Don’t know where to begin? It’s easier than you think. There are three ways to plan your trip:
- Buy an all-inclusive package. Someone else has already planned all the details; you just join the group.
- Book direct if you enjoy research, want to learn the most about your options, and want to take advantage of occasional deals.
- Use a local Alaskan agent if you want help arranging your trip from beginning to end.
Cruise Line–Inclusive Packages
Book your entire vacation through the cruise line and you’ll get that line’s branded experience. That means a lot of consistency and few surprises, which some travelers appreciate. The downside? You may only visit the most popular highlights, and your overall experience could feel generic.
Inclusive Packages from Alaska-based Tour Operators
Alaska-based companies offer access to authentic experiences that cruise lines generally can’t offer, either because of their scale or because they only book certain hotels (usually the larger ones). These high-quality boutique tour operators specialize in providing premium land tours, and they often use local guides.
You can choose your itinerary and trip style: a standard motorcoach-based group tour, small group adventure tours, or a small ship cruise. The latter often travel to more off-the-beaten path destinations, stay at more secluded lodges, and have more free time. The best part? Rates are the same or lower, since cruise lines tack hefty markups onto their own land products. Just be aware that some of these operators don’t sell their trips direct to consumers. But here are the local agencies where you can buy them.
Book a Package through The Alaska Railroad
The railroad also offers pre-set itineraries that include hotels, excursions, transportation, and even meals onboard the train. And trains allow you to travel independently, not with a large group. Be aware that you may find a big price markup from June–August, and deep discounts in May and September. You may also find last-minute specials if you book close to your travel date. But don’t wait too long: discounts are never guaranteed, so if you hold out, you might not get the dates you want.
If you plan to visit a wilderness lodge or adventure lodge, you’ll benefit from speaking directly with the tour operator. The same is true if you want to take an off-the-beaten-path excursion, like fly-in bear-viewing from Homer or heli-hiking with K2 in Denali. Since these are the people running the excursions, they’re more helpful than a middle man agent in helping you decide which experience is right for you. You can also talk with them about your food, room, and activity requirements. Operators of high-quality tours and unique lodges want to talk directly to guests during the reservations process for just these reasons.
Some of the larger hotels— particularly in Denali and Seward—offer steep discounts if you plan the schedule right. Here’s how: These hotels cater to cruise passengers, and are booked up most nights during the summer, but there are short gaps between groups when the hotel may be nearly empty—and those nights can be very cheap. The only way to score those discounts, though, is to book direct.
Customize a Package With An Alaska-Based Travel Agent
Did you know there are several top-notch agencies in Alaska that will answer your questions, help you plan a custom itinerary, then book all the details—at no cost to you? Since most people don’t know about this service, they end up booking a generic vacation when they could have had a handcrafted dream trip. If you don’t know where to start, these companies can start and finish the process for you, while leaving as much flexibility as you’d like to explore.
There is one huge qualifier: Use an Alaska-based travel agency—a cadre of highly knowledgeable local agents who have firsthand experiences with the more popular destinations and activities. These agents understand Alaska. They know how big it is, and they know the importance of scheduling and logistics in order to maximize your experience. For example, they can customize an itinerary so you can do more in a day, or they’ll suggest transportation options to get you efficiently from town to town.
Also about Alaska: 5 Must-Do American Road Trips (Alaska’s Seward Highway)
Photo: National Geographic