Though journeying through Canada on the Alaska Highway can be exciting, the trek from the Lower 48 states is a long one. It's a seven-day trip from Seattle to Anchorage or Fairbanks, covering close to 2,500 miles. From Bellingham, Washington, and the Canadian ports of Prince Rupert and Stewart you can link up with ferry service along the Marine Highway to reach Southeast Alaska.
The Alaska Highway (known by locals as "the Alcan") begins at Dawson Creek, British Columbia, and stretches 1,442 miles through Canada's Yukon to Delta Junction; it enters Alaska east of Tok. The two-lane highway is paved for its entire length and is open year-round. Highway services are available about every 50 to 100 miles (sometimes at shorter intervals). But there are stretches where gas stations are sparser or open at limited hours, and areas where cell phone service is nonexistent, so planning ahead is crucial.
The rest of the state's roads are found almost exclusively in the Southcentral and Interior regions. They lie mainly between Anchorage, Fairbanks, and the Canadian border. Only one highway extends north of Fairbanks, and one runs south of Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula. These roads vary from four-lane freeways (rare) to nameless two-lane gravel roads.
If you plan extensive driving in Alaska, join an automobile club such as AAA that offers towing and other benefits. Because of the long distances involved, you should seriously consider a plan (such as AAA Plus) that extends towing benefits to 100 miles in any direction.
The Milepost is indispensable. The mile-by-mile guide to sights and services along Alaska's highways is available for purchase online, or downloadable as an app or ebook.
The Alaska Department of Transportation is a great resource for road reports, rockfall alerts, and other advisories.
Alaska Department of Transportation. Alaska. 511; 866/282–7577; 511.alaska.gov.
American Automobile Association. 800/222–4357; www.aaa.com.
The Milepost. 800/726–4707; www.themilepost.com.
Gas prices in the Anchorage area are usually higher than those in the Lower 48, and you can expect to pay even more in Juneau and Ketchikan, and far more in remote villages off the road network, where fuel must be flown in. Fuel prices in Canada along the Alaska Highway are also very high. Most stations are self-serve and take Visa and MasterCard; many also accept other credit cards and debit cards.
Many stations remain open until 10 pm, and in the larger towns and cities some stay open 24 hours a day. Most are also open on weekends, particularly along the main highways. In the smallest villages gas may be available only on weekdays, but these settlements typically have only a few miles of roads.
Driving in Alaska is much less rigorous than it used to be, although it still presents some unusual obstacles. Road construction sometimes creates long delays, so come armed with patience and a flexible schedule. Also, frost damage creates dips in the road that require slower driving.
Moose often wander onto roads and highways. If you encounter one, pull off to the side and wait for the moose to cross. Be especially vigilant when driving at dusk or at night, and keep your eyes open for other moose in the area, since a mother will often cross, followed by one or two calves.
Flying gravel is a hazard along the Alaska and Dalton highways, especially in summer. A bug screen will help keep gravel and kamikaze insects off the windshield, but few travelers use them. Some travelers use clear, hard plastic guards to cover their headlights. (These are inexpensive and are available from garage or service stations along the major access routes.) Don't cover headlights with cardboard or plywood, because you'll need your lights often, even in daytime, as dust is thrown up by traffic in both directions.
Unless you plan to undertake traveling on remote highways (especially the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay), you won't need any special equipment. But be sure that the equipment you do have is in working condition, from tires and spares to brakes and engine. Carrying spare fuses, spark plugs, jumper cables, a flashlight with extra batteries, a tool kit, and an extra fan belt is recommended.
If you get stuck on any kind of road, be careful about pulling off; the shoulder can be soft. In summer it stays light late, and though traffic is also light, one of Alaska's many good Samaritans is likely to stop to help and send for aid (which may be many miles away). Studded tires are helpful and legal October through April, so ask your rental car agency if that upgrade is available. In winter, pack emergency equipment—a shovel, flashlight, tire chains, high-energy food, a sleeping bag, and extra clothing. Never head out onto unplowed roads unless you're prepared to walk back.
Alaska doesn’t ban talking on cell phones in cars and doesn’t require using a hands-free set; you just aren’t allowed to text. Check with your provider about service, though, as gaps in service, even on the road system, are the rule rather than the exception.
Rules of the Road
Alaska honors valid driver's licenses from any state or country. The speed limit on most highways is 55 mph, but much of the Parks Highway (between Wasilla and Fairbanks) and the Seward Highway (between Anchorage and Seward) is 65 mph. State troopers rigorously enforce these limits.
Unless otherwise posted, you may make a right turn on a red light after coming to a complete stop. Seat belts are required on all passengers, and children under age five must be in child safety seats.
On the twisty Seward Highway, you must drive with your headlights on at all times.
State law requires that slow-moving vehicles pull off the road at the first opportunity if leading more than five cars. This is particularly true on the Seward Highway, where RV drivers have a bad reputation for not pulling over. Alaskans don't take kindly to being held up en route to their favorite Kenai River fishing spot.
The secret to a successful RV trip to Alaska is preparation. Expect to drive on more gravel and rougher roads than you're accustomed to. Batten down everything; tighten every nut and bolt in and out of sight, and don't leave anything to bounce around inside. Travel light, and your tires and suspension system will take less of a beating. Protect your headlights and the grille area in front of the radiator. Make sure you carry adequate insurance to cover the replacement of your windshield.
Most of Alaska's public campgrounds accommodate trailers, but hookups are available only in private RV parks. Water can be found at most stopping points, but it may be limited for trailer use. Think twice before deciding to drive an RV or pull a trailer during the spring thaw. The rough roadbed can be a trial.
RV Rentals and Tours
ABC Motorhome Rentals. 907/279–2000; 800/421–7456; www.abcmotorhome.com.
Alaska Travel Adventures. 800/323–5757; 907/789--0052; www.bestofalaskatravel.com.
Clippership Motorhome Rentals. 907/562–7051; 800/421–3456; www.clippershiprv.com.
Fantasy RV Tours. 800/952–8496; www.fantasyrvtours.com.
GoNorth RV Camper Rental. 907/479–7272; 866/236–7272; www.gonorth-alaska.com.
Great Alaskan Holidays. 907/248–7777; 888/225–2752; www.greatalaskanholidays.com.
Rental cars are available in most Alaska towns; prices vary wildly. In Anchorage and other major destinations, expect to pay anywhere from $20 to $75 a day for an economy or compact car with automatic transmission and unlimited mileage. Some locally owned companies offer lower rates for older cars. Also, be sure to ask in advance about discounts if you have an AAA or Costco card, or are over age 50.
Rates can be substantially higher for larger vehicles, four-wheel-drive vehicles, SUVs, and vans. (Although the extra space for gear and luggage might be nice, note that you don't need four-wheel drive or an SUV to navigate Alaska highways.) Rates are also higher in small towns, particularly those off the road system in Southeast Alaska or the Bush. In addition, vehicles in these remote towns are typically several years old, and some would rate as "beaters."
You must be 21 to rent a car, and rates may be higher if you're under 25. When picking up a car, non-U.S. residents will need a reservation voucher, a passport, a driver's license (written in English), and a travel policy that covers each driver. Reserve well ahead for the summer season, particularly for the popular minivans, SUVs, and motor homes. A 10% state tax is tacked on to all car rentals, and there are also local taxes.
Be advised that most rental outfits don't allow you to drive on some of the unpaved roads such as the Denali Highway, the Haul Road to Prudhoe Bay, and the McCarthy Road. If your plans include any sketchy routes, make sure your rental agreement covers those areas.
If you own a car and carry comprehensive car insurance for both collision and liability, your personal auto insurance will probably cover a rental, but read your policy's fine print to be sure. If you don't have auto insurance, then you should probably buy the collision- or loss-damage waiver (CDW or LDW) from the rental company. This eliminates your liability for damage to the car.
Some credit cards offer CDW coverage, but it's usually supplemental to your own insurance and rarely covers SUVs, minivans, luxury models, and the like. If your coverage is secondary, you may still be liable for loss-of-use costs from the car-rental company (again, read the fine print). But no credit-card insurance is valid unless you use that card for all transactions, from reserving the vehicle to paying the final bill.
You may also be offered supplemental liability coverage; the car-rental company is required to carry a minimal level of liability coverage insuring all renters, but it's rarely enough to cover claims in a really serious accident if you're at fault.
U.S. rental companies sell CDWs and LDWs for about $20 to $30 a day; supplemental liability is usually more than $10 a day. The car-rental company may offer you all sorts of other policies, but they're rarely worth the cost. Personal accident insurance, which is basic hospitalization coverage, is an especially egregious rip-off if you already have health insurance.