For most of our clients who haven't been, Alaska is on their bucket list. Over the years, we've sent lots of travelers to this great state and we've seen a far share of mistakes that people make when they travel there. If you're looking to visit Alaska for the first time, here are a few tips to make your vacation safer and more enjoyable.
Don't try to do too much in a single trip. Alaska is huge- larger than California, Montana, and Texas combined. Even though it's possible to visit a lot of major spots along the road system in about 7 to 10 days, doing so will probably leave you exhausted. So unless you're planning an extended stay, it's much better to focus on exploring a single region.
If you want to see southeast Alaska and the Inside Passage, book a cruise or use a combination of planes and ferries to travel between cities. Book lodging on the Kenai Peninsula if you want to come home with fresh halibut and salmon or get a close look at glaciers and sea animals.
Anchorage is a great vacation choice year-round. It has a thriving arts and culture scene, excellent options for dining and shopping, a well-maintained citywide trail system, and easy access to Chugach State Park. It can also serve as the starting and stopping point for adventures north or south.
If you want to visit Denali National Park or attempt to view the northern lights, then make Fairbanks your home base to explore the interior. You shouldn't expect to see the northern lights in the summer. It's not impossible to catch them dancing across the sky during the summer, but it's not very common. And when visiting Fairbanks, expect to travel mostly by plane if you want to go to Kodiak or Valdez and check out the Arctic.
Make sure you're prepared for Alaska's weather by packing layers. Temperatures and weather vary by region, but you can expect averages in the 60s during peak summer, possibly reaching the 70s or 80s. This may drop into the 40s or 50s overnight. Weather can also change within a single day. You may wake up to beautiful blue skies and sunshine, only to be caught in the rain that afternoon. The key to staying comfortable is to dress in layers. A long sleeved shirt topped with fleece will keep you warm. Then add a waterproof coat and sturdy shoes or boots to stay dry.
Use common sense when interacting with wildlife. Wildlife sightings are a definite highlight of any Alaskan vacation. Attacks from animals like bears, moose, and wolves are rare, but use common sense if you see any wildlifethem, especially if they have babies. Always maintain a safe distance, don't try to feed them or attract them with food, and never pet them. When out on the trails, make noise to alert animals of your presence and research what to do if you cross paths with one. Also, consider packing some bear spray – just make sure to aim it in the bear's face and not toward yourself.
Don't skip the museums. They're a great way to learn about Alaskan history and artwork, as well as native customs and traditions. The Anchorage Museum, Alaska State Museum in Juneau, and Museum of the North in Fairbanks are the big ones, but many communities have small museums or exhibits at the visitor's center that share the history of the area. You'll leave with an increased appreciation for the state.
Souvenirs are a must-buy on any trip, but make sure you leave with something authentically Alaskan and not another mass-produced trinket made overseas.Look for the "Made in Alaska" logo- an image of a mother bear and her cub- which tells you that at least 51% of the product was produced in the state. Or look for a Silver Hand, which means your item was made by an Alaska Native artist.
Pull over on highways if you want to enjoy the views. Many tourists want to stop and take in the view or snap photos while they drive, but the "vehicle turnout" signs on Alaska's highways aren't just friendly suggestions. If there are five or more vehicles behind you, you're required to pull over to let them pass. Double-check that your rental car fits your plans. Alaska's main highways are paved, but often riddled filled with large potholes thanks to studded tires and winter road maintenance. However, many of the other roads are gravel and minimally maintained, so several car-rental companies prohibit driving on them. Before booking, check the terms of the rental agreement to make sure your plans don't include traveling on any roads that are off-limits, such as the Denali or Dalton Highway.
Don't disrespect the Alaska Natives or their land. Alaska Natives were here for thousands of years before colonization. Every tourist and non-native who has made Alaska home is a guest in their homeland, so be respectful of both the people and land. Leave no trace behind when you visit trails, and if you're taking from the land, whether fishing, hunting, or harvesting berries, take only what you need. Another good way to show your respect is to learn about these cultures and traditions at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. It houses art and artifacts, holds dance performances and demonstrations of traditional games, and offers guided tours of life-size, outdoor village replicas.
You're missing out if you only visit Alaska during the summer. Since the winter can be dark (with just a few hours of sunlight in some places) and very cold, summer is the state's tourist season. But for those willing to brave the weather, winter in Alaska is amazing. It's also more affordable since it's the off-season. In the winter, there's an good chance you'll catch the northern lights, and there are plenty of opportunities for skiing, fat-tire biking, snowmobiling, dog-sledding, and more. If you come in March, you'll also be able to catch the Iditarod, the annual long-distance sled-dog race.