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How to maximize airline miles and 5 hot fares to watch

Scott McMurren

My friend and colleague Erin Kirkland makes a big deal about family travel. Specifically, she admonishes travelers to bring the whole family. And who am I to argue about that -- having dragged the kids along on endless plane rides, boat trips and hikes.

Of course, bringing the young ones (or your spouse, for that matter) requires some extra planning. Erin blogs about the mechanics of eating and sleeping on the go. Naturally, her posts are geared to moms. They're typically (but not always) in charge of the diaper bag, the in-flight snacks, the stroller and such.

In the McMurren house, I've always been in charge of the travel arrangements. Christy spent time "packing for three," since I had no concept of what kids should take. As the kids got older, I paid more attention to rain gear and gloves. Now, my eldest son accompanies me to the store to make sure we get the right kind of ammunition or fishing line. Times change.

Travel still can be expensive. Especially when it comes to plane tickets, there are some simple steps to reduce the cost of tickets, even during the popular summertime travel season. Let's review:

1. Sign up for Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan and Club 49. I know, most Alaskans already are members of Club 49. We all get the fare-sale emails on Tuesday morning. But one of the big benefits is for checked luggage. With Club 49, you get two checked bags free for travel in or out of Alaska. Within the state, everyone gets three bags free on Alaska Airlines. If I lived in Atlanta, I would advise you to sign up for SkyMiles, Delta's plan. But here in Anchorage, Alaska Airlines rules the roost. As an elite traveler (MVP Gold) on Alaska Airlines, I get double miles for each mile I fly. Even at the MVP level (20,000 flight miles per year), you get 150 percent of the actual miles you fly on Alaska, Delta, American and a few other airlines. At that rate, it's possible to earn enough miles for family members to tag along on trips.

Oh, mileage inflation has set in, that's for sure. It cost me more than 40,000 miles to bring along one of the kids to California and Oregon this week. If he was traveling by himself, I would have put him on the lousy early-morning/late-night flights for 27,500 miles. But that's one of the benefits of the Alaska mileage plan -- since awards are all one-way, you can pick and choose your individual flights. And yes, the good flights cost more!

Remember, though, one of the best deals for Alaska Airlines miles is in-state travel. You can fly to Ketchikan, Kotzebue or Kodiak for as little as 15,000 miles. That's a GREAT deal.

2. Get at least one Alaska Airlines Visa card. It's tough to travel without a credit card. I've had an Alaska Airlines Visa card for about 20 years -- and one of the best benefits is the $99 companion fare. That way, when I'm traveling during Christmas and the fare is high, I still can bring Christy or one of the boys along with me for $99 plus the taxes. Also, you get one mile for each dollar you charge on the card. It adds up.

3. Consider other reward cards. My friend Chris Guillebeau travels the world by "gaming" the airlines frequent flyer plans. Actually, he calls it "Travel Hacking." And one of the most consistent ways to get free tickets is to sign up for different credit cards. For example, the Alaska Airlines Visa card offers a 25,000-mile bonus when you are approved for a card (and after you pay the $75 annual fee). Other cards offer upwards of 50,000 miles or points on approval. One of Chris's current favorites: the "Chase Sapphire" Visa card and the Delta American Express card. In fact, Chris has a website dedicated to finding the very best reward cards. For one of my businesses, I carry a Capital One Rewards Card -- and I just used the points to defray the cost of a particularly spendy trip down the West Coast on Alaska Airlines. There are several unique benefits to some of the non-airline reward cards. Specifically, you still earn your frequent-flyer miles on your reward travel. Also, many do not charge a foreign-currency fee when you're traveling outside the U.S. Unfortunately, the Alaska Airlines Visa card, issued by Bank of America, charges a 3 percent fee on top of every international charge. So I never use the Alaska Airlines Visa card when traveling outside the U.S.

Another big benefit to the non-airline reward cards is that the reward points can be used on any airline, any time. That's because the rewards are based on the cost of the ticket, not on any particular number of redeemed "miles." For example, my $1,000 ticket on Alaska Airlines between Anchorage and West Coast destinations -- Oakland, Calif., Portland, Ore., and Seattle -- cost 100,000 Capital One points.

A big component when it comes to air travel costs is, of course, the cost of the ticket itself. And costs vary wildly. But let's take a look at some of the best deals-o'-the day:

Anchorage-Phoenix Alaska Airlines has some great deals all summer long, just $467 roundtrip. But Delta is offering a great $416 roundtrip fare between now and June 6, 2012.

Anchorage-Honolulu I love Alaska's nonstop. Fly between April 23 and May 17, 2012 for as little as $455 roundtrip.

Anchorage-Denver I'm waiting for some real fireworks on this route. Frontier, United and Alaska all are offering some great deals. Frontier has some good deals, as low as $415, roundtrip, May 18-21. Alaska Airlines has some great "Club 49" deals for travel between June 5-23 (Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays only). But you must purchase no later than Thursday, April 19.

Anchorage-L.A. The entire Los Angeles basin is on sale, thanks to jetBlue. Anchorage-Long Beach is available for as little as $295 roundtrip on jetBlue. Fly nonstop to L.A. on Alaska Airlines for as little as $317 roundtrip. All sale fares start May 25, when jetBlue's first flight of the season lands in Anchorage.

Anchorage-Frankfurt Fly nonstop on Condor Airlines. They do a great job -- and the flights start on May 1. I found some seats for as little as $700 roundtrip -- it's worth it to hunt around as each date is priced a little differently.

Rates, terms and conditions change all the time. But it's worth it to pay attention to rates and pounce when the price is right! Take the whole family!

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