A week ago I spent the day in a “speed dating” marathon, meeting with representatives of twenty-two tour and lodging operators, convention and visitor bureaus, and the U.S. National Park Service and Forest Service to get ideas for visiting Alaska next year. Here’s some tips on when to go to Alaska and how to get there.
When To Go
Unless you want to watch the Iditarod dogsled race or try to catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis, May through early September is the time you want to head north to Alaska. The number of birds, whales, salmon, bears, other species of wildlife, tourists, and mosquitoes, will vary depending on the destinations you visit and the month you go.
When To Book
Alaska’s land mass is so huge that we could probably move all of the residents of the “Lower 48” states there and still have thousands of square miles of wilderness. But the state’s low resident population (less than that of San Francisco) means that lodging within and flights and ferries to and from Alaska are fairly limited and will be in demand during the high tourist season.
Several of the folks from Alaska that I talked to last week suggested booking six months or more before your trip. The Boat Company, a non-profit that operates two 20-plus passenger vessels in Southeast Alaska, told me that 60% of the space on their cruises is already filled for next summer and that some passengers book a year in advance.
So if you’re going to Alaska in 2011, plan ahead. He who hesitates to book early will lose out.
How To Get There
Unless you plan on taking a cruise ship up the Inside Passage, you have three ways to get to and from Alaska: 1) Fly; 2) take the ferry; 3) drive.
Juneau, in the Panhandle down in Southeast Alaska, and Anchorage in Southcentral Alaska, are the two major airports. Alaska Airlines carries most passengers between Alaska and the Continental U.S. Seattle is a major hub for that airline; odds are good that you will change plans there. (Today, Alaska Airlines quoted me one-way airfares between San Francisco and Juneau staring at $358.50/person, and $249.50/person to Anchorage).
On Fridays from May through September an Alaska Marine Highway ferry arrives at Bellingham, Washington in the morning and departs for Southeast Alaska in the early evening. A second ferry will supplement this service beginning May 7, 2011, and then run every other Saturday from June through September.
You can pitch your tent on the ferry’s deck, or sleep on the floor or in a seat in the lounge, but if you want a stateroom, book it as soon as possible. (The Summer 2011 schedule is already on-line). Tip: Snagging a berth northbound is easier later in the season; getting one on a southbound boat is easier early in the season.
Fares are $239/person one-way between Bellingham and Ketchikan, and an additional $257 for a two-berth cabin on the outside of the vessel, for a total cost of $735, plus meals, on the two-night run.
You can drive your own car to Bellingham and then load it on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry for the trip to Alaska, but it won’t be cheap: One-way would run $1,250, exclusive of meals, for two adult passengers bunking in a 2-berth cabin with a window and taking a passenger car up to 15’ long as far as Ketchikan, the southernmost city in the Alaska Panhandle. (You could save about a $1,000 on the fare by driving to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and then taking a five-hour ferry ride to Ketchikan, but it’s over 1,000 miles from Seattle to Prince Rupert and overnight accommodations, meals, and the cost of gasoline would significantly reduce those savings). Fares rise as you travel north from Ketchikan.
Another alternative is to forget the ferry and just drive, but Seattle to Fairbanks is over 2,300 miles, one-way.
Next Monday I’ll give you some ideas about places to visit, things to do, and how to get around in the 49th State.