10 Top Alaska Vacation Packages
You already know that Alaska is a big state. But if you want to take a trip to it, you probably don't know where to start. Don't worry—Alaskans know their home is rangy and wild, and they know the best ways to show it to visitors. There's a vacation package style to suit every budget and skill level, whether it's rolling along aboard scenic railways, casting a fishing line into glacier-fed rivers, or rambling in search of grizzlies in the primordial forests. Some of the packages are even all inclusive. Choose your own adventure—or choose a few. After all, Alaska is a big state.
Dogsledding is the quintessential form of transportation that you'll find only in Alaska, and tourists will have no trouble finding outfitters eager to carry them—they even developed summer versions with wheels to capture peak tourist season trade and give their dogs (up to 200 of them) something stimulating to do. One of the better operators is Alaska Heli-Mush out of Juneau, which whisks you to its location by helicopter (no cruise ship excursion crowds here) and even lets you drive the sled, which most companies won't let you do. A few companies, such as Fairbanks-based Boreal Journeys Alaska and Paws for Adventure, also put together multi-night, hut-to-hut dogsledding tours. As long as you book things far in advance, you don't really need a package to see the world-famous Iditarod race (although Globus is one company that combines a bit of it with a week-long escorted tour). On your own, you can catch its ceremonial start in Anchorage and buy fly-in day tours (again, far in advance) to hang out at one or two of the rest stops along the nearly 1,000-mile route.
You're most likely to find packages offered by individual lodges, but which lodge should you choose? It all depends on what you'd like the scenery to be and the kind of fish you're after. Salmon near Anchorage? Halibut in Valdez? Different species spawn in different months (late spring to early summer is the peak travel period). The flavor of fish can even vary by river; because of its rapids, the Copper River is said to grow fattier, oilier salmon than ones in calmer waters. A fishing aficionado created My Alaska Fishing Trip, a clearinghouse that collects reviews and sorts through the options, from fly fishing to family vacations to remote rivers and lakes.
Cruises, a truly all-inclusive option, are a popular choice for families, seniors, and people who don't feel like being especially outdoorsy. Glaciers can seem as common as mailboxes in Alaska, but seeing them from a ship has been a classic vacation since the 1880s. Some cruises leave from Vancouver, and some remain in the United States altogether by sailing from Seattle. But not all cruises are alike. Passengers on big ships can't get off the ship at Glacier Bay, while smaller touring boats are permitted to provide the option. And only two lines, Holland America (pictured) and Princess Cruises, are given most of the permits for the protected waters of Glacier Bay National Park; they began going years ago, and greater access has been grandfathered into more recent conservation laws. They also benefit from having a national park ranger on board to show you what to look for. Other lines linger around Hubbard Glacier. If you can, make sure your itinerary has you traveling the Inside Passage during the day so you can enjoy it.
Fan out and explore a few areas in a single vacation with a lodge-hopping package. They're often sold to suit distinct interests, such as fishing (Kenai Riverside Fishing's includes both a river and a seaside lodge) or animal-spotting at fly-in wilderness lodges deep in the interior (Alaska Adventure Company is one of the companies that assembles custom itineraries for those, but there are more).
(Pictured: Denali, formerly known as Mt. McKinley)
Some vacationers want to take a cruise, but are frustrated that choosing one limits them to only seeing the coast. They could always forgo the cruise and just rent an RV (pictured), but then they miss Glacier Bay. But there's a third option: Add a few days in an RV right after their cruise. Alaska Travel Adventures arranges a Holland America cruise and when that's over, the keys to an RV rental await. The operator has formulated a few ideal day-by-day itineraries, it sets vacationers up with a self-drive RV sleeping 2 to 6, and it stocks the mobile home with linens and the kitchen with cooking utensils. There's no one-way drop-off fee—that's part of the package.
Sometimes it feels like the only thing that could possibly outnumber Alaska's bear population is the number of Alaska's bear-watching tour operators. Guides know the most likely spots to find them—and the safest spots to stand when you do. TravelAlaska.com, the state's official tourism website, always lists a few bear viewing tours that it trusts. Knightly Tours has been running since the 1960s and offers nearly a dozen escorted tour options sorted for the type of bear you most want to see, including Kodiak, brown, and even polar. Most operators' tours are two to five nights long and will also touch on the other important sights nearby, including Native communities.
Technically, you stand a chance of glimpsing the nighttime sky show (also known as aurora borealis) nearly everywhere in Alaska, but of the easy-to-reach locations, Fairbanks is dramatically better. If you're there in midwinter, your chances of experiencing them are good. But make an adventure of it—you'll only be looking skyward at night and you need something to do the rest of the day. Escorted overnight packages bring you to ever-darker, ever-more-northerly locations—the farther north you go, the better your chances—plus some other fun stuff, like detours to the Arctic Circle just for kicks. Borealis Basecamp, an hour from Fairbanks, even has special fiberglass domes you can sit under while you wait for nature's show. Tours are run by Alaska Tours, Gondwana Ecotours, and many others; even the railway and dog-mushing companies we mentioned earlier arrange trips based around them. With any luck, the winter sky above you will sparkle like the second coming of E.T.
It's reasonable to want to go camping but not want to haul backpacks, struggle to start fires, or wrestle with tents. All-inclusive camping vacations do the heavy lifting for you—literally—and take the weight of cooking, advance reservations, and camp-making off your shoulders so you can enjoy the nature you came to see. Camping packages have smart itineraries (give yourself 10 days to two weeks for the best ones) and come with camp-to-camp transit included. For younger people, G Adventures has a solid reputation. For all ages who prefer inns each night, so do the ones by outfitting co-op REI, which runs some compelling tours that have vacationers hiking 5 to 10 miles a day through some of the most spectacular landscapes imaginable. When the day's destination is reached, dinner is waiting in a warm lodge. If you really want to delve into the interior backcountry that few tourists ever see, check out the tours by Expeditions Alaska, which bring you on guided camping tours of what it calls Alaska's "raw wilderness."
The backcountry may attract rugged adventurers, but there's also no shortage of family-friendly packages in Alaska. Infinite Adventures scoots from camp to camp in a comfortably converted school bus. Adventures by Disney is a plush, take-care-of-everything option that creates special tours for the kids while the adults follow their own guide. Also investigate cruises and rail vacations, which are ideal for accommodating family members of all ages. There are even a few all-inclusive hotels (that means food and/or activities included): look at the Great Alaska Adventure Lodge in Kenai (near Anchorage), Kodiak Raspberry Island Remote Lodge in the Kodiak Islands, and Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge near Homer.