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Planning a big trip? Here are websites that can help you keep costs down

  • Author: Scott McMurren
    | Alaska Travel
  • Updated: April 21
  • Published April 21

(Getty Images)

If you're traveling from Anchorage to Juneau, it's pretty simple to figure out your travel plans. Just go to the Alaska Airlines website. From there you can decide if you want to use miles or money. If you have 21 days to plan, you can get a mileage ticket for as little as 5,000 miles each way. But more complex itineraries require a little more work.

Let's review some of the basic travel planning tools that can help you save some time and money.

Google's ITA Matrix: This site is a bit geeky, but provides some granular information on flights, fares and routes that can be helpful. You can't purchase any tickets on this site, so there's no bias toward a particular airline. I particularly like the "search calendar" feature which allows you to put in a range of dates (say, three to seven nights), then view a month at a glance.

When you hit the "search" button, you'll see a prompt to start a search with Google Flights.

Google Flights: This is more consumer-friendly and features a "buy" button. There are all sorts of features, including maps, graphs and calendars to dissect your flight search. Personally, I like the flight graph, where I can toggle from month to month to see how the fares go up or down. You can modify the graph to display only one or two airlines, or limit the display to nonstop flights. Google Flights also features a map, but I like Kayak's map better.

Kayak's interactive fare mapA good at-a-glance indicator of available fares. You can modify the season (down to a particular month) or use a slider to limit both the flight time and your budget. I take the information I find at Kayak.com and go back to the airline's own website for confirmation and availability. Sometimes, if I can't find a particular deal on the airline's website that I found at Kayak or with Google Flights, I'll try a top-tier third-party site like Priceline.com or Orbitz.com.

Many sites, including Kayak, offer to send out notifications when fares go lower. Instead, I check in with TheFareDeal.com every day to see the hot deals.

Those extra airline fees can add up. For example, Sun Country Airlines is offering $64 one-way tickets from Anchorage to Seattle, starting on June 7. After filling in your name and contact information, you're prompted to purchase a package that includes a checked bag or a full-size carry on, for $25 or $35. Then, you're prompted to pay for a pre-reserved seat: anywhere from $7 for a middle seat in the back of the plane to $25 for an exit-row seat.

Speaking of Sun Country, there was a massive snowstorm last week, which closed the Minneapolis airport. This resulted in dozens of flight cancellations. But there were some special circumstances with the flights from Mexico on Sun Country. They were the last scheduled flights for seasonal service. So, the airline's first response was to refund the passengers' return ticket and let them make their own arrangements back home — at considerable expense.

After a barrage of negative news coverage, Sun Country quickly changed its tune. After offering apologies, the airline's CEO, Jude Bricker, offered more substantive commitments: "In addition to refunding their original roundtrip ticket on Sun Country … we will also cover any additional reasonable transportation costs they incurred in excess of their original Sun Country roundtrip fare, not limited to the difference they paid on another carrier, but also including taxis, shuttles, any reasonable transportation costs required to get them to and from the airport."

Episodes like Sun Country's cancellations are rare, but they do happen. It underscores the importance of travel insurance. This includes flight irregularities or accidents while you're traveling. Often, your credit card will include provisions for rental car insurance and a limited amount of trip interruption insurance. I am in the process of purchasing my third policy from Allianz, which offers an annual travel insurance policy. There are several options, which include varying levels of emergency medical coverage (including emergency medical transportation), lost luggage protection and interruption/cancellation. Most are sold on a trip-by-trip basis.

There are two comparison sites for travel insurance that can be helpful: Squaremouth.com and InsureMyTrip.com. If you're traveling on an unusual or exotic tour, safari or cruise, the tour operator may offer or require that you purchase a specific policy that covers their itinerary. It's worth it to read the fine print in order to get the right travel insurance policy.

If all of the options on flights, luggage and seats is overwhelming, hire a travel agent to sift through it quickly. They'll charge you around $35 per domestic ticket— but it could save you a lot of time and aggravation.

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