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Airfare war heats up for Alaska travelers

There's nothing like a big airfare war to get travelers excited. On Labor Day, Delta Air Lines delivered, whacking the prices to many of our most popular destinations. Alaska Airlines and United followed suit, dropping fares even further.

For most of the cities, the best prices are available for travel starting in about three weeks, through Feb. 14, 2018. Some hotly contested cities are available on shorter notice, though.

Want to go to Seattle? The lowest fare now is $205 round-trip on Alaska or Delta. When JetBlue flew the route this summer, you could often get fares this low — or lower. But JetBlue only flew one red-eye flight each day. And JetBlue's last flight of the season is Sept. 12. So that leaves Alaska and Delta to slug it out all winter.

Although Alaska Air has more flights, the cheap fares are not available on all flights or on every day. Like many of the best rates, you have to do a little hunting. But you'll find them, unless you want to go at Thanksgiving or Christmas. If you want to travel Dec. 14-31, prepare to pay more. The good fares kick in again on Jan. 1, 2018.

While you get two checked bags with Alaska Airlines if you're a Club 49 member, Delta and United will charge you for your bags. To make up for the extra charge, Delta offers travelers a couple of 20 percent discount coupons, which can help defer the cost. With United, you can skirt the bag charge if you have their credit card.

Good first-class rates

Of course, when you're flying first class, you can check a couple of bags without charge. That's because usually you're paying the big bucks, or you got an upgrade. But Delta has dropped the charge for a first-class ticket between Anchorage and Seattle to $363 round-trip. Alaska Air also dropped their rates — but not as far: $403 round-trip. Honestly, I've paid much more to sit in the back of the plane. These are great rates if you want to buy yourself a little comfort.

If you're flying to Portland, Delta offers rates starting at $263 round-trip starting later this month. Alaska offers nonstop service for as little as $255 round-trip — but on only a couple of days in October (Oct. 3 and Oct. 14). More seats are available at $295 round-trip, before prices go up in November. Delta's $263 round-trip fare is available through Feb. 14. Keep in mind that fares change all the time. I would not be surprised if Alaska added more discount seats before this sale is over on Sept. 17.

The cheapest ticket to California is into Sacramento on Delta, for $259 round-trip. But Anchorage-Los Angeles is just a few dollars more: $287 round-trip on Delta. If you can catch the nonstop on Alaska Air, it's just $278 round-trip. Keep in mind Alaska's flights are red-eye in both directions. The return flight from L.A. to Anchorage gets in at 4:09 a.m.

Delta and United offer flights from Anchorage to San Diego for just $295 round-trip. Or, you can fly to Las Vegas from Anchorage for $295 round-trip on Delta, United or Alaska.

Fairbanks flyers get a break

These West Coast cities have been on sale all summer long. But this sale is a little different, because it includes cities that are rarely on sale: Lexington, Kentucky ($405 round-trip on United), and West Palm Beach, Florida ($413 round-trip on Delta).

In fact, you can throw a dart at much of the eastern U.S. and the chances are good that the small-town airport closest to the dart is on sale: Springfield, Missouri ($405 round-trip on United), Evansville, Indiana ($413 round-trip on Delta), or Syracuse, New York ($405 round-trip on United).

Even travelers from Fairbanks can play this game. That's because Delta upgraded its winter service from a smaller jet (operated by a regional partner) to an Airbus 319 operated by Delta pilots and crew. The 319 model is smaller (126 seats) than an A320 or a 737, but it means 50 more seats are available each day, all winter long.

From Fairbanks to Seattle, both Delta and Alaska are offering $219 round-trip. That's cheaper than it's been all summer! All of the popular West Coast cities are on sale from Fairbanks: San Francisco ($339 round-trip on Alaska), Los Angeles/LAX ($296 round-trip on Delta) and Las Vegas ($316 round-trip on Alaska or Delta).

Fairbanks flyers do not have the broad choice of destinations for this particular sale, but it's still impressive. My favorites include Boston ($358 round-trip on Delta), Atlanta ($464 round-trip on Alaska or Delta) and Denver ($374 round-trip on Alaska).

Remember, all fares are not created equal. With Alaska Airlines, you can reserve your seat and bring a full-sized carry-on aboard. That's not the case with "basic economy" on Delta or United. Not all of these cheap rates are basic economy, but many of them are. If you're flying on Delta, that means you don't get your seat assigned until you check in.

When you're booking these fares on the airline website, you'll be prompted many times to pay extra money so you can reserve a seat. Then there is the additional charge if you want to check a bag.

United is even more restrictive if you choose one of the basic economy fares. You can't pre-reserve a seat, nor can you bring a full-size carry-on bag into the cabin.

Plus, unless you elect to pay extra (typically $25) to bring a full-size carry-on, you cannot use the online check-in feature at united.com. That means you have to stand in line at the airport so the agent can inspect your carry-on luggage.

At its core, the basic economy fares are a way for Delta, United and American to offer seats priced similarly to the ultra-discounters like Spirit, Allegiant and Frontier. Even though none of those airlines fly to Alaska, the major airlines are offering the no-frills rates to attract price-conscious travelers.

It's not surprising that the big airlines would compete on price. All airlines do. Some travelers always pick the lowest price, no matter what. Sometimes the price difference is a lot of money — and travelers may be willing to try another airline to save, even if it means everyone gets a middle seat.

In the big picture, it's great that airlines like Delta and United continue to offer service to Alaska. Competition among airlines is the reason fares are low. But it's not just friendly competition. Rather, travelers can grab a great deal when airlines are mad at each other. Like now.

PFD Travel Fair

The PFD Travel Fair is Saturday, Sept. 23. Check out travel deals around the state and around the world. (Full disclosure: I am the producer of this event.) Drawing prizes include a trip for two to the Cook Islands in the South Pacific. The PFD Travel Fair is presented by the Alaska Railroad and is held at the Bill Sheffield Railroad Depot at the airport. Admission is $15 online in advance, although kids are free — and so is parking. The train will be available for tours at the depot. There's live music by Todd Grebe and Cold Country — and food trucks.

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 zoom907@me.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.

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