Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Alaska Trip Planning and Air Fare Comparisons

A Whale's Blow with Mountain and Glacier @ Blackstone Bay, Prince William Sound, Alaska
Prior to our summer trip to Alaska in 2011, it took me several weeks ( maybe months ) to plan our itinerary. I started with comparing prices and itineraries of different cruise and water+land+air tour companies. I was tempted at first to take the 7-14 day cruise because it was the cheapest I found. Plus I would have no headache of finding rental car and reserving hotel accommodations. However, two of my friends who took the cruise previously, shared to me their AK cruise experiences which guided me in my decision making.

1. They were most of the time inside the cruise ship in the middle of a very frigid ocean. They said it is more for a relaxing than an exploring trip.

2. They never were able to see whales and tidewater glaciers up close because the size of cruise ship was too huge to get close to any wildlife or to any tidewater glaciers to really appreciate them.

3. Their most enjoyable time was each time they docked, where they had to choose only one from the two options below because of time constraint:
option a. Take another smaller glacier cruise boats to have better appreciation of tidewater glaciers and wildlife.
option b. Explore Alaska on land by bus or train. However, there was not enough time to do longer hikes or make their own stops if they see something very scenic.

Learning from them, I crossed out AK Cruise as one of the options, because relaxation for us meant seeing more outside. Plus, I wanted to do all of the following:
1. Experience tidewater glaciers and ocean wildlife up close.
2. Experience and see the features inside a glacier, not just look at it from afar.
3. Hike the Harding Icefield trail and explore a lot more of Kenai Fjords National Park. 
Me, Flying High Above Exit Glacier in Harding Icefield, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

I then emailed several land+water+air AK tour companies, asked for their itineraries and price for a customized private tour since what they usually only offer in their websites were the group tours where the itinerary was not meeting at least 70% of my Alaska fantasies. The customized private tours were overly expensive. That was then I decided to do the trip planning.

Knowing the best weather dates ( with some flexibility) to explore Alaska, I started to compare lodging accommodations and airfare prices. I am not loyal to any airlines, thus, I compared prices of almost air companies including inquiries for private Jet Charter Rates. The reason why I also looked into private jet was because I was afraid we would not get the dates we wanted, knowing that it would be hard for us to change our hotel reservations since hotel accommodations in Alaska run out so quickly. Private jet would give us more freedom to choose the dates of our travel. Aside from dates of travel, I understand most professionals such as professional artists and athletes, whose time is very valuable, chose flying private jets because of flexibility with time, convenience and safety. Also, they are not constrained to spend 2 hours in the airport for check-in and check-out. Two hours wasted in the airport for others would mean thousands of money lost, thus private jets were not luxury for them but necessity. Thankfully, for us, that was not the case. We were just into whatever cheapest air fare we could find that would bring us to Alaska in the dates we wanted.

Here is the more detailed process of my Alaska trip planning in response to the numerous inquiries I received through my "contact" form about itinerary planning for several places, one of them is Alaska.

First, I listed the activities I wanted:
1. Explore Kenai Fjords National Park (both land and water) - my top priority
2. Explore Denali National Park and do a flightseeing tour with glacier landing over Mt. McKinley.
3. Take Prince William Sound glacier cruise.
4. Do a glacier hike.
I wanted to do more, but I know, more than these our bodies would get physically exhausted as our kind of travel (adventure vacation) is physically demanding. We definitely plan to come back to explore the other places we missed.

Second, I used google map to see what is the logical order of exploration that would save us travel time and driving distance ( saves gas). Below is the map of our AK exploration:

Next, I searched for hotel accommodations, flights, and rental car. Then, I just continually polished the itinerary whenever I got the chance by checking out additional activities we could do.

Below was our itinerary, the result of my careful planning.

Day 1: Flight from Long Beach, CA to Anchorage, AK ( flying from Long Beach gave us the best deal, one of the advantages of being close enough to many airports).

Day 2: Anchorage-Whittier-Seward. I chose the 2nd day to be a 5- hour glacier cruise, not Harding Icefield hike because we got to Anchorage at 11:00 pm. The glacier cruise would give us time to relax before the more physically demanding hike.

a. Anchorage to Whittier- 1.5 hours drive, well, could be longer because of the many scenic stops.
My very first wildflower shot in AK along Seward Highway, on our way to Whittier from Anchorage
b. Whittier - we took the 5-hr Major Marine Prince William Sound Glacier Cruise.
pictures from our Prince William Sound Glacier Cruise
c. Whittier to Seward - 2 hours drive. Again, we made it longer because of the many scenic stops. We were supposed to get to Seward at 7:30 pm, but we got there about 9 pm. Blame it all on the highly scenic Seward Highway :)
Reflections on a lake along Seward Highway, this was near Seward already

Day 3: @ Seward. Hiking Harding Icefield and Exploring Exit Glacier. Before the trip, I dreamed this part would be my most favorite. After the trip, it remained to be my most favorite part where the memories continue to inspire me up to now. Hiking Harding Icefield opened my eyes and heart to many things, including knowing more of ourselves aside from knowing more of our world. The hike was physically challenging but very mentally, emotionally and spiritually rewarding. One of my most memorable hikes, EVER!
Me @ Harding Icefield Trail, Kenai Fjords National Park, AK
Harding Icefield Trail, Kenai Fjords National Park, AK
Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Seward, AK
( my very first up close and personal encounter of a glacier, where I heard it rumbled and saw it cry from its many waterfalls )

Day 4: @ Seward. We took the Kenai Fjords National Park wildlife + glacier cruise. The cruise made us see the other side of Harding Icefield, and allowed us to experience glacier calving.
Aialik Glacier Before Calving, Kenai Fjords National Park
Ice Threw Into The Air, Bird Flying Away from the Calving
Sea Otter Thankful For the Ice that Fell
 ( sea otters and seals use ice as a haul-out refuge from their predators )
Aside from glaciers, we saw breaching and diving whales,orcas, sea lions, sea otters, puffins, and many more wildlife. I really love Kenai Fjords National Park, named from the numerous fjords carved by glaciers moving down the mountains from Harding Icefield, one of the largest icefields in North America and the source of at least 38 glaciers.

Day 5: left Seward for Denali National Park
a. Seward to Portage Valley - 1.5 hours drive ( but of course, with us, the 1.5 hours drive became longer because of the many picture taking stops along Seward Highway which is really very beautiful. If probably you have limited time to explore Alaska on foot, just try to drive this highway, and you'll find your car hardly moving, haha!)
Flowers and Ice along Seward Highway, from Seward to Portage Valley
b. @ Portage Valley. Hike to Byron Glacier.
Pics of our hike to Byron Glacier
c. Portage Valley to Anchorage (1.2 hrs drive ) - just a stop for lunch
d. Anchorage to Denali National Park ( 4 hours drive ) - this time, we were driving non-stop since Denali Highway is not as scenic as Seward Highway, except until we got near Denali.
Fireweeds along Denali Highway 

Day 6: Exploring Denali National Park, one of the world's last great frontiers, where its wilderness is still largely unspoiled.
pictures from Denali National Park

Day 7: Denali National Park ( raining whole day ) and Wasilla.
Plan A cancelled. flightseeing tour with Glacier Landing was cancelled due to heavy rain- the only bummer in our trip. But we took it as blessing in disguise, because it meant savings not having to pay anymore for the flight seeing and glacier landing tour.
Plan B was FUN. We hiked in the rain. We did not let weather stop us from having fun, instead, we enjoyed hiking in the cold rain, haha! 
Hiking In the Rain @ Savage River Trail, Denali National Park
They say in Alaska, there is no bad weather, only bad mood and bad clothing. So we came prepared. No bad weather could stop us from exploring the outdoors. No bad mood, no bad clothing/gears. Just pure fun spirits.
c. Denali to Wasilla ( 3.5 hours drive ). Because Denali to Matanuska Glacier is about 5 hours drive, I reserved for a night in Wasilla instead of staying in Denali. It divided the drive into smaller sections, and we were moving closer to Matanuska Glacier, where we would do glacier hiking the next day.
 Lake Wasilla at 11 pm, AK ( actually, this was the view from our room )
We were rained out in Denali to do photoshoots, so we were up at 11:00 pm in Wasilla to make up for the photoshoots we missed, haha!

Day 8: Wasilla to Matanuska to Anchorage. 
a. Wasilla to Matanuska Glacier ( 1.5 hours drive on Glenn Highway national Scenic Byway, but because of many scenic stops, we did not pay attention anymore to how long it took us to Matanuska Glacier, haha! )
one of the many scenic stops along Glenn Highway
b. Matanuska Glacier Hike
Glacier Hiking @ Matanuska Glacier
Matanuska Glacier
this pink field of fireweeds was next to Matanuska Glacier
c. Matanuska Glacier to Anchorage ( 2 hours drive ) - no stops until Anchorage. 
@ Potter's Marsh, Anchorage, AK

Day 9: Flight back to Long Beach from Anchorage. Then, drive from Long Beach to San Diego.
Of course, our trip would not be completed without us taking a picture of our happy feet. Can you guess which was mine? By the way, these all were happy hiking feet which hiked on rocks, mud, snow, ice, and crossed water streams. :)
5 pairs of Happy Feet :) Can you guess which was mine? 
( the 5 in the trip were: my hubby, my cousin, my hubby's niece, my friend, and yours truly )

Now, for some saving tips:

TIP 1: Despite having reservations on rental car, I kept on checking every week for cheaper deal ( which there were). It was easier to make changes for rental cars, but hotel accommodations were difficult because rooms ran out fast in AK during summer.

TIP 2:  I made hotel reservations at least 6 months before our trip (not for savings but web research advised to make reservations very early since accommodations run out so fast). I used different travel websites to search for best deal in lodging. Then, I read the hotel reviews in trip advisor. If the reviews were good, I verified the price using the hotel's direct website before booking in the cheapest site I found. Sometimes, reserving directly through the hotel was cheaper. Sometimes, going through travel website such as, etc was cheaper.

TIP 3: We chose flight dates that were on weekdays, not on weekends since it was cheaper. I actually made hotel reservations first ( knowing it is tougher to get rooms than getting flights) before reserving our flight. However, I checked air fare simultaneously while making hotel reservations.

TIP 4: We did not really have a destination. We opened our eyes and heart to every part of our journey so we won't miss any inspiring scenery. Our openness to the sights of Alaska allowed us to see more and had so much fun!
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  1. looks like heaven. Haha :D So serene.

  2. i have to say Beth that your Alaska trip was one of those that have occupied a big space of this wanderlust's heart. just can't get enough of "everything", the glaciers, the lake, the snow, the flowers, the mountains, the wildlife, ahhhhhhhhhh! i could go on and on and on... :)

    were you the one on the upper right?

  3. wow....giggling mentally at the joy you must have felt exploring Alaska Betchai! the first time I viewed these fantastic Alaska shots of yours I am still in are the best in travel itinerary planning! can't make up my mind which is your pair of shoe hahaha...and of course I super love your jumping shots! and the landscape is sigh..simply breathtaking! :)

  4. I am hoping to go to Alaska someday. I think I would do a cruise.

  5. Beautiful photos, amazing places:) Greetings

  6. Ever since childhood, the only thing I remember about Alaska is ice - lots and lots of it. Nice to know there are actually other things to see there.

  7. Alaska is one of the many places I dream of visiting someday. Your photos makes me want to go there even more.

  8. I was scared with the 2nd photo, I thought that somebody was falling down the rocky mountain. Then I realized it was you on a jumpshot. Lol!

  9. A very well planned summer getaway! I could still see some ice, maybe they take long to defrost? The photos are just so inviting. Am planning next year for Aurora Borealis with Zee and family. Am still wondering if I will go on with the fishing (salmon) trip to Alaska in August.

    I'd like someday to be able to hike (and be a better fit) with your group.

  10. Wow...what an adventure. So incredible to imagine all the things you do. Now this is a cold place. :-)

  11. That is a very good tips and trip. I always wanted to try hiking on ice but definitely need to get very fit to do that.

  12. You're such an organized trip planner with so many activities and places to explore! Gorgeous pictures of Alaska! Looks so enticing, refreshing, and cold!

  13. The smiling side view photo of you in shades and red jacket at your Prince William Sound Glacier Cruise collage is so beautiful! the happiness shows in your again and can't help saying wow wow wow endlessly as I scroll down the page! :)

  14. As usual, I am in awe of your escapades, Te Betchai. I love that jump shot. It says so much of your love for the outdoors :-)

    Lemme take a wild guess. Your feet must probably be the one at the right, LOL!

    I wish to experience this kind of adventure. But for now, let me settle for your online tour. Thanks for bringing me to this breathtaking adventure.

  15. If someone asked me my top travel wish... Alaska is it! I am fascinated with what place will offer. Thanks Sis, for sharing this very helpful info and tips.

  16. Ate did my first comment went through?

  17. wow, no words can describe the beauty of places you've seen...they are all stunning! thanks for sharing it here with us! i keep coming up and down to see those lovely pictures again and again, i can see happiness in all of it. :) anyway, i think its you on upper right and your hubby is on the upper left?

  18. What a wonderful and well-planned trip! I now use for cheaper hotels teh Beth. Going to Alaska too, is one of my dream destination. HUbby goes there for fishing and do get pretty good catch. I hope we can go there one day.

  19. You're amazing, Betchai! Not only you're a great organizer, you are also a great photographer with eyes to capture beauty of the earth. Just breath-taking photos!

  20. I always wanted to see Alaska. My problem is that I'm not much of a traveler.

  21. You are a good traveler.

    Have "camera" will travel.

  22. This is like watching National Geographic Channel :)

  23. oh wow Alaska!!! So lovely!

    Thanks for showing us the options and of course, your savings tips Ate Betchai! ;)