As I landed in the Anchorage airport in February 2021, I was prepared to experience something new in travel – a line to get into Alaska. There were a row of podiums and iPads manned by masked locals up late welcoming visitors into Alaska. When I arrived, visitors had to have proof of a negative COVID19 test within the last 72 hours before they could enter Alaska. It was a smooth, efficient process and if you filled out the forms on their app before arriving. And just like that – I was welcomed and allowed to enter Alaska…a weird feeling for a domestic trip!
However, in the 12 days I was traveling in Alaska, the COVID19 rules were evolving. No longer was it mandatory (it’s still suggested) to present a negative test to enter. In addition, while I was there the entire state went from partial capacity to full capacity for indoor establishments. It was really strange to walk into a café one day at 50% capacity and the next day at full capacity.
Alaska’s COVID19 rules seem to be changing fast. In fact, it’s hard to keep up with travel restrictions and local rules. This isn’t an article about the most up to date COVID19 rules for Alaska, for that you need to check here.
Instead, you’ll find information in this article about what it’s like to travel around Alaska during the pandemic: What to expect, how the tour industry is handling it, and try to answer that question, “should I plan a trip to Alaska in 2021?”
The day I left they announced that they were the first state to open up the vaccine to anyone 16 and older. In fact from the first 20 minutes of being in Alaska I had locals telling me stories about how well the vaccinations were going in Alaska.
After all, Alaska has a built-in requirement for the vaccine – cold. Stories of vaccines being delivered by dogsled, snowmobile, boats, and bush planes were all over the news. This spirit of ‘no distance is too far’ was alive and well in Alaska. It’s one of the things I love about visiting Alaska – even though it’s huge and people are spread out, they find ways to traverse it that make it seem do-able.
In fact, nearly every tour operator I met had their first dose of vaccine already. I was surprised because my biggest concern about traveling to Alaska in 2021 was that I would bring the virus with me to their beautiful remote areas and communities and put them in jeopardy. That’s why I was more than happy to get tested before coming.
Small Businesses Hit Hard in Alaska – Take a Look at the Talkeetna Roadhouse
I talked to many of the travel businesses I toured with about how the pandemic has affected them. It was really educational for me. I certainly know what I’ve been going through, but it was interesting to hear other’s stories. I sat and talked for a long while with Trisha Costello, the owner of Talkeetna Roadhouse Bakery and Inn. I’ve been there in the past trips to Alaska during normal travel times, so I was eager to stay there during the pandemic and give her business, as well as have a chance to talk to her about the pandemic’s effects.
Out of anyone I encountered, I think she had some of the most radical changes to her business. After all, the Talkeetna Roadhouse is a gathering spot, it’s where people came to share, eat, sleep, and do laundry! The Roadhouse is really known for family style and communal everything. When social is in your DNA as a business, but you can no longer be social – how do you continue to exist?
This is what Trisha has had to grapple with for the past year. She seems to be handling it, but you can also tell that it’s been a struggle – physically and mentally. She has made so many changes to her business – and she had to start by laying off all of her employees. So that means she’s been a one woman show for over a year now.
One is a Lonely Number When Running a Business
When we first arrived in Talkeetna and walked around, I found Trisha up on the roof of the Roadhouse shoveling about 2 feet of snow off the roof! There’s a lot to do to maintain a place in Alaska at any time of year, but winter is particularly hard.
After letting her staff go (ranging from 21 to 45 people depending on the season). She closed the bakery, canceled events, and any pie baking classes she holds in the winter. Essentially, she only left the Roadhouse/Inn open. As of March 2021, the only people who can go inside the Roadhouse are the people that are staying there. She had to privatize the normal communal bathrooms which meant not being able to host people at capacity. And she allowed a 24 hour buffer of vacancy for the rooms on either night of a reserved stay to allow a deeper clean.
To see all of the changes, Check out her article on The Roadhouse in Time of the Pandemic.
She told me that she felt she knew this was going to be a long process for her and Talkeetna from the beginning, “I felt like early on it was going to be a long haul. I hold a reservation book for rooms and the tsunami of cancellations was mind blowing. I think if you were just a restaurant or brewery, you didn’t really see it coming as you did when you have lodging reservations. I saw it coming…especially when other countries were cancelling their reservations. I really felt like this is serious. “
Taking Safety Seriously
She has treated it very seriously – in fact she had safety in mind for all of her guests constantly by communicating via text message when breakfast was ready, requiring masks in the building, as well as social distancing by safely timing everyone’s breakfasts.
That’s right – she’s still serving her incredible breakfasts with blueberry sourdough pancakes made from sourdough starter from 1902! Add some eggs, bacon, and reindeer sausage with real maple syrup and delicious coffee…it felt like the Roadhouse that I remember in normal times! She also left her famous ginger molasses cookies in everyone’s rooms and even gave us a little bag when we left. She did every bit of this herself – in addition to cleaning all the rooms, picking people up from the train station, and clearing 2 feet of snow off of her roof!
“There’s nothing worse than being in a business that’s all about saying yes to everyone…and then all of a sudden you have to say no,” she said. I could tell that it hurts her to say no. But when you have no staff, you have to say no.
“If I go down…” her words trailed off as she finished the sentence in her head. “I can’t even afford to get the flu right now,” she explained when I commented about how seriously she has taken the distancing and safety in her establishment. That’s why it’s so hard to have everything hinge on one person.
I stayed at the Roadhouse during my Talkeetna stay, but she had to put us in the little apartment above the Museum a block away that she uses as overflow. It was absolutely charming to stay there and it had plenty of room. It actually used to be the apartment that the teacher lived in for the old schoolhouse!
Having seen the roadhouse both ways – visiting the Roadhouse in the summer and coming in for food, bakery, and enjoying the atmosphere at communal tables, and now when it’s closed down to the public, it is different, but there’s a beauty to this too. There’s a new intimacy to it, and quite frankly it was the first time that I was able to really take my time and look around the historic building!
On this winter trip in 2021, I stayed in only local or small lodges. It’s important to consider that when you start up traveling again everywhere. Small businesses, like the Roadhouse in Talkeetna, were really hit the hardest.
What are Alaska Tourism Operators Doing To Keep You – and Them – Safe
One great thing is that even in the winter – most of the activities you do in Alaska are outdoor activities! For my winter trip I interacted with a lot of different tour operators and every one of them did a great job of following safety protocols. Each business and restaurant and hotel is doing their own thing – so it does vary from business to business, but overall I felt very safe.
As we driving up to Healy to do our 2 day Dog Sled Expedition with Earthsong Lodge, the owner called me to let me know their guides get tested before every tour in Healy. When we showed up the next day our guide Courtney let us know that she had a negative rapid test that morning. I was surprised to learn that even in the tiny little community of Healy Alaska they have rapid testing that is free – I was really impressed.
Even so, Courtney still was diligent about wearing a mask the entire time we were with her. We stayed in a small remote cabin with her overnight and I don’t think I ever saw her without a mask!
Every restaurant, hotel, and bar I went in required masks to be worn. In addition, most tour guides gave you the option of picking you up at your hotel and driving you if you all wore masks, or you could meet them at the starting point of the tour yourself. It was a nice option to have.
Also – even though most operators provided the cold weather gear you needed to stay warm and have fun in Alaska during the winter, they asked you to bring your own base layers and balaclava, hats, and neck gaiters.
When it came to social distancing – I experienced a variety of cool ways businesses kept people at a distance.
As we were gearing up to go on our glacier snowmobile tour the company had different areas of their shop set up with a couple of folding chairs in each corner and ‘assigned’ us to our area. This kept all of the people separate as they outfitted us.
At Sakura restaurant in Alyeska Resort they closed the actual restaurant and opened up their big hotel ballroom to serve diners at very socially distanced tables. It was a great use of the ballroom space!
The Copper Whale boutique hotel did a totally contactless check-in, providing us a key code before we arrived and had instructions for us when we arrived as to what room we were in!
Finally, every restaurant we went into had a contact tracing sheet to fill out. Sometimes it was old school pen and paper, and sometimes it was a QR code – but it was always there.
Should I Travel to Alaska in 2021?
Short answer – Yes but…do it responsibly.
As long as their numbers continue to go in the right direction, and as everyone there gets vaccinated, I think it’s a great to plan a trip to Alaska in 2021! My time there this winter showed me that the state is being safe, and that they are eager to get tourism back.
Plus, Alaska is the biggest state in the US, and there is so much room there. I love their new tourism campaign that talks about how there are 600,000 square miles to roam. And the beauty is that with that much room, we don’t need to all go to the same place!
Most visitors stick between Fairbanks and Seward, but I’d like to challenge you to go further afield, try to get to remote Alaska – it’s the thing I love most about the state.
In fact, on my first trip to Alaska, I focused only on remote communities like the seldom visited Nome on the east coast, and Coldfoot a truckstop/village on the Dalton Highway. These are great areas for outdoor adventures. Plus, there are the seldom visited National Parks like Wrangell St Elias and the cute adventure town of McCarthy, or the super remote Lake Clark National Park. I believe that the beauty of Alaska is the remote culture and wide-open spaces; its to blaze your own trail and meet some of these wonderful small businesses that make Alaska so special!
Why You Should Consider a Trip to Alaska This Summer
Alaskan locals will have been vaccinated (at least the ones that wanted it), and hopefully you too will be vaccinated. In addition to this, here’s some real important news about summer 2021 in Alaska. These stats came from a small business owner in Anchorage that runs Photo Tours for aurora in the winter and sunset photography in the summer – Alaska Photo Treks.
“In a normal (pre-pandemic) year, some 56% of 2 million annual visitors to Alaska arrive via the larger cruise ships with departure ports from Los Angeles to Vancouver. Only 36% would typically arrive by air. In 2020, Anchorage saw a 59% decrease in travelers arriving by air and virtually none via cruise ship. But recent market research indicates that traveler sentiment is improving dramatically, and travelers are seeking what Alaska has to offer – wide open spaces, nature, and national parks. this will be another good year for independent travel to Alaska.”
Another reason why it’s going to be great for independent travelers this summer is because it appears that Alaska will not have their big cruise ship traffic this summer. That means fewer crowds, and more space for the independent traveler!
Best Time to Visit Alaska in the Summer
And honestly, based on my own personal travels to Alaska, I think late August/early September is the best time to be there in the summer. No bugs, a chance of aurora, fall colors (yes, fall happens early in Alaska!), and fewer people.
Start Planning Your Trip to Alaska!
I asked Trisha what she would say to people who want to come back to Alaska this summer? “Come with a negative test and a vaccine. Travel is the elephant in the room in this thing. The virus didn’t just hop on a plan all by itself,” she said definitively.
There’s so much to explore in Alaska, and so many places you can explore and you don’t have to even wear your mask because there’s no one around. You can really be free. It’s easy to go to Denali or Talkeetna or Valdeez – but how much of Alaska can you see? That’s right, I just threw down the gauntlet – I hope you pick it up!
I was a guest of Travel Alaska for my trip, however all opinions expressed here are my own.