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Planning a Trip to Alaska

Getting Around Alaska
train alaska scenicWith so much of Alaska undeveloped and inaccessible by road (or at least difficult to navigate), traveling in the 49th state poses a unique set of problems. The necessity of taking float-planes to some remote destinations can make for a costly adventure. While taking the train is an incredibly scenic option, it's also limited in scope. There are only two rail lines in Alaska, and one is a 67.5-mile tourist line. Bus travel isn't very flexible and typically only takes place between May and September. While the road system is decent, especially around Anchorage and on the Alaska Highway system, it can only take you so far.

Cruise: The single most popular way to visit Alaska is by cruise ship. Sailing from late April to September, Alaska cruises predominantly focus on the Inside Passage, with the most common stops being Ketchikan, Skagway, Juneau and Glacier Bay. Some ships reach Kodiak Island in the Southwest and some even call in the Aleutians en route across the Pacific to Asia. Most Alaska cruises either sail roundtrip from Vancouver or Seattle, or travel one way between Seward and Vancouver.

The biggest names in cruising -- Princess, Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean -- all offer voyages to the region on amenity-laden ships (hot tubs, multiple dining options, Vegas-style entertainment) carrying between 1,000 and 3,000 passengers.

But if you cringe at the thought of a big-ship cruise, there are numerous small-ship options. Lindblad Expeditions emphasizes education on its 62-passenger ships in the region, each with a staff of onboard naturalists as well as an undersea specialist and a photography instructor. Another small-ship option is American Safari Cruises, which offers Inside Passage eco-cruises on its three 12- to 86-passenger mega-yachts. The appeal of small ships is that they can visit ports the mega-ships simply can't. The scenic fishing village of Petersburg, with its combination of Norwegian and Tlingit cultures, is only accessible by small ship, and provides a welcome break from the high-season crowds of Alaska's more popular cruise ports.

Alaska Travel Deals

Charter Boat: If you can pull together 3 - 20 like-minded friends (the more you gather, the more you can divide the costs), charter a boat. There are various choices, from two- or three-nighters to a week or more; all come with cook and captain. Small-boat chartering in Alaska means itinerary flexibility and the most intimate cruise option possible. Sail from Seattle to Sitka or work with the captain to design a more specialized route (say, exploring the inlets around Juneau or sailing from Sitka to Ketchikan). Meals and snacks are included in the costs, and often feature "catch of the day"-type fare, as well as crab and shrimp bakes. Excursions may include beach and rain forest hiking, fishing, kayaking (most charters are equipped with kayaks and smaller skiffs), wet-suit diving, whale watching, and visits to hot springs and waterfalls -- all there to be enjoyed whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Just about everything you would need for the voyage is included onboard (foul weather gear, fishing equipment, etc.). Bringing your own beer/snacks is perfectly acceptable.

This can be a pricey proposition depending on when you go -- off-season and shoulder season sailings can offer decent savings. Pay a visit to the AlaskaCharterBoat.com to scout out deals.

Ferry: A third by-sea option is the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system, known affectionately as Blue Canoes. The year-round service relies on 11 ships (174 - 600 passengers) to connect some 35 communities -- from Bellingham in Washington State all the way up to Skagway and the Aleutians -- over thousands of nautical miles. Established more than 40 years ago, the Blue Canoes are a no-frills option for scenic cruise travel and transportation between Alaskan port communities. Buy a ticket between two ports, get off and stay for a few days, then hop back on the next ferry that glides through.

In standard ferry mode, you can bring your kayak, your bicycle, your vehicle -- car, truck, RV or motorcycle -- or even your pet along with you. Campers and trekkers will find this mode of travel ideal for penetrating some of the less accessible portions of Alaska's coastline, with stunning views along the way. You can either book a cabin with in-suite facilities, or rough it in your sleeping bag in the heated solariums and out on deck. Hot meals are available "cafeteria style" on most ferries, and two of the larger vessels have full-service dining rooms. You can also bring food and beverages onboard. There are no refrigerators available onboard (but there are microwaves and ice machines).

float plane seaplane alaskaPlane: To reach many of Alaska's most sought-after destinations, taking to the air may be your only option. Alaska Airlines is the state's main airline, offering service to some 20 destinations throughout the state, including flights to the Aleutians, Nome, Sitka and the Far North oil company town of Prudhoe Bay.

For accessing even more remote areas that require a lake or ice landing (on floats or skis!), chartering a small float-plane may be the only way to go. Charters work on an hourly rate for the whole plane (that's to drop you off and for the pilot to take the plane back to his or her next destination). For instance, Alaska Air Taxi offers a Cessna 206 with tundra tires and five insured seats for $500 per hour for the plane.

On the tourist front, an endless array of flightseeing excursions (by plane or helicopter) are available. For instance, tour companies will take you over glaciers (Wrangell Mountain Air offers a 35-minute tour over Kennicott Glacier) or up to Mt. McKinley (K2 Aviation runs an hour-long experience).

Train: While somewhat limited in scope, traveling by Alaska's rail system is one of the most stunning ways to see the state. With onboard guides included in the fare, it's a great opportunity to spot wildlife as you take in the passing lakes, rivers and mountains. Special dome cars on the Denali Star train, which runs the Fairbanks to Anchorage route, offer incredible panoramic views. Some of the trains even feature dining cars.

There are two railroad options. The Alaska Railroad connects Seward to Anchorage (4.5 hours); Anchorage to Denali National Park (the foot of Mt. McKinley, 8 hours); and Anchorage to Fairbanks (12 hours). The train runs on a daily basis from mid-May to mid-September. Winter service (operating the rest of the year) is offered only on weekends. A second system, the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, offers a variety of day trips, including the 40-mile roundtrip White Pass Summit Excursion.

The World's Most Spectacular Train Trips

Car: Driving in Alaska provides the most flexible travel option -- but it's also an incredibly time-consuming proposition that could cover hundreds or thousands of miles. Anchorage and Fairbanks have the best road systems, and the whole state can be covered (during the summer months at least) from north to south via the Alaska Highway, which connects the lower 48 all the way up to Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic. Distances between destinations can be pretty vast, so fuel costs can rack up quickly -- and it's a good idea to have some basic repair items on hand such as a spare tire, and various wrenches and fluids.

Car and RV rentals are available; keep in mind that one-way rentals are significantly more expensive. Before your trip, it's a good idea to check road conditions on the Web site of the Alaska Department of Transportation (http://www.dot.state.ak.us).

Bus: For bus travelers, there are several small companies serving Alaska's main routes, from Seward and Whitter, where cruise ships embark, up to Fairbanks, either by way of Denali National Park (directly north of Anchorage) or Tok (you swing northeast to Tok, then northwest to Fairbanks). Naturally, bus travel offers less flexibility and more planning than car travel, and you should be prepared for a long ride. While buses run year-round in the state's population centers, frequency of routes may vary depending on season, and depending on the route, you may find yourself in a big motorcoach with panoramic windows or a more modest 15-passenger van -- both typically have a driver/guide.

A few companies that serve various Alaskan destinations include Alaska Park Connection, Homer Stage Line, Seward Bus Line and Interior Alaska Bus Line. Gray Line of Alaska offers day trips and multi-day tourist packages.

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