As airfares to Anchorage grow pricier, the ‘Fairbanks connection’ may help budget-conscious travelers

It’s the season of the midnight sun in Alaska, and the rush is on to make up for a year’s worth of lost travel opportunities.

International travel still is spotty with pandemic-related restrictions. But it’s game on for travel within the U.S. Even cruise ships are spooling up for an abbreviated season here in Alaska.

Still, there are some hiccups along the way. For example, have you tried to rent a car lately? It’s a problem. There are some solutions to that, including Turo, the peer-to-peer car rental platform. Even so, in Anchorage, renting a car on Turo can cost more than $150 per day this summer.

Hotel space is filling up too, especially in holiday hot spots like Talkeetna.

The big influx of travelers is spiking the cost of airline tickets in and out of Anchorage. While a one-way ticket from Anchorage to Portland may cost as little as $109 one-way later this month, the return ticket can be twice that much on Alaska or Delta.

It’s the same story for travel from Alaska to many other cities in the Lower 48 — the southbound ticket is a pretty good deal. For example, you can fly from Anchorage to Seattle for $99 on Alaska Airlines as soon as June 8. But the return flight from Seattle to Anchorage is $220 one-way.

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If you need to travel in June or July, there is a workaround that can save you a few bucks while taking advantage of supercharged airline competition.

I call it the Fairbanks connection.

Airlines are beefing up direct service between Fairbanks and the Lower 48. From Fairbanks, American Airlines has added new flights to Chicago and Dallas. Delta has added Fairbanks-Salt Lake City and Fairbanks-Minneapolis in addition to its Fairbanks-Seattle flights. United added flights to from Fairbanks to Chicago, Denver and Anchorage.

For its part, Alaska Airlines has also added flights.

Pay attention to the unusual flight between Anchorage and Fairbanks on United Airlines. If you fly on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, the fare is just $39 one-way. In fact, it’s just a little more to fly first class. The cheapest fares require a 21-day advance purchase.

The combination of a fare war between Anchorage and Fairbanks along with cheap fares from Fairbanks to the Lower 48 is a recipe for airfare savings.

Going to Seattle is easy and cheap. The price is $59 one-way from Fairbanks. There’s no advance purchase. Just buy your ticket today and fly. From Anchorage, it’s twice as much: $99 one-way.

For short-notice flights, the math doesn’t work since last-minute flights to Fairbanks from Anchorage still can be pricey: $99-$158. Perhaps it’s time to hop in the car and drive.

Hey, that’s what I’m doing next week. But that’s because I can’t find a car to rent in Fairbanks.

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It’s not a terrible drive to Fairbanks — at 367 miles, it’s just a little longer than a trip to Homer or Valdez.

You can park your car at Pike’s Waterfront Lodge for $5.75 per night. Neighboring La Quinta Hotel offers free parking for up to a month, as long as you spend the night for $199. Both hotels have free airport shuttles.

If you’re planning on driving, spend some extra time in the Golden Heart City. Check out the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. And don’t miss the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum. There’s even an aviation museum inside Pioneer Park.

If you want to take advantage of the cheap flights to Fairbanks and connect to the Lower 48, the United flight is a great resource. Alaska Airlines has several flights priced between $49 and $89 one-way departing at about the same time.

If you’re trying to save some money on your flights, be sure to shop for one-way flights. You may find a reasonably priced flight directly back to Anchorage, without the Fairbanks detour.

If you’re headed back east, you may find a good flight from Fairbanks on American Airlines, which now is an Alaska Airlines partner. For example, from Fairbanks to Richmond, Virginia, the fare is as low as $130 one-way on American starting June 12. From Anchorage, the fare is a bit more, from $179 one-way.

But the return trip to Anchorage is more than twice as much: over $400 one-way. From Richmond to Fairbanks, the fare is cheaper: between $130 and $300 one-way.

With a price discrepancy like that, it’s worth checking out the Fairbanks connection.

You don’t have to fly both ways between Fairbanks and Anchorage. Sometimes you can just travel one-way between Anchorage and Fairbanks. Unless you left your car there, of course.

If you’re traveling from Anchorage to San Francisco, one-way tickets are available from June 14 for about $160 one-way on United’s nonstop. But the return tickets are between $196 and $350 one-way.

From Fairbanks to San Francisco, it’s much cheaper: $79 one-way on Delta. Alaska costs a little more: $98. The return tickets are between $79 and $152 on Delta. This is another destination where the Fairbanks connection could save you some real money.

There are many other destinations where the fare to or from Fairbanks is much less than the rate to Anchorage. This is unusual by itself. Usually, Anchorage always has the cheapest fares to the Lower 48. But the other component, the cheap fares between Anchorage and Fairbanks, is an additional bonus. The battle between United and Alaska Airlines on this route yields some real savings.

Whether you fly or drive, the Fairbanks connection can save you some money. And remember to shop one-way fares. You might find a bargain flight directly to Anchorage.