Alaska Travel Tips for First-Time Visitors

Alaska is home to many beautiful places, but there are also some things that you need to know before visiting.

With over 20 years of combined hospitality experience, we (the staff of Baycrest Lodge) are well aware of the hang ups, pitfalls and questions that travelers have when they visit the Last Frontier for the first time. Read on for a list of the most helpful travel tips we could think of for first-time visitors!

For summertime travelers, book ALL accommodations early.

Summer is an incredibly busy season for Alaska. Our beautiful state may be geographically large but the infrastructure is only built to accommodate a rather small population. According to the World Population Review, Alaska has less than 750,000 residents in the whole state. For comparison, Los Angeles in California is home to nearly 4 million people. 

With that in mind, we highly recommend booking all of your accommodations long before your arrival date. Tours, places to stay, rental cars etc. will book up very early. We recommend locking in your summer travel plans at least 6 months before your trip. For us at Baycrest Lodge, for example, we see people starting to book summer accommodations over one year in advance!

Of course, it is possible to make last-minute bookings but you likely won’t have your pick of the litter. 


Be prepared for all kinds of weather.

Alaska’s weather is almost never what you expect. The best way to plan for weather is to simply be prepared for anything because it could change at the drop of a hat. Even the best weather forecasting apps rarely provide an accurate depiction of what’s coming. 

Most tour operators will issue refunds if they need to cancel due to weather but it’s always safe to double check their cancellation policy before you commit to a tour! We always recommend travel insurance that includes “cancel for any reason” because bad weather could also stop you from reaching your destination on time and most hotels and lodges do not offer refunds for cancellations due to weather.


Here’s a list of what to pack for your trip:

  • Clothes and shoes you don’t mind getting roughed up. Don’t bother with bringing anything designer. Those shiny white tennis shoes you just bought? Leave them at home. In fact, anything white can be left at home all together because chances are you’re going to end up on multiple dirt roads – they’re kind of unavoidable here. Alaskans aren’t known for being fashion forward anyway so no one will think twice about your outfit. 
  • Layers! No matter the time of year you visit, layers are oh-so important! Since the weather is highly unpredictable, you have to be prepared for anything. We recommend everything from a pair of shorts and a t-shirt to long johns and a puffy jacket. Wool socks and baselayers are great at keeping you warm and absorbing sweat. REI has a great blog post that details the basics of layering that you can check out here.
  • A lightweight rain jacket is always a great idea for hikes and boat rides – they take up very little room in your backpack but save the day if you’re on the water or the summit of a mountain where the wind chill is known to pick up. 
  • Rubber boots are excellent footwear for a variety of Alaska activities. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an Alaskan that doesn’t own a pair of Xtratuf boots. They’re great for boat rides, fishing trips, beach walks at low tide, walking around town in the rain and even trails (they can get muddy!). 
  • Something to cover your ears. Whether it’s a headband or beanie, something small that you can carry along with you to cut the wind chill is never a bad idea.


Plan an extra 30-45 minutes to drive between towns.

Summer is Alaska’s road construction season so expect to get stopped multiple times when you’re driving between towns. There are also a lot of two-lane highways that plug up with slower motorhomes and RVs so it’s best to plan to show up a little later than your GPS tells you.


For anyone planning on bringing fish home, here are some helpful tips…

Most processors offer options to ship your fish straight to your doorstep. However, if you’re looking to save money on shipping costs, we’d recommend getting your fish processed and traveling with it in a cooler on the way home. You can bring your own cooler to Alaska or just purchase an insulated fish box once you get here. Most processors will hold your frozen fish for a week or two so you can time your pick up date to coordinate with your departure!

When you bring your fish to the airport, make sure you don’t put any loose ice in your cooler or fish box. Just the frozen fish and ice packs are allowed for flying.


Watch out for these plants!

There aren’t too many plants to watch out for in Alaska. Many of them are entirely harmless and even edible! But there are a handful you should know about so you can avoid the discomfort that comes along with poisonous/stinging plants.

  • Pushki (aka Cow Parsnip) – Some people react poorly to the oils located within the stems of this plant. If it touches your skin and you proceed to spend time in the sun, you risk getting a pushki burn that is characterized by itchy, bubbling skin. For more info, click here.
  • Devil’s Club – Characterized by its woody stems and leaves that are covered in spines, this plant is obviously one you want to avoid. They aren’t poisonous but the spines can easily get lodged under your skin if you touch them…not a good feeling! Here’s some more info.
  • Baneberries – They may look delicious but boy, they are toxic. When ingested, these berries have been known to lead to cardiac arrest. Red baneberries are the most common variant in Alaska. Here’s what to look out for.
  • Stinging Nettle – If you come in contact with this plant, it’s more of an annoying inconvenience than anything else. Your skin will itch and hurt for a few minutes before it fades away. We still don’t recommend touching it if you can avoid it! Here are more details.

Know what you will do in case of an animal encounter.

There are plenty of online resources that you can reference to prepare for animal encounters in Alaska but here are a couple of tips that we think are the bare-minimum:

  • Don’t make direct eye contact with moose. It’s best to avoid them entirely because they could charge you if they feel agitated. Adolescent moose are especially stressed and unpredictable when they are first forced to leave their mothers and fend for themselves.  
  • Most bears will simply avoid you on their own but it’s always a good idea to wear a bear bell, play music, or talk loudly when you’re in an area that doesn’t have good visibility. Many people bring bear spray into the back country which is certainly effective if there is no wind. A lot of local Alaskans will hike with a marine flare easily accessible – the bright light and heat from the flare should be enough to scare a bear off. If you want to hike with a flare, please be mindful of the fire danger in the area before buying one. If the fire danger is high, you’re better off taking bear spray.
  • It’s important to note that MOST people will never deploy bear spray or flares on their hikes. Just because you see a bear does not mean you need to use these defensive measures.
  • If you’re traveling with small animals, keep in mind that eagles might see them as prey. Keep your small pets close by so they don’t get snatched!


Alaska’s tides changes are bigger than you think!

If you plan on spending any time in or near the ocean in Alaska (which we definitely recommend), remember that the tide swings are massive! In just twelve hours, the beaches completely transform. Low tide is the time to take a walk; high tide will hardly leave you with any room to do so. And if you put your personal items on the beach, make sure you leave them well above the high tide line. Don’t be that person who loses a kayak because they didn’t drag it up the beach far enough! 

You can find tide charts here that will help you plan your beach outings.


Sound like a local with these commonly used terms.

  • Lower 48 – Refers to the 48 states that make up the mainland USA.
  • Snow machine – Don’t even think about calling them snow mobiles!
  • Snowbird – This is a person who leaves Alaska during the winter months for a more mild-weather climate.
  • Termination dust – When the first snow of the season lands on the mountain tops in late fall, Alaskans view it as the end of summer, hence the word “termination”.
  • The bush – This term refers to anywhere that is off the road system in Alaska. Native Alaskan villages are typically located in the bush and “bush pilots” are people who regularly fly to these villages for a living, bringing along mail, supplies, doctors, teachers etc.


We hope these travel tips for first time visitors were helpful! If you have any feedback on how we can improve this post or you’d like to share more about your experience with your first visit to Alaska, please feel free to contact us

For a list of things to do when you visit Homer, Alaska, see our comprehensive guide here.

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