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Alaska Railroad: Everything You Need to Know to Plan the Perfect Cruise Tour

The McKinley Explorer (Photo: Holland America Line)
The McKinley Explorer (Photo: Holland America Line)

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Most travelers who visit the 49th State extend their cruise with a land portion, and the most popular method of transportation for this journey is the Alaska Railroad. The train is a scenic and relaxing way to traverse lots of rugged territory.

Included in many Alaska cruise tour packages (also referred to as land-and-sea journeys), a ride on the Alaska Railroad connects one of the destination's most famous attractions -- Denali National Park & Preserve -- with Anchorage and the ports where you will board (or depart) your cruise ship.

Onboard guides provide commentary to pair with the stunning scenery outside the window as your train winds through awe-inspiring landscapes of snowcapped mountain ranges, valleys and rushing rivers. Look for Hurricane Gulch -- you'll cross a 918-foot trestle, nearly 300 feet above the creek below. Spotting wildlife is a popular pastime, with passengers and guides alike staying vigilant for eagle, bear and even whales (if you're heading toward Seward).

Thinking about booking a cruise to the Last Frontier with an Alaska Railroad extension? We break down everything you might want to know about taking this beloved Alaska train trip, whether it's before or after your cruise.

Updated November 21, 2019

Alaska Railroad Routes

Whittier, Alaska (Photo: Troutnut/Shutterstock)

The Alaska Railroad runs five trains and a number of routes year-round. As a cruise passenger, you are more than likely to ride one of the trains chartered by Princess Cruises or Holland America. On these tours, the train routes are predetermined and incorporated into your overall Alaska cruise tour.

Aboard the McKinley Explorer/Princess Rail, there are dedicated train cars for each cruise line (both owned by Carnival Corp.) -- so two or more of these branded experiences could be operating as different cars but on the same train. Most Royal Caribbean or Celebrity cruise tours on the Alaska Railroad will be aboard the Wilderness Express.

Most cruise tours run a train portion from Anchorage (where the main airport is located) to Talkeetna and into Denali National Park, and then optionally north into Fairbanks -- routes can be northbound or southbound.

Princess offers Direct to the Wilderness rail service between its cruise terminal in Whittier, Alaska, and Denali Princess-area wilderness lodges (bypassing Anchorage). Holland America's Alaska cruises embark in Seward, and cruise tours with a train extension will arrive or depart right near the cruise terminal.

Passengers booking independently can tack on any number of rail extensions with the Alaska Railroad, but packages are arranged through the train company and sightseeing is self-directed.

Alaska Railroad Onboard Options

Adventure Class, offering passengers forward-facing seats with large picture windows, is the least expensive option to book onboard the Alaska Railroad.

GoldStar Service is the most popular choice, featuring double-decker dome cars offering passengers full 360-degree views. All seats face forward, with the option to rotate seats to allow for a party of four to face one another. GoldStar cars provide the only outdoor platform on the train at the upper level.

In addition, GoldStar Service includes in-seat beverage service, a full-time bar attendant and preferred seating for dinner in a separate dining area.

Both experiences include narration from one or more full-time tour guides, and might vary based on whether you are booking through a cruise line or the Alaska Railroad.

Alaska Railroad Schedule

A scenic view of Hurricane Gulch between Anchorage and Denali National Park in Alaska (Photo: Andrew F. Kazmierski/Shutterstock)

The most popular season for the Alaska Railroad runs in tandem with cruise ships -- May through September -- though the cruise season kicks off as early as April and can run into October.

The Coastal Classic Train and Denali Star Train run mid-May through mid-September (in tandem with Princess Cruises' and Holland America's train service). The Glacier Discovery Train starts service in late May through mid-September.

The Alaska Railroad switches to "winter service" in mid-September. The Aurora Winter Train operates mid-September to mid-May. The Hurricane Turn Train operates year-round from Talkeetna; its turnaround is Hurricane Gulch, a point marked by spectacular views and the longest, tallest bridge on the Alaska Railroad.

Alaska Railroad Prices

For the most part, the cost of a ride along the scenic Alaska Railroad will be bundled into the price of the land-and-sea tour through your cruise line. Starting prices for a 10-night cruise tour are comparable between Princess Cruises and Holland America; about $1,300 per person (excluding taxes and fees) for an inside cruise cabin, at the time of publication.

Peak season for the railroad and cruise lines alike in Alaska is June through August, so expect pricing to be higher. Booking a rail extension independently could run up to $400 or more per person, depending on the route (that price is for service from Anchorage all the way to Fairbanks in GoldStar class during peak summer months).

Alaska Railroad Tips

Woman looking out a train window at the landscape between Denali and Whittier

Prioritize scenery. While the entire experience is worth the trip, many agree that the most scenic segments of the Alaska Railroad are between Anchorage and Denali (Denali Star), and Anchorage and Seward (Coastal Classic).

Choose when you snooze. Helpful maps are usually provided so you can follow along with key landmarks (and know when it might be OK to doze off -- the train rides can be long and lulling).

Pack smart. Days onboard can last multiple hours; bring a small day bag with any necessary medications as well as a light sweater, books, sudoku, camera equipment and anything else you might want to have at hand. Keep in mind that Alaska Railroad trains do not have Wi-Fi, so don't rely on social media apps to keep you occupied.

Prep for photos. Set your camera to a faster shutter speed to help counteract the train's motion; photos should be sharper.

Bottom Line

The Alaska Railroad is a classic experience in Alaska -- for locals and tourists alike -- and a comfortable, albeit long and leisurely, way to see even more sights before or after an Alaskan cruise.

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