Out of the H2O heli. MacKenzie Ryan photo.
Heli season is about to kick off. If you’ve been saving your pennies, you’re checking dates to hit the Last Frontier. But if you’re broke as hell, that’s probably not in the cards for you.
Despite what the good folks who produce snowboard movies would have you believe, you don’t need to make it rain like Gigi Ruf in order to enjoy big lines and deep powder turns. Corners can be cut. Pennies can be pinched. If your bank account puts you in near-official dirtbag status, you can still make it to AK. Here are some tips to help you make those dollars stretch.
Decide If You’ll Fly Or Drive
A roundtrip ticket from one of the Delta hubs (Salt Lake City or Seattle) to Anchorage costs $400 to $600. Remember you're going to pay $60 each way for bags. MacKenzie Ryan photo.
Why, oh, why didn’t the US ever make a move to buy British Columbia? This would have made all of our lives easier! No weird border laws, no money exchange, no weird inflation. The trek through the most expensive part of Canada includes a sometimes extensive search at the border, a lot of wear and tear on your vehicle, and a lot of time behind the wheel.
Typically people want their vehicles, despite this very beautiful but very pain-in-the-ass drive, because Alaska is an even bigger pain in the ass to get around without a car. It's not recommended to go carless, but it is doable. You can catch rides. You will need to accept you will be beholden to others and their plans, and they may ditch you someplace with very limited public transportation options.
If you do fly, the cheapest flights are the non-refundable redeyes on Kayak.com. Yes, buy the $60 travel insurance. If you get hurt, it helps to cover your ride to the hospital.
RVs Can Be Expensive
Trucktop campers like this one from Powder Pilgrimage, RVs, and other impressively tricked-out adventure mobiles abound in Alaska. If you have the time and money to convert your truck, go for it. If not, take a long, hard look at how much RV rentals cost. James Roh photo.
The RV circus on mountain passes can be super-fun, like a muddy, Grateful Dead festival full of people who deeply love their snowmachines, their dogs, and their beverages. Many of the free-spirited nomads you’ll met, though, are actually people from Anchorage, Palmer, or Wasilla, and they own the RVs they’re partying in. You’ll be in a rental, which you can’t really get too dirty or scratched without losing your deposit.
If you do rent an RV, be prepare for how much it’s realistically going to cost, namely upwards of $200 a day plus the $.15 per mile plus gas, and how cramped it’s going to be. Four snowboarders in one RV can kick up a pungent wet sock stench pretty quickly. You’ll be sleeping like sardines in a can. Someone is always the messy one; and someone is always the clean one. Drama ensues.
Do NOT Rent From the Airport
This could be your overly price rental car from the airport. Just kidding. Our actual rental car, a reasonably priced Subaru, is to the far right. MacKenzie Ryan photo.
If you’ve flown and chosen not to get an RV, congratulations because you still have some money in the bank. But what about transportation? Do not, I repeat, do not get a rental car from the Anchorage airport. There is an on-site tax, plus additional fees, which add about 40% to your cost. Off-site places like Midnight Sun Car & Van Rental are a mile or so away from the airport, and they are much less expensive. Please cross-reference whichever rental place you choose with Yelp or a similar rant-and-rave website, and choose a fuel efficient vehicle. The distances between gas stations are very long, and the prices go up the farther away from Anchorage or Juneau you get.
Buy Food And Gas In A Major City
With all due respect to the many restaurants in Alaska, just say 'no' to eating out on your trip. It'll be costly, and depending on the month you go, very crowded. MacKenzie Ryan photo.
Because produce, dairy, and the like need to be shipped literally to Alaska or trucked across Canada, grocery store prices will make you want to cry. Stock up on food before you leave Anchorage (the most likely hub), Fairbanks, or Juneau. As soon as you leave the metropolitan area, those already high prices will just keep climbing.
Borrowing a tip from our snowmachining friends, consider getting a gas caddy. Even a small one can top you off your tank, letting you drive right past that middle-of-nowhere gas station with the most expensive gas prices you’ve ever seen.
Hostels, AirBnB, And B&Bs Will Have Cheapest Lodging
The key to lodging success is a kitchen. Cook your own meals; save money. MacKenzie Ryan photo.
If you’re pinching pennies, you’ve probably flown, caught a ride or rented an economical car, got your cheap groceries in Anchorage, and now need a cheap place to stay.
Alaska has an impressively inexpensive hostel system, including one right near the base of Aleyeska Ski Resort in Girdwood. AirBnB options will be limited in certain places. It’s catching on quickly in Alaska, especially with cabin rentals. So, it’s worth a look. B&Bs will be your next-best options. Many of these mom-and-pop-style operations will offer weekly boarding rates, which is a big money-save if you plan to stay a while.
The one thing all of these have in common, obviously, is that you’ll have cooking facilities. You really can’t underestimate how much cheaper your trip will be if you don’t eat out. A chicken parmigiana in downtown Valdez is like $20.
The Earlier In Season, The Fewer People You’ll See
If quiet backcountry trips like this one up Worthington Glacier are your thing, hit Alaska before or after the height of heli season (late March to mid April). Mary Gootjes photo.
It might be little tough to stomach this. Everyone comes to Alaska in late March or early April and it’s a big, fun, wild party full of snowboarding, beer, and snowmachines. Unfortunately, the most popular time to go to Alaska is also the most expensive time to go to Alaska. You can choose the party, and your ability to catch rides might improve. You also might be able to land a straggler spot in the heli if it’s in your budget. You also might be able to get a snowmachine bump up Thompson or Turnagain Pass. However, you may not be able to find lodging. At all. You also may need to fend for any semblance of solitude.
Human-Powered Travel Is Free; Snowmobilers Are Nice
I break trail up Worthington Glacier with guidebook author and backcountry skiing legend Matt Kinney a few kickturns behind me. Mary Gootjes photo.
With limited funds, your own two feet are your cheapest way to enjoy the Alaska backcountry. Arrive with the mindset that you’ll be hiking for your turns, and your only surprise might be the pleasant experience of being bumped up to a ridgeline by some 18-year-old snowmachiner from Palmer. By in large, the snowmobiling and sled skiing communities in Alaska are very friendly. They want powder, so do you, and they don’t want some big conflict.
If you are going fully human-powered in the Last Frontier, get two guidebooks: Joe Stock’s The Alaska Factor, which covers most of Southcentral Alaska and Matt Kinney’s Alaska Backcountry Skiing: Valdez & Thompson Pass, which covers most of the greater Valdez area. Be certain to keep an eye of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center. Two of the best road-access touring destinations, Turnagain and Hatcher Passes, have experienced long periods of sketchy avalanche conditions this season.