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When the unexpected happens, being prepared makes travel easier

Scott McMurren and his father, the Rev. Jay McMurren, pose in front of the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, Oregon, on April 17, 2017. Jay McMurren died on Jan. 31, 2018. (Photo by Scott McMurren)

"Why does it take someone dying for all of us to get together?" said my cousin, Doug McMurren. He called a few days ago after learning that my dad, his uncle, died suddenly. We were in the process of planning a funeral.

It's a conundrum, to be sure. My cousins, aunts, uncles and in-laws are close, but Alaska is a long way from everywhere. Many Alaskans' stories center on trips back home to connect with families and loved ones. Sometimes it's a planned event — and sometimes it's not.

Planning vacations is my thing. In fact, this past week we had planned to go to Hawaii with my sister. But now everything has changed. "This is what keeps the travel insurance people in business," said my brother-in-law, Jeff Sprague.

Whether it's someone being born, getting sick or dying, spontaneous life events have a way of upending the best-laid plans. My father, Jay McMurren, loved to tell the story of how he got the call about my impending birth. "My co-worker called me in San Francisco and said, 'Don't worry.' That didn't help," he said. "Then, I rushed out to the airport only to find that all the flights were grounded due to fog."

Those big life-and-death moments are one reason why, on any given airplane leaving Alaska, you have travelers heading south for many different reasons. For some, it is a vacation. For others, it's a way to get to work or go to school. Some are going to planned-out events like weddings or reunions. Then there are those who really wish the captain would just step on it, as they are in a race against the clock.

It's no wonder that many travelers are anxious on a flight. In fact, it's a miracle that most of the full flights that take off and land each day do so without incident. This is no accident. Rather, it's the combination of finely tuned machinery, good weather and a well-trained crew. And part of the training is an understanding by the gate agents and the cabin crew that many passengers are struggling. Sometimes that's revealed in a child who's acting out, or someone who starts crying without provocation.

Like many Alaskans, I've taken trips to see sick relatives, attend funerals and take part in other heart-rending missions. Sitting next to me were soldiers, accountants, doctors, priests, homemakers and machinists. Even though we were all on different missions, we also all were "in the same boat."

Travelers like to talk about the air on flights. Usually, they complain about how dry it is — but I think there's more to it.

Most of us haven't been to outer space. So a commercial flight is as close as we're going to get. First, I contend that you're closer to Heaven. As I plan for this upcoming trip to pay my final respects to my father, you can bet I'll look skyward from my window seat and have a few words. My dad was an ordained minister for more than 50 years — so I know he'll appreciate that.

Also, once you lift off in your jet and get to cruising altitude, travelers on the plane make up their own community-in-the-sky.

As you breathe in that dry air, you have the chance to look down and see the land with new eyes. The sun shines brighter and there's often beautiful scenery, particularly as you pass by Columbia Glacier and Prince William Sound. I haven't seen the northern lights from the air, though I hear they are spectacular. But I've been hypnotized looking at the moon and the stars out the window.

You're going fast up there in a pressurized cabin. I always feel better when I'm going faster. But as I zip across time zones, sometimes my brain takes a while to catch up with my body.

Breathing that air and looking down at the ground whizzing by gives me a chance to reflect on the mashup between my well-planned life and the universe's schedule of events. Sometimes these two calendars coalesce nicely. But when they don't, well, we have to fall back and regroup.

For this type of travel, the usual bargain-hunting tips and tricks don't work as well. This is why I like to keep some miles in my frequent flyer account. That's because few of us know when "the call" will come about an unexpected death or sickness. But odds are you'll get the call when you least expect it.

While you cannot plan ahead to get an advance-purchase airfare for unplanned events, you can plan ahead to have some miles in the bank. This takes the sting out of the high cost of last-minute airfares. I'm a big fan of signing up for credit cards to get the big bonus in miles and points. I have a couple of the Alaska Airlines Visa cards, each of which yields a 30,000-mile sign-up bonus. On a good day, you can get a ticket from Anchorage to the Lower 48 for 25,000 miles. I also just received 80,000 Ultimate Rewards points from my Chase Ink Business Preferred card. These points cover my hotel stays, although you also can use them for rental cars and airline tickets. Each of these cards has an annual membership fee and a minimum spending requirement. It's never a good idea to get these cards if you plan to carry an unpaid balance. Still, it's the quickest way I've found to get lots of miles or points in a hurry.

Now I'm in the middle of planning my own last-minute trip. I've had enough practice that I know to double-check the connecting times on flights. I'm less aware of the self-care elements that are no less important. My friends are telling me, "Don't forget to eat," for example. That's never been an issue with me, as evidenced by my ample waistband. But I did need to run out and get some coffee.

I confessed to my cousin that yes, indeed, sometimes a loved one has to die to get everyone together. And in the midst of my sorrow, I'm looking forward to it. My dad would want me to remember the coffee.

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