There’s a lot going on in Alaska in 2013, says Lorene Palmer, director of economic development for Alaska’s Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, pointing to the 100th anniversary of the first ascent of Mount McKinley, the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Marine Highway System, the 30th running of the Yukon Quest sled dog race, and the 25th anniversary of the “Friendship Flight” from Nome to Provideniya, Siberia. And you already probably know that the Northern Lights displays are putting on (and will continue to put on) a fantastic show this year, as well. In fact, says Palmer, “No matter what time of year someone visits, there most likely will be something to celebrate in 2013.”
Tack on new accommodations, new product—both on land and at sea—and a landscape of ancient volcanoes, snow-capped mountains and towering glaciers that utterly amaze no matter how many times one visits, and there’s no denying Alaska has reason to look at 2013 as a banner year.
Tour operators have added exciting new itineraries to their already long list of Alaska programs, whether it’s a private plane excursion that allows for a truly adventurous experience in the wilds of Alaska or a birding expedition in the state’s parks and fjords.
Take Kensington Tours’ new 6-day, custom-designed Wild Sky Safari Adventure Alaska By Private Plane itinerary, which gives adventurers a bird’s-eye view of Alaska from their own private plane, and puts them up at Ultima Thule Lodge, nestled on the shores of the Chitina River deep in the heart of St. Elias National Park, 100 miles from any road. Clients will be able to go at their own pace as they set up unique adventures with expert wilderness guides. One day, they can go kayaking in glacier lakes and try their hand at salmon fishing, and the next day, go picnicking on icebergs or explore abandoned gold mines. Stress to clients that it’s the small bush plane they have access to that makes the difference, as it can land practically anywhere, which means they can be flown up into a mountain valley or put down on a sandbar at the edge of the forest. Rates start at $9,945 pp based on two to four persons, and includes pre-trip and private tours in Anchorage, all transfers, flights, fresh local cuisine and endless Alaska wilderness.
Alaska Wildland Adventures’ 8-day Alaska Coast to Denali Journey: Introduction to Birding program introduces guests to Alaska birding, teaching birding basics and how to spot, identify and classify various species in Kenai Fjords and Denali national parks. The itinerary also includes wildlife viewing and options for guided hikes, kayak trips and small boat explorations. Departure is on June 2 and rates are $4,395 pp.
Knightly Tours’ 9-day Bears, Mountain & Lodges tour, featured in Virtuoso’s The 2013 Collection, includes stays in private lodges in Denali National Park, and viewing, flightseeing and yoga on the Iditarod trail. The itinerary also includes visits to Alaska’s two largest cities, Anchorage and Fairbanks, and one of its most charming villages, Talkeetna. Departure dates are June through August, with rates from $5,999 pp.
Alaska Backcountry Adventure Tours, meanwhile, has new snowmobile tours in the Susitna Valley. They offer customizable, multi-day tours that explore the backcountry in the shadow of Mount McKinley and include overnights in area lodges and at a luxurious cabin.
For clients with a more FIT mindset, there are a slew of day programs you can set up, as well, including Rust’s Flying Service’s “a pilot for a day” option. On this tour, guests have their own experienced Alaska bush pilot as a personal tour guide for six hours. Palmer points to Seward’s Adventure Sixty North, LLC for its snow coach tours to the Exit Glacier area, a program they started in late 2012 on board a heated, 12-person snowcat. It’s important to note that this is a special excursion, as the tour outfitter is the only one in the state licensed to take snowcats into a national park. Or, for a truly once-in-a-lifetime trip, recommend Homer-based Bald Mountain Air’s excursions into Alaska’s Arctic Coast. Once there, guests will have the opportunity to observe polar bears in their natural habitat. Day trips depart from Anchorage on a 2-hour flight to the Native village of Kaktovik on Barter Island. Tours run from mid-September to late October.
Meanwhile, in the Inside Passage, there are tours for culinary and watersports aficionados. There’s water biking in a cove in Ketchikan with Alaska Sea Cycle Tours; beyond the water-bound adventure, guests will learn how Alaskans utilize the land and sea. Those with an appetite for seafood, should try out Alaskan Food Tours’ 3-hour culinary palate adventure that will take them through the streets of Juneau, where they’ll dine on everything from seafood to local desserts.
by rail & sea
“We recommend traveling Alaska by as many methods as possible: cruise ship, ferry, day boat, airplane (big and small), helicopter, Alaska Railroad,” says Palmer. “Each method of transportation allows visitors to see parts of Alaska they might otherwise miss and they can experience the state in a different way.”
With Alaska Railroad, your clients are going to have the option of seeing large swaths of Alaska with its myriad vacation packages, which range from five to 12 nights and from $1,799 to $5,439 pp. One option for first-time visitors to the state is the 5-day Taste of Alaska, which runs from May to September and includes all the must-do’s, including viewing the marine life and coastal mountains of Seward and the surrounding waters of Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords National Park, a flight around Mount McKinley, and a jet boat tour of The Devil’s Gorge. It’s the bucket list for Alaska. Departure dates run June 1 to Aug. 31 2013; rates are $1,689 pp ($899 per child) on the Adventure Class.
Or, tell clients to heed Palmer’s advice and use up only a couple of days of their vacation on the train with the company’s 2-day Real Alaska tour, available May-September. It is said to be the most scenic rail ride of the entire 470-mile line. Passengers will visit a working sled dog operation, learn about what goes into preparing for the Iditarod, and have the opportunity to enjoy a sled dog ride of their own. There’s also a tour of Exit Glacier and lunch at an Alaska roadhouse. Cost is $589 pp ($259 per child) on the Adventure Class. Ask about Alaska Railroad’s savings in May and September.
Additionally, travel agents are welcome to try the product themselves: Mid-May through mid-September, travel agents and one companion may take one roundtrip ride per train on the Alaska Railroad at 60 percent off the full retail adult fares on the Denali Star, Coastal Classic, and Glacier Discovery trains (all non-rail tours and hotels will be sold at the best available rate).
Gray Line of Alaska, too, offers myriad rail vacation packages, including the 6-day Denali-Prince William Sound Explorer that includes a day at Denali National Park including a Tundra Wilderness Tour and discovering gold in Fairbanks, among other highlights. Clients will be able to view tidewater glaciers and marine wildlife on a day cruise of Prince William Sound. Rates are $1,599 pp dbl during value season (May 14-31; Sept. 1-11) and $1,725 during peak season (June 1-Aug. 31).
Cruise lines are also not shy about new product offerings in Alaska. Holland America Line, for example, is expanding its Alaska program with four new 10- to 20-day roundtrip Seattle CruiseTours, offering guests the convenience of combining an Inside Passage cruise with an in-depth overland tour via motorcoach. Rates start at $1,899 pp dbl.
In 2014, Disney Cruise Line will sail 7-night cruises from Vancouver to Tracy Arm, Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan, and there’s even a 9-night cruise that will call on Sitka, a first for the cruise line. Of course, if it’s Disney you know your clients’ kids will be well taken care of, and that means exclusive-to-Disney family-friendly Port Adventures. Rates for a standard inside stateroom start at $1,015 pp dbl for the 7-night cruise; $1,305 for the 9-night cruise.
Alaskan Dream Cruises, whose slogan is “True Alaska with True Alaskans,” will introduce a new vessel, the Baranof Dream, and a new 11-day itinerary with three departures (May 23; June 30; Aug. 24) in 2013. The 62-passenger Baranof Dream sails on the new 11-day Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof Explorer itinerary, an expanded version of the 8-day Alaska’s Glacier Bay and Island Adventure. The new program adds two days exploring eastern Chichagof Island near Point Adolphus and eastern Baranof Island near Red Bluff Bay.
spotlight on accommodations
Here’s a rundown on Alaska lodging and experiences:
Tsaina Lodge: Located in Thompson Pass, this lodge, closed for six years and rebuilt in the fall of 2011 under new ownership, opened during the 2012 heli-ski season. It has 16 single rooms with queen-size bed and private bath; eight double rooms with two queen-size beds and private bath; ski-gear storage room with boot/glove dryers; and WiFi throughout, among other amenities.
Tonglen Lake Lodge: Located just seven miles south of the entrance to Denali National Park, this lodge is set to open in May. It will have 10 private cabins, featuring hand-made furniture and locally made metalwork and glass.
Pearson’s Pond Luxury Inn: This Juneau luxury inn is offering a new tour to Hoonah for its guests. The day trip will include airfare and transportation to a Native village for bear viewing and a ride on the world’s longest and highest ZipRider zipline at Icy Strait Point.
alaska, there’s more to it than glaciers
“First-time travelers often arrive with a checklist to see glaciers, wildlife, Mount McKinley and often times to go fishing,” says Palmer. “Some travelers may be surprised at the accessibility of Alaska’s history and culture. The 2011 Alaska Visitor Statistics Program showed that the most popular activities visitors participated in were shopping, wildlife viewing, cultural activities (this includes museums, Native cultural tours and gold panning tours), sightseeing tours, train rides and hiking/nature walks, to name a few.”
Here’s a breakdown of what not to miss:
- Enjoy one of Alaska’s farmers markets: There are 45 sprinkled throughout the state; roughly half are located in the south-central region.
- All that glitters is indeed gold: Nome is the place to be if it’s gold your clients are on the hunt for. Akau Alaska Gold and Resort can set up gold prospecting tours of historic mines. In Fairbanks, meanwhile, the Gold Dredge 8 gold mining tour has opened, taking guests aboard a narrow-gauge rail train from a viewpoint of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and traveling to the historic gold dredge. There’s also a visit to goldfields and panning for gold.
- Northern Lights: The best time to view the Northern Lights, or Aurora, is from December to March because the nights are longest and the sky darkest. In fact, according to the Fairbanks Convention & Visitors Authority, if vacationers stay three nights in Fairbanks, they’ll have an 80 percent chance of seeing them.
Alaska Airlines is now offering twice-daily flights between Anchorage and Salt Lake City. JetBlue will add a Seattle to Anchorage service beginning May and United Airlines has announced plans for a new seasonal nonstop service between Fairbanks and Chicago beginning in June.
get the facts
Target clientele: According to the 2011 Alaska Visitor Statistics Program, the typical Alaska traveler is, on average, 51 years old. There’s a pretty equal split between men and women. About 40 percent are retired or semi-retired and about 60 percent have earned a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Their average household income is about $100,000.
Average vacation cost for a family of four traveling to Alaska: Based on average trip costs reported in the 2011 Alaska Visitors Statistics Program, a week-long trip in Alaska for a family of four is estimated at $2,856 ($102 pp per night).
Best time to visit: Alaska is a year-round destination. The peak season for visiting Alaska tends to fall from mid-May to mid-September, where the days are longest and the temperatures are warmer. The shoulder seasons, in early May and late September and October, typically have fewer visitors, a more mild temperature and discounts on lodging and activities. The winter season, from November to April, is becoming an increasingly popular travel time for visitors who enjoy winter sports, such as downhill or cross-country skiing, heli-skiing, dog mushing, and snowmobiling. It’s also ideal for Northern Lights viewing, and events, such as the famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the World Ice Art Championships.
Travel trade: The State of Alaska provides a range of resources for travel agents, including marketing collateral, an image library, newsletters and an educational training program, as well as FAMs. You can find more information on travelalaska.com/Travel%20Trade.
Akau Alaska Gold and Resort: (866) 431-8541; akaugold.com
Alaska Backcountry Adventure Tours: (800) 478-2506; youralaskavacation.com
Alaskan Dream Cruises: (855) 747-8100; alaskandreamcruises.com
Alaskan Food Tours: (855) 780-FOOD; alaskanfoodtours.com
Alaska Railroad: alaskarailroad.com (travel agents: to access the trade-specific section on the website, click on “travel” and then “travel trade”)
Alaska Sea Cycle Tours: alaskaseacycletours.com
Alaska Wildland Adventures: (800) 334-8730; alaskawildland.com
Bald Mountain Air: (800) 478-7969; baldmountainair.com
Disney Cruise Line: (800) 951-3532; disneycruise.disney.go.com or disneytravelagents.com
Fairbanks Convention & Visitors Authority: (800) 327-5774; explorefairbanks.com or explorefairbanks.com/go/information/travel-professionals/39
Gold Dredge 8: (888) 479-6673; golddredge8.com
Gray Line of Alaska: (888) 425-1737; graylinealaska.com or grayline.com/alaska/industrytrade.cfm (travel agent login)
Holland America Line: (800) 426-0327; hollandamerica.com
Kensington Tours: (888) 903-2001; kensingtontours.com or kensingtontours.com/agents/fit/Login.aspx
Knightly Tours: (800) 426-2123; knightlytours.com or knightlytours.com/ta.htm (travel agent login)
Pearson’s Pond Luxury Inn: pearsonspond.com
Rust’s Flying Service: (800) 544-2299; flyrusts.com or flyrusts.com/rusts-agents-info.html
Seward’s Adventure Sixty North, LLC: adventure60.com
State of Alaska Tourism Office: travelalaska.com
Tonglen Lake Lodge: tonglenlake.com
Tsaina Lodge: tsaina.com