Carriers -- Anchorage (ANC) is Alaska's main entrance and is served by numerous major carriers from the rest of the United States. A few flights arrive in Anchorage from Japan, Korea, or Germany, but the vast majority of international travelers arrive in the U.S. in another major city in the contiguous states and then take a domestic flight to Anchorage. It's also possible to fly into Fairbanks or Southeast Alaska. Most passengers come into Anchorage through Seattle, but for a bit more, you can fly nonstop to Anchorage from various major cities. There are far more choices in summer than in winter. Alaska Airlines (tel. 800/252-7522; www.alaskaair.com) has more flights than all other airlines combined, with as many as 20 nonstops a day from Seattle in summer and daily summer nonstops from many cities around the country. Alaska Airlines is the only jet carrier with more than token coverage anywhere in the state other than Anchorage and has arrangements with commuter lines that fan out from its network to smaller communities.
Fares -- Fares vary wildly, especially in these days of economic instability and changing fuel costs. It's almost always cheapest to change planes in Seattle due to the competition on the Seattle-Anchorage route. Watching for sales can pay off. Summer sales sometimes hit in April. If you can make a last-minute decision, check for Web specials on the Alaska Airlines website and other airline sites, as there sometimes are bargains to be had you can't get any other way.
Bush Pilots -- To fly to a roadless village, or to fly between most towns without returning to a hub, you will take a small, prop-driven plane with an Alaska bush pilot at the controls. Small air taxis also charter to fishing sites, lodges, remote cabins, or anywhere else you want to go -- even a sandbar in the middle of a river. An authentic Alaskan adventure can be had by taking a bush mail plane round-trip to a village and back. The ticket price is generally less than a flightseeing trip, and you'll have at least a brief chance to look around a Native village, although don't expect to find any visitor facilities without making arrangements in advance. It's cost effective to take these flights from towns that are relatively close to surrounding villages: Kodiak, Homer, Fairbanks, Nome, Kotzebue, and Barrow fit the bill. You will need to do some research, and not on the Internet; find the name of a local flight service that carries mail from the town visitor center, then call and explain what you have in mind. And wait for good weather.
The Cheapest Way to Alaska -- Flying remains the cheapest and by far the simplest way to get to Alaska. Take other means only for the adventure, not for the savings. Round-trip train, ferry, and bus fare between Seattle and Anchorage costs considerably more than a good airfare between the same cities. Driving is expensive, too, when you count rooms, food, and wear and tear on your vehicle.
The most popular way to get to Alaska is on a cruise ship.
For an affordable, independent trip by sea, with a chance to stop as long as you like along the way, take the Alaska Marine Highway System (tel. 800/642-0066; www.ferryalaska.com). It's our favorite form of public transportation. The big blue, white, and gold ferries ply the Inside Passage from Bellingham, Washington, and Prince Rupert, B.C., to the towns of Southeast Alaska, with road links to the rest of the state at Haines and Skagway. In summer, a ferry runs once or twice a month from that system across the Gulf of Alaska to the central part of the state. From there, smaller ferries connect towns in Prince William Sound and the Kenai Peninsula to Kodiak Island and the Aleutian Archipelago.
You can't get to Alaska by train, but you can get close. From the west coast of the U.S., you can take Amtrak's Cascades train (tel. 800/USA-RAIL [872-7245]; www.amtrak.com) to Bellingham, Washington; the dock for the Alaska ferry is quite close to the railroad station. From the east, it makes more sense to use Canada's Via Rail (tel. 888/VIA-RAIL [842-7245]; www.viarail.ca). The transcontinental route starts all the way back in Toronto; you change in Jasper to end up in Prince Rupert, B.C., where you can catch the Alaska ferry north.
Time & Distance -- We have included a description of the roads and average speeds you can expect. Divide the distance you plan to drive by the expected speed to get the time it will take. Add some time for stops. For paved highways, you can count on averaging 50 mph. On some roads, you can go faster than 50, but you can't often drive at freeway speeds on these two-lane highways. Even when the surface is smooth -- not always a given -- the roads aren't designed for high speeds and are often clogged in summer with lumbering RVs. Besides, you need to be on the lookout for moose; hit one of those at 75 mph, and you both die.
Driving to Alaska -- Driving from any of the other states to Alaska is a great adventure, but it requires thousands of miles on the road and plenty of time. Allow at least a week each way. By car, Anchorage is 2,250 miles from Seattle and 3,400 miles from Los Angeles. By comparison, New York to L.A. is 2,800 miles. Traveling at an average of 50 mph, few vacationers will want to cover more than 500 or 600 miles a day, and that's a long day of nothing but driving. On such a plan, Seattle is 4 or 5 days from Anchorage without breaks.
Some of the 1,400-mile Alaska Highway is dull, but there are spectacular sections of the route, too, and few experiences give you a better feel for the size and personality of Alaska (and B.C. and Yukon). Putting your car on the ferry cuts the length of the trip considerably but raises the cost; you could rent a car for 2 weeks for the same price as carrying an economy car on the ferry one-way from Bellingham to Haines. The Milepost (Morris Communications) contains good maps and mile-by-mile logs of all Alaska highways and Canadian approaches.
The Rental Option -- Renting a car is the easiest way to see the Interior and Southcentral parts of the state. All the major national car-rental companies are represented in Anchorage, as well as many local operators, which may have lower prices for older cars. In smaller cities and towns, there is always at least one agency; the town descriptions throughout this guide provide details on firms in each. Base rates for major rental companies are in the range of $55 a day for an economy car. Weekly rentals equate roughly to 5 days' cost.
One-way rentals between Alaska towns are an attractive way to travel, but you generally pay steep drop-off charges, so a more popular plan is to fly into and out of Anchorage or Fairbanks and pick up and return the car there. A popular circular route from Anchorage or Fairbanks is through Denali and Fairbanks (or Anchorage) on the Parks Highway and back on the Richardson and Glenn highways. An Anchorage circle is to Valdez by ferry from Whittier and back on another part of the Richardson Highway and the Glenn Highway. When comparison shopping for a car, consider taxes and fees, which can add 40% in Anchorage. Avoiding the fees can pay for an extra flight leg to start your trip in a community with lower car-rental taxes.
Here's a little-known tip for saving money if you want to use ground travel to get to Alaska. Avis car rental needs to get cars back from Haines and Skagway to Anchorage and Fairbanks in the fall. Take the ferry to those towns and rent after August 25, and the Alaska Avis franchise will charge a drop-off fee of only $50 (plus the daily rental). Find the special on the local website: www.avisalaska.com.
Touring Alaska in an RV makes a good deal of sense. The home on wheels offers spontaneity by freeing you from hotel reservations, and it gets you out of town and into the countryside, closer to the natural Alaska most visitors come for. At the same time, an RV is more comfortable than a tent in cool, unpredictable weather conditions.
Many retirees drive to Alaska in their motor homes, park the RV by a salmon stream, and spend the summer fishing. Sounds nice, but for most of the rest of us, with limited time, it makes more sense to rent an RV after flying to Alaska. Rental agencies are listed in Skagway and Anchorage. Unless you have a large family, an RV rental saves little over traveling with a rental car, staying in hotels, and eating in restaurants (RVs rent for around $1,500 a week, plus gas and possibly mileage charges), so you make this choice to gain advantages, not avoid costs.
Alaska Highway Cruises (tel. 800/323-5757; www.bestofalaskatravel.com) offer the unique option of traveling one-way on a Holland America cruise ship, then picking up an RV for a land tour. You can choose a package that ends up back at Seattle by road or by air. The tours follow set itineraries with reservations along the way -- the service is designed for first-time Alaska travelers and RV drivers who don't want to worry about the details -- so some spontaneity is sacrificed. You get the security and simplicity of a package without being marched around in a group or cooped up in hotels. A cruise of a week followed by a week-long tour costs around $2,300 per person, double occupancy. There are various discounts, including for third and fourth passengers. Simple one-way RV rentals to Alaska are available, too, with, for example, an added drop-off fee of $1,000 to $1,200 between Seattle and Anchorage.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.