Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Tips to Make Your Vacation Easier

Let's face it: it's a long journey to get to Alaska and it's expensive. For your precious few days up here, whether a few days or a few weeks, your time is precious. Here are several tips that can help you spend more time getting to see and experience Alaska and less time in the airport, at WalMart, or doing mundane things that keep you from seeing what you came to see!

1. Be well rested before you get to Alaska. You may go to the beach or to a cabin a couple hours from your house for getaway weekends to catch up on good sleep. But do you really want to come all this way to be rundown and fatigued? Naturally, this is your vacation from the stresses of life, but you set yourself up to not enjoy your time here if you do things like take red-eye overnight flights to Alaska or set up nearly-impossible flight routes with too-short layovers. If I had a dollar for everyone who inadvertently spent the first night of their grand voyage at the Salt Lake airport or at O'Hare because something happened with their connecting flight(s)...I'm a big proponent of going as direct as possible at a decent time of day. It really is worth the extra dollars. See the Fly Smart post in this blog for more info.

Use the clock to tell you when to sleep. It's sunny all summer, night and day. At some point you will fall over from exhaustion if you think you can keep going til "dark." Jet lag can be terrible and really mess up your body. This is not a good place to try to stay on your home time zone. First off, there's nothing to do at 3 a.m. if you're from the East Coast or Midwest and wide-awake at that hour, and secondly, you'll be missing the most beautiful time of day if you're headed to bed at 7 p.m.

To get onto Alaska Time, make yourself go to bed at the time you turn in at home, and make yourself stay in bed until at least 6 in the morning to help your body reset, since the triggers from light outside will not be a good indicator. Between the light and the excitement of being in such an extraordinary place, it can be hard, but it'll really catch up with you after a few days. Trust me, you'll hate to have to miss ATV'ing or flightseeing because you were too fatigued. I see that mostly in my teen guests. Mom and Dad may turn in at a decent hour, but it feels fun to stay up til 2 a.m. for Missy Teenager who is not as disciplined, and she pays for it later by missing out on a fun adventure.

2. Don't bring clothes for every possible contingency. This may fly in the face of your instincts or common sense. Yes, it does rain here. Yes, it can snow even in the summer. Yes, it's probably cooler than what you're used to at home. But (this is for you, Gusinskys!), a whole suitcase of shoes?? What's the worst that's going to happen if you get chilly on a hike? We have heat here. Do you really want to MANAGE all that STUFF, dragging it around behind you all the way through Alaska? Then you need the extra big Suburban which costs an arm and a leg at the rental desk and at the pump. And you've gotta haul those bags in and out of every place you stay. And you've gotta repack and sort and organize...One trend I've seen over my 10 seasons owning my B&B is that people are bringing more and more with them. Now, many people eschew the 50 pound weight limit on their suitcases and pay the extra charge for these MONSTER huge bags that are basically red or black nylon rolling steamer trunks with a pull-up handle. How many couples do I hear bickering about who's going to bring in the bags or haul them back out and did they get everything? See the How to Dress in Alaska and the Pack Smart posts in this blog for more info.

In terms of getting in and out of the airport efficiently, not everyone can do this, but consider bringing a handbag or tote and one suitcase which fits in the overhead compartment. Shaving off 45 minutes standing at Baggage Claim at 1 a.m. or any time makes a persuasive argument for keeping your baggage with you. See other goods reasons like Lost Luggage in the Pack Smart post in this blog.

3. Stay longer in one place and avoid the time wasted re-packing, hauling bags, searching out your next lodging, and trying to hit certain check-in times. Using one spot as a base-camp can shave hours off of a day. See the Unpack Once post in this blog for more info.

4. Food: In my humble opinion, food is not the main attraction in Alaska. The big "wow" is the glorious splendor of nature with soaring mountains, gorgeous rivers and forests, and don't forget the wildlife. While there are restaurants that are gastronomical marvels using the freshest Alaska seafood and local specialties, it's likely that during a lot of your vacation days, it'll get towards lunch time and the only choice nearby may be a greasy spoon. I'm a fan of hitting the grocery store. Our food prices are higher here, and frankly I feel a lot of our restaurant prices are just not worth the cost. At many of our local cafes, diners, and restaurants, a plate lunch of a hamburger with cheese and a big mound of fries typically runs $13 or more. Dinner entrees for something like pasta or a chicken dish can easily be $18, with dinners like salmon or nice beef ranging from $22-27 for the basics. That adds up fast. One thing in your favor is that portion sizes are generally large, so it's often possible to split an entree. For sure, take a couple evenings to go out and have a satisfying, special dinner. But on the days you're running around sightseeing and just want to feed your hunger at the end of the day, you might consider getting a rotisserie chicken and bagged salads or something along that order at the grocery store. Our cottages and apartments all have kitchens. Most guests comment that the hearty continental breakfasts I make each morning carried them either to or through lunch and that it was economical for them to just grab something quick while they were out on the go, sightseeing or adventuring. One caveat: don't forget to eat dinner during "dinner-time." Our long summer days can fool you: the sun is still up, shining, at 7-8-9-10 p.m. and many visitors loose track of time. Most restaurants here pretty much are closing up for the night by 8-9 p.m. or so. It can be harder to find a real meal at 10 p.m., besides that long days can tire you out (See #1 above). Gotta pace yourself and fuel yourself well for your Alaska adventure!

Regarding types of food available here, we are not a tropical paradise, and most fruits and vegetables were freighted up here. While salads don't universally consist of iceburg lettuce any more, green stuff may be more scarce than you're used to. Finding good peaches or things you may be used to can be dicey. Alaskans eat diets heavy on potatoes (which we grow here) and meat (much of which grows here, commonly moose, caribou and salmon) because it's what there is a lot of here. You don't have to worry about the provenance of the red meat on your plate, since we can't serve wild game to guests (since it's not USDA-slaughtered). If you're wondering how most families up here can afford the price of food, it's because many live subsistence lifestyles to some degree, hunting and fishing or gathering berries and growing gardens.

If you're vegetarian or vegan, you are going to have slim pickings at restaurants outside of Anchorage and other larger towns. These places will offer some degree of "ethnic food" which can be helpful. Many vegetarian guests exclaim with delight when they find something for dinner that is not a baked potato or plain pasta. At a lot of restaurants, they want to make sure a vegetable is good and dead before they serve it, so don't be alarmed to see boiled-to-death broccoli or green beans. In our area, Vagabond Blues cafe and Turkey Red restaurant in Palmer do a nice job of offering vegetables, grains and protein alternatives.

5. Choice of rental car: Rental cars are spendy here and the taxes added on at the airport are killer, 28%. You can save a bundle by not renting at the airport, by taking a taxi to pick up your car at a different location. This may seem out of character with my lectures about spending your time efficiently in Alaska, but I'm talking as much as $100+ saved on a weekly or longer rental.

I'm a cheapskate. I usually get the beep-beep economy car when I go Outside, but I pack light and don't usually spend a lot of time in that car. It's almost a given that you will spend a lot of time in your car up here because the distances in Alaska are far. I actually recommend that you think about how many 5-6 hour drives you'll have in your trip when you think about how big of a car to get. NOT bringing huge amounts of luggage can make your time in that car more comfortable, too. Yes, you all can do it, to have the back of the vehicle filled, then each have a carry-on bag on your laps while you motor to the next destination, but, really? Several days of multiple-hour drives like that?

6: Gas: buy it when you're leaving a metropolitan area. Don't buy it on the far end of a loop-drive if you can help it. The further you get from the core area of Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley, the more expensive it gets. Sometimes by as much as $2/gallon when you're "out there," so it adds up. If you can, schedule your fill-ups to hit while you're still in a bigger town. I doubly emphasize that if part of your trip takes you through Canada. Ouch! Even if you're not handy with the math converting gallons to liters, just know, it costs more in Canada.

7. Souvenirs: I can't tell you how many of my guests ask where to buy "cheap gifts." WalMart actually has the widest array, and the Fred Meyer and Carrs grocery stores are good, too. Be clear though that these are "cheap." They are almost all mass-made in China. They're a good source for printed mugs, sweatshirts, and postcards. Visitors can sometimes have sticker shock after looking at carvings or locally made artisan pieces. My grandmother was on the hunt for a couple of years for an "inexpensive totem pole." That doesn't exist, if you don't want the plastic nine inch tall one that WalMart carries. Anything made by human hands here in Alaska doesn't come cheap because the cost of living here is much higher, particularly if it is something created by a villager living way-out.

8. Activities/tours/tickets: Plan ahead as much as possible. Even if that means arriving at our B&B and sitting down for part of a morning to sketch out what you'd like to do here, that time is well-spent. It's not advisable to just show up at a place and expect to get a tour right at that moment, with a few exceptions (day-cruises in Seward being one of the easy ones to walk onto because there are many going each day). Very few things in Alaska are 24-hour, so please be courteous about not calling for reservations or to schedule an activity outside of 8 a.m.-8 p.m., generally--at most small Mom and Pop businesses, they do not have overnight "desks" to answer your calls. "Mom and Pop" are ready to have some dinner and call it a day by late evening!. We are happy to help you lay out attractions, activities, and routes that match your interests, so just ask! We can also help you reach the tour and activity operators to make your plans. In general, plan your activities as early in your stay as possible so in case of weather, you can still reschedule it for a later day or time.

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