Planning a family vacation in Alaska

A family vacation in Alaska wasn’t exactly on my radar when my sister announced her engagement in the fall of 2012. But if you’re going to travel over 5,000 miles for a wedding, you might as well make a vacation of it. My sister, who’s lived in Anchorage for several years, and her Alaskan born and raised fiancé were our on-the-ground travel experts as we began to plan a two-week family vacation in “The Last Frontier.”

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Knowing almost zero about Alaska, we might as well have been planning a trip to Mongolia – they’re nearly the same size, and Mongolia’s not that much further away, relatively speaking. (Alaska’s about 2,000 miles closer if you were traveling from New York.) The comparison might seem like a stretch, but it turns out the two up-and-coming travel destinations actually have a lot in common: vast — and unforgiving — wilderness, geographic isolation, and a mysterious allure for adventurous travelers and/or reality T.V. fans.

But you won’t need a passport, vaccinations, or an interpreter on your Alaskan adventure. Just a good plan and some common sense, especially if you’re traveling with children.

Buying four airplane tickets was the first major hurdle. The most affordable fare, at around $600 each, zigzagged us from Boston to Dallas to Anchorage. We would leave Boston at the break of dawn and arrive in Anchorage around midnight EST, due to the five-hour time difference.

The ticket purchase was the easy part. Figuring out where to go, how to get there, and what to do along the way was a little more complicated. Alaska’s big —only 18 sovereign countries have more square mileage. But you can’t get to most of it, unless you travel via float plane; road access is extremely limited.

With the help of my sister and her fiancé, lots of online research, and a few travel books, we would eventually come up with a plan, and experience the family vacation of a lifetime. If you’re traveling to Alaska for the first time, or for the first time with kids in tow, here are a few things we learned along the way that might help you plan your trip:

When to go
July and early August are the best times to travel in Alaska, unless you’re planning a ski vacation. Our trip spanned the first three weeks in August, and we definitely noticed that the days were becoming noticeably shorter and the weather seemingly more unstable as August waned on.

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Where to go
Most Alaskan adventures begin in Anchorage, the largest city and airport in the state. From there, and depending upon how long you’ll be staying, you’ll either head north or south.

We spent our first week on the Kenai Peninsula, which begins about an hour’s drive south of Anchorage. Many people, and I would agree, feel this is the most scenic part of the state. The unique combination of mountains, glaciers, rivers, shoreline, and working seaports are a microcosm of everything that’s spectacular about Alaska —all within a few hours’ drive. So if you only have a week, I’d recommend zeroing in on this area.

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Traveling north from Anchorage, Denali National Park is probably about the furthest point along the Parks Highway — the main north-south artery — as you’ll want to go. We drove as far north as Healy, where the famed “Into the Wild” magic bus is parked. But the landscape, which changes dramatically after Denali, was lackluster after visiting points south. We were tight on time and decided not to make the relatively long trek to Fairbanks.

How to get around
We decided early on that renting an RV was the best bet for our family; it would be cheaper than paying for both a rental car and lodging, but more importantly, an RV would give us the freedom and flexibility to be masters of our own fate on the road. And this definitely came in handy. The weather is so erratic in Alaska; it might be pouring rain south of Anchorage and blue skies just 30 miles north. So we could decide on the fly where we wanted to spend the night and how long we wanted to stay.

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Where to rent? After hunting around online for reputable RV rental companies, we settled on Great Alaskan Holidays, and had a great experience. They bring in a new rental fleet every spring, so our 25-foot Winnebago, perfect for a family of four, had only been used a few times and was stocked with everything we’d need on the road, from linens to pots and pans.

What does it cost? You can pay per mile or for unlimited mileage, if you’re planning to cover some serious ground. We went with the pay-per-mile plan. Our two-week rental ran around $2,400 including taxes, plus gas at over $4 a gallon. We spent about $400 in fuel.

Where to stay
Everything in Alaska is expensive, including lodging. And there’s not much of it. Once you leave Anchorage, you could drive 100 miles and never see a motel. Because there aren’t a lot of options, you need to book your accommodations well in advance, especially if you want to stay at one of the more upscale fishing lodges. That’s another reason we decided to go with an RV, and we weren’t alone. RVing is extremely popular in Alaska, and not just for tourists. If you talk to locals, you’ll find that many of them leave the main hub of Anchorage on Friday afternoons and head to remote locales (and you needn’t go far to find them) in their RVs for the weekend. There were a lot of RVs on the road.

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We’re enthusiastic tent campers, and so didn’t know much about RVing before our trip. An important distinction: RVing in Alaska is not like RVing in “the lower 48.” You can set up camp pretty much anywhere, as long as you’re not on private land. Alaskans call this “boon docking.” Since you’re not relegated to traditional RV parks, RVing can be a fairly primitive experience. Although most Alaskans keep their boon-docking spots close to the vest, for obvious reasons, you can’t help but stumble upon some pretty amazing pull-offs as you’re cruising around the state.

Aside from these roadside pull-offs, you’ll also find a number of state-managed campgrounds (essentially scenic parking lots), where you pay a nightly fee of $10 or so to park. There’s usually a bathroom, but no hookups. We stayed in some incredibly scenic spots. However, most nights we opted for the state parks, which offer more secluded sites where we felt like we were actually camping and not just waiting out the night. Most of the state parks don’t have full hookups, but they have dump stations to offload your “grey” and “black” water and usually (but not always) a hose to fill your reservoir with fresh water. We spent a few nights in RV parks with partial hook-ups — water, but not sewer. But we stayed clear of the parks with full hookups, which tended to be overcrowded and in less desirable locales.

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What to bring
The weather wasn’t exactly summery. In fact, my sister delivered an emergency supply of down jackets, wool hats, sophisticated rain gear, and Goretex gloves, when I realized on day three that we were ill prepared for the damp, cool weather. From my experience, summer in Alaska is more like October or November in New England. But then again, the week before we got there it was sunny and 80-plus degrees. You never know, so you better come prepared for anything. Think waterproof and warm. Oh, and don’t forget to bring plenty of bug spray and a few bear bells (the threat is real) to attach to your shoes. We carried a can of bear spray in our backpack, as well. It pays to be prepared in Alaska.

For a comprehensive list of fun things to do and places to visit on your Alaskan adventure, see our related post: Top 15 family adventures in Alaska.

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