Monday, 30 April 2012

Planning a trip to Alaska

Photo taken from Travel Alaska, check out their website for travel information 

I am planning a trip to Alaska later this year and it looks like it's actually going to happen as I've made a few bookings already! I keep hearing about people who also want to travel to Alaska so I though it might be handy for you if I share some of the information I got so far and a few useful links.

I'll start by saying that I plan a trip on a budget and try to avoid unnecessary costs. What I want to see most in Alaska are northern lights, scenery and wildlife so the trip is planned the way hubby and I will have a good chance to see all of the above. The trip is going to consist of two parts: a cruise along the Inside Passage and then hanging around Fairbanks for the chance to see the northern lights.

Links to check out before planning
  • Travel Alaska is the official State of Alaska vacation and travel information website and is a must website to check when planning a trip to Alaska. 
  • Alaska Marine Highway System is a backpacker alternative to a cruise so if you're not a tight budget it is a great option.
  • Alaska Railroad has different train routs and is a unique way to travel in Alaska and enjoy scenery. The train schedule is very limited from late September to early May so check out the website for days and times. I really want to go but it just doesn't work out for us.      

I've never been on a cruise but Alaska seems like a good destination to give it a go. I'll explain my reasons for choosing a cruise and then give a few tips and links that might help you if you want to go on a cruise as well.

Alaska is very spread so if you want to see more than a few places you have to drive a lot or fly a few times. I prefer not too as both options are expensive, time consuming and tiring. On the cruise you get transport, accommodation and meals so you can see places but also enjoy your journey. The prices are very competitive for Alaska considering that almost everything is included.

The cruise ship has a few stops in different ports along the Inside Passage so we're actually going to spend half of the time on land seeing places. In each port we plan on taking 1-2 excursions. We don't have to but I think they are going to help us see more and experience more of Alaska than just wondering around on our own. 

Our ship will also go through the Glacier Bay National Park and College Fjord for for scenic viewing of the glaciers and I think it's gonna be amazing and totally different to anything I've seen so far in my travels. 

Cruise Tips and Links  
  • Cruise Critic provides information and reviews on cruising. I found it really helpful as it has detailed reviews of real people on cruises they went on and you can even find reviews on specific rooms!
  • Princess Cruises is the company I'm going with. They have very good reviews everywhere I looked and they have terrific customer service.
  • The price of the cruise on a specific ship depends on the room you take so if you don't plan on spending too much time in the room and you're not claustrophobic go for the interior room which is the cheapest. They seem to sell out first so don't leave it too late.
  • I noticed that a lot of people go on a cruise only and if you are one of these people, consider at least exploring the port cities where you start or/and end the cruise. Yes, you need to take a hotel room but you already pay so much for the flights, you may as well make the most of it, right? 

Excursion Tips and Links
  • In every port where the ship stops there are excursions to choose from. The price of the cruise doesn't include excursions which are expensive. With this said, you can still find something to match your interests and budget.
  • Excursions aren't compulsory and you DON'T have to book them through the cruise company. I found that the same excursions cost the same whether you book them through the ship or through the excursion provider but you can go to alternative excursion providers which are meant to be cheaper. 
  •  Alaska TourSaver is a book of deals which offers coupons of "two for the price of one". The cost of the book in $99.95 but it can save you a lot of money. You can see all the deals they offer on their website and then decide if you want the book or not. I read somewhere that some places accept a limited number of coupons per trip/excursion so make sure to book ahead!
  • Dog mushing is a popular activity in Alaska for tourists but to experience it you need to go in winter or in early spring. If you go to Fairbanks, this place seems to provide a good experience for a reasonable price. 

Northern Lights
Displays of the northern lights depend on the solar activity and therefore cannot be predicted. With this said, you can maximise your chances of seeing the northern lights by knowing where and when are the best places and times to go. 

Months: The best months to see the northern lights are March and September because this is when there are frequent displays, longer nights, clear sky and mild whether. The longest nights are in winter though so if you're not scarred of the cold, the winter months are a good option too.   
Time of month: The best time of the month is around the New Moon as those nights are the darkest. Check out this website for moon and sun rise and set times in Fairbanks. 
Best time of the day: "...peak auroral activity is between 10pm and 2am solar time. Solar time is 2.5 hours after clock time during daylight saving time (April through October) and 1.5 hours after during standard daylight time (November through March). That means the best time for seeing the aurora during Alaska’s winter is 11:30pm-3:30 am with the peak at 1:30am. During Alaska’s spring and fall (September and March), the best time to view the aurora is 12:30am-4:30am, with the peak falling at 2:30am.Link to source.

Northern lights can be seen best within the Aurora Oval which covers a fair bit of Alaska so you have a few Alaskan destinations to chose from. Fairbanks, where I am going, is the most popular place for aurora viewing and for a good reason. While it's not at the best position within the Aurora Oval, it's the most accessible destination which also makes it the cheapest. Destinations that are closer to the arctic are better for aurora viewing but are harder to get to so you'll have to fly and since they are so remote there aren't many places to stay at meaning less competition and more $$$ for you to pay. If you have the budget, go for it, I'm sure it will be a very special experience!

Northern lights are seen when it's dark so you need to be away from light pollution. If going to Fairbanks, there are two, well actually three, options for you to consider to get away from the light pollution of the city:
  • Staying a distance away from FairbanksThere are a few lodges and B&B places away from the city lights and are a good option for seeing the northern lights in the comfort of your room. This option is likely to require a rental car, which is not a bad thing. There isn't that much to do and see in Fairbanks so you may want to travel around to places like Denali National Park and 
    Chena River State Recreation Area. A rental is likely to be cheaper and definitely more convenient than worrying and paying for transport. 
  • Night tours. There are companies that do organised northern lights viewing tours. They pick you up from a hotel in Fairbanks, take you to a good location for aurora viewing and after a few hours take you back. 
  • Go out of town on your own. You can stay in Fairbanks and drive away from the light pollution on your own but I wouldn't recommend this option for all the obvious reasons. 

Northern Lights Tips and Links:
  • Aurora forecast from the University of Alaska.
  • Trip Advisor is where you can find reviews and rating on accommodation, touristy locations and more. Just go to the search bar and type or paste whatever you're looking for. 
  • Aurora Borealis Lodge is one of the popular and recommended placed to stay for northern lights viewing. The main advantage of this place, other than the great location, is the aurora altars. You get a walkie-talkie and they let you know when there is a display. They are very popular so book as early as possible. They also do night tours in you decide to stay in Fairbanks. 
  • Northern Sky Lodge is a Bed and Breakfast which has rooms facing the north and are good for aurora viewing. They got great reviews everywhere I looked and the prices are cheap!

There isn't much to do in Fairbanks so while you might enjoy aurora displays at night, you are risking being very bored during the day. I spent lots of time looking for activities and places to see as there aren't many...

  • Fairbanks official website is where you can find events during the time you're visiting Fairbanks. Well, actually they have a fair bit of info on the website but this is what I found it most useful for.
  • Chena River State Recreation Area is a park so should be good for hiking, enjoying the scenery, spotting wildlife and just relaxing.
  • Chena Hot Springs are located near the Chena River State Recreation Area and I guess you could make a day out of visiting both. The entry to the springs pool is only $10 per person for the whole day but they seem to charge extra for lockers and towels so keep that in mind if traveling on a budget. There is also an Ice Museum but entry is at extra charge, of course...
  • Creamer's Refuge is another park not far from Fairbanks. I couldn't find much information about it but if you enjoy outdoors, it seems like a reasonable destination.   
  • Markets. There are a few markets in Fairbanks during different days of the week and they might be an interesting way to get a feel for Alaska town life. One is Tanana Valley Farmer’s Market and the other is Downtown Market
  • Antique Auto Museum has good reviews and seems to be worth the visit if you like cars. I do!
  • Museum of the North seems pretty popular and although I don't plan on going there, this is another attraction for you to consider.
  • Denali National Park and Preserve is another popular destination about 2.5 hours drive from Fairbanks. If you have the time you might want to stay in a lodge inside or around the park. Here you can see all the available lodges and their operation seasons. Camp Denali & North Face Lodge come very recommended but they have a short operating season so unfortunately we're not going there and will probably only have a day trip to Denali. 

I put a lot of effort and time in writing any kind of guides and tips in my blog so if you have friends who might be interested in any of them, including this guide to planning a trip to Alaska, please share them via Facebook, email etc.

Thanks for reading!

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