Come along with us to the
frozen balmy North! It’ll be fun, or maybe you can learn what not to do. There will also be mediocre pictures of beautiful places!
Shortly after booking our trip to Europe for Thanksgiving 2013, we started looking ahead to opportunities for points balances that were rebounding quite nicely. The only plan for a couple months was to get free miles and have the maximum possible fun with them! Then we learned that some close friends of ours and their boys were scheduled to be transferred to Alaska by the military. I had always wanted to visit Alaska and we decided right away that we wanted to earn the miles needed to go visit them.
The Frontier Airlines card had recently become available, or maybe all the bloggers had just gotten affiliate links and therefore discovered it. Looking at Frontier’s award chart, it looked like a no-brainer. At that point in spring 2013, 4 or more award seats were available for most summer 2013 days from Austin to Anchorage and Fairbanks, at only 10K miles per person each way, compared to few or no seats available using AA or UA miles from Texas. I got a Frontier credit card and 40K miles, and we added American Express Membership Rewards points to our accounts to transfer to Frontier if needed. By the middle of summer, plans had changed and our friends were no longer Alaska-bound but we had read and seen enough to want to make Alaska our Summer 2014 trip.
Regular checks on award seats became daily dummy bookings, Frontier added charges for carry-on bags, and it seemed like we might be able to use UA and AA miles to fly from San Antonio and skip the hour drive to Austin. Sure enough, on the day the calendar opened up, I booked 4 seats SAT-ORD-ANC for July 2 which were available to me only because I had the United credit card and could book ‘XN’ class space. I continued to search out of curiosity, and the available award seats to Alaska during the week on either side of July 4 lasted anywhere from 1-5 days before they were all booked.
My dummy bookings for the return using AA miles weren’t so clear: there were rarely any seats to San Antonio in what has become the norm for AA. I planned to book on Alaska Airlines to an airport served by Southwest and continue home from there on a separate ticket using our shiny new companion pass. We would up with ANC-SEA-LAS, leaving Anchorage at 1:00 AM and giving us 4 hours in Las Vegas to switch airlines and terminals based on the Southwest schedule at the time.
Sometimes you should just buy a ticket.
On the day after Christmas, I happened to notice the Flyertalk mileage run forum exploding with new threads reporting very low fares on Delta. I jumped onto expedia which seemed to be working better than Delta’s website, and a few minutes later I had 4 one-way tickets ANC-MSP-SAT leaving early in the morning rather than midnight, for $25 each. I resolved right then and there to always know when mistake fares would be available and avoid wasting miles or money paying cancellation fees.
The final tally
Flights: 50,000 United miles, $20, 10,000 Arrival points for the Delta flights, and 22,500 more Arrival points to get our 50,000 AA miles back. Assuming, that is, that American actually gets around to collecting the cancellation fee. The miles have already been credited but the fee hasn’t shown up. I have actually had the same thing happen with a USAirways award change fee that they never got around to collecting. YMMV.
Car rental: 21,180 Chase UR points for a 4-day compact car rental from Enterprise. They gave us a Jeep Compass instead which was much better than any car would have been for enjoying the beauty of Alaska.
Hotels: $381 for 2 nights at Ravenquest Cabins just outside Seward, which will be paid with Arrival points. $148 for one night at Midnight Sun Cabins in Moose Pass, which did not code as travel. 15,230 Chase UR points for one night at the Courtyard by Marriott Anchorage Airport, where we did not stay. And 16,800 AA miles for one night at the Dimond Center Hotel, where we did stay. It was a nice simple hotel in a mall parking lot and rooms in anchorage for that night were $220 for the cheapest thing available when I booked it in April. Or a bit higher than when I booked the Marriott back in January. Don’t book multiple non-refundable rooms in different hotels for the same night. It will make you feel like an idiot.
Excursions: $899 total for the four of us on the two boat trips. Doing stuff in Alaska, whether it’s eating out, buying groceries or tours, is not cheap. Pack lots of food if you can.
Finally, the trip!
I wrote about getting to Anchorage and dealing with one particular unpleasant United employee here, but in the end we got to Anchorage on time, got our larger-than-expected car within a few minutes, and headed out for Seward.
We had booked tickets on Kenai Fjords Tours for the July 3rd 9-hour boat trip they call the Northwestern Fjord Tour, back in March. Because we knew the weather would be gorgeous that day. Total cost for 4 people with AAA discount: $635. The day cruise included cinnamon rolls and fruit for breakfast and chicken wraps for lunch. The food was great, but everyone was too busy enjoying the amazing Alaska scenery and wildlife to really worry about food. The tour was full but the boat was very comfortable with plenty of room for everyone to sit down inside, or head outside when we stopped. Here’s a few shots along the way:
Sorry for the shaky video, but this was an awesome experience for the kids!
The captain did a great job of teaching and narrating along the way, and shutting up when there was something to look at or listen to. I’m pretty sure our kids learned more geography and geology during that one day as they would in months at school. After the day cruise, we enjoyed dinner on the harbor at Chinook’s before heading back to our little cabin. The next day, July 4th, is the by far the busiest day of the year in Seward. They do their fireworks just after midnight because that’s the only time it’s dark enough, and then there is a race up the trail of Mount Marathon that everyone is literally tripping and falling over each other to join. So of course we left. Since the 4th was also First Friday and we’re suckers for credit card category bonuses, we used our AMEX Blue Cash card to buy a picnic lunch at Safeway before leaving Seward and ate here:
before heading over to the glaciers near Whittier where you can easily hike a mile and a half and then walk out onto the glacier:
We spent the next night at Midnight Sun cabins, which were much nicer buildings than Ravenquest in a little outpost too small to even have a gas station, Moose Pass.
Saturday morning we headed off to the other side of the peninsula, to Kenai, AK which is on the Cook Inlet. As you drive the 2 hours or so across the peninsula, it changes from jagged mountains to evergreen forests. We didn’t leave ourselves enough time to do much besides grab lunch in Kenai and then head most of the way back to Cooper Landing, where we took a float trip down the Kenai River with two other couples and a guide. It cost $264 for the 4 of us. It was a great trip but we had been spoiled by the Kenai Fjords cruise days before!
After the float trip, we headed back up to Anchorage for dinner and the night before catching our Delta flight which had been rescheduled from 6:15 AM to 5:45 AM. That meant we basically rolled out of bed, dropped our car off (fortunately the rental return is attached to the airport and an easy walk to the terminal) and onto the plane without ever eating breakfast. On the 5 1/2 hour flight to Minneapolis, I finally looked at our ticket which had seen 3 schedule changes and realized why we had a 5 hour layover in Minneapolis when the original itinerary had only 45 minutes. A schedule change to the MSP-SAT flight had made our connection impossible, so they rebooked us on the later flight. Then when the ANC-MSP segment was also rescheduled, it made a connection to our original flight possible again, but I hadn’t realized or done anything about that. So we would get home at 11:00 PM instead of 6:00. That is, if Delta agents acted anything like the United agents did in Chicago. I asked at the gate when we got off the plane if we could go standby and got directed to a help desk halfway to the gate where the SAT flight was about to begin boarding. The agent at the help desk said there was only one seat, but she put us on standby and didn’t attempt to charge the $50 standby fee which I never would have considered paying. By the time I got to the gate, they had boarded nearly everyone and we were confirmed, seated together in Economy Comfort! I apologized for Bonnie’s being a couple minutes later, but the gate agent was happy to wait, gate check our bags (another regional jet) and see us off.
I know visiting another country sounds more exciting, and I recommend that too. But if you have kids and love the outdoors, take them to Alaska. It’s absolutely awesome, and we only got to see and share one little corner of it! We are definitely looking forward to going back someday. Maybe we’ll be able to use those 40,000 Frontier miles after all.
Great trip report. I haven’t seen many on AK.
47 states down, 3 to go. Hoping to finish off AK in ’15.
Thanks, James. If you want to see (or try to catch some of) the salmon run, late July or August would probably be best. The fly-in trips to go hang out with bears looked awesome, but they were too pricey for us. Maybe next time…
Enjoyed this post, never been to AK but it seems very much like Norway (which we adored). Thanks for the tip about never booking multiple non-refundable hotel rooms…doh! 🙂