Alaska and Hawaii.
The two non-mainland states are some of the most sought-after states for serious travelers.
And for good reason.
They are both extremely beautiful places to explore with lots to offer in the bucket list department.
But which one would be better for someone who has never been to either one?
Below, I’ll give you some helpful considerations for you to think about.
I’ll focus on the highlights of both states and by the end of the article you will hopefully have a better idea of which state you should visit.
Table of Contents
Hawaii gets a good amount of passenger traffic at various airports including Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL), Kahului Airport (OGG), Kona International Airport (KOA), and Lihue Airport (LIH).
Most people will probably fly into Honolulu or Maui but you can also find nonstop flights to the other Hawaiian Island airports from different places in the mainland US.
Airfare to Hawaii can actually be extremely affordable especially with the introduction of Southwest Airlines.
This is especially true for inter-island hopping which can be done without hurting your wallet at all.
Seriously, you can fly between Hawaiian islands for like $40.
As for getting there in style.
Lots of the airlines offer lie-flat seats to Hawaii and Hawaiian Airlines has a pretty solid first class product with lie flat seats.
Alaska receives much less air traffic than Hawaii.
Its busiest airport in Anchorage (ANC) gets way fewer passengers than HNL.
And its second busiest airport in Juneau (JNU) gets a lot less traffic than each of the top four airports in Hawaii.
So if you want to get around Alaska to somewhere other than Anchorage, there is a high chance you’ll have to make a connection.
And you might even have to connect just to get to Anchorage.
I’ve seen some pretty cheap flights from the mainland to Anchorage so I know you can find good deals to Alaska as well.
Sometimes the prices can be very comparable to getting to Hawaii.
However, hopping around to different destinations in Alaska is pricier than hopping around in Hawaii based on my personal experience (Alaska is huge).
You can find lie-flat seats to Alaska from some destinations in the South and East Coast but because there are fewer flights it’s not as easy.
Overall, it’s easier to find a direct/non-stop flight to Hawaii from any given destination and you’ll have more options for premium lie-flat class cabins.
A big difference between Alaska and Hawaii is the hotel selection.
In Hawaii, you’ll find many more hotels and full-service resorts geared towards travelers (and families) looking for that tropical getaway or couples in need of a romantic retreat.
It’s also a hotspot for vacation clubs, timeshares, villas, and condominiums.
In Alaska, you’ve got a much smaller selection.
And the hotels won’t necessarily be cheaper.
For example, we recently visited Juneau, Alaska, and found a very limited hotel selection with one of the most expensive properties being the Four Points by Sheraton.
That property was going for $600 a night on some nights which could’ve gotten us a much nicer property in somewhere like Waikiki.
The lack of hotels in some Alaskan cities is not really a surprise given how they are often more geared towards tourists coming from cruise ships.
But just know if you’re hoping to find a bunch of luxury resorts in Alaska, they are going to be slim pickings compared to Hawaii.
Instead, while exploring Alaska you might be more drawn to cabins and lodges in secluded wilderness locations like Gustavus.
It’s very different experience from staying in a beach resort but a lot of people would probably take a secluded lodge in nature over a bustling resort.
Hawaii probably has the best weather out of any state in the US.
And it’s hard to argue with that when you look at the numbers.
The average daytime summer temperature at sea level is 85° F (29.4° C), while the average daytime winter temperature is 78° (25.6° C).
Those are very stable temperatures.
And then you have those lovely trade winds blowing through the islands just adding the cherry (or pineapple) on top.
I remember playing miniature golf on the terrace of the Holiday Inn in Honolulu one afternoon and feeling like the weather could not have been more perfect.
It can feel heavenly out there.
In Alaska, you get to (sort of) experience the four seasons and some areas have beautiful fall color change.
Alaska is obviously going to be much colder although some parts of it such as Southeast Alaska are a lot milder than you might think.
One thing these states do have in common weather-wise is rain. And lots of it.
Both states have rainforests which means some places get a ridiculous amount of water falling from the sky.
Most of the rain falls on the windward (northeastern) side of the Hawaiian islands and some of those areas can be extremely wet.
For example, some parts of the island of Kauai receive almost more rain than any other place on the planet.
Places in Southeast Alaska also receive a pretty ridiculous amount of rain during the fall and winter.
But experiencing the rain can feel very different.
When we experienced rain in Hawaii it was usually a shower that came in and went pretty quickly.
Meanwhile, the rain in Southeast Alaska was more of a nonstop drizzle that could last for days.
To state the obvious: For the average tourist, Hawaii is going to be much more attractive for the weather.
It’s more stable, predictable, and just feels easier to deal with (but you do have to be prepared for the occasional hurricane.)
But some people love the feel of a cold and drizzly environment and Alaska certainly can fit that bill.
The daylight hours in Hawaii, much like the weather, are going to be pretty stable year round.
You get about 2 1/2 hours more daylight during the summer than winter but in the winter you’re still looking at over 10 hours of daylight.
This is a major reason why Hawaii is so appealing in the winter.
Not only do you get better temperatures in many places but you still have plenty of daylight to enjoy yourself.
For travelers coming from places like the Midwest and Northeast during winter, it could be really hard to turn this down for Alaska where things may be even darker and colder.
Because Alaska is so far north, it’s daylight hours are more extreme than Hawaii.
This is great in the summer because you can have sunlight all through the evening and “at night.”
In some places, you can even experience the “midnight sun” where you won’t ever see street lights come on.
It’s pretty trippy.
But in the winter, you might be dealing with very few daylight hours.
For example, in Fairbanks during December, sunrises happen around 10:00 am and sunsets occur around 2:45 pm.
Some people find that depressing.
But it’s actually awesome if you’re interested in viewing the northern lights because it gives you plenty of time for them to come out.
When you think of states with stunning scenery, the two states that pop up on every list are: Oklahoma and Kansas.
Okay, I’m kidding.
Nothing against those states but Alaska and Hawaii are just on a different level.
Hawaii’s famous tropical scenery is the epitome of paradise for a lot of people.
It doesn’t get much better than warm beaches, breezy palm trees, lush green mountains, and many, many waterfalls.
You’ll see landscapes that look like they are straight out of Jurassic Park (because they are) and plants you’ve never laid eyes on before.
Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island features Kilauea, one of the most active volcanoes in the world.
And on the island of Kauai, you have the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, not to mention the Nāpali Coast.
That only begins to scratch the surface when it comes to impressive Hawaiian scenery, though.
Alaska is known for its many stunning fjords, thick conifer forests, white-capped mountains and who could forget about the mighty glaciers, icebergs, and otherworldly blue ice caves?
It also has its fair share of waterfalls.
Although when you think of volcanoes your brain may instantly go to Hawaii, Alaska actually has way more active volcanoes: 141 compared to Hawaii’s handfull.
And as just pointed out, Alaska has the northern lights which if you’ve ever encountered before, you know that nothing truly compares to them.
If you like to be adventurous when you travel, both of these states will deliver at a very high level.
In Hawaii, the beaches give you access to all sorts of fun water activities.
Obviously, surfing is huge in Hawaii and even if you don’t partake you can check out world-class surfing competitions or just sit on the beach and listen to the waves pounding.
Scuba diving and snorkeling (including cage diving) can be a lot of fun in Hawaii and it’s also a good place for things like fishing, parasailing, paddle boarding, and jet-skiing.
You do have to be careful at some beaches though because the rip currents can be treacherous.
Hawaii also has a lot of beautiful hikes.
You’ll find countless trails taking you to stunning waterfalls and mountain vistas with sweeping views of this tropical paradise.
Just be ready for some muddy and overgrown jungle terrain on some of these hikes — they can be quite the misadventure if you’re not careful.
If you just want to get out on the water there are tons of options for you like boat tours, whale watching tours, and romantic catamaran sunset trips.
And you won’t struggle to find any of the other standard adventure tours like ATVs, zip lining, helicopter tours, etc.
Alaska is also one of the best places in the world for adventurous travelers.
You can hike through mossy rainforests and bag some serious peaks — like the tallest mountain in North America, Denali, which isn’t exactly a day hike at 20,310′ feet.
Helicopters will take you up on glaciers where you can slip on some crampons and trek among deep crevasses or even go dog sledding across ice fields Balto style (or should I say Togo).
Or if you prefer to stay at sea level, boat tours will put you right in front of towering glacier faces to witness breathtaking calving events.
There are plenty of water activities to enjoy in Alaska like whale watching, kayaking, canoeing, and river rafting. Both fishing and hunting are also huge in Alaska.
If you’re adventurous side tends to take you to into the ocean or the thought of exploring a thick tropical jungle entices you like no other then you’ll find more options in Hawaii.
But if you’re drawn to more of a true wilderness experience among the backdrop of mountains Alaska will better suit your taste for adventure.
If you’re looking for a typical tourist experience both states can offer you that but Hawaii is going to deliver more in that regard (for better or for worse).
Honolulu, in particular Waikiki Beach, is a tourist mecca.
Hawaii also has Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial which is one of the most interesting (and busy) tourist destinations with a ton of fascinating World War II history.
Retracing film locations from blockbuster movies and shows like Lost is a lot of fun in Hawaii.
You can find places away from the crowds in Hawaii, especially outside of Oahu.
But even in more low-key places like Kauai it’s not always so easy to fully get away from the buzzing helicopters, vehicle traffic, and throngs of beach crowds.
Alaska definitely can feel touristy in certain spots like Juneau which cater to an insane amount of cruise passengers.
But you can easily get out to remote places that don’t feel as touristy such a small, rustic towns and some of the wide open national parks like Denali National Park and Kenai Fjords National Park.
If you are looking for tourist attractions, Hawaii will offer you more of those but if you are looking to get away from the tourists, Alaska will offer you more spaces to do that.
Both Hawaii and Alaska can be pretty expensive, but in my experience the prices add up quicker in Alaska.
Certain types of expenses are more common in Hawaii like outrageous parking fees at your hotel, admission fees to nature spots, etc.
In Hawaii, my biggest complaint with pricing was that you don’t always get what you pay for.
For example, in one outing in Oahu we paid $7 for the little piece of
cardboard pizza below.
And on one helicopter ride they stuffed six of us inside and made the people sitting on the inside seats (with extremely limited views) pay just as much as those with the 10X better views up front.
I sort of feel like we were getting herded through experiences with the hope that we wouldn’t notice the at times questionable value.
In Alaska, getting around via seaplanes can get expensive and so can the excursions. We also found some of the rental car prices to be very high as well.
I noticed the tourist up-charge in Alaska but it didn’t feel as egregious to me.
At least when we were paying a lot, I felt like we were still getting a lot in value (when it came to tours and outings – hotels were a different story).
Regardless of which state you visit, just be prepared to expand the travel budget more than you normally would when getting around the mainland.
Both states have very interesting indigenous cultures that still have a very visible presence today.
Hawaii represents the upper geographic limits of Polynesian culture with the earliest natives arriving between the 4th and 7th centuries CE. It’s a beautiful culture and it’s fascinating what their ancestors were able to do navigating the open seas.
In Alaska, various indigenous people have inhabited different parts of the state, since about 15,000 years ago when they followed herd animals across the Bering Land Bridge.
Today, they are divided into different groups each of which has its own fascinating customs and culture.
Both states offer unique ways to explore and learn about these cultures whether that be in museums, monuments, tribal houses, or even luaus.
So if you’re into learning about ancient cultures, I think both states offer great opportunities for that.
Hawaii’s wildlife mostly comes in the form of smaller animals and birds (hello, chickens).
The marine life in Hawaii is impressive with tropical fish, sea turtles, sharks, dolphins, manta rays, seals, and whales.
Something that’s cool is that a lot of the humpback whales that frequent Hawaii in the winter are the same ones that migrate to Alaska for the summer.
You could possibly spot the same whale in both places.
If you’re willing to get out on a boat, or even better, get in the water for a diving or snorkeling session, you likely won’t be disappointed.
There’s nothing like swimming alongside a sea turtle in Hawaii and you can even go diving without a wetsuit in the winter.
For the diver, you have to go with Hawaii.
When you’re talking about wildlife in Alaska, it’s just an entirely different ball game.
It’s the only state where you can find black bears, brown bears, polar bears, moose, caribou, wolves, mountain goats, etc. all in one region.
The amount of mammals capable of having you for dinner is truly astonishing in Alaska.
Spend some time on the water and you’ll come across sea otters, sea lions, humpback whales, killer whales, bald eagles, and the biggest starfish you’ve ever seen.
And you can’t forget about the salmon.
So if you’re looking for wildlife encounters, hunting, or trying to pursue wildlife photography, Alaska is going to offer you a lot more in the wildlife department.
Overall, you can’t go wrong with either one of these states for your first time visit.
Alaska is about experiencing true wilderness, wide open spaces, and surreal natural scenery. It’s for those open to something rugged, challenging, or even thrilling.
To me, a visit to Alaska feels like it naturally leads to more of a humbling and introspective experience where I contemplate my place in the universe and hopefully don’t get eaten by a bear.
Meanwhile, Hawaii caters more to tourists looking for a re-charging escape via the amazing weather and lots of gorgeous coastal scenery.
It feels more like a place to chill out, mingle, and enjoy the good vibes, which can be done at a busy resort or at some laid-back villas.
There’s definitely still a strong sense of adventure in Hawaii but it feels more tame compared to Alaska. Perhaps I need to see more volcanoes.
That’s my take on these two beautiful states if you have any thoughts to drop them in the comments below!
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.