With its huge size and distinctive tourist scene, Alaska offers a unique set of challenges—and potential pitfalls. To avoid wasting time, money, and effort, follow our guidelines on what not to do:
1. Trying To Cover Too Much Ground In Too Little Time
Alaska is so big that, even if you saw 1 million acres a day, it would still take you more than a year to see it all. Consider this: it’s a 5-hour drive (or an 8-hour train ride) just from Anchorage to Denali.
Cruise lines and tour operators are often guilty of trying to pack in too much: this increases the value of their package, but it can leave you exhausted. Read our How Many Days You Need article to figure out how much terrain you should attempt to cover in the time you have. For independent travelers, sticking with just one or two regions—say, Southcentral and the Interior—will give you more time to linger and make the most of what you’re seeing.
2. Going Cruise-Only
Cruising is the most famous way to see Alaska, and it does let you experience Alaska’s breathtaking tidewater glaciers, emerald green mountains, and marine wildlife. But it’s only half of Alaska's magical nature show. To see the other half—the heartland—you need to add a land tour. This way, you get to explore small towns, meet locals, visit Denali National Park, see Denali (Mt. McKinley), and search for Alaska’s “Big Five” (moose, caribou, bear, Dall sheep, and wolves). Even if you just take a land tour, you can still get the coastal experience by taking half-day glacier and wildlife cruise; many people see more glaciers and get closer to marine wildlife this way than they do on a one-week large-ship cruise.
3. Overlooking Small-Ship Cruises
Yes, small-ship cruises are pricier than conventional cruises, but if your goal is to see Alaska’s coastal scenery, they’re your best bet. Why? First off, you’ll spend your entire trip in Alaska—either Prince William Sound near Anchorage or the Inside Passage in Southeast—instead of cruising from Seattle or Vancouver. Second, you’ll have a more intimate experience: These nimble vessels—which carry only 50–150 passengers—call on smaller, less-visited ports than large ships. Third, you’ll get more frequent and up-close glacier viewing, and make unplanned stops whenever whales or other marine wildlife appear. You’re also more likely to explore wild, secluded coves where you can go ashore for nature hikes or sea kayaking.
4. Not Booking Wilderness or Roadside Adventure Lodges
At $400 or more per person per night, many visitors don’t give wilderness lodges a second look. But that’s a mistake for two key reasons. First, they’re all-inclusive—so you not only get lodging and meals, but also a day full of guided hiking, kayaking, or other activities (depending on the lodge). Add up a regular hotel’s rate, plus excursions and meals, and the gap isn’t as much as you might think. Secondly, wilderness lodges work out quite well on a dollar-per-hour basis. Rather than spending $200 or more for an excursion that takes you into the wilderness for just a few hours, staying at a lodge gives you 15 or more waking hours a day in the wilderness. Read Why Wilderness Lodges Offer Value.
Alaska has some fairly economical lodges, too. If you can’t afford a fly-in or boat-in wilderness lodge, consider a roadside adventure lodge. These are smaller, adventure-oriented eco-lodges run by local families who are passionate about sharing their knowledge and showing you around their gorgeous part of Alaska.
5. Being Afraid of Driving
A lot of visitors are under the impression that driving in Alaska is unsafe. (Maybe too many have watched TV’s Ice Road Truckers.) Don’t worry: Our roads are easy to navigate, well maintained, and offer an economical route into the wide-open wilderness. When you rent a car, you can see more, have more flexibility, and go at your own pace. You’ll visit charming towns and meet some of America’s friendliest people. Bonus: We have so few roads that it’s hard to get lost! Read our tips on Alaska Car Rentals.
6. Overlooking Anchorage
Some folks have a saying: Anchorage is only 20 minutes from Alaska. Unfortunately, a lot of visitors seem to believe that, and blow out of town as quickly as possible.
Granted, plenty of people have come to Alaska to see wilderness, and Anchorage is a city—but it can still do something pretty powerful for your trip. By adding an extra day to your Anchorage itinerary, you can make the town a base camp for a variety of great wilderness experiences that would otherwise require a lot of driving or flight time.
Some solid wilderness can even be found minutes away from your Anchorage hotel. Chugach State Park , on the city’s doorstep, is half the size of Delaware and has valleys, mountains, and glacial rivers as beautiful as any in Alaska. Here you can enjoy a wide variety of half- or full-day tours and excursions like flightseeing, bear viewing, glacier dogsledding, rafting, fishing, guided hiking, and more. Or you can rent a car to visit nearby destinations that make for scenic day trips from Anchorage.
The Anchorage-as-home-base approach can also seriously streamline your trip. You won’t change hotels every day, and you can enjoy fine dining and city nightlife (if, that is, you’re not out hiking the Coastal Trail, looking for moose in Kincaid Park, or photographing the Midnight Sun).
Spending a few days in Anchorage is also a great way to give yourself a context to understand and appreciate the rest of your trip. When you see Anchorage’s many modern (and not-so-modern) buildings, you get a sense of how influential both the federal government and the oil business have been in the development of this Last Frontier. And when you go to the Anchorage Museum or the Alaska Native Heritage Center, you’ll get a vivid understanding of how native cultures have helped create (and still shape) Alaska.
7. Letting Deals or Coupon Books Run Your Trip
If you’re setting a budget for your vacation, a coupon book can be seriously enticing. But while they give you discounts for certain tours and hotels, they can also end up limiting what you think you can do on your trip.
Our advice? Don’t let the coupon book plan the trip for you. For one thing, not all the good hotels or tours participate in these books. Another risk: the books themselves can be costly, so after you’ve shelled out for the book, you might feel obligated to use the coupons inside, which limits your experience even more.
The good news: There are other ways to get great discounts in Alaska. Sometimes it's a matter of when you book, or when you visit. If your schedule is flexible, try coming during the shoulder seasons—generally late May and early September. Most hotels, tours, and even transportation options are less expensive, so you get a discount on your entire trip instead of just one tour or hotel. Read about how to see Alaska on a budget.
8. Not Allocating Enough Funds For Excursions
No doubt, just getting to Alaska can be costly. But many people make the mistake of not setting aside enough of their budget for excursions once they’re here. And really, day tours are essential to your experience—they’re the building blocks of an Alaska vacation. Think about it: When you go to a beach resort or visit a European city, it’s easy to have the experience you want. That’s not the case in Alaska. Many of the most dramatic sights require taking a plane or boat, while other activities—river rafting, glacier hiking, or dogsledding, for example—necessitate hiring expert guides and gear.
Of course, there are lots of sightseeing options for a variety of budgets. But we still recommend letting yourself splurge on at least one, such as flightseeing, which a lot of people say is the highlight of their Alaskan vacation.
Look at our Statewide Day Tours Page for ideas of tours you can take while in Alaska.
9. Thinking You Need More Time Than You Have
Alaska is far away, and that makes people shy away from coming here for just a few days. That’s just wrong: Even if you have a long weekend, you can still have an amazing Alaskan vacation.
The key is covering ground efficiently—and choosing your tours and transportation options wisely. Happily, many of the really memorable Alaskan experiences are one-day affairs: A flightseeing tour, for example, lets you take in Denali, glaciers, fjords, and more. On a day cruise, you can see whales, sea otters, seabirds, glaciers, and untouched Alaskan coastline. Or take a day trip on the Alaska Railroad, which shows you the sights away from the road system.
Several airlines now offer direct flights to Alaska, making a long weekend here pretty easy. In 2012, Alaska saw a spike in folks coming for just 3–4 days, partly due to Jet Blue’s new direct service (and economical rates) from Long Beach. California. Check out our Direct Flights to Alaska page and see if there’s direct service from an airport near you. Also, refer to our How Many Days You Need article for more advice.