My friend Robert called yesterday to ask about using his Alaska Air miles. "My ticket is going to cost $450," he said. "Should I buy it or use my miles?"
Usually, tickets within the U.S., unless they're last-minute or super-high season, are relatively cheap. That means you're better off accruing miles to use later for award tickets. One of my travel gurus, Chris Gillebeau, consistently reminds his readers that the "holy grail" for award travel is international first class (or business class). Thankfully, Alaska Air has some good partners where you can use the miles "up front," including Emirates, Singapore Air, Condor Air and Cathay Pacific.
Then, Robert confessed that he had amassed more than a million Alaska Air miles. So, I changed my tune. "There's no single investment that depreciates faster than airline miles," I said. When you're playing the frequent flyer game, there are three words to live by: "earn and burn." In the end, he used miles for the tickets.
Last year, Alaska Air changed up some of the rules on their frequent flyer plan. That included going to a mileage-based award redemption scheme. One of the best deals, I think, is in-state travel: from Anchorage to Juneau is just 5,000 miles each way. You have to plan 21 days in advance to get that deal, which also works to Petersburg and Sitka — and a host of other in-state destinations. You can fly to Wrangell and Ketchikan for 7,500 miles each way.
If you're banking more miles than you're using, maybe it's time to visit this glorious patch of Alaska.
Unlike Anchorage, Southeast Alaska has enjoyed great weather this summer. Since the cruise season is going full-throttle until Oct. 2, there are a bunch of great things to do that are not available in the offseason.
In Juneau, the ride up the Mount Roberts Tram is a great way to get a million-dollar view of the area. You can hang out at the top and look out over the port, or take the trail further up Mount Roberts for better views.
If that's not high enough, you can take a helicopter ride up to the Mendenhall Glacier with Temsco Helicopters. You'll see the choppers all in a row when you land at the Juneau airport. It's a short flight over the mountains to get to Temsco's base on the glacier. Your guide will meet you at the chopper when it touches down and walk you around on the ice — safely away from any crevasses. Temsco provides boots that go over your shoes to give you better footing on the ice.
The hiking around Juneau is fabulous. Before the tram was built, there was a trail up Mount Roberts. It's still there. There are trails to get you closer to Mendenhall Glacier and trails to the old Perseverance Mine in back of downtown. Juneau's official tourism website has a handful listed on their website.
After your big adventure, choose your libation. For beer, stop by the Alaskan Brewing facility by Costco and get a flight of several samples from an ever-changing array. I like the Mosaic IPA, but they're also featuring a Pumpkin Porter this month.
For delicious ice cream, visit Coppa. During the summer, they have an ice cream cart on Franklin Street to cater to cruise passengers. But their main shop is off the beaten path, away from the crowds. You also can pick up a great cup of coffee while you're there. All of their ice cream is made on-site, with some fun flavors like rhubarb sorbet.
Bad news: The Silverbow Bakery is gone. But in its place is a new Italian place, In Bocca Al Lupo. These folks bake some incredible bread in the wood-fired oven on site. We didn't have time for a full dinner, but had a "Thunder Dome," which is a loaf of tasty bread served up with some garlic butter. Pair it with some delicious wine-by-the-glass (domestic, French, Italian and Spanish varieties available) and you've got a tasty bread-and-wine feast.
Further down the coast in Ketchikan, there's lots to see and do. Like Juneau, there are a bunch of hiking trails where you can get a million-dollar view. The U.S. Forest Service offers online resources and maps if you want to explore the area.
Even around town, the Creek Street area has an historic boardwalk, which is the first part of the "Married Man's Trail." There are some great views of the salmon run (and an occasional bear).
Visit Alaska artist Ray Troll's gallery called "Soho Coho" on Creek Street. From there, you can look up the hill and see Ketchikan's tram: the funicular that goes up Cape Fox Hill to the hotel at the top. There are huge windows in the lobby and a nice restaurant.
For a better view, though, take a flightseeing tour of Misty Fjords National Monument. Part of the thrill of this trip is just taking off from the busy waterfront along Tongass Narrows. If you arrive by air, you get to cross the narrows by ferry from the airport on Gravina Island. From your ferry, you can see Taquan Air's floating dock with their Beavers and Otters lined up to take travelers on the tour. It's not the only tour they do — but it's the most popular. Adjacent to Taquan's dock is the giant Vigor shipyard, where the new Alaska ferry, the Tazlina is tied up. There also is one of the green-and-white Inter-island Ferries (IFA), which goes to Prince of Wales Island.
The floatplanes share the Tongass Narrows with the car ferry from the airport, the tugs and barges hauling supplies to and from Ketchikan, the giant cruise ships and the fishing boats heading out from the harbor.
Just 15 minutes away by air is the monument — and it is magnificent. Along Behm Canal, there are sheer, 3,000-foot cliffs that were carved clean by massive glacial activity. You can tour the whole area by air in a little more than an hour (including a landing on a lake or protected inlet). Or, you can take a trip that includes a boat ride in one direction.
If you want a taste of some local beer in Ketchikan, Sean Heismann just opened Bawden Street Brewing Co. Located downtown near Creek Street at 325 Bawden St., the one-room operation serves up a variety of brews, including an amber and a couple of saison selections.
Whether it's for fishing, flightseeing, hiking or kayaking, maybe it's time to cash in some of those miles for a trip to Southeast Alaska!