Category Archives: Alaska

Credit Cards with Airline Miles

I should start by saying there are people who will tell you that credit cards with airline miles are the wrong way to go.  They will say that it is better, from a financial perspective, to go with a card that gives you cash back.  Let me comment here, that I pay my credit cards off every month, so I incur no finance charges. 

We travel enough that I prefer to use cards that give you airline miles and other perks.  Generally when you apply for a card and use it once they give you enough miles for one round trip flight.  My husband and I apply for the cards under our own names so we get two round trip flights when we get a new card. 

Be aware that the airlines all have partner airlines. Examples include Alaska is partnered with KLM and American Airlines, among others. United is partnered with Lufthansa and New Zealand Air, among others. You can earn and use miles on these other partner airlines. You just need to make sure you enter your preferred airline miles program when you book your flights.

We just came back from a river trip in Eastern Europe. The tour provider booked our flights with KLM and American Airlines. I went online to KLM and American and entered our Alaska Mileage account numbers. The 9,000 miles each way were added to our Alaska Air Mileage balances.

It is best to limit the number of programs you participate in as transferring miles from one airline to another generally involves a fee.

Here are the cards I have and why. 

United MileagePlus Explorer Card with Chase Bank:  Priority boarding, one free checked bag and no foreign transaction fees. 

We have had a United Mileage Card for sometime. About a year ago they offered the new Explorer Card and the offer included enough miles for a round trip ticket. We both applied and got these new cards along with our round trip miles. We then cancelled our old cards. 

Alaska Airlines: I have used the Alaska Airlines card twice to get free round trip tickets to Alaska (that is four tickets in total).  We applied for the card back in 2004 and used the application incentive miles for a trip to Alaska in 2009.  I then cancelled the cards.  When we decided to return to Alaska in 2012, we both reapplied and were given the application incentive for a second time.  We used these miles for our trip in 2012. This card also gives you a coach companion ticket each year for just $111.

Chase Sapphire Proffered Card:  No foreign transaction fees.  This cards current application incentive is 40,000 points.  I was initially skeptical about the points instead of miles. 

I am no longer skeptical because I recently used our points to book a flight and hotel in Australia via the Ultimate Rewards web site.  It works similar to Kayak.com (which I love).  You put in your flight, car or hotel needs and it gives you a long list of choices and the number of points you will need.

I also transferred points from Ultimate Rewards to Amtrak for my husband to take a train trip coast to coast for free.  Had we booked the same trip with Amtrak the cost would have been $1,200. Before I transferred the points I had to register my husband for the Amtrak rewards program, which is free. I then had to calculate how many points he would need for the trip. I then went to the Chase Ultimate Rewards site and transferred the points. It turned out I had miscalculated and we had 6,000 points left over in the Amtrak Rewards. For 6,000 points I could get a $50 gift card to several restaurants and other businesses, so I used the points for a $50 gift card to Macaroni Grill.    

I am in the process of booking a 3.5 month trip to Australia and New Zealand for 2014. I have been hoarding my United Airline miles to use for this trip. I was able to book six flights for free in most cases or for a small amount of taxes that were required. I had never really used my miles, since this trip has been on the horizon for several years now. I learned a valuable lesson.

The plan had been to have enough miles for us to fly Business Class from San Francisco. The United web site is great because when you put in your selected date it gives you a calendar that highlights the dates where mileage flights are available. Flight schedules are opened 330 days prior to the date of travel. If you want something specific, like Business Class, you need to book as soon as the flights are opened. I checked and there was a Business Class flight I could have booked for our San Francisco to Auckland route, but I waited two weeks and the flights were all gone. For the return flight I booked as soon as the dates I wanted were available and got Business Class from Sydney to San Francisco. So, although booking early is not required it is advisable.

If you have any questions about this, just leave me a comment and I will respond.

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Two weeks in Alaska

Inside Passage Ports of Call on an Un-Cruise

So, you have booked an Un-Cruise, (ISD) now what?  Due to the unpredictable nature of air travel I ALWAYS recommend flying in to your starting point a day early.  This way, if the flight is delayed you don’t quite literally “miss the boat”.  Our two week Inside Passage was booked round trip to/from Juneau, but this trip can also be booked roundtrip to/from Ketchikan.

You can use the pre-trip options that are offered by InnerSea, or you can book on your own.  I chose to save some money, and book on our own.  We travelled with another couple who were arriving on the same flight.  I reserved a taxi to take us from the airport to Juneau with Evergreen Taxi http://www.evergreentaxi.com/.  Note, however, there were several taxis from another company waiting in line at the airport, but there were four of us, so we needed a van to accommodate all of us and our luggage.  The fare including tip was about $40 from the airport to the hotel.

On the way into town the taxi driver pointed out some local spots.  She suggested we try Russian dumplings at Pel’meni for lunch the next day.  The place is frequented by local and only serves two things, meat or potato dumplings.  They are spicy only because of the what the cook puts on top (curry, cilantro and hot sauce), you can ask him to hold the hot sauce, but that is half the fun.  For $6.00 you can’t go wrong with this little gem of a place. YUM!!! http://www.yelp.com/biz/pelmeni-juneau

We chose to stay at the Westmark Baranof Hotel and each couple booked a two room suite, with two bathrooms and a separate sitting area for $159 per night.        http://www.westmarkhotels.com/juneau.php.

Your bags have to be at the Gold Belt Hotel by 1:00 PM and can be dropped off as early as 9:00 AM.  We had a leisurely breakfast at the Baranof, by the way the oatmeal with fresh fruit was yummy.  We then checked out around 10:00 AM and ordered a taxi, which arrived in less than five minutes.  We took the taxi to the Gold Belt (half a mile away).  The taxi cost us $15.00 including tip.  We checked our carry on and checked bags in with the ISD staff at the Gold Belt and took off to explore Juneau.  You will want to keep a day bag with you during the day and be sure and keep your rain gear handy.  (NOTE:  Be sure to double check these times with InnerSea. )

The Juneau State Museum http://www.museums.state.ak.us/asm/asmhome.html is walking distance from the Gold Belt Hotel and is well worth an hour or two.  It has a very interesting exhibit about the various peoples who populated Alaska for centuries and an interesting historical exhibit about Alaska after the Russians arrived.   They have a free coat room and free lockers (large), so you can stow your day bag and rain gear while you visit the museum.

After the Museum, you can stroll through town, pass quickly by the big cruise ship docks and take the Mount Roberts Tram (if the weather is nice) for a view.  http://www.goldbelttours.com/mount-roberts-tramway .   Cost is $29.00 per adult and is good for the day.  Note:  We did not do this, as it was pouring rain the day we were in Juneau.

If you are inclined you can shop at the dock side jewelry stores and gift shops.  Most of these are owned by the cruise lines.  I frankly don’t understand going to Alaska to buy jewelry, but to each his own.  You can also visit the infamous Red Dog Saloon.  It’s one of those places that everyone must experience at least once.  FYI you can order root bear if you are so inclined.

At the foot of the tramway, you can pick up the Blue Glacier Express Bus to the Mendenhall Glacier.  The bus runs a schedule based on the big ships arrival and departure and costs $16.00 round trip.  I suggest contacting the Mighty Great Trips (MGT) to find out what schedule they will be running on the day you will be in Juneau, the owner will give you tips about beating the big cruise ship crowds.     MGT also offers some other rather inexpensive tour options, just remember that they do cater to the big ships.  http://www.mightygreattrips.com/tours/

If you like crab, stop by Tracy’s King Crab Shack http://www.kingcrabshack.com/index.html.  You order from the truck and then sit in a heated patio area.  My husband and I had the Crab Bisque and it was wonderful.  Our friends split a Half Snow Crab and Half Dungeness Crab and said it was amazing.

On our trip with ISD we made a stop in Wrangell for a day.   They have a very nice museum that is walking distance from the dock http://www.wrangellalaska.org/museum/index.html.

Several people on the ship hiked up Mt. Dewey http://www.seatrails.org/com_wrangell/trl-mtdewey.htm.

I called Breakaway Adventures http://www.breakawayadventures.com/stikine.htm from my cell phone and booked a jet boat tour on Stikine River.  We invited other cruisers to join us, but none took us up on it, so we had a private jet boat tour and got to sit right up front with Captain Eric Yancy.  The boat was completely enclosed and nice and warm.  I had expected wet with lots of spray, but that was not the case.   (Note that we did miss lunch on the ship, but grabbed some fruit and granola bars which are always available in the dining room. )

Shakes Lake was frozen over when we took the jet boat tour.

Floating house. You’ll have to ask Captain Eric why this house is built to float.

Stikine River Waterfall.

Ketchikan is such a cute town.  This was our third time in Ketchikan.  I highly recommend the Cape Fox Lodge, which is the ISD meeting place as your pre or post departure accommodation.   This town is just plain fun to walk around and explore.  The little shops that dot Creek Street are all great fun to visit and most, if not all are owned by local families, not big cruise lines.

Creek Street

You can walk on a paved path 2.5 miles south of town to the Saxman Village and Totem Park, but be advised you won’t be allowed access to the clan house or carving shed, unless you arrive with a tour from Ketchikan.  The tours are only available through a big cruise ship.  The hike was nice and the totem poles are interesting but it was disappointing to be told we needed to be with a tour group to gain access.   We did catch a city bus back to town for $1.00 per person.

View from the bike trail south of Ketchikan

Saxman Village, but clan house was off limits.

Another couple took the $1.00 bus to Totem Bight State Park and they were able to gain access to the clan house.   It is about ten miles out of town so the bus or taxi would be needed.  I have not been here, but I think this would be a better option than going to the Saxman Village.  http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/units/totembgh.htm.

Hope you enjoy your time in Southeast Alaska.

Inside Passage by Small Ship

Entering Tracy Arm.

Let me begin by saying this was our fourth trip to Alaska and third cruise of the Inside Passage.  We have cruised on a 2,000 passenger ship, a 140 passenger ship and now on a 60 passenger ship.  The 60 passenger ship is the way to go.

We were on the Un-Cruise Wilderness Adventurer on an Ultimate Adventure http://www.innerseadiscoveries.com/alaska-ultimate-adventure.  Two weeks of awe inspiring beauty, animal sightings and adventure.  Other bloggers have adequately covered the itinerary.  Check out

http://velvetescape.com/2011/07/cruise-alaska-inside-passage-small-ship/ and

http://www.cruisereport.com/crReview.aspx?id=2424#.

I would like to give some specific tips, allay some fears and alter some expectations.  So here goes.

First, the trip is not a “free for all”.  Don’t expect to be able to go ashore and hike wherever you like or kayak on your own route, outside the view of the ship.  ALL hikes and “kayak trips” are escorted and planned by the adventure crew, with the exception of “open kayaking”, which I will discuss later.  That said, the opportunities are varied and depend on the itinerary.

On our two weeks there were three “long kayak” trips offered.  These were 5 hours long and included a packed lunch for your time away from the ship.  There were also several short 2 or 3 hour kayak trips. These are active trips with steady kayaking for a long period.

Long kayak cuing up with Jenny the adventure guide.

“Open kayaking” is offered when the ship is at anchor.  You can kayak as long or as short as you like, they just ask that you don’t go out of sight of the ship.  This was the option my husband and I took advantage of three times over the course of the trip.  Our friends tried a 3 hour trip, but they like us, prefer to kayak for a while, then rest and just enjoy the view or sounds of nature.  They decided that the open kayak option was better suited to their kayaking style.

Open kayaks coming in.

Second, I’ll give you some packing advice.   The Un-Cruise recommends layers.  Layering is a good idea, however, don’t leave all your heavy layers at home.   I brought thermal shirts and pants, a wool sweater and a down jacket.  I used all of these layers.  The day we went through Tracy Arm to Sawyer Glacier, everyone was out on deck viewing the ice on the water.  It was cold and the glacier produces cold air.  I was toasty warm in my ski pants and down jacket.  I was sitting next to a woman from New York.  She looked at me and said that she wished she had brought some heavier clothes.  When they said to bring layers, she brought all light layers and left all her heavy winter gear at home.  I had brought my down jacket in a “space bag” with the air all compressed out of it, so it took up little space in my bag.

Foot wear has been a topic of frequent discussion.  We took four pairs of shoes, rubber boots, hiking boots, sneakers and water shoes.  We used all of these at least once on the trip.  If I was going to leave something at home, I would leave the water shoes and wear my sneakers in the kayak, knowing that they may get wet.  Also, I was asked by a couple from Israel to tell foreign travelers to leave the rubber boots at home.  The boats have about 30 pairs of rubber boots for loan.  If you have a very small or large size, then for sure bring your own rubber boots.

Third, what does the cabin look like and where will I stow my gear?  We had the smallest cabin offered and had plenty of room under the beds to stash our two 25” rolling duffel bags and a 20 inch carry-on, along with an odd assortment of shoes (rubber boots are kept in the hallway, along with your rain gear).  We use packing cubes and these proved to be invaluable.  There is no hanging closet (this is also true in the larger cabins).  There are four hooks and a shelving unit.  Our packing cubes stacked up very nicely on the shelving unit.

NOTE:  These photos and comments only relate to the vessel Wilderness Adventurer, cabins on other Un-Cruise ships may have differences.

Under the other bed there is plenty of room for two 25″ rolling duffels.

Cabin storage worked great for packing cubes. Note that the larger cabins have a deeper version of this shelving system.

Under bed storage side one with electrical box also under bed.

Sink and medicine cabinet.

Window and table storage (note there is a small cabinet with doors that close under the window. With this cabin configuration you have to be careful when you open the window, because things could fall out.

Lastly, please note that the itinerary is subject to change due to weather or wildlife.  Our second week was scheduled to include a visit to a village, but there were six foot swells in the sea we would need to cross, so the captain advised us that we would visit Devilfish Bay and that he was excited because he had never been there.  We spent a day anchored at the bay and were able to kayak out of sight of the ship, although the crew had a skiff in the water with us.

The next day we spent looking for whales, but ended up putting skiffs in the water to check out a colony of bachelor sea lions.  They put on quite a show for us.

Bachelor sea lions resting and singing to us.

In closing remember my travel mantra, “Be flexible”.  Life is too short to get locked into things and you may miss some awesome experiences if you stick to one plan and never alter.

We stayed on deck late watching two whales making bubble nets.