Thursday, July 10, 2014

Before Booking

Making the trip to Alaska is a big deal. The cost is considerable and it's very, very important to do your research before booking anything. There are different options available for everyone, whether you have a lot of money or a little. A little planning and internet digging can save you a lot of time, money and frustration so you can get the vacation you want.

The Whole Package
Those who want to sit back and relax while enjoying some of Alaska's most thrilling sights usually opt for the cruise. There are cruises that depart from Washington state and make their way up the Inside Passage, finally landing in the small town of Seward, Alaska. From Seward, it's possible to continue to Anchorage by way of the Alaska Railroad, an incredibly scenic journey around more glaciers and wildlife. The cost of the trip can be more expensive when booking during peak season rates, which are mid June through July. If you want to really go all out, keep riding the train up to Denali or even Fairbanks. You can book a couple of nights in Denali and take a bus ride into the park for the day. Lodging can be booked either at one of the lodges at the end of the Denali Park Road or just outside the Park at one of the hotels. Expect pricey lodging, especially during peak season in Denali. The cheaper the lodging, the quicker it's going to fill up, so if you are on a budget it's important to plan at least a year in advance. If you are booking a hotel outside of the park and have taken the train, find a hotel that offers shuttle service to avoid a long walk. "The Whole Package" for a couple could cost $5000 to $7000 or more, depending on the time of year and lodging choices. This would also (hopefully) include airfare back home.

The Budget Cruise Package
A lot of people are quite thrilled with just a cruise from Vancouver to Seward, and then flying home out of Anchorage. Hertz car rental is the only major rental agency available out of Seward, catering to cruise-goers when they reach the end of the line. Car rentals aren't cheap in Alaska and may cost $100 or more a day. If you go with a rental, you could take your time in Seward and explore the area, maybe take a walk to Exit Glacier if you didn't get enough of them on your cruise. Exit Glacier is very accessible with a nice trail and the ability to get up close and personal to the mammoth, moving ice river. If you're staying the night, book your hotel early. There isn't much available in Seward for accommodations and if you wait too long, you'll spend a lot for a room. You can also do this trip backwards. Cheaper fares are in May and late August or very early September. Our tourism season starts around May 15th and ends around September 15th. Expect to see snow in more areas if you book early or late in the season.
Exit Glacier outside of Seward
Going Independent
If you're doing all the planning yourself, make sure you read reviews about every place you book. It's nice to have a company do it all for you, but it can be more expensive or even a scam. You are vulnerable when booking online and there are people out there who are all too willing to take your money and run. Fake companies pretend to be selling you a vacation package, only to disappear from the web after receiving your money. Other people buy up reservations a year or more in advance from tourism hotspots like Brooks Falls. They may sell these reservations along with airfare to Katmai National Park for a hefty sum. This is another major reason to book your reservations early!
Those who want to be really independent may want to rent a motorhome and save on hotels. You'll pay for gas and mileage, so make sure you're actually saving money, especially when getting from point A to point B in Alaska can mean hundreds of miles. Also consider the fact that most rental agencies don't allow travel on gravel roads. This limits where you may venture. There are some people out there who privately rent their own personal motorhomes to visitors. You can check Craigslist or Alaskalist for this option. Something that my family did quite often when I was a kid was to fly from Alaska to Maryland and buy a used motorhome. It gave us transportation and a place to sleep and then we drove it back to Alaska and sold it. If you're planning on staying for a month or more, it's certainly an option. You can leave the motorhome behind at a used car lot for them to sell for you, or drive it back home.

Sampling the Fare
It's fun to plan activities that give you an inside look at Alaska life and provide an array of entertainment. Spend a day or two in Anchorage and explore the Anchorage Museum and the Alaska Native Heritage Center. This year the museum is displaying an exhibit on the 1964 quake and you can also visit Earthquake Park for an informative stroll through an area hit hard by the earthquake. Take a ride down to Portage Glacier and stop at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center to see animals you may miss on your journey. A trip to Whittier is a hop, skip and a toll away from Portage. Its access is by way of Alaska's only tolled road section, a tunnel which now accommodates vehicles. It was formerly a town only accessible by train. From Whittier you can take a day cruise and see the marine life without driving all the way to Seward. There are many fishing hotspots easily found if you want to try your luck catching salmon, but check all the regulations before casting a line.

Rent a cabin in the wilderness. Cabins can be anything from sparse and rustic to grand and luxurious. There are basic Park Service cabins for the adventurous and they are cheap if you manage to get a reservation. A lot of these cabins require a hike or a boat ride, but there are a few that are easy to reach. You could explore a glacier in whatever way suits you. Matanuska Glacier is located 100 miles north of Anchorage and offers glacier viewing or glacier treks with a local company. Access to the glacier is through a private entrance and a fee is required. If you came for a thrill, check out the rafting on the Matanuska River or a Zipline ride. There are a few lodging options in the area, including cabins.
Matanuska Glacier as seen from campground

If you don't have the time to drive all the way to Denali National Park, drive up to a small town called Willow or one of the state's viewpoints of the monster mountain. From Anchorage the park is 237 miles, Willow (milepost 69 of the Parks Highway) is 81 mi. away and the state viewpoints begin appearing at Milepost 135 on the Parks Highway. On a clear day you can even see the mountain from Anchorage if you want a glimpse without the longer drive. Earthquake Park can provide one of the glimpses among others in Alaska's largest city. If you want to explore a little more and are able to drive on gravel, take Petersville Road at mile 114.9 of the Parks Highway. It offers spectacular views and a chance to see moose or even bears. Remember that you will only see the mountain if it is clear and sunny. You may have more luck in the morning if the mountain is in a good mood and not making its own storm systems. There are a few dog kennels along the Parks Highway that offer a chance to ride a dogsled and even meet an Iditarod musher.
A slightly shrouded Denali looms in the distance as seen from Willow
If you arrive during the last week of August or the first week of September you can spend a day exploring the Alaska State Fairgrounds and see what the long daylight hours do to our vegetables after the summer growing season. This is where gardeners from all over the state bring their giant veggies to compete for a chance at a Guinness World Record. There are a number of Alaskans who hold world record titles. The fairgrounds are located in Palmer, an hour's drive north of Anchorage.

Roughing It
Alaska is a beautiful place to hike or bike, though it's not exactly easy. I don't consider Alaska to be biker-friendly. Personally, I would love to see more bike paths along the highways and make it safer for people who want that option. There are many areas that pose dangers to bikers or hikers along the road systems. A lot of road sections are quite narrow and winding and offer a biker no protection from passing vehicles. There are also very few hostels for people who are keeping things cheap. The best option for roughing it is to bring a tent. Campgrounds aren't always necessary since there are many places along the highways where other campers have left their marks. You can usually spot a campfire ring of rocks marking a decent place to pitch your tent for free. It might be worth paying a bit of money to take a bus or train to Denali National Park and hiking or biking off the well-traveled road system. There's even a shuttle van and bus that will take you into Wrangell St.-Elias National Park where you can explore Kennicott Mine and Glacier and venture into a wilderness still largely untouched. A bus will take you from Anchorage to Glennallen and a shuttle van will transport you from Glennallen to McCarthy and Kennicott.
A typical campground offers a fire ring, picnic table and outhouse.
The price is usually $12- $15 a night.
If you can get a ride up to the Denali Highway, a supreme scenic journey can be found by crossing from Cantwell to Paxson or vice-versa. Cantwell is on the Parks Highway and Paxson is on the Richardson Highway. Late June to late July is a better time of year for traveling the tundra to avoid the cold winds and snow. Denali Highway is a mostly gravel, 134 mile long road that connects two of the state's major highways. It varies from lowlands to high tundra and is home to abundant wildlife.
A campground along Denali Highway near Paxson.
The small brown building with the green roof is the outhouse facility.
There is so much to see in Alaska and so many ways to see it. The scale of wilderness is hard to fathom unless you see it in person. A common mistake among visitors is their inability to grasp the distances between destinations until they arrive. They also tend to believe that just because they plan on staying in a town there will be lodging available. Always plan ahead for accommodations and read the reviews. Just because a room is $100 a night, it doesn't mean it's comfortable or clean. This is a state where many people still have outhouses and no running water or electricity, so the standard of what makes acceptable sleeping quarters can be a bit dodgy. If you expect a good night's sleep and comfort, check out what other visitors have reported before booking a bed that feels like sleeping on a board. If you're planning on taking a guided tour, either by bus, train, boat or even a guided fishing trip, keep in mind that your guides may not be from Alaska. Companies tend to hire people from out of state and their knowledge of Alaska is pretty much zero except for the script and info given to them by the employer. Since Alaska has such a high minimum wage, young people from out of state jump at the chance to make a little more money. Alaskans would expect to be paid more, and many residents already have summer jobs. Just because you're paying a lot for a tour doesn't mean you're paying an expert. A good number of fishing guides come from out of state as well, and don't stay informed of the rules and regulations. It will cost you your catch and your guide will be fined if caught unknowingly breaking the rules. All illegally obtained fish are confiscated and donated to charity.

Learn more about the state before your visit and check out these sites for more information about some of the activities mentioned.

Shuttle bus tour into Denali:

Earthquake Park:             

Wildlife Conservation Center

Anchorage Museum           

Alaska Native Heritage Center

Glennallen to McCarthy Shuttle

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