Travel

Navigating travel and airport crowds is like riding a bike (which you might rent instead of a car)

Is it OK to travel again?

Based on the crowds at the airport, travelers are answering with their feet. People are on the go — and service providers are struggling to keep up.

Over the July 4 holiday weekend, Alaska Airlines asked its executives to help out baggage handlers.

On a recent trip down to the Pacific Northwest and Juneau, I visited four airports, flew two airlines, relaxed in two airport lounges and helped my sister celebrate her birthday. That last part makes me one of the many travelers flying to see friends or relatives after more than a year of pandemic-induced shutdowns.

For the outbound flight, prices were pretty high between Anchorage and Seattle. But after signing up for Delta’s American Express card (and spending the requisite $2,000), I had 70,000 points to use.

Delta sells tickets to Seattle for as little as 5,500 miles. But since rental cars are too expensive, I booked a mileage ticket all the way to Eugene, Oregon. Right now, you can get a basic economy ticket for 6,000 miles. It costs almost double that to get a “Comfort +” seat with extra legroom.

[Should you cancel your summer vacation? Crowds, high prices and variants have some travelers reconsidering.]

Arriving early for my 5:55 a.m. flight, I looked up to the Sleeping Lady Lounge at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. It’s upstairs, behind the bronze statue of the late Sen. Ted Stevens, between the B and C concourses.

Delta Air Lines installed a pop-up SkyClub in the lounge. So, if you have a membership, you can enjoy a drink and some snacks while enjoying a good view of the planes. You also can gain entry if you have the Delta “Reserve” American Express card. The cost is $550 per year.

Just down the hall, Alaska Airlines’ lounge is a great way to escape the noisy airport, although there were very few people there at 5 a.m. If you’re not a lounge member, you can get in with a Priority Pass membership as long as it’s not too crowded. The Alaska lounge offers espresso drinks, which I really missed at the Delta lounge. Many of the high-end credit cards, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve that I carry, offer a Priority Pass card as a benefit. You also can gain entry to Alaska’s lounge for $25 if you charge it on the Alaska Airlines Visa card.

Both Delta and Alaska fly 737s from Anchorage to Seattle, so Delta’s plane was familiar. The big difference is the seat-back TV. There’s a big selection of TV shows, movies, music and games. I could see the bigger screens up in first class. Alaska Airlines no longer offers portable media tablets, instead offering a selection of entertainment to stream to your own phone, tablet or computer.

On arrival at Sea-Tac Airport, it was crowded and noisy. I didn’t want to pay the day rate to visit Delta’s fancy SkyClub near Gate A1. It has showers and lots of comfy seats. But my Priority Pass card got me into The Club at Sea-Tac down on the A concourse, next to my connecting flight.

If you’re flying Alaska Airlines, the Priority Pass card gives you access to Alaska’s three lounges, although there are capacity limits. Also, no Priority Pass members are admitted after 8 p.m.

I’ve been turned away at lounges with my Priority Pass card, but not before the host offers to sell me a full-price membership. In Seattle, Portland and at several other airports, Priority Pass works with select restaurants to offer a $28 per person credit. In Seattle, there are two restaurants: Bambuza, a Vietnamese restaurant in the north terminal, and Trail Head BBQ in the main terminal. Down in Portland, Priority Pass works with Capers restaurant, which also has a nice wine bar.

There are other Priority Pass restaurant partners in Washington, D.C., Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The flight from Seattle to Eugene was on a Delta E-175 twinjet. I’ve never flown in a jet to Eugene. The jet was super-smooth and comfortable. Even though it’s a regional jet, there was plenty of room for my carry-on bag in the overhead bin. Alaska Airlines also flies the E-175s. Here in the state, Alaska flies the E-175 to Fairbanks, King Salmon and Dillingham. There are no middle seats.

Since rental cars were too expensive ($175-$340 per day) in Eugene, I rented a bike from Bicycle Way of Life for $20 per day. The trails in Eugene are great. The terrain is pretty flat, since the Willamette River runs through town. It’s a real bike city.

[Want a better deal on airline tickets out of Alaska? Dial in your search strategy and stay flexible]

On the return trip to Seattle, Alaska Airlines offers more flights, even though they’re all on the de Havilland Dash-8-400 series (Q400). The planes are smaller than the jet and you have to leave your carry-on bags on a cart outside. But Alaska has a wonderful tradition on the one-hour flight: free beer and wine.

Traveling from Seattle up to Juneau is just a two-hour flight. Alaska’s flights were super full. They weren’t sold out, but those last seats can cost a fortune. Delta has one daily flight that leaves at 9 p.m. That’s not a bad time — and the fare was half as much. But Delta’s return flight from Juneau to Seattle is tough: 5 a.m.

On the plane, everyone still is wearing a mask. The same is true at every airport, on every shuttle bus and on Seattle’s light rail line from the airport to downtown. The TSA mask mandate goes through Sept. 13.

Even though we’re done with the pandemic, the pandemic is not yet done with us. International COVID-related travel restrictions still are a work in progress, as there are many countries where very few people have received the vaccine. Here in the U.S., the new delta variant of the coronavirus could confound hopes for a quick recovery.

In Juneau, there’s a cruise ship tied up to the dock where crew members are quarantining after a COVID-19 outbreak on board. So far, 10 people associated with the American Constellation cruise have tested positive.

Nearby, in Sitka, local officials implemented mask restrictions in city buildings in light of an outbreak resulting in more than 60 new cases.

In Los Angeles County, new indoor mask mandates are in effect, even if you’ve been vaccinated.

My final flight back home from Juneau to Anchorage was very familiar. Alaska Airlines Flight 65, which flies from Seattle to Ketchikan, Wrangell and Petersburg before landing in Juneau, was 2.5 hours late. The earlier Juneau-Anchorage flight couldn’t land because of the weather and continued on to Anchorage. When we finally boarded, every seat was filled and it was raining outside. It was another normal day at the Juneau airport.

Once we broke out of the clouds at about 10,000 feet, the mountaintops were glorious. The view was wonderful from my window seat.

This tour taught me a few things. First, it felt OK for me to travel, at least in the U.S. Second, since I’ve forgotten how to pack, I packed too much. Third, finding a lounge at bigger airports is worth it, if only for the quieter environment. Finally, Alaskans have more options when it comes to air travel — and that means lower prices and better service.

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