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There-and-back deals: $400 airfares from Alaska to Vegas, Phoenix and Carolinas

Scott McMurren
On the airfare front, travelers still have two weeks to purchase Alaska Airlines' PFD specials -- and other airlines have some tempting prices for roundtrip travel to the Lower 48. Alaska Airlines photo

Travel surprises make me cranky. That's unfortunate, because once you step out the door on a journey, you're separated from your regular routine, and there are surprises around every corner. You're liable to eat new foods, adjust to new time zones, meet new people, hear new languages ... the works. 

Many of the new-and-different travel experiences are items we plan for: After all, I'm looking forward to seeing these new people and visiting their country. But along the way, details slip through the cracks. 

One of my must-have travel accessories is a pair of noise-canceling headphones. Mine are made by Bose, but there are several top-notch models from Dr. Dre ("Beats"), Sony and Sennheiser.

On a long flight back home from Mexico, I loaned my precious headphones to my son, who left them in the seatback pocket. After we got home and discovered they were gone, I spent a fair amount of time berating him for this oversight -- and reminding him of what a new pair costs. 

Thankfully, Alaska Airlines retrieved the headphones and sent them to me. All was well.

About six months later, I left the headphones on a flight. But there was a bonus for the person who picked them up: my brand-new iPod. Despite Alaska Air's best efforts, I've never found them. My son held his tongue, but I did detect a smirk.

A sinking feeling 

Now, with a new iPod and a new set of headphones, I can travel with a little less noise on the plane. The headphones are great -- they use the same noise-canceling technology as the fancy headphones the pilots wear. And they're great for listening to music.

Packing for my trip yesterday morning, I hunted high and low for my headphones, to no avail. Then, I got a sinking feeling as I realized I'd left them on my flight back from Juneau the day before. Out of desperation, I called Alaska Air's baggage claim office at the Anchorage airport.

Melody answered the phone and said they had them -- and complimented me on putting my business card on the inside of the hard case. At that moment, I heard an angel chorus singing "Hallelujah". 

Racing to the airport, I retrieved the headphones at baggage claim, snapped her photo with my headphones and gushed about my good fortune. Melody was quick to point out that there is an entire team of folks who gather up cell phones, wallets, cameras, gloves, shoes, jackets, hats and all other manner of left-aboard items. The cleaners, the cabin crew and fellow passengers all play a big role in reuniting lost items with their owners.

The extra-mile effort of airline staff makes a powerful impression on travelers. 

Sitting behind me on my Alaska flight, Anchorage resident Amy Whinston recalled an Alaska Airlines manager driving her and her schnauzer Max to a nearby veterinarian for a required shot prior to a flight to Kotzebue.

"There was a miscommunication between me and the airline about what shots were required," said Amy. "I thought it was just a rabies shot," she said. "I was traveling from Deering, to Kotzebue and then to Anchorage. In Deering, you could get on board a plane with a rabid dog and a gun," she joked. "But traveling back from Anchorage to Kotzebue, a 'parvo' shot also is required," she said. 

Across the aisle, Anchorage resident Ken Duncan recalled flying on a JetBlue flight to Long Beach. Ken was changing the battery on his hearing aid just as the plane touched down in Long Beach. "It was a hard landing," said Ken's wife Kris. "His hearing aid popped out of his hand and disappeared," she said.

"That was the last we saw of that $2,000 device," said Ken. "But now we know how to pull a seat apart. Even though we never found the hearing aid, I definitely credit JetBlue for essentially tearing the plane apart to try and find it."

"They tore the seats out, searching all over for it," said Kris. "Now of course, we have insurance. So we know it will never happen again," she said with a smile. 

Even though airlines move hundreds of people at a time through the sky, it's comforting to know they make an extra effort to accommodate the real problems of real travelers.  

Anchorage-Charlotte $380 roundtrip 

On the airfare front, travelers still have two weeks to purchase Alaska Airlines' PFD specials. Tickets must be purchased by Oct. 29. The fares that stand out include Anchorage-Chicago nonstop for $460 roundtrip, Anchorage-Los Angeles/LAX nonstop for $380 and Anchorage-Portland nonstop for $360 roundtrip. There's a special page for the PFD sale.

Don't forget about your mileage points, though. I just returned from a meeting in Sitka. My ticket was $391 roundtrip, which included a 10 percent conference discount the planners negotiated with Alaska Airlines. But several attendees opted to use miles. And that's a good option for travel around Alaska. Between Alaska Air's jet destinations, it costs just 15,000 miles for a roundtrip ticket. That works between Anchorage and Sitka, or from Anchorage to Barrow, Nome or Ketchikan. These are high-dollar destinations, so the mileage option is valuable. 

If you get an Alaska Airlines credit card (from Bank of America) www.alaskavisa.com, there is a $75 annual fee. But you receive 25,000 bonus miles and a coach-class companion ticket. The 25,000 miles is enough for an off-peak ticket from Alaska to the Lower 48 (or a ticket within the state -- with some miles to spare). And the companion ticket means someone can travel with you for about $114 (about $141 to Mexico) roundtrip. 

There are a couple of other great fares we're tracking, including Anchorage-Charlotte for $380 roundtrip. There are a few dates available in early November and early December on USAir. But more seats are available starting Jan. 8, 2014 for $383-$387 roundtrip on United. This is an awesome deal. Or, fly between Anchorage and Philadelphia for as little as $410 roundtrip. Again, some seats are available in November (before Thanksgiving) and December (before Christmas). But more dates are available starting in January on United Airlines. 

Finally, keep an eye on the nonstop flights Alaska Airlines is offering between Anchorage and Las Vegas and between Anchorage and Phoenix. The flights operate three times a week starting in mid-December. The Anchorage-Phoenix flights are available for as little as $410 roundtrip (purchase by Oct. 29). The Las Vegas flights start at around $371 roundtrip if purchased by Oct. 29. These are non-red-eye flights. It's a great upgrade for Anchorage travelers, I think. 

Even though it's just October, airlines are planning for their 2014 schedules. JetBlue already has announced its Anchorage-Seattle fare of $242 roundtrip, starting May 16, 2014. The Anchorage-Long Beach nonstops are pricing as low as $296 roundtrip, also starting May 16, 2014. Icelandair flights, starting May 15, 2014, are available for as little as $734 roundtrip on the nonstop flights between Anchorage and Reykjavik. 

Online resources: Jetblue.comIcelandair.comUSAirways.com, United.comBose.comAlaskaVisa.com, Traveling with pets on Alaska Airlines

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based travel marketing consultant who has lived in Alaska for three decades, spending much of that time traveling the far-flung corners of the state. Visit his website at www.alaskatravelgram.com or follow him on Twitter for breaking travel news.