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McMurren on travel: It's good news/bad news for Alaska travelers this fall

Scott McMurren

There is good news and bad news for Alaska travelers this month. Let’s start with the bad news: The days are getting shorter. I’m not sure why, but this always comes as a surprise!

The good news is that August heralds the onset of the “shoulder season” around the state. Princess has a couple of great deals which combine rail, bus and hotel.

A. Take the train from Anchorage to Talkeetna on Princess’s private rail cars. On arrival, a Princess bus will take you 60 miles up to the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge on the banks of the Chulitna River. This place has the “Mother of All Decks,” offering a million-dollar view of the Great One. The price for a three-day/two-night tour is $199 per person, double occupancy (tour 02E). Of course, you’ll get a better view when you go flightseeing with K2 Aviation or Talkeetna Air Taxi. Plan on going for a jetboat ride with Steve Mahay’s outfit (Mahay's Jetboat Adventures). The Devil’s Canyon tour is very popular. 

B. Ride the rails all the way from Anchorage to Denali National Park. Spend two nights at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. That’s enough time to take the bus tour into the park. I like the longer “Tundra Wilderness Tour,” but you have to get up early for the 6 a.m. departure. There also are raft trips on the Nenana River -- and Jeff King’s tours of his “Husky Homestead” kennel are popular. The price for the three-day/two-night tour is $339 per person, double occupancy.

More bad news: Next month, our summer-only airlines start packing up to leave for the winter. Several of the airlines don’t matter, including Air Canada and Sun Country. These carriers offer little or nothing to local travelers.

Other airlines really make a difference: Frontier Airlines keeps the price low to Denver (through Oct. 1). JetBlue does the same for travelers between Anchorage and both Seattle and the L.A. area (through Sept. 29). Without the competitive pressure, incumbent airlines (Alaska Air, Delta) will allow the prices to drift skyward.

On their way out of town, our seasonal airlines are offering great deals. Between Anchorage and Denver, you can fly nonstop for $273 round-trip (Sept. 24-28 only) with Frontier. Between Anchorage and Seattle, JetBlue still has a few seats available (departing Sept. 22 or 23) for $203 round-trip. Of course, all fares are subject to change. 

Say goodbye to our over-the-top European flights from Anchorage to Reykjavik on Icelandair in mid-September (through Sept. 22). Condor sticks around until the end of the month (Sept. 30), providing nonstop service from Anchorage to Frankfurt. 

The good news is between now and then, prices dip a little, to less than $900 round-trip on select flights. The big advantage with our seasonal European flights is the time savings. Alternative mileage-earning routes through the Lower 48 take about 24 hours in each direction, versus the 9.5-hour Anchorage-Frankfurt flight on Condor. 

In the really-bad-news department: The wonderful hayride of ultra-low fares from Delta on Fairbanks-Seattle flights and Juneau-Seattle flights comes to a screeching halt at the end of August. There still are a few tickets available for late-August departures for $250 round-trip (the rate is the same for both routes). After that, the price on Alaska Airlines goes up ($450 round-trip Fairbanks-Seattle, $398 round-trip Juneau-Seattle). There is no way to sugar-coat this lump of coal. 

More good news for Anchorage travelers -- not all prices are going up: 

  • Anchorage-Boston: $386 round-trip on United, starting Sept. 22
  • Anchorage-New York: $432 round-trip on United, starting Sept. 7 (better availability in late September)
  • Anchorage-Austin: $386 round-trip on Delta, starting Sept. 19
  • Anchorage-Las Vegas: $397 round-trip nonstop on Alaska Airlines, starting Sept. 4

Alaska Airlines is offering a sweeping fare sale for travel between Sept. 3 and Dec. 16. You have to purchase no later than Aug. 12. Not every route is on sale, but there is a good selection of cities on sale from Anchorage and Fairbanks. 

Bad news: Mileage plans are getting watered down. Delta’s SkyMiles and United’s MileagePlus plans are being revamped to better reward the high-spending traveler over the “Cheap Elites” of mileage-runner fame. 

Good news: Alaska Airlines' Mileage Plan has resisted this trend, for now. But be prepared for changes. For example, Alaska travelers still earn full mileage on Delta flights. But as the two carriers continue to battle over Delta’s Seattle hub, the mileage reciprocity likely will disappear. 

The backstory: Banks are the biggest purchasers of airline frequent-flyer mileage points. Credit card issuers have locked onto the frequent-flyer bonus mechanism as a good way to get new customers. Whether it’s Alaska Air’s Visa card from Bank of America, the Chase Sapphire card or the American Express Card, card shoppers can reasonably expect a free airline ticket in exchange for a successful sign-up. CardsforTravel.com is a good resource to stay on top of the best bonuses.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly placed the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge on the Chitina River.