Anchorage on a budget: exploring Alaska without a big bankroll

Anchorage on a budget: exploring Alaska without a big bankroll

Chugach State Park is one of many pocket-friendly places to go near Anchorage © HagePhoto / Aurora Open / Getty Images

Visiting Alaska is a bucket-list dream for a reason — rugged mountains, epic views, iconic wildlife and quirky locals have all put this famously remote state on the travel map. For most visitors, Anchorage is the first port of call, but there's a caveat for those making their way to the Last Frontier state; Alaska certainly isn't cheap.

From expensive flights to pricey excursions, a trip to Alaska can put a major dent in your savings account. However, savvy travelers (and those who love to plan ahead) can take advantage of shoulder season deals that will make visiting the state's largest city a little more affordable.

Here's our guide to visiting Anchorage on a budget.

Introducing Alaska

When to visit Anchorage to score the best deals

When planning a trip to Alaska, expect plane tickets to be your most significant expense. While you're unlikely to avoid high ticket prices, planning well in advance is vital for scoring the best deals. Alaska Airlines often announces airfare deals via their social media accounts, so be ready to pounce. The best times to keep an eye out are Cyber Monday and immediately after New Year's Day.

Another great way to save on flights is to apply for an Alaska Airlines credit card. If approved, you can earn 60,000 bonus miles and one free companion ticket each year. Restrictions almost always apply to these special deals, so it's helpful to be flexible about your travel dates. For the best chance of savings on air ticket prices, aim to visit Anchorage in the spring or fall shoulder seasons.

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Visit Anchorage in spring to save

Anchorage's spring shoulder season runs from March through May, but you’re better off waiting until April to visit. As it's not quite tourist season, you can snag great deals on cruises along the Alaskan coast, and you'll miss the worst of the cold. Inside Passage cruises begin at the tail end of April, and prices are notably cheaper for the first voyages of the season.

Marine enthusiasts can also enjoy discounted rates on sightseeing tours. Gray whales are the first migratory whale species to return in the spring, and glacier and wildlife cruises through Kenai Fjords National Park depart from Seward (about 2½ hours south of Anchorage) from mid-March to mid-May.

April is also known for a sublimely quirky Alaskan event – the Alyeska Spring Carnival featuring the Alaska Airlines Slush Cup, a daring jaunt down a ski slope and into a freezing pond. Live music, food trucks, and goofy games make this a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Participants also have opportunities to race mountain bikes and compete in an old-fashioned tug of war, or you can do what most locals do and sip a beer while cheering for the best wipeouts. The best part? The carnival is free to attend, so this is fun that won't leave a dent in your budget.

Anchorage on a budget: exploring Alaska without a big bankroll

With its mountain backdrop, the Anchorage skyline looks amazing at any time of year © Rocky Grimes / Shutterstock

Fall brings more savings for outdoorsy types

A second shoulder season runs from August through November. However, aim to visit in September for the best weather for outdoor activities such as hiking and camping. This is also one of the best times to take a drive or hike down the Turnagain Arm, the scenic waterway running east from Anchorage.

For less than the cost of a tank of gas, you'll be spoiled by stunning views of fall foliage and breathtaking sunsets. If you're lucky, you may even catch sight of belugas and orcas frolicking in Turnagain Arm's rolling tides. Remember to look inland and scan the cliffsides for agile mountain goats.

Bird enthusiasts will enjoy a leisurely walk down the Potter Marsh boardwalk. As late as September, northern pintails, canvasback ducks, red-necked phalaropes, red-necked grebes and northern harriers can be seen as they prepare for their annual migration. The odd trumpeter swan has also been known to stop by. If you bring your binoculars, you might spot an eagle's nest in the trees surrounding the marsh.

Seek out affordable lodgings in Anchorage

Anchorage is home to plenty of snowbirds who flee to warmer climates during the icy Alaskan winter. This means that visitors have a great chance of finding an entire house to rent for as little as $60 through rental sites such as Airbnb.

Typically, you'll find the ritziest rentals in the Hillside neighborhood, about a 20-minute drive south from downtown. In addition to beautiful interiors, many homes on the hillside boast stunning panoramic mountain views. As an added bonus, access to a full kitchen can significantly reduce your food bill.

If you prefer more traditional lodging options like hotels and hostels, there are plenty of options, but even in the cheaper shoulder season, you can bank on paying $140–200 per night for a hotel room.

Anchorage on a budget: exploring Alaska without a big bankroll

There are food bargains to be had at Anchorage's farmers' markets © Ohara Shipe / Lonely Planet

Eat like a local to make your money go further

Anchorage's unpretentious greasy spoons are also the most affordable dining options in town. You can snag a burger for as little as $6 at the Lucky Wishbone or get a delicious rice bowl with three toppings for under $10 at Yak and Yeti Cafe.

The more adventurous eater may enjoy a half-pound Alaskan reindeer sausage or a German-style bratwurst from Yeti Dogs, hailed as one of the 25 best food trucks in America by Food Network. Both sausages will only set you back $5.50.

If you're looking for something more classically American, like a pepperoni pizza, the no-frills Great Alaskan Pizza Company offers $10 large pizzas every day. For those days when you wake up feeling ravenous, Kava's Pancake House will fill you up with massive breakfast platters for $14.

For snacks, stop by the Walmart Supercenter on A St for the best prices in town. Don't overlook Anchorage's farmers' markets – from mid-May to September, markets packed with local produce and treats bounce around the city on different days of the week.

Get outdoors on the cheap

Many of Alaska's famous national parks have entry fees, on top of the steep prices for organized tours and activities. Adventurous types can enjoy a cheaper wilderness experience in nearby Chugach State Park, which starts just seven miles from the Anchorage city limits. Parking is just $5 and campsites go for $20 per night – not bad for access to 495,000 acres of mountains, lakes and glaciers, linked by hiking and biking trails. The adventure continues in adjacent Chugach National Forest, an even larger area of wilderness flanking Prince William Sound.

Save money on souvenirs by shopping downtown

Alaska has a lot of eccentric souvenirs to choose from to help you remember this enigmatic corner of the country. Whether you're interested in moose nugget swizzle sticks (made from real moose poop) or gold pan jewelry, you'll find it at affordable prices downtown. Trapper Jack's Trading Post and Grizzly's Gifts sell deeply discounted t-shirts, hats, and foodstuffs. For affordable handicrafts, check out the Anchorage Market at the Dimond Center on Friday, Saturday and Sunday – the market traditionally opens in the first week of May.

A little off the beaten path in midtown, you'll find the Alaska Fur Exchange, with handmade gifts created by Alaska Native artists that are unparalleled in craftsmanship. Although prices are higher than you'll pay for more commonplace souvenirs, they are still reasonable and these crafty gifts are sure to bring a smile to the face of the person receiving them. Take your pick from bone carvings, masks, jewelry and Alaska Native dolls.

Anchorage on a budget: exploring Alaska without a big bankroll

Dog sled races at the Fur Rondy, just one of many free festivals in Anchorage © Ohara Shipe / Lonely Planet

Seek out budget-friendly activities during the peak season

If your schedule doesn't allow a trip to Anchorage during either of the two shoulder seasons, you can still find affordable things to do in peak season. For a reasonable $25, you can explore 10,000 years of culture at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, and the same entry fee will let you go gold panning at Crow Creek Gold Mine. History buffs can see Anchorage’s historical sites on a trolley tour for $20–35.

Families will undoubtedly love seeing the seals, polar bears, and tigers at the Alaska Zoo, where admission for adults/kids is just $17/10. And over-21 can go to any of Anchorage’s downtown bars and listen to great live music for free most nights of the week (tune in to everything from jazz and country to metal).

Festivals offer plenty of fun for free

Anchorage hosts several large festivals throughout the year and none charge an admission fee. In February, the world-famous Fur Rendezvous (Fur Rondy) festival takes over the city, with everything from parades to snow carving, dog sled competitions and outhouse races. Think of it as Alaska’s version of Mardi Gras.

In the summer, there are three big festivals that draw large crowds. Held between June and July, Summer Solstice, Girdwood Forest Fair and Anchorage Pride all feature music, food, beer, art, parades, and dancing, and a good time is had by all.

Daily Costs in Anchorage 

  • Self-catering apartment (including Airbnb): $50–100 a night 
  • Basic hotel room for two: $140–200 a night
  • Local bus transport ticket: $5 a day, or $26 for one week
  • Latte from a coffee hut: $5–6
  • A sit-down breakfast: $14
  • Light lunch from a food truck: $5–15
  • Seafood dinner for two: $45–60
  • Growler (take-away bottle) of craft beer: $10–18

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