How to plan a trip to Alaska and Best Itineraries

Last Updated on November 7, 2022

A map of the state of Alaska showing the National Parks and major cities
Map of (most) of Alaska, including major cities and National Parks. Alaska is HUGE state!

Looking for the best way to see Alaska on your own? If so, this article will tell you everything you need to know to plan an unforgettable trip to Alaska for yourself. Included in this article are five different Alaska itinerary options for 5-10 days as well as more things to do if you have more than 10 days for your trip. Some require a car, some do not. I even have a special section for folks who like to go to places most visitors don’t make it to!

I lived in Alaska for seven years and worked in tourism so I am intimately familiar with how to plan an amazing trip! The most important piece of advice I have is to PRIORITIZE what’s most important to you. Alaska is a gigantic state, the distances are long. If you make thoughtful decisions about where you want to go and what you want to save for your next trip, you’ll be much happier. You’ll also have more fun and get to know Alaska better.

This post contains affiliate links, which means if you make a purchase I may receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.

How to plan a trip to Alaska

Planning a trip to Alaska can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be! I recommend starting with my Alaska travel quiz which will give you some of my best itinerary ideas based on how you like to travel.

From there, you can pick and change an itinerary based on what is available, your preferences, dates and travel style.

In most situations, I recommend booking accommodations first, then transportation, then flights and tours. Want help staying on track? Get my Alaska Travel Planner for just $24 and you’ll have the basics all set before you know it!

Related: Cell phone coverage in Alaska and keeping devices charged and connected

When is the best time of year to visit Alaska?

Most visitors visit Alaska during the summer months and most of this article focuses on visiting between May and September.

A few things to consider when you’re deciding on the best time to visit Alaska include:

  • May and September are less expensive for most things except food
  • May, June, July and the first half of August are the time of the midnight sun. This means that although the sun sets, it does not get fully dark at anytime during the night during these months. This means you will NOT be able to see the Northern Lights during this time.
  • Late August and September have darkness and the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights! They are also colder, especially September. September has gorgeous fall colors in Denali and Fairbanks
  • If you are traveling in May or September, make sure to check if what you want to visit is open. Some places may not open until late May or may close in early to mid September (for example, Denali National Park closes in mid September)
  • Be prepared for rain no matter what month it is
  • June and July generally have the warmest weather
  • July is the most crowded time

In my opinion, late May is an excellent time to visit Alaska. Prices are a bit lower than June and July and most things are open. June is also an excellent time. I am also a big fan of the fall colors in the interior in September (Denali and Fairbanks). The best time to go is going to depend on what’s most important to you! If you want all the details about the best time for you to visit Alaska based on your goals, you can find that here.

Even though it might not be for everyone, I love Alaska in winter. Check out my article all about winter travel in Alaska if you’d like to be convinced to do a winter visit, or if you’re just curious.

How much does a trip to Alaska cost?

I know that what you want is for me to tell you exactly what it will cost. It’s difficult to give you a total estimate because there are so many variables. Variables include: where are you flying from? Are you camping or staying in hotels? Are you making your own meals? How long is your trip?

To build your budget for your Alaska Itinerary, start with the number of days you’ll be on your trip. Next, use these guidelines to estimate from there (learn more details about budgeting and saving money in Alaska here).

  • Transportation to and from Alaska – flights from Seattle round trip are generally $400-$600 per person
  • Lodging – $15-$25/night for camping; $200 – $400/night for hotels; something in between for cabins, vacation rental homes and lower end hotels (sometimes lower end hotels are also $200/night!)
  • Driving/Car Rental – expect to pay $300/day for a car rental in summer or possibly more. You can probably save a bit of money by using Turo, but it will still be at least $200 a day. The railroad is also expensive, but the smaller your group is, the more it might make sense financially (a group will definitely save money with a car). Gas is also expensive, especially outside the major cities
  • Alaska Railroad: Approximately $250/person one way from Anchorage to Fairbanks; $175/person one way from Anchorage to Denali; $79/person one way from Denali to Fairbanks
  • Food: Expect groceries to be a bit more than what you pay at home when you’re in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. Expect to pay a LOT more in smaller communities. Food in restaurants is expensive – ask locals where they eat for meals if you’re looking to save money. Make use of online information to know what to expect in a particular restaurant for a meal.
  • Tours and attractions: This is where your budget will vary A LOT based on what’s most important to you and your choices. Don’t try to do it all! And get the Alaska Toursaver app to save money!
  • Tips: Many people are not aware that it’s important to tip tour guides. Tour guides are often paid minimum wage for extremely hard work and many Alaska guides struggle to find work in the winter. Tips are a critical part of a guide’s income, and extra important if they did a great job. Tip your guide 15-20% of the cost of the tour.

Related: Complete Guide to Camping in Alaska

Do I need travel insurance for Alaska?

Travel insurance is not the most exciting subject, but it’s an important consideration when traveling to remote areas of Alaska, especially if you’re going to be traveling by small plane, which is particularly prone to frequent weather delays and cancellations.

I always have travel insurance when I go to Alaska if I’m booking anything non refundable (remote lodges, small plane flights, etc). I like to use Insure My Trip because you can compare prices from different travel insurance companies and search based on the features you need in your plan (instead of what a single company offers).

You’ll need to evaluate your activities, your costs and your personal financial situation to determine if travel insurance makes sense for you for your trip, but I want to encourage you to consider it! It’s usually quite affordable for a lot of peace of mind.

I also encourage folks to find out what’s already covered in their health insurance and with their credit cards and any other insurance you are part of before buying travel insurance.

Where to Stay in Alaska

Hotels and Motels in Alaska are expensive. AirBnb or Vrbo are a good way to go in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Girdwood and Juneau (and other parts of southeast Alaska) if you are staying for several days and especially if you’re in a group that would require more than one hotel room. This also gives you the option of cooking some of your own food, if you’re looking to save some money.

Book all lodging far in advance, especially June-August.

Generally, hotels are a bit less expensive in May and September. This is not usually true with vacation rentals, prices are usually similar throughout the year.

This map can help you compare options for different lodging options all in one map! Zoom in and out and move around to get more detail about specific places you intend to visit.

Getting Around in Alaska – Road Trip or Railroad?

One of the biggest decisions you’ll face planning for your Alaska Itinerary is how you’re going to get around. You can definitely visit Alaska without a car (see itineraries #2 and #5) by utilizing the Alaska Railroad. Sometimes there is also bus service available. The routes vary quite a bit from year to year, generally bus service is available at least between Anchorage and Denali.

The Alaska Railroad is expensive as well as a wonderful adventure and the entire trip is absolutely gorgeous. If you’re going to spend more than a day in Denali National Park, or if you’re a solo traveler, you might save money by taking the Alaska Railroad instead of renting a car. You cannot drive in most of Denali National Park so your expensive rental car will be parked for the days you travel into the park.

Renting a car is also expensive but also gives you lots of flexibility. It is more economical with a family or group of friends traveling together. If you are renting a car, do not attempt to do a one way road trip, this will cost an additional $800-$1000 for a one way rental in Alaska (on top of paying $100/day to rent the car and gas).

With a car, you can stop anywhere you want for as long as you want, and it’s easier to carry food with you and get to the grocery store.

It is critical to get reservations for either a rental car or the Alaska Railroad well in advance.

Related: How to visit Alaska without a car

How many days do you need to see Alaska?

This is a hard question to answer, because you can spend a lifetime in Alaska and not see everything! The most important thing to decide is how many different parts of the state do you want to go to? The distances are vast. You fly over Juneau about halfway between Seattle and Anchorage. Driving from Anchorage to Denali National Park takes at least four hours. Driving from Fairbanks to Homer takes 12 hours!

For residents of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest who have a short flight to most of Alaska, I say you can see a lot and have a ton of fun in a long weekend. If you’re looking for ideas for short weekend getaways (yes, you can do that too!) For those traveling all day to get there, I think it’s good to have at least 10 days, or to stay in one area for a week.

I don’t recommend going to BOTH Southeast Alaska (Juneau and the Inside Passage) and Southcentral and the Interior (Anchorage, Kenai, Denali National Park, Fairbanks) unless you have at least a month for your trip. It’s just too much and too rushed otherwise! I also don’t recommend taking the ferry or driving to Alaska unless you have at least a month for Alaska itinerary.

These itineraries are built for 5 days, a week and 10 days, with suggestions at the end for what to do if you have more time.

Related: Best places to see wildlife in Alaska

Mountains with snow across the water at sunset. Text reads: what's the best alaska itinerary for you? Take our 7 question quiz to find out and get personalized recommendations for your alaska trip

10 Day Ultimate Alaska Road Trip Itinerary from Anchorage

Denali rises above the Susitna river on a sunny day. There are trees in the foreground. The Denali lookout is part of the Alaska itinerary
The view of Denali from the overlook on the Parks Highway

This Alaska Itinerary is best for: Those who love fitting in as many things as possible into a vacation. This is also for those who love road trips!

Best time of year for this itinerary: Late May through early September

Travel time for this itinerary: Anchorage to Denali – allow 5 hours; Denali to Girdwood – Allow 7 hours (including Talkeetna spur road); Girdwood to Whittier – allow 1 hour (and note the Tunnel times); Girdwood to Portage – allow 30 minutes; Girdwood to Seward – allow 2.5 hours; Girdwood to Anchorage – allow 1 hour

DayRouteHighlights
1AnchorageArriving in Alaska, Bike or walk the Coastal Trail
2AnchorageHiking or museums
3Anchorage to Denali National ParkHatcher Pass, Denali State Park (Kesugi Ridge, Denali Viewpoints)
4Denali National ParkExploring Denali – bus trip into the park, and/or hiking and visiting the Visitor Center and Sled dog kennels
5Denali National Park to GirdwoodMore exploring Denali, Talkeetna
6Whittier (Day trip from Girdwood)26 Glaciers Cruise
7Portage (Day trip from Girdwood)Portage Glacier Cruise or hike, Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
8Seward (Day trip from Girdwood)Exploring Kenai Fjords National Park on a wildlife cruise, kayaking adventure, or hike to Exit Glacier or Harding Icefield
9Girdwood to AnchorageExploring Girdwood – Alyeska tram, hiking or rent a bike to explore
10AnchorageExploring Anchorage if you have time before flying out

2023 Note: The Denali Park Road closed at Milepost 42 (Polychrome Pass) in August 2021. The park service has announced that the road will remain closed at this point at least through the 2023 season. A permanent fix to this section of road is currently being built. Bus tours will still operate up to that point. Eielson Visitor Center and Wonder Lake will not be accessible.

Resources for this itinerary

I recommend staying in Girdwood for the second part of your trip. It’s close to Anchorage but also outside the city and closer to the activities for the next few days. Look for one of the many ski oriented Airbnbs in town, or stay at the Hotel Alyeska.

Make sure to buy and bring snacks, lunches and water for your road trip, especially for the Denali portion where there’s no food available in the park.

What to do if you have more time

You could extend your road trip from Anchorage up to Fairbanks, or you could spend more time in any of the places on this itinerary. Another option would be to do a loop drive up to Fairbanks, then down the Richardson Highway to Valdez and then either drive back to Anchorage or take the ferry from Valdez to Whittier and pick up the Girdwood portion of the itinerary there.

You can also add one of my ideas at the bottom of this article for extending your trip.

7 Day Alaska Railroad Adventure Itinerary (No rental car needed!)

An engine and baggage car for the Alaska Railroad, an Alaska itinerary without a car. In the background are glacier covered mountains against a blue sky

This Alaska Itinerary is best for: Anyone who doesn’t want to or is not able to drive. This is also good for anyone adding additional days in Denali where you wouldn’t be driving anyway. The chart provides a summary with more details below.

Best time of year for this itinerary: Late May through early September

Travel time for this itinerary: Anchorage to Whittier – 2.5 hour train ride each way; Anchorage to Denali – 7.5 hour train ride; Denali to Fairbanks – 4 hour train ride

DayRouteHighlights
1AnchorageBike or walk the Coastal Trail
2AnchorageHiking or museums
3Whittier (day trip from Anchorage)26 Glaciers Cruise
4Anchorage to Denali National ParkAlaska Railroad, Denali National Park
5Denali National ParkBus trip into Denali National Park
6Denali National Park to FairbanksSled dog kennels, Denali hike, Alaska Railroad
7FairbanksRiverboat Discovery, University of Alaska Museum, Chena Hot Springs

2023 Note: The Denali Park Road closed at Milepost 42 (Polychrome Pass) in August 2021. The park service has announced that the road will remain closed at this point at least through the 2023 season. A permanent fix to this section of road is currently being built. Bus tours will still operate up to that point. Eielson Visitor Center and Wonder Lake will not be accessible.

Resources for this itinerary

Make sure to pay attention to the hotels or other accommodations you book as you need to stay at ones that offer shuttles or where you can walk to things. I also strongly recommend booking a hotel in Denali that has a box lunch to order since there’s no food available in the park (Grand Denali Lodge and Denali Bluffs are both good for this and for shuttles).

What to do if you have more time

If you have more time for this itinerary, I recommend spending a bit more time in Fairbanks or Anchorage, or take a flight out to one of Alaska’s more remote national parks, such as Gates of the Arctic or Katmai.

Another option is to spend another day in Fairbanks or add on a couple days in Seward.

7 Day Alaska Itinerary Juneau and Glacier Bay (no rental car needed!)

A waterfall tumbles from above against rocks into a glacier fed lake. There is a glacier in the background. It is a dark, overcast and rainy day on an Alaska itinerary
Nugget Falls at Mendenhall Glacier is beautiful in any weather

This Alaska Itinerary is best for: People who want to experience the glaciers, wildlife, mountains and dramatic scenery of the inside passage without taking a cruise.

Best time of year for this itinerary: Late May through early July (while you should expect rain any day of the year in Southeast Alaska, May and June are drier here than the later part of the summer.

Travel time for this itinerary: Juneau to Gustavus is a 30 minute flight on a small plane, or a 6 hour ferry ride. Gustavus is about 10 miles from Bartlett Cove in Glacier Bay National Park. There is a complimentary shuttle to Bartlett Cove for guests at the Glacier Bay Lodge, and campers can pay for the shuttle or take a taxi.

DayHighlights
1Arrive in Juneau, explore downtown and the whale sculpture
2Whale watching cruise, Douglas Island (rainy day) or Mt Roberts Tram or hike (dry day)
3Mendenhall Glacier and Sea Kayaking
4Take the ferry (or fly) to Gustavus, Explore the beach and forest trail of Bartlett Cove
5Glacier Bay National Park Day boat tour
6Half or full day kayaking trip around the Beardslee islands
7Bartlett River Trail in Glacier Bay, fly back to Juneau, fly home

Resources for this itinerary

I recommend staying either in “the valley” (near the airport, ferry terminal and Mendenhall Glacier) OR downtown. If you stay in another area you will need to get a rental car. You can take the bus between downtown and the valley quite easily and many hotels offer free shuttles to the airport and ferry terminal.

What to do if you have more time

If you’re a hiker or kayaker, you could easily spend a week on the water or trails of the Juneau area. Another option would be to add on a visit to another small community in Southeast, such as Haines, Skagway or Sitka.

5 Day Alaska Itinerary for Denali National Park (no rental car needed!)

A river at sunset flows through golden and red fall color shrubs with distant mountains in Denali National Park. Denali is a part of an Alaska itinerary
A September sunset on the Savage River in Denali National Park

This Alaska Itinerary is best for: Those with less time who want to focus primarily on seeing Denali National Park and don’t want to pay for an expensive rental car only to park it for most of the trip! This Alaska Itinerary does NOT include any coastal areas.

Note: this itinerary can also be done out of Anchorage. If someone wants to focus primarily on Denali, Fairbanks is much closer. See Alaska Itinerary #1 for details about the drive between Anchorage and Denali if you decide to do it that way. This Alaska Itinerary can also be done one way if done by train (but not by car as a one way car rental is prohibitively expensive in Alaska).

Best time of year for this itinerary: Late May through early September

Travel time for this itinerary (train): Fairbanks to Denali – 4 hours each way

Travel time for this itinerary (driving): Fairbanks to Denali – 2.5 hours each way, Fairbanks to Chena Hot Springs – allow 1.5 hours each way

DayRouteHighlights
1FairbanksChena River and downtown Fairbanks
2Fairbanks to Denali National ParkEpic landscapes, Denali National Park sled dog kennels, hiking
3Denali National ParkBus trip into the park – wildlife and epic views
4Denali National Park to FairbanksMore Denali hiking or exploring, evening by the Chena River
5FairbanksRiverboat Discovery (by taxi) or Chena Hot Springs (by shuttle or rent a car)

2023 Note: The Denali Park Road closed at Milepost 42 (Polychrome Pass) in August 2021. The park service has announced that the road will remain closed at this point at least through the 2023 season. A permanent fix to this section of road is currently being built. Bus tours will still operate up to that point. Eielson Visitor Center and Wonder Lake will not be accessible.

Resources for this itinerary

Make sure to stay in a hotel that offers a shuttle back and forth the to the train depot and visitor center, and offers box lunches for you to take on your day into the park.

What to do if you have more time

If you have more time, you can spend more time in Fairbanks either out at Chena Hot Springs, hiking or exploring town. Another option is to continue on the train down to Anchorage and do some exploring there.

5 Day Alaska Glacier Getaway Itinerary from Anchorage

Portage glacier in the middle, meadows in the foreground and mountains in the background against a blue sky
Portage Glacier seen from Portage Pass

This Alaska Itinerary is best for: People who want to focus on the glaciers and wildlife of Alaska’s wild coast and those who don’t want to spend the whole time driving. The chart provides a summary with more details below.

Best time of year for this itinerary: Late May through early September. June or July is ideal.

Travel time for this itinerary: Anchorage to Girdwood – allow an hour; Girdwood to Portage Valley – allow 30 minutes each way; Girdwood to Whittier – allow 2 hours each way to account for the tunnel; Girdwood to Seward – allow 2 hours each way.

DayRouteHighlights
1Anchorage to GirdwoodScenic drive along Turnagain Arm, Alyeska Tram
2Portage Glacier (day trip from Girdwood)Portage Glacier, Portage Pass hike, Alaska wildlife conservation center
3Whittier (day trip from Girdwood)Glacier and wildlife cruise
4Seward (day trip from Girdwood)Kenai Fjords National Park – Exit Glacier and kayaking, wildlife cruise or Harding Icefield hike
5Girdwood to AnchorageExploring Anchorage – hiking, biking or museums

Resources for this itinerary

What to do if you have more time

You can easily spend more time in any of these places, especially if you enjoy outdoor activities like hiking and kayaking. Another option is to add a bit more time in Anchorage or add more of the Kenai Peninsula to your road trip.

Unusual and less busy places to add to your Alaska Itinerary

A large, bright blue iceberg about the size of a garage sits on the rocks near LeConte Glacier
An iceberg near LeConte Glacier, near Wrangell and Petersburg in Southeast Alaska

If you’re one of those travelers (like me!) who like to explore areas that many visitors don’t get to, and you’re willing to trade a famous place for one a bit less known, less crowded and just as beautiful, here are a few ideas. There are nearly unlimited opportunities for solitude in Alaska, though some remote areas are challenging or expensive to get to.

  • Alaska’s more remote National Parks – it takes some serious effort to get to these, but it’s so worth it if you love uncrowded wild places. Take a close look at Wrangell-St Elias, Katmai and Lake Clark.
  • Valdez – the wonderful and small port town of Valdez is not visited by most cruise ships (some small ships come here) and it’s location further away from Anchorage make it less busy with visitors traveling on their own in a rental car. There are still plenty of visitors, many are other Alaskans getting away for fishing. You’ll also encounter folks in RVs on longer road trips.
  • Petersburg or Wrangell in Southeast Alaska – the charming port towns of Wrangell and Petersburg aren’t visited by large cruise ships, so it’s a very different experience than some of the other towns along the inside passage. Both have opportunities for glacier and wildlife tours as well as fishing, hiking and kayaking
  • Glacier Bay National Park – Big cruise ships visit Glacier Bay, but traveling on your own to this magical place really gets you away from it all. Big ships don’t go ashore anywhere in the park, and you’ll be enjoying it with just the other folks at the lodge or campground. This is my favorite national park in Alaska!
  • Take a water taxi to a remote cabin or yurt – I particularly recommend doing this in Kachemak Bay near Homer or Kenai Fjords National Park.

What to do if you have more time (2 weeks or more) for your Alaska Itinerary

A tidewater glacier at the head of a bay. The glacier is blue and has dark cracks. In front of the glacier are thousands of small icebergs floating in the water. In the background is a high snow capped mountain. Glacier Bay is a highlight of an Alaska itinerary
Marguerite Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park

If you’re lucky enough to have more time for your Alaska Adventure, that’s terrific! You can spend more time in any of the places mentioned in these itineraries (especially Denali National Park, Fairbanks, Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula).

Some other specifics to consider adding to your Alaska Itinerary (with the itineraries they make sense with) include:

  • Riding the Alaska ferry (add to tinerary #5)
  • Driving the Glenn Highway and visiting Matanuska Glacier (add to itinerary #1 or #4)
  • Visiting the town of Homer on the Kenai Peninsula. Homer is a good place to kayak or even stay in a remote yurt in Kachemak Bay! (add to itinerary #1 or #4)
  • Kayak camp in Kenai Fjords National Park (add to itinerary #1 or #4)
  • Try your hand at salmon or halibut fishing in Whittier or Seward (add to itinerary #1 or #4)
  • Visit remote (but still on the road system) Wrangell – St Elias National Park and historic Kennicott (itinerary #1)
  • Visit one of Alaska’s very remote National Parks – several of Alaska’s remote National Parks can only be visited by small plane. They are very expensive to visit, but also very unique and unforgettable. From the salmon eating bears of Katmai National Park to the vast tundra of Gates of the Arctic National Park you can have an experience few can share. This is a fly in experience so you could add it to any of these itineraries.

Related: What to pack for Alaska

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Jennie Flaming
Hi! I'm Jennie. I’m a fourth generation Seattleite who lived in Alaska for 7 years. I've been a tour guide in both Alaska and Washington and I love to share the places I love with visitors, newcomers and my fellow locals. I’m so glad to have you along on the journey to experience your best low key adventure in Washington, Alaska and Western Canada!