News of the cruise industry canceling their cruises to Alaska in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID is devastating news for the Alaskan economy and the thousands of locals that rely on tourism. It was also a major bummer for anyone who planned to embark on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Alaska. But it’s not game over! The cruise industry is both a blessing and a curse for Alaska, contributing to tourism leakage in Alaska, a long list of environmental concerns, and overcrowding for locals in small communities. On the other hand, it is a convenient way to see some of the best locations in Alaska.
Regardless, it’s high time for the Alaskan travel industry to diversify, and I encourage those willing and able to explore Alaska away from a cruise to try it out. There is no time like the present to try something different and experience Alaska in a way most never have. Visiting Alaska without a cruise can be a more sustainable option, putting money into the economy, allowing travelers to engage in ethical and cultural tourism, and creating meaningful travel experiences. An added bonus, it’s a safer option amid a pandemic, plus you can see some local hidden gems and get off the beaten path for an adventure unlike any other.
If you are cruise hesitant amid the pandemic, increasing awareness surrounding their negative environmental toll, or you’re a curious adventurer wanting to explore all that Alaska has to offer, keep reading for my local tips for traveling to Alaska without a cruise. As a former Alaskan tour guide, a born and raised Alaskan, and someone who still works in the travel sector, I know all the ins and outs to help you plan the best trip of your life. Let’s dig in.
More than 50% of people travel to Alaska on a cruise. Meaning that the majority of tourists have their flights or sailings booked for them. But getting to Alaska is easy on your own. There are often great deals from most major airport hubs in the United States. I recommend flying on Alaska Airlines for the best customer service, and sometimes you’ll even get commentary on your flight. If you’re not in the US, there are great flights from Iceland, direct flights from Frankfurt, and some good connections from Japan.
You can fly into Juneau, our capital, a great launching point for a Southeast tour, similar to what cruise lines might do. You can also fly into Anchorage or Fairbanks and rent a car for a complete interior land tour from Seward to Denali National Park. Flying into Anchorage is the easiest option; it’s our largest central hub, so you’ll likely get the most direct flights to save on carbon emissions. From there, you can connect to just about any part of the state in no time.
For many people, a cruise is an investment. So, you might think that planning a trip to Alaska without a cruise might save you money. I’ll be honest with you though, Alaska isn’t the cheapest place, and patching together your own trip can quickly end up being more than a cruise. If you’re on a road trip, you’re likely to spend quite a bit of money on gas, and in 2021-2022 car rental prices can be more than your airline ticket. Meanwhile, for those interested in visiting the more remote national parks like Gates of the Arctic – these trips can set you back $7,000+, not including your transport to Alaska. If you book many excursions, these can easily reach thousands of dollars for big flightseeing trips. Eating out at a nice seafood restaurant might set you back $35 dollars a plate. This is a far fetch from the all-you-can-eat crab buffets on a cruise. So, create a budget before you fly to Alaska and book as many things as possible so you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. Pick 1-2 dream excursions that are worth forking over extra money.
In many cases, you will also be in charge of booking your own accommodation. Much of the land accommodation in Alaska can be rustic but pricy. Set your expectations for the style and price of accommodation on your trip. Airbnb is popping up as problematic for many Alaska communities contributing to gentrification. I encourage you to find a hotel, bed and breakfast, or rural lodge based on your itinerary and needs.
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. Northern Alaska Tour Company offers multi-day itineraries in and around Fairbanks and the Arctic circle. You can explore Native Villages, see polar bears, or visit 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.
- Kenai Back Country Adventures: Another excellent option for outdoor lovers with epic multi-day hiking, rafting, and remote Alaskan adventures.
- 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.
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 Alaskan, 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
2022 Car Update: Car rental prices are ridiculous in Alaska right now – as are gas prices – confirm your price and quote! On top of that my mom (a lifetime Alaskan) just said that many tourists are arriving at the car rental location of their booking and being told there are no cars. Yes, even people with bookings are ending up without cars. Make sure you call a day or two ahead and ensure your booking is still confirmed. Also, do not be late – if your car rental is for noon and you show up at 3 pm they probably gave it to someone who was there at noon. This is common for rental companies – so pay attention and be on time. Try booking a car away from major airports. If all else fails, try Turo. I have a couple of friends lending their cars using this program. And if that fails – take the train! My friend just planned 2 weeks in Alaska without a car and relied on trains, shuttles, busses, and more!
If you’re planning to stick to our central 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 campervan from Get Lost Campervans, might be the right option for you. For the summer of 2021, Denali National Park is offering exclusive limited driving permits into the park. Usually, private vehicles are not allowed in the park, so driving is a great way to safely see the park’s beauty while staying in your bubble. Alaska has some of the major rental companies such as Enterprise, Avis, and Hertz in Fairbanks and Anchorage.
Suppose you are the adventurous type without mobility or significant health concerns. In that case, 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, you are highly recommended to rent a 4×4 and ensure it comes with a spare tire or two – and know how to change a tire. A 4×4 is also a great option if you drive from Anchorage to Fairbanks in the winter. 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 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 expected.
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.
If you prefer a smaller camper van, so you can navigate the smaller road more easily, check out River Wild Camper Vans, Get Lost Travel Vans, Alaska Camper Van Rentals, or Alaska Adventure. This would be my top choice for seeing Alaska, as you have the most flexibility about where you go and sleep.
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. Campgrounds are 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. 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, 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 a short day or overnight trip to see your surroundings.
You can fly to Juneau, using 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 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 stick to Juneau and utilize the day and shuttle ferries to see plenty of unique 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, and 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 and 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 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 walkout to a glacier, or hang out and enjoy the scenery. They even have overnight or multiday packages where they plan an epic adventure by rail; 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 cargo hub, and more air traffic with small single-engine planes than anywhere else. You can’t even drive to our capital, Juneau – you must 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 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.
Cook Inlet, Alaska
I highly recommend booking the inclusive Wilderness Place Lodge trip with Alaska Adventure Company. Fly to a ‘luxury but still rustic’ wilderness lodge, eat amazing food, plan excursions, relax, or go fishing. I also use Rust’s Flying Service for friends and family when they visit and recommend their overnight at Katmai Lodge to see bears feasting on Salmon.
Catch a Bus or Shuttle
Alaska has a pretty shit public transportation system, so don’t expect to hop on a convenient bus from downtown Anchorage to Eagle River 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 want to hike Anchorage’s Flat Top, 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!