July 10, 2009

(Travel) Lessons from Alaska

For the Alaska trip, I did all of my usual maneuvering to whittle the final price-tag down. I watched flight fares and waited 'til I saw what I thought was a good deal, confirmed with Arvay and we jumped. Also, I learned long ago that the true value in travel miles comes via the combination of AAA + hotel reward programs (in the form of infinitely cancelable room bookings and reward stays). On this trip, Hilton Honors treated us exceptionally well, as I initially booked in April but completely re-booked all Hilton-affiliated hotel reservations (they control about 5 brands) when prices went down and bonus miles went up in June.

At more remote locations, we booked the cheapest rooms we could find at independent hotels (Pike's Waterfront Lodge and economy cabins at the Salmon Bake -- both highly recommended). I assumed we'd wait 'til arrival to see if we could (or wanted to) do any better. This is a great travel trick -- the gamble is that you may end up with the cheapest parking-lot-view room and a shared bathroom or something else along those lines. But hey, if you are willing to take the cheapest offering and pocket the savings if the upgrades aren't at a price you like, then it works just fine. In this case, we hit the jackpot at our first hotel -- the only upgrade available was the nicest cabin suite on the property. It was ours for less than half of the rack rate and we spent many hours enjoying the views of the Chena from our rocking chairs on the porch.

Although my usual approaches worked well in some cases, Alaska, like any foreign place, had a few surprises in store for me, including some on the travel front.

For one, Internet booking is not always the best way to go in Alaska. The Alaska Railroad site claimed they only had first class seats available for the dates we wanted. I called to confirm and was shocked to find that Alaska is still a location where a human on the phone can do much better (at least with securing coach rates -- the tickets were in the wrong names, but we figured it out at the terminal).

The one organized tour we did (Glaciers are cool, hee hee!), we booked on-line. I never received a confirmation so I called the night prior. Turns out, they had us down for September, a different tour, a different price, without the meal, and with no train transport included. The reservation could not have been more incorrect, but the pleasant surprise was that at 7 PM the night before, I got a human on the phone who happily fixed it for us (and didn't seem shocked that the Internet booking engine had failed in such a spectacular manner).

The last morning, I thought Alaska might be the most civilized place in the world when I called to ask for a late check-out from our final hotel room and got 3 PM. Ordinarily, I'm thankful to get a minute beyond 1 PM.

Basically, for the majority of my Alaskan travel experiences, I found folks to be extremely capable, flexible, and unflappable. After seeing how things work, I have to attribute some portion of this to the do-it-yourself mentality and unpredictability of power, water, wildlife and just life in general on the frontier.

Execute at the highest possible level when things are working, and when they aren't... do your best to find a way to fix it (ideally in a way that doesn't inconvenience others), and if you can't do that, apologize, explain, and then wait it out 'til it is fixed with a good attitude (if all else fails tell frontier stories about how difficult life can be and how this particular failure isn't actually so bad).

Even our Alaska Airlines pilot seemed to embrace this philosophy--on our flight up it was a gorgeous clear day -- so he slowed the plane, angled to allow us to view the glaciers and Denali park and narrated a historical tour of Mt. Foraker and Mt. McKinley for us as we flew by before speeding back up to get us to our destination on time.

The only exception to this general theme occurred on our last day. We planned to enjoy a leisurely morning before the 3 PM checkout, then early luggage check, subsequent viewing of some Anchorage sights and a long evening at the airport before our 1:45 AM flight.

But, when we tried to check in, we found there is a very strict window to check our bags, and anything before 4 hours prior to take-off does not cut it. This 3h20 minute window of availability is a strict absolute for Alaska Airlines. In fairness, this may have been a rule in the U.S. for quite some time now, and it may be a lesson I needed to learn. I'm not sure I've ever tried to check luggage at a U.S. airport for a domestic flight more than 3 hours prior to my flight.

But, in Alaska, the rules are often different. For example, there are no building codes in Fairbanks. People build and live in whatever they decide suits their needs. I used two outhouses and was fed a King Crab leg dinner from the kitchen of a log cabin built to resemble the inside of a ship (that had no running water).

We were in the state for less than 2 weeks and we were on one train that lost electricity, resulting in a trip that was 50% longer than it should have been due to running solely off the generator. At one point, we saw all traffic on Alaska highway 3 stop for a bear. And, of course there's the combined rail/auto one-lane tunnel in Whittier, where you have a 25% chance of hitting it when your traffic type and direction have the green. These experiences, combined with stories from locals, make me think you'd need to build a bigger cushion of time in Alaska than in other locations if you wanted to be sure you wouldn't miss your flight.

So, even if the 3h20 window makes sense in other regions, I think it probably doesn't make too much sense in Alaska. Especially in the Winter!

Of course, I should probably quit my whining -- it's Summer. And we didn't have any of the Alaskan excuses putting us at the airport before our flight. We were just ready to head home and we'd exhausted the sights we could see during the traditional work-day open-hours (the bush flight museum closed at 5 PM before we were able to visit...Drat!).

So, we found ourselves stuck at Ted Stevens International at 8:45 PM, outside the secure area with all of our bags, with the choice of spending $6/bag to check them with baggage hold for the privilege of going through security once to enjoy the *amenities* and then again after we checked them. Or we could just wait in the baggage check area. I don't care that they had a big stuffed bear in the glass case while we sat there. This strict rule, to me, just didn't seem very Alaskan.

But other than that, we loved almost every minute and we can't wait to go back. The nature is too big and beautiful to accurately capture in words. The people are fascinatingly diverse -- the majority have chosen to move from somewhere else in the world (we met people from 4 continents and countless U.S. states, all living away from the people and family they left behind). This ecclectic mix of folks blends with those who grew up there to form a group of very different people sharing one thing that is bigger than anything else in each of their everyday lives -- the natural forces of Alaska. Many of the people I met had previously lived impressive urban-based lives, and then each for their own reason, they'd chosen to move to Alaska for a life filled with beauty and adventure but devoid of most of the creature comforts that I (and most of my contemporaries) take for granted.

Alaska is truly Amazing.

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