Alaska checks all the boxes for COVID-safe travel, with wide-open spaces for easy social distancing, a sense of true escape and the assurance of traveling domestically.
But Alaska presents two distinct hurdles to independent travelers: how to plan a trip in a state the size of Texas, California and Montana combined; and how to do it affordably.
One way to save is to travel in the shoulder season, September or next May. The following are other strategies designed to help you save money, time and frustration.
The 10-day sweet spot
Most of the travelers jamming the phones at Anchorage-based Alaska Tour & Travel have seven days for their trip.
"Generally, our recommendation is to stay as long as you can because it takes a while to get around here," said Richenda Sandlin-Tymitz, marketing and content manager for the company. "With seven days, we like to focus on two major destinations."
Touching down in Anchorage, that could be Denali National Park north for mountains and Seward to the south for coastal wildlife and fjords. She called 10 days the "sweet spot" for Alaska vacations, allowing travelers to add a side trip to more remote places like Valdez on Price William Sound or Homer on the tip of Kenai Peninsula.
A moderate six-day trip, she estimated, would run between $1,500 and $2,000 a person, excluding flights.
"You have to narrow your focus when you come to Alaska," said Lisa Maloney, author of the guidebook "Moon Alaska." "One of the biggest surprises people have is that you can't get from point A to point B without driving six to eight hours or hopping on a jet plane or taking a three-day ferry ride."
Many travel planners recommend starting with one or two splurges — things you don't want to miss — like bear viewing, flight-seeing tours or visiting glaciers, which helps narrow your choices.
With airlines increasing flights to Alaska, competition is expected to keep fares low. Delta, Sun Country and Alaska Airlines all debuted or expanded nonstop service from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Anchorage this year. Delta and Sun Country also increased service from MSP to Fairbanks.
Large cruise ships are set to return to Alaska in late July and August. But for those who want to get on the water, Alaska's car ferries provide a very basic version of a do-it-yourself cruise.
Because of pandemic-related capacity restraints and budget shortfalls, the Alaska Marine Highway System will run just six of its 10 vessels, impacting schedules in more than 30 coastal communities from Bellingham, Wash., to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands.
That means if you get to Ketchikan and want to spend time before moving on, you'll likely wait a week for the next ferry north. Or you could jet ahead to Juneau after a few days (from $103 one way on Alaska Airlines) and then catch the ferry to Haines or Skagway (Juneau to Haines, a 3 ½-hour trip, was $58 in early June).
Car, bus, train or plane?
Among the many modes of land transportation in Alaska, interior flights are expedient, trains are scenic, buses are a relative bargain, and driving may be more economical for a group.
If you fly into Anchorage or Fairbanks, you're in what's known as the "railbelt" of Alaska, served by the Alaska Railroad, which also runs south to Seward. Travelers can upgrade to domed cars for best viewing to Seward on the railroad's GoldStar Service ($224 one way from Anchorage in early June, compared with $113 in regular cars) or to Denali with the private Wilderness Express service ($249 from Anchorage, vs. $176).
A Park Connection bus between Denali and Anchorage costs $100 one way in summer.
Like other parts of the country, Alaska is experiencing a rental car crunch resulting in higher rates, nearly double statewide compared with 2019, according to Kayak.
"All over the USA, we're seeing elevated car rental prices, but it can still be cheaper than piecing together train and motorcoach combinations, particularly if you're more than two travelers," said Anna Harrison, owner of the agency Travel Observations in Pittsburgh.
Rental cars, however, are hard to find this summer. Clicking around the Avis Alaska site for a rental car, I couldn't find a weeklong rental, a compact for $473, until late August.
Day trips vs. road trips
Two more ways to save include basing yourself in Anchorage, which has a range of accommodations, and doing day trips, or renting a car, camper van or RV.
"Anchorage is great as a base for those who are short on time and who don't like moving around each night," Harrison said, noting that travelers looking to use loyalty points or miles are more likely to be able to do so in the city.
If you're set on leaving the big city, bundle transportation and shelter in an RV. Great Alaskan Holidays has RVs from about $210 a night for a week in early June.
Alaska also offers many affordable public-use cabins managed by state parks and federal agencies. The U.S. Forest Service, for example, offers cabin rentals in the Tongass and the Chugach national forests. In some cases, you may have to arrange floatplane transportation, but the lodging is rugged, and the rates are often rock bottom, including $60 a night at Wilson View Cabin on a lake near Ketchikan. (Taquan Air prices this charter flight at $1,850 for four people.)
Go off the beaten path
Alaska may be a bucket-list destination for many. But here's a radical approach: Don't try to do it all. Travel less ambitiously, and spend more time in a more remote town like Homer or Valdez, places with plenty of outdoor appeal and relative affordability.
Valdez is "an indie traveler mecca," said Colleen Stephens, president of Stan Stephens Glacier & Wildlife Cruises in Valdez. The influx of independent travelers this year is somewhat curtailed by the border closing with Canada, but, she added, "at least this year we're able to open the doors and operate."
Cruises on ships up to 90 feet with ample open-viewing decks cost $140 for a six-hour itinerary and $170 for an eight-hour tour, both cruises visiting area glaciers and looking for sea otters, whales and puffins en route.
Among affordable lodging options in Valdez, Eagle's Rest RV Park has cabins from $145 and, new this summer, glamping tents from $85.
Airbnb can be a good alternative for saving money in some communities, but some listings may be "dry," or without running water, in which case, Maloney said, you'll be using an outhouse, which is a part of the quintessential Alaska experience.
The Star Tribune contributed to this report.