Food, Travel, Design and the occassional wordiness

Alaska on a budget June 22, 2015

Driving to Denali

Before we went up there and carved up our itinerary, we’d been planning this trip for a while. And as spreadsheet minded as I am, I was budgeting constantly. And friends, family and dear old Internet had warned me rightly, Alaska was going to be expensive. Don’t assume the prices for the Lower 48 there. You know when in restaurant ads they say, only valid in the contiguous United States? It’s truer than you’d think.

  • In most cities in Europe and the US, you can expect to get a decent hotel within $120. That average is $170 in Alaska.
  • Gas in Alaska is about 50 cents higher than the average in the lower 48, per gallon.
  • Car rentals are close to 5X more in Alaska than anywhere else…we traveled San Diego at $12 a day whereas the same car in Anchorage was going for $50 a day… and if for some reason you needed a same day rental, that price was going to be $79/day. For a compact. And trust me, you’re better off with a small SUV or a sturdier 4WD. The only people with small cars here are tourists on rentals. That says something doesn’t it?
  • Flights to AK from pretty much anywhere is not cheap, to begin with.

I could go on.

The point is we still had a pretty lavish trip with all kinds of extra add-on adventures and a nice upgraded rental car for 2+1 people, for 8 days, for $3300. Here are my tips, most of which can be leveraged for other places as well:

  • Flights
    1. Use a good search engine for your flight, that will let you track deals, past fares and trends.
    2. Use miles
    3. Book your tickets when you find a good deal, then keep searching. You can cancel penalty free up to 24 hours within booking your flight
    4. Save a night’s lodging cost by booking the arrival flight that reaches in the am or early pm and a return flight  that starts in the evening or at night or a redeye. That way you get a partial day when you reach and the whole day of your return and you sleep on the plane. This is also why, I don’t do Friday night flights anymore. If the cost of a morning return X number of people < night, this advice is the golden rule. (this counts as a saving for lodging and flights)


  • Lodging
    1. San Diego and my friend Lan, taught me Airbnb is often the way to go for relatively inexpensive lodging.
    2. If going for hotels, read the reviews thoroughly- even those with low points; focus on what people are complaining about. For example, if it’s in Europe, almost all Americans will complain about small rooms. Do you really care? Bed bugs and dirty toilets and rude staff and thieves- my recommendation is to stay away. But if they are saying the room isn’t big enough for a football field, or the bed isn’t a California King, or there’s no elevator right across the room…consider this knowledge in your pocket, but whether to base your decision on them is up to you. Alaska is full of B&Bs and our experience was 99% positive. Read my reviews here. Call them up, email them. Ask your questions frankly, listen for subaudible cues. That way even if you are spending money, at least you’ll know you won’t be totally wonked by ending up with a strange person in a strange town, who will discriminate against you for the color of your mismatched socks (or whatever else, you get my drift).
    3. Some people like staying with friends and family when traveling; we did sometimes too when we traveled solo. But now with a baby or multi-generation travel, we try not to impose. At the end of the day it’s your and your host’s choice. But it can be greatly money-saving. Don’t forget a nice hostess gift and buy them dinner and maybe even tag them along on your trip plans. That will make it a little less imposing.
    4. (See last point in flights) Save a night’s lodging cost by booking the arrival flight that reaches in the am or early pm and a return flight  that starts in the evening or at night or a redeye. That way you get a partial day when you reach and the whole day of your return and you sleep on the plane. This is also why, I don’t do Friday night flights anymore. If the cost of a morning return X number of people < night, this advice is the golden rule.


  • Vehicle

Understand your travel style. Do you need one? So many places including Alaska could be toured without a rental car. We chose to have one because with a baby, it just gives us the added flexibility. But combine the cruises and the rail road and the bus tours- so many people rely completely on those and bypass the car altogether. In that case, chalk in the cost of public transportation, or if visiting other cities like Chicago, San Francisco or NYC, get a day pass of unlimited travel by the El/ BART/ subway. You really don’t want to park there. If you’re coming to Boston, well, drive at your own risk and don’t let the honks bother you. I digress. Going back to renting cars in Alaska.

  1. If you do decide you want to rent a car, search early and often and book early. Then keep searching. Many sites like hotwire.com, will let you cancel until the last minute. Check your cancellation policy carefully before booking.
  2. Bring your own accessories- a GPS or car seat, those rank up extra.
  3. Prepay your gas, unless you know the lay of the land and know where the gas stations are (we got stuck in Malaga, Spain once- not fun!)
  4. Try to return the car at the 23rd hour to save from extra day charges. If your rental is in a city center, often times the last couple to-do spots would be easier in a taxi or on foot. If return is at an airport, think of this before booking your flight.
  • Food

I am a huge foodie, I love to eat out. Travel = culinary travel to me. And I would often spend more on food than on anything else. That said, think this through…are you traveling to a town known for a good food scene? Is there something you’d like to try there? Or is it just a bunch of national burger chains of distasteful questionable “stuff”?

  1. If it’s the former, do your research, bookmark some restaurants and know what you’re going to try. Ask the locals where they go to eat. If you are a foodie, you already do that. I know you take this stuff seriously. So, go have fun.
  2. If you are not sure where you’ll be dunking your money, I recommend saving on the $6 breakfast sandwiches and $15 lunches and $25 dinners X # people in your group + tax + tips ($120 a day-ish for 2 people for very mediocre restaurants) by buying a ton of snacks once you reach your destination city. Hit a specialty grocery store, or a farmer’s market. Or just a plain ol’ chain, if you so please. Also buy cooked and semicooked food, that will last without refrigeration without that you can put together in a jiffy for tasty lunch and dinner. Buy bread, deli meat, cheeses, fruit cups, vegetable cups, yogurts, candy, cereal bars. Think what you eat through the day generally, add some craveable extras (make it feel like a vacation) and pack your grocery cart accordingly. Nothing makes you an instant local like grocery shopping- while travelling this is a matter of experience, not a chore. Do this also with water bottles (and soda or whatever nonalcoholic beverage you like to swig when driving), buy in bulk. These add up in restaurants.
  3. Pack a picnic- By all means, don’t do this in NYC or SF, or Chicago, or Boston, or NOLA…but do this when you’re on a scenic drive. Any scenic drive. You want to stop for the views, have a picnic in random spots, you don’t want to waste time looking for mediocre-to-poor food joints.
  4. Have a healthy, hearty breakfast, definitely if it’s included in your stay. And even if it’s not and you’re eating out, breakfast and lunch are cheaper than having dinner out, so eat out on those occasions and make yourself a sandwich for dinner.
  5. Scour Pinterest and Yelp and Tripadvisor for local specialties. Also look for budget friendly eating- little holes in walls serving up the best food possible. These are also some of the best experiences sometimes, grilled to perfection by locals.


  • Experiences & Entertainment
  1. Pinterest, travel blogs and Tripadvisor forums are a great source for free and inexpensive things to do in a place, including Alaska. Don’t believe everything they say, because you are your own person and you will enjoy things according to your own parameters. But they are a good starting point to your list on things you can do. Even the most expensive cities and towns have inexpensive things to do. So do your research. For Alaska, score a great view from places like Glen Allen (Anchorage) and Talkeetna Outlook and the river beach (Talkeetna), try the hikes in Girdwood and watch out for wildlife near Otto Lake (Healy) and Kincaid park (Anchorage)outlined in my Alaska itinerary and communities posts for free fun. If you are there for the view and maybe some photo-op, you don’t have to pay at many of the parking places like Glen Allen, but if you’re parking and going for a hike for more than 30 min, you have to pay a nominal $5. Know before you go.
  2. All over the country, a lot of museums and activities often have free days or half-price days, see if you can get in on those times. Again, prior research goes a long way.
  3. If it’s an adventure like a boat ride, a cruise, flight seeing, snow sports, or water sports- cheapest might not be best. Safety can often come at a price. If you’re too broke to pay for safety, you’re too broke to travel. Do you research, choose a reliable vendor and be safe.
  4. If you’re thinking of buying something for everyone on your list, it can soon rack up $$, instead take nice photos, customize them into photo gifts when you go home (or at the airport) for inexpensive and personalized gifts that are so much better in quality.

Loving the stillness of Otto Lake

Here are some of my money-saving tips, that don’t make you feel like you’re missing out on anything. Where are you going this Summer? What is your budget per person? And how are you saving?


One Response to “Alaska on a budget”

  1. […] to eat. The costs can creep up quickly when going to AK so for the budget traveler, my tips are in Alaska on a budget Very few people take their kids to Alaska. It’s not that the whole state doesn’t have kids but […]

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