It’s no secret that Alaskans appreciate their private vehicles. As a result, in many parts of the state good public transportation is not really an option. For visitors looking to enjoy Alaska overland, renting a car is often the best solution.
Why rent a car
The advantages are many: no need to plan your trip according to rigid train or bus schedules, and it’s your choice when and where to stop. Most roads are well maintained, although you should probably take potential construction delays into account when planning your day.
Gravel road restrictions
All the big rental brands are available in Alaska, and they usually operate large and new fleets. If you plan on driving some of Alaska’s unpaved roads (Denali Hwy or the Mccarthy Road, for example) you should be aware that the big rental companies won’t allow their vehicles on these roads. While driving these roads is not risky or complicated, rental companies just don’t want to deal with the wear & tear.
A good solution for this problem is to rent through one of the local rental companies. Local companies will usually be more expensive, but their fleets consist of SUVs and pickups, and you won’t have to deal with road restrictions. In any case, make sure you read the contract and clarify this issue before you book your rental.
Gas prices in Alaska are not cheap. While prices in the big cities are reasonable, they could double in remote areas of the state.
Where to rent
Almost all the rental companies have branches in Anchorage, especially in Ted Stevens International Airport; some will also have branches in the city. Many companies also have presence in Fairbanks and Juneau. Few companies have branches in Seward, Whittier and Skagway. Keep in mind that due to the big distances, one-way rentals are not always allowed and may add a major extra cost.
Ferries: Alaska Marine Highway System
Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) is the Alaskan government-owned ferry service. It is a vital service for coastal towns that are not connected to the road system, and many Alaskans use them regularly and depend on them for regular supplies. Ferries tend to fill up fast and rates go up as space goes down, so early bookings are highly recommended – especially if you board a vehicle.
Ferries are fairly priced; boarding a vehicle can save you some long distance driving; if you want to save money or to socialize, the long route ferries have solariums where folks are welcome to claim an open-air sunbed under a heated ceiling (fun!); some ferries will even allow you to pitch a tent on deck; and above all – this is Alaska, and ferry routes almost always offer fantastic scenery.
The state of Alaska went through a major financial crisis as oil prices crashed in the late 2010’s. As part of a the government cutback efforts, AMHS funding was severely slashed. As a result, a number of boats had to be retired, service frequency went down, and the remaining fleet faces mechanical issues more often. Generally speaking AMHS ferries are still a reliable option, but keep in mind:
1) Most ferries don’t run every day, so you need to plan your itinerary around the ferry schedule.
2) In case of a mechanical breakdown, a worker’s strike or maybe high seas (happens, but rare), a ferry cancellation could have a pretty big impact on your itinerary.
The train system in Alaska is an interesting option. Train tickets are not cheap, but unlike the ferries, Alaska Railroad offers a service which is mostly tourism-minded. The two main lines connect Anchorage and Fairbanks (via Denali), and Anchorage with Seward. Alaskan trains are definitely not the fastest mean of transportation in Alaska; that said, Alaska Railroad offers great service, great food and great views, especially on Gold Star class, where train cars have glass ceilings.
The Anchorage – Fairbanks route is called The Denali Star. On its way to Fairbanks the train stops in a number of stations in the Mat-Su Valley, then in Talkeetna and Denali. It takes about 7.5 hrs to reach Denali, and the full Anchorage – Fairbanks trip takes almost 12 hours to complete.
The Anchorage – Seward line is called The Coastal Classic, and it also stops in Girdwood on its way to Seward. Once past Portage, the railroad veers away from the Seward highway and follows a beautiful route along the Chugach mountains, where a number of glaciers can be seen. It takes a little over 4 hours to make the journey each way. The train departs Anchorage in the morning and returns to Anchorage at night, so technically you could make it a day trip to Seward (although Seward is beautiful and if you have the time it’s best to spend at least one night there).
If you want to use the train as a day tour and not just as a transportation mode, the best option is most likely the Glacier Discovery route. This train doesn’t have a Gold Star service, but it does offer some great touring opportunities. The Glacier Discovery stops briefly in Girdwood, Portage (allowing passengers to visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center), Whittier, then returns to Portage. The next stop is the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop, a developed backcountry area at the Chugach National Forest Service. Passengers can get off the train here and go on a variety of backcountry trips (anything from easy hiking to kayaking to ice climbing); passengers that stay on the train enjoy a scenic section along the Bartlett Glacier and Trail Glacier, then turn around at the last stop, Grandview. On the way back, Grandview and Spencer passengers can choose to disembark at Portage for a bus transfer to Girdwood or Anchorage, saving a return trip through Whittier (and about 2 ½ hours of travel time).