Just last month in Fairbanks, I shared some Moose's Tooth pizza and HooDoo beer with some folks and talked about "travel secrets." It was a sunny evening at the Museum of the North, up on the campus at UAF.
Many of these secrets come and go, just like cheap airfares. Other valuable tips are worth repeating, because they run counter to what travel sellers want you to do: always buy from them.
Some people spend too much time fussing over airfares. I'm one of those people. Here's what I've learned:
1. Use Google to search for your flights. I prefer Google's ITA software, since you can get a monthlong view of the fares. But I also use Google Flights, which is a little more consumer-friendly. Once you plug in your dates and your destination, you can purchase your ticket from the airline or from a third-party seller such as Orbitz.com.
Or, you can call a travel agent, who typically will charge between $35 and $40 for a domestic ticket.
2. As far as I can tell, there is no "magic day" or time of day to purchase your ticket. The only exception is Alaska Airlines' Club 49 specials. They always come out on Tuesday and expire on Thursday.
Further, I've never seen any conclusive evidence that travel sellers increase the price of an itinerary after several searches — as some sort of tactic to get you to press the "buy" button. Fares go up and down all the time. However, if you suspect such nefarious behavior, just search using ITA. Since you can't purchase tickets on the site, Google doesn't care how many times you look!
3. If you get a notification about a fare, purchase it right away. You have 24 hours to make up your mind, during which you can cancel without penalty. I did this for a Hong Kong ticket — and used the 24 hours to come up with a really good story for my wife. First, though, I asked if she wanted to go with me!
4. Competition is the name of the game. That's why it's cheap to fly from Anchorage to Seattle (from $97 each way on JetBlue), to Portland (from $84 each way on JetBlue) or Los Angeles (from $161 each way on Alaska Airlines). There are a bundle of other cities where the fares are super-cheap because of the Alaska-Delta battle, including Sacramento, Las Vegas, Boston, San Diego and Phoenix. When competition goes away, leaving only one airline to serve the market, the fares go up.
5. If coach is too expensive, check first class. I purchased a first-class ticket coming back from Seattle on Delta for $200 each way. Alaska charges more, but they have more flights. Still, you can get a first-class seat for as little as $187 each way through Sept. 2. Trust me — that's cheap.
There are a few tricks to renting cars, and usually one of them will work to cut the price.
1. Check Costco. If you have a Costco membership, you can scan all of the major car rental prices for your itineraries, and Costco automatically includes any applicable coupons or discounts.
2. Bid on Priceline. I've never used Priceline for air tickets. For hotels, I've only used them for top-rated airport hotels. I've had more success using them for car rentals — but haven't used them lately. Once you get to the "bid now" screen you can see how much extra profit and fees they add on to your bid, leaving precious little for the car rental company.
3. Don't rent at the airport. I'm in Portland at the moment, driving a lovely Nissan Altima from Enterprise. If I had picked it up at the Portland airport, the cost would have been $420 for the trip. Instead, I took the MAX train downtown and picked up the car at a different Enterprise location. The cost? $260. So, I bought a nice bottle of wine to take over to my sister's house tonight! This trick works almost everywhere. The folks at Enterprise in Portland told me that some customers take the MAX to the end of the line to avoid the Multnomah County tax. Honestly, at the right time of day, that's probably faster than driving along the traffic-choked I-205.
There are some big changes going on. We opted to rent an apartment here in Eugene for a family wedding. It's $75 per night and we reserved it through FlipKey. We've also used Airbnb, HomeAway and VRBO.com to rent condos and apartments around the world. These tools offer travelers much more flexibility — and usually a lot more space for less money. There are other times when only a hotel will do.
For hotels, usually I do a Google search for the best rates, then check TripAdvisor for ratings. But more often, I'm using points from my credit cards to stay at nice places like Hyatt, the "W" and other boutique hotels.
My friend Johnny Jet used to use Priceline quite a bit for four- and five-star hotels. But lately, he's had good luck with Snap Travel.
Frequent flyer miles
Don't believe it if folks tell you the mileage plans are going away. It's not true — because folks are hooked on the "game" of elite status, perks and upgrades. That said, you have to earn-and-burn your miles and points quickly, because they constantly are losing value.
For those of us in Alaska, the Alaska Airlines frequent flyer plan is the best. And it's a good idea to have some miles in the bank in case of emergency. The quickest way to get a good balance is to get one of Alaska's credit cards. Spend $75 for the annual fee and meet the "minimum spend" of $1,000 and you'll get 30,000 miles. That's more than enough for a roundtrip ticket. Then you can earn more miles when you charge stuff on your card, as long as you can pay it off at the end of the month. If you plan to keep a balance, there are other credit cards to get that have much lower interest rates.
The Delta, United and American plans all are dollar-based. A close examination of these plans will help you realize that unless you're a business class traveler or fly more than 100,000 miles per year, it's probably not worth the trouble.
Credit cards like Chase Sapphire Preferred and the American Express Card have programs where you can shift miles to separate loyalty plans to get their rewards. I have four Chase cards and a big balance of "Ultimate Reward" points that I use at Hyatt hotels and IHG (Intercontinental, Holiday Inn and Kimpton). My American Express card is from Starwood Preferred Guest, so I use the points at Sheraton, Westin and other SPG properties. Usually, the signup bonuses for the cards cover eight to 12 nights at the lowest redemption level. Almost all of them have annual fees of at least $95 per year.
Again, many of the "travel secrets" can change quickly. But if you can find one or two that work, you can stretch your travel budget!
Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.