Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Northern Lights March 2013 - Alaska Airlines 317/99/51 Economy Class (SJC-SEA-ANC-FAI)

***This post is part 2 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Ticket prices to Fairbanks from the contiguous United States routinely top $700-$800 during the high season. As such, it remains one of the most lucrative award redemptions within North America. At only 25,000 miles round-trip, it is possible to get more than $0.03 per mile, which is about as good as it gets in economy.

While many U.S. airlines fly to Anchorage, most operate only during the summer months, with the exceptions being Delta from MSP, United from DEN and SEA, and US Airways from PHX. Your best bet is still Alaska Airlines, which flies year-round from ORD, PDX, SEA, and HNL. Getting into Fairbanks is somewhat more difficult, since only Alaska Airlines maintains a regular year-round service to the contiguous United States via SEA. Otherwise, there are plenty of daily non-stops from ANC.

Award seats were difficult to find for the dates I wanted in March, most likely due to the large number of tourists who flock there to see the northern lights during that month. Eventually, I was able to secure my booking from SJC to FAI via SEA and ANC. Not quite the ideal routing, but I was just glad I was able to travel to Fairbanks for only $10.00 in taxes and fees total!

Alaska Airlines departs from Terminal B at San Jose International Airport. I love traveling through this terminal as it is still fairly new and has many of the latest airport amenities for travelers, like power ports at virtually all the departure gate seats. Security always seems to be a breeze, and there are plenty of restaurants and shops for travelers airside.

Terminal B at SJC

Alaska Airlines 317
Boeing 737-800
San Jose (SJC) - Seattle (SEA)
Saturday March 9, 2013
Departure: 9:55 AM (scheduled) / 9:49 AM (actual)
Arrival: 12:00 PM (scheduled) / 11:54 AM (actual)
Duration: 2h 5m (scheduled) / 2h 5m (actual)
Seat: 15F (Economy)

Boarding was done by row from the rear of the aircraft. Once I got settled in our 737-800, I immediately noticed a little sign below the window which read "seats in this row do not recline". Ouch. Unfortunately, I had selected the same row for every single leg of my round-trip itinerary. I'm not really sure how this happened since I always check SeatGuru before choosing my seats online. At the end of the day, everything was fine since the longest flight was only about three and a half hours. Still, watch out for row 15 on Alaska Airlines 737s!

We left the gate a few minutes early and had a smooth takeoff under clear blue skies. The rest of the flight was uneventful, with a quick beverage service along with a complimentary pack of honey sesame sticks. I tend to feel that service on Alaska Airlines is just a bit more friendly and cheerful compared to the other legacy carriers. The flights attendants always seem to be a little more personal, and it makes me happy whenever I get to fly with them.

There is some spectacular scenery along the way up the Pacific Northwest. We flew over Crater Lake in Oregon, and also saw Mount Rainier in the distance on approach to Seattle. After we landed, I had about half an hour before boarding commenced for our flight to Anchorage. Thankfully the gates were close to one another and there was no need to switch concourses.

  Flying over Crater Lake

Alaska Airlines 99
Boeing 737-900ER
Seattle (SEA) - Anchorage (ANC)
Saturday March 9, 2013
Departure: 1:00 PM (scheduled) / 12:59 PM (actual)
Arrival: 3:39 PM (scheduled) / 3:28 PM (actual)
Duration: 3h 39m (scheduled) / 3h 29m (actual)
Seat: 15D (Economy)

Once we boarded, the first thing I noticed was how brand spanking new our 737-900ER aircraft was. It featured the updated Boeing Sky Interior as well as new Recaro seats, which have a unique magazine holder above the tray table and a net pocket below. The larger luggage bins were a welcome addition for the ever-increasing number of items passengers lug on board these days. Mood lighting also provided a bit of ambiance in cabin. Sadly, I was still stuck in row 15, along with the seats that do not recline.

Two beverage services were provided on this three and a half hour flight, along with plenty of snack mixes. There was also real food for sale on board, but I had purchased a sandwich at the airport terminal prior to departure. After napping for a bit, we began our descent into Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport under overcast skies. When I exited the aircraft through the jet bridge, it took a moment to register just how cold the temperature was outside. And it would only get colder from there.

Alaska Airlines 51
Boeing 737-400
Anchorage (ANC) - Fairbanks (FAI)
Saturday March 9, 2013
Departure: 4:35 PM (scheduled) / 4:39 PM (actual)
Arrival: 5:33 PM (scheduled) / 5:40 PM (actual)
Duration: 0h 58m (scheduled) / 1h 1m (actual)
Seat: 15F (Economy)

After another very quick layover of just over an hour in Anchorage, we departed from Gate C4 in the South Terminal a few minutes behind schedule. Despite being warm inside the aircraft, there was still a decent amount of uncleared snow along the tarmac. As we taxied to the runway, I could see a number of 747 cargo planes from EVA Airways, Cathay Pacific, Nippon Cargo Airlines, and Federal Express. As most people know, Anchorage International Airport still serves as one of the largest cargo hubs in the world.

Our 737-400 had a lot more noticeable wear and tear compared to the previous legs of the trip, but for a scheduled flight of less than one hour gate-to-gate, it was perfectly fine. With barely enough time for a beverage service, we began our descent into Fairbanks International Airport. Outside, the icy tundra made for a foreboding introduction into central Alaska.

I was more concerned, however, with the heavy cloud cover the entire way up. Since I only had three nights in Fairbanks, I was hoping and praying not only for some aurora activity, but also for clear skies so I could actually see it. Overcast skies basically block out any view of the northern lights, and I was already feeling pessimistic about my chances that night. As we landed, I noticed some clearing in the sky, but not nearly enough for ideal viewing conditions.

Fairbanks International Airport is a small but beautiful airport. I took a lot more pictures on the way back, but the departure area looks somewhat like a fancy lodge. It also has some interesting displays in the baggage claim area, with two huge mounted bears. Car rental desks are located inside the same arrivals hall, although the cars themselves are parked outside in the freezing cold. I hadn't had a chance to change out of my California clothes yet, so I ran through the parking lot in my t-shirt and light jacket. Needless to say, I immediately broke out the sweaters and winter coats when I got to the hostel!

Almost all cars in Alaska have an electrical plug below the front grill to prevent the battery from draining in extremely cold weather. Always make sure the cord is unplugged from a rental car before driving off. Also, if you are not used to driving on frozen roads, be very cautious the first time behind the wheel. It takes some time to get used to the slippery conditions.

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