Travel

Budget-friendly tickets to jump-start your 2018 travel plans

If you're a frequent traveler, 2018 is starting out as a budget-friendly year. For international travelers, that's due in large part to the strength of the U.S. dollar. When we were in Mexico last month, each peso was worth about five cents. The dollar is about twice as strong as it was 10 years ago.

The exchange rate for euros is not quite as dramatic, but it's noteworthy. Right now, a euro costs about $1.20. Ten years, ago, it cost as much as $1.60.

Travelers flying from Anchorage or Fairbanks to the Lower 48 are enjoying low airfares, primarily because of the ongoing feud between Alaska Airlines and Delta. Most of the fireworks on the airfare front can be attributed to the "battle for Seattle," which continues to rage since Delta established an international hub at Sea-Tac airport in 2012. Since that time, both Alaska and Delta have beefed up their schedules — and split the sheets on their mileage plan partnership.

There are many reasons why prices on airfares go up and down. Of course, when there's high demand around school holidays, the prices go up. But when demand is lower, prices don't automatically drop. The big reason prices drop is because of competitive service.

There are other ways that airlines compete for passengers besides price. But the cost of a ticket is the most popular. Let's take a look at some popular routes and see how the airlines seek to woo travelers.

Anchorage-Seattle is a popular route. The cost of a round-trip coach ticket has crept up from around $200 round-trip to $290 today on either Delta or Alaska. To get the best price on either airline, you need to purchase your ticket 14 days in advance. On many routes, Delta has stripped out advance seat assignments in order to offer a "basic economy" price. But on the competitive route to Seattle, Delta offers its "full economy" at the lowest price.

Do you want to fly first class? Right now, first class seats to Seattle are selling cheap: Alaska is selling first class tickets for $478 round-trip starting in February. Delta's first class fares kick in a little earlier (Jan. 25) for $488 round-trip.

If you have to fly right away, tickets often cost a small fortune. But to select destinations, that's not the case — thanks to robust competition.

Anchorage-Los Angeles/LAX: With just a three-day advance notice, you can lock in the lowest fare on either Alaska or Delta: $331 round-trip. Fairbanks travelers also can reap the benefits of competition, due to Delta's once-a-day nonstop flight to Seattle. The cost for a round-trip ticket with just three days' notice: $333 on Delta, or $352 round-trip on Alaska. Of course, these fares change all the time, based on advance sales and other factors. If you change the day, it can boost the fare $40 or $50, but it's still relatively cheap.

Anchorage-Phoenix: Fly today for $190 one-way on Delta. It's interesting that the cheapest ticket is a one-way flight to Minneapolis, with a connecting flight to Phoenix. If you want to fly nonstop on Alaska (three times per week on Saturday, Monday and Thursday) the cost is a little more: $239 one-way. But this route is one example where airlines throw out the advance purchase requirements when there's fierce competition.

Fairbanks travelers can fly Delta through Seattle to Phoenix with a three-day advance purchase for as little as $192 one-way. But this is a "basic economy" fare. You have to pay $15 more to make an advance seat assignment. Alaska charges a little more, $214 one-way last-minute, but seat reservations are included. Also, you can get two free checked bags with Alaska if you're part of the "Club 49" program for Alaska residents. Delta charges for checked bags. Watch your connections on Alaska Airlines, though. Some of the cheapest flights require a 10-hour layover in Seattle. Others feature an itinerary which routes you through Juneau. The cheapest ticket may not be the fastest or the most convenient.

If you're traveling to the East Coast, Boston is your most affordable gateway. If you can plan ahead, you can get tickets for as little as $389 round-trip on Alaska, Delta or United. This is one of the routes where Delta offers the lowest fare with "regular economy," meaning you can reserve your seat in advance. You still have to pay for bags, though. Alaska Air offers the Club 49 baggage fee waiver, as well as pre-reserved seats. United offers the fare, but the airline's "basic economy" is stingier that Delta's: you can't bring a full-size carry-on bag without paying extra. And no advance seat reservations are permitted. From Fairbanks, Delta offers "basic economy" tickets for as little as $399 round-trip. Alaska charges $417 round-trip with bags and seat assignments.

Even if you're traveling at the last minute, tickets to Boston are pretty cheap: you can fly today from Anchorage for $536 round-trip on Delta, or $555 on Alaska Air. It's actually cheaper from Fairbanks for last-minute travel: $455 round-trip on Delta, or $517 round-trip on Alaska.

Other no-advance-purchase destinations include Anchorage-Las Vegas (as low as $354 round-trip on Delta or $403 round-trip on Alaska) and Anchorage-Orlando ($507 round-trip on United in "basic economy").

Alaska, Delta and United are not the only airlines fighting these battles. They're just the ones in our back yard. Down in Honolulu, you can fly to Osaka with "Scoot" Airlines (owned by Singapore Air) for as little as $240 round-trip, leaving as soon as Monday, Jan. 15!