It’s no secret: 2013 was a great year for Alaskans when it came to travel bargains, particularly from Anchorage. For the first time in more than a decade, the fare between Anchorage and Seattle dipped below $200 roundtrip. Travelers enjoyed rock-bottom fares domestically and internationally. Early-season fares from Anchorage to Iceland, for example, were available for less than $600 roundtrip.
So what is the forecast for 2014? Well, there’s good news and bad news. Which do you want to hear first?
The bad news
• Airfares are going up. This is as a result of increased regulatory costs -- things like taxes and TSA fees -- but also because of reduced competition as a result of mergers. Three big mergers (United-Continental, American-USAir, Delta-Northwest) continued the trend to eliminate excess capacity -- and the subsequent need to offer cheaper fares to fill up the extra planes. Alaska travelers, of course, are familiar with high prices on rural routes around the state. The real state of affairs is that it's expensive to operate these routes, and competitive choices are either limited or nonexistent.
• Fees are going up. Bag fees, change fees, preferred seating fees, early-boarding fees, fees to hold your reservation. Airlines never met a fee they didn’t love: they charge for snacks, for in-flight internet and for movies. None of these fees are subject to the same tax structure as the tickets themselves -- so airlines are more motivated to pick up what’s affectionately called “ancillary revenue,” or money generated outside of ticket sales.
• There’s less space on board the aircraft. But you knew that, right? Airlines, including Alaska Airlines, are cramming more seats on their planes. In Alaska’s case, they’re changing the configuration of the seats. In addition to making the seats skinnier and lighter, the airline is moving the magazines away from your knees up higher on the seat back. And they’re adding power jacks to the seats.
On other routes, like Anchorage-Fairbanks and Anchorage-Kodiak, Alaska Air is replacing jets with regional aircraft which are ... you guessed it ... smaller. On the flip side, the smaller aircraft allows for more frequent flights. That’s important in commuter markets like Anchorage-Fairbanks.
• The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is not going away. The blue-shirted ones at airport security represent one of the worst experiments in American aviation. One of my favorite airline security experts, Bruce Schneier, has a better name for it: "security theater." The no-fly lists, the random checks, the scope-or-grope option for travelers -- it’s all part of our brave new travel world.
• Your frequent flyer miles are losing value. There is rampant “mileage inflation” for travelers. Airlines are figuring out more creative ways to sell miles and pad travelers’ accounts. This creates more competition for free trips and for upgrades. This year, you may notice that you still can redeem your award miles -- but it will cost more miles to do so.
The good news
• Select fares in competitive markets are lower than ever. When airlines are mad at each other, travelers win. Seasonal entrants like JetBlue, Frontier Airlines, American Airlines and others provide a damper on higher fares. Even in the winter, love spats between Alaska, Delta, USAir and United offer good deals from time to time.
• Banks offer better deals than airlines on travel rewards. How you pay for your travel -- and your everyday expenses -- can have a direct effect on how well you travel. Most Alaskans have an Alaska Air Visa card from Bank of America. But other reward cards can pay big dividends on hotels and air fares, too. The platinum American Express card, for example, will reimburse you for the $100 fee to get your “Global Entry” card, in addition to offering free entry into hundreds of airline clubs around the world. The Chase Sapphire card offers a valuable scheme to transfer award miles between airlines and hotels. Extra bonus: the instant "bonus miles" when you get the card: I have two cards that yielded free tickets (worth more than $750 each), just for getting the card. THAT’s leverage!
• Nonstop flights are good. And there are more nonstops than EVER from Anchorage. In addition to the in-state routes, here are some of the year-round nonstops available:
Anchorage-Seattle (Alaska, United)
Anchorage-San Francisco (United)
Anchorage-Las Vegas (Alaska)
Anchorage-Phoenix (Alaska, USAir)
In the summertime, we get even more nonstop flights, including:
Anchorage-Minneapolis (Sun Country)
Anchorage-Seattle (Delta, JetBlue)
Anchorage-Los Angeles/LAX (Alaska)
Anchorage-Long Beach (JetBlue)
Anchorage-Salt Lake City (Delta)
Fairbanks-Seattle (Alaska, Delta)
... among others
• You can, indeed, buy happiness. Airlines in particular are offering more products and services that allow travelers to upgrade their experience, like increased legroom (Economy Comfort on Delta, or Economy Plus on United), early boarding, lounge access and better seats. If you’re a frequent flyer you can often get these services at no additional charge. That adds to the benefit of being a “top tier” traveler with an airline, such as “MVP” status with Alaska Airlines.
On the security front, you can apply for the “Global Entry” program for expedited re-entry into the U.S. at busy airports. There’s a form to fill out and an $85 fee for the five-year pass. There’s also a personal interview requirement, where they will take your fingerprints and your picture. The real bonus: you’re approved for the TSA’s “Pre-Check” line. That can save lots of time and aggravation. I bought it. It’s worth it.
• Competition is the most important element in affordable air travel. Thankfully, competition is on the upswing in Alaska, particularly with new flights from Delta Air Lines. That means more bonus miles, lower fares on competitive routes, better product offerings -- smiles all around. While Virgin America tried to stake their flag last summer with nonstops to San Francisco, they failed. Other airlines, like Southwest, are waiting in the wings.
This coming year is shaping up to be a great year for travel!
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.