alaska Touring is also great and the team of travel curators is always working to offer the best packages (Ask for Elise to plan a trip for you and tell her Susanna sent you). Northern Alaska Tour Company offers multi-day itineraries in and around Fairbanks and the Arctic circle. You can visit Native Villages, see polar bears, or see one of the most remote national parks in the World, Gates of the Arctic. Alaskans LOVE showing off our state, and the most significant impact you can have is by putting those tourist dollars directly into our pockets with a carefully curated multi-day adventure supporting local businesses the entire way. Keep reading for a bigger list of all the inclusive tour companies that are willing to help you plan your whole holiday with insider knowledge.
Local Alaskan Inclusive Travel & Tour Companies
Check out these Alaskan tour companies that will help you plan the custom itinerary of your dreams, or pick from any of their pre-planned trips. You won’t even miss the hustle of a cruise as you trust local Alaskans to plan the perfect multi-day adventure.
Alaska Private Touring: An all-inclusive local tour company operating year-round for the best of all seasons in Alaska. Get to know Alaska intimately with their 16-day tours, or just get a little test with a short trip. Have them plan something just for you, whether you want culture, outdoors, or something in between.
Salmon Berry Tours: An all-inclusive local tour company operating year-round, including amazing winter tours to see a magical winter wonderland not possible with a cruise. They also offer fantastic summer packages to explore Alaska’s National Parks and more. Choose any of their 1-6 day tours or have them plan something just for you.
Northern Alaska Tour Company: A flightseeing and tour company based out of Fairbanks Alaska offering Denali and Arctic Circle excursions. Multi or single-day trips to Indigenous towns, Gates of the Arctic National Park, Polar Bear tours, and more.
Alaskan Dream Cruises: Take advantage of a multi-day (7-10 night) cruise, servicing small groups (max 70 people) venturing to remote Native villages, historical towns, coves filled with wildlife, and more. Support Alaskan owned small scale cruising for the very best of both worlds.
Alaska Adventure Company: If you are looking for a wild backcountry adventure from fishing, remote cabin stays, wilderness kayaking, photography tours, and more, look no further. Build your dream Alaskan off the grid adventure.
Premier Alaska Tours: If you had your heart set on a group or family cruise with all the relatives or several family groups, then reach out to Premier Alaska Tours. They are equipped for medium to large size groups and should be willing to curate a private trip for larger groups. I even had an entire quilting group on one of my tours when I worked with them – so anything goes.
Alaska Tour and Travel: ATT traditionally specializes in pre and post-cruise land options, so you can still get that land tour you had your eye on – just without the cruise! They also offer 5-10 days Alaska highlights or off the beaten path itineraries. For independent travelers, they will plan your trip then give you the reigns with a detailed custom DIY tour of Alaska.
Alaska Tours: They offer tour packages based on interest, so you can pick a multi-day train trip across Alaska, plan an epic road trip, or fly over the great state. They also have loads of great travel tips to help you start planning your own journey across Alaska.
Greatland Adventures: Greatland offers a little bit of everything from connecting you with glacier kayaking and guided hikes with locals for the day to 14-day mega tours across the interior of Alaska.
Alaska Adventure Unlimited: This family-owned company specializes in hyperlocal multi or single-day tours, including some unique offerings to Wrangell St. Elias National Park, photography tours, and more. This is the perfect option for family groups, as they even offer some budget-friendly group options.
Alaska Alpine Adventures: If your ideal vacation is 12 days of remote guided hiking or a 7-day kayak adventure, then AK Alpine Adventures is the perfect tour company for you. They specialize in outdoor adventures for those that want to see the true wilderness and epic nature of Alaska.
Wild Alaska Travel: For epic adventures to see polar bears and the northern lights and all the best of the cold Alaska winters, contact Wild Alaska Travel.
Alaska Wild Land Tours: Have a great adventure anywhere in the state, including multi-day remote lodge trips to a tour up the Inside Passage.
Book the Excursion of Your Dream
If you don’t want everything planned for you by booking with a local Alaskan tour company, then utilize the home base strategy and book mini 1-3 day excursions from there. For example, if you use Anchorage as your home base, you can book a one-day flightseeing tour with Rust’s to see bears in Katmai National Park. Another day you can take Alaska Railroad down to Seward for 1-2 nights for whale watching with Major Marine Tours. Doing this, you will get to know the Anchorage area intimately and have a wide range of options to see the surrounding area. Other great home bases are places you can quickly fly to, including Juneau and Fairbanks. Juneau will give you access to the Alaska Marine Highway system to see some of the southeast locations you would have on your cruise. Fairbanks will provide you with access to the interior and Arctic Circle.
One of the best parts about visiting Alaska without a cruise is allowing the time and flexibility to do these things. When I was working with people who were cruising in Alaska, so many of them asked about this dream overnight trip in a remote cabin to go fishing, and I would have to break the bad news that the rushed cruise itineraries didn’t allow for those types of trips.
Excursion Operators and Alaskan Experiences
For epic day trips and excursions around Alaska, check out these local tour guides. This list focuses on big excursion companies (rather than must-see places like museums) similar to those options offered on cruises, and it is just a small sample of the hundreds of execution operators in Alaska.
Trygg Air: Book a flightseeing adventure to see a walrus colony, to a wildlife refuge, or to see bears. The Trygg experts have unique wildlife and wilderness packages for one of a kind experiences.
Lazy Otter Charters: See Prince William Sound with glacier tours, kayak rentals, or take a ferry to a remote cabin (must be booked separately and in advance.)
Alaska By Air: As their name says, see Alaska by air with flightseeing tours, including Denali. They also offer flights for remote lodges and fishing trips.
Major Marine Tours: I only recommend this family-owned business for wildlife viewing and glacier excursions in Prince William Sound out of Seward. They are amazing!
Alaska Railroad: Connecting Seward to Fairbanks with scenic trips through Alaska’s wilderness. Commentary and dining options are available. Book combo tickets for a unique experience partnering with local Alaskan businesses.
Big Swig Tours: Taste the best craft beers in Anchorage with Big Swig.
AK Finest: A native-owned tour company, is offering city tours of Anchorage and the surrounding area.
Greatland Adventures: A tour company based in Anchorage offering everything from fat-biking, ice climbing, glacier viewings, and northern lights tours.
True Alaskan Tours: Explore the hidden gems of the entire southeast region with ziplining in Ketchikan, fishing in Sitka, whale watching in Juneau, or seeing Wrangell National Park with a family-owned company.
Frontier Excursions: See the best of Skagway and the Yukon with fun day trips, including scenic train rides, rafting trips, or a trip to Emerald Lake.
Adventure Bound: Visit Tracy Arm Fjord just outside of Juneau for up-close glacier encounters and a scenic boat ride.
Gastineau Company: Explore Juneau, including Mendenhall Glacier, whale watching, and more – all with a small group and local guides.
Skagway Tours: For adventures in and around Juneau and Skagway, including whale watching and beer tastings, then check out Skagway Tours.
Alaska Shore Tours: For a full look at all the shore excursions t cruise guests in Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan, then this is the place. Reach out to them and let them know you’re an independent traveler and see what your options are.
Out to Sea Expeditions: Get an intimate look at Alaska’s wildlife in a zodiac boat with this small family-owned company.
Ketchikan Taxi Tours: Explore Ketchikan, including everything from their charming pub scene, to Native art, and flightseeing, fishing, and culinary tours.
Misty Fjords Air: Take a special flightseeing tour into Misty Fjords or other areas of the Tongass National Forest.
Sitka Wildlife Tours: Explore the best of Sitka with walking tours, scenic boat rides, and other adventures.
Seeing all the best of Alaska away from the big cruise ship has never been easier by taking advantage of Alaska’s transportation options, local tour guides, and operators. When it is safe to do so, book a trip to Alaska and see a side that no one has ever seen with a customized tour without a cruise ship.
Make sure to share with all your friends and family dreaming of an Alaskan holiday, but aren’t sure what to do if their cruise was canceled or they are curious about alternatives.
Susanna grew up in small-town Alaska where the changing climate was always on her mind. Through traveling, she gained an interest in the power of sustainable and regenerative travel. She now attends a Master's program for Ecology and bridges sustainable travel with the science of ecology.