Plans are Complete

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It has taken a fair amount of work, but I think our plans are now complete and we are ready for the trip.  Here are some numbers related to our trip:

  • Number of Days in Alaska: 59
  • All Over the Map – Cities, Towns, & Villages (spending 1+ nights): 15
  • Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (and Boats): 25
  • Airplane Flights: 15 (counting 3 Flightsees)
  • Boat Rides: 5 (counting 2 Boat Tours)
  • Bus Tours: 2
  • Train Trips: 2
  • Pickup Trucks: 1
  • Road Trip Miles: 1300+
  • Separate Motel/Lodge Bookings: 22
  • Unique Motels/Lodges: 15
  • Cab/Shuttle Rides: ??
  • Restaurants: ??

After studying all the parks on the bucket list, we were first able to estimate the number of days it would take to adequately see each park.  Some of the bigger ones, of course, will take several days and, even then, we are probably just touching the surface.  Obviously, if we were wilderness back-packers we could spend several weeks exploring a park like Gates of the Arctic.  Given our limitations, however, we will instead have to limit ourselves to a ‘flightsee’ with, maybe, a landing in one of the rivers to actually say we touched the ground.  At other parks, we have a range of activities available to us including structured tours and unstructured hikes on our own.  Based on books and web sites, we are able to allocate a number of days we think we need to do what we want to do at each park.

However, we are old enough (and maybe wise enough) to understand that we can’t spend every day sightseeing.  We get tired, and we also get dirty and need time to do things like shower and shave, wash clothes, and, heaven forbid, take a nap!  So pretty much at every stop, we also have to build in what I call ‘down days’ and ‘maintenance days’.  Generally, a formula of including a ‘down day’ every fourth day seems to work pretty well.  Then, of course, we have to include time for travel, which as I discussed in a previous post, is especially difficult to arrange here in Alaska. 

The next problem is to arrange all of the park blocks of days into some sort of sequence – an itinerary. My guess is a computer could probably do that best, but I didn’t know how to program such a thing, so I simply laid things out  in a table on my iPad with the constraints that I knew about.

Geography played a key role.  It is certainly more efficient to visit parks together that are located close to each other.  So, based on the map of the parks, certain clusters emerge that help in defining the itinerary.  So, for example, it makes sense to visit all three parks in the panhandle as a cluster (Klondike, Glacier Bay, and Sitka).  And another cluster would be the three parks on the Alaska Peninsula (Aniakchak, Katmai, and Lake Clark).  The three parks north of the Arctic Circle (Cape Krusenstern, Kobuk Valley, and Gates of the Arctic) form another obvious cluster.  

After looking at the clusters of parks and the way transportation is structured in Alaska, I decided that the best approach to an itinerary was not a sequential trip from one location to another, but rather a hub-and-spoke concept with Anchorage being the hub.  Yes, you can fly to other cities in Alaska, but almost all flights, at some point, connect with Anchorage (the largest city in the state).  So it occurred to me that one way we could manage maintenance tasks and still see everything, was to stage several ‘mini-trips’, each originating out of Anchorage, traveling to a cluster, seeing the parks in that cluster, and then returning to Anchorage.  Things like laundry, banking, and shopping for essentials would be done in the Anchorage hub and then we would go out to other places to see the parks.

Then the next obvious step is to understand what the transportation options are between each of the locations, and how that affected developing an itinerary.  This became much more difficult than I expected.  In an earlier post I commented about how difficult it was to get from Seward to Brooks Lodge. To solve that problem, I decided it best to simply take the train all the way back to Anchorage and take the regularly scheduled air transport from Anchorage to Brooks.  Another problem was getting between places in the panhandle because the ferry system, on some routes, only runs once a week!  I ended up in that case, chartering an ‘air taxi’ to fly us from Skagway to Gustavus!

In the end, we designed a trip with Anchorage as the hub and four (or five depending on how you look at it) ‘mini-trips’ originating in Anchorage and extending out to a different Alaskan region to explore the parks in that region.  As I arranged the transportation for each mini-trip, I discovered that each one had a different way of moving about, depending on the location.  In the panhandle, for example, we used the Alaskan Maritime Highway (the ferry system) as much as we could.  To get to Seward and back, we used the Alaskan railway.  Where we could use the highway system, in the central interior part of Alaska, we rented a small truck.  For the remainder of the parks, we used airplanes, which, we had learned, were not an uncommon way of getting around.  

At this point, almost all of the transportation reservations have been made.  Although serendipity is a nice idea, leaving your fate to chance, especially in Alaska when you have places you want to go, is probably not going to end well.  This isn’t like a road trip, where you can move between spots when you want.  We have made bookings, and mostly paid for, all the transportation to and from Alaska, as well as to and from points inside the state.

While I made the transportation arrangements, Joan booked the lodging.  Planning this trip is not like a normal camping trip where you might be able to roll into a campground late afternoon and find an open campsite.  We booked reservations, in some cases months ago, for every single night simply because, given that it is Alaska, it isn’t possible to assume there will be a place to stay when you get there.  Furthermore, in the high-end lodges (which especially in the Alaskan Peninsula cluster of parks) we have also already paid for our entire stay – unlike ‘hotels or motels’, lodges require prepayment!

In addition to transportation and lodging, we have also, in several instances, already booked tours.  We learned that in many popular parks, the special in-park, ranger-guided, tours often book up fast, especially if it is on a cruise ship stop.  So we’ve already booked several of them, down to a specific day.  My experience in other national parks has been that, if the weather looks bad on a given day, we will usually be able to switch days, depending on availability of an open seat.  So this way we pretty much have a guaranteed seat on all of our tours.

Our plan is captured in a multi-page document with a line for each day of the trip and the columns containing information about transportation, lodging, sightseeing options and tours, and reminders of things that we need to do to keep the trip moving smoothly.  This way, at a glance, we can see where and what we are supposed to be doing.  I’ve included a snapshot of our plan from last year’s trip, Great Lakes Rendezvous, to show what it looks like.

The Trip Plan (From Last Year’s Trip)

In addition, Joan keeps the Trip Book – a loose-leaf binder with hard copy printouts of all of our confirmations, organized sequentially.  Although we also have electronic copies in our iPads, the paper version is our backup version for proving, if necessary, that we actually booked something somewhere.  The Trip Book has proven useful on more than one occasion.  I have also included a picture of this year’s Trip Book.  It will go everywhere with us.

Joan’s Trip Book (with all our travel documents).

Finally, we keep a spreadsheet of all of our expenses.  This year’s trip, largely because we aren’t traveling by RV and camping in campgrounds, is remarkably expensive.  Early-on I felt the necessity to keep track of both actual and anticipated expenses in order to keep a handle on our budget and to be able to answer questions like whether we have already paid on an account or not.  I’m not going to talk a whole lot about the costs of this trip because, quite honestly, it is a bit embarrassing.  This is, by far, the most expensive trip we have ever done – but, we tell each other, it is a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experience.