Finding your ideal flight, whether your focus is on price, a relaxed itinerary or flexibility

There are many considerations beyond the “base price” of an airline ticket that constitute the total cost of a journey. More importantly, there are many steps along the way where travelers simply throw up their hands and say, “That’s not worth it!”

Scanning fares and availability, I often come up with a great deal on round-trip airfare, only to discover an onerous layover, ridiculous routing or an inhuman departure time. Sometimes the outbound flight is fantastic, but the return trip is a deal-breaker.

In fact, I wonder if airlines proffer certain “deals” just to see what level of misery travelers will endure to save a few bucks.

The cost difference between a great itinerary and a ridiculous one can be extraordinary. And these disparities exist whether you’re spending cash or cashing in frequent flyer miles.

One particular fare that I’ve been watching for a couple of months is Anchorage-Guatemala for $385 round-trip. That’s a fabulous fare to get to the capital of a Latin American country.

The cheapest rate is a basic economy fare on United. The flights I checked departed on April 18 at 11:45 p.m. The first flight is on United’s Denver nonstop. Then there’s a 8:24 layover, before continuing to Houston, where there’s a more reasonable connection time of 1:11.

The return trip on April 25 is brutal. First, the United flight leaves Guatemala City at 1:30 a.m. On arrival in Houston, there’s a 7:30 layover. After the hop to Denver, there’s an additional layover of 4:36.


To add to the indignity, United will not allow you to take a standard rolling carry-on suitcase. Nope. There’s an extra $90 fee (round-trip) for the upgrade to “regular” economy. At that rate, you also get to pre-select your seat. Any checked baggage is another add-on.

A good itinerary on those dates costs almost twice as much on Alaska Airlines: $705 round-trip. The layovers on the outbound flight are less than two hours in Seattle and Los Angeles. On the return flight, there’s just one stop in LAX at 3:49, which is enough time to clear customs, take the bus to the domestic terminal, and clear TSA one more time.

[What to know as Alaska Airlines unveils new initiatives and changes to rewards programs]

Another nice fare that popped up is between Anchorage and Quito, Ecuador. Ecuador’s been near the top of my list for a while. I’m anxious to explore the country and meet the people — but Quito also is the jumping-off point to the Galapagos Islands.

United again came up with a decent fare: $524 round-trip. But it’s only available on one day, May 18, for a seven-day itinerary. The outbound flight has a tight connection in Denver (41 minutes) and a long one in Houston (seven hours). The return flight, in addition to a red-eye departure at 12:40 a.m., has a seven-hour layover in Houston and a four-hour layover in San Francisco.

Delta has a much better itinerary from Anchorage to Quito for the same dates: less than 18 hours in each direction. The cost? $3,000 per person.

You don’t have to look far and wide for these crazy pricing spreads.

Are you flying to Seattle from Anchorage? If you’re traveling on Friday, April 12, there are several flights (out of 14 nonstops) on Alaska Airlines available starting at $198 one-way. Those flights depart at 1:25 a.m., 1:55 a.m., 2:30 a.m. and 5 a.m.

If you’re interested in a daylight flight between 8 a.m. and 4:15 p.m., the one-way rates range from $337-$437 one-way.

If you’re a frequent flyer and would like to cash in some miles, the rates also are all over the map. Departing between 1:55 a.m. and 5 a.m., plan on cashing in 15,000 miles one-way. Between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., the rate doubles: 30,000-40,000 miles one-way.

Flexibility is important when you’re burning miles. If you can wait an extra week, the rate is just 10,000 miles each way for the red-eye Anchorage-Seattle flights on April 19. Coming back on a Sunday evening, travelers can choose a 10:15 p.m. flight, getting in at 12:48 a.m. The cost: 10,000 miles. But between 4:40 p.m. and 8:45 p.m., it’s much more: 20,000-30,000 miles one-way.

With 14 nonstop flights, Alaska Airlines can adjust each flight to appeal to either budget-conscious travelers or expense-account flyers. Some are fixated on the price, while business travelers are more concerned with the schedule and upgrades.

Delta, with four nonstops in April, offers about the same price on all the flights: $337-$367 round-trip.

Once you add a connecting flight, the routings and the fares start to get really crazy. It’s just one reason why frequent travelers prefer nonstop flights.

Between Anchorage and Atlanta, United has the cheapest fare, at $466 one-way (April 20-28). The outbound flight includes a 4:30 layover in Chicago. On the return flight, there’s a 12:38 layover at O’Hare. That’s ridiculous.

In fact, United offers a much better return flight, with just a 1:13 layover in Chicago. It’s $105 more.

Do you want to fly on the nonstop? Me, too. Delta resumes its nonstop Anchorage-Atlanta 757 service on May 23. Fly between May 26 and June 3 for the princely sum of $938 round-trip. That’s in coach. Fly in the front of the bus for $3,199 round-trip.


This spring, nonstops are priced a little higher than connecting flights. Between Anchorage and Phoenix, Delta and United offer a $154 one-way fare. Alaska Air is priced higher for a nonstop: $202 one-way.

From Anchorage to Los Angeles on April 19, Delta and United have $163 one-way tickets. Alaska Air’s cheapest flight to Los Angeles includes a 6:16 layover in Seattle, for $178 one-way. The nonstop? Alaska Air offers tickets for $288 one-way.

There are some exceptions, of course. Alaska Air’s new weekly nonstop from Anchorage to San Diego is priced lower ($217 one-way) than other airlines’ connecting service ($227 one-way).

Alaska Air’s nonstop from Anchorage to Portland also is priced at $198 one-way, while Delta’s connecting service sells for $207 one-way.

Be careful, though. A cheap southbound ticket may lure you into the sales funnel, only to be jolted back to reality for your ticket back home to Alaska.

For example, Alaska Air’s new nonstop from Anchorage to New York’s JFK airport is priced nicely for the first week: $275 one-way, starting June 13. But a northbound trip from JFK to Anchorage costs more: $549-$674 one-way.

The cheapest one-way ticket from Anchorage to the Lower 48 is offered by Sun Country Airlines on the carrier’s Anchorage-Minneapolis nonstop: just $117. It’s available on May 18, 27, 30 and 31. The northbound tickets are a little more, though: $185-$201, May 31-June 10.

The flight times and layovers are just two components of the total cost of your ticket. After selecting the right flight, then the next chapter starts: all the add-on fees for baggage, meals, Wi-Fi and extra legroom. But that’s another story.

[With all the recent headlines about panels and tires falling off planes, is flying safe?]

Scott McMurren

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at Subscribe to his e-newsletter at For more information, visit