The northernmost sceneries – Trip to Alaska

During the winter vacation in Jan 2023, I took a solo trip to Alaska, including Anchorage, Fairbanks and the Yukon region, where I witnessed one of the most ethereal spectacles on Earth – Aurora borealis. Due to the lack of convenient transportation and vehicles, I waited for 10 days to see the aurora. The freezing temperature (~-30°C) restricted my movements to a great extent. For the most of the time, I stayed in the hotel and waited. Yet it’s still an unforgettable experience in my life.

In Fairbanks, Alaska, you see northern lights 240 days a year yet best the time to observe the aurora is from October to May of the following year. Alaska is the largest continent in the United States, and it took me about 7 hours to fly from Chicago. And a transfer is required, Chicago-Anchorage (the provincial capital of Alaska); Anchorage-Fairbanks. Fairbanks is located north of Anchorage and is basically completely within the Aurora belt. Won’t go over too much detail introducing the Aurora. You can refer to the link from Wiki in the previous paragraph. Auroras are produced by the radiation of the sun so they occur every day. Whether they can be seen depends on their intensity and many factors.

Travel

If you are inside the United States, it is recommended to start from a big city like Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, etc., so that the air tickets will be cheaper. It’s best to book the return ticket together. I just didn’t book the return ticket, and the return ticket was nearly $200 more expensive when I booked it 2 days before I left. Chinese citizens need a passport and US visa, while local (long-term/permanent) US residents can use a driver’s license, green card, etc. If you purchase it for a connecting flight on the same flight, you do not need to recheck your baggage midway. The major airline to Alaska is Alaska Airlines with a fee of $ 30 per piece of luggage. If you purchase tickets from two different airlines on your own, you will need to pick up your luggage midway and handle the check-in and check-in procedures again. But it’s basically the first case, so don’t bother. TSA requires you to take off your shoes, so be careful. The shops in the airport are not very expensive like those in China. They are priced normally, so you don’t have to carry necessary food with you all the time. You can buy it after passing the security check. SIM cards from Verizon and AT&T (and their virtual operators) are recommended. An iPhone XS or more advanced models can purchase ESIM directly online, which is of great convenience. You can also use ESIM software, but it is more expensive. Mobile phone cards are also sold at the airport, you could buy them afterward if you don’t care about the price. I use Verizon’s US Mobile, which costs 18 bucks per month including tax, and 6GB of sharable data. Google Verizon or AT&T With MVNO, you can see many different brands with all kinds of deals for you to freely choose from:

Transportation

Something I have to say in the beginning is that you must have a car! The local temperature is extremely cold in winter, -25°C is the norm. Just wear as much as possible and you must also an ear protection. You can bring some warmers. I used HOTHANDS and it’s recommended. Due to the excessive amount of snow, it’s even too harsh to walk on many of the roads, so you can hardly go far without a car. Don’t stay in only one place if you want to see the north lights. I would say better to chase them than to wait for them. Basically, you either drive to a place with a high chance of auroras, or you find a place with a very good location (empty space), such as on a mountaintop or by a lake, where must also have an indoor place to rest. However, it is very possible that it cannot be seen due to weather (clouds) and other reasons. By the way, Chinese people can drive in Alaska for up to 90 days with a Chinese driver’s license.

Ctrip, Lyft, and Uber all provide car rental services. Renting a car is definitely the most cost-effective solution. The second option is to sign up for a group tour. Ctrip has deals for around $120 per person of length varying from 1 day to 5 days. Definitely communicate with the tour guide and book directly with them if possible, which avoids third-party platform fees. The 4 hours of aurora observation I booked on Ctrip for the first day was about $150 while it only cost less than $100 to book it directly with the tour guide for the next day.

There are only local buses in Fairbanks, but they DO NOT operate on Sundays. Not very punctual, 1.5 dollars for a one-way ticket, and $3 for the day Pass, you can use it unlimitedly in one day, not bad value though. Tickets are bought on the bus and no change will be given! So prepare for change in advance. In addition, the places where buses can go are also very limited. Although you can go from the airport to the city, the bus takes 1. 5-2 hours for a 20-minute drive. Uber / Lyft from the airport to the city center costs about $20. Also, the cheapest time to take a taxi is around 10-11 and 14-16 o’clock.

Stay

If you plan not to sign up for a group tour, accommodation should be considered carefully. If you are driving by yourself, you can either stay in a car (EV, minivan, etc.) or stay in a hotel/Airbnb. I chose Airbnb. It should be noted that real-name authentication is required before registering on Airbnb and placing the first order. You can use your domestic ID card or passport/visa authentication. Airbnb’s options are generally cheaper than hotels. Including service fees and cleaning fees, you can basically find B&Bs with private bathrooms in the city center for an average of $80 a night, and the hygiene is pretty good. The hotel costs about 100 to 200 dollars per night (excluding service fees and cleaning fees). What is worth mentioning is that although hygiene not as good as a hotel, if you encounter obvious hygiene/facilities problems when checking into an Airbnb B&B, directly contact Airbnb customer service for a partial/full refund. This is included in their “platform fee”. All interfaces of Airbnb, including customer service chats, are translated, which is also very user-friendly. In summary, for a hotel, although safety is completely guaranteed, they may not even exist in certain rural areas, where you can have a better view and a higher probability of seeing the aurora.

Eating & Shopping

There are many restaurants in the area, including many Korean and Thai restaurants. Like other places in the United States, the clerk will let or even force you to tip in front of you while checking out. Although you can still choose to decline, it is usually not a good idea. For consumption, UnionPay cards are almost totally unusable, so it is recommended to choose Visa or MasterCard (I had run into a situation where Discover cards couldn’t be used). Of course, cash is also acceptable, always. Most places also support electronic payments such as Apple Pay. If you are staying in a B&B and need to hit the grocery, you can go to Safeway or Walgreens, which is about 20 minutes’ walk away from downtown. There is a co-op market nearer to downtown, where products are extremely few and expensive, so I don’t recommend it if you are not in case of emergency or you can’t walk far. The last option is to order a delivery, which is doable but also not reliable because of multiple reasons including weather. Alaska is a tax-free state with no shopping tax. You may be able to save dozens of dollars on some electronic products here. When staying at a B&B in the forest (,which is what I did later), you must bring enough food. If you don’t have a car, you will LITERALLY STARVE TO DEATH in the forest with no one discovered, for months due to the old temperature. Those B&Bs in mountains/forests generally don’t have running water and flushing toilets, let alone a place to take a shower. Generally, the landlord will put the water in a large tank for you to use. There may also be a water dispenser.

Below are a few recommended restaurants with good tastes:

  • Seoul’s Gate: Korean food. I don’t know why its Korean name means “Seoul Prison”, maybe it’s because its ancient, even shabby decorations. There is a supermarket downstairs, but doesn’t sell many things.
  • The Crepery: Crepes and coffee. It’s very crowded in the morning. You can choose to go there between 10 and 11 am.
  • *Turtle’s Club: Steakhouse and tavern in the forest. I didn’t try it but many people recommended it. The main focus is on the atmosphere. Seems like a reservation ahead is needed. If you have a car and can easily go there, you can go and check it out. But I have no guarantee of satisfaction on this one.

Below are some photos I shot on my iPhone 13 Pro with a tripod:

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