What type of trip planner are you? Do you do your research and plan well in advance? Or, do you just fly on a whim?
Most of my last-minute travel is business-related. And it usually costs a lot more. But not always. There's a cruise that leaves on Monday, Sept. 3, from Seattle. The Norwegian Jewel sails up the Inside Passage, ending up in Seward. The website AlaskaCruises.com is selling inside cabins for $299 per person. There are extra taxes — but that's cheap. Or, you can fly from Anchorage to Honolulu on Sept. 3 for $197 one-way on Alaska Airlines.
The idea of last-minute travel to Alaska is somewhat new, but that didn't deter Trini Amador. Last week, he sent me a text message, asking if he and his wife, Lisa, could come north for some fishing. They wanted to arrive in two days!
Amador lives in Sonoma County, where he and his family operate a winery. Since it was 11 p.m., I wrote back with a couple of suggestions, including one of the lodges in Katmai National Park: Brooks Lodge. Then I told him I'd call in the morning.
"We had the week reserved to do something," said Amador. "But we thought we'd go for a road trip. The idea to come to Alaska was completely spontaneous."
While we were on the phone the next morning, he sent over his last-minute itinerary. Thus began a little mini-scramble to find a lodge that offered some good fishing and comfy accommodations. The first lodge, Tutka Bay Lodge was fully booked. Just for fun, I sent him the link for the Sheldon Chalet, which overlooks the Ruth Glacier on Denali and is available only by helicopter. "We want to go there!!" he exclaimed when he looked at the website.
Julie Saupe, the president of Visit Anchorage, said last-minute travel is happening more often. "It's less-common for us in Alaska," she said. "But it's no longer unusual."
"If people have the means and they hear about something, it's easy now to book everything on your phone," said Sarah Leonard, the head of the Alaska Travel Industry Association.
Amador used the Expedia app to book his flights from San Francisco. "I use Expedia constantly," he said. "It's just four clicks to make a purchase."
While mobile apps are handy for many airplane, hotel and car reservations, arrangements at a remote Alaska lodge typically are handled the old-fashioned way: by phone.
The Sheldon Chalet looked nice, but it wasn't available. After a few calls, we found that Stillpoint Lodge in Halibut Cove had some space for the dates Amador requested.
Before we got off the phone, Amador had secured his Anchorage-Homer tickets on Ravn to pick up Stillpoint's boat over to Halibut Cove.
Amador and I worked together when he lived in Anchorage 30 years ago — so it was great to see him and Lisa when I picked them up at the airport. "Oh, I forgot to tell you. We have no clothes or rain gear," he said.
We caught up on old friends while he was pawing through the sale rack at 6th Avenue Outfitters. Then I asked him where he was spending the night.
"I don't know," he said. He whipped out his phone and started scrolling through some options. "I never make hotel arrangements until the very last minute," he confessed. "Sometimes I use hoteltonight.com but generally I book through Expedia."
Saddled with their new rain gear, some light gloves, hats and ear muffs, I dropped Trini and Lisa off at the Hotel Captain Cook so they could get settled before dinner. Although they didn't travel with outerwear, they did bring a case of pinot noir and zinfandel to share with dinner. After all, wine flies as free baggage on Alaska Airlines.
Amador checked in this morning from Halibut Cove and I asked him about his adventure at Stillpoint Lodge. Even before talking to him on the phone, there was a flurry of photos: kayaking in front of Grewingk Glacier, fishing in Kachemak Bay, the view of the water from their room. I'm confident the lodge will get a thumbs up from the Amadors.
Summertime is not the only time to take a last-minute journey in Alaska. North of Fairbanks, there's a collection of fiberglass igloos that have about a third of the north-facing wall cut away and replaced by plexiglass. Borealis Basecamp is set up so you can see the northern lights while lying in bed. There's one big yurt where everyone gathers for meals. Last winter, while nursing a cup of hot chocolate, I talked to a young couple from Los Angeles who had made arrangements just the day before to come up and gaze at the aurora borealis. They were between jobs and had just over a week to do something fun. They opted for a trip to Fairbanks.
"People are making their arrangements either on very short notice or very far in advance," said Robert Sheldon, of the Sheldon Chalet. Sheldon had to concede the chalet probably was not a good fit for the Amadors if they wanted to go fishing. But the next time, if they want an up-close look at Denali and they plan in advance, there may be a room for them!