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Alaska is one of the most beautiful places in the world, but when is the best time to visit Alaska?
Some of the most beautiful vistas, wildlife, and seascapes are available from the 49th State, Alaska.
Roughly one third of the entire United States, Alaska is separated from the continental United States (the lower 48) by Canada, specifically, the province of British Columbia. Most Americans view the map with Alaska on the Pacific ocean to the left (west) at the edge of the map and Russia to the right (east) however, just 50 miles separates the two super powers at the Aleutian Islands.
This is your complete guide to visiting Alaska.
When is the Best Time to Go On a Vacation in Alaska?
Alaska is cold year round but not as chilly as most would suspect. In fact, in the summer, Alaska can reach the mid 60s (F) on a fairly routine basis. While hardly tropical, the state has even seen temperatures of as high as 90 degrees in recent years.
Most Americans would consider Alaska’s normal summer high temperatures to be akin to late spring or early fall.
In the icy winter months, temperatures drop substantially, roads and rivers can become impassable, and the ocean is dangerous to traverse. Winter activities in Alaska are minimal and even the most experienced skiers and snowboarders prefer the early spring and late fall to visiting during the coldest months of the year.
Alaska is home to ample tourism for its natural beauty and unique ecological environment. During high season, restaurants and hotels are full, flights, trains and cruise ships are at capacity too, and costs are comparatively higher than the rest of the year.
However, there are sweet spots, specifically in the shoulder seasons. For example, most of the cruise traffic for the year has ended by Labor Day in early September. Buying flights during this period leads to lower costs and fewer tourists at key locations. The same is true of the spring prior to high season heating up in May.
However, visiting in the warmer months has its drawbacks. For one, the beautiful Northern lights, an illusion caused by electrical currents in the atmosphere paint the night sky in brilliant colors of green, yellow, purple, and blue only come out in the winter months.
When to Purchase Airline Tickets to Alaska
Buying tickets well in advance has its drawbacks. Often, the airlines are confident that tourists planning 11-12 months ahead of their trip are aligning their travel with other very specific events such as a cruise, family reunion, or convention.
For the rest of the country, the “sweet spot” where prices are at or near their lowest levels for the year, is about four months in advance. However, due to Alaska’s limited high season and fewer seats, that doesn’t apply here.
Six Months in Advance
Six months in advance has been the best for booking time period ahead of a trip to secure airline tickets. There are two notable exceptions: 1) Shoulder Season, 2) Oil Prices.
During shoulder season where carriers like American Airlines continue to fill flights from as far as Dallas, it’s hard to pick the definitive end to that period. Airlines have to submit flight schedules well in advance and honor booked reservations, so there are periods of relatively low demand but higher than normal seat capacity in the first couple of weeks of May and September.
Alaska is famous for its natural resources like gold and oil. If oil prices are high, industry workers will continue to fill airline seats and hotel rooms at an elevated scale during a boom cycle. If the price at the pump seems high, so is demand for travel to Alaska.
Following the advice of air travel, many will want to secure their rooms around six months ahead of their trip. However, airline tickets are often non-refundable whereas hotels booked directly with the property or through a travel agent are often cancellable for some period prior to the trip.
With airline tickets, once they are booked, they mostly stay that way without any change or movement. Hotels, however, can be cancelled and rebooked throughout the period prior to the cancellation window closing.
For example, when a traveller books their airline ticket to Alaska they should also book their hotel on a refundable rate (usually just a couple of dollars more per night than non-refundable) and then check back frequently. If it’s busier through the season than normal, the traveller doesn’t have to do anything and they maintain their great hotel deal.
However, if high season experiences a lull and hotel rates drop, a traveller can make a new reservation at the lower price and then cancel the old reservation without penalty.
Typically, we don’t recommend this method but fluctuations in Alaska accommodations prices can vary by as much as $150/night depending on the hotel. During a weeklong stay, that can add up to a significant amount of money, so it pays to continue shopping for lower rates even after a traveller has confirmed their reservation.
When To Go For a Family Vacation in Alaska
Alaska is a wonderful place to spend a summer vacation. Late May through Early September is the high season in Alaska and the warmest months. An easy rule of thumb is is Memorial Day to Labor Day in the US, but usually no later than mid September (September 15.)
National parks are open, wildlife is out, the weather is mild and the days are very, very long. For example, the sunrise on June 21st, 2021 will be at 4:21 AM in Anchorage, and won’t set until 11:40pm.
Winter vacations are best taken in late November through December, the truly cold and dark months take place between late December and early March when daylight lasts just 4.5 hours.
Best Time To Visit Alaska For Skiing
There’s no question that the best times to go skiing in Alaska are in late October through early November and again in early March through mid-April. The weather is the most tolerable in these periods with generous snow on the slopes. Bears are also hibernating during this period making the wilderness safer for those skiing.
Particularly around this time of year, dog sledding is a fun and unique activity during winter in Alaska and one of the few places on earth where it’s done.
Best Time To Visit Alaska & It’s National Parks
There’s no better time to visit Denali National Park than the summer months of late May to early September. The weather is mild, animals are visible, and some of the longest and brightest days of the year anywhere on earth are in Alaska.
If travellers have the flexibility, they will enjoy similar pleasant weather and increased interaction with wildlife if they travel just after Labor Day (first Monday in September) or just before Memorial Day (last Monday in May.) Fewer tourists will visit the parks during these early and late weeks reducing cost and increasing enjoyment.
Best Time To Visit Alaska To See The Northern Lights
Aurora Borealis is a magnetic phenomenon that occurs above the surface of the earth 60-70 miles and well into space. Beautiful celestial bands of visible yellow and green waves dance across the sky illuminating the night.
The phenomenon occurs during all four seasons but is harder to see in the summer months:
As Alaska is so far north, nights last longer during the winter months so the best time to visit to see the northern lights are the days surrounding December 21st or the winter Solstice (though the lights aren’t on a schedule.)
Clear nights are of course the best chance to see the aurora borealis.
When To Take a Cruise to Alaska
The optimal time to visit Alaska for a cruise is from mid June to mid August. The weather during this period is optimal but so is the chance to see wildlife and marine life. Longer days mean better views from the deck of cruise ships.
However, everyone else will have the same idea. Expect full ships, high prices, and limited availability.
If crowds are not for you, consider repositioning cruises whereby cruise ships move their biggest liners from Alaska further south to Hawaii, the west coast and the caribbean for fall and winter peak seasons. Repositioning cruises usually set sail to Alaska in mid to late spring (April) and from Alaska back south in mid September.
Best Time To Visit Alaska To Go Hunting
Hunting expeditions to Alaska take place throughout the year. Some animals can endanger humans and general animal control is needed to keep the ecosystem in balance. Depending on the type of animal and quota will inform sportsmen as to the preferential time of year for that activity.
Generally speaking, summer months between mid May and mid September are preferred. This is also the best time to visit Alaska for wildlife viewing as well. Salmon runs happen in the summer as well and offer some of the best natural salmon fishing in the world.
When To Go Whale Watching In Alaska
One of the greatest sites in the world is a breaching humpback whale. The world’s largest mammal migrates to the nutrient-rich glacial waters in the summer time to feed and breed taking advantage of the summer weather in Alaska. The animal that’s larger than a city bus can be seen in the coastal waters throughout the state.
It’s not just humpback whales visible during the busy summer months, orcas or killer whales are opportunistic during this time period as well as take advantage of the burst of wildlife in the area. While they are less likely to breach the water in spectacular leaps, pods of Orcas can be seen swimming alongside passenger ships.
June is the optimal period to go whale watching in Alaska and is just one more reason why it is the best month to visit Alaska.
When To Go To Save Money
Shoulder seasons are the best time to visit Alaska to save money. Shoulder seasons in Alaska run from mid April to late May for the spring and mid September to mid October. These are periods which are adjacent to the busy summer season but remain just outside of the peak season.
Airfare two weeks after Labor Day in September can drop from $700-800 for flights from the east coast to $300-400. Hotel rates also drop precipitously. However, the good news is that weather remains mostly favorable though cooler during this time period.
Best Time To Visit Alaska When It’s Not Busy
The summer months are extremely busy almost everywhere in Alaska but there are opportunities to enjoy the state. The aforementioned shoulder seasons from late spring (mid April) up to Memorial Day (last monday in May) and from just after Labor Day (first Monday in September) until mid October are the most enjoyable options.
The entire state is nearly devoid of tourists in January and February but weather makes this less advantageous than shoulder seasons.
When To Go For A Honeymoon
The summer months of late May to early September are the most beautiful time of the year to go to Alaska for a honeymoon. Flowers are in bloom, sunshine lasts up to 20 hours daily, and the weather is mild.
The summer months are very busy though, so honeymooners may consider alternative dates earlier or later in the year (specifically) around the summer months to improve availability and keep costs reasonable. There is also fewer tourists, and lower costs outside the summer months.