The Last Frontier: Alaska – Planes, Planes and More Planes (Part 1)


This year thus far I really had not yet taken much time off from work or gone anywhere for a fun weekend somewhere since I celebrated New Years in Montreal.  I decided that needed to change and so around mid-March I started thinking to myself where is it that I could go?  I was checking literally everywhere, tried and true NYC, Puerto Rico, and the destination I was 99.99% for sure going to go to: San Francisco (wait, didn’t you mean Alaska?).  You read that right, air fare out there wasn’t terribly horrible and I had a $300 voucher from a bump I took on the way back from Bahrain.  Then all of a sudden, I’m playing with Kayak and for whatever reason I decide to throw Anchorage, Alaska into the mix.  Surprisingly, it had priced out only $200 more for the round trip by utilizing a fare break in Nashville (and $200 cheaper than available on without a stop in Nashville!).  At only about $440 ($740-$300) I considered this a steal!  Not only would I get to visit somewhere completely new that I’ve always wanted to visit, but I would also rack up almost as many miles towards re-qualifying for my 2013 Delta Platinum Medallion status as I would from a trip to Europe.  Those two considerations pretty much sealed the deal.  Despite the fact that I would only really be there for a weekend, I still figured that like usual, I could have an excellent time exploring as much of the state as possible.  And just a fair warning, this is going to be long-winded, so if you really just want to read about my time in Alaska, feel free to skip to Part 2 (that is if I’ve written that up already).

Friday, April 6 2012
Today and Monday would be dedicated to nothing other than travel.  A grand total of 16 hours on four different aircraft and in five different airports.  As mentioned above I used a trick in order to drive down my fare, and as a result I wound up on a more interesting routing that would take me ECP-ATL-BNA-MSP-ANC.  It also means that I wasn’t able to check in for my flight the night before, since doesn’t like more than three segments in one day; you have to see an agent at the airport and at that you typically only get the first three boarding passes at a time.  Since it was a 730a flight and that means me getting up around 530am, it does always make me a little nervous that I will roll out of bed a little too late and thus miss my flight because I will be past the check in cutoff time (just like when I overslept before my flights to Japan last year).

Luckily, just like most of my other early morning flights, I actually did make it to the airport and breezed through the Sky Priority lane at check in to receive my boarding passes.  Unlike when I did my Delta Air Lines Aerial Tour of the Southeast US last fall en-route to visit family in Illinois, the agent did not give me a strange look.  Perhaps they recognize me by now or have seen crazier things these days.  Interesting note in that the new Sky Priority signage that Delta is rolling out now that Sky Priority has gone SkyTeam-wide clearly excludes Silver Medallions and SkyTeam Elite members.  The old signs in small outstations like ECP when Sky Priority was available on Delta only included these members as well.  I wonder if they just got the wrong sign or if Silver Medallions no longer have access to shorter lines.

New Sky Priority Signage at ECP

After clearing TSA with no issues and a stop for a quick breakfast I made my way to the gate and boarded the aircraft to settle into my first class seat.  Luckily for me, on all my eligible segments on this trip my upgrades cleared in advance, but that would still mean a 2 hour ride on a CRJ-200 BNA-MSP.  As usual, there was nothing special about this quick flight: I just tried to down a few cups of coffee and a few packs of Biscoffs before landing in Atlanta.  Atlanta was starting get busy as all the morning flights were unloading into the Concourse and luckily for me I just had to walk down to the other end to catch my ride to Nashville on-board a DC-9-50.  Which despite it’s age (First Flight in 1979 and Delivered to Republic), is really a comfortable ride.  Plus I always like looking into the flight deck and noting how the pilots on these aircraft still have to rely on all sorts of analog gauges as opposed to modern glass cockpits.

Heading to the Gate to Board My Flight to Atlanta

I arrive in Nashville around lunch, which was planned as my “Strategically Scheduled BBQ Layover” given the existence of a BBQ joint right across from the Delta gates.  I didn’t have long, about 45 minutes or so, but that was more than plenty of time to enjoy a pulled pork sandwich before getting on my 2 hour torture-tube flight to Minneapolis.  Unfortunately, the seat next to me was not free, so I was crammed into there pretty good.  On that note nothing else to report about that flight…

Minneapolis is actually one of my favorite airports that I just don’t get to connect through enough.  Although the layout is terrible in terms of being able to sprint from one corner to another, it has more than plenty on the airside to keep one busy; plus if you have a long enough layover (Like I did in 2010 en-route to Australia), you can always jump on the light rail over to the Mall of America for a few hours.  With that said, I actually spent my layover at the F/G Delta Sky Club.  Even though I was taking the day off from work, I had a deadline approaching and thus I needed a few hours of relative quiet (compared to the terminal) to dedicate to some work.  Besides, its always more fun doing Engineering when you can have a glass of beer and some snacks!

I know a lot of people complain about the noise and crowding of the Sky Clubs these days, especially given all the different ways to get in (Membership, International First/Business, Day Passes, American Express Cards, Delta American Express discounted rates, Frequent Flyer status and so on).  But still for $25 as a benefit as part of my Delta Platinum American Express card, you just cannot beat the deal when you have three or more hours to kill on a layover.  Especially given how much it would cost to have a few drinks at a bar in the airport and a few snacks.  Throw in the free wifi and you come out ahead.

Anyways, after working for a few hours I inquired to one of the agents at the counter if they could make a booking for me; you see I had decided to one-up myself for crazy travel ideas on this trip and decided to burn 25,000 SkyMiles on an award ticket on Alaska Airlines to take me to the northernmost community in the United States on Saturday.  Strangely, they told me that they could do no ticketing in the lounge or for a matter of fact anywhere in the airport except for the designated counter outside security.  Surely I would have thought that nearly any Delta agent would be able to make a reservation and it could just be that the agent just really didn’t want to do it.  Who knows.

Since I got shot down by the Sky Club agent and was having more issues than I cared for I called up the Platinum Medallion line and was instantly connected to an agent at the Chisholm, MN call center that routinely is pretty good at delivering awesome customer service.  Once I told the agent the flights I wanted, he had it ticketed and I was off the phone in under five minutes.  That right there is one of the reasons why it will be hard to ever go back to being a non-frequent flier.

By the time I wrapped up with this I figured I should start heading to my gate at the end of Concourse F.  As previously mentioned, my upgrade to First Class cleared in advance, which I was certainly thankful for given the nearly 6 hour duration of the flight to Anchorage.  Unfortunately I found myself on one of the older 757-200s that only had drop down video screens from the ceiling, but it still beats sitting in coach by any means.  Service on the flight was good and the flight attendants kept passing through the cabin to ensure that everyone had whatever they needed.  When it came time for dinner all I remember is that it was a chicken dish that I had never had before, so I went with that.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t a picture to remind me what exactly it was, but it wasn’t that bad. Once the meal was over, and with over three hours left in-flight, the in-flight movie dropped down from the ceilings and started to play.  It kept me entertained for the non-wifi regions that encountered over middle-of-nowhere Canada.

High Above Canada Enroute to Anchorage - Covered in Snow/Ice

The approach into Anchorage was rather beautiful as the sun was setting – we flew in over the water between some mountains before circling back around to the airport.  As I looked outside I thought to myself that this didn’t look much different than Montreal four months prior – it was still clearly winter here and what was I wearing? Shorts and a T-shirt.  Yep, I’m from Florida and it shows.  Luckily I had a jacket packed in my backpack that I could throw on for the little time that I spend outside.  The one thing that did get my on arrival was just how light out it was at 8PM.  I think the official sunset was like 10PM.

As I was driving away from the airport to my hotel I spotted a restaurant on my route that a someone from work had recommended that I check out.  Pizza Olympia – I was told that the gyros here were fantastic, so in I went.  The service was rather slow and the place pretty empty, but you know it was a pretty good gyro.  A little different from what I’m used to, but still pretty good.  As I left it actually started to get dark and that made things interesting.  For whatever reason the streets of Anchorage just don’t seem to have any lanes painted – that or paint just wears off so quickly.  Driving around unfamiliar streets that are 4-6 lanes wide (at least I think they were) with no markers to give you cues as to where you are supposed to be in relation to the other cars is interesting.  And did I mention that I had never driven in winter conditions before?  Looking back, perhaps I’m lucky to have made it to my final destination of the night, the Sheraton Anchorage Hotel and Spa.

By the time I arrived, I was pretty tired.  To my body it was midnight and I was just ready for sleep.  I got up to my room, which I was able to get for about $90/night with a view of the water and lands north on the 13th floor.  I found a letter from the general manager on my bed along with a few snacks, which actually I think has only ever happened once before at a hotel for me.  The room was pretty standard Sheraton accommodations, comfy bed, a very large TV, but a small bathroom.  Actually, it’s probably the smallest bathroom I’ve seen in a US hotel, although certainly not the smallest that I’ve encountered anywhere (that award goes to the easyHotel London Paddington).  My only complaint, the continually loud children across the hall.  I swear it sounded like there were four or more of them over there and seemed to be up at all hours of the day.  Luckily I didn’t spend much time at the hotel, so I guess it didn’t bother me that much.

Sheraton Anchorage Hotel and Spa - King Room Bed

Sheraton Anchorage Hotel and Spa - King Room TV/Desk

Sheraton Anchorage Hotel and Spa - Water View

Now, If you read through the above, well then you should get some sort of award, because that was a bit long winded for just a write up about airports and airplanes.  The next two installments are going to be about my day in Anchorage/side trip to Barrow and my day trip to Seward and the Kenai Peninsula.  Hopefully I’ll have those up later this week and I promise, for most of you, it’ll be much more interesting.

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