Believe it or not, there are many ways to see Alaska without taking a cruise, lovely and hassle-free though they may be. Whether you're looking for a cheaper alternative to cruising, want to see the land up-close, or simply want more control during your trip, here are three excellent, affordable ways to travel through the "Last Frontier."
Inside Passage: Alaska Marine Highway System
If you're hitting up Alaska's southeastern region for port town charm and Native American culture, taking advantage of the ferries that make up the Alaska Marine Highway System can afford you lots of flexibility and savings, particularly if you're into trying local food. The ferry will take you to the most popular cruise ports – Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan – as well as less crowded ones like Sitka and Prince Williams Sound.
Each segment between the ports is priced from $31 to $37, and sailings take about three to six hours. Just make sure you plan ahead if you're traveling in July and August, since accommodations onshore are limited and will be difficult to snag day-of.
A tip: The tourism board of each port city will post the number of arriving cruise ships each day on their website. Check the numbers to help avoid large crowds during busy months. And, for those who are also interested in inland adventures, vehicles can be driven onto the ferries at various rates.
South Central and the Interior: Alaska Railroad
The South Central region, where Anchorage is located, is arguably the most accessible part of Alaska, given the major airport and the fact that more tour operators in this region stay open throughout the year. Between Anchorage and Denali National Park in the Interior region, wildlife and active adventures abound. Visitors fish, hike, whale-watch, and simply enjoy the six million-acre park itself. Take a direct double decker train from Anchorage to Denali for a 7.5-hour ride, or stop halfway at Talkeetna for some rafting and mountain biking. Whichever route yougo, expect to see unspoiled forest, moose, and caribou along the way. From June through August, rates are $156 each way from Anchorage to Denali, $95 from Anchorage to Talkeetna, and Talkeetna to Denali for $89. Or head 4.5 hours south to Seward, where you'll see majestic glaciers, stunning fjords, and seals galore. Got some wiggle room in your budget? A nature-, fishing-, or wildlife-themed boat tour around Kenai Fjord National Park (generally $70-$150 for three to seven hours) is totally worth it. Rail rates are $85 each way and $135 round-trip from Anchorage. Check local tourism boards and tour companies for deals on tickets, like this 2-for-1 coupon from Alaska TourSaver.
South Central and Interior: Driving
Nostalgic and convenient as it is to take the train, driving is actually faster and, if you're traveling with a few companions, cheaper. If you have the time, we suggest taking the shorter train down to Seward – it runs through a quiet, otherworldly valley that you won't see from the highway - then driving up to Denali. Between these two major destinations from Anchorage, Denali is the one where having a car helps. Not only can you make stops at will, you can also branch out from the main roads along the way, explore the park with more flexibility, and seek out more affordable lodging. That said, patches along the main route up to Denali, on the two-lane George Parks Highway, are no longer unspoilt thanks to development. While the drive typically clocks in between 4.5 and 7 hours, depending on how many stops you make, a detour to Hatcher Pass will reward you with spectacular views of rolling pastures and winding rivers.
Take note: while Parks Highway is easy to navigate, having just one lane going in each direction means traffic in certain seasons. Be mentally prepared, take a breath, and enjoy the surroundings. Just keep an eye on your gas and fill up whenever you can, since gas stations aren't located consistently throughout the road.
Bonus: The North and the West
The northern and western regions of Alaska aren't easily accessible via train or air and are too far-flung to drive on a single trip. The Arctic Coast in the north, for example, is more than a 20-hour drive from Anchorage. Lucky travelers can take chartered planes to the heart of these regions, then choose from various tour companies that will take you to native villages and on wildlife tours. For the Arctic Coast, Deadhorse Camp is a short hop from Prudhoe Bay along the coast, while the Northern Alaska Tour Company launches air-and-land packages from Fairbanks. In the southwest, bear encounters in Katmai National Park along the peninsula and tours of the Kodiak Archipelago are popular. But all of this comes at a high premium – save it for your bucket list!