Traveling around Alaska isn’t always as simple as jumping into the car. You will likely need a few of these transportation options during your vacation.
There’s a really good chance you’ll be flying somewhere in Alaska. Most of the major airlines fly into Anchorage and Fairbanks. Alaska Airlines services those cities and many of the smaller communities as well. When traveling to more remote places you can get there by floatplane or bush plane. These may be small commercial airlines or charter companies. Flightseeing tours are popular and put you on a small plane to do a fly-by of sites such as Denali or Misty Fjords. You may even find yourself landing on a glacier or a beach instead of a runway.
That was our experience when visiting Lake Clark National Park. We flew from Soldotna across Cook Inlet and landed on the beach right alongside a mama bear and her cubs looking for lunch. No tarmac, no gates, no air traffic control. It was surreal and unforgettable.
Construction on the Alaska Railroad started in 1903 and continued through 1923 when President Harding drove in the golden spike to mark its completion. The railway connects Seward, Whittier, Anchorage, Talkeetna, Denali National Park, and Fairbanks.
It’s possible but not convenient to use the train as your primary mode of transportation. Cruise passengers may find the train a good way to get from the airport to the cruise terminals in Seward or Whittier. If you’d like to get the experience of a train ride without upending your whole itinerary, both the Glacier Discovery and Hurricane Turn routes give you a taste of the experience on a day trip.
Although the highway system in Alaska is limited, renting a car gives you the most freedom and flexibility for your vacation. You can go at your own pace, stop for pictures, or take a hike along your route. There is no shortage of scenic drives but my favorite is driving south of Anchorage along Turnagain Arm. It never disappoints.
Renting an RV is a good alternative to renting a car for some folks. You have your transportation and lodging all wrapped up in one. There are numerous campgrounds both with hookups and without. Boondocking (or wild camping) is permitted in Alaska unless of course the area is posted as “no camping.” The most memorable night of our RV trip was spent pulling off the side of the Denali Highway with a gorgeous view of the mountains.
Car rentals in Alaska can be expensive so I recommend booking a refundable rental car as soon as you get your dates set. Off-airport rentals are often less expensive and definitely worth checking. I always use Autoslash when traveling. It’s a great resource to search for rental cars but you can also use the service to track your rental. If a cheaper rate comes up then you’ll get an email to rebook.
Be cautious if your travel plans include unpaved roads like Denali Highway, Dalton Highway, or Hatcher Pass Road. Always check with your rental car company as most of the major ones prohibit travel on these roads. You’ll risk huge fines if you ignore the fine print.
The Alaska Marine Highway is the lifeline of many Alaskans from the Southeast to the Aleutians. In a state with so many populated areas separated from the road system, the ferry gets people, vehicles, and goods where they need to be. The Alaska Marine Highway covers over 3500 miles and serves over 30 communities all the way from Bellingham, WA to Dutch Harbor, AK. Fun fact-the ships are all named for Alaskan glaciers.
You can tailor your trip to use the ferry but figuring out the route schedules can sometimes get a little tricky. You can take your car or motorcycle onboard or simply take yourself. The larger ships have cabins for overnight voyages but some people choose to either pitch a tent on the deck or sleep in lounge chairs.
If you aren’t a cruise person you could put together your tour of the Inside Passage using the ferry. It takes some planning but you can spend a few days in each community rather than just a few hours in port with a cruise.
We’ve enjoyed using the ferry system on three of our trips. We once shared an overnight voyage from Homer to Kodiak with a ship full of well-behaved high school kids traveling to play a basketball game. On another trip, we used the ferry to get between Whittier, Cordova, and Valdez.
A word of warning–in recent years there have been budget cuts to the ferry system so delays and cancellations may happen. We once had our ferry from Wrangell to Ketchikan get delayed over 24 hours so we had to book a charter plane to make our flight home (our travel insurance covered the cost).
Share how you plan to use these options to get around Alaska in the comments below.