For our Great Alaskan Adventure, planning started more than two years in advance of our trip. This was essential for many reasons, not the least of which was the tight coordination necessary to make the RV arrangements work out. Additionally, once dates were set, we were ready to await the availability for frequent flier tickets on Delta . . . right in the middle of their program consolidation with Northwest Airlines. ACK – that was not fun!
Once the RV arrangements were set and the airline tickets "purchased" ($10 + 42,500 miles each for first class out and coach return), the next task would be to frame out the itinerary based on the activities we wished to do and the places we wanted to see. Putting these things together is like working an intricate jigsaw puzzle because Alaska is so vast in size and activities.
For David . . . fishing. For me . . . bears, bears and more bears! Of course, I also wanted to see glaciers, wildlife and the beautiful landscapes that my photojournalist friends have shared with me for more than three years. Yes, this was as much about photography as seeing and doing! David even bought a new camcorder just for this trip.
As we were putting together our list of things to see, we also had to figure out HOW we wanted to see them . . . on the ground, by boat, by plane? So many options . . . never enough money. Because the options in Alaska are really plentiful and relatively affordable, we were able to plan for a little bit of everything on this trip.
Trip Advisor is one of the best interactive travel sites out there. While I do love IgoUgo and have been fortunate to have my contributions recognized here, it is helpful to have the two-way dialogue regarding trip planning that Trip Advisor facilitates. The T/A advisors (known as "Destination Experts") for Alaska are some of the best in the entire Trip Advisor family. They are knowledgeable and patient, providing expert advice that could easily be sold on the open market for $50/hour. I only hope that our forums here at IgoUgo are able to continue to grow and develop into the invaluable resource that T/A is.
With planning comes choices, many of which you will need to hard-wire into your itinerary. This is important to understand as so many of the activities and attractions in Alaska are very limited in order to maintain the pristine aspects of the natural beauty and the balance of wildlife with tourism. Bear viewing activities are an example of something you will need to think about, plan and most likely make a commitment in advance with a significant deposit or payment in full in advance.
Flightseeing and wildlife cruises also require some forward planning, especially if you are planning to utilize one of the many discount coupons available through the Alaska Tour Savers or Northern Lights coupon books. At $100 and $50 respectively, these "entertainment type" books will more than pay for themselves on just one use. You should check out their websites in advance, however, to calculate the best value for what you are planning to do. This is especially important since several of the activity and tour operators participate in both . . . and yet some of the more premium (read "costly") activities only participate in one. For our trip, we were able to do well with the $50 Northern Lights book. The final count on our savings thanks to the Northern Lights book was $754.
A word to the wise is to be sure to buy your book early. There were a lot of people scrambling by the end of July and early August because the books were sold out. If your trip is late in the season, it is possible to pick up a used one on eBay but personally, I would not leave that to chance especially given the number of activities we planned using the Northern Lights book.
If your travel plans include hotel and/or rental cars, you will be best served to book those reservations as soon as you know your dates. Once we had our flights, I knew we would need a car and one night in a hotel on each end of our vacation while in Fairbanks. I booked both through AARP. I got a compact car for $19/night ($46 total for two days) and a decent room at the Comfort Inn for $72 +tax in October when rates are in the "off peak" mode. By the time our trip had arrived, the going rate on the car was $80/night and the hotel room was $189/night.
Reminds me of our trip back in 2006 when our four day rental in Anchorage was less than the single day rate by the time we traveled. BOOK EARLY and check rates often. Sometimes they do go down further and unless you’ve pre-bought your reservations (which are typically non-refundable), you have nothing to lose.
With the amount of monetary outlay we had in advance of the trip, mostly with prepaids and deposits, this was the first vacation that I’ve ever purchased travel insurance for. Given the current economy and the risk of employment in today’s world, I opted for a plan that included employment issues so that we’d be fully protected. Shopping with www.insuremytrip.com, I found a great plan with TravelGuard for about $157 to protect the $2,000 investment we had made. The policy was purchased at the time that the deposits and advance payments were made, roughly 10 months in advance of the trip.
Do not underestimate the amount of time and attention to itinerary planning will need. For me, at times during the months leading up to our trip, it became an obsession of tweaks and improvements. Every time I read someone’s trip report or blog from their Alaskan adventure, I wanted to see how I could include "just one more thing" into the schedule. With about five weeks to go until our trip, I think the tweaking was done . . . and all that was left to do was get on a plane!