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4 tips for visiting Alaska, The Last Frontier, in 2021

March 16, 2021
8 min read
Denali National Park and Preserve_Alaska_hari-nandakumar-742808-unsplash
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At this point, you've probably heard this before but we're going to tell you again. This may be the best year ever to visit Alaska.

With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) mandating a pause to large-scale cruise travel in the United States and a cruise ship ban in the Canadian ports usually paired with Alaskan itineraries, some of the state's most treasured spots -- like magical Glacier Bay National Park -- will be devoid of the massive crowds that we've seen in the past.

Alaska's vastness makes it so simple to maintain social distance and, if you've received your COVID-19 vaccination(s), the safety of a vacation in 2021 -- for you and the people around you -- has been boosted significantly.

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If you're planning to head to the 49th state this year, here are a few things you should take to heart.

Seals hanging out near LeConte Glacier. (Photo by Ron Sanford/Getty Images)

Understand Alaska's entry requirements

Importantly, Alaska no longer requires proof of a negative COVID-19 test before entering into the state. However, all visitors should follow the recommendations outlined in the state's COVID-19 Response and Recovery Health Advisory No. 2 for International and Interstate Travel.

Alaska visitors should follow these steps

  • Fill out a Travel Declaration Form and a Self-Isolation Plan in the Alaska Travel Portal. (Note that if you have health insurance, you'll need to upload a front-and-back image of your insurance ID card.)
Screenshot courtesy of Alaska's Safe Travels Portal
  • While not required, the state suggests that visitors take a pre-travel molecular-based test for SARS-CoV2 and upload the results to their Alaska Travel Portal account.

Related: Traveling soon? Here’s where you can quickly get a COVID-19 PCR test for travel

  • Alaska also strongly recommends that visitors take a second COVID-19 test between five and 14 days after arrival. You can find a testing facility at the Alaska Department of Health's Testing Sites Locator page. According to Alaska's Health Advisory No. 2, "Travelers who indicate in the Alaska Travel Portal that they will be in Alaska for five days or more will receive a voucher ... that can be used for an optional second test five to 14 days after arrival. The voucher allows for a free follow-up test at airport testing sites."
Screenshot courtesy of Alaska Department of Health
  • If you take a prearrival test and the results aren't available by the time you arrive in Alaska, follow strict social distancing protocols and upload your test results to the Alaska Travel Portal as soon as they are available.
  • If your test results come back positive while in Alaska, you must self-isolate at your own expense. You must also call the State of Alaska (800-478-0084) and must not travel until cleared by Public Health.

Try to get vaccinated before your trip

While this isn't a requirement, to keep yourself and everyone around you safe, try to get vaccinated for COVID-19 at least two weeks before traveling -- to Alaska or elsewhere. The three vaccines available in America -- Pfizer–BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson Janssen -- are becoming more readily available at federal vaccination sites, country health departments and at pharmacies across the nation.

Some, like Alaska, have opened their vaccination sites to nearly everyone. (In Alaska, they will vaccinate anyone 16 or older that's living or working in the state.) Other states are still rolling out vaccine appointments to certain groups. However, specific sites may allow walk-ins from anyone — even those in a group that's not yet eligible to get appointments at their local health departments. Look for vaccination drives near you that may be sponsored by the federal government, your state or local health department.

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Finally, pharmacies like CVS, Walgreens and Walmart are offering the vaccine at their locations across the United States. Here are six real-world tips for successfully booking COVID-19 vaccine appointments at pharmacies.

Book now

If you are even casually thinking about visiting Alaska in 2021, we have this advice. Finish reading these tips and then go ahead and book something.

Alaska is poised to be one of the most popular destinations for spring and summer travel. If you don't lock reservations in now -- especially if you need to rent a car or RV or have your heart set on a certain lodge -- you may be shut out.

Alaska's wide-open spaces are naturally made for social distancing. Pair that with the fact that large-scale cruise operations are paused and it means that this could be the best time ever to visit the state. That's especially true for Inside Passage cruise ports, such as Glacier Bay, Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka and Skagway, which can all get choked on days when large cruise ships are in town. That's not going to happen this year.

Small-ship cruising in Alaska

You can still take an Alaskan cruise with a handful of small-ship operators that are not affected by the CDC's rules since their vessels are much smaller than the cruise ships that normally ply the Inside Passage. You can book seven to 14-day itineraries with the following outfitters:

Points hotels and lodges

While there aren't a ton of points hotels in the state, you will find more than a dozen options from the major chains in Anchorage, a handful in Fairbanks and one (a Four Points by Sheraton) in Juneau. The better call may be to seek out wilderness lodges and boutique hotels, such as Borealis Basecamp, across the state.

Escorted and independent tours

McKinley Chalet Resort near Denali. (Photo courtesy of Westmark Hotels)

With a pause on Alaska cruises, Princess and Holland America -- both under the Carnival Corp. umbrella -- are offering escorted and independent land tours of the state. They can do this because they own various lodges in the region and also work with Gray Line Alaska as part of its normal cruise/land tour packages. Talk with your travel agent or call Gray Line Alaska (800-544-2206) directly to learn more about the six- and seven-night packages, all of which include a visit to Denali National Park and stays at Westmark Fairbanks Hotel & Conference Center, McKinley Chalet Resort at Denali National Park and Preserve or Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge.

You can also look to tour packagers such as Abercrombie & Kent and Trafalgar for 2021 itineraries to Alaska.

Bring the right gear

When I pack for an Alaska trip, I purposely overpack. The weather can vary greatly throughout the day, which means you're wearing layers, peeling them off as it gets warm and then putting them back on as cooler temperatures return. Pack T-shirts, long sleeve shirts, a fleece vest, windbreaking shell and water-resistant jacket.

Some of the things you pack, like rain pants (one or two pairs), a jacket and hat (with brim and chinstrap), should be water-resistant. This is especially true if you plan to hike through some of the state's beautiful rainforests.

No matter what type of clothing you pack, make sure all fabrics are breathable and moisture-wicking. That will help you stay comfortable throughout the day.

If you're not sure how water-resistant your windbreaker is, you can buy a spray to apply to it to improve its performance. Nikwax is a well-known brand. I use the TX.Direct Spray-On Water Repellent Treatment. It comes in a spray bottle, is easy to apply to your gear and works great.

Bring comfortable shoes for walking around town but also your favorite hiking boots or sturdy-enough walking shoes that can help you navigate muddy and rocky landscapes.

Finally, bring a dry bag or two to store your camera, phone and other electronics when you're kayaking or hiking in the rain. These purpose-made bags ensure that no water can get inside to ruin its contents.

Bottom line

If you're comfortable traveling this spring and summer -- especially if you've been vaccinated -- a trip to Alaska may be the perfect reset after a very tough year. The natural beauty of the mountains and Inside Passage; the abundant wildlife, from eagles to Dall sheep to humpback whales; and the opportunity to learn more about the state's indigenous tribes culminate to create a pretty amazing getaway. Throw in the incredible seafood restaurants and craft beer joints and a trip to Alaska may be exactly what you need to celebrate getting vaccinated.

Featured image by Denali National Park (Photo by Hari Nandakumar/Unsplash)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.