Traveling anywhere can be expensive, but some places are more expensive than others. Alaska is one of those places. Now we aren’t the type of people that enjoy throwing money around, so planning a trip to Alaska proved to be somewhat tricky. However, we were determined to plan a fun trip that didn’t break the bank and would like to share some of our secrets with you. Obviously, not everyone is dying to go to Alaska (I myself would rather go to Hawaii, but that’s not where the in-laws put down roots), but most of the tips are applicable to traveling elsewhere.
- Get an Airline Credit Card. Both of the times we’ve traveled to Alaska we’ve done so mostly with miles or free flights from our airline credit card. We were able to fly everyone to Alaska and back for only $15. Currently, we have a Frontier card because they have a direct flight to everywhere we have family.
- Travel During the Shoulder Season. The “shoulder season” is the time right before or right after the busy season. Since it isn’t the big tourist season you’ll often get deals on housing and flights, but still have a good chance at decent weather. In Alaska the shoulder season is May – beginning of June and September. (You could also go all Winter if that sort of weather thrills you.) We hit up the “busy” season this time, but did travel in June last time. Likewise, we’ve scored great deals on ski resort lodges in between ski season and summer and have found many good honeymoon/anniversary deals since March seems to be the off-season in a lot of places.
- Follow Noel’s Rental Car Advice. Noel wrote a great post on how we get good deals on rental cars that everyone should read before booking one. We weren’t able to score the kind of deals we typically are used to, but we were able to cut the price by a hundred dollars by renting from the off airport office.
- Or Don’t Rent a Car at All. The first time we went to Alaska we were able to bum rides off Noel’s parents, but our itinerary and extra child didn’t make that an easy option this time. Alaska doesn’t have a great transportation system, unless you’re counting the train, but that’s expensive and therefore counterproductive to this post. (And when I say train, I mean train as in chuggga-chugga-choo-choo.) There are amazing places to visit that do have great public transit though. When we visited DC and then subsequently lived there for a month, we didn’t have a car and were able to get around just fine.
- Check out Privately Run Hotels, B&Bs, etc. Sometimes you’ll be surprised at how much cheaper some of these places are compared to chain hotels. In Anchorage we stayed at the Northern Bed & Breakfast which was the only place we could find under $100. In addition to providing a hearty breakfast, the owner picked us up from the airport and let us use her washing machine. You can also often find decent deals on sites like airbnb.com or VRBO.com. (I really wanted to stay in this cute place in Talkeetna, but was heartbroken to discover it was all booked up.) Of course if you want to be super cheap there’s always couchsurfing or hostels, but that doesn’t exactly jive with our current life situation.
- Stay Just Outside of Big Towns – For the Seward portion of our trip we didn’t actually stay in Seward, but right outside of it at Renfro’s Lakeside Retreat. This is another trick that works great in DC. Three out of the Four times I’ve gone to DC I’ve stayed in Virginia just to save a few bucks. (And the time we stayed in DC proper, we weren’t paying for it.)
- Camp. It’s no secret that we like camping. How nice that it’s also a cheap way to get a night’s rest. Our original plan was to camp in Denali. (Before Noel’s parents gifted us a stay in a cabin.) At $11 a night (the price with our National Parks Pass) plus the $20 checked bag fee to get all of our camping gear to Alaska we would be saving over $100/night. Even if we had rented gear from REI or somewhere else (College Campuses often rent gear at really good prices) we still would have saved a lot. Because we were curious, we checked out the Riley Creek Campground and the sites looked pretty nice. They are also highly rated and in case you were wondering, no one camping in the campsite has ever been attacked by a bear. This is also a great idea for when you’re on your way somewhere, but don’t want to drive straight on through. The last time we went to Utah we broke up the trip by staying overnight at a State Park. It wasn’t anything special, but it made the long trip better for our family.
- Reserve a Place with at Least a Semblance of a Kitchen. You can save so much money buy not eating out for every meal. Chances are you might also feel better since you aren’t eating greasy food all the time. (Or maybe that’s just us.) The only place we stayed that didn’t have a kitchen was in Denali, but they did have a firepit so we improvised a little. We’ve used this tip in Monterey, Oregon, and every time we’ve ever camped. When we do eat out we heavily rely on Yelp and Urbanspoon to make sure we’re choosing restaurants that are worth our time and money. (Small warning: many of the chain restaurants in Alaska will have higher priced menus than you are used to. Some by such a small amount you won’t hardly notice, but some by an amount that seems outrageous.)
- Be Smart About Your Groceries – If you’re visiting California or Oregon or some other agrarian mecca, go to a Farmer’s Market or roadside stand. Let me rephrase that, SEEK OUT THE LOCAL, DELICIOUS PRODUCE LIKE YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON IT! You’ll likely get a good deal on some delicious produce (oh my mouth is watering thinking about it), but if you’re in Alaska go to Costco (Anchorage has two). Normal grocery stores tend to have higher prices for just about everything, but Costco is pretty much the same everywhere. We picked up a $3 Styrofoam cooler at Target and then headed to Costco to get some essentials. (In our case: yogurt, granola, blueberries, bread, eggs, granola bars, applesauce, and snack mix.) This was also a great place for a cheap pizza dinner. Through cunning planning we were able to avoid buying ice for the cooler. We filled it up at Noel’s parents house and replenished it every day with ice we’d made in rentals with freezers or onsite ice machines. We of course bought a few other things along the way at the normal grocery store to supplement. If you need condiments, pick up a few packets at a deli or gas station. This is also a great trick for backpacking. Oh, and a note about fish. You would think it would be cheap in Alaska because there’s so much of it, but it’s not. The cheapest way to get fish is to catch it yourself (unless you’re paying a lot of money for someone to help you have that experience) or find one of the many locals who is suffering from an overabundance of salmon. (Similar to how many of us suffer from an overabundance of squash every summer.)
- Use Any Local Connection You Have – Some places give local discounts. When we visited the Alaska Sea Life Museum we got a discount by having Noel’s parents buy the tickets. When we booked our Sea Life Cruise we used a coupon that was printed in the Anchorage Daily News. We’ve also used local connections to get us discounts on visiting the top of the Stratosphere and other places in Las Vegas.
- Choose One Big Splurge – Saving money is awesome, but sometimes it is worth it to do one expensive thing. The first time we went to Alaska we did not follow this advice and our trip wasn’t quite as fun. Our big splurge was our Sea Life Cruise (with the coupon of course) and it honestly was one of the more memorable things we did. I should add that we also did save money by bringing our own food instead of paying for the buffet. (Who really wants to eat at a buffet when they’re seasick anyway? Noel, I’m looking at you.)
A Few Free or Cheap Things You Can Do In Alaska
- Walk/Bike/Run/Rollerblade/Etc the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail
- Chugach National Forest – Small fee depending on what you’re doing. This covers a lot of area so only part of it is close to Anchorage.
- Potter Marsh Bird Sanctuary
- Whittier – Fun little place to check out with great views. $12 toll to go through the tunnel.
- Soldotna Creek Park – If you have kids they will love you for taking them here.
- Homer and Seward are both cute little towns to walk around.
- Exit Glacier – A nice little hike to a glacier and really the only thing you can see of Kenai Fjords National Park without taking an expensive boat tour.
- Alaska Sea Life Museum – A little more pricey, but on par with the average museum and cheaper than a lot of things you can do in Alaska. You can also save with a local!
- Skillak Lookout and Bear Mountain Trail – This is what we were going to do for our date before it decided to rain and Glenna and Mike’s washing machine stopped working and we ended up at the laundromat instead.
- There are all sorts of scenic little pull-offs along the Turnagain Arm. Some of them are owned by the State Park so there would be a small parking fee.
Denali National Park
I should note that we are typically huge fans of National Parks as they often offer a big bang for your buck. (Especially if you have an annual pass and go often, which we do.) However, the National Parks in Alaska are a little different. At Kenai Fjords you have to pay for a cruise or at least a kayak rental to see the coolest things and at Denali the majority of the park can be seen only by bus, and those buses aren’t free like in Zion. (The cheapest option is $26.25 per person 16 and older.) Still, there are things you can do at Denali that don’t involve an expensive and long, by the way, bus trip.
- The entrance fee at Denali is $10/person 16 and older. (Or free with an annual pass.) This kind of seemed to be on the honor system though because there was no fee booth stopping you from entering the park.
- Sled dog demonstrations – You can catch a free bus to the visitor’s center or go on a 2.4 mile hike to see these. Our kids thought this was the best thing ever.
- Drive the first 15 miles of the park. Private vehicles are allowed to drive the first 15 miles of the park and there are several hikes you can do between the Visitor’s Center and Mile 15. Most range from .6-5 miles.
- See Mt McKinley. Many of the places you can catch a great view of Mt McKinley aren’t even in the park itself. Check out this list of 10 places you might see Mt McKinley for ideas.