Dreaming about a trip to Alaska but worried about the cost? Then this post is for you.
I had our trip to Alaska all planned out back in 2015. I knew what we wanted to do and where to go. Our route was all set up. Then I started booking things and woha! Sticker shock galore! We ended up taking a long trip in the Lower 48 instead. Which was awesome but was not Alaska.
Fast forward to 2017. This time, my mind was set: We’re going to visit Alaska and be able to afford it. And we did. We had a fantastic trip and it was much cheaper too.
Yes. You read that right.
How did I do that? Read on. I’ll share all of the tips and tricks that I used to make the cost of our trip to Alaska stay within our budget.
In this blog post, I’m going to talk about
- Why Alaska is so expensive
- The costs associated with the main budget items:
- Cruises and Ferry rides
- Driving to Alaska (including gas and car rentals)
- Food expenses
- Activities and excursions
Throughout the post, I’ll give you tips and tricks that can be used to lower the costs too.
And what about an actual figure – how much does a trip to Alaska cost? If I absolutely had to give you a ballpark figure…
I would put it at $200-$300 per person per day.
And yes, by the end of the post I’ll be showing you how you can see Alaska on a shoestring budget of $62 a day.
So, let’s begin. And feel free to use this table of contents to jump around within the sections of the post (I know it’s a long one).
- Why is Alaska So Expensive?
- Getting to Alaska
- Cost of Cruise to Alaska
- Cost of Ferry to Alaska
- Cost of Flights To Alaska
- Cost of Driving to Alaska
- Made it to Alaska – now what?
- Summary (And a couple of examples)
Why is Alaska So Expensive?
Alaska is a Bucket List destination. Glaciers and mountains, whales and Grizzly bears. If you love nature, you’re going to LOVE Alaska. It’s the wildest and probably prettiest of all US states. Having traveled in 45 US states (and several Canadian provinces too), I can also vouch for the following statement:
Alaska is expensive.
Very expensive. There’s no getting around that fact. It’s expensive to live in and it’s even more expensive to travel in. Before I explain how to reduce the costs of your trip to Alaska, I want to talk about why it’s so expensive. Understanding the reasons will help you reduce the costs.
Location, Location, Location
You know how that joke goes. The three factors of pricing a real estate property are: Location, location and… location.
It’s the same with Alaska. The state is up in the north, separated from the Lower 48 by two huge Canadian areas: British Columbia and the Yukon. They’re HUGE. Trust me, I drove across them. Both ways.
Approximately 2,300 miles (3500 kilometers) separate Anchorage from Seattle – the nearest US city outside of Alaska. Which means pretty much anything that’s not locally-produced needs to be shipped across that distance into Alaska. Whether by plane, truck or boat – that’s a lot of distance to cover and it’s expensive.
Being so far up in the north also means Alaska has sub-arctic winters that take a heavy toll on infrastructure. Private properties suffer too. Including hotels, for example. It’s more expensive to build and maintain a building in Alaska then it is in most US states.
As if that wasn’t enough, the travel industry also has the added challenge of a short season. With most visitors coming between June and September, tourism is a very seasonal business – and prices reflect that.
Which is why Alaska is expensive for us visitors (and not cheap for locals either).
Here’s the thing. There’s actually a lot you can do to reduce the costs of a trip to Alaska and make it much more feasible.
Let’s break up the costs and see how that can be done.
Getting to Alaska
I already mentioned how far away Alaska is. So, how do you get there?
Assuming your starting point is the Lower 48, there are three ways for you to get to Alaska:
- A cruise along the coast
- The ferry from Seattle to Alaska
- Flying into Alaska
- Driving in a car or RV
You can mix and match – and many travelers do – go up to Alaska one way and return using another. Many people take a cruise to Alaska and then take a flight back home.
Let’s start breaking the cost of each of these options.
Cost of Cruise to Alaska
Cruise liners offer you more than the ability to reach from point A to point B. They usually include a variety of amenities and offer stops in the more “touristy” harbors along the way. Cruise liners usually include Glacier Bay National Park in their itinerary too.
My point is that cruises may not be cheap but they could still be suitable for some vacation plans.
What do I mean by not cheap?
As you’ll see in the following table, we checked a bunch of companies and starting points. The price is indicated by night and the duration of the trip is 7 nights if you take the cruise from Seattle.
Depending on the level of “luxury” and amenities offered – as well as on the season – a cruise going out from Seattle will cost you between $700 to $2500 per person.
You could opt for a cruise that starts in San Francisco or even Los Angeles. Add 3 nights at sea for San Francisco departures and five for a cruise starting in Los Angeles.
All in all, we’re talking about roughly $1,500 per person. That comes to a total of over $6,000 for a family of four. And remember, this is just one way.
Cost of Ferry to Alaska
Taking the ferry can be cheaper – but not by much. Especially if you’re hauling your car along with you. The route is the shortest and most economical one between the towns along the Inner Passage. So you won’t be getting into the smaller bays just to view wildlife or stopping just to see glaciers calving. The views are going to be spectacular all the same.
If you take the ferry from Bellingham (near Seattle) and embark at Whittier (not far from Anchorage), you’ll have to pay $791 per adult. And that price does not include a berth (as it would in a cruise). If you want to add a berth, that’s extra.
For a couple of adults, we’re talking about $1782-$2,381, depending on the size of your berth. And that’s without facilities, i.e. no private bathrooms/showers. There are public ones available and in fact, the Ferry People suggest camping out on the ferry –
It is perfectly acceptable to camp out on the ferry. During the summer, people will often pitch tents on the deck and during the colder months it is typical to see families sleeping on blow up mattresses, individuals wrapped up in sleeping bags on the lounge chairs, etc.
It actually sounds kinda nice but a far cry from a cruise.
One of the advantages the ferry has is that you can bring your vehicle along. Unfortunately, that costs $1,937 for a midsize SUV (16 ft in length).
When we planned our own trip to Alaska, I checked this option as well. The idea was to drive one way and take the vehicle back with us on a ferry. With no camping gear, we would have opted for the 4 people berth. Our boys being over 12 years of age, would have meant paying a total of $6,379 for a week at sea. With no private bathroom or any of the amenities of a cruise.
By the way, with the ferry you can hop off and on in any port, so I still think this could be a good option for some people. Just not very cheap.
Cost of Flights To Alaska
No doubt, the fastest way to get to Alaska is by air travel.
Is it cheap though? Well, actually, the price of flight can be ok and cheaper than the alternatives.
For a more comprehensive price analysis, we sampled prices along several dates. We checked the price of one-way tickets between Anchorage and three popular destinations: New York (JFK) and Los Angeles (in LAX) in the United States and, for the benefit of those arriving from Europe, London (Heathrow airport – LHR).
|CHEAPEST Return Flights From Anchorage to the Lower 48 and Europe (For 1 Adult)|
|Anchorage, AK (ANC) – New York, NY (JFK)|
|January (4, Fri)||Alaska Airlines: from $248||Alaska Airlines: from $191||Icelandair: from $589|
|Delta Air Lines: from $253||Delta Air Lines: from $195||Alaska Airlines + Air New Zealand: from $857|
|March (30, Fri)||Delta Air Lines: from $241||Delta Air Lines: from $208||Alaska Airlines + Virgin Atlantic: from $619|
|American Airlines: from $248||United Airlines: from $211||Alaska Airlines + Wow Air + Aer Lingus: $620|
|June (1, Fri)||JetBlue + Alaska Airlines: from $265||Alaska Airlines: from $192||Alaska Airlines + Condor + Lufthansa: from $839|
|Sun Country Airlines: from $269||Delta Airlines: from $195||Alaska Airlines + Ethiopian Airlines + Aer Lingus: $872|
|July (4, Wed)||American Airlines: from $253||Alaska Airlines: from $191||Alaska Airlines + Norwegian + British Airways: $623|
|Alaska Airlines: from $257||Delta Airlines: from $195||Alaska Airlines + Norwegian + Vueling Airlines: $625|
|August (3, Fri)||Alaska Airlines: from $291||Alaska Airlines: from $207||Sun Country Airlines + KLM: $635|
|Alaska Airlines: from $293||Delta Air Lines: from $239||Sun Country Airlines + Norwegian + Air France|
Keep the following in mind –
- These are the cheapest rates sampled at the same time for different dates in the future. When you look for flights a few months in advance, you’re more likely to find the cheapest ones.
- You should add baggage fees to these prices. Most airlines charge around $25 for a checked bag.
- This is a blog post and not a flight search engine, so obviously these prices may no longer be available when you search for flights. Or you may find cheaper rates.
Budgeting Tip #1
You can get the best rates on airfare by being flexible. If you can, base your travel dates NOT on your preference but rather on which days have cheaper airfare. There are other considerations as well – but overall, flexible dates mean cheaper flights. Shoulder seasons (May, June, September and October) are more likely to have cheaper flights to Alaska.
Budgeting Tip #2
Search for flights early on. I’m not saying you should book your flights way ahead of time. There’s an ongoing debate on whether you should book your flights as soon as the flight becomes available or wait for the last minute for the airline to drop their rates in case they can’t fill up the plane.
I don’t think there’s a good answer as to when flights are cheapest. I do think that if you’re traveling solo, you probably have more leeway to wait for last-minute deals. As a family of four, I can’t relay on last-minute deals which may be available for just 2 or 3 seats on the flight. So I prefer to book ahead of time – the sooner the better.
Either way, searching well in advance will at least give you a good sense of the prices during your date range. This would help you snatch up a good price should it show up.
Cost of Driving to Alaska
Finally! Driving! I’m a road trip addict and fully admit that. For us, driving to Alaska and back was the easy choice! We enjoyed that road trip as much as we enjoyed Alaska itself.
If you’re considering driving, keep in mind that this is one long road trip. Which is awesome for road trippers like us but could also be a nightmare for anyone who isn’t. We took three weeks to drive from Los Angeles to Alaska and another three weeks to drive back. You could do it in half that time but then you won’t be enjoying the way so much.
I do have an entire blog post dedicated to driving to Alaska, so if you’re considering the road trip option read that post first. I just want to make sure we’re on the same page: Driving to Alaska isn’t about saving money. Don’t do that if you’re just looking to save a buck.
With that out of the way, let’s break down the actual cost of driving to Alaska.
We need to look at three components here –
- Cost of vehicle (if you’re renting one).
- Gas prices.
- Accommodation and expenses along the way.
1. Renting a vehicle (or not…)
If you live in the US, you could just use your own vehicle to drive to Alaska and back. You don’t have to own an SUV or a truck. A sedan will do just fine. Just make sure the vehicle is in good condition because towing the car to the nearest garage could be expensive.
If – like us – you’re not an American, you will need to rent a vehicle. That can eat up a nice juicy chunk of your budget, so you should really pay attention here.
Now, here’s the thing.
American or not, if you’re flying into Alaska you’re going to need to rent a vehicle once there. And – this shouldn’t surprise you by now – renting in Alaska in season costs double and even triple what it would cost you to rent the same vehicle in the Lower 48.
So, in order to assess the full cost of renting in the Lower 48 and then driving to Alaska and spending some time there, you have to take into account the difference in rental expenses.
Car Rental Costs In Alaska compared to the Lower 48
If you’re thinking of renting a vehicle in the Last Frontier state during July or August, be prepared for major sticker shock.
This is what it would cost you to rent a vehicle in Los Angeles for one week during July –
The same week in Anchorage? Check this out –
We’re talking at least triple prices – usually much more.
So, basically, in terms of rental fees alone, you could rent in LA, drive up to Alaska, drive around and return and you’ll probably pay less than if you were to fly into Alaska and rent there for the same period of time.
For us, that was the huge motivator in turning our Alaska trip into a long distance road trip.
Budgeting Tip #3
Avoid the high season and try June or September instead. There’s a huge decrease in price during the shoulder season. Take a look at the prices during September, for example –
Still higher than LA but hey, that’s only 50% higher. Much more reasonable.
Budgeting Tip #4
Start looking for vehicles as early as possible. Especially if you need to rent a larger vehicle like a minivan or a full-size SUV. I can tell you from experience that these get booked relatively early in the season, especially if you need them for long-term travel (as you would when renting to drive to Alaska and back).
Budgeting Tip #5
Most car rental agencies allow you to book a car and then cancel at short notice. So, in addition to booking way in advance, keep an eye on vehicle rental rates. If there’s a special that brings prices down, you can always book that and cancel your original order.
I use RentalCars.com for all of our rentals. They’re a booking agency that works with several companies, including Alamo, Dollar, Thrifty, Hertz and Budget. In my experience, they have the lowest offers on the internet. What I like even more is that they have a lowest-price guarantee which means that if you find a lower rate at any point in time until you take the car, they will lower their price to match that.
I actually did that once. I found a lower rate on a small unknown website. I’m not sure I would have switched to that site even if RentalCars hadn’t lowered their price simply because I had never heard of it before. I decided to give it a try though and sent RentalCars a copy of the lower offer, including screenshots and links. They reviewed it and matched the price. That way I rented from an agency that I know and trust AND got the lower rate too.
2. The cost of gas
Driving to Alaska is going to eat up a lot of fuel. Be prepared to spend some cash on that too.
The factors that determine how much you’ll pay for gas are –
- Your route (total length, including detours for sightseeing)
- The make and model of your car and its fuel economy stats.
- Price of gas along your route.
The length of your trip will depend on your starting point in the Lower 48 but either way, we’re talking thousands of miles here. Each way.
Your vehicle’s fuel economy is super important for understanding the costs involved. Driving a large pickup or a full-size SUV will cost you more in gas expenses than driving a small sedan would.
Finally, the price of gas along your route is – in my experience – difficult to calculate. Running the route from Los Angeles to Anchorage in the Cost2Drive gas calculator for a midsize SUV brings up a result of under $400. The same setup in GasBuddy’s calculator throws out $990 in gas fees. Now, we have not kept close track of what we paid for but I do think it was somewhere in the middle.
So, what to do?
If you want to accurately budget for gas, check your own vehicle’s real fuel economy stats and the actual route you’re going to take and start from calculating how much gas you’re going to need. This should be your starting point.
Of course, there’s still the issue of how much gas costs in these northern parts of the continent. Generally speaking, in Canada and in Alaska, it’s more expensive than in the Lower 48. So, let’s talk about the cost of gas in Alaska.
Cost of gas in Alaska
Here’s a fun fact that might surprise you. Alaska is known as an oil producing state. So, that means gas should be cheaper there, right?
Hmmmm…. actually, no.
Alaska is one of the states with the highest average price of gas. How come? Well, consider this. Oil companies still have to take the raw product out of Alaska to their refineries in the lower 48. The crude oil needs to be processed into commercial gasoline. Then it needs to be shipped back into Alaska. Which is why it’s expensive.
Overall, prices of gas change by the location of the station but generally, expect them to be in the California city range. That’s very high, by the way.
Along the Alaska Highway, rates can get even higher. Whitehorse and other towns are ok but gas stations in the middle of nowhere charge more with prices being double and even triple what you would pay in a town.
3. Cost of Accommodation along the way
We’ll discuss the cost of accommodation in Alaska in a bit. For now, we’re still comparing the costs of getting to Alaska via the various methods (flying, boat or driving). So, it’s worth mentioning that driving to Alaska also means you have to find accommodation along the way.
Depending on your point of origin and how much sightseeing you’re going to do along the way, getting from the Lower 48 to Alaska will take you 7-14 days. If you’re driving an RV, you can boondock along the way in some areas but you’ll probably want to find actual campgrounds with facilities at least for some of the nights.
Driving in a car, you’ll probably need a motel when you stop driving at the end of the day. And yes, you can even camp in your tent – in a campground or in other designated spots. Just remember that you’ll be in bear country along most of your route, so stick to bear safety rules when camping.
Here’s the kicker though –
The price of accommodation along the way is actually fairly reasonable!
Unlike in Alaska itself (we’ll talk about accommodation rates there in a minute), along the Alaska Highway we found rates to be budget-friendly. A motel room for four people, in places like the Fort Nelson Motel 6 or Buckshot Betty’s in the tiny town of Beaver Creek in the Yukon were actually cheaper than anything we could find in the Lower 48 and just as adequate for our needs. I did make reservations for some of the places along the route. Always with Booking.com and always with the option to cancel 24 hours before our arrival. We ended up cancelling some of them when we had anticipated a change in plans for the following day.
The bottom line:
If you’re driving to Alaska, you can budget an average of $100 a night for accommodation. Most places will be cheaper but a few may be a bit more expensive (especially in Whitehorse itself) so an average of $100 should work out fine.
Made it to Alaska – now what?
So far, we focused on the cost of getting to Alaska. Time to talk about your expenses while visiting the state itself.
We’ll break this into accommodation, food, supplies and things to do.
1. Food Expenses in Alaska
When it comes to food, it’s safe to estimate that you’ll pay an average of 50% more on your meals in Alaska when compared to the same eating style in the Lower 48.
It’s safe to assume that a full dinner would be at least $20 per person while a lovely (yet conventional) breakfast the next morning would be at least $10 per person. Expect to pay almost $10 for a fast food combo deal and around $20 at a diner like Denny’s.
If you’re planning on carrying all – or some – of your food from home with you, note that some cheese, meats, or fruits are not allowed across borders.
Budgeting Tip #6
We save a lot of money by buying in groceries. Yes, supermarkets are more expensive in Alaska too but if you carry an ice box with you (ice is still free in motels there), you can buy a supply of fresh food like vegetables, fruit, yogurts and fresh bread. Healthier and cheaper than constantly eating out.
2. Accommodation Costs in Alaska
If you want to experience Alaska without breaking the bank, where you stay is one factor where you can save a lot of money. Simply because accommodation rates are just very high over there. Anything you can do to save on that – will significantly lower the cost of your trip to Alaska.
Budgeting Tip #7
Make your reservations in advance. And I mean way in advance. Basically, as soon as the properties are open to take them. I have found this to reduce our costs but up to 50%. Yes, that means less flexibility – but it could mean huge savings too.
Booking in advance means you have a greater selection of available rooms. That alone means you can choose the more affordable ones.
But wait – there’s more.
I have found that the same rooms were priced at more than half the price when reserved almost a year in advance!
For example, I booked the Microtel in Anchorage in August 2016 for our August 2017 stay. It cost me $91 a night for a room for four people. If we were to book the very same room on arrival we would have paid over $200 a night! How’s that for savings? Excellent motel, by the way, one of the best we stayed in during the entire trip.
And yes, that low rate still included a cancellation option, so we had nothing to lose by booking so far in advance. We did the same in other locations, saving way over a 1,000 dollars on accommodation alone.
How can you beat that?
Budgeting Tip #8
Visit Alaska during the shoulder seasons – or even during winter time. Once the crowds are gone, accommodation rates go down. While hotel rates hover between $150 to $400 per room during July and August, if you come in September, you’ll get the same rooms, literally at half the price or even lower.
Budgeting Tip #9
To really lower your expenses, you can try other types of accommodation. If you’re traveling from the Lower 48 by car, you may want to bring your own camping gear and camp out occasionally. Priced at $20-$40 staying at a campground could cost you a fraction of the price of a hotel room and you may enjoy it more too. If you’re the adventurous type who tend to get more comfy in a tent than in a real bed, then campgrounds may be your best bet.
Budgeting Tip #10
Last but not least – couchsurfing! We have been members of the couchsurfing community for many years now and I actually don’t like recommending couchsurfing as a way to save on money. This isn’t about freeloading. It’s about getting to know local people and making more out of your trip. In order to really enjoy couchsurfing you need to switch to slow travel mode, spend at least 2 nights with your hosts and get to know them.
We were on a tight schedule so we didn’t get to couchsurf while in Alaska but I did check the database and there are TONS of hosts there. If you’re already a seasoned couchsurfer, definitely check Alaska for hosts. And if you’re not, check out my post about couchsurfing as a family. There’s a lot of information there about how to couchsurf and how to host too. Try it out – even as a host – before you contact potential hosts in Alaska. It’s always good to have an active profile with a bunch of positive reviews before seeking a couch.
3. Sightseeing – It can get expensive!
There is so much to see and do in Alaska! And so much of that is EXPENSIVE! If you can afford it, you could spend your Alaska vacation taking guided tours, boat cruises, flights, heli skiing, glacier hiking, ice climbing, river floating and kayaking with orcas. Something new every day. Each of these excursions is going to cost you though.
A cruise would cost you around $150-$250 for 6-8 hours. Most of the other activities will take 2-3 hours to complete and cost roughly $50-$100 per hour. You could easily spend $2,000 (!) a day on a family of four if you have the budget for it. We certainly didn’t.
So, here’s what we did.
I decided we were going to take just two “paid excursions” and both were national parks tours. The first was the Kenai Fjords National Parks cruise which I blogged about here. I did get a blogger discount of 25% on that one but we would have gone on the cruise anyway. We took the six hour cruise which costs $159 per person. For the four of us that would have been a total of $636. It was totally worth it and I wish we could have enjoyed more excursions of this scale but that was out of our budget range.
The only other “excursion” we went on was the bus ride into Denali National Park. For me, that’s an excursion because even though we took the shuttle bus (not the guided tour), we enjoyed tour-level narration throughout the ride. You can read all about our Denali visit here (including some videos where you can hear our driver narrating the scene). Shuttle tickets to the Eielson Visitor center cost $40 for anyone over 16. Both our boys were under 16 at the time, so we ended up paying $80 for the entire family, which is not bad at all.
Budgeting Tip #11
If you’re intend on experiencing more attractions, consider investing in one of the famous Alaska coupon booklets. Both the Alaska TourSaver and the ADC – Alaska Discounts offer a collection of 1+1 deals and other discounts on hotels and activities. The books aren’t free though. The TourSaver is currently priced at $95.50 and the ADC at $55.
For a family of four, we would have needed two books, so that’s quite an expense in its own right. There are also limitations on some of the coupons so they’re not always a good fit for hotels, for examples. That said, if one of the books happens to cover two or more activities that you had planned on taking anyway – you could save money by using them.
Summary (And a couple of examples)
That was another long post, whew!
I hope you now have a better grasp of how much a trip to Alaska can cost. Clearly, there are so many variables and so many ways to do this, the budget range is almost infinite. Here are two extreme examples –
Alaska on a Shoestring Budget
A traveler flying into Alaska in September for three weeks. Flexible flight dates, renting a small vehicle, couchsurfing along the trip and relying on supermarkets for food can actually this person can see the state for as little as
- Flights: $300
- Vehicle rental for one week: $270 (Hitchhiking and using public transportation on other days)
- Gas: $100
- Food: $600 (at approx. $30 a day)
Total: $1300 or roughly $62 a day.
Three weeks in July or August. Taking a cruise one way and traveling by car for two weeks. Not applying the budgeting tips so paying more for hotels and food.
- Flights: $300 (one way)
- Cruise: $2500
- SUV rental in Alaska for two weeks: $1700
- Gas: $250
- Hotels for 2 weeks at $300 a night: $4200
- Food: $850
- Sightseeing activities/excursions: $2000
Total: $11,800 or just over $560 per day
A “Middle Road” Approach
I won’t use actual numbers here because as you probably realize by now – there are personal choices to be made here. Are you the kind of person that couldn’t care less about the size of the vehicle you’re driving but must try gourmet food in a new destination? Or maybe you want to put your dollars towards sightseeing while exercising frugality in all other aspects? It all depends, you see.
I do hope the discussion and budgeting tips here help you reduce the cost of your trip to Alaska – whatever your travel style and choices are. If you can come up with more saving ideas, please share them in a comment below! Or just let me know what you think of these tips – I love hearing from blog readers. So, questions, comments, anything you like to say – share it in a comment.
And speaking of sharing. A lot of work has gone into this post. It’s taken myself and my assistant several weeks of research to come up with all the data and put it into a post. I hope you’ll appreciate the effort and help me spread the word about my blog by sharing this post – and others – on social media. Thank you!