Northern lights in Alaska – Travel booking lessons learned

I’m following up on this post with some additional travel information on our weekend trip to Fairbanks to check out the northern lights.

Airfare

Let’s start with the fun stuff… I’m a Delta Diamond and my wife is a Gold medallion. Delta and American both partner with Alaska Airlines and so we focused on their awards. We value our AA miles highly for international travel and earn fewer of those while this would qualify for domestic upgrades on Delta (we have no AA status) and we generate lots of those. Naturally I was eager to use Delta Skymiles for this and hold on to our AA miles. Given that tickets booked from my account can also be changed and have improved award availability, it made even more sense.

It sounded so easy at the beginning. If only… In reality, it was an extremely frustrating experience but I learned a lot along the way, no thanks to the award booking team at Delta and Delta’s web site. On the one hand, I take a certain perverse pride when their agents tell me that it seems I know more about their award bookings than they do. On the other, it was hard earned and other airlines do better. I’m going to skip the blow by blow and just give you what you need to know to book this award (and other similar Delta awards):

  • In winter, the only path to Fairbanks is via Anchorage on Alaska Airlines. Delta’s Fairbanks to Minneapolis route would have worked perfectly but is seasonal.
  • Alaska Airlines routes to Anchorage include Seattle, Portland, Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles.
  • Delta paths to Anchorage include Salt Lake City and Minneapolis.
  • Alaska Airlines clearly is going to be part of the award since only they serve Fairbanks and only the low level awards are available to Delta, at the “low” pricing level from Delta.
  • Delta allows 6 segments total on domestic awards, including Alaska (unsure about Hawaii). The shortest path from New Orleans to Fairbanks in winter is 3 segments.
  • Delta.com will not find stopovers for you. A domestic stopover is a 4+ hour transfer. Lining up 3 flights with less than 4 hour transfers is difficult but it gets worse…
  • A Delta fare “breaks” if the Delta segments on the on one side of the fare (e.g. outbound or return) are in medium/high and are paired with an Alaska segment (which is always in a low bucket in skymiles). An example is best.
    • MSY-MSP-ANC in low/medium on Delta is 20k (=medium)
    • ANC-FAI on Alaska is low (=12.5k) and presumably should be free since it’s 3 segments or less and is in low. It would work this way if it was a Delta operated segment.
    • So I’d expect 20k on the outbound. Instead, it prices as 20k+12.5k=32.5k on the outbound due to it breaking. Compare to a clean return…
    • FAI-SEA (Alaska Low)-ATL(Delta Low)-MSY(Delta Low) at 12.5k.
    • All three of those segments are at low so the fare doesn’t break and it’s a mere 12.5k one-way.
    • The net of this is that what, in my mind, should be a 32.5k flight becomes a 45k or a lot, lot more in other scenarios.
    • In summary, you should shoot for ALL LOW availability if you mix in a partner at all.
  • The saving grace, as always with Delta, is that they allow one stopover (a >4 hour transfer) or an open-jaw.
  • With all these limitations, unless you live in a Delta hub, you should probably assume that you’ll have to research availability segment by segment (e.g. search ANC-FAI, then routes to ANC, then routes from home to those hubs).

Ideally, if one could line up 3 segments in low on Delta/Alaska to Fairbanks and 3 segments in low back again, one could get a 25k segment and even include a 4 hour+ stopover in ANC. I never could get to Anchorage in Delta low though which was really too bad because Alaska Airlines availability from ANC-FAI was fantastic but adding that low segment from AS would “break” the fare. Amazingly, I did get 3 segments to sync up on the return.

Since I never could line up an all low combination to Fairbanks, here’s what I did:

Itinerary 1 – 32.5k Delta Skymiles – Open Jaw example

MSY-MSP-ANC (medium = 20k)

FAI(Alaska)-SEA-ATL-MSY (low = 12.5k)

Itinerary 2 – 7.5k Alaska Mileage Plan – One-way example

ANC-FAI

Alaska Airlines in-state flights are often discounted so we took advantage of that. It was definitely a better bargain than using another 12.5k skymiles per person for that extra segment due to the fare breaking.

Net

40k total miles per person to Fairbanks with an unavoidable stopover in Anchorage isn’t too bad. It was the process that was frustrating. One cannot simply plug in MSY to FAI round-trip and find this. Instead one must go through breaking down the route map, searching segment by segment, creating a matrix of flights that can be mixed/matched, and then call it in. Beware the fare “breaking” and spitting out funny money award fares. Most frustrating was that Delta couldn’t tell me about the inability to mix a medium Delta fare with a low partner fare or the maximum number of segments. Those are the two things that you should take away from this post.

Nonetheless, peak travel time at 40k per person to Fairbanks is a success I think and now that I (and now you) know the rules, it shouldn’t be so hard.

Back to AA for a moment… I plugged in some AA dates back then and actually had availability. No tricks, no open-jaws, no weird pricing. AA looked so, so much easier on this route than Delta. Keep that in mind.

The Milk Run that Wasn’t

While I enjoyed Anchorage in the past, I wasn’t feeling the least bit bad if I picked up a bump and lost my half-day there. ExpertFlyer showed excellent chances at a bump on MSY-MSP but it wasn’t meant to be. On arriving in MSP though, there were desperate for volunteers and I was desperate to volunteer! The problem was that all flights to Anchorage were going to be too late to catch my connection from ANC-FAI. It was time to get creative! I dug and dug and dug and found a nugget upon which I built the milk run that wasn’t.

There was availability that no search engine would show, all on one Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle, through Ketchikan, Wragell, Petersburg, Juneau, and finally to Anchorage.  I’d be in ANC just 2 or 3 hours before my flight to FAI with my wife. Oh, forgot to mention, there was NO way she was going on this with me. I asked for a $400 voucher and that Delta rebook me onto this route (or another to ANC in time if they could find it) in a premium cabin and a hotel voucher in SEA for a few hours of sleep. They said they could get me on their metal late with a voucher or via this route with no voucher.

I can’t believe they found enough volunteers that they didn’t take me up on my offer but they did. I also can’t fault Delta. They would have had to pay Alaska for my milk run so I get it but it was so, so tantalizingly close. My flightmemory.com route map would be so much cooler if this worked out. I think the Minneapolis gate agents wanted it to. They were so good natured about it, seemed to find it entertaining but business is business and they had other volunteers willing to wait 24+ hours. I, on the other hand, wanted to see the northern lights with my wife. Sacrificing Anchorage was one thing but that was just too much and so I boarded as scheduled.

Upgrades

Here was our final, as flown, route:

We both picked up MSY-MSP and missed on MSP-ANC. ANC-FAI was an award ticket on Alaska using AS miles and the plane had no F cabin as a 737-400 combi. On the return, I asked at the gate in Fairbanks and we picked up upgrades on FAI-SEA which was enjoyable. Nothing fantastic but really quite nice! SEA-ATL-MSY also picked up upgrades which was great since we were on a red-eye path home on Monday night-Tuesday morning and went directly to work at 9am (to minimize time off work). A bit of sleep surely helped on this. I still cannot believe that when offered a path home on Monday night, my surprising wife chose this redeye. I guess she really wanted those extra hours in Alaska. I tell y’all, she’s comin’ around!

Hotel

Anchorage has mainstream options that I linked to in my other post so I’ll pass those by. Fairbanks, on the other hand, is much more limiting and is not inexpensive. I guess I can understand that – it’s pretty remote and pretty small. I think all the points/miles geeks talk too often about their fancy hotel stays. We do those on occasion too but on a trip like this, we want cheap and clean (extreme clean in fact). The hotel is NOT a destination on this trip. This trip is when I discovered the beauty of the Best Western rate guarantee. We net’ed out to a -$35/night rate. Yep, that’s a minus sign. We were actually getting $35 in future Best Western credit (I’m not talkin’ points) per night for staying here. One day I’ll probably write up a post on BW rate guarantee’s but for now, I’ll just suggest you look into it. It’s excellent. So excellent that I’ve contemplated a series of mattress runs just because I could and would net positive value out of it. That said, I’d probably burn bridges with them permanently and what good would that be. For now, I just enjoy our not so exciting free stays we can use.

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3 comments

  1. When’s the best time to see the Northern Lights? Is it to c-c-c-cold to go see the other sites in Alaska such as whale watching or the glaciers?

    1. JP, sorry for the delay – was traveling last weekend and been busy with work… According to this page, Feb-Mar and Sep-Oct are best for the northern lights. We were far from the only ones in Fairbanks in Feb for it. Fairbanks does seem to be prime territory for them on most days, significantly moreso than Anchorage. Of course, the whale watching there is lacking. 🙂 Seriously though, we haven’t taken any time for whale watching and little for seeing glaciers. February is definitely COLD though. On our October 2011 trip up to Anchorage though, we did do a drive to a park with one and it was perfect hiking weather and the fall colors, though just past peak, were great. We’ll be back – Mrs. Points keeps talking about moving there…

  2. […] (BRG) where they’d issue you a $100 BW gift card. Often times this could make the stay free or better and you’d even earn points/credit for the stay. It was great. Too great I guess as it’s […]

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