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Note: All travel is subject to frequently-changing governmental restrictions—please check federal, state, and local advisories before scheduling trips.

This summer could turn out to be an optimal year for travelers with an adventurous spirit looking to visit Alaska. Although the Alaska cruise season has been effectively scrapped for a second year in a row due to Canada banning ships with more than 250 passengers from its waters and ports until February 2022, there’s no need to join a crowded mega-cruise to visit The Last Frontier.

There are a variety of ways to weave together an enviable vacation sampling the state’s pristine National Parks and glacier-laden coasts. Plus, this summer you could essentially have these expansive settings all to yourself, since large cruise ships won’t be offloading passengers into them.

RELATED: 4 essential stops for the Alaska trip of a lifetime

“You can create an independent mix-and-match visit to cities and places by renting a car and driving, taking interior flights or riding the railroad,” says Laurel Brunvoll, owner and president of Unforgettable Trips, a full-service travel agency.

You’d also be helping an economy that’s already hurting. Many of Alaska’s businesses rely on cruise ship passengers during its small tourism window, which runs from May to September. As we begin to safely emerge from the pandemic, these businesses are eager to welcome travelers from near and far.

“That’s what we’re hearing the most from member businesses: how important it is to get that word out that Alaska is open and welcomes independent travelers,” says Alaska Travel Industry Association’s CEO and President Sarah Leonard. “Getting around Alaska, because it’s such a large state, is an opportunity in itself. There’s always a scenic journey involved.”

Flights to Alaska

Use Anchorage or Fairbanks as your base to explore the state. Alaska Airlines, which services the state from across the U.S., has introduced new nonstop service to Anchorage from Las Vegas, Denver, San Francisco, and Phoenix. This is in addition to its other nonstop-to-Anchorage departure cities: Los Angeles, Chicago, Portland, Seattle, Honolulu, and Maui. United, American and Delta also offer nonstop flights to Anchorage and Fairbanks from across the U.S.

Car rentals

It’s worth having a rental car, if only for Denali National Park (find great car deals here). It’ll give you the freedom to make stops as often as you wish, allowing you to explore the park with greater flexibility. And in a state like Alaska, where unscripted stops and encounters in nature can make for the best memories, you might want to include this option in your vacation budget.

Alaska Marine Highway System

If you’re a traveler with a DIY spirit, consider traveling around the state by boat via the Alaska Marine Highway System. It’s unaffected by the Canada ban and can afford you tons of flexibility and savings—especially if you plan ahead. The ferry can take you into popular cruise ports, such as Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan, as well as the less-crowded ones, such as Sitka and Prince William Sound. Sailings take about three to six hours, depending on your start and end destinations, and take you past some of Alaska’s most stunning scenery.

The Alaska Railroad

Alaska, rail travel, Denali

Photo: Courtesy Alaska Railroad / Dave Blazejewski

The Alaska Railroad is a state-owned railroad that can take you across the state. It’s up and running, and can whisk you from Fairbanks in the north to Seward in the south. Sit back, relax and take in the awesome views. The train can take you to more than 100 state and National Parks throughout Alaska—including Denali National Park and Chugach National Forest, neither of which are reachable by cruise ship.

Flightseeing

Experience mountains and glaciers from the sky. Alaska is the most “flight-friendly” state in the country, with six times as many pilots per capita as the rest of the U.S., and flightseeing tours here are one for the bucket list. Most outfitters offer day trips and overnight adventures, some of which might include fly-in fishing, bear viewing and glacier hikes. A popular option: Flying to Denali’s 20,000-foot summit, where you can circle the towering mountain for epic thrills and photographs.

Glacier and whale-watching excursions

Local glacier and wildlife cruises, many of which are family-run in Alaska, are a fantastic way to access Alaska’s most coveted scenery without being on a crowded cruise ship. You’ll get a much more intimate view of the towering ice walls this way, as some ships can get as close as 300 feet. Depending on from where you depart, daytrips run anywhere from 1 to 10 hours. (Purchase advance tickets for whale-watching and other tours here.)

Land-only tours

If piecing together a DIY itinerary isn’t your thing, consider joining an organized land tour. Brunvoll says stand-out Alaska tours worth checking out come from companies such as Tauck, Adventures by Disney, Globus, Natural Habitat Adventures and MT Sobek. Another option is the family-owned John Hall’s Alaska, which offers land-based small-group tours. It’s offering a new one for 2021: a 7-day Platinum Catamaran experience of Southeast Alaska by a privately chartered small vessel. You’ll explore Glacier Bay National Park, the historic gold rush town of Skagway, and more, with overnights in Juneau and Sitka.

Land-based tours by cruise line

Canada’s cruise ban has forced major cruise lines to pivot their offerings, with Holland America and Princess Cruises among those offering “Alaska Land” tours. These structured tours leverage their robust network of lodging and sightseeing assets. Options for this summer include 6- and 7-night escorted tours with a combination of rail and motor coach zipping guests between locales like Denali National Park, Kenai, Anchorage, and Fairbanks.

“These land tours would be great options for people who like the comfort and ease that a cruise brings,” says Chris Gray Faust, managing editor of Cruise Critic. “The cruise lines are very adept at moving people between the lodges, which are spread out around Alaska. They own a scenic train, for example, which brings people between Anchorage and Denali, which is an Alaska must-see. The lodges also have partnerships with local tour operators for all kinds of guided excursions. You can do many of your Alaska bucket-list experiences from the lodges—think flightseeing over Denali, going dog-sledding, or salmon fishing in an Alaskan river.”

Small ship cruises

If your heart’s set on cruising Alaska in 2021, you could look to a smaller cruise line that falls outside of the current restrictions imposed upon the large cruise lines and stays in Alaskan waters. Gray Faust says some of those options include: UnCruise Adventures, Alaskan Dream Cruises, American Cruise Lines, Lindblad Expeditions, and The Boat Company. Because of the limited occupancy on these ships, coupled with a high demand for Alaska, many of these sailings get booked early, but it’s worth checking for last-minute vacancies and cancellations.

“These small ship cruises are special in their own way,” Gray Faust says “Because of their size, they go into local towns and remote bays where you are surrounded by wilderness and wildlife. Instead of group excursions, you’re more likely to spend your days kayaking, hiking or learning about local culture. It’s an intimate experience focused on the outdoors, which we know has become a more popular option during the pandemic.”

Tagged: Alaska

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Erica Bray

Erica Bray

Erica is a practical free spirit who loves travel, yoga and ice cream. A Northwestern University-trained journalist with more than 15 years of experience straddling digital and broadcast media, Erica can be found doing handstands everywhere she travels -- even risking arrest in some cases. Learn about her at www.erica.media.

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