Alaska has become a bit of a home away from home for me this year. I’m about to go on my third trip of 2021, and I decided I’d really treat my dad for Father’s Day with an item that’s been on his bucket list for decades. He’s always wanted to take the Alaska Railroad and see Denali National Park from the train.
That’s something I can help with. My dad has been extraordinarily generous over the past year and a half. As the COVID-19 pandemic was peaking in New York and the city that never sleeps was shutting down, I packed my bags and headed to one of my childhood homes in southwest Montana. My father retired to our ranch outside of Butte more than 20 years ago. I always considered the ranch a “backup plan” if ever the world came to an end. Who knew that I would need to actually trigger the plan?
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I’ve been living at the ranch ever since. The relative proximity to Alaska means I’ve gone to the “North to the Future” state several times on assignment.
My father has looked on with amusement and let it slip he’d always wanted to go. I am determined to make his wish come true.
Booking the Alaska Railroad
The first thing to know when booking Alaska this summer is that things are selling out fast or already sold out. I wasn’t able to find a rental car for my trip in June or for my father/son trip later this summer.
Several dates I searched for the Alaska Railroad were sold out too. In fact, most of June and July had pretty limited availability. I guess everyone wants to go somewhere that’s not so crowded in the age of COVID-19.
I was also hoping to get a discount for my elderly father. No dice. There are senior discounts available, but only off-peak. Here’s how the railroad explains it:
The Alaska Railroad’s Half Fare Program gives seniors (65+), Medicare card holders, and individuals with certain disabilities 50% off fare during the winter season (late September to early May).
There are discounts for active duty and retired members of the armed forces, though you’ll need to provide military ID of some type at check-in.
There are lots of different routes you can take, but my dad wanted to see the glaciers and Denali National Park, so I’m choosing the Denali Star line. It takes you from Anchorage to Fairbanks, passing through Denali.
If you really want to live it up, you’ll splurge on GoldStar service (not available on all routes), but this is not a cheap trip. GoldStar service is a whopping $918 per person. Adventure Class was a more reasonable $502 a person round-trip. If you go for the deluxe tickets, you’ll get free food and drinks and “glass-dome ceilings” in a special car.
I decided my dad and I could survive with Adventure Class for $502 each round-trip.
I’m excited that we’ll get daytime views of the wild Alaska scenery and get to spend the night in Fairbanks — a city I’ve never visited.
Fortunately, flights to Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage (ANC) from Montana are not too painful though we will need to layover in either Seattle or Salt Lake City. That’s pretty normal for travel from Montana.
Unfortunately, the super cheap flights to Alaska from early in 2021 are gone. Prices have skyrocketed along with demand to the state. Flights from Los Angeles were as low as $208 back in March and from New York for just $368. Those deals are long gone.
Alaska Airlines flies from Bozeman via Seattle, but prices are high. Most itineraries were pricing at more than $1,000. There were plenty of seats available, but at 60,000 Alaska Mileage Plan miles each, I decided to go with the more reasonable flights from Delta Air Lines.
Alaska Airlines is in a bit of a war with Delta Air Lines as Delta tries to horn in on some of Alaska Airlines’ most popular flights. That hasn’t led to many deals for summer travel, but you can occasionally find sweet spots.
In fact, I was able to find lots of availability for as low as 27,500 Delta SkyMiles and $12 round-trip each. Cash fares start at $407.
Related: Delta makes a big play for Alaska
If you can wait until September, prices (in miles and cash) drop substantially, with Alaska Airlines flights available for as low as 40,000 Alaska miles or $560 in cash. That’s still historically high for Alaska, and keep in mind the Alaska Railroad doesn’t operate some lines after Sept. 15. Delta flights were as low as $329.
Hotels in Fairbanks
There are a few points and miles options in Fairbanks, including a Hyatt Place that looks pretty nice. Rooms start at $210 per night, but a room with two queen beds is just 8,000 World of Hyatt points a night. That looks like the winner.
If you are into Hilton, there’s a Hampton Inn & Suites, but it looks fairly grim, especially for $303 or 50,000 Hilton Honors points a night. There’s an IHG property for $271 or 50,000 IHG points a night, but that’s pricey for a Candlewood Suites.
The one Marriott property is a SpringHill Suites. It’s sold out for my dates but normally goes for $284 a night or 30,000 Marriott Bonvoy points.
Hyatt Place is looking like a good deal at these prices.
I’m going to do a quick trip with Dad to keep prices as low as possible, but that bucket list trip won’t come cheap no matter how many corners I cut.
That’s OK. Dad is worth it! I’m thrilled to be able to take him to Alaska in his 80th year on the planet. What a great Father’s Day gift and it’s only possible because of the unique silver linings that have come as a byproduct of the pandemic. It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
If you are going, remember that Alaska is a super popular destination this summer, even with the cruise crowds still missing. The state has eased its testing and quarantine requirements for visitors, which makes visiting even easier. No testing or quarantines required.
Related: 4 tips for visiting Alaska right now
While a lack of cruisers means a lot less crowding at popular sites, such as Glacier Bay National Park and Denali National Park, local tourism workers tell me demand is off the hook. Many hotels are sold out and rental cars are scarce, so plan ahead.
Featured photo courtesy of Glenn Aronwits/Alaska Railroad.
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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.
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