So how best to see Alaska? The answer is "it depends" - on you! There are a number of ways to explore this great state, and the best way truly depends on what you want to experience, the time you have and your budget. Options abound to explore Alaska: by sea, by land and by air.
Most people are first introduced to Alaska on a cruise ship. Ships take you through the Inside Passage, with port stops in Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Haines, Sitka and Icy Straight Point and scenic cruising through Tracy Arm , Glacier Bay, College Fjord or past Hubbard Glacier, depending on the itinerary. One can travel roundtrip from Seattle, Vancouver and San Francisco or one way between Seward or Whittier and Vancouver (occasionally Seattle). The one way itineraries provide the opportunity to see Anchorage, Alaska's interior and the Kenai peninsula; the roundtrip itineraries make for easier air travel.
Most cruises are 7 days and cater to a wide variety of budgets - thus their popularity. Most if not all of the major cruise lines offer itineraries in the region. Although ports tend to be touristy and can get quite crowded in the peak summer months, cruises are an overall great value and provide an easy and enjoyable way to see Alaska, especially for the first time.
A wonderful alternative to the bigger ship cruises are small ship adventure cruises and expeditions. These cruises are very different from the bigger ship itineraries, and cater to those who are looking for a unique and truly authentic Alaskan experience. With fewer than 85 passengers, these ships go where the big ships don't, and can't. They venture into more remote areas, quiet coves and channels where whales come to feed, offering incredible up close wildlife viewing opportunities. These cruises provide opportunities for hiking in remote rain forests, exploring coastal waters and glaciers by kayak and access to indigenous sites. Oftentimes the only port of call is where you embark/disembark. Small ship cruises do not offer casinos, evening entertainment and multiple dining venues - the destination is "entertainment". So if you are looking to really unplug for a few days, this type of cruise experience may be for you.
For those who want to seek their own adventures, take a look at the Alaska Ferry system which goes between Bellingham, Washington and Dutch Harbor on the Aleutian Chain. Take a car, an RV, a motorcycle, a bike, a kayak or just yourself and get on/off in over 30 communities along the route, (some accessible only by sea or float plane). Cabins with basic amenities are available, or "camp" with a sleeping bag and tent. Pets are allowed on the car deck.
I met some folks not too long ago who drove north on the Alaska Highway, but by the time they reached the Whitehorse area, they were tired of driving. So they headed south to Haines and caught the ferry all the way back to Bellingham. They raved about it. A great alternate way to see the Inside Passage!
Land and rail tours to Alaska's interior - Denali National Park area and Fairbanks - are often combined with a cruise vacation. Guided tours may be part of a cruise package or separate, but perfect for those who want a few extra days to see Alaska but don't want to do it on their own. Some packages are fully guided, others offer the transportation between sites and give you plenty of free time.
A cruise experience isn't for everyone, thus land only coach bus and small group tours are perfect for those who want to experience Alaska but are uncomfortable exploring on their own. Another option is the Alaska Railroad, which runs between Seward or Whittier and Fairbanks. Rail packages are often part of the cruise ship tours, however packages and day trips are available for those who want to travel on their own as well.
If time (and budget) allows, seeing Alaska from above is a real WOW moment. Words don't do justice to the breathtaking scenery seen when flying over glaciers and mountains or through the fjords. Float planes can land in remote spots and in the fjords. Helicopters take you to remote areas where you can observe bears (without any crowds) or land on glaciers - nothing like walking on a glacier! These are definitely once in a lifetime experiences.
Self drive itineraries are perfect for those who want to design their own journeys. Rent a car, grab a map, decide what you want to see and "go". Well, in the summer months especially, hotel/cabin and even camp site reservations are highly recommended or required, but the point being that a self drive itinerary is a great option for those who do not want a specific schedule that accompanies a guided tour and are comfortable exploring on their own. Self drive itineraries provide the opportunity to stop in places tours drive past, to take a short hike on a marked trail or take in the beauty that surrounds you while enjoying a picnic lunch. It also allows you to piece together your most sought after experiences.
An itinerary I recently provided to a couple included cabin stays, free time to explore the national parks, a day for rafting and a few days in a backcountry fishing lodge. Freedom and flexibility is the key.