I often have clients say to me, “I’d love to visit Alaska, but I don’t like boats.” As the conversation progresses, I then realize that because of the over-marketing of cruise ships, many clients don’t realize that there are other ways to visit Alaska! (Just like, conversely, many clients don’t realize you can take a circumnavigation cruise around Iceland!) Or, sometimes a client does want to take a cruise, but doesn’t even know where to start or which itineraries give you the best value for your time and money. In honor of these clients, I’ve put together a list of 5 different ways you can see Alaska! (And be sure to check out my other blog post about 2 days in Anchorage as well.)
In this article, we’ll discuss cruises, land tours, cruisetours, rail, and self-drive trips to Alaska.
This is one of the best known ways to visit Alaska, and for good reason. The stunning views from your balcony cabin and the opportunity to see the gorgeous coastline from the ocean will be sure to give memories for a lifetime.
Most cruises are about 7 days long, with some exceptions. Your main meals are included on board, which is also a plus for those travelers that like to know their trip cost in advance. You will often have several port stops such as Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan, and scenic cruising in Glacier Bay (note: not all ships have permission to sail in Glacier Bay so be sure to tell your travel planner if this is a priority). On almost all mainstream cruises, you will have park rangers come aboard and have local Alaska experts sharing their knowledge; some cruises, like Princess Cruiselines, bring sled dog puppies on board during one of the stops! You also have the added benefits of only needing to pack/unpack once, even though you have several stops.
If you’re looking for a unique way to see Alaska, don’t cross off a cruise just because you assume everyone else does it. I love to tell my clients about options they haven’t even thought of, and while there are many cruises to Alaska, and here are two that are truly special:
1. Uncruise Adventures:
So many people still haven’t heard of Uncruise Adventures and they are just fabulous. There’s a reason why they call themselves “UnCruise” – because they are defying stereotypes! I’ve had cruisers who have been on umpteenth cruises who call their UnCruise experience “the best cruise I’ve ever been on”. Here’s why you should consider them for an Alaska experience:
Small ships: Their smallest is a 22 passenger boutique adventure yacht. Their largest is an 86 guest expedition vessel. You can’t get much smaller than that.
Unique ports: Because of their size, they often skip the “typical” ports that the largest cruise ships call on, and instead can anchor in remote villages or update their itinerary at a moment’s notice. They can also go where the big ship can’t go into narrow channels or closer to calving glaciers. They will even wake you (at your request) if the Northern Lights are spotted. If the captain spots whales or other wildlife, he can pause or rotate the ship for everyone to see, instead of worrying about a schedule. Don’t worry, they still also will show you the sights and ports on your bucket list, like Glacier Bay National Park or Icy Strait.
Excursions: All your meals and excursions are included – there is no upselling or add-ons. Because of the ship’s small size, they can launch sea kayaks and skiffs straight from the vessel and take you up close and personal to a glacier, or have their expert guides help you land on a small island and go looking for salmon. If you get cold, staff will have hot chocolate and other treats waiting for you when you get back!
2. Regent Seven Seas:
Imagine a truly all-inclusive experience. Airfare included to your starting destination. Airport transfers. Even a pre-cruise hotel for the night before if it’s necessary due to flight times. And all excursions! Free wifi, free open bar, and all your food and drink included for the duration of the cruise! This is just a glimpse of the type of service and benefits that a cruise with Regent Seven Seas provides. A greater upfront cost meas you walk away at the end of your vacation with no surprise bills, no “tab” to close, no surprise bill for hundreds of dollars because you spontaneously booked a siteseeing flight over a glacier. If you’re tired of being nickel and dimed by the main stream cruises, and want excellent food, impeccable service (without being stuffy), an innovative Free Unlimited Shore Excursions program, and luxury in the midst of America’s Last Frontier, give Regent Seven Seas a try.
Alaska is more than just its coast line. Of course, a marvelous Alaska cruise has several land components, and you can explore each port that you land in, but there’s something different about committing to a land tour and getting to experience the real Alaska. There are a variety of guided tours you can take (just let me know your travel style and budget and I’m happy to suggest more) – here’s just one example from Tauck, a maximum of 30 guests on a 10 day trip titled Wild Alaska:
Day 1: A transfer is included from Anchorage International Airport to the Hotel Captain Cook in the heart of downtown, within walking distance of museums, shops, and restaurants. Only minutes away from unspoiled wilderness, Anchorage nestles beside Cook Inlet with the spectacular backdrop of the Chugach Mountains. Join us at the hotel for a welcome reception and dinner.
Day 2: Wind your way from Anchorage to glacier-carved Matanuska Valley, a region of scenic mountain vistas, spruce forests and thousands of lakes. Rustic lodges, farmsteads, and small towns unwind along wilderness highways until you arrive at Big Lake, a popular area for camping, fishing and water sports; in winter, the passion here is dog sledding, and the big annual event is the Iditarod race from Anchorage to Nome. Visit Happy Trails Kennel, where four-time Iditarod winner Martin Buser breeds and trains sled dogs for the world-famous 1,000-mile marathon; you’ll have a chance to get acquainted with some of these up-and-coming champions, who are bred for speed and athleticism (and love to be petted). You’ll also learn about the special dynamics of the sport: the bond between dogs and musher, the dogs’ ability to conquer long distances in harsh weather and extreme temperatures, and the indelible role of dog sledding in Alaskan history and culture. Following lunch, drive on to the historic town of Talkeetna. With a population of less than 500 and one paved road, its rustic character offers a taste of small-town Alaska, from the general store to the roadhouse, as well as a staging area for climbing expeditions to Mt. McKinley. Arrive at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, set high on a bluff overlooking the town and distant peaks of the Alaskan Range, where you’ll attend a naturalist lecture on the feats, and challenges, of climbing America’s highest mountain.
Day 3: Explore the scenic places surrounding Talkeetna on a morning hike with a naturalist guide. The town’s setting at the confluence of three rivers makes it an attractive area for outdoor sports, and a magnet for wildlife (beaver, moose, bears, and bald eagles) that frequent the lush forests and shorelines. Your morning hike takes you around Byers Lake, a true nature paradise inside Denali. Your guide will provide insights into both natural and human history surrounding the shimmering, clear lake – the views are amazing, and the wildflowers and plants unique. Drop in for lunch at Mary Carey’s McKinley View Lodge, where the café is bedecked with native crafts and memorabilia of the legendary pioneer woman who established the inn. Following lunch, again accompanied by a naturalist guide, you’ll enjoy working with the gadgets that professional nature photographers and filmmakers use in the wild. Return to Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, where the evening is free to spend as you please – perhaps enjoying the magnificent rock fireplace in the Great Room.
Day 4: Start the day by reviewing the footage you captured yesterday on the filmmakers’ gadgets with your naturalist guide. Then visit the Talkeetna Historical Society Museum; the town evolved from gold mining days to its status today as the gateway to Denali (the peak formerly known as Mt. McKinley) and Denali National Park. The museum’s main exhibit is a large three-dimensional topographical map of the mountain and surrounding glaciers, which you can use to “walk” through its unique geological features and history. The model becomes real in dramatic, titanic scale this afternoon when you board a ski plane for a flightseeing tour (weather permitting) of the real thing. Denali (the Athabascan name, meaning “the High One”) lives up to its legend, soaring 20,000 feet above sea level, and your bird’s-eye view takes in all its breathtaking landscape, from alpine tundra and snowcapped peaks to vast rambling glaciers within Denali National Park. If conditions allow, your ski plane may touch down on a glacier for an unforgettable close-up view, before you fly on to Wasilla. Then drive on to your next destination, Knik River Lodge, featuring wilderness cabins, and the comforts of home, in a tranquil mountain setting.
Visit the nonprofit Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, where orphaned and displaced animals are cared for, rehabilitated, and sometimes re-released into the wild. Here you’ll have a chance to see (and photograph) native wildlife up close, including bison, moose, elk, musk oxen, coyotes, grizzly bears, eagles, and caribou; watch feedings; and learn about ongoing efforts to conserve and restore endangered animal populations. Drive on to your next destination, the coastal town of Seward (named for the U. S. Secretary of State who negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867). Nestled beside Resurrection Bay on scenic Kenai Peninsula, and surrounded by mountains, the town retains the aura of its early days as a trading outpost on the edge of a spectacular wilderness. Check into the Seward Windsong Lodge outside of the town, set among fragrant spruce trees beside the rushing Resurrection River. Get a taste of fresh local cuisine tonight at a local restaurant, Seward Brewing Company.
Day 6: Set out on a full day’s excursion cruising the Kenai Fjord, where you’ll have an opportunity to learn about the species that live here. Dramatic scenes of the Ice Age linger in glacial landscapes – see a “tidewater” glacier as you cruise amidst carved rugged peaks, rocky shores and dense forests. You may get a chance to see puffins, whales, porpoises, sea lions and other fish that whales feed on; like this beautiful alien world, they are endlessly photogenic. Return to the lodge for dinner this evening.
Combining a few days of a land tour with a week of a traditional cruise is a very popular way to see Alaska. This way you can see both the interior of the country and the beautiful coastline. When packaged together, these types of trips are called “cruisetours” and often have seamless transfers and logistics between the land and sea portion.
For instance, Princess Cruiselines has several land + sea packages, and Princess has won many awards for their Alaska itineraries. A magnificent 7-day Voyage of the Glaciers cruise vacation also treats you to two incredible days of scenic glacier viewing, including Glacier Bay National Park. Sailing through serene waters filled with icebergs, you’ll get an up-close look at towering Margerie Glacier and perhaps be treated to the spectacle of seeing it calve massive chunks of ice into the tidewater to the roar of “white thunder”. If that weren’t enough, there’s equally impressive Hubbard Glacier or College Fjord also on the itinerary.
Before or after your Voyage of the Glacier cruise, with our exclusive Direct-to-the-Wilderness® rail service, you’ll enjoy a spectacular 500-mile journey through the heart of Alaska that you might otherwise miss on other land vacations.
Only Princess luxury rail service can take you between your ship and our Denali-area lodges all in the same day, for more time in the unspoiled Alaska wilderness – without the need for an overnight hotel stay en route.
Along the way, you’ll take in breathtaking sights from glass-domed rail cars and our outdoor viewing platforms. In addition to the wildlife you’re bound to see, you won’t want to miss views of Mt. McKinley, Hurricane Gulch, Turnagain Arm and dozens of picturesque rivers and meadows. You’ll enjoy fascinating commentary from our onboard rail guides, and perhaps you’ll visit the dining car for our signature Alaska Cuisine. Of course, trademark Princess service will be on hand every step of the way to ensure your journey is truly unforgettable.
Stay in Princess-owned lodges like the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge or Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. Enoy the stunning views from the deck, explore the wilderness on a guided hike, or take advantage of Princess’ guided coach tours.
Yes, many cruisetours include a train ride to their lodges in the interior of the country. But did you know you can take an independent rail trip as well? The beauty of this customizable option is that you can focus on the areas that you’re most interested in, or spend additional time in towns that a guided tour might rush through. And if you’re interested in winter travel, you can often still enjoy a rail adventure even though cruises and guided tours have stopped running! Here’s a sample itinerary of an independent train trip through Alaska that I’ve sent to clients:
Day 1: arrival in Anchorage.
Day 2: Depart on the Glacier Discovery Train for a full day adventure. Your first stop is the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, home to bears, moose and more. Re-board the train to continue on to the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop, where you’ll disembark to raft amid glacial icebergs in full view of Spencer Glacier. Ride the rail to Girdwood and overnight at the Hotel Alyeska.
Day 3: Enjoy spectacular views of backcountry glaciers aboard the Coastal Classic Train to the charming port town of Seward. Travel by boat to your home for the evening: the island getaway of Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge.
Day 5: Travel to Denali National Park aboard the Denali Star Train. This scenic, full-day trip from Anchorage offers views of Denali along with wildlife and backcountry beauty. The late afternoon arrival at the park leaves time for exploration. Overnight in Denali.
Day 6: Take advantage of the best wildlife viewing as you travel 92 miles into the farthest reaches of the park on the restricted access park road. Incredible wildlife sightings are common, including grizzly bears, moose, wolves, foxes, caribou, eagles and much more. Spend the night at Denali Backcountry Lodge.
Day 7: This day is completely dedicated to enjoying the Denali backcountry, with options to hike, pan for gold, fish for grayling, mountain bike or just relax. Overnight at Denali Backcountry Lodge.
Day 8: After a hearty breakfast, guests return to the Denali Train depot for the short train trip to Talkeetna. This funky little village is known for its spectacular views of Denali. Arriving late in the afternoon, travelers can stretch their legs with a short guided hike, spotting wildlife and learning about old-growth forests. Overnight in Talkeetna.
Day 9: In Talkeetna, a jetboat ride takes you deep into the National Wild River Park of Devil’s Gorge. Depart on the Denali Star Train for the final leg from Talkeetna to Anchorage, arriving in the evening. Overnight in Anchorage. Departure to your home the next day.
Finally, it’s possible to do a self drive of Alaska if you’re someone who loves roadtrips. Aside from booking accommodations, you can be more spontaneous and not tied to an exact schedule. Your self-drive vacation can be as short as 2 nights or as long as three weeks or more! If you want to see the classic stops, your self-drive tour will be quite similar to a rail itinerary (above), but there are many combinations possible. You can add in fly-fishing and flight-seeing activities to help make your self-drive an amazing experience, or take a few train rides along the way to have a “rail and drive” experience. You can also take the Alaskan ferry system between towns, experiencing the same type of scenery that the big cruiselines do.
So, are you determined to go to Alaska now?!
I hope this was useful and got you excited about your Alaska trip! There are definitely a lot of options to choose from, and I’m happy to help you narrow down your choices if you want to contact me. I’m a Princess Commodore (highest training level) as well as a certified Princess Alaska Cruise Expert, so you can rest assured that I will go above and beyond in making sure we plan the best vacation for your needs and budget.