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Spring fare war tempts travelers

  • Author: Scott McMurren
    | Alaska Travel
  • Updated: February 6
  • Published February 6

A Delta Air Lines plane takes off above a taxiing Alaska Airlines plane, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, on a snow-bordered runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Nobody likes finding a great airfare more than me. We Alaskans love to travel — and saving $100 or $200 (or more) on an airline ticket really makes a difference.

But it’s important to put that natural exuberance in perspective during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to encourage travelers to delay their trips, thusly: “Travel increases your chance of spreading and getting COVID-19. CDC recommends that you do not travel at this time. Postpone travel and stay home to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.”

If Americans cannot or will not internalize this important message, it may be left to the Canadians to drive the point home. Last week, our neighbors to the south banned all cruise ship travel to Southeast Alaska for another year. Further, air travel is forbidden and the Alaska Highway still is available only to essential travel. Honestly, I’m surprised they haven’t built a wall.

Many travelers already are heeding the advice to stay home, which means the airlines have some extra seats to sell. In the meantime, they’ve upgraded their onboard cleaning — trying to make the aircraft more hospitable in the COVID-19 era.

Last week on Monday, Delta Air Lines came out with some really good fares for travel between late February and March 31, 2021. One fare jumped out at me: Anchorage-Seattle for $67. Later, they dropped the rate to $62 and added Fairbanks-Seattle for $63 each way.

Between now and March 30, Delta is leaving all the middle seats open on its 737s that fly between Anchorage and Seattle, as well as its 757s to Minneapolis. But Delta still charges for checked bags.

Alaska Airlines doesn’t offer empty middle seats, unless you’re flying in “Premium Class.” But the airline does offer two free checked bags if you’re enrolled in the “Club 49” program.

Cities up and down the west coast are on sale: Portland, Boise, Spokane, Eugene, Medford, San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Tucson are on sale for between $105 and $120 each way.

Delta didn’t stop at the west coast, though. Chicago is $128 one-way. Orlando is $139 one-way. There are a bunch of cities in-between that are on sale.

At first, Alaska Air did not match the prices. But then, on Tuesday, Alaska offered a fare of $116 each way between Anchorage and four of Delta’s key hubs: Minneapolis, Detroit, Atlanta and Salt Lake.

I went to bed late while checking the rates, then got up early the next morning to check the progress.

It’s true: I love a fare war. Because when the airlines are mad at each other, the traveler wins.

Well, by Wednesday, Alaska had withdrawn the prices to Delta’s hubs and decided to match Delta’s $67 one-way fare from Anchorage to Seattle, along with most of the other destinations throughout Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Colorado. Looking toward the midwest and east coast, not all destinations are on sale, but a lot of them are.

I know this sounds a little crazy, but watching the fares come and go, rise and fall, is a bit like watching a battle in progress. Delta and Alaska are duking it out in real time, trying to encourage people to fly on their planes.

American and United are bit players in the drama — we’ll get to them later.

By Thursday morning, Alaska Air had once again filed low fares from Anchorage to Delta’s four major hubs (at $119 each way). Delta had added a bunch of new fares from Fairbanks to the Lower 48, such as the $63 Fairbanks-Seattle fare.

As the sun went down on Thursday evening, Alaska Air seemed to pull back from most the low fares. Delta, in the meantime, had dropped most of their fares by an average of $5. Anchorage-Denver is $105 one-way on Delta.

When Delta filed the fares early last week, the ticketing deadline was Tuesday, Feb. 9. That doesn’t mean that the fares are guaranteed to be available until then. Anything can happen. But I’ll bet Delta will run out the clock on this sale. I’m also betting that Alaska Air will again match those fares from Anchorage and Fairbanks. I’m not sure if they will go one more round and add lower fares to Delta’s hubs. Wait and see.

Now let’s take a look at what United and American are up to.

United is quietly dropping low-ball fares from Anchorage to Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Right now, United offers a $106 one-way fare from Anchorage to L.A. or Las Vegas, available most days between Feb. 12 and Mar. 31. What’s the catch? Well, the first flight is Anchorage-Denver. Then there’s a layover before catching the final flight back over the Rocky Mountains. Oh, were you thinking you might get a good deal on the nonstop from Anchorage to Denver? Well, you would be wrong. The same flight on Feb. 12 from Anchorage to Denver (without the onward flight) costs $688 one-way.

Welcome to the crazy world of airline pricing.

American Air is leap-frogging over these wintertime fare wars, gearing up for the summer. The prices are going up and down, but the standout deal is between Anchorage and New York’s Kennedy airport: $125 one-way. Further, it’s available from May 6 to Oct. 5. All the other airlines have piled on to match the rate: United, Delta and Alaska.

I’m anxious for more people to become vaccinated so we can get back to traveling. In the meantime, it’s smart to avoid non-essential travel, even though the prices are oh-so-tempting.