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When you’re playing the airline system game, sometimes you lose

  • Author: Scott McMurren
    | Alaska Travel
  • Updated: May 4, 2019
  • Published May 4, 2019

When I switched my flight earlier this week, there was no indication that a brief trip to Juneau was a dry-run for the busy summer travel season. But that’s what happened.

First, Juneau is glowing. The temperatures are between 45 and 60 and clouds are nowhere to be seen. The cruise season started last week, so all of the tourist-y activities are up and running: kayaks, whale-watching, tram rides, flightseeing and so forth. Driving out to Mendenhall Glacier or further out the road to the Shrine of St. Therese, you’ll see incredible views. The last time I drove out to the shrine, there were humpback whales breaching just offshore. Locals tell me that’s not unusual. At Mendenhall Glacier, you now can take a walk along the right-hand (eastern) side of the lake all the way out to the giant waterfall for a better view.

Originally, I booked a midafternoon flight with Alaska Airlines that stopped in Cordova and Yakutat on the way to Juneau. My strategy: Change it to a nonstop at the last minute without shelling out the extra 10,000 miles.

The lesson: I did manage to board an earlier flight, but “no seats were available to be pre-assigned.” That’s travel-speak for “We’ll give you a middle seat at the gate.”

Travelers should show up two hours prior to flight time. I did, during a slow time at the airport (9:30 a.m.). There were several hundred people milling around, with lines in front of every check-in kiosk. Alaska’s computer system went down, so everything was backed up. All the lines were long, including the bag-drop and MVP/First Class lines. Eventually, a kiosk opened up and I printed a boarding pass.

The lesson: I should have checked in at home and printed my boarding pass or sent it to my phone. But I planned to beg for a better seat while checking in. That strategy, though, was doomed because of the computer outage.

This season is projected to be a record-breaking tourism year. That means there will be more infrequent travelers at the airport. Usually, those are the people in front of me in the line. They take longer — sometimes much longer.

Since it was a full flight, I was planning to check my bag. But the line at the bag-drop counter was long — and it wasn’t moving.

The lesson: Travelers should consider traveling only with carry-on luggage. For in-state travelers, Alaska allows three free checked bags. But if the baggage line is too long, you may not meet the cutoff time of 40 minutes prior to departure.

If you haven’t applied for Global Entry, the government program to speed through the lines at the border, do it.

The lesson: Global Entry also affords you the “TSA Pre-Check” status for your domestic flights. However, you must make sure your airline has your Global Entry number — otherwise you’ll get to go back to the regular security line. Sometimes there’s a place on the website to enter your number after you get it. But it’s best to call them if you want to make sure. You cannot just show your Global Entry card to get into the pre-check line.

For a short-notice trip to Juneau from Anchorage, the cost is more than $600 round trip. Compare that with Alaska Air’s nonstop to Los Angeles, which is available at the last minute for $479 round trip.

The lesson: This is a good time to use your miles. If you can plan 21 days in advance, you can get a ticket to Juneau for just 5,000 miles (one way). At the last minute, you still can find seats on select flights for 7,500 miles.

Taking a seat in the middle at the back of the aircraft is bad. I got 26B. But it’s even worse if you’re one of the last to board and you have stuff that needs to go in the overhead bin. You’re better off to cram your bag in the first overhead bin you see, rather than try and work your way forward after learning there’s no room in the bin above your seat.

The nice lady sitting next to me had two bags and a backpack. I offered to put one of her bags up above. “Oh no,” she protested, “I like to have all of my stuff with me.”

When she sat down, there was simply no way the armrest could go down between us. We’re all getting bigger—and some of us are bigger than others.

The lesson: Learn to get cozy with other travelers, because there’s precious little personal space left at the back of the plane. After my seatmate got settled in, she reached into her bag of “stuff” and pulled out a king-sized cinnamon roll with all the frosting. I almost leaned over and took a bite. But I’d learned enough lessons for the day.