These days, Alaska travelers are searching. And searching. In fact, many travelers are becoming experts at searching for the flights they want.
They’re asking questions, too. Each day I get emails about mileage redemption, premium seats, travel insurance and credit cards. Everything, it seems, is changing.
Under the category of “what’s old is new again,” there are more travelers asking for a referral to a travel agent who can sift through the options to find the best flight. And we haven’t even started on a car, a place to stay or a tour.
Some travelers really enjoy the hunt. I fall into that category. I know there’s a deal out there and I’m going to find it.
One of my best resources is the Google Flights tool. The site offers a good overview of which airlines fly on a particular route, plus there’s a price graph function where you can see prices on different days.
When you find a flight you like, the site offers a button that takes you to the airline’s website to book. Or, sometimes, it says to call the airline directly. Often, I’ll just go to the airline site anyway and find the deal.
Scanning for airfares, it’s simple to drill down for the cheapest-ever fare. Everyone wants to look for that. But the airlines have caught on to this and now offer what can only be called “economy minus.” This is the collection of Saver fares, basic economy or economy light rates. Frequent flyers eschew these rates — because they aren’t practical for most flyers. Restrictions include: no changes, very limited pre-assigned seats, last to board, no access to upgrades and so forth.
Alaska Airlines’ Saver fares aren’t even available on in-state flights. The Saver fares are specifically designed to capture comparison shoppers with a low price, then get them to upgrade with extras. But on their in-state routes, Alaska Air is the only option.
For flights to the Lower 49 and beyond, the upgrade to main cabin ranges from $25-$45 each way.
If you’re flying Delta on a basic economy ticket, you won’t earn SkyMiles, either. All airlines, both domestic and international, have a version of this as a showcase fare to get you in to dig a little deeper and buy your ticket.
Trying to find a fancier seat on the plane is a little more complicated with Google Flights and other comparative sites. Alaska Airlines doesn’t even sell their Premium seats except as point-to-point upgrades. Elite-level travelers on Alaska Airlines often get upgraded to Premium as flight time approaches.
Delta also offers Comfort+, an extra-legroom premium economy service.
It’s one thing to search for a paid ticket. But once you’ve accumulated a bunch of miles and try to use them, it’s a different story.
Alaska Airlines’ calendar view for mileage tickets is pretty comprehensive. But finding tickets to Europe during the summer in business or first class is just difficult.
Searching for a prime route like Anchorage-London in June or July yielded very few available flights and none in business or first class. I changed my search to start in Seattle for summertime flights. The best I could find in July was on July 17 with Aer Lingus through Dublin: 280,000 miles one-way. While the first segment, Seattle-Dublin, features a lie-flat business class seat, the Dublin-London seat was in coach.
There are coach seats available on most days, although some of the connections are sketchy. But folks who have accrued lots of miles want to sit up front. Serious mileage travelers learn to book these tickets 10 or 11 months in advance.
Although there are just a couple of available dates in July, the best mileage fare to Europe was on Condor. From Anchorage, there are a few dates available in coach for 45,000 miles each way. But from Seattle, lie-flat business class seats are available on July 4 and July 13 for 55,0000 miles one-way.
As a rule, when you’re shopping for mileage tickets, you’ll get better results if you shop one-way at a time.
Be careful if you’re flying on mileage tickets through London, as there’s a hefty “Heathrow tax” that can range from $85 to $289 or more per passenger.
If you want a professional to sift through the details and find you an award seat, a travel agent will cost extra. Nate Vallier of Alaska and Yukon Tours in Juneau charges $25 for simple reservations. If he has to call the airline or invest more time to find a premium seat, the price goes up.
At Alaska Travel Source in Anchorage, agents charge $40 for a domestic ticket, or $100 for an international ticket. For frequent flyer tickets, the price starts at $50.
Vallier offered a tip regarding frequent flyer miles for premium seats. “Book whatever seat you can find. Then babysit the reservation when you’re closer to flight time. That’s when the airline starts releasing those first- and business-class seats,” he said.
If you want Vallier to do the babysitting, there’s an extra fee for that.
Going from Alaska to Asia on miles also is a popular option of carriers like Japan Airlines and Singapore Air. From Anchorage to Singapore, there weren’t any seats available from Anchorage in July in business class. But from Seattle, there are a couple of dates on Singapore Air for 100,000 to 120,000 one-way in a lie-flat seat.
To Japan, there were no business-class seats available in July from Anchorage. But starting in Seattle, there are six available dates for the lie-flat seats, ranging from 60,000 to 105,000 miles each way.
And yes, that’s a lot of miles. There’s some serious mileage award inflation going on right now.
To keep up, consider Alaska Airlines’ newest 72,000-mile bonus on its upgraded credit card. That’s a lot of miles. But things are different with this new offer. The card costs more — $95 per year — and you have to charge more: $3,000 in the first 90 days.
Further, if you want a companion fare each year, you have to charge at least $6,000 over the course of the year. Still, if you need Alaska Airlines miles, this is a quick way to get some. This offer has its own website: alaskaair72k.com.
More travelers are asking more questions about travel insurance, particularly for international trips. There’s no silver bullet when it comes to the best policy. There are some policies where you can cancel a trip because you wake up and you don’t want to go. Those are very expensive. Most cover emergency medical expenses, lost or delayed luggage or flight cancellations. But you have to read the fine print. Two comparative sites that offer side-by-side comparisons: squaremouth.com and insuremytrip.com.
Even with all these moving parts, travel is still worth it. Travel makes you meet other people and see other places that are different. That makes you more tolerant of others — and it reminds you that we’re all connected. I think frequent travel makes you a better person.