FIRST TIME to Alaska- DRIVING vs RAIL from Whittier to Denali? - NEED help THANKS!!!!

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#1
19 Posts
Joined May 2013
Hi all - first time-cruiser here and first time to Alaska - WE NEED YOUR HELP - THANKS!!!

We need to chose between renting a car vs. booking Rail/Coach combinations from Princess after our cruise.

My husband prefers driving and isn't worried about missing scenery as the driver.
We both like the flexibility of a car and making stops along the way.
Google maps says it's about 5 hours from Whittier to Denali.

------BUT - here are the questions:
1 ---- Is that the true timing or is it a huge amount more with traffic?

Princess reps say we will get stuck in a tunnel and stuck behind rail cars - is that true?
For example, the Princess coach bus from Whittier to McKinley, which is closer, is 6 hours - can we at least make the same timing by car?
And their rail is 9.5 hours - could the train be slower than car?

2 ---- Are the roads difficult to drive? Are they 'scary' - like are you on the edge of cliffs all the time (wouldn't bother my husband, but maybe me!) Are the roads as scenic as the ones the rail goes on?

THANKS for your help!!!! I've looked at some chats - you guys are great!!
#2
Anchorage, AK
2,957 Posts
Joined Dec 2011
Originally posted by jpplay
Hi all - first time-cruiser here and first time to Alaska - WE NEED YOUR HELP - THANKS!!!

We need to chose between renting a car vs. booking Rail/Coach combinations from Princess after our cruise.

My husband prefers driving and isn't worried about missing scenery as the driver.
We both like the flexibility of a car and making stops along the way.
Google maps says it's about 5 hours from Whittier to Denali.

------BUT - here are the questions:
1 ---- Is that the true timing or is it a huge amount more with traffic?
Five hours is pushing it quite a bit. It takes at least 1.5 hours to get to Anchorage. Four hours from Anchorage to Denali is also optimistic. It is doable for someone like me who has seen it all and can just drive-but for someone who has never been on the road before, it will be slower-especially if you want to stop and see something along the way -and there is much to see along the way...I would budget a whole day to get up there.

Originally posted by jpplay
Princess reps say we will get stuck in a tunnel and stuck behind rail cars - is that true?
For example, the Princess coach bus from Whittier to McKinley, which is closer, is 6 hours - can we at least make the same timing by car?
And their rail is 9.5 hours - could the train be slower than car?
Ok, to get out of Whittier you have to drive through a tunnel. It is one-way and is staged. You can wait up till a 1/2 hour to get into the tunnel-if your timing is bad. Sometimes you can hit it just right and go right on through.Trains also use the tunnel and if there is train traffic you will have to wait for that-but, they tru to minimize trains during the peak driving hours.

Yes, trains are slower than cars. On the Glenn Highway north, the speed limit is 65 in many places. Trains will go nowhere near that fast.


2 ---- Are the roads difficult to drive? Are they 'scary' - like are you on the edge of cliffs all the time (wouldn't bother my husband, but maybe me!) Are the roads as scenic as the ones the rail goes on?[/quote]


The roads are not difficult to drive, but they can be scary-not because of cliff edges, but because of other nutty drivers... Driving from Whittier to Anchorage, you will be on the inside lanes, away from any cliff edges. The drive north of Anchorage has not a cliff edge in sight....

As for scenic, I would say they are both about the same. You will see different things on both, but the quality is there with either one you take.
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#3
Redmond WA
8,755 Posts
Joined Sep 2009
Under good conditions I'd say 6 hrs from Whittier to Denali by car. But I hope you will take your time and enjoy some sights along the way.

The Whittier tunnel is only one lane, and shared by trains and cars so there is a published schedule. Leaving Whittier it is open on the hour, for 15 minutes. If you rent a car, you could be at the Avis office when they open at 8am, and be ready to catch the 9am tunnel opening. Or, take your time and catch the 10am opening or 11am, whichever suits your needs.
http://www.dot.state.ak.us/creg/whit...schedule.shtml

Once you get thru the tunnel you're only around 45 miles from Anchorage. Instead of rushing up to Denali, take your time and explore. The area between Whittier and Anchorage has many interesting possibilities .. look for sheep on the ridges, Potters Marsh boardwalk, gold panning at Crow Creek, Alyeska tram, and a little detour to the Wildlife Conservation Center. Suggested stops in these links: http://www.alaska.org/guide/portage-valley
http://www.alaska.org/guide/turnagain-arm-drive

Once you get to Anchorage, it's about 240 miles to Denali. Your speed can vary from 20 to 70mph depending on what's going on. We left Anchorage during rush hour last visit and it took 45 minutes to get to Eagle River, only 15 miles away. After that we made great time, except for our usual stop at the Eklutna Spirit houses. It's a pretty flat route. There's plenty of video of the drive on youtube ... look for 'Parks highway alaska'.
#4
Syracuse, New York
50,649 Posts
Joined May 2000
Originally posted by jpplay
Hi all - first time-cruiser here and first time to Alaska - WE NEED YOUR HELP - THANKS!!!

We need to chose between renting a car vs. booking Rail/Coach combinations from Princess after our cruise.

My husband prefers driving and isn't worried about missing scenery as the driver.
We both like the flexibility of a car and making stops along the way.
Google maps says it's about 5 hours from Whittier to Denali.

------BUT - here are the questions:
1 ---- Is that the true timing or is it a huge amount more with traffic?

Princess reps say we will get stuck in a tunnel and stuck behind rail cars - is that true?
For example, the Princess coach bus from Whittier to McKinley, which is closer, is 6 hours - can we at least make the same timing by car?
And their rail is 9.5 hours - could the train be slower than car?

2 ---- Are the roads difficult to drive? Are they 'scary' - like are you on the edge of cliffs all the time (wouldn't bother my husband, but maybe me!) Are the roads as scenic as the ones the rail goes on?

THANKS for your help!!!! I've looked at some chats - you guys are great!!
Oh boy, glad you are asking the questions. It is a mistake to rely on any Princess information- going independent. I would suggest you allow 7 hours for the Whittier/Denali drive, with some stops. A necessary stop, you may not know about would be groceries, by Wasilla- last full service grocery available. You are best consider bring at least some food, especially if going into Denali and needing to bring ALL your own food and drink, still advised even if taking a tour bus vs the shuttle buses. Add other stops of interest, the Parks Highway is loaded. Don't make it a marathon point to point drive. Hopefully you have at least 2 nights there. It is a regular well maintained 2 lane road, no drop offs, mostly straight. You can run into construction delays- so another reason, not to plan a marathon tightly timed trip.

As for the tunnel, You should plan on being out the 9am tunnel, giving you ALL day to enjoy.

Stuck in the tunnel? That's an "interesting" comment. Not even remotely possible.

Yes the train is a lot slower, and on the Whittier/Denali route, it is mostly parallel with the Parks Highway, and is parallel with the Seward highway. You can "follow" it through Anchorage, if you wanted to????

Necessary is to get a copy of THE MILEPOST. Try your library.
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#5
Syracuse, New York
50,649 Posts
Joined May 2000
Originally posted by mapleleaves;38261805
Once you get thru the tunnel you're only around 45 miles from Anchorage. Instead of rushing up to Denali, take your time and explore. The area between Whittier and Anchorage has many interesting possibilities .. look for sheep on the ridges, Potters Marsh boardwalk, gold panning at Crow Creek, Alyeska tram, and a little detour to the Wildlife Conservation Center. Suggested stops in these links: [URL
http://www.alaska.org/guide/portage-valley[/url]
http://www.alaska.org/guide/turnagain-arm-drive

'.
Whittier/Anchorage is about 60 miles, (since many people go downtown) it appears you may not have added the 10 mile junction?

I always recommend allowing at least 1 1/4 hours plus tunnel time.

Certainly it is a benefit to allow plenty of stops along the way, add to the above, Portage Glacier visitor center.
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#6
19 Posts
Joined May 2013
Hi everyone - I can't thank you enough!!

This is such detailed info, even with helpful links, and exactly to the points of what I was trying to find out.

You guys are great - thanks!!
#7
Maine
1,336 Posts
Joined Apr 2009
Rail, hands down! Why drive when you can savor the scenery by rail, eat in the dining car, ride out in the fresh air at the end of each car? They have huge, double decker cars with dome windows that provide great views. No brainer, ride the rails!
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#8
Los Angeles
7,896 Posts
Joined Apr 2006
I think I'd ride the train to Anchorage and pick up your rental car there. I think the rental from Whittier would be more costly, but others that post here would know more about that.

I didn't do independent, we chose a HAL cruisetour, so didn't have to worry about the logistics of getting from one point to the next.

Have a great trip!
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Eleanor
#9
Syracuse, New York
50,649 Posts
Joined May 2000
Originally posted by Donder1
Rail, hands down! Why drive when you can savor the scenery by rail, eat in the dining car, ride out in the fresh air at the end of each car? They have huge, double decker cars with dome windows that provide great views. No brainer, ride the rails!
It may not be a "no brainer" for many people. The train is the most restrictive. It is of significant benefit to have a car, numerous places to stop, which the train never allows. Plenty of activities to add, that are not available without your own transportation etc etc. Of a real benefit in Denali Park, with not having to rely on using hotels with their own shuttle buses on limited schedules. Biggest benefit, is the ability to have any bus of choice into Denali Park- what this visit is all about.

The train is an excellent option for some, there can be significant savings using Alaska RR and redeeming 2 for 1 coupons via purchased coupon books, which is the ONLY way I go.

Driving in Alaska, is expansive and the driver certainly gets eyefuls of scenery. The best with this option is the ability to pull off and stop, anytime you want. Believe me, IF McKinley is viewable, stopping is my only preference- for my amount of time. Same with wildlife, I've made easy u turns, using pull offs, and enjoyed some wonderful viewing, for as long as I wanted. With a car, you are not limited to any lodging or meal choices. Again, my preference for using my preferred budget hotels, and restaurants.
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#10
1,061 Posts
Joined Sep 2008
You're asking the wrong questions. Alaska is our 49th state. You drive on the right side of the road. The signs are in English. The roads are marked, not that much different then roads you drive at home. Major exception. Dalton highway north of Fairbanks. You don't need an international drivers license. Your home state license is just as valid in Alasa as it is in Las Vegas and Orlando. I'll agree with the posters who've been to Alaska many times. Driving is almost always going to be faster then the train, even considering traffic.

The first question you need to ask is how big a car do you need. Cruise passengers frequently bring extra luggage. How many in your group? Two people? Just stack extra luggage in the back seat. Four or Five? Make sure the trunk is big enough. Drive is too long to drive with a suitcase on your lap.

The second question is what does it cost. Rental cars tend to cost more then renting a car in places like Las Vegas and Orlando. Rent a car in Whittier and you'll not only pay $$ for the rental buy you'll have a large one way drop fee. Other destinations people who wait may be able to score a good deal. Wait too long and you'll find the place in Whittier doesn't have any cars available.
#11
Syracuse, New York
50,649 Posts
Joined May 2000
Originally posted by Lookingforfacts
You're asking the wrong questions. Alaska is our 49th state. You drive on the right side of the road. The signs are in English. The roads are marked, not that much different then roads you drive at home. Major exception. Dalton highway north of Fairbanks. You don't need an international drivers license. Your home state license is just as valid in Alasa as it is in Las Vegas and Orlando. I'll agree with the posters who've been to Alaska many times. Driving is almost always going to be faster then the train, even considering traffic.

The first question you need to ask is how big a car do you need. Cruise passengers frequently bring extra luggage. How many in your group? Two people? Just stack extra luggage in the back seat. Four or Five? Make sure the trunk is big enough. Drive is too long to drive with a suitcase on your lap.

The second question is what does it cost. Rental cars tend to cost more then renting a car in places like Las Vegas and Orlando. Rent a car in Whittier and you'll not only pay $$ for the rental buy you'll have a large one way drop fee. Other destinations people who wait may be able to score a good deal. Wait too long and you'll find the place in Whittier doesn't have any cars available.
It isn't unusual to find people turning up their noses and refusing to consider the costly one way car rentals. But with most people having limited time in Alaska, less than an additional week. That one way rental, is their best use of time. My time is valuable, more than money. But a lot of people don't consider this, instead they will waste time, they don't have, backtracking, giving up touring etc. Depends how each wants to travel. But, if not a frequent trip and the interest to have a good itinerary, then this isn't the place to skimp.
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#12
19 Posts
Joined May 2013
Hi all - thanks for all the different views!

We did decide to reserve a one-way car in Whittier.

We love the flexibility of a car - now we can make stops on the way to Anchorage - the Turnagain arm is supposed to be beautiful.

Those trains really do look awesome!, but in the end, we felt that since driving is faster, we could make stops along the way and that would be a better use of our time.

I had no idea that a car was useful in Denali because they said you can't drive in Denali - so that was great info.

As far as pricing for a one-way, we compared prices (on a travel site-not company direct) - and the one car rental in Whittier cost $120 more than the least expensive car rental of any company available in Anchorage. But I agree that this is not a place to skimp and in any case it's really a wash because getting to Anchorage would cost $120 in transfers. And we wouldn't do that trip by train because it only leaves in the evening.

I'll let you all know how it worked out when we get back - thanks again!!
#13
1,061 Posts
Joined Sep 2008
Whittier isn't like other ports. There is one, small, place to rent a car. People waiting for prices to come down to what they pay in other locations are more likely to find cars sold out,unavailable at any price, then to see prices drop to what it costs to rent a car in Las Vegas.

Paying $$$ to rent a car might be a good use of your vacation budget.

I do think the OP needs to price a rental so the cost can be included in his budget, particularly if they need a minivan.

Worse use of vacation time, JMO. A poster a few years ago wanted to rent a car from Whittier, one day. The plan was for two drivers get the car, drive to ANC, rent a second car then both drive back to Whittier, return the rental car and pick up the rest of their group. My memory is they wanted to know if they could pick up the rental when the office opened at 8 and have a shot of making the 8-8:15 tunnel opening.
#14
4,407 Posts
Joined Oct 2008
Originally posted by Lookingforfacts
I do think the OP needs to price a rental so the cost can be included in his budget, particularly if they need a minivan.
Hopefully it was just a senior moment , but the OP just returned and posted that they are indeed renting a car in Whittier. If they don't know the price by the time they book it, there are much bigger issues.
#15
1,061 Posts
Joined Sep 2008
Originally posted by frugaltravel
Hopefully it was just a senior moment , but the OP just returned and posted that they are indeed renting a car in Whittier. If they don't know the price by the time they book it, there are much bigger issues.
Obviously true.

OP follow posted his followup post at 9:28, my post was at 9:34. OP posted while I was composing my post. Did you miss that? Senior moment?

This board won't let me go back and edit my post.
#16
1,195 Posts
Joined Jul 2005
"Stuck in the tunnel? That's an "interesting" comment. Not even remotely possible. "

It is rare - but YES it happens.

Every few years something happens and the tunnel is shut down with cars in the tunnel. A few DUIs have crashed in the tunnel. Motorcycles have crashed inside the tunnel. Somehow the train tracks in the concrete mess them up and they lay it down or crash into the tunnel wall. Last summer the tunnel was shutdown for about an hour & half with cars inside. I don't remember what happened, Whittier Police & Medics went inside the tunnel.

Other delays:
Trains get delayed because of the tunnel operations. Sometimes the Signals from the Highway Mode & Rail Mode get fouled up. When stuck in Highway Mode the Automatic Train Derail switches will not align for the Tunnel. The trains have to wait for a Signal Maintainer from the Alaska Railroad to drive down from Anchorage to troubleshoot & fix the problem. When stuck in Train Mode, the gates for the cars will not come up.

On the RARE occasion, drivers sometimes don't make the LEFT turn when coming out of the tunnel. They keep driving off the road and onto the train tracks. Mainly happens on the Whittier side. The cars get stuck on the train tracks. If they go far enough down the tracks, sensors get damaged and have to be fixed. Every time a car drives on the tracks, a railroad inspector has to come out and inspect the tracks for damage. Inspection crews are always around from 7am-5pm, so it is not too long of a delay. But after hours they must be found & called out.

Stuff happens, but it is rare.
#17
Texas
1,789 Posts
Joined Mar 2007
Originally posted by Donder1
Rail, hands down! Why drive when you can savor the scenery by rail, eat in the dining car, ride out in the fresh air at the end of each car? They have huge, double decker cars with dome windows that provide great views. No brainer, ride the rails!
Can you remember how much it cost to take the train from Whittier to Anchorage. We would have to do it over and back. We are doing a back to back cruise on the Coral Princess. Any info is appreciated!
#19
Syracuse, New York
50,649 Posts
Joined May 2000
Originally posted by browneyes7
Can you remember how much it cost to take the train from Whittier to Anchorage. We would have to do it over and back. We are doing a back to back cruise on the Coral Princess. Any info is appreciated!
Your ONLY option for this would be a cruise contracted train to the airport. The regular Alaska RR train, is not an option for you.

Contact your booking agent, and inquire about availability. Be prepared for a costly "tour", as you rates will be one ways.
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#20
1,195 Posts
Joined Jul 2005
Princess does not use the Airport Depot. Your train will go to the Downtown Depot. From there, Princess will transfer you by bus to the Airport or the downtown Hospitality Center, usually the Egan Center.

Princess has 2 early train departures & 2 arrivals in the PM. Not sure which one takes the passengers who buy the Rail Transfer.