How to Travel Alaska Without Going Broke
Alaska, our 49th state, has a reputation for being an expensive vacation spot, but if you can make it up there, the beauty of your surroundings is well worth the trip.
To get to Anchorage from the lower 48, it's a trek: expect at LEAST a three and a half hour flight from Seattle. You'll want to make the most of your time there, and this guide, based on my recent experiences, will help you stretch your travel dollars as far as they can go in the last frontier.
A six-hour direct flight from Phoenix (a surprise!) got me to Anchorage on American. Taking advantage of a fare sale, the flights were surprisingly cheap, at $300 roundtrip. This tends to be the norm, rather than the exception, as from the West Coast, budget airlines like JetBlue fly direct to Anchorage from Long Beach, which drives the price down.
There aren't a lot of five-star hotel options in Alaska. Outside Anchorage, in Girdwood, is the Hotel Aleyska, a ski resort that certainly qualifies as Alaska's best hotel. Points options are available in nearly every program in Anchorage -- I spent my time at the Sheraton Anchorage at an inexpensive rate, but you can redeem points there as well. The Hilton Anchorage wins for location, right above the train station and in the middle of downtown.
However, if you want to really save on lodging, camping in the summer months will stretch you dollar the furthest. During my visit, the weather was perfect, almost California-like, but that's a rarity. You'll deal with some unpredictable conditions sleeping outdoors, but the crisp Alaskan air will keep you comfortable at night. Every town has a camping option, as the entire state feels like a national park. These can range from free (really!) to about $15 a night for a tent. If you rent an RV, you'll pay more depending on electricity hookups.
Alaska is absolutely gigantic. Most people visit Alaska on one of the Inside Passage cruises leaving from Seattle or Vancouver, traveling north and ending in Seward or Whittier. These trips are, on average, $1,000 a person for the week. A better budget option would be to take the Alaska Marine Highway. Literally and legally considered a "highway" by the federal government, this ferry system can get you from Washington all the way to Dutch Harbor, closer to Russia than to the lower 48. You can camp on board, and they have cabins.
On the ground, we took the Alaska Railroad roundtrip from Anchorage to Seward. While it's not inexpensive, starting at $150 round trip, the sights we saw along the journey were amazing. Four glaciers, moose, bald eagles, and highwayless natural beauty for most of our journey. These are sights you can only see by train, so I highly recommend the expense. You could also rent a car, which would help you get north to Denali and Talkeetna as well.
Food was a bit more expensive than it is down in the lower 48. If you're thinking that Alaskan King Crab is a bargain there, think again, it's about $45 a pound in restaurants. However, the quality and freshness is unmatched. Expect to spend $25-$50 a person in a sit-down restaurant, depending on what you order.