Transportation in Alaska

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  • Car Rental

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    A few important things about transportation in Alaska: First of all, people up here like their vehicles (usually a 4 wheel drive with a trailer and dog in the front seat), and don’t like to pay for anyone else’s transportation.

    Therefore public transportation is not a real option out here in most cases. Most of the roads are well maintained (no need for 4 wheel drive in the summer), but because the only season when work can be done on the roads is summer, delays could happen and should be expected – mostly in the inner parts of Alaska, towards Fairbanks or Yukon.

    Some dirt roads are worth the drive but you should take your time doing so; a – so you can take in the views and b- so you can pay attention to the potholes (especially after rain). Gas prices will be cheaper in Alaska than in Canada, and you should expect differences within Alaska as well. Cheapest prices are to be found in the cities and higher ones in the smaller more secluded towns.

    The main advantages in renting a car is the privacy – you don’t need to plan your trip according to anyone else’s schedule, you can stop when and where you want, and the cars are usually in good condition. Both in Alaska and the Rockies you can find large renting names such as Hertz, Budget, Avis, etc. – all have branches at the airport, so you can pick up your car right after you land.

    The problem with these companies is that none of them allow driving on roads that are not paved (some specifically state this, some mention that the insurance does not cover that kind of driving).

    Since there are some dirt roads you do not want to miss (mainly in McCarthy and Denali), this leaves 2 options: either you go ahead and ignore the warning, and drive very carefully, taking a big risk of driving without insurance (a bad idea in our opinion), or you find a companies that insures of road driving. There are a couple such companies, but remember that these are small companies, i.e their prices will be higher and their service in a case of car trouble will be limited comparing to what you’ll get from the bigger companies.

    Side Note – Renting a car in the US is cheaper than renting in Canada, and the rental planes are less attractive as well (in Canada). There are two ways of dealing with this: rent in the US travel into Canada (a little headache but some people do it), coming to peace with it and moving on with life.

  • Ferries

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    Alaska Marine Highway is the company that runs ferry services in Alaska. The ferries are not a tourist attraction but a public transportation service that the locals depend on. For this reason the ferries do not slowdown or stop near glaciers or marine animals – the most you can get is a remark by the captain if he sees anything interesting.

    On the other hand, prices are not too bad, you can take your car on board, and even though they don’t stop for views, these ferries pass through some of the best ones in Alaska. There are a couple of main routes: Whittier – Valdez/Cordova (passes through Prince William Sound), and Bellingham (Washington) – Skagway (Alaska) (across the Inner Passage). There is also a ferry to Kodiak Island, the Aleutian Islands and a number of other places, and once a month there is a ferry that leaves Whittier and travels to Washington.

    The main problem is that during the summer, these ferry rides fill up really fast and we really really (really) recommend that you book a ticket as much in advance as possible, especially if you are planning to take a car onboard.

  • Interior Flights

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    Seeing as there are a lot of locations in Alaska that are not connected to any road system, sometimes you must take a flight in a small airplane (usually a float plane). Most people try to avoid this because of the cost but some places like Katamai National Park are only reachable by plane (or boat).

    Some towns have regular flights operated by Alaska Airlines that use jet planes as well as small or float plane.

    Almost every town has an Air Taxi service that offer flights in smaller aircrafts, to nearby locations. Here are some companies that operate longer inner flights in Alaska:

    * Alaska Airlines / Horizon Air
    * Era Aviation
    * Frontier Alaska

  • Trains

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    The train system in Alaska is an interesting option, but more as an attraction then as a means of transportation. In southern Alaska (the Anchorage area) there are two main lines: Anchorage – Fairbanks (with a stop in Denali), and Anchorage – Seward (with some stops near Portage). This is definitely not the fastest way to travel (a train ride from Fairbanks to Anchorage can take nearly a whole day) but the views are great, the carriages are comfortable and some of them even have a glass ceiling so you don’t miss any of the landscape.

    The price is not cheap – a round trip from Anchorage to Seward costs 120$, and a round trip from Anchorage to Denali is around 235$. The train company also offers different types of trip and not just the train – dog sleds, rafting, cruises and others – be sure to check their website as there are good prices to be found.

    In south east Alaska there are a few other train routes you could take, including the White Pass & Yukon Route that leaves Skagway and crosses some impressive mountain ranges. Again, this is less a transportation mode and more an attraction. On the other hand, if you are a train (or mountain) enthusiast then why not.

  • Shuttles

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    The closest thing to a bus in Alaska is the service routes that operate between a number of cities during the summer. The target audience is usually young backpackers that want to save some money, and the routes operate between local tourist centers in Anchorage, Seward, Denali, Fairbanks and a couple more.

    The prices are not bad – a couple tens of dollars each way, the ride is usually fast and there is room for your backpack.

    * Parks Highway Express – Anchorage, Denali, Seward, Valdez and some spots in Yukon.
    * Alaska Yukon Trails – Between Alaska and Yukon destinations.
    * Alaska Transportation Group – Mainly transportations for before and after cruises; routes that connect Whittier to Anchorage or Seward.

  • Buying a car

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    If you’re in Alaska for a long stretch (let’s say 2-4 months), and you have the energy to spend on searching for a car and then selling it later, buying a car is worth looking into.

    It is pretty easy to find a decent car in Alaska, for around 2000$, and a pretty good one for 3500$ and up. The best, and some would say only, place to look is Craigslist. Advertising on Craigslist is free so this is also a good place to go to when looking to sell your car at the end of your trip.

    A little tip: People living in Alaska year round will usually prefer a 4X4 vehicle because of better traction in snow, and as a result, the Subaru Station is one of the most popular cars in Alaska, because it almost always comes with either 4X4 of AWD (All wheel drive). These are great cars, replacement parts are easily found, they don’t eat up to much gas and they are fairly easy to resell due to popularity.

    Some of the larger cities have car dealerships but if you are looking for good quality and prices, stick to Craigslist.

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