Planning a Vacation to Alaska: The Ultimate Travel Guide

Published: April 2, 2024

Alaska, often called America’s “Last Frontier”, is a travel destination where “wild” thrives, the northern lights dance and where Alaska landscapes inspire awe at every turn. It’s a place where wildlife roams freely, glaciers and mountain ranges create scenic vistas, and every day of your Alaska vacation promises more adventure.

At Alaska Tours, we understand that planning a trip to Alaska can sometimes seem overwhelming. We know because we get lots of questions from our Alaska travelers…

In this Alaska Vacation Planning Guide, we cover all the ins and outs of planning a memorable Alaska vacation whether you’re looking to kayak your way through serene fjords, explore the thrill of spotting grizzlies in their natural habitat, or experience the charm of quaint, historic towns.

So let’s dive in!


When Should You Start Planning an Alaska Vacation?

Booking a Summer Trip to Alaska

Alaska has a short peak season for travel which is highly concentrated during the summer months. With about 80% of Alaska visitors traveling to Alaska between June and August, Alaska hotels, lodges and accommodations fill up quickly as do popular activities such as flightseeing, wildlife cruises, glacier cruises, wildlife and bear viewing and other adventure vacation activities. Exclusive Alaska experiences that are in high demand, such as all-inclusive lodge stays inside national parks, small ship cruises, and multi-day fishing trips should be booked as early as possible – up to a year in advance is required for some! In addition, flights to Alaska also begin booking up, with many seasonal flights offered May-September.

So, planning a trip to Alaska by the end of January is your best bet for securing prime accommodations and experiences. Last minute Alaska land tour reservations may be available up to a month in advance of travel, but routing, itineraries and hotel choices will necessarily be based on remaining availability.

Leveraging Alaska’s Shoulder Season

May and September, the “shoulder season” in Alaska, are quieter months and the perfect option for those with flexible travel schedules as Alaska activities, lodges and flights do not sell out as frequently. Booking your Alaska vacation 2-3 months in advance is usually sufficient if you want to visit the state during these shoulder seasons. Shoulder seasons also boast a more relaxing pace and less crowded attractions compared to the peak summer months.

two wooden chairs facing out to grass coast line, a lagoon with a canoe and a tidewater glacier

Viewing Pederson Glacier from Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge

Booking Day Trips in Alaska Cities

Day trips from key Alaska gateway cities (Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Seward, Ketchikan, Whittier etc.) can sometimes be arranged closer to your travel dates. But if you arrive between June and August, these day tours also do sell out. At Alaska Tours, we require at least 10 days’ notice to book a day tour, to allow us time to confirm it and send you your travel documents before you leave home. 

Wildlife viewing tours, fishing trips, and flightseeing tours tend to fill up first. We recommend that you should definitely book these fun Alaska outdoor activities plenty of time in advance.

Up-close view of a diving whale from Juneau.

Embracing Alaska’s Winter Season

Traveling in Alaska during the winter is a completely different experience from a summer vacation trip, with winter sports, like skiing, dog sledding, and Northern Lights viewing taking center stage. Many national parks, hotels, and summertime activities are closed. Because this is a quieter season in Alaska, with fewer visitors, it is easier to plan your Alaska winter vacation and arrange a flight to Alaska only a few weeks in advance. 

Just note that during the holidays (Christmas, New Year’s, and Spring Break) many Alaska winter tours sell out about two to three months in advance.

green bands of aurora over a paved road in Alaska in winter

Aurora Over Denali (Kent Miller/NPS)

How to Plan a Trip to Alaska: Our Top 10 Tips

Planning an Alaskan adventure can be both exciting and fun.  Based on our over 3 decades planning Alaska trips for visitors, our travel experts have compiled a step-by-step guide to make your vacation planning easy and educational!

#1: Choose Your Ideal Time to Visit

Alaska boasts four distinct seasons, each offering a unique Alaska travel experience.

  • Summer (June-August) is peak season with mild temperatures and long daylight hours, ideal for hiking, wildlife viewing, exploring and summer sightseeing.
  • Spring (May) and Fall (Mid August-September) offer shoulder season advantages – fewer crowds and stunning fall foliage.
  • Winter (December-March) transforms Alaska into a snowy wonderland, perfect for aurora borealis viewing and winter sports.

#2: How Much Time Do You Have?

Alaska is a vast state, and travel distances between destinations in Alaska can be significant. Consider how much time you realistically have available once you arrive in Alaska for your itinerary. A week allows for a taste of Alaska, while two weeks or more opens up opportunities for exploring diverse regions.

#3: Set a Realistic Travel Budget

Alaska can be an expensive destination. To create your Alaska vacation budget, make sure to factor in flights, accommodations, tours, meals, and any additional activities. Research the average cost of an Alaska vacation ($300+ per person/day) and set a realistic budget that aligns with your travel style.

#4: Choose Your Top Alaskan Destinations

Alaska is a land of diverse attractions, landscapes and ecosystems. Research different regions on our interactive map of Alaska. You might choose Denali National Park for majestic mountains, Kenai Fjords for glaciers and marinelife, or  Inside Passage cruises to get a taste of the coastal beauty. Prioritize Alaska locations and activities that align with your interests, be it outdoor adventure, wildlife viewing, northern lights viewing, or cultural experiences.

#5: Dream Up Your Own Alaska Bucket List

Alaska is an explorer’s paradise. From families looking for quality time together, to scenic sightseers who prefer guided tours, to adventurer travelers seeking thrills and discovery. Whether you like to arrive by cruise ship or by vehicle, Alaska is a truly unparalleled destination in so many ways. From glacier kayaking to flightseeing over Denali, you just need to narrow your focus to your own “top 10 things to do in Alaska”. Then we’ll help you customize your trip to plan it all out so you can “dream it then live it”!

#6: A Word About Transportation & Logistics

Consider the travel time necessary to get from point to point in Alaska when planning your Alaska trip. While the Alaska Railroad routes and scheduled buses provide convenient access to some destinations, their departure and arrival times have limitations. Renting a car or motorhome for a self-drive tour grants you the most flexibility, allowing you to explore off-the-beaten-path locations and discover hidden gems at your own pace. 

#7: How to Pack for Alaskan Weather

Alaska weather is unpredictable so pack accordingly! Layers are a great idea and just be prepared for anything by packing layers of clothing, including waterproof gear, hiking boots, warm hats, and gloves. Whether you’re packing for an Alaska cruise or exploring the wilderness, make sure to review weather forecasts closer to your departure date for up to the minute packing ideas.

And just three more ideas as you put your final thoughts together for your Alaska trip:

#8: Five things I wish I knew before I visited Alaska

#9: Five Amazing Reasons to Visit Alaska in 2024

#10: 25 Fun Facts About Alaska

Alaska beckons with wild landscapes, captivating wildlife, and endless adventures. With a little early planning, you can unlock the best experiences and create memories that will last a lifetime. If you’re ready to start planning your itinerary for your own special Alaskan adventure, just contact our friendly team at Alaska Tours today!